Quiet homage to the progenitor of the modern Japanese short story.

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PATIENT X

An imaginative glimpse behind the curtain of a sheltered, definitively troubled writer of a century past.

“In the next life, if there is such a punishment, I wish to be reborn as sand.” So says Ry?nosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), the protagonist and reluctant center of Peace’s (Red or Dead, 2014, etc.) latest venture into fact-based fiction—and not as much a departure from his procedurals as one might imagine, either. Presented as a series of sketches, the book proceeds from one turning point to another while emphasizing constant themes, opening with a parable that speaks to Akutagawa’s idiosyncratic blending of Buddhism with Christianity; “I am not surprised,” says a psychiatrist, archly, when Akutagawa travels to Nagasaki, the most Christian of all Japanese cities, though Akutagawa’s interests turn out to be more nuanced than all that. Another constant is Akutagawa’s obsession with death, beginning with that opening parable and continuing right up until his own suicide at age 35, having left behind a note complaining about his ”vague sense of anxiety.” A section of the book finds Akutagawa fascinated by the ritual death of a general and his wife after the death of the emperor, following an ancient though outlawed custom by which a retainer must accompany a master into the afterlife: “the newspapers were all agreed that General Nogi had committed junshi, following his lord into death, and then Shizuko had taken her own life, a true samurai wife following her husband into death.” Akutagawa, Peace suggests, may just have been taking a place in that chain of suicides, all in obedience to an emperor whose death signaled the arrival of a “new age, a new era!” in which the writer would not comfortably fit. Though the book is a touch too pensive, it has an elegant poetry to it, even in the horrific passages depicting the great earthquake of 1923.

Quiet homage to the progenitor of the modern Japanese short story.

Pub Date: Sept. 5, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-52177-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: June 18, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2018

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With humor and insight, Straub creates a family worth rooting for.

ALL ADULTS HERE

When Astrid Strick witnesses a school bus run over a longtime acquaintance of hers—Barbara Baker, a woman she doesn't like very much—it's only the beginning of the shake-ups to come in her life and the lives of those she loves.

Astrid has been tootling along contentedly in the Hudson Valley town of Clapham, New York, a 68-year-old widow with three grown children. After many years of singlehood since her husband died, she's been quietly seeing Birdie Gonzalez, her hairdresser, for the past two years, and after Barbara's death she determines to tell her children about the relationship: "There was no time to waste, not in this life. There were always more school buses." Elliot, her oldest, who's in real estate, lives in Clapham with his wife, Wendy, who's Chinese American, and their twins toddlers, Aidan and Zachary, who are "such hellions that only a fool would willingly ask for more." Astrid's daughter, Porter, owns a nearby farm producing artisanal goat cheese and has just gotten pregnant through a sperm bank while having an affair with her married high school boyfriend. Nicky, the youngest Strick, is disconcertingly famous for having appeared in an era-defining movie when he was younger and now lives in Brooklyn with his French wife, Juliette, and their daughter, Cecelia, who's being shipped up to live with Astrid for a while after her friend got mixed up with a pedophile she met online. As always, Straub (Modern Lovers, 2016, etc.) draws her characters warmly, making them appealing in their self-centeredness and generosity, their insecurity and hope. The cast is realistically diverse, though in most ways it's fairly superficial; the fact that Birdie is Latina or Porter's obstetrician is African American doesn't have much impact on the story or their characters. Cecelia's new friend, August, wants to make the transition to Robin; that storyline gets more attention, with the two middle schoolers supporting each other through challenging times. The Stricks worry about work, money, sex, and gossip; Straub has a sharp eye for her characters' foibles and the details of their liberal, upper-middle-class milieu.

With humor and insight, Straub creates a family worth rooting for.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-59463-469-7

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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A daring concept not so daringly developed.

THE BOOK OF LONGINGS

In Kidd’s (The Invention of Wings, 2014, etc.) feminist take on the New Testament, Jesus has a wife whose fondest longing is to write.

Ana is the daughter of Matthias, head scribe to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. She demonstrates an exceptional aptitude for writing, and Matthias, for a time, indulges her with reed pens, papyri, and other 16 C.E. office supplies. Her mother disapproves, but her aunt, Yaltha, mentors Ana in the ways of the enlightened women of Alexandria, from whence Yaltha, suspected of murdering her brutal husband, was exiled years before. Yaltha was also forced to give up her daughter, Chaya, for adoption. As Ana reaches puberty, parental tolerance of her nonconformity wanes, outweighed by the imperative to marry her off. Her adopted brother, Judas—yes, that Judas—is soon disowned for his nonconformity—plotting against Antipas. On the very day Ana, age 14, meets her prospective betrothed, the repellent Nathanial, in the town market, she also encounters Jesus, a young tradesman, to whom she’s instantly drawn. Their connection deepens after she encounters Jesus in the cave where she is concealing her writings about oppressed women. When Nathanial dies after his betrothal to Ana but before their marriage, Ana is shunned for insufficiently mourning him—and after refusing to become Antipas’ concubine, she is about to be stoned until Jesus defuses the situation with that famous admonition. She marries Jesus and moves into his widowed mother’s humble compound in Nazareth, accompanied by Yaltha. There, poverty, not sexism, prohibits her from continuing her writing—office supplies are expensive. Kidd skirts the issue of miracles, portraying Jesus as a fully human and, for the period, accepting husband—after a stillbirth, he condones Ana’s practice of herbal birth control. A structural problem is posed when Jesus’ active ministry begins—what will Ana’s role be? Problem avoided when, notified by Judas that Antipas is seeking her arrest, she and Yaltha journey to Alexandria in search of Chaya. In addition to depriving her of the opportunity to write the first and only contemporaneous gospel, removing Ana from the main action destroys the novel’s momentum.

A daring concept not so daringly developed.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-42976-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Jan. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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