The bleak humor of the surrealism finds a crack in the Iron Curtain.

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MR. KAFKA

AND OTHER TALES FROM THE TIME OF THE CULT

An often powerful and occasionally unnerving collection of stories from a half-century ago.

The “time of the cult” to which the subtitle refers is “the cult of personality” through which Stalin’s postwar dictatorship extended into Czechoslovakia. Published for the first time in English, the stories in this slim collection represent an era, a country, and an author who are all long gone, yet the timelessness of the best of these stories attests to a human spirit undimmed by the darkest of circumstances. “Life, strangely enough, is constantly being reinvented and loved...,” writes Hrabal (Harlequin’s Millions, 2014, etc.) in “Beautiful Poldi,” the elegiac story that closes the collection and brings the narrative of the titular Mr. Kafka full circle. “It is still magnificent as long as one maintains the illusion that a whole world can be conjured from a tiny patch of earth….Life is fidelity to the beauty that is exploding all around us even, at times, at the cost of our own lives.” The industrial Prague he depicts here finds women who are convicts or prostitutes (or both) relying on their powers of seduction, while men who are merchants, artists, or madmen (or all three) speak of ideals at odds with the survivalist instincts of the animals they have become. In “Ingots,” a doctor of philosophy proclaims, “I believe in people who wrestle with their fate,” while a woman suffers a brutal, dehumanizing gang rape. The psycho-political slapstick of “Betrayal of Mirrors” pivots around the obsessive repetition of a pair of mantras: as an artist insists (mainly to himself), “Can’t stop now! Must keep going!” while a stonemason laments, “It’s not easy being a decent communist these days.” The inscrutability of the opening “Mr. Kafka” leaves the reader off balance, but readers and characters alike adjust to a world gone askew.

The bleak humor of the surrealism finds a crack in the Iron Curtain.

Pub Date: Oct. 6, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8112-2480-2

Page Count: 160

Publisher: New Directions

Review Posted Online: July 29, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2015

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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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