A complex, richly detailed story, which reaches an unexpected conclusion that, among other things, is likely to make the...

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SONG OF SLAVES IN THE DESERT

An imaginative, multigenerational exploration of the world of Southern slavery in the closing days of the “peculiar institution.”

The Jews, famously, knew slavery in Egypt. Some of them knew what it was like to drive slaves, too, whence the premise of this latest novel by NPR commentator and writer Cheuse (To Catch the Lightning, 2008, etc.). Nathaniel Pereira, of Sephardic/Dutch descent and a proud New Yorker, is dreaming of his grand tour to the Continent when fate intervenes in the form of some necessary business, when his father dispatches him to the South to check on the family holdings in not cotton or tobacco but rice, “Southern rice to feed the belly of the northern nation.” Ominously but usefully, father then provides his young son with a pistol. The 1,000-acre piedmont plantation in question is big enough to hide all kinds of mystery, and there’s plenty to be had, not least because—well, let us say that bloodlines have become a bit confused over the generations. Nathaniel himself falls sway to the charms of an enchanting resident of the plantation, who, though enslaved, exercises plenty of influence over the place; but even that is not enough to ward off the inevitable antebellum decadence. Nathaniel is more thoughtful than most commercial travelers, quick to note ironies (as when Cheuse cleverly sets him to thinking of the problem of free will) and beset with existential questions suitable to a Hamlet: Is it moral to profit from slavery, even if from afar? Is blood thicker than water? Cheuse owes obvious debts to Herman Melville and his generation (“Call me Ishmael,” indeed), less obvious ones to the likes of Frederick Busch, William Styron and perhaps even Boccaccio; like all of them, he imagines whole, self-contained worlds, in this case the claustrophobic world of the plantation South and its whispers of miscegenation and incest—powerful stuff with which to pepper any story, particular in skillful hands such as these.

A complex, richly detailed story, which reaches an unexpected conclusion that, among other things, is likely to make the reader thirsty.

Pub Date: March 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-4022-4299-1

Page Count: 528

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Review Posted Online: April 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2011

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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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