A star is born! A literary star, that is. Yes, yesterday evening the Irish writer (and relative unknown on this side of the pond) Anna Burns beat out bookies’ favorites Daisy Johnson and Rachel Kushner to take home one of the literary world’s most prestigious awards: the Man Booker Prize. Milkman, which Christopher Tayler at the London Review of Books calls “extraordinary,” doesn’t come out here until December (with Graywolf Press), so you’ll have to make do with the UK and Ireland reviews until then.
Over at 4Columns, poet and essayist Hanif Abdurraqib writes of Kiese Laymon’s exploration of his relationship with his mother and the weight of familial love: “Heavy is many things, all of them searing, brilliant, and unflinching in honesty, no matter what heartbreaks or difficulties rest at the end of the road his honesty carves out.”
Critic, scholar, and The Personality Brokers author Merve Emre was far, far less enamored with Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel, Unsheltered. Her scathing Atlantic piece flayed not just the Trump-era tale of familial disintegration, but Kingsolver’s body of work in general: “[Kingsolver’s] novels specialize in self-congratulatory gestures of empathy: the clumsy representation of characters whom she finds obviously distasteful but wants to redeem, modeling the respect and understanding that she believes can open our hearts and minds and subdue our partisan acrimony.”
We also take a closer look at Hari Kunzru’s New York Times review of Haruki Murakami’s new novel, Killing Commendatore—which, despite some interesting flashes, is ultimately “a baggy monster, a disappointment from a writer who has made much better work”—and Princeton African American Studies professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr.’s Boston Globe review of what he calls “the definitive biography of Frederick Douglass”: David Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.
“…it’s clearly part of Burns’s project in Milkman to redescribe the Troubles without using such terms as ‘the Troubles’, ‘Britain’ and ‘Ireland’, ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’, ‘RUC’ and ‘British army’ and ‘IRA’. On the other, the narrator’s mad, first-principles language, with its abundance of phrases in inverted commas and sudden changes of register, is also used to describe the inner world of a young woman…It’s a brilliant rhetorical balancing act, and the narrator can be very funny … What’s extraordinary about all this, though easy to overlook on a first reading, at least until the final stretch, is the density and tightness of the plotting behind the narrator’s apparently rambling performance … What’s more, the comic unfolding of the plot runs counter to the narrator’s pinched sense of what can and can’t be said and done in her neighbourhood, and, after a chilling final encounter with the milkman, there’s a darkly happy ending … as a reader you feel you’ve earned the novel’s more optimistic resolution, and that Burns, with her wild sentences and her immense writerly discipline, has too.”
“Kiese Laymon’s memoir Heavy is many things, all of them searing, brilliant, and unflinching in honesty, no matter what heartbreaks or difficulties rest at the end of the road his honesty carves out. But underneath the personal lie wider concerns. In addition to everything it is asking a reader to wrestle with about Laymon’s family, body image, grief, fear, and joy, Heavy makes us question what is and isn’t working about the human concepts of love and hate. How both of those emotions are nothing unless they lean into each other. And how the two function in our current sociopolitical climate, which has forced those on either side of a binary divide to cling to their leaders and figureheads with a type of unconditional devotion, or to cast away (typically via social media) a once-admired person with a similar ferocity … We are in a time of hollow platitudes, scratched on white posterboards. Things such as ‘Love Wins’ pepper the sky during protests, but few ask when love alone has won anything that has felt like prolonged justice. What resonates most sharply in Heavy is how Laymon’s love does not resolve itself.”
“This is the American-family novel as Sunday-morning talk show—a character drama with no real characters, only sound bites masquerading as human beings … The novel seems to know that we exist in a state of desperate inequality and looming environmental catastrophe from which there is no obvious escape. Yet, also like a Sunday-morning talk show, Unsheltered is so busy flaunting its timeliness that it misses the underlying political and economic strains that have brought the country to this pass … [Kingsolver’s] novels specialize in self-congratulatory gestures of empathy: the clumsy representation of characters whom she finds obviously distasteful but wants to redeem, modeling the respect and understanding that she believes can open our hearts and minds and subdue our partisan acrimony. The result is not a bad novel—it is perfectly competent at the level of the sentence—but a novel that fails so dramatically to capture the corrosive realities of liberal capitalism that it just might deflate, once and for all, the middlebrow fantasy that stories can help us get through these dark times.”
“Murakami’s low-key cool owes much to his love of American jazz, and his playfulness and absurdism often bring to mind Vonnegut and Brautigan, who were popular among his generation of countercultural Japanese. Japanese audiences have bought millions of his books, despite critics grumbling about his Western touchstones, an attitude exemplified by Kenzaburo Oe’s sniffy remark that Murakami’s writing ‘isn’t really Japanese…It could be read very naturally in New York.’ This is true only up to a point…Though Killing Commendatore does not address authenticity in specifically national-cultural terms, the novel is preoccupied with the possibility of making art infused with depth or spirit … As historical secrets and hauntings begin to pile on top of one another, one has the sense of a writer throwing a lot of ideas against a wall in the hope that something will stick. The plot is full of melodramatic bustle, but its wheels spin without gaining much traction. This is partly a result of Murakami’s customary detachment. Faced with the supernatural, Murakami man experiences no Lovecraftian challenge to the foundations of his sanity, no creeping sense of dread. Instead he reacts with mild concern and head-scratching curiosity … Killing Commendatore is a baggy monster, a disappointment from a writer who has made much better work. As the narrator says, awkwardly, about one of his minor supernatural experiences: ‘That might have just been a piece of a fragmentary dream.'”
“David Blight has written the definitive biography of Frederick Douglass. With extraordinary detail he illuminates the complexities of Douglass’s life and career and paints a powerful portrait of one of the most important American voices of the 19th century. One would expect nothing less. Blight, considered a leading authority on the slavery period, has been thinking about Douglass for over 35 years. The Yale historian wrote his dissertation on him. And now with unprecedented access to a trove of material gathered by African-American art collector Walter O. Evans, Blight sheds light on the final 30 years of Douglass’s life in ways we have never seen. The resulting chronicle enriches our understanding of Douglass and the challenges he faced and offers a lesson for our own troubled times. What surfaces is a powerful and flawed human being … reading Blight’s magisterial book against the backdrop of Trumpism makes the example of Douglass all the more extraordinary. ‘Make America Great Again’ sounds like the clarion call of those apostles of forgetfulness. It is a slogan embraced by modern-day Copperheads. But Douglass warned that ‘it is not well to forget the past.’ His story, in Blight’s careful hands, was a dress rehearsal for our own times. Our present course of action, Douglass might say, must be shaped by ‘a history braced by a tragic sensibility’ and be one that doesn’t shy away from who we actually are and the horrible things we have done. Otherwise, as we are now painfully aware, the ugliness overwhelms.”