Winners of the National Jewish Book Awards include Francine Klagsbrun’s Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel (book of the year), David Grossman’s A Horse Walks into a Bar (fiction), Carol Zoref’s Barren Island (debut fiction), and Alicia Suskin Ostriker’s Waiting for the Light (poetry).
Posthumous story collections from Denis Johnson and Jenny Diski, “pure magic” from Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists, narrative dexterity from Gregory Blake Smith in The Maze at Wondermere, and Alexander Langlands’ exploration of the roots of the maker movement.
Denis Johnson, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden
Johnson’s second collection (after Jesus’ Son introduced his voice in 1991) is published months after his death from cancer.
Christian Lorentzen (New York) is wowed:
These four stories rank with Johnson’s best work, but the title story, a catalogue of singular moments related by a man who tells us he’s passing through life as if it were a masquerade, ranks with the best fiction published by any American writer during this short century. None of these narrators is Fuckhead, but all of them, we suspect, could be. After all, we never learn his real name.
Adriana E. Ramirez (Los Angeles Times), not so much. “As in Jesus’ Son, Johnson’s men are also sexist and racist, living in the male Baby Boomer fantasy of scrappy and oblivious dudes against the world,” she notes. “Women exist as accessories, the world seems to be universally white and Johnson’s narrators seem uncomfortable with anything that isn’t heteronormative. The argument can be made, of course, that these are the worlds his characters inhabit, but in 2018, it’s a bit more difficult to imagine a landscape without some attempt at diversity. Then again, lately we’ve all been facing off against our racist, sexist, homophobic relatives at family dinner. And no rude uncle will ever be as charming, talented and funny as Denis Johnson.”
Troy Jollimore (Chicago Tribune) concludes:
The word largesse isn’t much used anymore. Perhaps it refers to a kind of profound and liberal bounteousness that isn’t often to be observed in American life today. But it’s a perfect word to describe Johnson’s fiction, which overflows with creative energy, moving from one beauty to another with a mercurial, at times almost chaotic grace. Although his characters are often diminished and winnowed by their struggles with life, the narrative voice that describes their travails gives evidence of an imagination that is nearly boundless in its generosity and abundance.
Jenny Diski, The Vanishing Princess
A year after Diski’s death from cancer, which she chronicled in In Gratitude, comes the publication of a story collection that first appeared in the UK in 1995.
“Once a defiant and complicated teen adopted by the writer Doris Lessing in the early 1960s, Diski writes of women ‘determined to be bad,’” writes Heather Scott Partington (Newsday). “Anyone familiar with Diski’s work will wonder how much her own life bled into these tales. But whether or not the work is autobiographical is beside the point. In this age when women are coming forward, claiming #metoo and reclaiming their space in artistic milieux, Diski’s stories of women choosing their own narratives sound a particularly resonant note.”
These stories “reveal a writer avidly experimenting with voice and structure and execution,” notes Heidi Julavits (The New Yorker). “I want to say her stories are ‘brave,’ but that sounds blurby and false; maybe it’s more useful to describe The Vanishing Princess as an artist’s sketchbook, a space where play and adventure are privileged over snoozy competence and sheen, a preference that seems in keeping with the authentically renegade life Diski, as a person, led.”
“Diski’s ability to explore and consequently explode stereotypes of femininity, carnality, desire, marriage, and innocence lost seemingly has no bounds,” writes Taylor Larsen (Los Angeles Review of Books). “Almost all of these stories, once started, are impossible to put down.
Chloe Benjamin, The Immortalists
After four siblings visit a psychic in 1969 and come away with her predictions of their deaths, Benjamin traces how their lives unfold.
“The siblings’ stories are so intriguing that they might have been told without recourse to a fortune teller, but this character’s presence makes all the difference in a book that’s both fun and deep,” writes Barbara Hoffert (Library Journal). “Fittingly, Benjamin dreamed up the children and their spiritual guide ‘in some alchemical way,’ in connection if not at the same instant. In the end, whether you think the prophecies were real or not, one thing is certain: Benjamin’s book is pure magic.”
“Begin 2018 with the book that could easily retain the year’s top spot,” writes Kim Curtis (Associated Press). “The Immortalists is a can’t-put-down, makes-you-think tale of a not-so-average American family.”
Jean Zimmerman (NPR) notes:
Benjamin was surely influenced by J. D. Salinger’s Glass family—immortal in their own way—in creating the stable of brothers and sisters in The Immortalists. Tight as tight can be, they can nevertheless be easily annoyed by and even estranged from each other. The rich matrix of Jewish life in the neighborhood offers a demotic playground where the children are free to roam. It’s a world of odd cultural mash-ups, such as warm egg custard tarts from Schmulka Bernstein’s, the legendary Kosher Chinese deli on Essex Street. Leaking into this safe family haven is background noise specific to the summer of 1969: Woodstock, “Pinball Wizard,” and the Stonewall riots.
Gregory Blake Smith, The Maze at Windermere
Smith’s novel superimposes five narrative lines at different historic moments in coastal Newport, Rhode Island. Critics applaud.
Zack Graham (Newsday) leads off:
When one thinks of Newport, Rhode Island, what comes to mind? Lifestyles of the rich and famous. Heirs and heiresses and high society, private clubs and mansions and yachts. Few would say that Newport symbolizes America or American history. And yet The Maze at Windermere, Gregory Blake Smith’s ambitious fourth novel, examines race, class, gender, sexual identity, war and love in America through the lens of Newport’s history.
Ron Charles (Washington Post) calls The Maze at Windermere “staggeringly brilliant,” and adds, “It is an extraordinary demonstration of narrative dexterity. Moving up and down through the strata of history, Smith captures the ever-changing refractions of human desire.“
“Taken individually, each story is dramatic and captivating, but as the author makes ever-increasing connections among the stories and shuffles them all into one unbroken narrative, the novel becomes a moving meditation on love, race, class, and self-fulfillment in America across the centuries,” PW’s starred review concludes.
Alexander Langlands, Cræft
Medieval historian and archeologist Langlands explores the traditional roots inspiring today’s maker movement and fondness for artisanal food and drink.
Ben East (The Guardian) writes, “As one of Britain’s cooler television historians and archaeologists, you’d probably expect Alexander Langlands to suggest that spending time converting raw materials into useful objects might make us happier. But Craeft, his celebration of how traditional crafts are about so much more than making—the old English meaning being an amalgam of ‘knowledge, power, skill’—isn’t simply man-v-machine polemic, nor does it wallow in nostalgia.”
Michael Bierut (New York Times Book Review) writes:
Beyond the mastery of specialized skills, Langlands is talking about something more holistic: a way of looking at the world. In reconnecting with craeft, he begins to see not just the beauty of an object or a building or a landscape, but the deeper purpose for which each has been created. And he understands, too, the environment they shape and upon which they depend. “Archaeology became so much more than just stuff in the ground,” he says about his own journey. “It became an exploration of what it was to be human, not only because we are makers but because we are resourcers, gatherers with an inveterate knowledge of the natural world around us.” How comparatively helpless are the rest of us as we contemplate the featureless mirror of the computer screen or the smooth sheen of the smartphone.
“Humans are makers, the author argues persuasively in this illuminating book, in need of renewed connection to the intelligence and ingenuity of craft,” concludes the Kirkus review.