Hard to believe this listless, modestly amusing tale won the Netherlands’ prestigious AKO Prize.

PHANTOM PAIN

Dutch author Grunberg (Silent Extras, 2001, etc.) traces the rise and fall and rise of a literary writer whose sine waves of desperation are ultimately evened out by his unlikely authorship of a cookbook.

The novel takes the form of Robert Mehlman’s “unpublished autobiography,” presented by son Harpo. Seemingly intended as an explanation to his son of the writer’s bizarre behavior over the course of two decades, its main concerns are Mehlman’s love life and the creation of his cookbook. (Asides cover everything from his multiple affairs to book projects both realized and forgotten.) As the narrative begins, the author’s unstable marriage to a psychiatrist he calls the “Fairytale Princess” is disrupted by the arrival of the “Empty Vessel,” a woman who makes cappuccinos at the local coffeebar. Together, the Empty Vessel and Mehlman spend a directionless few days in Atlantic City, gambling away the last of his money even as his credit cards are overdrawn. The affair meanders here and there, with no particular purpose apparent other than to give Mehlman a chance to toss off such continental-sounding epigrams as “hate is the sea into which longing flows down together.” Meanwhile, having agreed to write a “literary cookbook,” he places a newspaper ad looking for contributions. Polish-Jewish Cooking in 69 Recipes becomes an international sensation, earning Mehlman all the money he’ll ever need. The volume is hailed as a monument of reconciliation between Germans and Jews that will allow both to “keep the home fires burning after Auschwitz”— a mildly tasteless jape typical of the gauzy brand of humor peddled here. The text seems ably translated, if only because it’s difficult to imagine a rendering more apt to the original that might have restored such a desultory work to any kind of greatness.

Hard to believe this listless, modestly amusing tale won the Netherlands’ prestigious AKO Prize.

Pub Date: July 1, 2004

ISBN: 1-59051-126-3

Page Count: 292

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2004

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Unrelenting gloom relieved only occasionally by wrenching trauma; somehow, though, Hannah’s storytelling chops keep the...

FLY AWAY

Hannah’s sequel to Firefly Lane (2008) demonstrates that those who ignore family history are often condemned to repeat it.

When we last left Kate and Tully, the best friends portrayed in Firefly Lane, the friendship was on rocky ground. Now Kate has died of cancer, and Tully, whose once-stellar TV talk show career is in free fall, is wracked with guilt over her failure to be there for Kate until her very last days. Kate’s death has cemented the distrust between her husband, Johnny, and daughter Marah, who expresses her grief by cutting herself and dropping out of college to hang out with goth poet Paxton. Told mostly in flashbacks by Tully, Johnny, Marah and Tully’s long-estranged mother, Dorothy, aka Cloud, the story piles up disasters like the derailment of a high-speed train. Increasingly addicted to prescription sedatives and alcohol, Tully crashes her car and now hovers near death, attended by Kate’s spirit, as the other characters gather to see what their shortsightedness has wrought. We learn that Tully had tried to parent Marah after her father no longer could. Her hard-drinking decline was triggered by Johnny’s anger at her for keeping Marah and Paxton’s liaison secret. Johnny realizes that he only exacerbated Marah’s depression by uprooting the family from their Seattle home. Unexpectedly, Cloud, who rebuffed Tully’s every attempt to reconcile, also appears at her daughter’s bedside. Sixty-nine years old and finally sober, Cloud details for the first time the abusive childhood, complete with commitments to mental hospitals and electroshock treatments, that led to her life as a junkie lowlife and punching bag for trailer-trash men. Although powerful, Cloud’s largely peripheral story deflects focus away from the main conflict, as if Hannah was loath to tackle the intractable thicket in which she mired her main characters.

Unrelenting gloom relieved only occasionally by wrenching trauma; somehow, though, Hannah’s storytelling chops keep the pages turning even as readers begin to resent being drawn into this masochistic morass.

Pub Date: April 23, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-312-57721-6

Page Count: 416

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2013

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THE COLDEST WINTER EVER

Debut novel by hip-hop rap artist Sister Souljah, whose No Disrespect (1994), which mixes sexual history with political diatribe, is popular in schools country-wide. In its way, this is a tour de force of black English and underworld slang, as finely tuned to its heroine’s voice as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The subject matter, though, has a certain flashiness, like a black Godfather family saga, and the heroine’s eventual fall develops only glancingly from her character. Born to a 14-year-old mother during one of New York’s worst snowstorms, Winter Santiaga is the teenaged daughter of Ricky Santiaga, Brooklyn’s top drug dealer, who lives like an Arab prince and treats his wife and four daughters like a queen and her princesses. Winter lost her virginity at 12 and now focuses unwaveringly on varieties of adolescent self-indulgence: sex and sugar-daddies, clothes, and getting her own way. She uses school only as a stepping-stone for getting out of the house—after all, nobody’s paying her to go there. But if there’s no money in it, why go? Meanwhile, Daddy decides it’s time to move out of Brooklyn to truly fancy digs on Long Island, though this places him in the discomfiting position of not being absolutely hands-on with his dealers; and sure enough the rise of some young Turks leads to his arrest. Then he does something really stupid: he murders his wife’s two weak brothers in jail with him on Riker’s Island and gets two consecutive life sentences. Winter’s then on her own, especially with Bullet, who may have replaced her dad as top hood, though when she selfishly fails to help her pregnant buddy Simone, there’s worse—much worse—to come. Thinness aside: riveting stuff, with language so frank it curls your hair. (Author tour)

Pub Date: April 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-671-02578-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Pocket

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1999

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