Our quintet of quality reviews this week includes Anna Mundow on Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel, Amal El-Mohtar on N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, Sophie Gilbert on Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa, Charles Arrowsmith on Brian De Palma and Susan Lehman’s Are Snakes Necessary?, and Casey Cep on Benjamin E. Park’s Kingdom of Nauvoo.
“In Station Eleven, Ms. Mandel had created a dreamlike reality so tangible and complete that emerging from it felt like banishment … And ever since then, this writer’s exiled devotees have wondered where she would take them next … The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is to the world of money, which materializes in Ms. Mandel’s new novel, The Glass Hotel, as both familiar and profoundly strange … The question of what is real—be it love, money, place or memory—has always been at the heart of Ms. Mandel’s fiction … her narratives snake their way across treacherous, shifting terrain. Certainties are blurred, truth becomes malleable and in The Glass Hotel the con man thrives … lyrical, hypnotic images—of a shoreline at dusk, for example, or a city street at dawn—suspend us in a kind of hallucinatory present where every detail is sharply defined yet queasily unreliable … All of which is clever and, perhaps intentionally, alienating. For in this hall-of-mirrors novel, Ms. Mandel invites us to observe her characters from a distance even as we enter their lives, a feat she achieves with remarkable skill. And if the result is a sense not only of detachment but also of desolation, then maybe that’s the point.”
“… while still a joyous love letter to New York, broadens from its origins and explicitly welcomes the foreignness of readers like me … The book is rich and generous in a way that belies the easy analogues of the plot. The Enemy is white supremacy, police brutality, gentrification, but the book doesn’t waste time arguing that those things are evil (though it is a clever and satisfying reversal of the racist origins of H. P. Lovecraft’s mythos, recasting eldritch nastiness as white fragility). Instead, its main project is one of bridge-building, knitting communities together, showing how the embodied boroughs must overcome their own prejudices, their own irritations and limitations, to embrace and trust one another before they can win the fight … Crucially—and most affectingly—Jemisin locates New York’s identity in plurality and adoption rather than any kind of nativist purity … There is a tension, though, between the book’s argument and its world-building, a kind of background static distorting its otherwise clear lines … Mashing together the fear-mongering of white supremacy with legitimate criticism of America’s wars makes for an awkward allegory that occasionally undermines the book’s core assertions. While the whole project is enjoyably looser, faster, jokier than Jemisin’s other novels, passages like this make it feel less disciplined or anchored in its rhetoric than her fantasy worlds … Mostly, though, my experience of this book was of a white-knuckled grip, as people I loved and cheered for fought hard on one another’s behalf … takes a broad-shouldered stand on the side of sanctuary, family and love. It’s a joyful shout, a reclamation and a call to arms.”
“My Dark Vanessa is a minefield in which language itself has been weaponized. Vanessa is both a smothering presence and a troubling void, a narrator who often feels disassociated from her own story … To spend substantial time—roughly 350 pages—in the mind of a person defending the assault of an underage girl isn’t particularly pleasant. The more salient question, though, is whether it’s illuminating—whether Vanessa’s narrative offers something distinct about the mental aftermath of teenage trauma that makes its graphic descriptions of abuse worthwhile. The answer may depend on the reader’s tolerance for a character so intent on defending her own damage … What makes other fictional narratives of teenage abuse more bearable—Kate Walbert’s His Favorites, for example, or Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise—is that the person telling the story has enough distance and perception to be able to see what they’re really portraying. Vanessa is infinitely more challenging. Only in the final moments of the book does she seem to begin to understand what the reader has seen all along…That’s not to say that characters need to be ‘perfect’ victims—Vanessa’s stubborn contrarianism, her inconsistency, the distance between the lies she tells other people and the lies she tells herself, are the most interesting things about her. She is an immensely difficult person to spend time with. Is she a valuable one, in the end? I still can’t decide.”
“…this trashy neo-noir thriller riffs on psychosexual obsessions that will be familiar to fans of De Palma’s movies. Pitched in style somewhere between a film treatment and tabloid true crime, this debut novel is silly and uneven, sure, but it’s also fun, a pastiche of hard-boiled crime fiction that doesn’t scrimp on the lurid pleasures of the genre … Jean-Luc Godard maintains, perhaps waggishly, that film tells the truth 24 times a second. De Palma, though, believes the opposite, and Are Snakes Necessary? litigates the competing claims. De Palma has spent a lifetime exploring the metaphysics of recording technology and of scopophilia, showing us how observation can deceive as much as it reveals … Many crime writers, notably Elmore Leonard, have found ways of updating the hard-boiled genre while retaining its vim and demotic panache. De Palma and Lehman, while giving their story a conspicuously contemporary setting (Twitter, iPhones, 9/11, Ferguson), have aimed less at modernizing than simply transplanting its styles and tropes to the 21st century. As pastiche, this partly works, but it may have a distancing effect on readers.”
“Whether or not the country would have been with Joe, we’ll never know: on June 27th, a few months after announcing his candidacy, the first Mormon to run for President became the first Presidential candidate to be assassinated. Smith’s death marked the end of a decisive period in Mormon history, one that is less familiar to most outsiders than the Church’s founding, in New York State, or its eventual move to Utah, where, against considerable odds, its members came to flourish … Park, an ambidextrous thinker, is equally sensitive to the danger the state can pose to religious minorities and to the danger that a religious institution can pose to the secular state. In his account, the early Mormons were a rowdy band of neo-Puritans who mounted a fundamental challenge to the democratic experiment. The tensions that they experienced—between the right to religious freedom and the limits of religious tolerance—still persist today … Like the Quakers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony before them, and the Rajneeshees in Oregon after them, the Mormons in Illinois came to be seen as a danger to democracy: not a mini-America, where the saints could take refuge, but an anti-America, where social deviance threatened the moral order, and religious authorities sought too much power.”
–Casey Cep on Benjamin E. Park’s Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier (The New Yorker)