Cheerlessly brilliant and full of memorable observations (“Life is an experimental journey undertaken involuntarily”): just...

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THE BOOK OF DISQUIET

Complete edition of a haunted autobiographical novel—or is it a fictionalized autobiography?—that has emerged as an existentialist classic in the 80-plus years since its author’s death.

Born in Lisbon in 1888, Pessoa might have taught J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon a thing or two about anonymity. He wrote prolifically in three languages but published relatively little, and he hid behind assumed names and identities, some 75 of them in all, which he called “heteronyms.” The present volume is a case in point, written over the course of many years in the person of two such assumed names, Vicente Guedes and, later, Bernardo Soares. As for Guedes, Pessoa opens, “This book is not by him, it is him”: it is a catalog of Kierkegaard-ian moods, of fears and loathings and the constant presence of death in a fundamentally tragic world. “I failed life even before I had lived it, because even as I dreamed it, I failed to see its appeal,” writes Pessoa, and he proceeds to make sun-splashed Lisbon a gray and gloomy place. Though often somber, Pessoa is rarely tiresome; he reflects interestingly on such things as the development of science and aesthetics, the pleasures of wasting time (“For those subtle connoisseurs of sensations, there is a kind of handbook on inertia, which includes recipes for every kind of lucidity”), and, always, mortality: “We are born dead, we live dead, and we enter death already dead.” Readers with a liking for Walter Benjamin and Miguel de Unamuno, Pessoa’s intellectual kin, will find much of interest in Pessoa’s pages, which add up to a sort of philosophical journal more than a storyline as such. And readers already familiar with Pessoa’s poetry will appreciate the care of his language, although some of its fluency is better captured in the Penguin translation of 2001.

Cheerlessly brilliant and full of memorable observations (“Life is an experimental journey undertaken involuntarily”): just the thing for the young goth in the family and a fine introduction to a writer deserving more attention.

Pub Date: Aug. 29, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-8112-2693-6

Page Count: 608

Publisher: New Directions

Review Posted Online: June 6, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2017

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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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