A fine celebration of the many guises a short story can take while still doing its essential work.

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THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 2019

Latest installment of the long-running (since 1915, in fact) story anthology.

Helmed by a different editor each year (in 2018, it was Roxane Gay, and in 2017, Meg Wolitzer), the series now falls to fiction/memoir writer Doerr (All the Light We Cannot See, 2014, etc.) along with series editor Pitlor. A highlight is the opener, an assured work of post-apocalyptic fiction by young writer Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah that’s full of surprises for something in such a convention-governed genre: The apocalypse in question is rather vaguely environmental, and it makes Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go seem light and cheerful by contrast: “Jimmy was a shoelooker who cooked his head in a food zapper,” writes Adjei-Brenyah, each word carrying meaning in the mind of the 15-year-old narrator, who’s pretty clearly doomed. In Kathleen Alcott’s “Natural Light,” which follows, a young woman discovers a photograph of her mother in a “museum crowded with tourists.” Just what her mother is doing is something for the reader to wonder at, even as Alcott calmly goes on to reveal the fact that the mother is five years dead and the narrator lonely in the wake of a collapsed marriage, suggesting along the way that no one can ever really know another’s struggles; as the narrator’s father says of a secret enshrined in the image, “She never told you about that time in her life, and I believed that was her choice and her right.” In Nicole Krauss’ “Seeing Ershadi,” an Iranian movie actor means very different things to different dreamers, while Maria Reva’s lyrical “Letter of Apology” is a flawless distillation of life under totalitarianism that packs all the punch of a Kundera novel in the space of just a dozen-odd pages. If the collection has a theme, it might be mutual incomprehension, a theme ably worked by Weike Wang in her standout closing story, “Omakase,” centering on “one out of a billion or so Asian girl–white guy couples walking around on this earth.”

A fine celebration of the many guises a short story can take while still doing its essential work.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-328-48424-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 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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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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