Our quintet of quality reviews this week includes Julie Buntin on Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel, Dwight Garner on Eric Eyre’s Death in Mud Lick, Hermione Hoby on Mieko Kawakami’s Beasts and Eggs, Sam Dolnick on Robert Kolker’s Hidden Valley Road, and May Lee-Chai on C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold.
“…prescient as Station Eleven has proved to be in our current moment, The Glass Hotel—despite its near-past setting in the years between 1999 and 2018—feels uncannily reflective of the crisis we’re living through now. In a moment when the smallest choices—crossing the street to avoid sharing the sidewalk with a neighbor, leaving groceries on the porch without ringing the bell, wearing a mask into the supermarket—can now be visibly, measurably understood as part of a network of cause and effect with life-or-death consequences, The Glass Hotel, with its structural emphasis on the collective impact of our decisions, is heartbreakingly resonant … Maybe we don’t understand life during a pandemic better by reading about a fictionalized pandemic. Instead, we need art like The Glass Hotel, a novel that argues that our stories are tied up in each other’s, that reminds us, when we are in isolation, of our connection.”
“Some [Pulitzer] winners are vastly better at reporting than writing. They’re like serious birds that are nonetheless flightless. Eyre finds a tone for his story. He writes with candor and gravity; a tensile rod of human decency braces every paragraph. He attached himself to this story the way a human fly attaches to a skyscraper, and he refused to let go. Eyre’s coup was exposing, in exact numbers, the volume of opioid shipments to West Virginia, but he organizes his book as a simmering thriller, in which villain after villain is introduced. I was put in mind of a line from Norman Mailer in The Executioner’s Song: ‘If you jacked up an old plaster ceiling, you couldn’t have more fast-developing cracks in a situation’ … meat and potatoes journalism in a light, sensible broth. There are lawsuits and court fights and public records requests; there is also skulduggery and a mysterious manila envelope dropped into a mailbox. There is unexpungeable grief. It’s the work of an author who understands that objectivity is not the same as bland neutrality. I expect it will be taught to aspiring reporters for many years to come … demonstrates why local journalism matters, more than ever.”
–Dwight Garner on Eric Eyre’s Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic (The New York Times)
“…a moving, messy aria of supremely female grief-letting that sees love and rage mingled up like cracked yolks and shell … These females bleed and breed, they get drunk and bleach their nipples, they seek breast implants and sperm donors, and, most horrifying of all, it’s possible they might find single motherhood a completely satisfying state of affairs ..there is something fundamentally girlish—that is to say ingenuous and hence disarming—about [Kawakami’s] writing. It makes sense that she was a blogger before she became a famous author; the novel is gratifyingly artless, delivered in a frank and funny prose that shines with unselfconsciousness and a kind of flat-footed grace … The novel speaks to the stories of Lucia Berlin; there is the same sense of a dispassionate but honoring gaze cast on working-class women, dogged and unsentimental in their survival.”
“Kolker carefully reconstructs the story of the household falling into bedlam as the strong, athletic brothers warred with their demons and one another in flights of violent rage, each one slipping further away … Kolker tells their story with great compassion, burrowing inside the particular delusions and hospitalizations of each brother while chronicling the family’s increasingly desperate search for help. But Hidden Valley Road is more than a narrative of despair, and some of the most compelling chapters come from its other half, as a medical mystery … A gifted storyteller, Kolker brings each family member to life … Kolker is a restrained and unshowy writer who is able to effectively set a mood. As the walls begin closing in for the Galvins, he subtly recreates their feeling of claustrophobia, erasing the outside world that has offered so little help.”
–Sam Dolnick on Robert Kolker’s Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family (The New York Times Book Review)
“… a brilliant re-envisioning of the western … Rather atypically, it is told from the point of view of the children of a Chinese family who have been trying to strike it rich in the gold mines only to find that the laws are rewritten to exclude them … Zhang’s language isn’t just gorgeous, it’s revolutionary. She creates her own vernacular, a combination of American folk tales and cowboy poets and Mandarin Chinese … Zhang’s storytelling serves to remind the reader that much of U.S. history is a kind of mythology—from Manifest Destiny to the act of developing the Western frontier … At turns beautiful and brutal, Zhang’s debut is a stunner … a visionary addition to American literature.”