5 Books Making News: Zadie, Elena, and Eleanor Are Everywhere
Zadie Smith, Elena Ferrante, Eleanor Roosevelt and more
The Texas Book Festival in Austin kicks off with the announcement of the $50,000 Kirkus Prizes, which go to C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings (fiction), Susan Faludi’s In the Darkroom (nonfiction), and Jason Reynolds’ As Brave as You (children’s and teen). Some 280 authors, including Maria Semple, Lois Lowry, Jacqueline Woodson, first novelists Belle Boggs, Jade Chang, and Yaa Gyasi, are featured, along with a group of taco scientists touting the taco cleanse and Laura Bush, who founded the festival in 1995. Big book news at the New York Times: Radhika Jones is named editorial director, books, overseeing all review coverage. (She was deputy managing editor at Time magazine.) Zadie Smith dances into the spotlight, Elena Ferrante’s new book leads to her “unmasking,” Blanche Wiesen Cook wraps up her landmark Eleanor Roosevelt biography, Javiar Marias writes of political and personal secrets, and David Hajdu delivers a personal history of pop music.
Zadie Smith, Swing Time
Four starred pre-publication reviews and an intimate profile by Jeffery Eugenides in the New York Times Style magazine greet Zadie Smith’s latest novel. (She tells Vanity Fair she identifies with Virginia Woolf and Zora Neale Hurston.)
“Like the black-and-white musicals that feature in its pages, the book is a play of light and dark—at once an assertion of physicality and an illusion—in which the main character, a girl born to a black mother and a white father, tries to assemble, from the competing allegiances that claim her, an identity that allows her to join the dance,” Eugenides writes. “This narrator is unnamed, as is the African country where much of the action takes place. The novel cloaks existential dread beneath the brightest of intensities.”
Adam Hirsch (The Nation) notes:
Smith is always being called exuberant—or Dickensian, or even “hysterical realist,” which amount to the same thing—and the title of the new book, with its Astaire-and-Rogers gaiety, seems to promise more of the same. But in fact Swing Time is a sober book, even—at times—a depressive one. It feels like the kind of book novelists write when they have come to the end of their own favorite themes and techniques. There is less of the excitement of discovery, of getting things down on paper that have not been observed before, and more of the resigned pleasure of understanding. There is less seeing, and more seeing through.
Lidija Haas (The New Republic) writes:
While Swing Time is superficially smoother and more conventional than NW, it makes a remarkable leap in technique. Smith has become increasingly adept at combining social comedy and more existential concerns—manners and morals—through the flexibility of her voice, layering irony on feeling and vice versa. In a culture that often reduces identity politics to a kind of personal branding, Smith works the same questions into a far deeper (and more truly political) consideration of what it takes to form a self. The nameless mixed-race narrator of Swing Time doesn’t bother to be offended when, in her professional life, she’s treated as a token, a ‘conceptual veil’ or ‘moral fig-leaf’—she’s keen to observe and interpret the experience, which she feels is ‘like being fictional.’
Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia
#FerranteFever is back, with dozens of events across the country and a twist. Italian journalist Carlo Gatti reports the “real” identity of the author, setting off a firestorm of objections, including this from Roxana Robinson, this from Alexandra Schwartz, this from Jeanette Winterson, and this from Idra Novey. Frantumaglia is perfect for Ferrante critics (in tandem with her children’s book The Beach at Night).
Elaine Blair (New York Times Book Review) notes that Frantumaglia, “a collection of press interviews, editorial correspondence and other ephemera,” “a modest volume, has ended up playing an unexpectedly pivotal role in Ferrante’s career, for it seems to have led to her unmasking.”
Alexander Chee (The New Republic) writes:
In Frantumaglia, Ferrante seems to anticipate her own discovery: The book is like a mask hidden beneath a mask, ready to be displayed when the first one is torn off. … Frantumaglia is a book created in the spirit of an author’s legacy, less a memoir than a memento mori. As I read it, I was reminded of the intense pruning J.D. Salinger did of his own work, blocking publication of his uncollected stories—which included imperfections that would have worn down his legacy. But as I continued, Frantumaglia began to seem more like Vladimir Nabokov’s Strong Opinions, his collection of his interviews and op-eds, where he even edited the questions as well as his answers. These authors were fanatically in control of their bodies of work and their biographies, with good reason: They formed an essential extension of their selves. Ferrante even experiences this as self-care: “In my experience, the difficulty-pleasure of writing touches every point of the body,” she writes in Frantumaglia. “When you’ve finished the book, it’s as if your innermost self had been ransacked, and all you want is to regain distance, return to being whole.
Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt: The War Years and Beyond
In what Kirkus Reviews calls “A winning concluding volume in a series that does for Eleanor Roosevelt what Robert Caro has done for Lyndon Johnson,” Cook concludes her decades-long project, a three-volume biography of the influential first lady. And yes, she wins critical acclaim.
Richard Norton Smith (Wall Street Journal) notes that Eleanor Roosevelt’s “complexities, on par with her achievements and the controversies she stirred, richly warrant Ms. Cook’s three thick volumes.” He continues,
More than a presidential spouse, however, or feminist icon, the Eleanor Roosevelt who inhabits these meticulously crafted pages transcends both first-lady history and the marriage around which Roosevelt scholarship has traditionally pivoted. She was never more disarming than when promoting her then-radical agenda of racial equality and freedom of expression. The author slyly describes an African-American soldier eating an ice-cream cone in a segregated canteen. Suddenly he finds himself confronted by Mrs. Roosevelt, in the midst of a grueling 25,000-mile tour of wartime outposts in the Pacific. “May I have some of that ice cream?” she asks. After helping herself to a big bite, she returns the cone to its rightful owner. “You see,” she tells him with a grin, “that didn’t hurt at all, did it?”
Steve Donoghue (Christian Science Monitor) concludes:
Cook captures the headlong energy of those years perfectly, and she blends the international with the personal easily and comfortably, grounding her portrait in the troves of letters and diaries Eleanor and her friends and relatives kept over many decades. Readers will encounter in these pages an intimate, touchingly human Eleanor Roosevelt—an icon they can both admire and genuinely like.
“I’ve read all three volumes of Cook’s biography and, taken together, they present an exhausting and exhilarating story, as well as undeniably melancholy one,” concludes Maureen Corrigan (NPR). “In her relentless efforts to push American democracy to fulfill its promises, Eleanor Roosevelt was ahead of her time. As we ponder our curdled political culture on the eve of Election Day, it’s not at all clear that we have yet caught up to her.”
Javier Marias, Thus Bad Begins
A literary star in Europe, often mentioned as a Nobel Prize candidate, Spanish novelist Marias is gathering new fans in the U.S., including critics.
Thus Bad Begins “delivers all of Mr. Marías’s trademark qualities—chewy philosophical meditation, prose of fastidious elegance and the suspense of an old-fashioned potboiler,” writes Sam Sacks (Wall Street Journal).
Scott Cheshire (Los Angeles Times) calls Thus Bad Begins “a book for Marías lovers, a secretive novel, chock-full of fear and betrayal, but the stakes do only go so high. Classic Marías novels revolve around death, murder and violence, and perhaps it’s for that reason I found myself sometimes comparing it to his others. And perhaps it’s also for that reason I found myself most loving the book for its pages, brilliant observations, its musings and its suspenseful elegant voice, rather than the overarching story. And I could not put it down.”
Anelise Chen (Village Voice) concludes, “The novelist Álvaro Enrigue has written that Marías’s work is a ‘call for political responsibility in everyday civil life.’ Perhaps this is true. If novels can be calls to action, then this one is a clarion for open dialogue. Brought to light, the unspeakable immediately becomes banal. Perhaps this is Marías’s hope for Spain—that one day it will confess all its secrets, and in doing so, let them go.”
David Hajdu, Love for Sale
A personalized history of the last hundred-some years of pop music by one of the best music writers around? Sounds good, say critics.
Here’s how James Sullivan (Boston Globe) puts it:
In a few hundred cruising-speed pages (despite the occasional congestion of bumper-to-bumper song titles and songwriting credits), Hajdu chronicles the long evolution of the popular song, from Paul Whiteman and his dance band’s hit tune “Whispering” to the recent R&B/hip-hop radio staple “Don’t Tell ‘Em.” For readers well-versed in the music critics’s canon, the book includes plenty of scenic rest stops: Sinatra’s concept albums, the postcoital soul-searching of Goffin and King’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” the fertile collision of punk, soul, and hip-hop in the New York City wasteland of the 1970s.
Kirkus Reviews’ Alexia Nader calls Hajdu “a relaxed guide.”
Rather than domineering with a fan persona, he gently invites us to share in his excitement about a certain period or musician. He also knows when to move on, avoiding obsessing over minutiae and the musicians he loves most, and instead navigating holistically through genres, forms, and periods. For instance, he doesn’t get lost in the details of the Beatles’ “Get Back” recording sessions, but situates the event in a history of musicianship changing along with recording technology, involving musicians as diverse as Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, and Enrico Caruso.
Ann Levin (AP) notes that “reminiscences throughout the text serve to establish [Hajdus’] musical bona fides and make this more lively and personal than a standard historical survey. He’s both critic and fan.”