A well-turned and surprising addition to prison literature.

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THE GRAYBAR HOTEL

Stories about the subtle indignities and wandering imaginations that shape prison life, written by an inmate.

Debut author Dawkins is an MFA graduate serving a life-without-parole term in a Michigan prison for a 2004 murder. Whatever one makes of the circumstances behind his incarceration, he’s unquestionably a keen observer of the psychological tools inmates use to sustain themselves behind bars. “Every emotion is multiplied,” writes the narrator of “Sunshine,” who suspects a cellmate’s girlfriend lied about her cancer diagnosis to dump him. “Your mind becomes a very clear prism, into which every feeling enters.” To cope, some play at mental illness (“Daytime Drama”), some obsess over their dreams (“The Boy Who Dreamed Too Much”), and some—as in the especially supple “Engulfed”—become serial liars to the point that the lying becomes a personality trait. And the narrator discovers there are consequences to challenging that persona: “Once you become a number, all you are is the words you use. If your words aren’t real, then neither are you.” Dawkins isn’t much interested in the clichéd tales of prison violence, overcrowding, sexual assault, and drug abuse, though such themes occasionally surface. Nor does he dwell much on the reasons for his protagonists’ imprisonment—the narrator of “573543” was caught buying large amounts of ketamine, but his chief flaw is ignorance. For Dawkins, the true defining element of prison life is tedium: too much time to watch TV, to call random numbers collect in hopes of a connection, to jury-rig tattoo guns. And time, above all, to indulge in reveries about life on the outside. Or, barring that, turn prison life strange, like the prisoner who seems to have developed the capacity to make himself disappear. Magical realism? Wishful thinking? Dawkins leave the answer purposefully, poignantly vague.

A well-turned and surprising addition to prison literature.

Pub Date: July 4, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6229-9

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: April 18, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2017

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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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