A laudable set of premises, but thin writing and faux disclosures keep this garden from bursting into full bloom.

GARDEN PRIMITIVES

SHORT STORIES

A debut collection from a Minnesota writer pits its mainly suburban characters against a nature that is both unforgiving and creepily profligate.

Sosin has a gift for the narrative hook. Many of these 12 stories place their protagonists in potentially humiliating situations, then watch them struggle out with varying degrees of grace. In ``Internal Medicine,'' a woman talks a group of firstyear medical students through her own pelvic exam while pondering her recent divorce. ``Ice Age'' gives us a resentful farmer who, cornered by his own act of kindness, finds himself trapped at an awkward dinner with yuppies he despises for encroaching on his land. At her best, Sosin is able to milk these reversaloffortune setups to alchemical effect. ``Mother Superior,” one of the best pieces here and the only one to depart from a middleclass milieu, follows a burntout former bar owner through a date gone sadly wrong; the quietly devastating climax feels like a slap not only to her face, but to ours. Elsewhere, though, these revelations can sound like unintentional punch lines, especially when allegories from nature start gumming up the works. ``Submersion'' draws a clunky parallel between a woman's obsessive vigil over a turtle nest on a Mexican beach and the recent drowning death of her son, revealed at the end in a distinctly unsurprising twist. ``There Are No Green Butterflies'' solemnly depicts the unraveling of a nascent romance that the reader is unlikely to mourn (`` `Sex is holy,' he says, looking off in the distance''). Only the title story steps back from this relentless intersubjectivity, offering a restrained, almost photographic vignette of the varied urban types frequenting a public greenhouse. Meanwhile, Sosin's generally graceful prose has moments of startling infelicity: one heroine lies in bed ``exacerbated,'' wielding ``the fineedged knife of selfblame.''

A laudable set of premises, but thin writing and faux disclosures keep this garden from bursting into full bloom.

Pub Date: April 1, 2000

ISBN: 1-56689-100-0

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Coffee House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2000

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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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