A lovely book that deserves comparison with Giovanni Guareschi’s portrayal of country priest Don Camillo and J.F. Powers’s...

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THE WITNESS OF ST. ANSGAR’S

The life of a Manhattan Catholic parish throughout the 1930s and after is lovingly etched in this posthumously published semi-autobiographical novel.

At its center is a rich characterization of Friar Benigno (born Joseph Zoller), a priest at St. Ansgar’s (located in a West Side “Dutchie” neighborhood) who’s being honored for 60 years of service. Nielsen (a television producer, actor and author of two pseudonymously published earlier novels) sticks close to the viewpoint of Mario, the adoring kid who serves as Friar Benigno’s altar boy and “assistant,” protégé and sounding-board, and recipient of both Benigno’s hard-won wisdom and his down-to-earth stories—rendered in a delightful, ethnically inflected fractured English (e.g., “St. Francis he don’t move uptown like the rich people. . . . He don’t rob and steal and crook”). Benigno’s firm adherence to the virtues (of poverty, chastity and obedience), preached by his beloved Francis of Assisi, see him—and Mario—through such crises as the debate over whether to pray for the soul of a deceased “gangster”; mourning a presumed suicide who may in fact have only fled from his black-widow fiancée; dealing with Father Blaise (who plays organ too loudly for the choir’s liking), handsome Father Roland (who attracts previously irreligious female communicants) and efficiency-expert martinet Father Guardianus; and—in the novel’s best episode—dealing with the stoical grief of Tommy Hunding, a devoted caregiver to his younger brothers, even after one of them, a heartless drunk, marries Tommy’s girlfriend. These often very funny episodes are moderated beautifully by Mario’s confusion over whether to enter the priesthood or serve his country by fighting against Hitler, as well as the choice he makes, the ordeal he endures and the comfortingly familiar “miracle” that resolves his dilemma.

A lovely book that deserves comparison with Giovanni Guareschi’s portrayal of country priest Don Camillo and J.F. Powers’s memorable tales of fallibly human clerics. Arguably, in fact, a minor classic.

Pub Date: Feb. 7, 2006

ISBN: 1-58642-100-X

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Steerforth

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2005

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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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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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