An outpouring of appreciations greets news of the death of Ursula Le Guin at 88 on January 22. Library of America, which has published three volumes of her fiction, collected memories from writers Zadie Smith, Neil Gaiman, Elaine Showalter, and Harold Bloom, among others. Jonathan Lethem recalls being invited to lunch with other writers: “The scene was like something out of a Bergman film (one of the happy ones). There were flowers, the slow unveiling of all sorts of good food, and embracing conversation which beguiled me into thinking I’d entered into the enchanted circle of a writer’s real life, at last. (Nope.)” There’s also Karen Joy Fowler‘s “Ten Things I Learned from Ursula Le Guin” in the Paris Review, video of Le Guin’s acceptance of the National Book Award’s lifetime achievement award in 2014, Alexander Chee’s 2008 interview in Guernica, and Michelle Dean‘s review of Le Guin’s latest book, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters.
No Time to Spare makes the shortlist for PEN’s “art of the essay” award. Other PEN award finalists include Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power, Hari Kunzru’s White Tears, Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, and Kevin Young’s Bunk (for the $75K Jean Stein Award).
Denis Johnson’s posthumous story collection draws more praise, Sujata Massey launches a new series about a female solicitor in 1920s Bombay, Chandler Klang Smith’s first novel draws comparisons to Infinite Jest, cultural critic Morgan Jerkins collects her essays on feminism and race in white America, and John Leland expands his study of the “oldest old.”
Denis Johnson, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden
Johnson’s posthumous story collection continues to gather praise.
Rick Moody (New York Times Book Review) notes, “The movement across the entire collection echoes Dante: down, concentrically, into the revelations of illness and death, to ‘the phase in which these visits to emergency rooms and clinics increased in frequency and have now become commonplace.'”
Rachel Kushner (Bookforum) writes, “His connection to ‘people who totaled their souls,’ as one character puts it in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, his new and final contribution to literature, is a vital tenor of his work, even a central one. His passion for wrecked people certainly spawned a kind of cult status, which was rampant in the 1990s, when I was young and Johnson came into his phosphorous popularity. It was hero worship of totaled souls, by totaled souls. Hero worship isn’t malicious. No harm is meant. And yet it’s important not to allow that phase of Denis Johnson’s fame to shape the achievements of a writer who was much more serious than a cult phenomenon might ever suggest.”
“A posthumous book by a writer of singular ability is a thrilling gift from the grave, but it is also tinged with regret before we even crack it open,” writes William Giraldi (Washington Post). Giraldi calls Johnson’s last collection “sublime.”
Sujata Massey, The Widows of Malabar Hill
Massey, who won an Agatha for her Rei Shimura mysteries, introduces Perveen Mistry, the first female solicitor in Bombay (based on two pioneering women, Cornelia Sorabji, the first female solicitor in India, and Mithan Tata Lam, the first female admitted to the Bombay High Court). The starred PW review calls it “an outstanding series launch.”
“Perveen is a fascinating character—smart, resourceful, ready to take on prejudices against women in the law,” writes Mary Ann Grossman (Twin Cities Pioneer Press). “She is a member of the Parsi community, followers of the Zoroastrian faith who migrated from what was then Persia, so the story is filled with the food and customs of that tight-knit community. And as a former abused wife, Perveen wants to help women who had few rights in those years of the Raj, when Britain ruled India.”
Paula L. Woods (Los Angeles Times) writes:
Massey . . . does an excellent job here intercutting the tale of Perveen’s romantic courtship, ill-fated marriage and escape from Cyrus and his parents’ strict Zoroastrian household in Calcutta with her quest for fair treatment of the three devout Muslim widows. As a result, the novel makes the complex religious and legal diversity of India understandable while illuminating the apparent divisions within religious groups whose members struggle between devotion to the old ways and those of the increasingly modernizing world.
“Perveen’s backstory has to do with a failed marriage, but this is no typical love story gone sour,” notes Marissa Stapley (Toronto Globe and Mail). “Societal constraints won’t allow for that—and the alarming reality of what a marriage contract meant in 1920s Bombay and Calcutta—and what it can still mean in the present day—is enraging and sobering. Each morsel of information about Perveen’s past choices is delivered by the author’s sure hand and balanced by accounts of the lives of the widows, whom Perveen is tirelessly working to protect even as she realizes she might be the one who needs protection, yet again.”
Chandler Klang Smith, The Sky Is Yours
Smith mixes genres in her first novel. Yes, there are dragons. (Smith discusses dragons in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant and Jeff BanderMeer’s Borne at The Millions.)
Jason Heller (NPR) writes:
Smith’s gifts of imagination are staggering. Her world-building is a tangled sprawl of past, present, and future, a wickedly satirical synthesis that underlines just how fractured our own realities can be during periods of fear, unrest, inequality, and instability. But she does far more than hold up a cracked mirror to our world. In language that punches and caresses, she dwells on ugliness and beauty in equal measure—from “sewer gondoliers” to “daydream spire-domes like the shells of snails who feed at the secret hot vents of the sea.”
“The Sky is Yours transcends the boundaries of genre, transporting the reader to a burnt-out dystopian future in which twin dragons circle the skies tormenting an urban metropolis, and a Jane Austen-esque heroine, a futuristic YouTube burnout, and a feral ingenue raised on a mountain of trash find themselves in a love triangle that threatens to tear the very city they live in apart,” writes Chelsea Adeleine Hassler (PopSugar).
Leah Schnelbach (Tor.com) is elated:
There have been a lot of books heralded as heirs to Infinite Jest, but I can happily say: this is it. I’ve found it.
After all the years of doorstopping tomes writing by white literary fiction males (many of whom I love) and all the years of terrified readers being cornered in coffeeshops by wild-eyed young men (and occasionally, um, me) who needed to explain David Foster Wallace’s masterwork, Chandler Klang Smith has unleashed her own slipstream, genrefluid monster of a book—that also happens to be fun, visceral, heartbreaking, and genuinely funny. The Sky Is Yours is bursting with ideas and characters, and I’d advise you take a break after reading it, because other books are probably going to seem a bit black-and-white for a while.
Morgan Jerkins, This Will Be My Undoing
A first collection of essays from a cultural critic who writes about living at the intersection of black, female, and feminist in white America. “When you’re a black female writer, you’re not just writing for yourself, you’re thinking of all the black girls and women who you’d grown up with who wouldn’t dare say any of these things, not even to themselves,” Jerkins tells the Boston Globe’s Kate Tuttle.
The starred PW review notes: “Her writing is personal, inviting, and fearless as she explores the racism and sexism black women face in America.”
Ilana Masad (Los Angeles Times) calls the book “a vital essay collection for the present moment.”
Crystal Paul (Bustle) writes, “You can be sure that This Will Be My Undoing will give you some of this same truthing in a world that’s forgotten what facts are, as well as her touchingly genuine vulnerability at a time when fear and hate might tempt one to close up.”
John Leland, Happiness Is a Choice You Make
New York Times reporter Leland expands his study of the “oldest old,” following six people over the age of 85 for a year. “For most of human history, we could turn to these elders for wisdom because they knew about what it meant when that cloud structure came or when the animals would migrate,” Leland tells NPR’s Terry Gross. “And that kind of knowledge, we have Google for that now. So people felt left behind by technology. “
Ted Panken (Barnes and Noble Review) writes, “You can trace a line of influence from the Greek and Roman authors Leland studied to the almost, not quite, homiletic quality of portions of the book’s second, ‘lessons’ section. But, to paraphrase the title of a song by bebop tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, ‘Don’t be too hip,’ or you might skim over the wisdom Leland drops throughout the pages of this cliché-free, empathic, glass-half-full treatment of the aging process.”
The starred Kirkus review notes, “In this edifying and often quite moving book, Leland presents the “lessons” taught by his subjects even as they themselves are learning them, and he does so with an empathy and thoroughness that deserve our gratitude.”