On Nonfiction :: Reviews & Criticism

Vagina, by Naomi Wolf

an essay by Karyn Polewaczyk

Naomi Wolf's book delivers little more than small talk; it's a missed opportunity to drive the conversation surrounding women's sexuality forward.

issue 22 :: november 2012

Tuscan Cities, by William Dean Howells

an essay by Matthew Stevenson

Florence can easily become overwhelming, a Renaissance theme park with €10 iced drinks or endless waits to admire yet another Madonna and Child. Few companions to Florence are more engaging than William Dean Howells, an American writer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, who first went to Italy in 1861 as an American diplomat, stationed in Venice.

issue 14 :: july 2011

The Eco-Language Reader, edited by Brenda Iijima

a review by Patrick Dunagan

Confronted by writing, in writing, nature does not have a voice of its own besides that which is granted, imposed, or allowed. Thus, writing manipulates without heeding matters beyond the concerns of the human correspondents, who give voice on nature’s behalf.

issue 11 :: january 2011

The Notebook, by José Saramago
a review by Morten Høi Jensen

This unchecked cacophony is typical of what The Notebook has to offer; all the more characteristic is Saramago’s complete, almost willful abandonment of nuance. However, these traits should not be altogether surprising. Saramago enlisted in the Communist Party in 1969 and remained a lifelong stalwart. He clung recklessly to a political ideology that disappointed its followers at every turn.

issue 9 :: september 2010

The Open Letters Monthly Anthology

an essay by Daniel E. Pritchard

The internet is a landscape of dilettantes and amateurs, those for whom this literary pursuit is not a career but an avocation. Their opinions may well be unsophisticated, but they are also largely unpretentious, honest, and conversational. They are able to build a trust with their readers that print reviewers somehow lost. And there does exist, beneath the blemishes, some recognizable measure of critical acumen. As Pope wrote, “Most have the seeds of judgment in their mind; / Nature affords at least a glimmering light.” Online book reviewers are the common readers of our age, and, despite their common flaws, they deserve better than widespread derision — particularly from those whose livelihood depends upon them.

issue 8 :: july 2010

, by Dave Eggars

an essay by Daniel Wood

The prose is not remarkable in any conventional sense. It is clear, muted, and even pedestrian — a world away from the exuberance of Roberto Bolaño, the zing of Don DeLillo, and the lyricism of Ian McEwan — and, for that reason, Zeitoun has attracted a number of offhand dismissals from broadsheet critics. Indeed, even those who have praised the book’s narrative have expressed reservations about the prose, as if its lack of conventional beauty were a side-effect of Dave Eggers’ overstretched workload or, worse, a symptom of his inherently underwhelming literary capabilities.

issue 7 :: may 2010

About a Mountain
, by John D'Agata

an essay by Scott Esposito

If there were such a thing as Emerging American Essayist Laureate, John D’Agata would be it. In a literary landscape where essay-writing is typically reserved for journalistic think-pieces, John McPhee, and midlist novelists looking to cultivate new audiences, John D’Agata has endeavored to reinvent the form once again and raise it onto an equal branch of literature’s family tree.

issue 7 :: may 2010

Young Romantics
, by Daisy Hay

a review by Daniel E. Pritchard

This modern self-awareness has become the lens through which all aspects of the Romantic movement is viewed, for better and for worse. Solitary figures of brooding conscience and tortured imagination abound in the Romantic shorthand of schoolbooks and popular culture. It is a stereotype of the Romantic artist run amok.

issue 7 :: may 2010

For You, For You I am Trilling These Songs
, by Kathleen Rooney

a review by Daniel Maidman

After a great deal of running around, and thinking, and chatting, she has shown us as honestly as she can — perhaps more honestly than she herself appreciated — the failure of one project for living, and the modest start of another.

issue 7 :: may 2010

The Art of American Book Covers 1875–1930

a review by Carl Scarbrough

Minsky has a sharp eye for stylish, beautifully executed covers, and the book collects more than 140 choice bindings, crediting designers and publishers and discussing in detail the niceties of the more prominent artists’ work.

issue 7 :: may 2010

Living Dolls: the Return of Sexism
, by Natasha Walter

an essay by Katherine A. Evans

It is symptomatic of the cultural shift that inspired Walter to write Living Dolls that Cara’s story is not particularly unusual. A feminist rhetoric of choice, Walter argues, has been seized by Britain’s overly sexualized society and is being used to justify cultural trends that undo years of work by women’s activists.

issue 6 :: march 2010

The Collected Critical Writings
, by Geoffrey Hill

review by Nigel Beale

Hill tussles with, contradicts, and explores all species of idea: poetic versus real-world justice; complicity, revelation, and the poet's involvement with language; creative response to "triumphs that trap, and defeats that liberate." They're typically opposed, worried, torn apart, and left, at the end of their chapters, to hang out on clever, often puzzling concluding lines.

issue 4 :: november 2009

Gabriel García Márquez: a Life
, by Gerald Martin

review by Leslie Harkema

The pervasive autobiographical strains of the novel are acknowledged, deciphered, and returned to in allusions that lend resonance and coherence to the life story. García Márquez's genealogical charts at the back of the biography echo those that appeared in editions of the novel in order to help readers keep those Aurelianos and José Arcadios straight. Martin even manages to emulate aspects of García Márquez's style, and to wonderful effect.

issue 4 :: november 2009

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction
edited by Tara Masih

review by Matt Bell

These are exactly the kind of essays one hopes to find in a book like this: works that do not close down the form, that do not offer prescriptions and rules, but rather offer ways in which writers' minds might be widened, in the hopes that their enlarged sensibilities might then create new and innovative kinds of work.

issue 4 :: november 2009

The Late Age of Print
, by Ted Striphas

review by Richard Nash

It is impossible to talk about books, nowadays, to talk about books without nostalgia creeping into the discourse, though perhaps, to speak the lingo, perhaps ’twas always so. Whether the specific tone is wistful, elegiac, defensive, hostile, or whether the talk is of an imminent and lamented end, or of a bitter and defiant survival, or of some type of triumphalist victory in another world, it is difficult to find a discussion of books that does not view the past as some better place.

issue 3 :: september 2009

Close Calls with Nonsense
, by Stephen Burt

review by Andrew Seal

The type of trust Burt hopes to elicit on behalf of his Ellipticals, on behalf of new poetry, is different: even knowing you’ve got all the parts for a bookcase in your hands, you must trust the instructions rather than what you’ve seen before. Frequently, the intermediate steps may even look wrong or unlikely to coalesce. The larger structure isn’t so quick to emerge, and the work of the small screws and nails is rarely evident until the end.

issue 3 :: september 2009

The Essays of Leonard Michaels

review by April Pierce

From one hermeneutical standpoint, this collection could be described as a chronicle of Michaels’ obsessions. Select phrases and images unapologetically reappear with urgent frequency. Kafka’s sentence “A cage went in search of a bird,” for instance, occurs in multiple chapters, each time expressing a slightly different flavor of thought. Michaels’ Jewish upbringing and heritage, movies, the nostalgia induced by the 1950s, sexual or emotional frustration, and guilt are all thematic fixations.

issue 3 :: september 2009

The Program Era
, by Mark McGurl

review by Nora Delaney

How did we move from the café to the classroom, and from the strong pull of individual genius and personality — Pound and Joyce, Hemingway and Faulker — to the doughy group workshops from which M.F.A graduates rise like cookie-cutter cookies? McGurl argues persuasively that creative writing programs piggybacked on the postwar growth and development of mass higher education in America . . .

issue 2 :: july 2009