A new wrinkle on the overworked contemporary theme of lives lived on the edge, and one of Johnson’s most interesting books.

THE NAME OF THE WORLD

A traumatized widower is painfully and gradually recalled to life in this deceptively simple—and surprisingly absorbing—short novel by the well-known poet and author (Already Dead, 1997, etc.).

Narrator Michael Reed is a freelance writer and teacher of history who’s attempting to lose himself in work—and various degrees of intimacy with colleagues (at a nameless midwestern college where he had recently put down roots) and random acquaintances—after his young wife and small daughter are killed in an automobile accident. Johnson precisely delineates how Michael experiences and absorbs “little” everyday manifestations of survival and commitment—in such nonspecific ephemera as the carnival atmosphere of student life (“whoops and laughter like the cries of wildlife”), a shoe shine, an impulsive visit to a strip joint, even a quiet few moments at a religious fellowship’s “Sing Night,” where he observes a dreamy deaf boy who seemingly “hears” the music. We gradually understand how he saves himself by becoming interested and—albeit only marginally—involved in other people’s lives, particularly that of the improbably named Flower Cannon, a cellist and sexual iconoclast who fascinates him “Because you do crazy things without having to be crazy.” Reed in fact goes beyond the pale himself, in climactic acts of vandalism and irresponsibility that seem (a bit less believably, here) to incarnate his rediscovery of the power of simple actions to move us, and moderate the grief that accompanies “the understanding that everything passes away.” This deft novel pretty much defies summary, but its clear, dispassionate gaze shows us both unassumingly quotidian and willfully bizarre situations and actions as credible, even reasonable expressions of its characters’ outward impulses and inner natures.

A new wrinkle on the overworked contemporary theme of lives lived on the edge, and one of Johnson’s most interesting books.

Pub Date: July 1, 2000

ISBN: 0-06-019248-8

Page Count: 120

Publisher: HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2000

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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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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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