When Bad Reviews Happen to Good Writers

An essay I wrote this morning, in reaction to a book review in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review.

If you’ve never read Alix Ohlin, you should.  She’s one of the good ones out there, and she’s no slouch when it comes to publishing.  Two story collections and two novels in seven years – perhaps not an impressive haul for bionic typewriters like Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates, but plenty impressive to me.  She may not have won a Pulitzer or a National Book Award yet, but Ohlin is someone I look up to, because she’s just a very solid writer.

So I was surprised when I read a review of her new novel (Inside) and collection (Signs and Wonders) on Friday in The New York Times Book Review (in print today).  Surprised because the review was scathingly negative.

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Signs and Wonders, by Alix Ohlin

Check out the reviewlet I wrote for the always wonderful and insightful Fiction Writers Review.

This might not seem like a compliment, but it is: Alix Ohlin is a literary torturer.

In her new collection, Signs and Wonders (Vintage), Ohlin (The Missing Person,Babylon and Other Stories) puts her poor people through the wringer, then takes a wrung-out person and puts him under a flattened-human-sized slide for an intense, revelatory microscopic examination. Then she peels off this pancaked person and twists him like toffee, extracting every last drop of his essence onto the page.

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Freedom and Ms. Hempel

My essay about two excellent novels at The Nervous Breakdown is now up:

More than a month has passed since I listened to the unabridged recording of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and read the paperback of Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s Ms. Hempel Chronicles.  To be frank, I’ve been avoiding writing about either of these novels, not because I didn’t like them, but because I feel inadequate even discussing them.  My words, no matter how carefully chosen or artfully rendered, cannot elevate these books any further.  They are two of the finest works of literature I’ve read in years.

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Drifting House, by Krys Lee

Check out my review of Krys Lee’s excellent collection of short stories, Drifting House, in today’s issue of the Financial Times.

In her powerful debut collection, Drifting House, Korean-American author Krys Lee plumbs the darkness on both sides of this divided nation. Indeed, an alternate title for this volume of nine stories might have been “Koreans in Trouble”; these are people in dire straits – be it a father who loses his job, his family and his sanity, or a young girl with an incarcerated mother. The stories – some set 50 years ago, others in the present day – are steeped in Korean culture, history and food.