THE SECRETS OF THE CAMERA OBSCURA

Chronicle kicks off a new series of novellas in hardcover (see also Les Galloway's The Forty Fathom Bank, above) with a work highly reminiscent of Umberto Eco (among others) in its combination of historical research and contemporary suspense. Knowles, a professional musician and a product of the writing program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, gives his story an unnamed narrator who owns and operates a camera obscura, a viewing device whose origins go back to 13th-century China. The San Francisco resident also keeps a journal in which he is writing a history of three key events in the development of the camera obscura; concerning respectively its Chinese inventors, Leonardo da Vinci, and Vermeer, the stories each end with a brutal murder by decapitation. Although most of the narrator's customers are tourists just passing through, he has two regular clients, a beautiful Italian woman and an art student named Darin. When the Italian is killed and her head severed, he becomes obsessed with the mystery. The narrative interweaves the three stories from his journals, each of which centers on a betrayal involving the camera obscura and a beautiful woman, with his growing conflict with Darin over what he takes to be the student's presumption about the Italian woman. Knowles does a terrific job with the narrator's evolving voice, which in the beginning is coolly, almost eerily detached, then shifts subtly over the course of the book as he becomes increasingly agitated at the direction the murder investigation is taking. An intriguing first effort, working some thoughtful changes on the idea of vision and the theme of betrayal, marred by a simplistic and predictable trick ending right out of an old Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode.

Pub Date: June 6, 1994

ISBN: 0-8118-0655-3

Page Count: 140

Publisher: Chronicle Books

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1994

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH

While a few weeks ago it seemed as if Praeger would have a two month lead over Dutton in their presentation of this Soviet best seller, both the "authorized" edition (Dutton's) and the "unauthorized" (Praeger's) will appear almost simultaneously. There has been considerable advance attention on what appears to be as much of a publishing cause celebre here as the original appearance of the book in Russia. Without entering into the scrimmage, or dismissing it as a plague on both your houses, we will limit ourselves to a few facts. Royalties from the "unauthorized" edition will go to the International Rescue Committee; Dutton with their contracted edition is adhering to copyright conventions. The Praeger edition has two translators and one of them is the translator of Doctor Zhivago Dutton's translator, Ralph Parker, has been stigmatized by Praeger as "an apologist for the Soviet regime". To the untutored eye, the Dutton translation seems a little more literary, the Praeger perhaps closer to the rather primitive style of the original. The book itself is an account of one day in the three thousand six hundred and fifty three days of the sentence to be served by a carpenter, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. (Solzhenitsyn was a political prisoner.) From the unrelenting cold without, to the conditions within, from the bathhouse to the latrine to the cells where survival for more than two weeks is impossible, this records the hopeless facts of existence as faced by thousands who went on "living like this, with your eyes on the ground". The Dutton edition has an excellent introduction providing an orientation on the political background to its appearance in Russia by Marvin Kalb. All involved in its publication (translators, introducers, etc.) claim for it great "artistic" values which we cannot share, although there is no question of its importance as a political and human document and as significant and tangible evidence of the de-Stalinization program.

Pub Date: June 15, 1963

ISBN: 0451228146

Page Count: 181

Publisher: Praeger

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1963

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