5 book reviews you need to read this week ‹ Literary Hub

Our captivating cavalcade of reviews this week includes Christian Lorentzen on Christopher Hitchens A hitch in timeSigrid Nunez on Maria Gainza Portrait of an unknown ladyMolly Young on Liska Jacobs’ The pink hotelJason Guriel on JG Ballard The drowned worldMichael Ian Black on Isaac Fitzgerald Dirtbag Massachusetts.

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A Hitch in Time Christopher Hitchens

“A decade later, we inhabit a changed political and literary landscape. A generation of writers and readers grew up without any sense of Hitchens before his right turn and barn against divinity… Hitchens wasn’t so arrogant he ever thought he could bring down Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, Kissinger , or even God himself. Language was for him a zone of free and fair play brimming with irony and contradiction, the necessary conditions of a practice he never quite forgot was essentially dialectical…smuggling an aesthetic sensibility into its columns of Washington and a measure of politics in his fictional reviews. The two projects were united by a prose of conscious restlessness, and it was the prose – flowing, lively, effortlessly figurative, with a slapstick just short of bitchy, and in sentences oscillating between the formal and the vernacular with a high degree of sinuosity. – which kept us coming back and calling the editors… In Hitchens’ writing, there were always five characters at work: the cynic, the romantic, the ironist, the idealist and the materialist. It is the balance and the vectors of these elements that have changed over time…That he became a cop in the name of liberalism, at least in his mind, is one of the ironies of his life…he rated at better the generations that came just before him. It was when he began to think of himself as a member of the ruling class, a cop rather than a gadfly, that something was lost.

–Christian Lorentzen on Christopher Hitchens A hitch in time: Writings of the London book review (Harper’s)

Portrait of an unknown woman_Maria Gainza

“Does the reader feel cheated? Not this one. Portrait is a detective novel, but not of the traditional genre whose mystery begs to be solved. (Think Bolaño rather than Chandler.) Of course, not everyone will agree. I remember a picture, Woman back view, by the 19th century French photographer Onésipe Aguado de las Marismas. The head and shoulders of a woman. Pearls encircle her neck and her luxurious black hair is styled in an elaborate and ornate hairstyle. The fabric that drapes her shoulders is arranged to leave the one on the right partially bare. Seen from the back: beautiful, glamorous. Years ago, while lingering in the crowded gallery of the Metropolitan Museum where this work featured in an exhibition of photographic portraits, I heard two types of people: those who wanted to know what the woman looked like from the front and those who did not want it… In both Portrait and Optic nerve, which sound like companion pieces, Gainza has a lot to say about creative life, about art and ways of seeing, about perception and reality, authenticity and simulation, fidelity and betrayal. These are subjects she takes seriously and on which she writes with exceptional acuity and precision. But the overriding spirit of every novel is one of playfulness and humour… It can sometimes be more than a little disorienting, not knowing for sure what we are being told is true and what is false and which falls somewhere in between, but that’s fitting into a novel so preoccupied with misconceptions and duplicity.

– Sigrid Nunez on Maria Gainza Portrait of an unknown lady (The New York Book Review)

The Liska Jacobs Pink Hotel

“A strange element of human behavior is that much of what we call ‘holidays’ involves endlessly tinkering with our body temperature…The joy of playtime cannot be reduced to the fact that it switching between hot and cold is really fun, but signature vacation moments often involve just that: snuggling up to a campfire on a chilly night, diving into a freezing lake on a sweltering afternoon, returning from the snow to warm up with cocoa… monologue before moving on to the next. Doing it with clarity is a technical feat, but it presents a narrative conundrum. If the reader is aware of each character’s intentions at all times, opportunities for uncertainty or deception – for suspense and revelation – are scarce… What the book lacks is a revealing new target. Vulgar materialism, climate change denial, status anxiety and the solipsism rich people are all implicitly denounced, as is misogyny… As the story progresses, we expect the couple to come up against their delusions in a big balance sheet. Eventually they do, but Jacobs hasn’t given them the depth to win our sympathy.

–Molly Young on Liska Jacobs The pink hotel (The New York Times)

The drowned world

The drowned world turned 60 this year. This helped launch not only Ballard’s career in 1962, but also a modern subgenre of climate catastrophe science fiction (later called “cli-fi”) that is now almost as prevalent as carbon… But The drowned world, one of Ballard’s first climate novels, is not concerned with awakening the conscience of its readers or sounding the alarm about humanity’s recklessness. In the novel, it was solar storms, not fossil fuels, that warmed Earth’s atmosphere, dissolved glaciers, and moved large amounts of silt. Europe and North America have become sweltering, half-submerged jungles, and the remnants of our species – around five million people – have retreated to the polar ice caps. The subtropical Arctic Circle now comes in at a balmy 85 degrees Fahrenheit… there’s no such moralizing in Ballard; his approach is as cool as a pair of stirrups. Asked by an interviewer if there was a “moral purpose” to his work, Ballard replied, “I’m not sure. I see myself more as a kind of investigator, a scout who is sent ahead to see if the water is drinkable or not’… We read The drowned world with dread then, more and more, fascination: difficult not to find the contemporary ruins and the irradiated jungles of Ballard attractive. Ballard suggested that the sight of the annual floods in Shanghai might have inspired the novel’s landscape. During the Second World War, he spent part of his childhood in an internment camp in Shanghai… Primordial memories seem to have propelled the author as well as his characters. Ballard, who died in 2009, is less of a prophet than, as Hitchens came to call him, “our great disaster expert.” Like Kerans, “a second Adam” in the last times of the book, The drowned world stands uncomfortably near the beginning of a line. It won’t force you to reduce your carbon emissions, but it will inspire you to read. Come in, said the catastrophist. The water is good.

–Jason Guriel on JG Ballard The drowned world (Airmail)

Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional_Isaac Fitzgerald

“Fitzgerald sits comfortably on a bar stool next to writers like Kerouac, Bukowski, Richard Price and Pete Hamill. Dirtbag, MA is a book by and for tough but soft-hearted men like these, and for those who take voyeuristic delight in their ne’er-do-well ways… He writes about the bar with an affection that surpasses all he has for his former lovers, most of whom remain unnamed in the book…apart from his mother and a porn producer and actress named Princess Donna, women are barely mentioned in Dirtbag, MA; the action is almost entirely centered on the doings and gestures of the men. This is not necessarily a criticism. The charm of the book lies in its account of the misbehavior of men and, sometimes, of the things that we men achieve. Fights almost all come with forgiveness. It’s about how men struggle to understand each other and the romance that men too often find at the bottom of a bottle of whiskey. If you’re looking for a book about what’s wrong and what’s right about American men, you could do a lot worse than Dirtbag, MA … There is a lot of sin in Fitzgerald’s confessional, though none of it is mortal. Instead, it’s an endearing, tattered catalog of one man’s transgressions and how it’s our sins, far more than our virtues, that make us who we are.

–Michael Ian Black on Isaac Fitzgerald Dirtbag Massachusetts (The New York Times book review)

Angela C. Hale