A richly empathetic portrait of four strivers in life and faith in old Baltimore.

MIRACULOUS MEDAL

A historical novel about a small group of characters living and working in mid-20th-century Baltimore.

The latest book from Koesters, a sequel to Union Square (2018), takes place in Baltimore and concentrates on a few days and four characters: young girls Marnie Signorelli and Alice Smaling, Catholic priest John Martin, and a poor parish worker named Jezriel “Jeb” Heath. Koesters follows each of them through the everyday events and vicissitudes of their lives over the course of Easter Week in 1964. Each of the book’s four long sections places the focus on a different character, taking readers into their inner worlds and, in the process, providing a composite and ultimately beguiling portrait of Baltimore 60 years ago—a Southern city characterized, in this book, by old-style Catholicism and lingering racism. The latter is handled with unflinching realism, as when Jeb, who’s Black, remembers hard-edged advice that he received from the men who taught him how to shine shoes regarding how to use the city’s streetcars: Give your fare to the driver without touching his hand, he’s told. “Then you go all the way to the back and sit down….If a white lady or white man have to come in the back, you get off the street car and walk the rest of the way you going.” Koesters follows her small cast of central characters through their involvement with both church and personal faith, from cerebral, compassionate Father John to impulsive young Marnie, who “knew what everything was, just about, but not always the best way to solve a problem,” her friend and neighbor Alice, and Jeb, who “was forty and looked sixty.” The latter’s internal drama is the most commanding strand in a work that, at its best, invites richly deserved comparison to that of Ernest J. Gaines.

A richly empathetic portrait of four strivers in life and faith in old Baltimore.

Pub Date: May 1, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-62720-253-4

Page Count: 246

Publisher: Apprentice House

Review Posted Online: Aug. 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2020

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Strangely stuffy and muted.

THE PERSONAL LIBRARIAN

The little-known story of the Black woman who supervised J. Pierpont Morgan’s storied library.

It's 1905, and financier J.P. Morgan is seeking a librarian for his burgeoning collection of rare books and classical and Renaissance artworks. Belle da Costa Greene, with her on-the-job training at Princeton University, seems the ideal candidate. But Belle has a secret: Born Belle Marion Greener, she is the daughter of Richard Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard, and she's passing as White. Her mother, Genevieve, daughter of a prominent African American family in Washington, D.C., decided on moving to New York to live as White to expand her family’s opportunities. Richard, an early civil rights advocate, was so dismayed by Genevieve’s decision that he left the family. As Belle thrives in her new position, the main source of suspense is whether her secret will be discovered. But the stakes are low—history discloses that the career-ending exposure she feared never came. There are close calls. J.P. is incensed with her but not because of her race: She considered buying a Matisse. Anne Morgan, J.P.’s disgruntled daughter, insinuates that Belle has “tropical roots,” but Belle is perfectly capable of leveraging Anne’s own secrets against her. Leverage is a talent of Belle’s, and her ruthless negotiating prowess—not to mention her fashion sense and flirtatious mien—wins her grudging admiration and a certain notoriety in the all-White and male world of curators and dealers. Though instructive about both the Morgan collection and racial injustice, the book is exposition-laden and its dialogue is stilted—the characters, particularly Belle, tend to declaim rather than discuss. The real Belle left scant records, so the authors must flesh out her personal life, particularly her affair with Renaissance expert Bernard Berenson and the sexual tension between Belle and Morgan. But Belle’s mask of competence and confidence, so ably depicted, distances readers from her internal clashes, just as her veneer must have deterred close inquiry in real life.

Strangely stuffy and muted.

Pub Date: June 29, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-10153-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Berkley

Review Posted Online: March 31, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2021

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A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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