Whatever their ostensible subjects, most of these pieces are about looking closely and paying attention.

GIRLFRIENDS, GHOSTS, AND OTHER STORIES

The title suggests a miscellany, which this collection of 88 short pieces certainly delivers.

These sketches, essays, parables, prose poems, newspaper pieces, maybe even diary entries by the enigmatic Swiss author (A Schoolboy’s Diary, 2013, etc.) were written during the first third of the 20th century, right up to the point when the previously prolific writer was hospitalized for anxiety and depression in 1933. He was 55 at the time, and he never published again, though he lived another two decades. Many of these pieces consist of a single, dense paragraph, and few run much longer than a page. Recurring motifs concern a man (characters rarely have names) who encounters an attractive woman in a pastoral setting, a man who feels similarly attracted and seduced by a personification of nature (in “The Goddess,” the title character is a cloud in a sunny sky), a man who ponders his own process of writing or that of others. In “Walser on Walser,” he opens, “Here you can hear Walser the writer speaking” and asks, “Is it perhaps asleep in me, my passion for writing?” Many of the pieces open with commentary on the piece the reader is about to read or close with reference to the piece the reader is finishing. Some of them are character studies that suggest just how hard it is for anyone to know anyone, including oneself. The earliest pieces are the most conventionally storylike, with hints of plot. In “She Writes,” a woman who served as an artist’s model begins her letter, “Hey, old monster” and addresses him as his supplicant, critic, and accuser, haranguing him for money after she feels he has done her ill. “You pretend it’s me you painted in this picture? No, swine, that’s neither I nor any girl who exists; rather it merely bears a few rough similarities to womanhood.” Considered by contemporaries to be an inspiration for Kafka and a kindred spirit, Walser is generally lighter and more playful and very attuned to detail. “We need only open our eyes and look around carefully to see valuable things,” he writes, “if we look at them closely enough and with a certain degree of attention.”

Whatever their ostensible subjects, most of these pieces are about looking closely and paying attention.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-68137-016-3

Page Count: 200

Publisher: New York Review Books

Review Posted Online: June 22, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2016

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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