A vibrant, perfectly drawn setting and natural dialogue save an otherwise unremarkable story.

TRADING DREAMS AT MIDNIGHT

McKinney-Whetstone returns to familiar territory—the African-American community of West Philadelphia—in her latest novel (Blues Dancing, 1999, etc.).

This time out, a grandmother and granddaughter try to come to terms with the complicated woman who ties them together. Troubled Neena, who left home at 20 in search of her mentally ill mother, Freeda, returns to Philadelphia over a decade later desperate for help. She has been working as a blackmailer, having learned at a young age to use her charm and looks to her advantage, but things have gone awry. Neena hopes to seek refuge with her high-achieving sister, Tish, but soon learns that she is in the hospital due to a difficult pregnancy, clinging to her life. Standing between the two sisters is Nan, Neena’s estranged grandmother, who raised the girls after Freeda abandoned them when they were teenagers. Nan, a God-fearing dressmaker, has had her share of hardship—she spent much of her life caring for her alcoholic husband, Alfred, and clearly blames herself for both Freeda’s and Neena’s problems. When Neena returns, she and Nan have not spoken in many years, and Nan worries that Neena’s presence will upset Tish and harm her or the baby. With the links to her family severed, Neena flirts with the temptations of her old career when she is set up professionally with Cliff, a married aspiring politician. But as fragile Neena, in some of the novel’s most captivating passages, navigates memories of her difficult childhood, she also starts to realize that Cliff might be different, and that unlike Freeda, her life might actually still turn around. A final reunion scene that seems all too quick and easy, given the pages of struggle, also shows Neena how family, especially Nan, can still be a part of this new life.

A vibrant, perfectly drawn setting and natural dialogue save an otherwise unremarkable story.

Pub Date: June 24, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-688-16386-0

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2008

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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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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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