5 Books Making News This Week: Songs, Short Stories, and Sophocles
Wayne Flynt, Haruki Murakami, Colm Tóibín, and More
Mvskoke (Creek) Nation poet Joy Harjo wins the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement.
“Her work is a thrilling and necessary antidote to false news, the ephemera of digital celebrity, and other derelictions,” says Don Share, editor ofPoetry magazine. “It pushes vigorously back against forgetfulness, injustice, and negligence at every level of contemporary life. Her work moves us because it is in the continual motion of bringing forward, with grace but also acuity, our collective story, always in progress.”
Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, due out in the U.S. in June, is crowned British Book Awards’ overall book of the year in a field of 36; Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You is debut book of the year.
The first $10,000 Albertine Prize, honoring the author and translator of a French-language novel published in the U.S., goes to Antoine Volodine’s Bardo or Not Bardo, translated from the French by J. T. Mahany. Colm Tóibín goes classic, Haruki Murakami writes of morose middle-aged men without women, Harper Lee’s friend of 25 year breaks his silence about their shared secrets and correspondence, Pulitzer finalist David George Haskell writes about a dozen trees that “drill, chirp, saw, tinkle, whine, murmur, howl, yelp, whistle, squeal, whirl, wail, whisper, dirge and sigh.” And more Richard Ford.
Colm Tóibín, House of Names
Tóibín’s new take on the Greek tragedy of Clytemnestra, dramatized by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, garners raves.
Ron Charles (Washington Post) is inspired (as is his Totally Hip Video Book Reviewer):
The descendants of Zeus were the world’s first tabloid stars. If you can believe the lying media of ancient Greece, things went to Hades pretty soon after Tantalus murdered his own son and fed him to the gods. That special recipe was eventually passed down to a grandson—so much for the benefits of eating dinner with family. These glamorous people endured rape, murder, incest, cannibalism and a deadly wardrobe malfunction.
“House of Names is a surprising turn for Tóibín,” writes Heller McAlpin (NPR), “a violent page-turner about the mother of all dysfunctional families and the insidious ravages of revenge and distrust. He has borrowed the main characters—Agememnon, his wife Clytemnestra, and their three children, Iphigenia, Electra, and Orestes—from the ancient Greeks, and re-animated their tragedies with intimate sagas of suffering you didn’t hear from Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.”
“Part of Tóibín’s success comes down to the power of his writing: an almost unfaultable combination of artful restraint and wonderfully observed detail,” writes Mary Beard (New York Times Book Review). “Part of it is also to do with the way Tóibín engages with the ancient texts that define the story,” she continues. “He is not afraid to deflate some of their grandstand moments. Aeschylus’ famous (and frankly puzzling) ‘carpet scene,’ in which, just before murdering him, Clytemnestra persuades Agamemnon to walk over some precious household textiles, as if to demonstrate his ruinous arrogance, is here reduced to a brisk sentence. Tóibín instead pictures Clytemnestra having silently to endure Agamemnon’s repetitive and empty boasting to his troops, before she can get him inside to kill him.”
Haruki Murakami, Men Without Women
The seven stories in Murakami’s new collection revolve around morose middle-aged men without women; unlike the men in Hemingway 1927 collection of the same name, they are more likely to be obsessed with classic jazz than bullfighting.
“He is one of the few contemporary writers who inspire pilgrimages (to the site of the jazz bar he once owned in Shibuya, Tokyo, to suspected locations of his stories) and superfans,” writes Tana Wojczuk (Vice). “It would be too simple, though, to attribute this only to his masterful writing. Like an unsolvable case, there’s almost always something missing, incomplete, ephemeral about his work that compels us, like many of his characters, to know more.”
Jay Fielden (New York Times Book Review) writes, “The melancholy soufflé Murakami whips up in these pages is decidedly masculine, a rainy Tokyo of unfaithful women, neat single malt, stray cats, cool cars and classic jazz played on hi-fi setups like the one described in dudeular detail—‘Thorens turntable, a Luxman amp and small JBL two-way speakers’—in a standout story called ‘Kino,’ in honor of the main character.”
Jeffery Renard Allen (Los Angeles Times) points out, “Murakami suggests that every man is a Kafaku, a sufferer who takes aimless drives to ponder past loves or who gazes at moons made of ice with nostalgic aches of longing and loneliness and regret. Simply put, one cannot forget what one has lived, a sentiment best expressed by philosopher Emil Cioran: ‘Knowledge is the plague of life, and consciousness, an open wound in its heart.’”
Wayne Flynt, Mockingbird Songs
Memories and secrets of the author of To Kill a Mockingbird from the Alabama historian who eulogized Harper Lee at her funeral last year, and was her confidant and correspondent for 25 years.
Flynt’s memoir of Harper Lee, writes Jennifer Crossley Howard (New York Times Book Review), “is based on their relationship, on his takeaways from visits to the nursing home where she lived in her last years and from letters she sent that give a full sense of a personality that was one of the great literary enigmas of the last half-century. In one, from March 2006, she declared Truman Capote—her childhood friend and literary rival—a liar.”
Charles Finch (USA Today) calls Mockingbird Songs “probably the most well-informed and clarifying book that has emerged from the Lee-industrial complex.”
Janet Saidi (Christian Science Monitor) concludes, “Flynt is clearly someone who understands Southern history, Lee’s place in it, and the valuable backstory of her famous novel, which still sells hundreds of thousands of copies every year and is one of the most frequently-taught works of literature in American schools. Flynt may be as equipped as anyone alive to tell us why that is and to preach at us, with the reminder that seeing our humanity, or as Atticus Finch would put it, to crawl into someone’s skin ‘and walk around in it,’ is the best hope for our future.”
David George Haskell, The Songs of Trees
Haskell, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for The Forest Unseen, writes of his repeated visits to a dozen trees in various parts of the world—Ecuador, Jerusalem, Manhattan, among them—and how he “listens” to their songs.
Ed Yong (The Atlantic) writes, “It just seems so counter-intuitive—not to mention a little hokey—to listen to trees. But Haskell does listen, and he describes his experiences with sensuous prose in his enchanting new book… A kind of naturalist-poet, Haskell makes a habit of returning to the same places and paying ‘repeated sensory attention’ to them.”
Michael Ray Taylor (Chapter 16) writes, “Like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life, The Songs of Trees is greater than the sum of its parts: it forces readers to consider complex, interrelated networks of the natural world, the scope and sweep of evolution, and the measurable effects of humanity on both. And it does so via some of the most musical sentences penned by any contemporary writer of prose or poetry.”
“The book is dense, with a high dose of necessary scientific reference, but always with a lush embrace of the musicality of language, sometimes with a beautiful antiquated lilt,” writes Michiela Thuman (Minneapolis Star-Tribune). “Haskell has the eyes and ears of the naturalist, the sensory gift of the poet. Among other things, his trees and their companions drill, chirp, saw, tinkle, whine, murmur, howl, yelp, whistle, squeal, whirl, wail, whisper, dirge and sigh.”
Richard Ford, Between Them
Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Ford’s new memoir continues to intrigue critics.
“Ford has chosen his title carefully,” notes Tim Adams (The Guardian). “His memoir recalls that time of childhood when the luckiest of us live contentedly in the space our parents create for us, a place of greater safety. The title also describes the structure he has found to recall that space. There are two separate memoirs here. The first, about Ford’s father, has been written recently. The second, about his mother, was written in 1986, five years after she died and the same year that Ford published the book that really started his career as a novelist, The Sportswriter. This is partly a book about time, then, the way in which our understanding of the lives of those we love stretches ahead of us and behind us, after they are gone, and locates us somewhere in their midst. And it is a book about memory.”
Thomas Curwen (Los Angeles Times) writes, “As much as his parents loved him, Ford knew they loved each other more, an admission that he shares with neither recrimination nor regret. All that ‘was most intimate, most important, most satisfying and necessary to each of my parents transpired almost exclusively between them,’ he writes.’This is not an unhappy fact for a son to face.’ Yet there is a melancholy cast to these pages, a picture of three people standing just out of reach of one another, alone together, no matter their love.”
David Masciotra (Salon) concludes:
The result of Richard Ford’s tribute is a beautiful, moving and thought provoking book—a great book, really. It is not, however, the book that Ford promised when he described the importance of taking a clear and unromantic look at parents. At no point does he ever describe a single flaw he can attribute to his mother or father. Even his assessment of Parker as lacking a “rich interior life” is woven into a complimentary appraisal. Since no human being—no matter how altruistic, how kind, how compassionate—is without fault or foible, it would appear that Ford was incapable of living up to the task he assigned himself.