5 book reviews you need to read this week ‹ Literary Hub
Our F5 tornado of terrific reviews this week includes AO Scott on Werner Herzog The twilight worldBrendan O’Connor on Jarrod Shanahan PrisonersAlex Pareene on Lily Geismer Left overImbolo Mbue on Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa His name is George Floydand Johanna Thomas-Corr on Fiona Snyckers Gap.
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“Beyond their country of origin, these men came to serve as illustrations for an informal dictionary of received ideas, accompanying the entries of fanatical loyalty, fight the last warand general ignorance. The guy who remains in the field long after the war is over is, in modern eyes, a comical and cautious figure, an avatar of patriotism taken to ridiculous extremes. We rarely stop to look for motives other than blind obedience, or to imagine what those years of phantom combat in the desert must have been like. By making Onoda the subject of his first novel – a slender chronicle rendered in effective and idiosyncratic English prose by poet and translator Michael Hofmann – Herzog refuses to treat it as a joke. He is visibly fascinated by the absurdity of this hero’s situation, and also determined to defend the dignity of a man who had no choice but to persevere in an impossible mission… As Herzog imagines , Onoda operates on a whole new level, his tactical acumen and delirious certainty infused with a pure warrior spirit. Rather than dramatize these ambushes and similar adventures, The twilight world emphasizes the existential dimensions of Onoda’s bizarre looping odyssey in a language that often shifts from concrete data of jungle sounds and smells to dizzying abstraction… Herzog is not interested in psychological or historical realism, nor ‘elsewhere to literal facts, but to ‘ecstatic truth,’ a quality that almost by definition defies classification, residing as it does in a vatic realm of images, experiences and feelings… its stardom, its ubiquity in pop culture, should not diminish power or domesticate the strangeness of his work, which amounts to a defense of individual idiosyncrasy – not just his own – in the face of standardization, groupthink and accommodating cultural practices in the worst sense of the word. The twilight world seems too flimsy, too elliptical to count as essential Herzog, but it sent me back to his films with a renewed appreciation for what they put into play and their importance.
“Since the onset of the Covid pandemic, New York prisons have become much more dangerous and miserable places…Shanahan’s Prisoners identifies Rikers Island as the black hole in the heart of the city, something like the “necessary opposite” of Times Square, summoned out of the muck and mud of the East River… Shanahan, who was arrested and detained on Rikers during the anti-police rebellion following the 2014 murder of Michael Brown recounts how the island, once imagined as a space for reform and rehabilitation, became “the domain of a violent guard force that demanded – and obtained – an almost unfettered recognition of their freedom to dispose of the city’s prisoners as they saw fit”…Abolitionists and other radicals opening this book might expect a history of prisoner rebellions and revolts , and those stories are present.But for Shanahan, the key antagonism in the city’s jails has actually been between guards and management. Prisoners is, indeed, a history of labor: a history of guards in New York prisons in general, and of Rikers in particular, fighting for autonomy in their workplaces – that is, for the right to deal with violence with impunity – against managers, politicians and judges seeking to impose their own ideas of how the city’s prison institutions should be run… it’s also a story of the changing nature of the State – in particular, the rise of the neoliberal prison state out of the ashes of the liberal welfare state… The current crisis in Rikers is not about slipping the mask and exposing the true oppressive essence of the state ; it is the result of an organized force taking control of a set of institutions that it could use to accumulate even more political capital and influence. Like cops, prison guards use violence to build power to use more violence. As a group of Black Panthers warned their fellow prisoners who wanted to negotiate the release of several guards taken hostage during a rebellion: “Listen brothers. . . we’ll follow the majority because we don’t want to fight you, but the pigs are going to fuck you up anyway.'”
“The ‘New Markets’ tour was meant to be a sales pitch for a poverty alleviation program. Historian Lily Geismer presents it instead as a tour of the wreckage of Bill Clinton’s presidency and a window into the blind ideology of his larger political movement. His new book, Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Address Inequalityshould make almost any center-left reader retroactively furious about the 1990s and the failure of its architects to foresee the 21st century they were creating… Left over asks that we judge these winners not on their political victories, but on whether their ideas actually worked in practice. Judgment is not kind… Left over should stimulate serious soul-searching among America’s center-left. It’s a book about well-meaning policies that don’t work, but also about the jaded indifference of policy makers to whether or not their policies worked, and whether they were “working” for the people concerned with politics or for ideas to work in a speech… The Clintonians were convinced of their altruism while conceiving and selling their plans with an undisguised wicked paternalism. And it seems they never decided whether (or came to an agreement on whether) their program was a genuine effort to solve America’s problems or a political exercise in gaining a political base.
–Alex Pareene on Lily Geismer Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Address Inequality (The New Republic)
“Samuels and Olorunnipa deserve all the praise for portraying Floyd as the complex character he was – what isn’t a human? Both writers are black men and could have easily watered down parts of the book that show Floyd’s many shortcomings and poor decision-making, but they resisted the urge. The result is an excellent, expert-researched biography, necessary and instructive reading for all, especially those who, like my fellow African immigrants in the 90s, once looked down on young inner-city black men…he is disconcerting that the authors are reluctant to expose more clearly the hypocrisy of governments and corporations and all sorts of institutions that immediately took the knee, vigorously condemned Chauvin and pledged allegiance to anti-racism, not because it was fair but because it suited them. The authors know this, and yet a good part of this book is devoted to the Chauvin trial and the theatricality of the aftermath of the killing, as if all the superficial changes in the world would prevent future tragedies of this nature… Perhaps I am transferring my disappointment with America on Samuels and Olorunnipa. I may be unfairly asking them to do more than testify. I imagine they would say, in their defense, that judging America for the death of George Floyd is an impossibility, and beyond the scope of this book. Fair enough, but deep down I know, many of us know, that even with Chauvin in prison, justice has not been fully served. The entities that created the conditions for Floyd’s death continue. They thrive. Their next victim is waiting for them… Maybe that’s why after reading this book, I only felt a deep exasperation.
–Imbolo Mbue on Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Fight for Racial Justice (Atlantic)
“Gap opens with an extremely special author’s note… Can you imagine if all authors framed their books in this way? “Anna Karenina will make bad choices in this book.” “Captain Ahab acts out a form of detrimental masculinity that disregards the feelings of the whale.” Such prescriptions may be more common in young adult fiction, where Snyckers made a name for himself, but his tone reminded me more of a Soviet collection of English writers my husband brought back from Russia, which features Wilde , Waugh and Wells with stern warnings about how a good communist is supposed to interpret them. Only: what about his insistence that this victim of gang rape is “solipsistic and selfish”? Is this some kind of postmodern joke? I do not know. Despite the fact that Gap is more marked than the M25, I’m still not quite sure what it’s trying to say. It claims to be a feminist response to Coetzee’s novel, but it confuses the issue by rewriting the story of Disgrace and its invention in several fundamental ways… The plot twist, when it happens, is not in itself ridiculous but the execution is, mainly because Snyckers is too caught up in its political message to explore the emotional implications . She seems to imagine that giving voice to a rape victim is like reducing all the other characters to crude antagonists.