Critical Essays Archive

Pop Song and the Literary Breakup Album

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Larissa Pham’s new collection reads like a beautiful, literary breakup album, each essay operating as its own track. By the time you’ve turned the final pages, you want nothing more than to flip the metaphorical album over, drop the needle, and begin again.

Dybek, Shalamov, and Condensed Milk

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The transformation of milk into preserved milk is a magic trick of sorts, a way to extend the life of a perishable product. Although in very different ways, Varlam Shalamov’s “Condensed Milk” and Stuart Dybek’s “Pet Milk” are interested in considering man’s ability to do the same.

The Importance of Writing About Art

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In the face of urgent calls for social action, Olivia Laing’s 2020 collection of criticism makes a case for art’s slow, subtle efficacy. And in her acuity as a critic, she demonstrates that not only art, but writing about art, can be a powerful agent of social change.

The Interfaith Poetics of Pilgrim Bell

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For readers who share his sensitivity to the spiritual, Kaveh Akbar forges an interfaith poetics based on shared humanity and sharply rendered difference, manifested in an ethics of interruption. We find each other, the collection seems to say, in our shared search for the divine, wounded and harnessing the

The Root of Passing in The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois

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Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s sweeping epic engages with a richness of Black life and history far beyond her characters’ proximity to whiteness alone. By tracing the African American experience back to its roots, she has created a canon-worthy work that exposes the complexity of color and the deep wounds passing

The Promise of Karaoke

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In Christine Smallwood’s new novel, an adjunct English professor reckons with the contingency of her career: what can she do with a love of literature that seems to be fading, with professional dreams that are turning out to be hollow? To answer these questions, Smallwood turns to karaoke.

The Interrogation of Trauma, Love, and Work in Made in China

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Anna Qu’s debut memoir unravels assumptions about immigration, labor, and trauma at both the personal and collective level, demonstrating how many seemingly disparate elements of our lives are deeply connected.

The Ghosts of the Unseen in The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You

Maurice Carlos Ruffin writes about fathers trying to reach their sons, about peoples recently released from prison, about fathers with dead daughters, about people experiencing homelessness, showing the erasure that they feel by writing about these unseen, and about the ghosts that try to reach them.

The Case of Janet Lewis

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There’s no question that Janet Lewis’s novels represent major contributions to the midcentury canon that remain astonishingly unheralded, perhaps in large part due to the difficulty of pinning them down.

Considering the Wedding Poem

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One does not take notes from the epithalamium for instructions on how to arrange a wedding, how to make a marriage successful, how to communicate with a loved one. The wedding poem anticipates its continued listening, sometime in the future.