Franco Moretti, Far Country: Scenes from American Culture

Far Country: Scenes from American Culture by Franco Moretti My rating: 2 of 5 stars This short book is a selection of lectures from a course in literary history that Franco Moretti, now retired, used to teach at Stanford University. Moretti is best known for advocating computational approaches to the humanities—for his paradigm of "distant … Continue reading Franco Moretti, Far Country: Scenes from American Culture

Renata Adler, Speedboat

Speedboat by Renata Adler My rating: 4 of 5 stars Almost every member of American literature's last unambiguously major generation, the giants passing from the scene, was born in the 1930s: Carver (b. 1938), DeLillo (b. 1936), Didion (b. 1934), McCarthy (b. 1933), Morrison (b. 1931), Oates (b. 1938), Pynchon (b. 1937), Roth (b. 1933), … Continue reading Renata Adler, Speedboat

Joan Didion, Play It as It Lays

Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion My rating: 5 of 5 stars She had announced her willingness to cause her subjects pain in Slouching towards Bethlehem, but at the heart of Didion's sense of morality and her sense of style, which cannot be separated, hurting the reader's feelings is also part of the … Continue reading Joan Didion, Play It as It Lays

Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children Archive

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli My rating: 4 of 5 stars Intellectuals played at crusaders and revolutionaries only to discover they were still patricians and liberals. [...] "Liberalism" seems a vast, obscure, swampy territory one never emerges from, no matter how one tries—and perhaps one never should. —Susan Sontag, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, … Continue reading Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children Archive

Brenda Wineapple, Hawthorne: A Life

Hawthorne: A Life by Brenda Wineapple My rating: 4 of 5 stars What is the good of literary biography? I am not a great reader of the genre, possibly because every example I've ever read has had a passage like this in it, from Brenda Wineapple's popular and absorbing 2003 life of Nathaniel Hawthorne: Like … Continue reading Brenda Wineapple, Hawthorne: A Life

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen My rating: 3 of 5 stars The ambition and audacity of this Pulitzer-prize-winning 2015 novel can't be denied. Synthesizing postcolonial theory with the tradition of the Great American Novel, Nguyen retells the story of the Vietnam War and its aftermath from the perspective of—not quite one of its victims, … Continue reading Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer

Robert Lowell, For the Union Dead

For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell My rating: 3 of 5 stars The tag next to Robert Lowell's corpus in the museum of literary history designates him the most influential American poet of the 20th century's second half—less the founder of a school (Confessional Poetry) than an author the gravity of whose work legitimated … Continue reading Robert Lowell, For the Union Dead

Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17

Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany My rating: 4 of 5 stars In a coruscating epistolary critique of The Bluest Eye, innocuously titled "Letter to Q——" in the 2005 collection About Writing, Samuel R. Delany tabulates what he sees as the many flaws of Toni Morrison's classic first novel. The gravamen of his indictment is that Morrison … Continue reading Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17

Juliana Spahr, Du Bois’s Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment

Du Bois's Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment by Juliana Spahr The first thing to be said about this book is that it is brave. Poet and critic Juliana Spahr does not make her startling argument in general, nor does she make it in unreadably dense jargon that could only be followed by academic insiders. … Continue reading Juliana Spahr, Du Bois’s Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett My rating: 4 of 5 stars Like Arthur Conan Doyle, who begins The Sign of Four with Sherlock Holmes in a drug trance, Dashiell Hammett can't get his detective novel started without an infusion of aestheticism. The Maltese Falcon, named as it is for an objet d'art, opens with two descriptions … Continue reading Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon