This week’s glorious grab bag of reviews includes Laura Miller on Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham, Josephine Livingstone on Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest, Jonathan Dee on Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible, Niko Maragos on Samanta Schweblin’s Little Eyes, and Hillary Kelly on Stephanie Danler’s Stray.
“Unlike American Wife, Rodham has a strong whiff of longing about it, a resemblance to the category of fan fiction known as RPF, or real-person fiction, in which fans write fictional stories about actual celebrities … the character Sittenfeld makes of this alternate Hillary remains essentially static: cautious, mildly humorous, committed to public service, but no firebrand. Above all, she is diligent, a grind. The weakness of Rodham is this lack of any significant transformation. Unlike Alice Blackwell, the narrator of American Wife, Hillary Rodham doesn’t come to the gradual realization that she has thrown away her life on a man she can no longer respect and whose values she doesn’t share. Sittenfeld’s Hillary eventually grasps how perilous her passion for Bill Clinton was, but that’s a revelation without much of a price … Sittenfeld’s Hillary hasn’t been made to stand, in the imaginations of countless resentful and insecure men, for every unwelcome change in women’s roles over the past 50 years. She is an admirable woman, but a bit boring, her interior life free of the kind of conflicts that make for a fascinating heroine, and there’s something melancholy in that.”
“Odetta was one of the most famous singers in America in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Her career was bookended by a hardscrabble childhood and equally tough middle age, although she sang to enraptured audiences into her twilight years. Now largely forgotten by younger generations, Odetta has never since received the recognition her art is due … Odetta’s life story takes on huge significance and scale in Zack’s book, as he explains how her talent was buffeted by the winds of American history like a tree flexing in a gale. Biographies can help us to conceptualize the slippery phenomenon we call being alive, especially as it relates to the passing of time. Is life made out of instants, like lightning flashing on a face in a storm, or is it some mystical force that flows across time, bigger than any one person? Odetta brims with the life of its forgotten subject, showing us that we have a lot of cultural history to relearn and many losses yet to mourn.”
“For a while the novel sustains a deceptively timeless, children’s-treasury vibe … The setting—a massive summer house, with multiple families vacationing in it—calls to mind that of Susan Minot’s novel Monkeys turned to account as metaphor … There’s a birth in a barn, a plague, a Moses, a Cain and an Abel, even a crucifixion. But part of the novel’s genius is that these allusions never really lead anywhere … The allusions aren’t symbols or clues; they’re just faint echoes, like puzzle pieces too few to fit together … With brilliant restraint, Millet conceives her own low-key ‘bible’ … It’s a tale in which whoever or whatever comes after us might recognize, however imperfectly, a certain continuity: an exotic but still decodable shred of evidence from the lost world that is the world we are living in right now.”
“At its most effective, the work of Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin conjures the paranoid sensation of realizing, perhaps belatedly, that one is being watched by many unseen, hostile eyes. A visceral and whimsical eeriness, part Shirley Jackson and part Purity Ring lyrics, hovers over her surreal stories of swindled people slowly wising up … A perfect fit for this moment of zoombombing, Little Eyes nevertheless avoids being a ripped-from-the-headlines sellout and instead offers an intelligent tale about the lives that new technologies mediate … This book is a new phase of Schweblin’s writing, a self-conscious shift in her methods for exploring the small-scale systems of domination that occupy her extant work. However, In Little Eyes, she deemphasizes the surrealism that colored her previous writing so distinctly: gone are the grotesque bodies, the sinister borderlands, and the coy, capricious presence of magic. Instead, Little Eyes is dominated by a deadpan realism flavored with her signature eeriness. On balance, it is less a drastic break from her style than an experiment within it. Schweblin’s willingness to play and push is apparent here, indicative of her imagination and exciting unpredictability. She proves that she has much more to show than the sinister surrealism she is known for.”
“In her carefully concocted but unfermented new memoir…the ensuing portrait Danler composes of herself resembles a Cubist Picasso, broken into bits and incongruously reassembled … a literary It Girl…[Danler’s] success story barely figures into Stray, despite the fact that the book is primarily occupied with her mind-set in those post-book-deal years. Danler never explicitly refutes the charmed image; she simply dips us in and out of enough familial screaming matches and self-destructive decisions that any previous assumptions about her blessedness melt away … ‘I’m a ruthless performer of likability,’ she writes at one point. ‘I come from a long line of charismatic liars,’ she cheerfully admits at another. But she doesn’t go far beyond mere acknowledgment. Where, I kept wondering, is the moment that takes this story from recollection to something she has disassembled and futzed with and zealously turned over in her mind, until it has eventually taken on a brand-new shape? It’s such a thrill to watch a writer open up her greediest thoughts, to slice open little pockets of her skin and root around underneath her flesh. But disclosure is not revelation. She needn’t stitch herself back up…but it’s best to make sure that the blood lost will be worth it.”