Locked down: ‘The Vulnerables,’ by Sigrid Nunez 

by Pia Bhatia 

Sketched from memory by a first-person narrator, The Vulnerables (Riverhead; 242 pages) appears at first to be a kind of memoir, the remains of an aging writer’s observations during her time in pandemic-stricken New York. Considering the volume of novels that have emerged from this period, it’s unsurprising that Sigrid Nunez’s most recent book portrays the city as though it were a still-life object, that the narrator ponders her relationships with the gifts of retrospect and distance. Of course the lockdown demanded self-reflection. Of course it resulted in unusual living arrangements with unlikely groups of people. Even the plot is […]

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Ginsberg in America: ‘Material Wealth,’ by Pat Thomas

by Paul Wilner

“Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!’’ So prophesized Allen Ginsberg long ago, channeling Walt Whitman in the epigraph to “Howl,’’ a literary debut that with time seems ever more distant, yet still completely present. Over the course of his remarkable career, Ginsberg resurrected distinguished predecessors from Whitman to William Blake from the tyranny of schoolbooks. He famously served as guiding light, mentor, and press agent to Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and too many others to mention, bringing the spoken word back into public discourse while remaining at the vital center […]

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Into the Abyss: ‘Ripe,’ by Sarah Rose Etter

by Jessica Lobaccaro

In Sarah Rose Etter’s Ripe (Scribner; 276 pages), we follow Cassie, a 33-year-old San Franciscan working at a tech company. Her life is seemingly secure; she makes a comfortable six-figure salary and can afford her $3,000 monthly rent. However, we quickly find that Cassie is unstable and depressed—she regularly snorts cocaine (especially before work), she is dating a chef who has a girlfriend, and she finds herself in the midst of an unwanted pregnancy, all while suffering from a strained relationship with her mother. But most disturbing of all: ever since Cassie can remember, she has had a literal black […]

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Desert solitaire: ‘Death Valley,’ by Melissa Broder

by Lily Burnes Heath

Melissa Broder’s new novel, Death Valley (Scribner; 240 pages), begins with its unnamed protagonist peeing—and trying to meditate—in a Circle K bathroom during a getaway to Joshua Tree. This bodily moment will pair resoundingly well with another sort of release at the close of this short book of blood and guts. Broder’s protagonist, we learn, is a novelist working on a book about a young-to-middled-aged woman, a pseudo-hippie, struggling with her husband’s chronic, undiagnosable illness. The writer is sober after years of alcoholism, depression, and suffering from the long-term hospitalization of her dying father. She’s seeking spiritual solace on a […]

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‘Bob Dylan: Mixing Up the Medicine’

by Paul Wilner

“It’s not a good idea and it’s bad luck to look for life’s guidance to popular entertainers.’’ — Bob Dylan, to music journalist Paul Zollo Indeed. But as the late great Professor Irwin Corey (who once famously doubled as a stand-in for Thomas Pynchon at the National Book Awards) might say, “However.’’ Despite his relenteless, if unconvincing, attempts to dodge the limelight—including dodging the Nobel Prize he was awarded in 2016—the Minnesota bard’s career has invited explication from obsessed fans, academics, and fellow musicians, all asking different versions of the same question: “How does it feel, to be on your […]

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High Plains Drifter: ‘Pastures of the Empty Page’

by Paul Wilner

“Literature, as I saw it then, was a vast open range, my equivalent of a cowboy’s dream.’’ So wrote Larry McMurtry about how life at his father’s Idiot Ridge cattle ranch changed forever when a World War II-bound cousin dropped off a farewell gift of a box of books. Riding that range for decades since, McMurtry has been condescended to, by the usual contingent of Eastern critics, and overpraised, for his Pulitzer Prize-winning epic, Lonesome Dove, which he self-mockingly described as the “Gone With the Wind of the West.’’ But the bulk of his work, including the Thalia trilogy (Horseman, […]

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Being there: ‘In the Orchard,’ by Eliza Minot

by Meryl Natchez

Mrs. Dalloway is one of my favorite books. Michael Cunningham’s reworking of those themes in The Hours is also terrific. If you’re a fan of either of those, In the Orchard, Eliza Minot’s third novel, will not disappoint. Of the family that includes authors Susan and George Minot, Eliza Minot has the same skill with the extended stream of consciousness, with the added plus of a pitch-perfect ear when it comes to children and the weight and pleasure of being in charge of them. I’ve been waiting for Minot’s next book since The Brambles, which also has some great writing […]

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His Way: ‘Bartleby & Me,’ by Gay Talese

by Paul Wilner

“When I joined the Times in the mid-1950’s, I wanted to specialize in writing about nobodies,’’ Gay Talese states in his delicious new collection, Bartleby & Me: Reflections of an Old Scrivener (Mariner Books; 320 pages). The ghost of Melville’s famous refusenik haunts these pages, as Talese—the chronicler of everyone from deaf printers in the Paper of Record’s composing room to Southern California nudist colonies—takes a farewell lap. At the ripe old age of ninety-one, he hasn’t lost a step. You can read herein about his first New York Times piece—unbylined, but published on the editorial page, no less—about James […]

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Blood will out: ‘Not Forever, But for Now,’ by Chuck Palahniuk

by Kian Braulik

“There exists a heaven for the carnal,” writes Chuck Palahniuk in his most recent novel, Not Forever, But for Now (Simon & Schuster; 256 pages). An ultimately lackluster addition to what was once a biting oeuvre, Not Forever makes the reader wonder whether the author’s tendency toward excess was once a project in well-executed theatrics, rather than one in purely over-compensatory irreverence. Although it’s in his nature to render carnality ad absurdum—whether through Fight Club’s battle between split personalities or Choke’s setting at a colonial theme park—Palahniuk’s previous renditions are stylistically tight and thematically straightforward. Victor Mancini chokes himself in […]

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Out of the past: ‘The Postcard,’ by Anne Berest

by Laura Cogan

Many stories are, in a sense, mysteries, asking some version of the same question: what is this life, and how are we meant to live? There are, of course, no definitive answers to these questions—only a multitude of responses, from which we seek to make the meaning and beauty that connects and sustains us amid persistent uncertainty. One such story is The Postcard (Europa Editions; 475 pages). Written by French author Anne Berest and translated by Tina Kover, the novel frames the true story of a family—nearly eradicated by the Holocaust—as a fictionalized memoir. Nestled inside a simple and concrete […]

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All too human: ‘After the Funeral,’ by Tessa Hadley

by Yastika Guru

Reading After the Funeral and Other Stories (Knopf; 240 pages) by Tessa Hadley is like watching a magic show. There is suspense, but it is not the stressful, nauseating sort of a horror movie or domestic drama—it is the sweet suspense of enchantment. The reader has some sense of the hidden techniques being employed, but the final effect is still eye-widening and gasp-inducing. Each story is about a complicated marriage or family and involves divorce or death or infidelity. Although the characters are in wobbly, anxious situations, the prose is never mawkish or emotionally fatty. Instead, it is light, plain, […]

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New York stories: ‘Witness’ by Jamel Brinkley

by Margot Lee

Jamel Brinkley’s second story collection, Witness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 240 pages), records glimpses of lives across New York, disparate but proximate—as though looking at people in lit windows across the cityscape. Lingering in the worlds and heads of his protagonists, Brinkley’s stories elongate these moments into chasms of psyche and memory. They remind us that whatever we see in the window, observation alone is superficial. To witness is a full-body experience, affecting the mind as much as the eye. New York is a familiar setting for Brinkley, whose debut, A Lucky Man (2018), also features stories set in the […]

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