MixedThe New YorkerIf you had twenty dollars and a few hours to spare during the fall of 1970, you could learn about \'The Art of Womanhood\' from Mrs. Beatrice Sparks. A Mormon housewife, Sparks was the author of a book called \'Key to Happiness,\' which offered advice on grooming, comportment, voice, and self-discipline for high-school and college-aged girls; her seminar dispensed that same advice on Wednesdays on the campus of Brigham Young University, a school from which she’d later claim to have earned a doctorate, sometimes in psychiatry, other times in psychology or human behavior...Such an understanding seems to have been elusive for Sparks, who was then calling herself a lecturer, although she would soon enough identify as a therapist and occasionally as a counsellor or a social worker or even an adolescent psychologist, substituting the University of Utah or the University of California, Los Angeles, for her alma mater, or declining to say where she had trained...Although her book on womanhood was a flop, she went on to sell millions of copies of another book, one that even today does not acknowledge her authorship, going into printing after printing without so much as a pseudonym for its author...\'Go Ask Alice,\' the supposedly real diary of a teen-age drug addict, was really the work of a straitlaced stay-at-home mom...Emerson unfortunately mimics some of Sparks’s tics, compulsively dating chapters and sections as if history itself were a diary, dramatizing scenes and what he calls \'inner monologues\' without clear editorial markers or consistent sourcing...Most unsettlingly, in the final, hurried chapters of \'Unmask Alice\' he insists that he has found the girl who inspired the diary, a teen-ager whom Sparks met while working as a counsellor at a Mormon summer camp—and then, for privacy reasons, declines to identify her...\'I know how that sounds, especially after three hundred pages explaining why truth is fiction, war is peace, there is no spoon, etc. If you choose to doubt, I won’t blame you,\' he writes, in a tone representative of the book over all, somehow simultaneously too serious and too unserious to be taken seriously.
RaveNew Yorker[Crews\'] novels...were flawed, but the memoir is flawless, one of the finest ever written by an American ... The memoir’s title alone merits a small eternity’s worth of consideration: A Childhood: The Biography of a Place ... The title’s colon balances two improbabilities: that the events in the book really did occur in a single person’s early life, and that those events, far from extraordinary for their time or setting, represent a common experience, shared by kin and community ... Even Crews’s nameless characters are as memorable as the main characters of some memoirs ... What Woolf wrote of Dickens is true of Crews: he has astonishing powers of characterization, and he sketches full figures with striking simplicity. Such individuals could seem like caricatures, except that they are seen as children see: with attention, curiosity, and awe ... The bleak dénouements in Crews’s fiction sometimes feel contrived, but the conclusion of A Childhood is one of the more heartbreaking banishments since the angel took up a flaming sword in Genesis ... The beauty of A Childhood: The Biography of a Place is that it animates nostalgia and then annihilates it. Crews never says that it was better then or he is better now, only that this is who he is and this is how it was.
RaveThe New YorkerLike Herakles, Carson gets away with everything in this strange and surprisingly timely book. A cross between a dramaturge’s dream journal and a madman’s diary ... A facsimile of Carson’s own personal playbook, H of H is a performance of thought, one that speaks not only to the heroic past but to the tragic present ... What Carson does again and again in her non-books is return us—jarringly, brazenly, delightfully—to that which predates the material culture of the book and which will persist if we ever move beyond it: the concentrated effort to externalize a mind and its thoughts ... Whatever \'H of H\' might mean—it isn’t clear—the book is really \'H of C,\' \'Herakles of Carson,\' a version that only this one bizarre and brilliant brain could produce ... Too often, modernizations like these can seem gimmicky—reflexive attempts to make old plays relevant to new audiences. But Carson’s work never reads that way. This is partly because, unusually, the flow of time in her writing feels bidirectional; it is not clear if old heroes are being swept into the present, if current readers are being swept into the past, or if all of us are simply aswirl in time together. But it is also because her work is unfailingly emotionally astute, the references, like those overalls, resonant rather than arbitrary.
Anna Della Subin
PositiveThe New YorkerWho can make a god is as fascinating a question as who can kill one, and Anna Della Subin tries to answer both in her new book ... Accidental Gods is not so much a chronology as an atlas of deification ... If Subin’s book consisted of nothing except...biographical sketches, Accidental Gods would still be fascinating ... Subin is a subtle thinker and a stylish writer, but her account overlooks precolonial history...and here and there is cluttered with bric-a-brac instead: an incomplete abecedarian poem of lesser gods, occasional lurches into the present tense and the first person, an orphaned appendix that clouds rather than clarifies an earlier chapter. The most trying of these is an interlude that she calls \'The Apotheosis of Nathaniel Tarn\'...whose story Subin relates credulously despite otherwise constructing her book around canny critiques of claims of this very nature from others ... What’s telling about this lapse is not that Subin validates her friend’s belief that he was deified; it is that doing so requires her to accept that at least some of the Tz’utujil Maya sincerely worshipped him as a rain god. And why shouldn’t they? This is the deep psychological mystery underlying the theological and political matters that animate Accidental Gods.
PositiveThe New YorkerThe historian Paulina Bren, in her new book, The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free (Simon & Schuster), chronicles the experiences of these women, and of some of the hundreds of thousands of others like them, who stayed in the hotel. More than a biography of a building, the book is an absorbing history of labor and women’s rights in one of the country’s largest cities, and also of the places that those women left behind to chase their dreams. In Bren’s telling, some of the same forces that brought them to Manhattan led to the end of the Barbizon as they knew it—and to the New York City that we know today ... Bren argues that what first attracted women to the hotel is what ultimately shut it down: freedom ... The Barbizon is full of fantastic detail, from Grace Kelly scandalizing other guests by dancing topless in the hallway to the litany of men who claimed to have sneaked past the front desk. But, apart from one stray remark, Bren ignores whatever countercultural narratives might have been recovered from the shadows and silences of the hotel’s institutional history.
PositiveThe New Yorker... [for]technologies that threaten human existence, the use of demons feels appropriate...their very identity suggests the workings of a mischievous or malevolent force. Perhaps no group of scientists better understood that than the men and women of the Manhattan Project...and Canales is fascinating on their ethical deliberations ... Chasing every mention of the word \'demon\' makes Canales’s census threaten to approach the millions and trillions counted in Reformation-era demonologies, but not every invocation of the word carries an analogous meaning ... Canales’s conclusion, though, does much to redeem her encyclopedic approach ... scientists, like novelists and philosophers, sometimes work best in speculative modes.
Janice P. Nimura
MixedThe New Yorker... is best on the fascinating and harrowing history of modern medicine ... [Nimura\'s] book hews closely to the structure of Elizabeth Blackwell’s autobiography—a questionable decision, since it means that, like Blackwell, she is slow to get into the actual practice of medicine and quick to leave it. The last forty years of the sisters’ lives are confined to Nimura’s final chapter, which is called \'Divergence,\' because it describes the period when their collaboration ended ... Nimura is not an apologist for the Blackwells. While she dutifully reports the facts of their lives, she never fully confronts their deepest contradictions: as women who sought their own advancement while opposing women’s rights, as doctors for whom the etiology of disease lay in moral degeneracy. The Blackwells may not have felt the need to explain their inconsistencies, but it is one of the tasks of a biographer to make her subjects intelligible. Instead, Nimura, who seems to regard complexity as its own virtue, remains circumspect about the discordances of their public lives and their private ones, too ... if Nimura is too frequently deferential toward her subjects, she is a close and delightful observer of their world. One of the strengths of her book is that it brims with hints of richer stories: the whole of the Blackwell clan and their spouses; the cohort of pioneering female doctors to which the Blackwells belonged; above all, the advancement of medicine beyond its days of \'horrid barbarism\' and the roles that women have played in that progress.
RaveThe New YorkerA new book by Michael Gorra, The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War, traces Faulkner’s literary depictions of the military conflict in the nineteenth century and his personal engagement with the racial conflict of the twentieth. The latter struggle, within the novelist himself, is the real war of Gorra’s subtitle. In The Saddest Words, Faulkner emerges as a character as tragic as any he invented: a writer who brilliantly portrayed the way that the South’s refusal to accept its defeat led to cultural decay, but a Southerner whose private letters and public statements were riddled with the very racism that his books so pointedly damned ... Gorra’s argument, however, depends on close readings of everything from individual sentences to symbols and characters and themes across the author’s novels, which collectively make the case that a racist person can be a radical writer. \'Faulkner the man shared many of the closed society’s opinions and values,\' Gorra writes. \'But when the novelist could inhabit a character—when he slipped inside another mind and put those opinions into a different voice—he was almost always able to stand outside them, to place and to judge them.\' ... In The Saddest Words, Gorra posits that Quentin represents Faulkner’s view of tragedy as recurrence. \'Again\' was the saddest word for the character and the author alike because it \'suggests that what was has simply gone on happening, a cycle of repetition that replays itself, forever.\' Both the real and the fictional Southerner were trapped in that cycle, aware that the fall of the Confederacy was right and just but unable to shed their sympathy for the antebellum South. \'What was is never over,\' Gorra writes, pointing out that the racism that ensnared Faulkner in the last century persists in this one ... Gorra argues that the racism and the failures in moral reasoning that characterized Faulkner’s life refract brilliantly in the work: \'They speak to us of a riven soul; of a battle in which the right side doesn’t always win.\' Rather than separating the artist from his art, Gorra suggests that the two are entwined; Faulkner’s racism informed his devastating portrayals of it.
MixedThe New YorkerPolitics change like the weather, and this era of falling atmospheric pressure is nicely captured in Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century ... In the early years of the Catholic Worker Movement, Day joked that she wrote down how much money came in and how much money went out but never reconciled the two columns—which is more or less how she lived her life. Unfortunately, it also more or less describes Loughery and Randolph’s biography: a comprehensive, chronological account that never arrives at a meaningful summation of the life it chronicles. It doesn’t go much beyond what has been written before[.]
Benjamin E. Park
PositiveThe New YorkerPark’s book is a compelling history, built from contemporaneous accounts and from the previously unreleased minutes of the Council of Fifty, a governing body of sorts that Smith convened in Nauvoo, Illinois, when he was feeling besieged by his enemies and anticipating the Second Coming of Christ ... Park’s access to these minutes is part of what makes Kingdom of Nauvoo so illuminating.
Kerri K. Greenidge
PositiveThe New Yorker[Trotter\'s] legacy presents a challenge to those who seek change today: is compromise a necessary evil of any social movement, or is it the original sin of collective action? ... One of the most satisfying accomplishments of Black Radical is the way that Greenidge situates Trotter’s biography in the broader story of liberal New England.
MixedThe New YorkerHow many biographers does it take to change a light bulb? Who knows, but it takes only one to change a narrative. Every decade or so, for a century now, a new book about Edison has appeared, promising to explain his genius or, more recently, to explain it away ... The delight of Edmund Morris’s Edison is that, instead of arguing with earlier writers or debating the terms of genius, it focusses on the phenomenological impact of Edison’s work. He tries to return readers to the technological revolutions of the past, to capture how magical this wizard’s work really felt. He reminds us that there was a time when a five-second kinetoscopic record of a man sneezing was just about the most astonishing thing anyone had ever seen; people watched it over and over again, like a nineteenth-century TikTok ... Even if you make your peace with [the] reverse narration—which, to be honest, I did, partly because Edison feels so much like a time traveller—Edison is still a frustrating book. It contains little new material, good prose but far too much of it, and no novel argument or fresh angle to motivate such an exhaustive return to an already storied life ... Every person is elusive in one way or another, sometimes even unto herself, but it is possible to confront those inner mysteries in a biography without resorting to fabrications or gimmicks. It’s a lesson Morris could have learned from Edison: sometimes, what’s called for isn’t invention but perfection.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewWall’s book is more satisfying as a novel of marriage than of religion. The horizontal relationships are far more realized than the vertical ones, and The Dearly Beloved is most compelling on romance, friendship and familial love ... some of the most stirring scenes in The Dearly Beloved are the ones that dramatize the love one spouse feels for another or that parents feel for their children ... Love as knowledge, love as presence: These human loves are beautifully brought to life in The Dearly Beloved, but they don’t come together as explications of holiness. Wall goes out of her way to build religion into the structure of her novel, but you don’t need to set a book in a garden to tell a story about the Fall, or have clergymen for characters to write about how God acts in the world. Many believers go to church to remember that the universe is wide and the moral universe is widening; it’s a pity when a novel goes there, but never leaves.
PanThe New Yorker\"Traister focusses on isolated episodes of anger among progressive women of various races, classes, and eras, while failing to adequately reckon with crucial differences among the circumstances that provoked their anger and the ways in which they chose to respond to it. But those aren’t superficial differences. They are critical distinctions that lead some angry women to be applauded while others are attacked, and that lead many rebellions to fail while only a few revolutions succeed ... This failure to parse politically inconvenient anger is, as Ogden Nash once put it, \'a notable feat / of one-way thinking on a two-way street.\'”
RaveThe New Yorker\"The [book\'s] result is both relentless and revelatory ... Chemaly deftly balances these statistics with grim stories to illustrate them, so that the cumulative effect of reading her book is not merely to legitimize women’s anger but to render it astonishing that we are not even angrier.\
RaveThe New RepublicMarilynne Robinson is one of the great religious novelists, not only of our age, but any age … Robinson is fearless: even where the plot is stormy, her prose is serene. Not even gorgeous is a strong enough word for what grandeur charges the pages of Lila … Lila is a love story, most obviously between Lila and Rev. Ames, who marry and have a child, but most powerfully between Lila and the Lord, who meet and separate, hide from and seek one another. The convert poses queries to God, and also God’s servant, and the shortage of answers draws her closer to both.