There’s a bit of a kick to this week’s roundup, gentle reader, so you might want to pour yourself a glass of milk before tucking into the spicy bounty below.
We’re coming in HOT with Andrea Long Chu’s eloquent evisceration of Transparent creator Jill Soloway’s “incompetent, defensive, and astonishingly clueless” memoir She Wants It, in which Chu argues that Soloway “certainly makes it easy to believe the longstanding charge that she sees trans people as creative oil to be fracked.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and short story writer Viet Thanh Nguyen also pulls no punches in his New York Times review of Wesley Yang’s The Souls of Yellow Folk, calling out the essayist for ignoring his historical forebears and writing that the collection as a whole is “as lukewarm as the racial grievance [Yang] senses and feels.”
Need a break from all this heat? Perhaps you should cool down with Jordan Kisner’s fascinating Atlantic consideration of how the late, great Lucia Berlin infused her fiction with lived experience, “making ruined, radiant chimeras summoned from an unfrequented corner of 20th-century America.”
We also take a closer look at Jane Smiley’s Guardian review of the short stories of Thom Gunn (“one of the strangest writers of our times”), Margaret Ward’s Irish Times piece on Lindsey Hilsum’s biography of iconic war correspondent Marie Colvin (“rescues Colvin from the rubble of Bab Amr, and brings her tragically, and tenderly, to life”), and Nickolas Butler’s New York Times take on Leif Enger’s first novel in a decade (“a lush crowd-pleaser about meaning and second chances and magic”).
“As a lightweight behind-the-scenes look at a critically acclaimed television series, Jill Soloway’s new memoir She Wants It: Desire, Power, and Toppling the Patriarchy is just south of worth purchasing at the airport. As a book about desire, power, or toppling the patriarchy, it is incompetent, defensive, and astonishingly clueless … It is an unwitting portrait of a rich Los Angeles creative type with a child’s knack for exploiting the sympathies of others, a person whose deep fear of doing the wrong thing was regularly outmatched by an even deeper distaste for doing the right thing. The nicest thing that can be said of this oblivious, self-absorbed, unimportant book is that it proves, once and for all, that trans people are fully, regrettably human … In Soloway’s voice, one finds the worst of grandiose Seventies-era conceits about the transformative power of the avant-garde guiltlessly hitched to a yogic West Coast startup mindset that speaks in terms of ‘holding space’ and ‘heart-connection.’ It’s like if Peter Thiel were gay …Soloway certainly makes it easy to believe the longstanding charge that she sees trans people as creative oil to be fracked … But nothing is more cringeworthy than Soloway’s account of the #MeToo movement The only conclusion to be drawn from this very bad book, which puts the ‘self’ in ‘self-aware,’ is that Jill Soloway has an unstoppable, pathological urge to tell on herself. In fact, it’s all she’s ever done.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot since reading these two books about the question of the ruined woman, and about the female artist who spends her career examining her own abjection, because her fear that everyone will see her shame is less than her fear that no one can see her at all. Berlin seems to be one of these, and she is a master at capturing women in states of disintegration: those who are being damaged, physically or emotionally, by men; those who are immersed in scandal or disdained by society; and those who are intentionally self-destructing. Her oeuvre contains, among lots of other things, a profound record of what shame, trauma, and hanging on by your fingernails looked like on a particular woman—or a particular kind of woman—half a century ago. Does it matter where her material came from? Does it disrespect the writer to consider the question? Or is it a failure to consider this work without probing its apparent function as witness to the pieces of a real life that could be acknowledged no other way? … Much of the world that Berlin describes is harrowing for women, and yet her stories—even more than the fragments in Welcome Home—cheerfully refuse to erase either the women or the brutality that deranges them. Instead, she rips them up further and pastes them together again, making ruined, radiant chimeras summoned from an unfrequented corner of 20th-century America. The stories should feel like period pieces, but they’re strangely familiar.”
“This Asian-American legacy in politics and art is invisible to Yang, who does not even mention Frank Chin, the writer who most forcefully dealt with the agonies of Asian-American manhood. Chin, who connected racial emasculation to the treatment of Asian-Americans as objects of ‘racist love’ (as opposed to the ‘racist hate’ directed against African-Americans), argued that Asian-American writing had to be a form of fighting. Yang flails rather than fights, which suggests that there is something inadequate about the Asian-American legacy for him. He may not be alone. His neglect of historical forebears and his almost exclusive focus on the personal is indicative of a generational shift in Asian-American thinking; revolution is not very fashionable today. Yang’s politics are instead concerned with ‘the peculiar burden of nonrecognition, of invisibility, that is a condition of being an Asian man in America.’ But divorced from the seemingly outdated idea of mass political mobilization, which registers only as a demeaned ‘identity politics’ for Yang, where does a politics of visibility and recognition lead us? He doesn’t say, except to point out how ‘Asian-American identity’ is ‘the most lukewarm of all personal conundrums … the racial grievance least likely to receive, or to deserve, any public recognition, the most readily treated with ironic ridicule.’ He’s right. But he fails either to consider what sort of defiant political struggle would force recognition or what an individual solution might look like. Yang thus leaves the reader stranded with him in his ambivalence about what it means, if anything, to be ‘yellow.’ His book, which calls out and to yellow folks but is only partially concerned with us, is as lukewarm as the racial grievance he senses and feels.”
“Here [Hilsum] marshals not just empathy for her subject, who was also a friend, but investigative and critical skills and damn fine storytelling … Colvin’s 300 journals, her articles and Hilsum’s interviews with friends, family and other witnesses draw us into the drama, and inside her head. Hilsum’s understanding of the background to each conflict, and the reality of life as a correspondent in the field, is one of the great strengths of the book … In chronicling this unravelling, the book does a wider service, portraying the price paid by many war correspondents, including Colvin, in alcoholism, PTSD and broken relationships. While her friendships lasted all her life, her love life, the second storyline here, was often chaotic and heartbreaking. Hilsum doesn’t hold back on the subject of the Sunday Times, and its branding of Colvin as a risk-taking adventurer … In Extremis rescues Marie Colvin from the rubble of Bab Amr, and brings her tragically, and tenderly, to life. Tamils, Timorese and Syrians mourned her loss. She had stood with them, and by them, when few others did.”
–Margaret Ward on Lindsey Hilsum’s In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin (The Irish Times)
“His mostly male characters…court risk, take toxic masculinity for granted and get into a lot of trouble. Sometimes they feel remorse; mostly they get into worse trouble … What keeps drawing me into Jones’s stories is the precision of his language. His mastery of 60s and 70s American idiom doesn’t date the pieces. Rather, it locates them. In some ways, he reminds me of one of my favourite writers, Damon Runyon, also known for his idiosyncratic style, though he was more comical than Jones. Jones knew that the short story has to present a bang rather than build up to it, as the novel does … Like Alice Munro, he was able to pour thoughts and feelings into a small mould and boil them down until they had the complexity of a novel but much more sharpness … Jones believably explores what it feels like to be afflicted with strange or terminal conditions, as well as with anger and rage. These stories put you off, draw you in, show you states of mind that you may never have experienced. They are intensely lively and down to earth; adventurous, often harsh but subtly self-effacing; both a generational portrait and a self-portrait of one of the strangest writers of our times.”
“What a wondrous miracle, to wake up, memory muddled, slightly unmoored, with just the task of relearning yourself, your friends, your hometown nestled along the ruggedly beautiful shores of Lake Superior. Everything that once was rundown and rusted suddenly seems new and exotic, buffed to a striking shine. Such is the plight of Virgil Wander, who gives Leif Enger’s new novel its name and is one of the most engaging protagonists I’ve encountered in years … The world of fiction has always rewarded the obsession, the fetish, and Virgil Wander is jam-packed with such eccentricities—baseball, surfing, beachcombing, fishing, classic films, taxidermy, Jeep Wagoneers. Reading the novel is like walking into your beloved uncle’s bachelor pad: Every page is packed with curios and brimming with delightful nostalgia … Every narrative thread is infused with the magical. Greenstone is a place where phantoms lurk out on the big lake, where old men fly kites into the fangs of lightning and where there’s always an outside chance Bob Dylan might stroll onto the Main Street stage. Enger has endowed Minnesota’s North Shore with a luminousness reminiscent of Annie Proulx’s Newfoundland … Enger deserves to be mentioned alongside the likes of Richard Russo and Thomas McGuane. Virgil Wander is a lush crowd-pleaser about meaning and second chances and magic. And in these Trumpian times, isn’t that just the kind of book and protagonist we’re all searching for?”