A pleasure to read, especially for the scientifically inclined.

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THE ORGANS OF SENSE

Mix Umberto Eco and Thomas Pynchon, add dashes of Liu Cixin and Isaac Asimov, and you’ll approach this lively novel of early science.

Being an astronomer in the days before high-powered telescopes were developed was not an easy job, especially for the sightless but productive astronomer at the center of Sachs’ (Inherited Disorders, 2016) literate, quietly humorous historical novel. The astronomer in question, who, notes protagonist Gottfried Leibniz—yes, that Leibniz, polymathic philosopher and inventor of calculus—is “in fact entirely without eyes,” has predicted, to the very moment, that at noon on the last day of June 1666 a profound solar eclipse will plunge all Europe into temporary darkness. Given that no other astronomer has arrived at this forecast, Leibniz is intrigued, and off he goes to find the astronomer and gauge whether he is truly blind and truly not off his rocker: “So, if he is sane, and he has not detected me, then this is not a performance, and either he really sees, or he thinks he really sees.” Given that the year 1666 has been an ugly one of plague and war and anti-scientific purges, there’s plenty of reason not to want to see. The astronomer has much to say about such things, spinning intricate tales, some of them increasingly improbable. There’s a gentle goofiness at work in Sachs’ pages, as when he constructs a syllogism about the relative movements of thinkers and nonthinkers, concluding that “if you look very closely at a nonthinker and a true thinker you’ll notice that they’re actually standing still in completely different ways,” and when a prince reasons that in order to call a dog a dog, the thing has to love us, whereas “before that point we call it a wolf.” Yet there’s an elegant meditation at play, too, on how science is done, how political power can subvert it (in the astronomer’s case, in the form of onerous taxes), and how we know the world around us, all impeccably written.

A pleasure to read, especially for the scientifically inclined.

Pub Date: May 21, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-374-22737-1

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Feb. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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