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5 Book Reviews to Read This Weeks

Our fist of furious reviews this week includes Ann Manov on Lauren Oyler’s No Judgement, Hilton Als on Cynthia Carr’s Candy Darling, Gene Seymour on Hanif Abdurraquib’s There’s Always This Year, David Klion on Alexander Ward’s The Internationalists, and Laura Miller on Lionel Shriver’s Mania.

Brought to you by Book Marks, Lit Hub’s home for book reviews.


Lauren Oyler_No Judgment: Essays Cover

“‘Literary critics do fulfill a very important role, but there seems to be a problem with much contemporary criticism,’ Simon Leys once wrote. ‘One has the feeling that these critics do not really like literature—they do not enjoy reading.’ This was a line my mind kept drifting to as I plodded through Lauren Oyler’s debut essay collection, No Judgment. The book was originally to be called Who Cares, and perhaps that title should have been retained. Who cares, really, about any of this? … No Judgment is already dated, even before its release …

It’s not that all of Oyler’s subjects are uninteresting..But Oyler is contemptuous of disagreement, quickly bores of research, and rigidly attempts to control the reader’s responses. As a result, the writing is cramped, brittle. Oyler clearly wishes to be a person who says brilliant things—the Renata Adler of looking at your phone a lot—but she lacks the curiosity that would permit her to do so … It turns out that No Judgment displays many of the flaws Oyler once so forcefully identified in others … Oyler doesn’t want to be a writer of personal essays; she wants to be an erudite critic of the old school. But again and again, she drifts toward personal recriminations and eschews any sustained discussion of literature …

Oyler claims she is well read, even a ‘snob,’ but great swaths of No Judgment rely on the thinnest of online research … Oyler conceives of her own claim to cultural elitism as a series of adolescent signifiers flung on with the pride of a Goth teenager donning her first Hot Topic belt … her writing indeed seems aimed at little more than scoring points against her rivals, real or imagined. The resulting collection reads like a juvenile burn book, totally uninterested in the world outside her group chat … The pieces in No Judgment are airless, involuted exercises in typing by a person who’s spent too much time thinking about petty infighting and too little time thinking about anything else.”

–Ann Manov on Lauren Oyler’s No Judgement (Bookforum)

Carr, Cynthia_Candy Darling: Dreamer, Icon, Superstar Cover

“Like Marilyn Monroe—another brilliantly constructed persona—Darling was a master at projecting energy in a two-dimensional medium, by which I don’t mean that Candy, who grew up in Massapequa Park, on Long Island, radiated physical joy, like Marilyn cavorting in the California surf. If anything, her energy was of a blondness turned inside out: no matter how much she smiled or gave come-hither looks, she was a melancholy urban creature, protected by a sense of irony that sometimes lit her from within or lit up the crummy hotel rooms and park benches where she posed … the point of Darling’s life—a point she insisted on with the few people she was close to—was that you can’t walk away from yourself, no matter how difficult it is to be who you are. ‘Always be yourself,’ Candy told a cousin, and it’s the story of how she became a self—or, more accurately, lived simultaneously in her real and her fantasy selves—that Carr tells in her book. Candy Darling is the first full-length biography of the trans star, and I can’t imagine a better or more honest writer for the task …

By honoring Darling’s disconnection from her birth name (what some trans people call their ‘dead name’), Carr not only meets Darling on her own terms but insists that we do, too. ‘The word ‘trans’ implies a journey,’ Carr writes, and the journey was a long and arduous one, driven and framed by romanticism and conviction.”

–Hilton Als on Cynthia Carr’s Candy Darling: Dreamer, Icon, Superstar (The New Yorker)

Hanif Abdurraqib_There's Always This Year: On Basketball and Ascension Cover

“This disclosure, one in a torrent of observations, ruminations, and reveries tightly woven into the book’s narrative, gives you some idea of Abdurraqib’s willingness to pile everything he’s able into his quasi-autobiographical, proto-philosophical inquiry into turn-of-the-twenty-first-century basketball, especially its prodigiously gifted Ohio-bred avatar for both triumph and tribulation, LeBron James.  In this testament to both a sport and a state, Abdurraqib leads with his own heart, one that’s been broken over time by loss of family, friends, even a home … an awesomely discursive mixtape of memoir, film criticism, tone poem, and sports punditry … It is more a portrait of Abdurraqib-the-artist as a young man, living his own tribulation-laden life through the last decade of the twentieth century and the first two of the twenty-first while taking in everything going on around him …

Paraphrasing that talented teenage goalkeeper Albert Camus, the intellect, if it’s worth anything in its own fields of play, watches itself as intently and as unsparingly as it watches others. Maybe that’s why Abdurraqib’s book makes its most breathtaking pivots when he probes the act of bearing witness … Maybe, a reader might wonder, it’s just gravity—a law guaranteeing that every ascension that comes with the fulfillment of a wish is followed by a fall to Earth, whether soft like a feather or hard like a building. Abdurraqib’s chronicle doesn’t directly say this. But as the seconds tick away in the fourth quarter of his riveting game, he accepts the pattern, the persistence of dreams continuing into their own ongoing cycle, the way Brian Wilson says he wanted to fade ‘God Only Knows’ with a loop of the chorus, ‘a sort of infinity spiral.’ And if you’re inclined to wonder, even at this late point in the action, why Abdurraqib thinks Brian Wilson has anything to do with basketball or everything else he’s been dealing with, then maybe you need to turn the play clock back to the first quarter and, this time, be prepared for the break.”

–Gene Seymour on Hanif Abdurraquib’s There’s Always This Year (Bookforum)

The Internationalists

“Anyone who writes about current events knows how cruel the gap between final edits and publication can be … the book’s resilient-comeback narrative has already been undermined by global events. This is in no sense Ward’s fault—unlike Sullivan, he bears no responsibility for the state of US policy in the Middle East or anywhere else—but it does cast the principal subjects of his book in a different light than he presumably wanted or expected. Written with what was clearly extensive access, The Internationalists reflects the weaknesses as well as the strengths of Biden’s foreign policy advisers. Team Biden members sees themselves as a group of sober-minded yet idealistic professionals who took office intending to end wars and to repair America’s ailing body politic at home and its damaged reputation abroad in the wake of Donald Trump.

Nevertheless, on their watch the United States has been drawn into a set of major new wars whose unintended consequences threaten to prematurely end the Biden presidency and transfer the reins of global power back to Trump. Like Ward, they had set out to tell an uplifting story about American global leadership, but at some point they lost the plot … The idea of ‘getting a win’ for the Biden administration is representative of a larger problem with how the A-Team views US foreign policy. Their decisions have real and often bloody consequences on the ground, but wins and losses are tallied in terms of the political consequences for Biden and the professional standing of his advisers. What these wins and losses might mean for the rest of the world is rarely remarked upon.”

–David Klion on Alexander Ward’s The Internationalists: The Fight to Restore American Foreign Policy After Trump (The Nation)

Lionel Shriver_Mania Cover

“The intimacy of domestic politics moderates Shriver’s polemical side, which, when given free rein—as during an infamous 2016 speech she gave on cultural appropriation while wearing a sombrero—usually turns out to be smug, crude and obtuse. In Shriver’s tiresome new novel, Mania, the balance is off … As parody goes, this is ham-fisted stuff. Ironically, Mania lacks the discernment required to make it work. Satire demands precision, and Shriver applies an ax to a job calling for a scalpel. Although Shriver has made writing unlikable protagonists into a sort of cottage industry, Pearson is something more, a preeningly self-righteous didact swathed in false modesty about her own supposedly mediocre brain. Like many of Shriver’s narrators, Pearson often speaks or narrates with the sort of affected, antiquated vocabulary of a stock character from a 1930s movie, the portly gentleman in a white three-piece suit, up to no good and puffing on a cigar, played by Sidney Greenstreet …

The most—really the only—intriguing aspect of the novel is the relationship between these two friends and Pearson’s growing realization that Emory lacks a moral center. Emory herself remains a cipher. Is she a sociopath? Or just an opportunist? If only she were the unlikable narrator to tell this story. That would constitute a stretch for Shriver, imagining the interiority of a character who’s not basically an avatar of herself. That would be a truly daring choice, and dare I say it, a smart one.”

–Laura Miller on Lionel Shriver’s Mania (The New York Times Book Review)

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