Funny, humane, and sympathetic to the silly creatures we humans are. The Dalai Lama himself would probably approve.

BARDO OR NOT BARDO

Ever goofy, ever surreal French novelist Volodine (Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, 2015, etc.) rewrites the rules of Tibetan Buddhism, using characters that might have been drafted from the second string of Waiting for Godot.

Bardo, as Laurie Anderson’s recent film Heart of a Dog reminds us, is a kind of limbo where the dead await reincarnation for seven weeks, a place where nothing much happens while the soul gathers its wits and chooses its next earthly vehicle. Volodine turns this on its head: plenty happens, even if the departed can’t quite suss it out. “The Bardo,” says one Babloïev by way of helpful explanation to the recently dead Glouchenko. “The intermediary world. We’re going to float and walk around here for forty-nine days.” Unimpressed, Glouchenko, apparently a devotee of slang, replies, “Cut the crap. You’re barking up the wrong tree if you think you can just jerk me around.” It turns out, as another intermediary, Mario Schmunk, notes, that poor Glouchenko has been dead for four weeks and, thick as he is, still hasn’t gotten around to realizing it, prompting a mysterious voice to cut through the fog: “It is high time that you liberate yourself, Glouchenko! Make an effort, Glouchenko!” Glouchenko is not an effortful fellow, though, which may just get him reborn as a monkey. Neither are some of the other denizens of the Bardo, some of whom take Bardo as an excuse to have a nice nap. In this vignette-layered novel, Volodine explores a fruitful premise throughout, namely, that if some of our lives are thoughtlessly lived and some of our deaths downright embarrassing, why should not death be thoughtless and shameface-making? Just ask Big Grümscher and Little Blumschi, “the kings of laughter,” clowns who aren’t laughing so much now that the monks are shouting out sutras from the Book of the Dead….

Funny, humane, and sympathetic to the silly creatures we humans are. The Dalai Lama himself would probably approve.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-940953-33-5

Page Count: 165

Publisher: Open Letter

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2016

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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Above-average formula fiction, making full display of the author’s strong suits: sense of place, compassion for characters...

TRUE COLORS

Female rivalry is again the main preoccupation of Hannah’s latest Pacific Northwest sob saga (Firefly Lane, 2008, etc.).

At Water’s Edge, the family seat overlooking Hood Canal, Vivi Ann, youngest and prettiest of the Grey sisters and a champion horsewoman, has persuaded embittered patriarch Henry to turn the tumbledown ranch into a Western-style equestrian arena. Eldest sister Winona, a respected lawyer in the nearby village of Oyster Shores, hires taciturn ranch hand Dallas Raintree, a half-Native American. Middle sister Aurora, stay-at-home mother of twins, languishes in a dull marriage. Winona, overweight since adolescence, envies Vivi, whose looks get her everything she wants, especially men. Indeed, Winona’s childhood crush Luke recently proposed to Vivi. Despite Aurora’s urging (her principal role is as sisterly referee), Winona won’t tell Vivi she loves Luke. Yearning for Dallas, Vivi stands up Luke to fall into bed with the enigmatic, tattooed cowboy. Winona snitches to Luke: engagement off. Vivi marries Dallas over Henry’s objections. The love-match triumphs, and Dallas, though scarred by child abuse, is an exemplary father to son Noah. One Christmas Eve, the town floozy is raped and murdered. An eyewitness and forensic evidence incriminate Dallas. Winona refuses to represent him, consigning him to the inept services of a public defender. After a guilty verdict, he’s sentenced to life without parole. A decade later, Winona has reached an uneasy truce with Vivi, who’s still pining for Dallas. Noah is a sullen teen, Aurora a brittle but resigned divorcée. Noah learns about the Seattle Innocence Project. Could modern DNA testing methods exonerate Dallas? Will Aunt Winona redeem herself by reopening the case? The outcome, while predictable, is achieved with more suspense and less sentimental histrionics than usual for Hannah.

Above-average formula fiction, making full display of the author’s strong suits: sense of place, compassion for characters and understanding of family dynamics.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-312-36410-6

Page Count: 400

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2008

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