So much travail, so much uplift! So much phony plotting and superficial characterization.

MADE IN THE U.S.A.

Letts (Shoot the Moon, 2004, etc.) returns with another uplifting tearjerker, this time about an orphaned brother and sister who face travail before finding love and acceptance within an Oklahoma circus family.

Fifteen-year-old Lutie McFee’s mother is long dead. Her alcoholic father has decamped to Las Vegas, leaving Lutie and her 11-year-old brother Fate in the care of his latest girlfriend Floy. When Floy drops dead at Wal-Mart, tough but lovable Lutie and precocious but friendless Fate head to Vegas to find their father. By the time they arrive and discover he’s died in prison, they’re flat broke. Lutie earns money any way she can, including posing for porn, while Fate sells lost golf balls when he’s not hanging around the library or the elementary school he hopes to attend. After a rape and a few other humiliations, Lutie, who has also developed a cocaine habit, is robbed and badly beaten. Fortunately, Lutie and Fate have a guardian angel. Juan Vargas, who has been helping them anonymously since their arrival, now saves Lutie. A former aerialist with Cirque de Soleil until a fall ended his career and left him disabled, Juan drives the McFees to Oklahoma where his family runs a circus. Juan has his own emotional baggage; having left Vargas Brothers Circus years earlier, he never returned to face his heartbroken father. Instead, after his accident, Juan drifted into addiction until joining AA (which he describes glowingly although he never attends meetings). In Oklahoma, Fate almost immediately feels at home, making his first real friend and learning to fish. Recuperating from her attack, Lutie at first resists the care offered by Juan’s grandmother Mama Sim, but once she reveals to Mama Sim her deepest, guiltiest (most trite) secret, Lutie is emotionally ready to accept the love the Vargas family offers. And through Lutie’s talent as an aerialist, Juan finds his own way back into the family fold.

So much travail, so much uplift! So much phony plotting and superficial characterization.

Pub Date: June 19, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-446-52901-3

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2008

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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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