Our five alarm fire of fabulous reviews this week includes Parul Sehgal on Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults, Ruth Franklin on Maria Dahvana Headley’s Beowulf, Alex Preston on Daisy Johnson’s Sisters, Ayana Mathis on Michael Gorra’s The Saddest Words, and Alex Shephard on Carl Hiaasen’s Squeeze Me.
“The name Ferrante—the pseudonym of the Italian novelist—evokes for me all the ordinary, warring paradoxes of intimate life. It is shorthand for the tangle of impulses that drive her heroines, mothers and daughters torn between mutual dependence and contempt, their desires to devour and abandon each other, their instincts to nourish and betray … The new novel is suspenseful and propulsive; in style and theme, a sibling to her previous books. But it’s also a more vulnerable performance, less tightly woven and deliberately plotted, even turning uncharacteristically jagged at points as it explores some of the writer’s touchiest preoccupations … Ferrante’s women go so spectacularly to pieces that it is easy to forget that the vast majority of her novels have, if not happy endings, then notes of reconciliation. Her women come through the fire because they are writers; the act of narration becomes an act of mending … Ferrante leaves many threads dangling; we’re left to wonder at the initial forecast and the novel’s enigmatic, oddly heroic conclusion: What is this progress that seems to contain the seeds of regression? When is a revolt indistinguishable from a retreat?”
“…electrifying. The lack of scholarly apparatus is deceptive: Headley has studied the poem deeply and is conversant with some of the text’s most obscure details. Though she comes to Beowulf from a feminist perspective, her primary purpose is not polemical or political but, as she writes, to render the story ‘continuously and cleanly, while also creating a text that felt as bloody and juicy as I think it ought to feel’ … Headley’s version is more of a rewriting than a true translation, reënvisaging the poem for the modern reader rather than transmitting it line for line. It is brash and belligerent, lunatic and invigorating, with passages of sublime poetry punctuated by obscenities and social-media shorthand … the over-all effect is as if Headley, like the warrior queen she admired as a child, were storming the dusty halls of the library, upending the crowded shelf of Beowulf translations to make room for something completely new … Headley is obviously enjoying herself, and never more than when she’s speaking in the voice of her hero … (Heaney’s Beowulf, suiting up for battle, is ‘indifferent to death’; Headley’s ‘gave zero shits.’) … With a Beowulf defiantly of and for this historical moment, Headley reclaims the poem for her audience as well as for herself.”
“f I could bring any writer back from the dead, I think I’d choose Shirley Jackson, only because she’d write so very well about what it was like to be dead. But then again, I might not have to, because Daisy Johnson is the demon offspring of Shirley Jackson and Stephen King, her work a dark torrent of nightmarish images, her gothic vision startlingly vivid and distinctive … Now she gives us Sisters, a story that takes familiar themes and wraps them in the web of her careering lyricism and twisted imagination … A storm sweeps in. Johnson’s prose comes at you in jagged bursts. The fact that most readers will see the final twist coming doesn’t undermine its power. Indeed, there’s something interesting in the way that Johnson uses readerly expectation and generic convention to her advantage, timing her revelations perfectly, allowing the reader to hear echoes of other writers without the novel ever feeling derivative or formulaic … The fact that the plot of Sisters follows relatively well-worn paths allows Johnson to be more inventive and experimental in her use of language and in her characterisation. This is a novel Shirley Jackson would have been proud to have written: terrifically well-crafted, psychologically complex and chillingly twisted.”
“In spending relatively little time with the literary aspects of Faulkner’s novels—the astounding characterization, his brilliance with metaphor and his dazzling descriptions of perception and physicality—Gorra misses an opportunity to tell a fuller story of the sublime interplay of aesthetics and theme in Faulkner’s work. This is doubly unfortunate because Gorra writes so beautifully when he turns his attention to Faulkner’s artistry … But these are relatively small complaints. Gorra’s well-conceived, exhaustively researched book probes history’s refusals … In his urgency to make the case for Faulkner’s merits, however, Gorra overcorrects with regard to his faults…Gorra isn’t an apologist, but he does go to great lengths to avoid saying the obvious. He mentions Faulkner’s infamous alcoholism as a factor that may have influenced his more incendiary comments … Gorra mounts a further defense by separating the man from the writing, as though the writing ‘made him better than he was; it made the books better than the man.’ But that’s a dodge—and, most significantly, it’s not the point. Of course William Faulkner, Mississippi-born in 1897, great-grandson of a slave-owning Confederate colonel, was a racist. But in Faulkner, as is the case in all of America, racism is not the conclusion to any argument. It does not preclude further discussion; it demands it … This tangle aside, Gorra’s book is rich in insight … Gorra’s book, as he writes in his preface, is ‘an act of citizenship,’ timely and essential as we confront, once again, the question of who is a citizen and who among us should enjoy its privileges.”
“Novelists, like the rest of us, can’t look away from the Trump administration. Unfortunately, they haven’t found much interesting to say about it. Carl Hiaasen’s thriller Squeeze Me is, blessedly, an exception. While the best Trump fiction has dialed up the absurdity to speculative extremes, Hiaasen is clear-eyed: He meets the president on his subterranean level. It helps that Hiaasen is, alongside Jimmy Buffett, a contender for the title of Poet Laureate of Florida … Trump is, in many ways, the perfect Hiaasen character: a rich, vain, racist, twice-divorced Palm Beach resident with a penchant for affairs with porn stars. Alec Baldwin’s impression of Trump as a two-bit outer-borough thug has never sat right with me. Reading Squeeze Me, I finally understood why: Donald Trump is a Florida Man, through and through … placing our absurd president in an equally absurd setting normalizes Trump in useful ways: He becomes a product of a distinctly American environment. Hiaasen’s own fondness for vulgarity—’nut sack’ appears roughly once every 100 pages, a variant of ‘fuck’ every three—diminishes the usual gap between more highbrow novelists and the president … funny, but as with Hiaasen’s best work, it’s grounded in genuine outrage over the corruption that increasingly defines American political and cultural life. And it turns out there’s no better place to invoke that outrage than the wealthy swamps of Florida.”