We could have picked ten great reviews to spotlight this week, dear reader, such was the bounty of brilliant books journalism on offer over the past seven days. Alas, there can only be five, and so here are the cream of the critical crop.
First, to the New Republic, where Ryu Spaeth has written a beautiful, considered essay on Aleksandar Hemon’s My Parents: An Introduction / This Does Not Belong to You—companion nonfiction chronicles of his parents’ immigration from Sarajevo to Canada, and his memories of family, friends, and childhood in the Bosnian capital.
Over at the New York Times, Parul Sehgal takes aim at what she sees as the suspect motivations and methodology that have characterized Naomi Wolf’s “long, ludicrous career,” writing of Wolf’s controversy-plagued latest, Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love: “The mistakes matter because this book takes as one of its great subjects our duties as stewards of history, of the care and preservation of texts.”
Meanwhile, at The Atlantic, Hannah Giorgis reviewed Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly, Jim DeRogatis’ harrowing, tenacious work of investigative journalism. “Soulless implicitly challenges [the] characterization of Kelly as a despondent sufferer in need of nebulous, benevolent ‘help’ as opposed to accountability,” writes Giorgis. “The book is a devastating, thorough accounting of Kelly’s alleged abuses as systematized predation.”
We’ve also got beloved author and conservationist Terry Tempest Williams on Robert Macfarlane’s Underland (“You know a book has entered your bloodstream when the ground beneath your feet, once viewed as bedrock, suddenly becomes a roof to unknown worlds below”) and Scottish novelist William Boyd on James Holland’s definitive new history of D-Day, Normandy ’44 (“As an account of this mighty and vitally significant clash of armies on many battlefields Normandy ’44 stands as richly impressive, hard to surpass”).
“There are writers who specialize in variety, flitting from genre to genre and reinventing themselves with every book. Then there are those who worry the same subject over and over again, as if every novel, every story, is but a facet of a single, monumental concern. Aleksandar Hemon is the latter kind of writer, and his obsession is exile—a theme both as old as The Odyssey and as pressing as the migrant caravans wending their way northward to the United States … it is only in two new books of nonfiction—My Parents: An Introduction and This Does Not Belong to You—that he really comes to terms with the limits of individual agency, and the grim prospect that there may be no salvation for the exile after all … As a writer, Hemon is exact, unsentimental, cerebral. That is not to suggest that he is aloof or unfeeling. Quite the opposite: There is an ocean of pain underneath his prose, and his brainy stoicism is the raft that prevents him from drowning in it … This Does Not Belong to You represents a step forward in Hemon’s relationship with the written word. Or maybe it’s a step back. The confidence of his earlier work has now been checked by a pervasive doubt—about literature’s ability to create order and meaning, and to put a broken life back together…The Proustian faith in memory—that it binds us to the past, that it gives a sense of unity to our otherwise desultory lives—has been shaken.”
–Ryu Spaeth on Aleksandar Hemon’s My Parents: An Introduction / This Does Not Belong to You (The New Republic)
“Naomi Wolf’s long, ludicrous career has followed a simple formula. She audits herself for some speck of dissatisfaction, arrives at an epiphany—one that might contravene any number of natural laws—and then extrapolates a set of rules and recommendations for all women … Always the books are lit by a strange messianic energy, shored up by dubious data … What Wolf regarded as evidence [in Outrages] of executions—the notation of ‘death recorded’ on court records—indicated, in fact, the opposite, that the judge had recommended a pardon from the death sentence … The mistakes matter because this book takes as one of its great subjects our duties as stewards of history, of the care and preservation of texts … They matter because although there are stretches of the book that I enjoyed—there is a hint of A. S. Byatt’s Possession as Wolf plays literary detective in the archives, puzzling over Symonds’s codes and concealments—I don’t trust it. My woman’s brain…can’t quite overlook Wolf’s distinguished career of playing loose with facts and the historical record.”
–Parul Sehgal on Naomi Wolf’s Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love (The New York Times)
“The popular-serious historians…have a double duty: their accounts have to be vividly real but also historically responsible. Holland, in Normandy ’44, discharges this remit with superb energy … Holland sweeps us through the D-Day preparations, the invasion, the temporary stalemate on the beachheads and beyond to the eventual breakout, culminating in the so-called ‘corridor of death’ at the Falaise Gap (August 13–20) where the German 7.Armee and the 5.Panzerarmee met their grim nemesis. There are twenty-five excellent maps; his list of principal personalities, as if in a Russian novel, runs to over four pages. … Any brief analysis of an undertaking of this size cannot do justice to Holland’s impressive organization of facts, figures and details. His narrative style is fluent and pleasingly colloquial … At the same time every detail is scrupulously referenced … As an account of this mighty and vitally significant clash of armies on many battlefields Normandy ’44 stands as richly impressive, hard to surpass.”
–William Boyd on James Holland’s Normandy ’44: D-Day and the Epic 77-Day Battle for France (The Times Literary Supplement)
“Soulless is excruciatingly comprehensive … The veteran reporter recounts in vivid detail not only the depravity of Kelly’s alleged behavior, but also the insouciance—or worse, active support—with which his associates, fans, and legal gatekeepers handled him after it was revealed. Soulless implicitly challenges their characterization of Kelly as a despondent sufferer in need of nebulous, benevolent ‘help’ as opposed to accountability … Should he be convicted of the felonies, Kelly could face a maximum of 30 years in prison. Soulless was completed before these charges were made public, but even without their inclusion, the book is a devastating, thorough accounting of Kelly’s alleged abuses as systematized predation. In explicitly outlining the multiple junctures at which Kelly, his supporters, law enforcement, and journalists have failed the dozens of young black women whom Kelly is accused of abusing, DeRogatis definitively—if also wearily—conveys the sheer magnitude of Kelly’s relative impunity.”
“You know a book has entered your bloodstream when the ground beneath your feet, once viewed as bedrock, suddenly becomes a roof to unknown worlds below. The British writer Robert Macfarlane has written such a book. Underland: A Deep Time Journey is an epic exploration and examination of darkness and the caverns underground that have captured our imaginations, pulled us downward, housed our dead and allowed us to bury our most violent secrets. It is also a descent into the beauty where dark wisdom is located … Macfarlane’s writing is muscular, meticulously researched and lyrical, placing him in the lineage of Peter Matthiessen, Gretel Ehrlich and Barry Lopez. What distinguishes his work is his beginner’s mind, his lack of self-consciousness, his physical pursuit of unlearning what he has been taught by received information. He stands solidly inside a younger generation’s fierce sense of betrayal, having witnessed how ‘wealth levitates and poverty sinks’ … Underland is a book of dares. Macfarlane dares to go deep into earth’s unseen world and illuminate what we not only shy away from but what we don’t even know exists … Underland is a portal of light in dark times. I needed this book of beauty below to balance the pain we’re witnessing aboveground.”