5 Book Reviews You Need to Read This Week
"It’s nearly impossible to come out of it without empathy for and real outrage on behalf of Spears."
Our feast of fabulous reviews this week includes Leah Greenblatt on Britney Spears’ The Woman in Me, Hua Hsu on Staci Robinson’s Tupac Shakur, Walton Muyumba on Jesmyn Ward’s Let Us Descend, Ryan Ruby on Marguerite Young’s Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, and Jasmine Liu on Lydia Davis’ Our Strangers.
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“What Spears fills in, in prose that is chatty and confiding and occasionally salty, is the ongoing thrum of family dysfunction and fear … Throughout the book, Spears repeatedly portrays her relationship to creativity as a kind of pure soul connection, a private communion with godliness independent of outside forces and opinion. Details on the actual salient process of music-making, though, are scant … The mostly linear narrative in The Woman In Me tends to treat these moments and many other well-documented highlights of her career as passing or ancillary, a distant cacophony muffled by the much louder noise of her personal struggles. Still, the facts of it are presented so cleanly and candidly that Womanseems designed to be read in one sitting. It’s nearly impossible to come out of it without empathy for and real outrage on behalf of Spears … As freely confessional and often furious as it is, The Woman in Me isn’t quite the blazing feminist manifesto that some witnesses to history may have wanted Spears to write, nor the kind of granular, completist portrait-of-an-artist autobiography that others have dutifully supplied in the past. It could be argued, though, that she never stopped telling us who she was.”
“In just five years of stardom, Tupac Shakur released four albums, three of which were certified platinum, and acted in six films. He was the first rapper to release two No. 1 albums in the same year, and the first to release a No. 1 album while incarcerated. But his impact on American culture in the nineteen-nineties is explained less by sales than by the fierce devotion that he inspired. He was a folk hero, born into a family of Black radicals, before becoming the type of controversy-clouded celebrity on the lips of politicians and gossip columnists alike. He was a new kind of sex symbol, bringing together tenderness and bruising might, those delicate eyelashes and the ‘fuck the world’ tattoo on his upper back. He was the reason a generation took to pairing bandannas with Versace. He is also believed to have been the first artist to go straight from prison, where he was serving time on a sexual-abuse charge, to the recording booth and to the top of the charts … That he contained such wild contradictions somehow seemed to attest to his authenticity, his greatest trait as an artist … It’s a reverential and exhaustive telling of Shakur’s story, leaning heavily on the perspective of his immediate family, featuring pages reproduced from the notebooks he kept in his teens and twenties. The biography’s publication follows Dear Mama: The Saga of Afeni and Tupac Shakur, a documentary series that premièred, on FX, in April. Robinson was an executive producer on Dear Mama, which drew on the same archive of estate-approved, previously unreleased materials as her book, and the works share a common purpose: to complicate Shakur without demystifying him … At the heart of the Tupac Shakur mythology is how much of his artistic persona was the result of moments in which he imagined what it might be like to walk in another’s shoes. It speaks to how empathetic—but also how impressionable—he could be. It’s something his fans often debate: Were there simply some poses he could never shake? … Perhaps Shakur’s contradictions—the gangster poet who was never exactly a gangster, the actor who could never break character—would have found resolution had he lived longer. At the heart of things was always the question of how to distinguish the persona from the person.”
“Leading Dante into hell, Virgil, the poet guide, intones: ‘Now let us descend into the blind world here below.’ Jesmyn Ward’s new novel…employs Alighieri as a guide through the dark, teeming forest of slavery in the United States … Among her talents, Ward can imagine and draw complex emotional and psychological lives for her adolescent characters. The children in Ward’s novels are frequently blessed with second sight and psychic understanding of animalia and supernatural worlds … Some critics have claimed that the novel form is already imbued with a kind of magic. So, any additional supernatural forces entering the literary frame seem overbearing. But Caribbean, African, South American, and ethnic American writers have yanked the form into their own matrices. There is, of course, room enough for all sorts of novelistic practices. Why be hierarchical, favoring, say, realism as the one true novelistic aesthetic, when an ecumenical approach to technique and reference offers the novelist more opportunities for dwelling in webs of contingency and linkage? For example, identifying Toni Morrison as an influence on Ward’s lyrical prose and ancestor invocation is fair, true, and too easy. Instead, we ought to read Ward as placing Greek mythology, ancient epic poets, Judeo-Christian narratives, and the system of Dante’s hell, adjacent to but not above her African American and African-descended gods. Her novels argue that these are interconnected, co-equal branches of practical magic.”
“Young envisioned a book that would top out at around two hundred pages and take two years to complete. When she delivered the manuscript to Scribner eighteen years later, the stack of papers was almost half as tall as she was … In Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, the American Dream is depicted quite literally: as a series of incompatible hallucinations. Set largely in the course of a single, harrowing nighttime bus ride during the last years of Depression, the story follows the narrator, Vera Cartwheel, as she sifts through her memories of her eccentric upbringing in a mansion on the coast of New England … Vera encounters the truth as something that is constantly flipping upside down and right side up again. In Young’s telling, reality is not the neutral ground where disparate perceptions overlap; it is the interstices between them. Reality is the worm in the wheat, as the novel’s working title would have it, the point at which our ‘perfect equations’ come up short, our ‘definitions fail,’ and our desires for ‘ultimate harmony’ are frustrated. Truth is ‘but another illusion,’ Vera is forced to conclude … What Vera finds at the end of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is something none of the novel’s perfection-seekers do: love … At 1,198 pages, it is among the longest single-volume novels in the English language. If Moby-Dick, the book against which all other Great American Novels are measured, is about a single monomaniac, Miss MacIntosh is a veritable republic of Ahabs, each more idiosyncratic than the next. An Indiana bus and a New England mansion furnish the book with its principal settings, but Young, much like Melville, never fails to imbue them with cosmological import…The book is an epic of mothers and daughters, rather than of fathers and sons, husbands and wives, or war and peace, and Young’s sentences, which marry the breadth of Whitman to the opulence of Nabokov, are among the most virtuosic ever produced by an American novelist.”
“Davis has wondered if she should continue to write amid the destruction of our environment. Her increasing ambivalence about writing is detectable in Our Strangers—not because her prose is any less good, but because its fastidiousness now seems to culminate in ordinary everyday language. In her latest stories, she has made herself smaller, shifting her focus to networks, communities, and systems, the units which we will need to think in to change course collectively. Davis’s title announces straight away the new territory she is exploring. Whereas older collections like Break it Down (1986), Almost No Memory (1997), and Can’t and Won’t (2013) largely feature intimate relations—husbands, ex-husbands, friends, children—this collection foregrounds a cast of strangers—neighbors, fellow travelers, old men seen around town. These strangers variously produce reactions of irritation, bafflement, pity, gratitude, and intrigue … The bond between strangers is not so different from the bond between family members, Davis suggests. Both can be seen as arbitrary. We might love our families, condemn them, or even reject them, but it’s impossible to entirely ignore them—and something like this applies to the strangers we live with, too … In a tight seven-sentence piece, Davis writes that a person’s ultimate aim should be to ‘feel small and still feel strong, and good.’ To act at all today—in relation to communities, in relation to the climate—requires an embrace of one’s own insignificance in the larger scheme of things. By giving meticulous form to her singular sensibility, Our Strangers suggests that this fact does not have to annihilate meaning. Rather, it can be a wellspring for the wonderful and absurd.”