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

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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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naïve.

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THE OVERSTORY

Powers’ (Orfeo, 2014, etc.) 12th novel is a masterpiece of operatic proportions, involving nine central characters and more than half a century of American life.

In this work, Powers takes on the subject of nature, or our relationship to nature, as filtered through the lens of environmental activism, although at its heart the book is after more existential concerns. As is the case with much of Powers’ fiction, it takes shape slowly—first in a pastiche of narratives establishing the characters (a psychologist, an undergraduate who died briefly but was revived, a paraplegic computer game designer, a homeless vet), and then in the kaleidoscopic ways these individuals come together and break apart. “We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men,” Powers writes, quoting the naturalist John Muir. “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” The idea is important because what Powers means to explore is a sense of how we become who we are, individually and collectively, and our responsibility to the planet and to ourselves. Nick, for instance, continues a project begun by his grandfather to take repeated photographs of a single chestnut tree, “one a month for seventy-six years.” Pat, a visionary botanist, discovers how trees communicate with one another only to be discredited and then, a generation later, reaffirmed. What links the characters is survival—the survival of both trees and human beings. The bulk of the action unfolds during the timber wars of the late 1990s, as the characters coalesce on the Pacific coast to save old-growth sequoia from logging concerns. For Powers, however, political or environmental activism becomes a filter through which to consider the connectedness of all things—not only the human lives he portrays in often painfully intricate dimensions, but also the biosphere, both virtual and natural. “The world starts here,” Powers insists. “This is the merest beginning. Life can do anything. You have no idea.”

A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naïve.

Pub Date: April 3, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-393-63552-2

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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