By no means the book it might have been. But Bezmozgis is a potent writer who may yet astonish us all.

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A Russian Jewish family travels to America in decades following the Revolution that defined their patriarch’s life, in this grim first novel from the prize-winning Latvian-born author (Natasha and Other Stories, 2004).

The Krasnanskys—retired businessman Samuil, his stoical wife Emma, their married sons Karl and Alec, the latter’s spouses, and a pair of grandsons—make their way to Rome en route to Chicago. But the relative who was to have sponsored them must instead accommodate a black-sheep sibling, and the Krasnanskys decide to try their luck in Canada (“It’s more European than America, and more American than Europe”). The episodic narrative that develops from this compromise encompasses Samuil’s burden of memories, both proud and regretful (he never ceases mourning the disappearance of his brother Reuven, a more idealistic version of Samuil’s pragmatic self); the troublesome exigencies to which plodding Karl and self-absorbed, sensual Alec drive themselves; and the sorrows of Alec’s winsome, sensitive wife Polina, haunted by fallout from a lost love and an unwanted abortion. Bezmozgis creates a fascinating structure: Events occurring in the narrative present are juxtaposed with flashbacks to similar events which echo and illuminate them. But the resulting fullness gives an impression of redundancy and overemphasis, even when crucial distinctions are lucidly made. It all seems more like “the emigrant experience” than this family’s experience of emigration. And yet, the vividness of its characters and several superbly handled scenes, including a Rosh Hashanah pageant at which Polina endures painfully mixed emotions while watching other people’s children perform, and a brutally funny account of a scam involving stolen Russian ikons which climaxes in a chop shop, keep recalling the novel to vivid life. The result is a flawed, fascinating chronicle, reminiscent of another honorable failure about lives stolen, cast away and never fully recovered: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Shadows on the Hudson (2008).

By no means the book it might have been. But Bezmozgis is a potent writer who may yet astonish us all.

Pub Date: March 29, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-374-28140-3

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: April 18, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2011

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Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

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SUCH A FUN AGE

The relationship between a privileged white mom and her black babysitter is strained by race-related complications.

Blogger/role model/inspirational speaker Alix Chamberlain is none too happy about moving from Manhattan to Philadelphia for her husband Peter's job as a TV newscaster. With no friends or in-laws around to help out with her almost-3-year-old, Briar, and infant, Catherine, she’ll never get anywhere on the book she’s writing unless she hires a sitter. She strikes gold when she finds Emira Tucker. Twenty-five-year-old Emira’s family and friends expect her to get going on a career, but outside the fact that she’s about to get kicked off her parents’ health insurance, she’s happy with her part-time gigs—and Briar is her "favorite little human." Then one day a double-header of racist events topples the apple cart—Emira is stopped by a security guard who thinks she's kidnapped Briar, and when Peter's program shows a segment on the unusual ways teenagers ask their dates to the prom, he blurts out "Let's hope that last one asked her father first" about a black boy hoping to go with a white girl. Alix’s combination of awkwardness and obsession with regard to Emira spins out of control and then is complicated by the reappearance of someone from her past (coincidence alert), where lies yet another racist event. Reid’s debut sparkles with sharp observations and perfect details—food, décor, clothes, social media, etc.—and she’s a dialogue genius, effortlessly incorporating toddler-ese, witty boyfriend–speak, and African American Vernacular English. For about two-thirds of the book, her evenhandedness with her varied cast of characters is impressive, but there’s a point at which any possible empathy for Alix disappears. Not only is she shallow, entitled, unknowingly racist, and a bad mother, but she has not progressed one millimeter since high school, and even then she was worse than we thought. Maybe this was intentional, but it does make things—ha ha—very black and white.

Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-54190-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

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Offill is good company for the end of the world.

WEATHER

An ever growing list of worries, from a brother with drug problems to a climate change apocalypse, dances through the lively mind of a university librarian.

In its clever and seductive replication of the inner monologue of a woman living in this particular moment in history, Offill’s (Dept. of Speculation, 2014, etc.) third novel might be thought of as a more laconic cousin of Lucy Ellmann's Ducks, Newburyport. Here, the mind we’re embedded in is that of a librarian named Lizzie—an entertaining vantage point despite her concerns big and small. There’s the lady with the bullhorn who won’t let her walk her sensitive young son into his school building. Her brother, who has finally gotten off drugs and has a new girlfriend but still requires her constant, almost hourly, support. Her mentor, Sylvia, a national expert on climate change, who is fed up with her fans and wants Lizzie to take over answering her mail. (“These people long for immortality, but can’t wait ten minutes for a cup of coffee,” says Sylvia.) “Malodorous,” “Defacing,” “Combative,” “Humming,” “Lonely”: These are just a few of the categories in a pamphlet called Dealing With Problem Patrons that Lizzie's been given at work, Also, her knee hurts, and she’s spending a fortune on car service because she fears she's Mr. Jimmy’s only customer. Then there are the complex mixed messages of a cable show she can't stop watching: Extreme Shopper. Her husband, Ben, a video game designer and a very kind man, is getting a bit exasperated. As the new president is elected and the climate change questions pour in and the doomsday scenarios pile up, Lizzie tries to hold it together. The tension between mundane daily concerns and looming apocalypse, the "weather" of our days both real and metaphorical, is perfectly captured in Offill's brief, elegant paragraphs, filled with insight and humor.

Offill is good company for the end of the world.

Pub Date: Feb. 11, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-385-35110-2

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 11, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2019

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