Sobering histories, radiant memoirs, style-bending poetry, and a biography of Branch Rickey: These are just some of the works discussed by our 2012 Christmas Critics: Dan Barry, John Wilson, Patricia Hampl, Rachel M. Brownstein, and Paul Baumann. Excerpts from their writeups appear below. Subscribers can read the complete Christmas Critics feature here.  

From Dan Barry, New York Times columnist and author most recently of Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game.

The books beside my bed, stacked like bricks laid by an addled mason, suggest that I possess either a broad curiosity or an inability to focus. Where were we? Oh yes. The books on my nightstand. Here is a Wallace Stegner, a Colum McCann, a history of the National Lampoon. The Iliad, an Alice McDermott, and a love letter to the old New York Knicks. An Edith Wharton, a Thomas Merton, and a mug-shot collection of nineteenth-century New York City pickpockets, con artists, and thieves that I peruse like a family album, with good reason.

This lack of focus, coupled with a dislike for “best” lists, makes it impossible for me to choose three favorite books published over the past decade. Instead, I am citing books that are utterly different, yet united by a kind of New York grace. You might have heard of these books or you might have missed them entirely; either way, in my storm-tossed mind, they have provided anchored moments of pleasure, challenge, and recognition.

Read the rest here.

From John Wilson, the editor of Books & Culture.

Every once in a while, a book appears as if out of nowhere, uncanny in its authority, combining the shock of the new with the shock of recognition. Michael Robbins’s Alien vs. Predator (Penguin, $18, 71 pp.) has given me a sense of what early readers of The Waste Land must have felt in 1922, what it must have been like to pick up a copy of Wise Blood at the bookstore in 1952. …

For such works, the usual terms don’t apply. You don’t necessarily “like” or “dislike” them; rather, you circle them warily, marveling, curious, seeking to understand. … If you had told me a year ago that I would be poring over poems by a swaggering, abrasive jerk named “Michael Robbins” (distinguishing the poet’s persona from the man behind the mask), with titles such as “Alien vs. Predator” and “My New Asshole,” I would have raised a very skeptical brow. But then I began reading: “Somehow I sidle, I kick-start, / I hot-wire my monkey heart. / I take my walking slow.” God has a strange sense of humor.

Read the rest here.

From Patricia Hampl, author most recently of The Florist’s Daughter and teacher of creative writing at the University of Minnesota.

The “rise of the memoir” (the usual descriptor, making autobiographical writing a monster lunging from the deep) has been vexing critics for the past quarter-century. Why are all these nobodys writing about themselves? And, come on—are they telling (or even capable of knowing) the truth?

Yet memoirs and personal essays keep winning readers who trust such narratives in a way that baffles those who believe only fiction (especially the novel) constitutes real literature. It may not be the genre that troubles critics so much as the authority of the voice that fires such works. That first-person voice seems inevitably indulgent. It beguiles—or it bores. Yet, at its best, it brings news of the self-perceiving and experiencing the world. That proves irresistible.

Such works are inevitably retrospective, looking for something back there that retains the power to touch life now. The most entrancing work of literary nonfiction of recent years has been, for me and apparently for many readers, The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (Picador, $16, 368 pp.). It’s the kind of book people press on the uninitiated like a secret handshake. In this way, it has become a sleeper bestseller.

Read the whole thing here.

From Rachel M. Brownstein, professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center and author most recently of Why Jane Austen?

Since I am lucky enough to spend a lot of time as a teacher rereading long classic novels like Middlemarch, I often turn for pleasure to shorter contemporary takes on the human condition. The short-story form is arguably more congenial to the postmodern attention span, and fictional reflections of the known world have a particular charm. Books of short stories, furthermore, evoke the structural pleasures of novels. Savoring a succession of separate dips into a new sensibility, I recall George Eliot weaving people and situations into—her image—a web; in defense of one of her big novels, she wrote that everything in the book was related to everything else there. The image of the web seems anachronistic in a time when selves, relationships, societies, and the world itself threaten to shatter, but it haunted me while I read three newish collections of fictions that explore old-fashioned questions of relatedness. Shrewd, witty, sometimes poignantly lyrical, these stories are the work of authors who are not quite stars; I was delighted to find them kindred spirits.

Read the rest here.

From Paul Baumann, editor of Commonweal.

It is hard to imagine two more exotic, enchanting, difficult, and yet different childhoods than those described in Alexandra Styron’s Reading My Father (Scribner, $15, 285 pp.) and Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight (Random House, $15, 301 pp.). Styron, the daughter of the acclaimed novelist William Styron (author of Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner), grew up in Connecticut’s bucolic Litchfield County. At various times her parents’ neighbors and friends included Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, James Jones, and a host of other prominent artists and writers of the World War II generation. Christmas Eves were celebrated with the Leonard Bernstein family in their palatial Manhattan apartment. Summers meant Martha’s Vineyard, where the list of visitors predictably expanded to include the Kennedys. …

Alexandra Fuller also grew up in the shadow of two strong-willed parents, one of whom was, like William Styron, afflicted with mental illness. In Fuller’s case, her mother’s descent into madness came after losing three of her five children. Her surviving children, Alexandra and her sister Vanessa, grew up on a hardscrabble farm in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during the guerilla war in the 1970s that would eventually bring an end to white minority rule. Their mother had grown up in Kenya, and was proud to consider herself a white African who believed in white rule and, like her husband, was prepared to fight for it. She was a passionate and self-mythologizing figure who romanticized her Scottish heritage. Alexandra does not try to explain away or apologize for her parents’ racial politics, although her views on Africa’s colonial history are clearly different. Instead she describes, in incandescent prose, what it looked, sounded, and smelled like to live in a place where the beauty and danger of nature presses in from all sides.

Read the whole thing here.


Rachel M. Brownstein is professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Her most recent book is Why Jane Austen? (Columbia University Press).
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