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

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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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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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