If you only read one book review this week (why are you starving yourself?), make it James McBride’s stirring New York Times tribute to the peerless Toni Morrison and her latest book, The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations. “Toni Morrison does not belong to black America,” McBride writes, “She doesn’t belong to white America. She is not ‘one of us.’ She is all of us. She is not one nation. She is every nation.”
Over at the Nation, Broken River author J. Robert Lennon considers Tana French’s “extraordinary” standalone thriller, The Witch Elm, in the context of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, writing “the privileged don’t get it, the hearings taught us, because they don’t have to. For most of them, there never is a reckoning. The Witch Elm offers us a brilliant take on this dreary truth…”
Meanwhile, back at the New York Times, Booker Prize-winning Irish author Roddy Doyle commends the storytelling prowess of Patrick Radden Keefe, who vividly evokes the terrible human cost of the Northern Ireland Troubles in his harrowing new nonfiction book, Say Nothing.
We’ve also got Mark O’Connell’s Guardian review of David Wallace-Wells’ chilling climate change prophecy, The Uninhabitable Earth (“The margins of my review copy of the book are scrawled with expressions of terror and despair”), and Kathleen Rooney on Morgan Parker’s latest poetry collection, Magical Negro (“[a] vibrant, angry, and idiosyncratic exploration of politics, black history, black womanhood, hip-hop, popular culture, celebrity, and more”).
“Morrison has, as they say in church, lived a life of service. Whatever awards and acclaim she has won, she has earned. She has paid in full. She owes us nothing. Yet even as she moves into the October of life, Morrison, quietly and without ceremony, lays another gem at our feet. The Source of Self-Regard is a book of essays, lectures and meditations, a reminder that the old music is still the best, that in this time of tumult and sadness and continuous war, where tawdry words are blasted about like junk food, and the nation staggers from one crisis to the next, led by a president with all the grace of a Cyclops and a brain the size of a full-grown pea, the mightiness, the stillness, the pure power and beauty of words delivered in thought, reason and discourse, still carry the unstoppable force of a thousand hammer blows, spreading the salve of righteousness that can heal our nation and restore the future our children deserve … Toni Morrison does not belong to black America. She doesn’t belong to white America. She is not ‘one of us.’ She is all of us. She is not one nation. She is every nation.”
“Historically, I’ve tended to prefer crime fiction written in a minimal style, fiction that has Raymond Chandler as its ancestral avatar. This doesn’t represent some overarching personal bias against writerly elaboration; rather, there’s something about the genre that lures its practitioners into unnecessarily discursive explorations of mood and theme…But French is the rare maximalist crime writer who seems unsusceptible to these clichés. Her narrators are loquacious, yet they never bore; she’s a master of setting scene and filling in backstory in a way that makes these contextual necessities feel not workmanlike or utilitarian, but like vital elements of the story in and of themselves … The privileged don’t get it, the [Brett Kavanaugh] hearings taught us, because they don’t have to. For most of them, there never is a reckoning. The Witch Elm offers us a brilliant take on this dreary truth, with the added bonus that justice is actually realized in the end—if only obliquely, unexpectedly, and not through the established channels. Perhaps that makes The Witch Elm less of a crime novel and more of a fantasy. Either way, it’s one of Tana French’s best books, which makes it one of the best of its kind, period.”
“Keefe homes in on McConville and other individuals and, while doing that, tells a good-sized chunk of the history of Northern Ireland, a place George Bernard Shaw called ‘an autonomous political lunatic asylum’ … If it seems as if I’m reviewing a novel, it is because Say Nothing has lots of the qualities of good fiction, to the extent that I’m worried I’ll give too much away, and I’ll also forget that Jean McConville was a real person, as were—are—her children. And her abductors and killers. Keefe is a terrific storyteller. It might seem odd, even offensive, to state it, but he brings his characters to real life … What Keefe captures best, though, is the tragedy, the damage and waste, and the idea of moral injury … Dolours Price and many like her believed that, after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, she had been robbed of any moral justification for the bombings and abductions. The last section of the book, the tricky part of the story, life after violence, after the end, the unfinished business, the disappeared and the refusal of Jean McConville’s children to forget about her—I wondered as I read if Keefe was going to carry it off. He does. He deals very well with the war’s strange ending, the victory that wasn’t.”
–Roddy Doyle on Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (The New York Times Book Review)
“The margins of my review copy of the book are scrawled with expressions of terror and despair, declining in articulacy as the pages proceed, until it’s all just cartoon sad faces and swear words … There is a widespread inclination to think of climate change as a form of compound payback for two centuries of industrial capitalism. But among Wallace-Wells’s most bracing revelations is how recent the bulk of the destruction has been, how sickeningly fast its results. Most of the real damage, in fact, has taken place in the time since the reality of climate change became known … For a relatively short book, The Uninhabitable Earth covers a great deal of cursed ground—drought, floods, wildfires, economic crises, political instability, the collapse of the myth of progress—and reading it can feel like taking a hop-on hop-off tour of the future’s sprawling hellscape … You could call it alarmist, and you would not be wrong. But to read The Uninhabitable Earth—or to consider in any serious way the scale of the crisis we face—is to understand the collapse of the distinction between alarmism and plain realism. To fail to be alarmed is to fail to think about the problem, and to fail to think about the problem is to relinquish all hope of its solution.”
“Parker knows how to make the contents of each of her projects deliver on the promise of the words on their covers. In this case, ‘magical’ is a term that is elevating but also objectifying, even dehumanizing, and the archaism of ‘Negro’ gives the reader pause. The vexatious flatness and near-comedy of such a taxonomic title serves as the perfect frame for Parker’s vibrant, angry, and idiosyncratic exploration of politics, black history, black womanhood, hip-hop, popular culture, celebrity, and more … the book operates in part as a quasi-ethnography, taking that tack of a scientific description of the customs of individual people and cultures and filtering it through the sensibility of a poet at the height of her powers of description and perception … The Magical Negro elides and erases rather than illuminates, and this lack of transparency seems vital to Parker’s aim with this book … Rarely has seeing superficiality and ignorance skewered in poetry been so absorbing … This agility—exhibited in virtually every poem—serves to create a book that delights and astonishes even as it interrogates.”