This week is a short one because of the Thanksgiving holiday, folks, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a family-sized feast of the choicest book reviews for you to chew on. We know you’re ravenous for them, you insatiable pack of literary criticism lovers, and here they are: the book reviews you absolutely must read this week. Whether you’ve been lying in a slothful food coma with barely enough energy left to tilt your phone’s screen toward your face, or banished to the far corner of the family home for berating your Trump-voting relations, there’s no bad time or place to enjoy these five insightful takes.
In her rave New York Times review of Louisa Hall’s Trinity—a kaleidoscopic historical novel about Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb—Andrea Barrett marvels at the way the book uses peripheral characters, both real and fictional, to mirror different aspects of Oppenheimer’s personality, and says that “the resulting quantum portrait feels both true and dazzlingly unfamiliar.”
Over at the Baffler, Nathan Goldman criticizes Israeli intellectual Amos Oz’s “narcotic cocktail of reassurance and shallow philosophizing,” Dear Zealots: Letters From a Divided Land. Goldman argues that “despite his talk of Jewishness as a polyvocal, philosophical tradition, Oz is unwavering in his commitment to a Jewish nationalism as simple and brutal as any other.”
“She describes the experience of insomnia with a strange precision that verges at times on the hallucinatory,” writes Brian Dillon in his 4Columns essay on Insomnia, Marina Benjamin’s philosophical inquiry into what we might learn from our failure to sleep.
We’ve also got Julian Lucas’ fascinating New Yorker piece on Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants—Mathias Énard’s imagining “of what might have happened had Michelangelo exposed his genius, so decisive in the history of European art, to the great Ottoman metropolis”—and Marisha Pessl on Jeff Jackson’s “wild roar” of a dystopian rock novel, Destroy All Monsters.
“Rather than resorting to the familiar tricks of biography-lite—dramatizing tired anecdotes, larding the narrative with undigested research about particle physics and Oppenheimer’s persecution during the McCarthy era—Hall has shaped a richly imagined, tremendously moving fictional work. Its genius is not to explain but to embody the science and politics that shaped Oppenheimer’s life … There’s a lot Oppenheimer doesn’t see, and a lot we don’t see. Except for these passages, everything we’ll learn about him arrives obliquely and in fragments, stories told to that invisible narrator by seven invented characters…This is not in itself an unusual strategy: Think of all the historical fiction involving the great man’s butler, the queen’s housekeeper, the overlooked minor bystander speaking at last. But these figures seem designed, in a way I haven’t seen before, to mirror the ambiguous tensions of Oppenheimer’s personality … Oppenheimer’s deepest secrets would remain as hidden as anyone else’s, if Hall relied only on biographical data. What shocks us into a new understanding of this complex and secretive soul are his psychological ties to the invented main characters. Hall uses them to perform seven thought experiments, as if Oppenheimer, like a subatomic particle, could be revealed only indirectly, through his collisions with others. As if, as one character reports him saying, ‘any given entity can only be defined as a function of its observer.’ The resulting quantum portrait feels both true and dazzlingly unfamiliar.”
“Marina Benjamin’s intense, vagrant, and personal book Insomnia is a timely arrival. But unlike the pop-science studies of sleep professionals, the mindful quackery of the sleep business, or critiques of techno-capitalist sleep deprivation, Insomnia wants to know what we might learn from our failure to sleep, from ‘lurid nights’ and ‘enervating mania’ … Benjamin’s book is richly stocked with literary references to lack of sleep, its pains and occasional pleasures … She describes that experience with a strange precision that verges at times on the hallucinatory; in fact, stranded between these two poles, between clarity and chimera, is where we may find the insomniac … Her prose is written in sharp poetic fragments, and resembles in places the mordant aphorisms of E. M. Cioran, the Romanian philosopher who was reputed not to have slept for fifty years … Benjamin has written a book that attempts stylistically to sound like its subject: fragmented, digressive, at times delirious … This might be less, or more, than the sleepless reader wishes to hear. Benjamin’s approach to her subject is deliberately at odds with the current popular literature on sleep and its discontents … It might keep you awake, but in solacing and inquiring company.”
“…liberal Zionists hope to restore the balance, even as it becomes clear that the two ideas—Israel as a democracy and Israel as a Jewish state—are so fundamentally opposed that any attempt to reconcile them is doomed from the start. This is exactly the kind of thinking that Amos Oz’s Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land aims to combat. Originally published in Hebrew in 2017 and appearing now in Jessica Cohen’s English translation, Dear Zealots is a rallying cry to liberal Zionists who are growing worried that their vision of Israel’s future has not come to pass. The book attempts its best impression of clarity, directness, and level-headed optimism. It’s a narcotic cocktail of reassurance and shallow philosophizing for those moderates waiting for the age of extremism to pass so they can reclaim control of Israel and bring matters to their reasonable conclusion … Oz proves himself ill-equipped to understand political violence of any kind. His analyses range from the banal to the simply bizarre … descriptions of a Jewishness beyond blood and soil are lovely. But they’re a farce. Despite his talk of Jewishness as a polyvocal, philosophical tradition, Oz is unwavering in his commitment to a Jewish nationalism as simple and brutal as any other … The fact is that Oz the humanist, Oz the liberal Zionist, Oz the democrat, is also Oz the ethnonationalist, because liberal Zionism—though to some it is anathema to say so—is ethnonationalism…The humanistic, democratic Judaism Oz claims to espouse is fundamentally incompatible with the desire for a Jewish-majority state.”
“Like Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, the story hangs on the electric potential of an unrealized touch: Énard imagines what might have happened had Michelangelo exposed his genius, so decisive in the history of European art, to the great Ottoman metropolis … Mathias Énard probably wouldn’t like to be called an Orientalist. (Nobody does since Edward Said put the field to rout a generation ago.) Yet he inherits from the discipline not only its seemingly limitless purview—poetry, geopolitics, philology; Beirut, Borneo, the Balkans—but also the zany amplitude of activity that characterized its leading figures … a tale of bastard genius that might have been, and a cautionary fable about the consequences of parochial timidity. Yet the book itself, scarcely over a hundred pages long, is marked by a certain reticence. A third-person narrative unusual in Énard’s œuvre, it suggests a sketchbook rather than a marble likeness … Ultimately, Énard’s imagined history confines itself to threading a nearly invisible influence through Michelangelo’s existing work…The fanciful reframing makes for a compelling exercise, and it underscores Renaissance art’s very real debt to Islamic civilizations … There is hardly a glimpse, though, of what kind of world a worldlier Michelangelo might have made. Which is not to suggest that Énard should have written a full-fledged alternate history. Fragments, after all, can be keys. But it’s never quite clear what doors Énard is trying to open; why, if Michelangelo had travelled to Constantinople, it would have mattered.”
“It is this strange and shifting divide between music and listener—rock gods drenched in all that gold light onstage, their faceless fans packed into the darkness, watching them—that Jeff Jackson explores to shattering effect in his wild roar of a novel … The motive for the attacks is unclear, the connection among killers unknown. Yet Jackson quickly moves beyond the obvious provocation of this ripped-from-the-headlines setup. He is more concerned with the feedback loops and endless reverb of violence, investigating those who have the determination to stand up and play, demanding consideration, and with what happens when the act turns lethal … Writing about music is tricky. Ninety-nine percent of the time hearing the actual song or going to the actual concert is far more revealing than any paragraph describing it. But Jackson pulls off this near-impossible feat, pulling the reader past the velvet ropes into the black-box theaters and sweaty, sticky-floored stadiums … The prose can feel as cool as Rat Pack-era Sinatra and as sad as Lou Reed singing about a perfect day … For all his insider knowledge and passion for music, Jackson is also at ease writing about the odd details of the everyday.”