Lovely, original writing on the unlikely romance between prisoners and poetry.

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CHANNELING MARK TWAIN

An elegant piece featuring a psychic descendant of Mark Twain.

Muske-Dukes draws on her own experience with the penal system (she founded a creative writing program—the very first for prisoners—on Riker’s Island) to fashion a novel rich in both ideas and prose. Holly Mattox is a young Midwesterner in New York, secretly married to K.B. (marriage seems so embarrassingly establishment in the early ’70s), and trying to prove herself as a poet, a teacher and a thoroughly independent woman. She has a mentor of sorts in Sam Glass, a young editor with connections to all that’s literary in the city (the identity of real writers are thinly, amusingly veiled) and quite a bit beyond. He invites her to important events, tries seducing her and gets her a job lecturing smug grad students at Columbia. But that world is a far cry from her volunteer work—teaching a poetry workshop at the Women’s House of Detention on Riker’s Island. Most of the women are in for prostitution, but a few are there on murder charges, including Akilah Malik, a notorious radical charged with killing a cop. And then there’s Polly Lyle Clement, seemingly charged with nothing more than mistakenly landing her raft on the island. They all produce fairly heartbreaking poetry—what you would expect from the defeated lives they describe, except for Polly, who claims to be the descendant of Mark Twain and is channeling his spirit in class. Polly indeed has a way with words and half convinces everyone that something vaguely supernatural is going on, as she seems to see the “truth” of everyone’s crimes. Holly becomes emotionally involved with the women, and when Akilah breaks out of prison, it becomes Holly’s mission to save Polly, now slowly dying in solitary, and suspected of arranging Akilah’s escape. Though well-plotted, Muske-Dukes triumph lies in building a discourse on the nature of language, of poetry, of its small successes and inevitable limitations in the midst of ruinous lives.

Lovely, original writing on the unlikely romance between prisoners and poetry.

Pub Date: July 10, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-375-50927-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2007

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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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