5 book reviews you need to read this week ‹ Literary Hub
Our basket of brilliant reviews this week includes Zadie Smith on Toni Morrison RecitativeRon Charles on Olga Tokarczuk Jacob’s BooksBill McKibben on Felix Salten The Original BambiEvan Kindley on Isaac Butler The methodand Yiyun Li on Jon McGregor Skinny Autumn Stand.
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“Much of the fascinating power of Recitative lies in this first definition of “particular to”: what characterizes. As readers, we urgently want to characterize the various features exhibited… [it contains] one of the most stunning paragraphs in all of Morrison’s work. His psychological subtlety. The mixture of projection, vicarious action, self-justification, sadistic pleasure and personal trauma that she identifies as a driving force within Twyla, and which, by extrapolation, she urges us to recognize in ourselves … Morrison wants us to be ashamed of the way we treat the helpless, even though we too feel helpless. And one of the ethical complexities of Recitative is the uncomfortable fact that even though Twyla and Roberta are fighting to assert their own identities – the fact that they are both “somebody” – they simultaneously cast others in the role of nothing… Morrison… could analyze the difference between the death of a determining category and the richness of a lived experience. And there are some clues in this story, I think. A few allusions to alternative ways of conceptualizing difference without erasing or codifying it… Morrison is the great master of American complexity, and Recitative, in my opinion, sits alongside ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’ and ‘The Lottery’ as a perfect, perfectly American tale, a tale that every American child should read.
–Zadie Smith on Toni Morrison Recitative (the new yorker)
“Jacob’s Books is finally available here in a wonderful English translation by Jennifer Croft, and it’s every bit as impressive as the Nobel Prize judges claimed when they praised Tokarczuk for showing the novel’s “supreme ability to represent an almost beyond human understanding”. By its scope and ambition, Jacob’s Books is beyond anything I have ever read. Even its voluminous subtitle is a witty expression of Tokarczuk’s irrepressible, omnivorous reach… The challenges here, for author and reader, are considerable. After all, Tokarczuk is not revising our understanding of Mozart or presenting a new vision of Catherine the Great. She searches a shadowy figure that is almost entirely unknown today… As intimidating as it may seem, Jacob’s Books is miraculously entertaining and always fascinating. No matter how hard he tried, Frank never mastered alchemy, but Tokarczuk certainly did. Its light irony, deliciously conveyed by Croft’s translation, permeates many sections… The quality that makes Jacob’s Books so striking is its remarkable form. Tokarczuk has constructed his story as a collage of legends, letters, diary entries, rumours, hagiographies, political attacks and historical documents… It is a story that becomes both more detailed and more mysterious… Captivating and irresistible.
–Ron Charles on Olga Tokarczuk Jacob’s Books (The Washington Post)
“The concentration of literary firepower in end of century Vienna has few equivalents in human history… It is wonderfully ironic that the cultural production of this medium which has finally reached the widest audience is a story of talking animals… Salten is an excellent naturalist. It describes how Bambi learns to listen and sense, capturing the hyper-vigilance that is the birthright of prey… It’s a pretty brutal meditation on existence, serving as something of a wild counterpart to the pets of ‘Orwell on the Farm. And it’s easy to imagine how this came to mind for a man who had succeeded but was nonetheless a Jew in a part of the global forest where that made survival a challenge. (Salten fled to Switzerland when the Nazis came to power.) There are, however, many trade-offs along the way: the love of mother and companion and the beauty of the place. This beauty must have been a balm in the 1920s, when Salten was writing – a balm against the turbulence of interwar Europe, where Bolshevism and Fascism threatened everything… It is true that the world staggered; we have found ways to survive, so far, the traumas that have surrounded Salten. But he at least had the consolation of seeing the natural world as a stable, static backdrop for the harsh dramas of the human world. A century later, we know that ‘He’ is always deep in the forest.
–Bill McKibben on Felix Salten The Original Bambi: The Story of a Life in the Forest (The New York Times book review)
“The rest of Stanislavski’s career will be spent clarifying this ‘something else’. He would go on to devise a set of theories and techniques which he called “The System”, which would, after being imported to the United States, evolve into “The Method” and completely transform American theater and cinema. In his research, Stanislavski introduced the idea that the great game is not a matter of personal charisma or divine inspiration but of intellectual rigor and critical intelligence. What kind of preparation is needed, he asked, to reach “a state of life in the very midst of an imagined life”? Stanislavski’s ultimate importance lies not so much in the specific answers he arrived at as in the fact that he thought the question could be answered. By his own lights, he has stumbled upon as many misconceptions as good ones in the course of his investigations; what is strange is that, more than a century later, no one seems to agree on which are which… Even if he lists the many faults and abuses of the method, Butler is respectful of history that it records, and does more than plead the cause of the method. salutary effect on 20th century acting. About his modern heritage, he is a bit more optimistic. Clearly, the ideas of Stanislavski and his successors have helped several generations of actors think about their craft and take it seriously; along the way, he helped inspire transcendent performances. But the “Method” mindset, as it has evolved since De Niro, has increasingly fetishized individual mastery in a way that is contrary to the collaborative spirit of the Moscow Art Theater. and group theatre.
–Evan Kindley on Isaac Butler The method: how the 20th century learned to act (The New Republic)
“To adjust to the sensitivity of McGregor’s words – every sentence, every clause, every punctuation mark (or lack thereof) – a reader must slow to near stillness, almost as if holding their breath and his finger to be touched by the beak of a hummingbird… We are, in these chapters, close to the conscience of the researchers, which creates a false hope: surely the novel will allow us to see them all return safe and sound and share this adventure with their families and friends… McGregor’s description of silence, both metaphorical and physical, makes the novel much more interesting than if it had provided a serial about a failed expedition to Antarctica. Many of us may not have direct experience of this continent, we know its often majestic archival images: the ocean, the sky, the ubiquitous ice, the penguins, the humans with special equipment gives access to the landscape. This place could give rise to a cliché—at a loss for words— as could tragedies of all kinds (and perhaps happiness of all kinds). But anyone who might be tempted to utter that phrase carelessly, as if it could convey something substantial, might reconsider after reading Skinny Autumn Stand. What does it mean for someone to be really at a loss for words? …McGregor’s carefully composed dialogue, filled with the repetition of so few words, had a strange effect on me: for several days my own inner dialogue was often composed of the same words, as if I too was discovering how they could radically expressing different emotions remains unreadable to the world.
–Yiyun Li on Jon McGregor Skinny Autumn Stand (The New York Book Review)