Out of the hundreds of books published in the last year, only twenty were chosen as finalists for the National Book Award. Among them are beautiful works of poetry, thoughtful commentaries on race, and in-depth studies of historical events. The award aims "to celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of good writing in America." One award is given in each of the following categories: fiction, poetry, young adult fiction, and non fiction. No matter how great the nominees are, though, most people do not have the time or the interest to read twenty great books in a year, so we have reviewed each of them to make it easier to pick the one (or two! or three!) that you'd like to read. Just because a book was chosen at the awards ceremony on Wednesday, November 19. Here are our reviews for the books nominated for this year's National Book Award:
WINNER: Redeployment, by Phil Klay
Redeployment, a book of short stories about the Iraq War, is the best kind of anti-war fiction. Instead of simply asserting that war is hell, Klay shows it — in wrenching, brutal, and even occasionally funny detail.
Klay himself served as a Marine in Iraq, and many of the protagonists in the stories are the same. Each story is designed, in a different way, to bring out the experience of Americans who fought on the conflict. Oftentimes, this means descriptions of actual combat and its aftermath. But the stories frequently take place in the United States, grappling with the yawning gap between life in a war zone and "normal" life back home.
Some chapter are absolutely bonechilling. The title story’s opening paragraph, about the organized slaughter of dogs, is absolutely unforgettable. Ditto a chapter about a military chaplain’s attempt to bring war crimes to light — and the command structure’s total, complete dismissal of his efforts. But the tone varies. The most fun, and arguably best, story in the book is a Catch-22 style tale told from the point-of-view of a State Department officer in Iraq. Among the officer’s many absurd challengers are the mandate, handed down by a politically connected donor named Gene, to make Iraqi children play baseball. "Look at the Japanese," Gene writes to the officer. "They went from Emperor-loving fascists to baseball playing democracy freaks faster than you can say ‘Sayonara, Hirohito!’"
Klay’s Marines are vulgar, brutal, and violent men. They’re also funny, compassionate, and surprisingly sensitive. Redeployment’s focus on the war’s effect on their souls, and its refusal to romanticize either military service or civilian America, makes the book quietly anti-war. It’s not explicitly intending to convince you that the war was an awful idea, but the stark depiction of its consequences is emotionally devastating without being didactic. This paragraph, perhaps more than any other, captures the painfully mixed feelings Klay is trying to document:
"I see mostly normal men, trying to do good, beaten down by horror, by their inability to quell their own rages, by their masculine posturing and their so-called hardness, their desire to be tougher, and therefore crueler, than their circumstance. And yet, I have this sense that this place is holier than back home. Gluttonous, fat, oversexed, overconsuming, materialist home, where we’re too lazy to see our own faults. At least here, Rodriguez has the decency to worry about hell."
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
A blind French girl marooned in the walled city of Saint-Malo in the waning days of World War II. A young German soldier whose internal moral compass is struggling under the dictates of Nazism. A shell-shocked relative who hasn’t been outside in years. Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See sounds too precious by half, but the brisk plot and lyrical prose manage to uplift it past cliché.
The characters in All the Light We Cannot See sometimes feel more like symbols than real people. Doerr has pulled off the rare feat of creating a Nazi soldier whose inner life is more plausible than that of a heroic young woman in the French Resistance. But if All the Light We Cannot See is a parable, it’s not the ode to wartime courage or familial love that you might expect. Instead, it’s a love letter to the power of science: its ability to surprise, inspire wonder, connect the world, and bring out the best in people.
Lila, by Marilynne Robinson
Lila is Marilynne Robinson’s third novel set in Gilead, Iowa — the kind of town, writes Robinson, "where dogs sleep in the road." Together, writes Ron Charles at the Washington Post, these "three exquisite books constitute a trilogy on spiritual redemption unlike anything else in American literature."
Robinson’s newest novel is about Lila, a young woman who, after being stolen away from her violent parents at a young age, finds herself a new friend in the Reverend John Ames, a character Robinson’s readers met in 2004’s Gilead. Ames is an older man, and an unlikely romantic partner for the much younger, naïve Lila. And yet, under the guidance of Robinson’s pen, the coupling is, if not a match made in Heaven, at least a match made in Gilead. Though the characters couldn’t be more different — which comes out masterfully in the different ways the two approach theological questions — Lila and Rev. Ames come to love each other. Robinson’s narrative flashes back and forth between Lila’s present day and her troubled childhood, which certainly adds a beautiful dimension to the character’s hesitations about love. Like Robinson’s other writing, Lila is a narrative that grounds the surprise of grace in dusty, three-dimensional characters most in need of it.
— Brandon Ambrosino
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
Very early in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, the author brilliantly conveys just how different her novel is from what it seems to be. The book launches with the death of a middle-aged actor on stage, while playing King Lear. A paramedic in training rushes on stage to try to save his life. One of the young child actresses in the play watches in terror as the life seeps from him. But his death is unavoidable. The girl is spirited away. The paramedic goes for a walk in the snow.
If it seems like this will be another tale of the preciousness of life and the importance of small things, it is. But not in the way you’re expecting. At the conclusion of the very next chapter, Mandel dispatches with a small collection of minor characters by noting that the last of them to be alive will die in just a handful of weeks on the road out of the city. Yes, Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic novel. It’s also not one. And as the novel’s elegant, beautiful design unfurls, its consideration of what is not just precious but meaningful about life becomes all the more poignant.
Roughly speaking, the book follows three timelines. It sends the paramedic forward into the present, as the Georgia Flu descends over the world, while he locks himself in an apartment with his brother. It jumps ahead 20 years to consider the life of the girl — now grown — wandering what is left of the communities around Lake Michigan with a traveling symphony/theatrical troupe. And it slides backward in time to consider the life of the actor, his best friend, and his first wife. Mandel, thus, bumps pre-apocalypse right alongside post-apocalypse, juxtaposing the alien familiarity of a Los Angeles dinner party with the familiar alienness of the world post-fall.
It makes for a beautiful book, one that is richly evocative of a world seemingly always on the cusp of some new, terrible beginning, and Mandel’s prose does justice to her ideas. Hardcore post-apocalyptic literature fans may grouse that there’s nothing new here, but that’s sort of the point. Mandel is less interested in how humanity ends (the flu seems almost an afterthought) and more about how humanity endures even in the face of this terrible death. There are places where the book’s design can seem too neat, the pieces fitting together a little too coincidentally, but even there, Mandel seems to be arguing that only art can help us make sense of the senseless, that only it is what will keep us from the brink.
An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine
The mind of a 72-year-old Lebanese recluse — the main setting of Rabih Alameddine’s new novel — can be a surprisingly action-packed and fascinating place.
An Unnecessary Woman traces a few days in the life of Aliya, a widow who keeps mostly to the apartment she’s inhabited for years. This is the place where she survived various wars and strife, and where she’s spent decades as a translator, a copy of each of her 37 completed works packed into copious boxes. Aliya eavesdrops on her gossipy neighbors, who meet daily for coffee, but demurs at their requests that she join in.
Aliya’s head rumbles with literary references and characters from the books she’s spent her life understanding, bringing their stories into a new language. And the most compelling narratives in an Unnecessary Woman are the stories that Aliya recounts from her past. This particularly true of the story of her closest friend Hannah, which the book reveals slowly and in pieces. To read An Unnecessary Woman, you have to be willing to deal with a distracted narrator; Aliya will move quickly from the story of Anna Karenina to one about her elderly mother, back to musings on her neighbors. This can make it a difficult book to warm up to. But about halfway through, the stories become so engrossing that the book becomes impossible to put down, as you get caught up in Aliya’s world.
Faithful and Virtuous Night, by Louise Glück
Louise Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night brings forth the bewildering uncertainty that one may feel when contemplating the value and truthfulness behind the ideas of fate and destiny. It draws on a mixture of poetry and prose to provide a pronounced rhythm to the work that further underlines the imagery of internal waywardness.
Throughout, Glück’s words are restrained in a way that is provocative but also prohibitive enough that the reader may be left wanting more. Yet, this restraint is purposeful — the structure of Faithful and Virtuous Night in and of itself encompasses feelings of emptiness and loss. Yet, despite any feelings of confusion this might prompt, it’s difficult to not feel a sense of awe in contemplating the mortality of characters both off and on the pages. Faithful and Virtuous Night is most certainly a deeply personal work, and it’s something that anyone who appreciates poetry should experience.
Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine
It can be hard to articulate the daily racial aggressions black Americans experience, to accurately relay the feelings that come with each disappointing, demoralizing encounter at the checkout line or in a restaurant or during innocent conversations with friends.
But Claudia Rankine, in Citizen: An American Lyric, manages to bundle it all in a tidy package of poems, essays, and vignettes. In taut, spare language, she details moments that many African Americans have experienced, like being mistaken for the only other black person at work, the awkwardness of a white friend making an unspeakable racial blunder, or having a neighbor call the police on a black friend in your yard because he looked "suspicious." She does this in the second person, which has the effect of putting readers in the shoes of the person experiencing these painful moments.
These vignettes, devastating in their simplicity and brevity, are really the backbone of Rankine’s work here. But the book’s most memorable moment is an essay about tennis star Serena Williams, describing the overt and subtle racism she has endured over the course of her career and exposing the ridiculousness of journalists and fans that want her to exhibit super-human patience in the face of it all. By the end, I was exhausted and frustrated, but pleased that Williams’s dominance in her sport is a vindication of sorts. Rankine’s book serves that purpose, too.
Should you read this? Only if you care to think critically about how your daily words and actions might hurt anyone who is less privileged than you.
The Feel Trio, by Fred Moten
The Feel Trio is packed so full of emotion and struggle that after the last poem is read and the back cover closed, the emotional hangover remains. Fred Moten’s poems are at their strongest when he uses complex sonic lines to create not just rich imagery, but also a pounding, powerful rhythm. This excerpt, for example, shows just how much Moten relies on his ear:
"we study partial folds in them alpine jukes, bent, bow-tongued stick/ and move and mahagonnic rupture in september, in alabama, throat/ sung to the kabaret’s general steppe and fade."
Moten fills his poetry with references to jazz and black history. At times, his words fling off the page. He writes with a violence, an anger, and an assaulting presence that grows to fill the stories of hurt and confusion he tells. Many of Moten’s poems tackle the concept of memory and how it affects us in the future. For a book as powerful and raw as The Feel Trio, that’s fitting. Moten’s work sticks in the brain, but the power of his voice reverberates in the sounds, the heartbreak, and the struggle of the world around us.
Second Childhood, by Fanny Howe
Reading Fanny Howe’s Second Childhood is, at times, a frustrating experience. The collection has its ups and downs, and Howe excels at some things (language) more than others (narrative). But the more you read Howe, the more you realize that she herself is aware of both her capabilities and her limitations — an awareness that serves this collection well.
Howe’s book takes its title from one of the longer pieces in the collection. Her longer poems aren’t as wonderful as her shorter ones, perhaps because they adopt a trying-to-make-sense-of-the-world posture lacking from some of her most poignant pieces. The opening poem, for example, is one of the strongest in the collection. It begins:
"Yellow goblins/ and a god I can swallow./ Eyes in the evergreens/ under ice./
Titled "For the Book," this poem accurately frames both the tone and content of Second Childhood. Howe’s writing, she announces up front, seeks to celebrate the whimsy of God — of the gods — as it’s discovered in the colors and shapes of everyday life. Some of these gods "are pots and pans and wax and marbles, balls and kettles, rope and puddles. They emit a crackling sound when lightning hits the ground, and give people shingles."
Howe is at her best when she’s conjuring up images: "Now the sun is like a yolk that broke into the corridor." It’s when she tries to over-harmonize the images through narrative exposition that the lines lilt. Again, she might be entirely aware of this limitation, which is a limitation of adulthood, not childhood. After all, it’s adults — "horrible grown-ups" — who need to make sense of everything, who, by being able to "name the properties in a drop of blood," can "prove there is no God." Children, on the other hand, are "able to see the stars." Be more like children, sings Howe. "Read the signs, not the authorities."
— Brandon Ambrosino
This Blue, by Maureen N. McLane
Maureen N. McLane is a master of extremes. Her poetry is fast, then slow. It’s meandering, then direct. It’s high-brow, then bar talk. The poems in This Blue, McLane’s most recent collection, vary in subject matter and tone, but they all have a magnificent turn — a spot where the artist takes whatever topic she has chosen, throws it into the air, and leaves you to wonder how the story ended up heading in such a different direction.
McLane uses the pauses between the lines of her poems to build momentum. This one, titled "Best Laid," has the metonymy of a great poet and the beat of the best lyricist:
won’t let up/
and a swim’s out—/
what you planned/
forget the calls,/
errands at the mall—/
as a clitoris."
Many of the poems talk of nature and the beauty of the outside world, but not in a way that is trite or contrived. She tackles wind, flowers, and the earth without it ever feeling like she is reaching for an analogy. The earth McLane describes is as beautiful, complicated, knowable, and unreachable, as each of her perfectly chiseled verses.
Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson
Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir steeped in lyricism. Part poetry, part free-verse, and full of soul, the book creates a world for its main character that is both incredibly relatable and undeniably beautiful. Just take this verse from early in the book as an example:
"I am born not long from the time/ or far from the place/ where/ my great, great grandparents/ worked the deep rich land/ unfree/ dawn till dusk/ unpaid/ drank cool water from scooped out gourds/ looked up and followed/ the sky's mirrored constellation/ to freedom"
Jacqueline Woodson is a seasoned writer. She has published 30 books, and won one National Book Award and three Newbery Honor Medals already. And she knows her audience. For a young adult reader, Brown Girl Dreaming could be an easy introduction to poetic verse, because it is so clear that the purpose of the line breaks is to cause the reader to pause for a brief moment and consider. For those unfamiliar with poetry and verse, Woodson’s writing is a great introduction.
But more importantly, Brown Girl Dreaming handles race and sex and growing up with a nuance and care rare in young adult fiction. This book could be an anthem for a generation of young girls: the next Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. The book is full of stories anyone can understand: sibling rivalries, grown-ups making mistakes, supportive friends, and unsupportive ones. Brown Girl Dreaming is more than beautiful poems, though it is certainly that. Brown Girl Dreaming is a book of poems that hurt, and scar, and stay.
Noggin, by John Corey Whaley
At 16, Travis Coates is dying of leukaemia. He chooses to have himself decapitated that he might take part in an experimental procedure that entails cryogenically storing his head in Denver until science can provide a way for doctors to re-attach his head to the corpse of a donor.
For most, being a teenager is the embodiment of confusion about one’s self-identity, paired with a seemingly endless amount of mortifying transitions. It’s difficult enough to feel comfortable with your own body without having your head removed from it and transplanted onto a brand new one five years later. But that’s just what happens to Travis.
Not only does Travis have to become accustomed to his new, taller, body, but he also has to acclimate himself to a familiar but completely unknown world. Being one of only two patients to successfully undergo the procedure, Travis is immediately endowed with celebrity status upon his revival. His friends have aged into young adults over the past 5 years. His best friend, who confided that he was homosexual before Travis underwent the procedure, is dating women. Travis’s former girlfriend, who promised she’d wait for him to be revived, is now engaged.
Author John Corey Whaley’s manner of encapsulating a balance of humour and cynicism is remarkable and entertaining, encompassing the experiences of being a teen. The prose flows in a way that allows for the easy reading of a young adult novel while inducing the provoking sense of curiosity brought by traditional science-fiction novels. Noggin is a quick but extremely enjoyable read.
The Port Chicago 50, by Steve Sheinkin
In 1944, an accidental explosion at Port Chicago, a California Navy base, killed 300 soldiers and injured 400, almost all of them African-American. The explosion should not have been a surprise, since the servicemen were ordered, by white officers, to load ammunition onto ships without any formal training. After the disaster, 50 servicemen refused to return to work. They were tried, convicted, and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
In this young adult novel, Sheinkin tells their stories with finesse and beauty, but he maintains a factual basis for every event. The story is told in chronological order from before the explosion through the convictions of the 15 rebellious but justified men, complete with footnotes and references. Sheinkin brutally details the institutionalized racism of 1940s America and depicts the underlying myth in the war-time story of national unity and harmony.
Sheiknin discovered the Port Chicago 50 story while meticulously researching his Newbery Award Winning book Bomb.Unlike Bomb, though, The Port Chicago 50 is a slower read. It is full of dialogue between characters that, while interesting and drawn from interviews with former servicemen, sometimes clouds the story that Sheinkin is trying to tell. Though Port Chicago 50 is an obviously reported and researched text, the line between fiction and nonfiction is muddied and lost in scenes. Despite this, Sheinkin is a master storyteller, and the book is as well-written as it is enlightening.
Revolution, by Deborah Wiles
Plenty of young adult books draw on the injustices of segregation and the promise of the Civil Rights movement for their subject matter: Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc. You can understand why: not only is the subject matter of obvious historic importance — it also has a moral clarity that is well suited to books for younger readers. Segregation was a national disgrace, and the people who fought against it are heroes.
What distinguishes Wiles’s book, about a white girl living in Mississippi during the 1964 Freedom Summer, is how rooted it is in the specifics of history. Interspersed throughout the story are images from the time: photos of Willie Mays hitting a home run and Freedom Summer volunteers holding hands and singing; quotes from Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee recruiting materials; excerpts from racist newspaper op-eds; scans of Ku Klux Klan posters. The message of these images is clear: this is not just a parable of good versus evil. The Freedom Summer really happened. The characters in this book may be fictional, but the world they live in and struggle against is real. This history-soaked approach is especially important now, as the 1960s recede further into the past, and it becomes easier to pretend that racism isn’t a real and insidious presence in our society.
Threatened, by Eliot Schrefer
Eliot Schrefer seemed to give chimpanzees a bad rap in his earlier novel, the also National Book Award-nominated Endangered. But Threatened more than makes up for it. Where Endangered centered on a young girl’s connection to a group of bonobos; Threatened focuses on a young boy’s life among a family of chimpanzees. Thus, it could be easy for the book to feel like a cover version of the earlier novel. Instead, it strikes out for its own territory.
The chief fear of a book about an endangered species with a title like Threatened is that it will be a dull slog through a series of well-meaning lectures about protecting the planet’s wildlife. And while that element is present in Threatened, what’s impressive is how well Schrefer blends it with a straightforward adventure narrative. His protagonist, the young boy Luc, heads into the jungle with a researcher he calls Prof, who wants to study the return of chimpanzees to formerly forested areas in Gabon. The two come upon a small trio of chimps who are being hunted by other chimps, to say nothing of poachers. And from there, Luc and Prof encounter all manner of dangers and adventures.
Schrefer has obviously done his research. His chimps feel like characters within the novel, without the author ever having to resort to anthropomorphizing them. They are definitely animals, while still being possible to empathize with. It’s the novel’s strongest trick, particularly in later sections, when Luc’s allegiance to them seems almost stronger than his allegiance to his own species. But Schrefer’s skills with characterization extend to his human beings as well. Both Luc and Prof are richly realized figures, while even the book’s human villain, an old man who effectively "owns" Luc until he repays a debt, feels more venal than pure evil. Schrefer sometimes struggles to pull his human characters into locations where they’ll be most effective (since, after all, the bulk of the book takes place deep in the jungle), but this is a minor quibble.
And it’s the chimps who make this novel sing. From young male Drummer to his baby sister Mango, all the way down to two chimps Luc dubs "Good Mother" and "Bad Mother," the book slowly insinuates readers into the world of these primate cousins of ours, and only reminds us of how much danger they’re perpetually in from our very existence in its waning moments. It’s a novel deeply concerned with both the environment and the rights of apes, but it never once tips its hat so much that it becomes preachy. And even if that sounds like something you wouldn’t read, Threatened boasts something even better: a propulsive plot that only rarely stops to catch its breath.
China is impossibly vast. Inescapable, yet seemingly incomprehensible. Evan Osnos, who reported on China for The New Yorker for years, seeks in this book to bring it down to human scale by weaving together chronicles of the lives of individual Chinese people he got to know during his time there. Readable and about as comprehensive as could be plausible, Age of Ambition is an impressive, non-specialist introduction to what’s probably the most important story of our time — the unleashing of human potential associated with Chinese economic reforms and economic growth.
Osnos gives readers many slices of life, but does not attempt a representative sample. Disproportionate attention is focused on the kind of people a western journalist is likely to be interested in — the artist Ai Weiei, blind dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng — rather than ordinary people. But characters of diverse viewpoints, including ardent nationalists and aggressive proponents of the Chinese economic growth model are here. So, too, are many who’ve found riches or at least prosperity in the new order and have few aspirations beyond material comforts.
The China boom has given us many books, some of them excellent, but Osnos’s is unusually well-timed. If the data is to be believed, China’s epoch of hyper-growth is genuinely coming to an end. That leaves Osnos as a chronicler of a reasonably well-defined moment in time — a period in Chinese national life when it seemed that anything was possible, and when for many, it truly was. Whatever happens next, Osnos has given us an invaluable document of a very important era.
Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir, by Roz Chatz
New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast is an only child to a pair of Brooklyn natives who lived into their 90s. So when her parents' bodies and minds began to falter, she alone shouldered the responsibility of escorting them out of their lives. Chast chronicles this process with striking honesty and openness in this hand-drawn memoir.
When Chast frets about the cost to her inheritance of her parents' medical care, or admits to mixed feelings about an unexpected improvement in her mother's condition, Chast reminds us that the death of our parents — like having kids or getting married — is not simply an event that happens to us. It's more often a process, sometimes lengthy, in which we have to make choices and will make mistakes. And all the while, complicated relationships remain complicated, and tomorrow makes its mundane demands.
The book offers moving tributes to Chast’s quirky parents through a collage of small memories, but it may be most compelling as a would-be guide to the situation, raising practical questions like: when is it too dangerous to leave them alone? And what should I do with all their stuff? There are no right answers, but watching Chast stumble through the logistics of it all is surprisingly educational. The comics themselves aren't often funny, but they bring a merciful lightness to a topic that we might otherwise avoid for as long as possible, at our own peril.
The Meaning of Human Existence, by E.O. Wilson
Give one of the world’s most respected scientists 200 pages to muse about humankind’s most important questions, and you’ll get some fascinating, thought-provoking observations. You’ll also get some duller sections that could probably use a bit of editing.
Wilson, who started out as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the surprisingly interesting world of ant behavior, has since written several books on human behavior and evolution for popular audiences and won a pair of Pulitzers. At 85, The Meaning of Human Existence is a sort of valedictory speech. After decades of rigorous research, he’s sitting back and reflecting on what he says are our species’ biggest questions: where we came from (in terms of human evolution), what are we (in terms of our physical abilities and social behavior), and where we’re going (in terms of our unsustainable future on this planet).
The result is a mixed bag. Wilson is at his best when he’s using hard science to inform his speculation — when he’s discussing what intelligent life on other planets would probably look like, based on our knowledge of evolution, for instance. At other times, his vague meanderings through poorly-defined topics can feel a bit like an undergrad philosophy seminar where the students do most of the talking.
Still, this book will almost certainly make you think bigger than you get an excuse to otherwise. If you want to take a step back and assess the most important things we know about our species — and the things we still have to learn — it’s worth a read.
After 13 years, many Americans are fatigued by the war in Afghanistan. But No Good Men Among the Living, by journalist Anand Gopal, brings a fresh perspective to the conflict. Readers watch it unfold through the eyes of three Afghans: a Taliban commander, Mullah Cable; a strongman associated with Hamid Karzai, later the country’s US-backed president; and a village housewife, Heela. As the book’s subtitle promises, it shows the war "through Afghan eyes."
Gopal covered the war for the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor, and he writes like it. His prose is crisp, easy to read, and engaging; battle scenes and Afghan villages are described in vivid detail. And the use of the three main characters makes the complicated history and legacies of war and violence in Afghanistan easy to understand — which in turn makes it easier to grasp how things went so wrong for the United States.
The title is drawn from a proverb — "There are no good men among the living, and no bad ones among the dead" — that literally references the universal habit of not speaking ill of the deceased. But it perfectly fits the complicated characters, complicated country, and bungled war that Gopal describes.
Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, by John Lahr
John Lahr describes his new biography of iconic 20th-century playwright Tennessee Williams as a "critical biography." He also describes it as a longer version of a New Yorker profile — the magazine for which Lahr was a longtime drama critic. It’s more successful as the latter than the former.
Depending on how you look at it, Williams is either a very easy or a very hard subject for a biography. He turned his mother into the domineering Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie; he turned his guilt over his sister’s lobotomy into Suddenly, Last Summer. Sure, it’s all out in the open — at least Williams’s own perspective on it — but what’s there to say about the man that he didn’t already say about himself?
When Lahr tries to use the plays (and Williams’s personal writings) as a deeper expression of the playwright’s psyche, the results are mixed at best. Lahr has some sharp insights into less-known later plays, where Williams wasn’t drawing so literally on his past. But the earlier chapters can be so overwrought and Freudian that they’re difficult to take seriously.
At its best, Lahr’s book isn’t a biography of Williams alone, but his circle of friends, colleagues and hangers-on — the combination of fragile show-business egos and cutting wit is always fun to watch. Williams wasn’t a reliable narrator of his own life — neither were his friends. Only by putting their accounts side-by-side, and seeing their concerns grow as their friend slips into obscurity and psychological instability, does the reader start to get a sense of the truth.
Young Adult Fiction