This book leaves us to wonder about both the authority of the project and also its intention—whether or to what extent, in...

DOCTOROW

COLLECTED STORIES

Doctorow wrote some powerful short stories, but it's not clear why they need to be collected again.

There’s something unsettling about collecting, once more, the short fiction of Doctorow, who died in 2015 at age 84. Partly it’s that he remains best known for his novels: The Book of Daniel (1971), Ragtime (1975), Billy Bathgate (1989). (Indeed, Doctorow published only 18 stories, parceled out over three collections, in a career spanning more than half a century.) But even more, it’s that his new book overlaps almost entirely with All the Time in the World, the new and selected stories he put out in 2011. Each of the 12 efforts there appears here as well, along with three others, drawn from Lives of the Poets (1984) and Sweet Land Stories (2004). This is not to criticize his writing, which is often sharp and resonant, just to suggest there is little point in gathering it again. Doctorow’s strength as a short story writer was similar to his strength as a novelist: an acute eye, an attention to detail, an understanding of both the promise and the limitations of narrative. “I thought how stupid, and imperceptive, and self-centered I had been,” the young narrator of “The Writer in the Family” admits, “never to have understood while he was alive what my father’s dream for his life had been.” A similar sensibility marks the magnificent “Wakefield,” inspired by the Hawthorne story of the same name, in which a successful attorney leaves his family and spends months hiding in the attic above his garage. What such stories have in common is a sense of displacement, what Doctorow once described as “dereliction”: a posture of drift or irresolution, as if the very act of living had become too much. Nonetheless, how can this not be undercut by gathering the same pieces yet again, as if they were less literature than monument? This might not be so problematic had the book included all of his short fiction, but three stories from Lives of the Poets, including the title novella, which is among the finest of his shorter works, did not make the cut.

This book leaves us to wonder about both the authority of the project and also its intention—whether or to what extent, in other words, the author’s legacy is being served.

Pub Date: Jan. 10, 2017

ISBN: 9780399588358

Page Count: 321

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2016

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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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