Our sack of superlative reviews this week includes Violet Kupersmith on NoViolet Bulawayo’s Glory, Sam Adler-Bell on Sarah Weinman’s Scoundrel, Robert Kolker on Elizabeth Williamson’s Sandy Hook, Maggie Doherty on Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex, and Molly Young on Karen Joy Fowler’s Booth.
“It is a brilliant, 400-page postcolonial fable charting the downfall of one tyrant—whose counterpart here is an elderly horse — and the rise of a new one … By taking humans out of the equation, Bulawayo eliminates the hierarchies that their presence would impose. She has succeeded in creating the anti-‘Babar’ … This is not Animal Farm. Not its remix, nor its translation. Glory is its own vivid world, drawn from its own folklore … by aiming the long, piercing gaze of this metaphor at the aftereffects of European imperialism in Africa, Bulawayo is really out-Orwelling Orwell. This is a satire with sharper teeth, angrier, and also very, very funny … This is also a satire in which female characters are not pushed to the margins, but hold the story together … In its depiction of transgenerational trauma, of the lineages haunted if not extinguished by the Gukurahundi genocide of the 1980s, the novel bears close literary resemblance to Art Spiegelman’s Maus … If We Need New Names was a call, then Glory is its answer. They paint a country’s past and its present.”
“Weinman tells this lurid tale with all the narrative texture and tempo—and only some of the tawdriness—of a true-crime genre classic. Relying on original reporting, court documents, and thousands of pages of letters exchanged between Smith, Buckley, and an editor named Sophie Wilkins, Scoundrel is an agonizingly intimate depiction of an unlikely epistolary love triangle—the bloody consequences of which would haunt its besotted principals for decades to come … Scoundrel is a bit like Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer in reverse: with Smith in the position of the journalist…and Buckley in the position of the journalistic subject, who is made a fool … But there is also great danger in treating Edgar Smith’s as merely ‘a story of a wrongful conviction in reverse,’ as Weinman puts it. In telling such a story, one would have to take careful pains to avoid vindicating—if not explicitly, then by logical inference—the entire criminal justice system, the impulses of police, prosecutors, judges, and juries, and their capacity to distinguish the guilty from the innocent. These are pains that Weinman does not take … Scoundrel lacks, however, the psychological sophistication of a great novel, dedicating many more of its pages to minute legal machinations—and the gruesome details of Edgar Smith’s crimes—than to textured analyses of character. Psychology is not the book’s remit. Weinman set out to write a crime story, and she has done so.”
–Sam Adler-Bell on Sarah Weinman’s Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him (The New Republic)
“These mini-profiles form the most eye-opening aspect of Williamson’s account, in which one form of madness—the Sandy Hook shooter’s—is eclipsed by a group madness, a shared delusion too ridiculous ever to have anticipated and too dreadful for most of us ever to contemplate. Not every Sandy Hook denier is alike. While some seem cynical, with a political or financial agenda, others are acting out of a pathology … As you see Jones offer each of them a megaphone, and they all start to interact and help one another, you get the sense there was nothing those poor Sandy Hook families could have done. They were unlucky enough to offer material to a no-holds-barred propagandist at a moment when social media had yet to demonstrate the full extent of its formidable power … Did Jones ever really buy into the act? Williamson largely writes him off as a hollow man. But she credits Jones with recognizing something crucial about our new world—something we’re still grappling with now. ‘We’re in the middle of a war over who controls information, who’s the arbiter of truth,’ Pozner’s lawyer, Mark Bankston, tells her. ‘And if you destroy the arbiters of truth, anybody can be an arbiter of truth.’ ”
–Robert Kolker on Elizabeth Williamson’s Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth (The New York Times Book Review)
“…more than many contemporary feminist thinkers, [Srinivasan] draws on the work of second-wave feminists, including those with whom she disagrees. Her aim is not to rehabilitate these thinkers but to preserve some of their key insights about gender and power and to marry such ideas with more recent ones about race, class, and capitalism. For Srinivasan, it is only by building on the most useful ideas from each generation of thinkers that feminism will be able to move into the 21st century and, ultimately, create a new world … By closely studying the past, we may develop new ideas for the future. As a result, The Right to Sex is an exciting example of new thinking in feminist political theory as well as a work of feminist intellectual history—a project of recovery and preservation, like so many feminist projects before it … rinivasan is certainly right to argue for cultural change in addition to economic transformation. Intriguingly, her suggestions about how to enact cultural change are sometimes at odds with the rest of her argument. Though suspicious of liberalism, which puts the onus on the individual to solve collective problems, Srinivasan nonetheless maintains a certain faith in the individual’s capacity for change … Although Srinivasan defines feminism as ‘women working collectively to articulate the unsaid, the formerly unsayable,’ she doesn’t offer much guidance on how to build the kinds of spaces in which these collective articulations can take place.”
“If it sounds tedious to witness an author grapple with tension for 470 pages, that would be an accurate forecast of the reading experience. It’s impossible to summarize the plot of Booth. There’s far too much of it … There is nothing wrong with chronicling what people do and how they feel about it, of course. This is the terrain of novels. The problem is how Fowler goes about it, which is in prose that is alternately sleepy and mawkish … More distracting than the emotional banalities are the verbal clichés … All of this would be bad writing from a high school student. Coming from an author of Fowler’s achievements—she was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and received a PEN/Faulkner Award the same year—it feels more like malpractice … Transitions are often information dumps … Amid all this are tepid daubs of period detail: fluttering lace curtains, torn crinolines, crackling fires. These complaints would be nit-picking if they were exceptional rather than representative … ohn Wilkes Booth is too lightly sketched to register as monstrous. And the ones who would love him—entombed as they are in trite conventions of thought and feeling—barely register at all.”