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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 18, 2018
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Pulitzer awarded historian Stacy Schiff re-envisions America’s archetypal true-crime story just in time for Halloween. Jane Smiley, another Pulitzer winner, completes her epic American trilogy. National Book Award winning Colum McCann astonishes critics with the power of his new story collection, completed after his own damaging brush with violence. Paul Murray renders investment banking comic, not boring. A first-time novelist makes the National Book Award shortlist. And more laurels: Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Sigh, Elizabeth Nunez’s Not for Everyday Use: A Memoir, and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen win Zora Neale Hurston awards Rankine’s Citizen also is shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot prize, as is Mark Doty’s Deep Lane.
Stacy Schiff, The Witches: Salem, 1692
Schiff, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), delves into the archives for an original take on a primal American crime story, excerpted in The New Yorker.
“Salem witchcraft has obsessed writers from Hawthorne and Longfellow to Shirley Jackson and Arthur Miller, as well as scores of historians, and it takes a writer of Schiff’s confidence and brilliance to tackle it anew,” writes Elaine Showalter (Washington Post). “As in her Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Cleopatra, Schiff excels at finding fresh angles on familiar stories, carries out massive research and then weaves it into a dazzling social panorama.”
“Masterful,” writes Elizabeth Hand (Los Angeles Times) of Schiff’s account of “the epidemic of paranoia and religious fervor that overcame residents of Essex County in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in ‘America’s tiny reign of terror.’ … Schiff painstakingly reconstructs not just the events of 1692 but the world that birthed them: Puritan New England, where Wabanaki raids and massacres were common, food scarce, and the winter darkness inescapable for months on end.”
David Walton (Dallas Morning News) calls The Witches “mesmerizing” and “the scariest book of the year.” Schiff’s perspective, he adds, is “fresh, often surprising and thoroughly modern.” Her “broader portrait of an entire social structure torn apart from within is uncomfortably contemporary and closer to home,” he concludes. “The Witches is compelling reading, a native American horror story that lives just over the horizon of our worst fears.”
Buzzy Jackson (The Boston Globe) agrees, praising Schiff’s ”meticulous and disturbing history:” “One of Schiff’s strongest contributions to this American horror story is her constant reminder that while we may never be able to definitively explain exactly why 19 people (and two dogs) were executed for witchcraft in Massachusetts (owing in part to a concerted effort to expunge any public records), we can still learn something from it. The Witches is not merely the story of the Salem witch trials — it is a cautionary account of our human tendency ‘to take that satisfying step from the righteous to the self-righteous [and] drown our private guilts in a public well.’”
“In her retelling we hear a kind of colonial primal scream, a uniquely American blend of religion and paranoia, ” notes Hamilton Cain (Minneapolis Star Tribune).
Adam Goodheart (The Atlantic) suggests the “old Salem saga” reads like a real-life version of young-adult fiction: “Pint-size wizards, talking cats, bloody bite marks, supernatural battles between rival factions of preteens—it’s all straight out of the pages of J. K. Rowling or the Twilight series.” Thanks to Schiff’s narrative gifts, he writes, “the present-day reader flits above New England’s smoky chimneys and thatched rooftops, swoops into the locked studies of magistrates and clergymen; stalks among the jealousies and rivalries of village schemers; even dwells briefly in the innermost thoughts of schoolchildren dead three centuries and more. It is wizardry of a sort—in a flash of brimstone, a whole world made wondrously visible.”
Jane Smiley, Golden Age
Over the past eighteen months Smiley, who won a Pulitzer for A Thousand Acres, has returned to the Farm Belt as a setting for the novels in a trilogy with the umbrella title The Last Hundred Years—Some Luck (April 2014), Early Warning (April 2015), and Golden Age, published this month.
“Golden Age provides a satisfying if solemn finale to a monumental portrait of an American family and an American century,” concludes Heller McAlpin (Los Angeles Times). “Smiley’s trilogy demonstrates repeatedly that most lives are a combination of improvisation and serendipity, good luck and bad. With issues such as corruption, climate disruption and racism blighting the country’s horizon, her characters wonder if the golden age is behind them. But Claire, the last surviving child of Walter and Rosanna, reflects on the bright spots of her 80 years, including “the endless Iowa horizon, a pan of shortbread emerging from the oven, and her grandchildren laughing in the next room.” It makes her realize that “all golden ages, perhaps, were discovered within.”
Sandra Levis (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) writes, “The term Golden Age may well refer to this stage of Ms.Smiley’s career, for her trilogy is thoroughly radiant. It represents a remarkable achievement that deserves to be kept close at hand –– along with a flashlight, generator, and canned goods, just in case.”
Valerie Sayers (Washington Post) gives Smiley credit for striking “a fine balance between the history of an era’s ‘great ideas’ and the history of its everyday life. The Langdons lose a family member to 9/11, and some among the clan go off to do battle in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the particulars of personal suffering do not overwhelm the intellectual arguments (and vice versa). If crucial areas of the country’s last 100 years get glossed over — racism and immigration are acknowledged, but not explored in depth — it’s a small miracle how much ground Smiley covers and how much she knows: about biochemistry, horses and genetics, but also medieval literature, financial instruments and especially politics.”
Philip Hensher (The Guardian) salutes Smiley’s “dizzying” ambition (each of 100 chapters covers a year in sequence, “with no skipping and no expansion when things get particularly interesting”):
In an age when you can get a reputation as an experimental novelist by writing in the first person about children playing video games, Smiley is a more innovative writer than is perhaps widely understood. There are immense and unanticipated benefits to this unusual approach. It is dizzying, in this third volume, to have the sense at a deathbed that you have witnessed a character’s entire life from conception onwards. There is a powerful sense of tragic legacies of character and obligation, going back generations and decades. When Michael, a speculative trader in the early 2000s, ruins half his family by carelessly borrowing their decades of savings, we feel privileged to have witnessed the sour rage and dispossession of his father as a small child in the 1920s, a thousand or so pages back, and to have understood what a lack of love will lead to, in the end.
Colum McCann, Thirteen Ways of Looking
McCann’s Let The Great World Spin won a National Book Award. His new collection is wowing critics, with an award-winning story a standout.
Ron Charles (Washington Post) is impressed: “The irreducible mystery of human experience ties this small collection together, and in each of these stories McCann explores that theme in some strikingly effective ways.” Charles singles out one story for his highest praise: “It’s no wonder that ‘Sh’khol’ won a Pushcart Prize and has been included in the just released The Best American Short Stories, edited by T.C. Boyle. Caught in the rushing currents of this drama, you know you’re reading a little masterpiece.”
Jeff Barker (Portland Oregonian) agrees: “‘Sh’Khol’ is as fine a piece of short fiction as I’ve read in the last five years. It’s haunting and surprising, like everything from this amazing writer.”
Erica Wagner (The Guardian) also finds “Sh’khol” the strongest story: “a strange and remarkable tale about a woman adrift on the west coast of Ireland with her 13-year-old son, a deaf boy adopted from Russia when he was six; the intervening years have brought redress and damage in equal measure. Here is what McCann calls ‘radical empathy’ – an ability to fully and truly tell another’s tales. One of the strengths of McCann’s writing is his ability to place himself, and so his reader, in another’s body; here, as Rebecca moves through the wild landscape, this gift is powerfully displayed.”
Sarah Lyall (New York Times) emphasizes the real-life violence McCann experienced while writing “this melancholy and affecting work.” The four stories “are connected by a tension, an unease, a threat, a sense that things are off kilter but perhaps can be put right if the characters, and the reader, understand them more fully.”
The title novella, notes Boris Kachka (New York), “riffs on Wallace Stevens’s famous blackbirds, the detective genre, and the surveillance state all in the fractured narrative of one heart-torn New Yorker’s dying day. Along with the other pieces, all thematically related to a random assault McCann suffered last year, it displays a rare confluence of skill, style, and moral vision.”
Malcolm Forbes (Minneapolis Star-Tribune) finds the stories “elegantly composed, emotionally charged and searingly perceptive.”
My take (for NPR): McCann’s work “is growing ever more textured and timely — and he has few contemporary parallels as a storyteller.” The stories in Thirteen Ways of Looking “reflect an understanding of the swiftly disappearing flow of our lives as knowing and unflinching as any by Joyce or Chekhov.”
Paul Murray, The Mark and the Void
Irish writer Murray’s hilarious Skippy Dies, set at a Dublin boarding school among adolescent boys (“suddenly everyone was tall and gangling and talking about drinking and sperm”) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award and longlisted for the Man Booker prize.
Laura Miller (Slate) calls The Mark and the Void “the funniest novel ever written about international banking” and places it on the spectrum of the modernist debate from James Joyce’s Ulysses through David Shields’ Reality Hunger:
…even as writers fret over how to get more reality into their novels, reality is becoming more and more fictional. If you want to encounter a never-never land of the imagination, there’s no better place than the market, the ineffable center of real-world power. It’s not just that Paul’s clients trade such phantasmal products as the right to buy something for a particular price at some future date; it’s that most of them, and the bankers who advise them, don’t really understand what they’re doing or how any of it works.
Radhika Jones (Time) invokes Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, which “tells of a Ponzi scheme that ensnares London” and Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit, set partly in a debtors’ prison. She explains why Murray was wise to set his new novel as a comedy: “…these writers lived before the credit economy, when the merest hint of speculation could taint your moral fiber. It was easier to make debt into drama when a shilling overdue meant a jail cell, not a late fee. Twenty-first century banking trades in figmentary value–loans backed by loans, homes on high ground that sink underwater. The ship of moral fiber has long since sailed for the Cayman Islands.”
Sam Sacks (Wall Street Journal) mentions a character in Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island—“a nameless corporate consultant explains why the public has a hard time caring about business and financial processes, despite their enormous effect on society: ‘They creep under the radar by being boring.’”—in his review, and suggests Murray takes that boredom as a kind of dare up the dare in his rambunctious comic novel,” most of which is “propelled by acerbic intelligence and equally sharp prose.”
John Freeman (The Boston Globe) dubs Murray’s book “a satiric tour de force.”
Angela Flournoy, The Turner House
First-time novelist Flournoy shows up on the shortlist for the National Book Award for The Turner House, set in her father’s hometown of Detroit, a city she has only visited (she says Zora Neale Hurston helped give herself permission to tackle it). Flournoy also is shortlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize.
For Matthew Thomas (New York Times Book Review), The Turner House is “engrossing and remarkably mature.” “That Flournoy’s main characters are black is central to this book, and yet her treatment of that essential fact is never essentializing. Flournoy gets at the universal through the patient observation of one family’s particulars. In this assured and memorable novel, she provides the feeling of knowing a family from the inside out, as we would wish to know our own.”
Hope Wabuke (The Root) calls The Turner House “epic, ambitious and strikingly executed.” “In the grand tradition of family dramas by the late Bebe Moore Campbell,” she concludes, ”it is lively and entertaining, with subtle humor and engaging voice. Flournoy manages the difficult feat of skillfully telling the stories of 13 children, their parents and accompanying spouses and love interests in an irresistible style. Here we have a deeply satisfying portrayal of relationships among those to whom we, for better or worse, are related by blood.”
Detroit native Bill Morris (The Millions) says Flourney’s first novel “belongs on the shelf with the very finest books about one of America’s most dynamic, tortured, and resilient cities.”