Cathleen Schine is the author of several novels, including Rameau’s Niece, The Love Letter, She is Me, The New Yorkers, and The Three Weissmanns of Westport. Her new novel, They May Not Mean To, But They Do, will be published in June 2016. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books.

A Girl, a Horse, a Trap

Mary Gaitskill at the Brooklyn Book Festival, September 2010
The Mare, Mary Gaitskill’s new novel, is the story of a girl and a horse. It grapples with innocence, possibility, and hope. It is about what happens after all her other books. Gaitskill achieved literary notoriety with Bad Behavior, her first volume of short stories, published in 1988. Her beautiful, …

‘A Beautiful, Mournful Novel’

Atticus Lish, Sunset Park, Brooklyn, November 2014
Preparation for the Next Life, by Atticus Lish, is an astounding first novel about a world so large there is, sometimes, nowhere to go; a world so small the people in it, sometimes, get lost. The book has the boundless, epic exhilaration you expect to find only in a writer as mighty as, say, Walt Whitman.

A Triumph of Love

Marilynne Robinson, 2012
In her new novel, Lila, Marilynne Robinson has written a deeply romantic love story embodied in the language and ideas of Calvinist doctrine. She really is not like any other writer. She really isn’t. Her literary career certainly does not resemble anyone else’s. Over the last thirty-four years, she has …

In the Dark of the Museum

Alaskan Brown Bear, 1980

The rooms that hold the Museum of Natural History’s famous dioramas are vast and dimly lit. What happens in the darkness of the museum itself is quite different from the stillness of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s new book, Dioramas, a collection of his elegant black and white photographs of dioramas.

‘Into an Utterly Foreign Land’

‘Shakers at Meeting: The Religious Dance’; engraving by Arthur Boyd Houghton, 1870
The Visionist, Rachel Urquhart’s fine first novel, follows the intersecting paths of two fifteen-year-old girls in the early-nineteenth-century New England of spiritual enthusiasm, in this case a Shaker community in Massachusetts. “When I began researching this novel,” Urqhuhart notes in a bibliography, “I knew three things about the Shakers: They …

The Most Mysterious Subject

Julian Barnes, London, September 2013
Julian Barnes was married for thirty years to a woman he loved, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh. Levels of Life is an examination of the void she left behind when she died in 2008. The book is short, crisp, measured, and deeply felt. Not a grief memoir so much as …

The Splendid Monstress

The Miss North Carolina beauty pageant, 1961; photograph by Burt Glinn
In Lookaway, Lookaway, Wilton Barnhardt has found his people, wonderful, crackpot, exasperating people. He has given them a story seamlessly composed, emotionally textured, bitter, touching, and funny. It is a happy reminder of what an unlikely, endearing, and precious phenomenon the novel can still be.

A Genius for Disaster

‘Times Square Flooded’; from the ‘Aqualta’ series by the architectural firm Studio Lindfors, whose renderings imagine how New York and Tokyo might adapt to allow rising sea levels to enter the cities
Let’s just, right away, recognize how prescient this charming, terrifying, comic novel of apocalyptic manners is. Nathaniel Rich wrote Odds Against Tomorrow well before Hurricane Sandy and its surge crashed onto the isle of Manhattan, well before the streets were flooded and the subways drowned, only the Goldman Sachs building sparkling above the darkened avenues. Years before the cold weeks without heat or electricity or transportation, Rich described a city engulfed first by greed, then by water.

Blown Away by Alice Munro

Alice Munro in her backyard, Clinton, Ontario, circa 2004
Alice Munro is not only revered, she is cherished, her stories handled lovingly, turned over and over, gazed at and studied and breathed in with something approaching awe. She has never, over the years, written the way any of her contemporaries have. Her stories are open, overflowing with life, unlike the curt and obscure minimalist stories so fashionable in the Seventies and Eighties. But no one could accuse her of being traditional, either. With all their fullness of narrative and character, her stories are elegant and sharp, pared down—sometimes shockingly so. Her new collection, Dear Life, is as rich and astonishing as anything she has done before.

Imaginary Friends

Michael Chabon, Berkeley, California, circa 2003
In Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, he has declared his stylistic freedom again, turning the techniques of fantasy fiction to a comedy of manners. In some ways, the novel, the story of the ordinary lives of two imperfect, rather ordinary families, is as much a fantasy as Kavalier & Clay or even The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. It might, oddly, be his most original book as well.

‘Elegy to the Void’

Quintana Roo Dunne, John Gregory Dunne, and Joan Didion, Malibu, California, 1976
Joan Didion is, to my mind, the best living essayist in America. Not a controversial view, although there are those who despise her work for its almost patrician accent. But Didion is an iconoclast, creating her own superior class of one. Her work has been for fifty years a testament to her ability to see through the clouds of rhetorical nonsense and get to the point, looking down from a soaring, preternaturally intelligent bird’s-eye view, then diving, a suddenly beady-eyed bird of prey.

A Different Susan

Susan Sontag, New York City, 1980
So much of Susan Sontag’s life has become both mythical and familiar—her early years, fueled by quotes from André Gide and a fervent desire to escape childhood; her miserable marriage to Philip Rieff; her brilliant son who grew up sleeping on coats at New York happenings; her love affairs with …

The Irresistible Charms of Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman: New York, Grand Central Station, 1999

Last Christmas, I gave my mother a copy of The Pursuit of Happiness by Maira Kalman. Like many other adult Maira Kalmanites, I had discovered the book when it ran as an illustrated blog on The New York Times web site. My mother and I have similar taste in books so I thought she would love it. But a few days later, she called me, quite agitated, irate even, saying “What is this bizarre book you gave me? The letters go all over the page. It’s like a children’s book. What on earth gave you the idea I would want to read this?” An hour later, she called back. “Just forget what I said. I just had to get used to it. What a wonderful book!”

The Ghosts Among Us

Sheri Holman at the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn, May 2009
Sheri Holman is a difficult writer to categorize. She can write an elegantly observant novel of domestic absurdity, and she can write a book humming with Romantic misery and ghastly horror. There is no predicting what we will encounter when we land on either of these seemingly well-trod shores: what …

Cruel and Benevolent

Jennifer Egan, New York City, 2010
Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad is a moving humanistic saga, an enormous nineteenth-century-style epic brilliantly disguised as ironic postmodern pastiche. Like her earlier work, it is dark and often cruel. But there is a new buoyancy to this novel as well—a buoyancy of tone, of technique. With great openness of spirit, fluency, and a comic vision that balances her sharp eye for the tragic, Egan has employed every playful device of the postmodern novel with such warmth and sensitivity that the genre is transcended completely.

The Ideal Friend

A scene from the film My Dog Tulip, based on J.R. Ackerley’s memoir
J.R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip was first published in England over fifty years ago, when I was three, and I can hardly imagine the startled and awed response of a reader in 1956 encountering this little book for the first time. Ackerley had long been a familiar figure in London …

Looking for Purity in Detroit

Brad Leithauser’s mother-in-law, Lormina Paradise, sketching a hospitalized American soldier just after World War II; this photograph and some of her drawings appear as illustrations in Leithauser’s new novel, The Art Student’s War
The Art Student’s War, Brad Leithauser’s new novel, is a loving, elegiac caress of a city used to rougher treatment: Detroit, where he grew up. But this is not the already rusting city that Leithauser knew as a child; it is his parents’ Detroit, active, essential, and alive, its factories …

Austenolatry

Miniature portrait of Jane Austen, 19th century

I met a friend for lunch the other day at The Morgan Library. In honor of their Jane Austen exhibit, they are serving a Regency lunch. Whenever I hear the word Regency, I think not of Jane Austen, but of Dickens’s Old Mr. Turveydrop, celebrated everywhere for his Deportment, who named his son Prince. I don’t know if Old Mr. Turveydrop would have approved, but we thought it was a delicious Regency lunch—Poached Atlantic Salmon, Fricassee of Macomber Turnips & Mushrooms, Mustard Greens, Baked Apple Cobbler—though what exactly about the menu qualified as Regency is somewhat obscure. The turnips? I have never eaten more delicious turnips. I happily imagined Jane Austen eating delicate, sweet Macomber turnips, too. But at home, after a little on-line research, I came to realize how unlikely it is that she did—Macomber turnips seem to be a cross breed of radishes and rutabagas developed by the two Macomber brothers in Westport, Massachussetts in 1876.

Growing Up Female

Gail Collins at the Woman’s City Club of Greater Cincinnati, March 12, 2009
In When Everything Changed, Gail Collins picks up the saga of women and their role in the culture, economy, and political life of the United States where she left off in America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines (2003). That exhilarating earlier volume began with the Mayflower …

Skirmishes in the Family Garden

Zoë Heller, New York City, January 2007
Zoë Heller’s last novel, What Was She Thinking?Notes on a Scandal (made into the movie Notes on a Scandal ), was a glorious, myopic slide through the tunnel of one woman’s distorted vision. Unnervingly gentle and bracingly funny in its dark, rabbit-hole spiral to horror and despair, it is a …

Adventures in the Opium Trade

Boatmen on the Hooghly River, Calcutta, 2000; photograph by Raghu Rai from Raghu Rai’s India: Reflections in Colour, just published by Haus Publishing
Amitav Ghosh, an Indian anthropologist, historian, and novelist who lives and teaches in New York and India, is the author of ten books. His new novel, Sea of Poppies, which is the first in a projected trilogy and has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is set in India …

Walking on Water

Tim Winton, the prolific Australian author of Cloudstreet, Dirt Music, and The Riders, among nine novels, three short-story collections, six children’s books, and three nonfiction books, has a genius for the ungainly comedy of family life and the isolated sadness of lovers. But he is also a writer who values …

The Call of the Wild

His Illegal Self is a little book in the way that raspberries or bees or nuggets of uranium are little. It is shorter than Peter Carey’s best-known books, Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang, both of which are epics of almost uncanny originality set in the …

The In-Between Woman

Katha Pollitt is known as a good old-fashioned feminist and leftist columnist for The Nation, as well as a prize-winning poet. Her most recent collection of essays, Learning to Drive, establishes her as an affecting memoirist as well. A collection of witty reportage on the vicissitudes of a post–World War …

In the Space Between Words

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel begins with her first volume, Reasons to Live, published in 1985, and moves through the decades with At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, Tumble Home, and finally her latest, impeccable collection of short stories, which came out in 2005, The Dog of the …

Sunlight in the Dark

Deborah Eisenberg’s most recent collection of stories, Twilight of the Superheroes, is a tender, skeptical, inconsolable embrace of what cannot be changed. The six stories have an almost elegiac quality, if elegies were written for what comes next. The title story begins with twenty-eight-year-old Nathaniel amusing himself with a monologue …

The Witches of Corinth

In Truth and Consequences, Alison Lurie’s delightful new novel, middle age is a deep, dark forest full of howling wolves, wicked spells, ogres and witches, castles and enchanted gardens. There are princes and princesses, too, rescuing and being rescued, and it all takes place right in the middle of Corinth, …

Another Neverland

One of Thomas Rogers’s many gifts as a novelist is his ability to imbue the less appealing realities of both love and landscape with a gentle, elegiac beauty. Rogers writes about adolescent boys and the industrial towns of eastern Indiana. Nothing, at first glance, could excite less admiration. Yet, in …

The Difficult Part

And Now You Can Go, Vendela Vida’s first novel, begins with a poem. Ellis, a twenty-one-year-old graduate student at Columbia, is stopped by a man in Riverside Park who puts a gun to her head. He wants to die, he says, but he doesn’t want to die alone. Ellis notices …

A Nice Little Visit

A Box of Matches begins with the narrator’s friendly but unapologetically idiosyncratic announcement: “Good morning, it’s January and it’s 4:17 a.m., and I’m going to sit here in the dark.” That is the basic plot of Nicholson Baker’s new novel. Each morning, the narrator, a forty-four-year-old man, gets up before …