Leaves a very sour aftertaste—but that’s probably the point.

ABSURDISTAN

Disappointing follow-up to The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2001) sends another Soviet-born Jewish protagonist to another global hot spot.

This time, Shteyngart’s not-so-heroic hero is 30-year-old, 325-pound Misha Vainberg, son of a St. Petersburg gangster who’s just been offed on the Palace Bridge. Misha would like to go back to the U.S., where he spent the 1990s happily attending college and sampling New York’s multicultural delights. But now, in 2001, he can’t get an American visa—there’s that small matter of the Oklahoma businessman whom beloved papa iced. His only way out is a trip to the Republic of Absurdistan, where the millions he negotiated as a settlement with Papa’s killer (another mobster) can buy him a Belgian passport and a ticket back to Western materialism. So Misha heads for Absurdistan, a chaotic Caucasian region populated by two warring ethnic groups plus plenty of visiting employees of Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root: It seems there’s oil somewhere in them thar hills. This sticky situation degenerates into civil war as nasty as it is ludicrous. (The sardonic chapter entitled “Why the Sevo and Svanï Don’t Get Along” says it all about the stupidity of ancient grudges.) Shteyngart’s eye for the comic horrors of modern life remains acute: Prostitutes at the Absurdistan Hyatt offer discounts for “Golly Burton,” and the local alleged reformers are appalled by the death of a protestor at the G8 summit “just as our struggle for democracy was gaining some market share in the global media.” Ugly ethnic conflict, however, makes a dicier foundation for humor than the wide-open Eastern Europe of Shteyngart’s first novel (referred to here as The Russian Arriviste’s Hand Job). He now seems to be aiming for a tougher statement here with the brutal murder of a local democrat, but his characters are too grotesque to prompt much sympathy. And yet again, an author relies on the fact that 9/11 is approaching to pump up his climax’s suspense; at least Shteyngart spares us an actual rehash.

Leaves a very sour aftertaste—but that’s probably the point.

Pub Date: May 9, 2006

ISBN: 1-4000-6196-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2006

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TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

A first novel, this is also a first person account of Scout's (Jean Louise) recall of the years that led to the ending of a mystery, the breaking of her brother Jem's elbow, the death of her father's enemy — and the close of childhood years. A widower, Atticus raises his children with legal dispassion and paternal intelligence, and is ably abetted by Calpurnia, the colored cook, while the Alabama town of Maycomb, in the 1930's, remains aloof to their divergence from its tribal patterns. Scout and Jem, with their summer-time companion, Dill, find their paths free from interference — but not from dangers; their curiosity about the imprisoned Boo, whose miserable past is incorporated in their play, results in a tentative friendliness; their fears of Atticus' lack of distinction is dissipated when he shoots a mad dog; his defense of a Negro accused of raping a white girl, Mayella Ewell, is followed with avid interest and turns the rabble whites against him. Scout is the means of averting an attack on Atticus but when he loses the case it is Boo who saves Jem and Scout by killing Mayella's father when he attempts to murder them. The shadows of a beginning for black-white understanding, the persistent fight that Scout carries on against school, Jem's emergence into adulthood, Calpurnia's quiet power, and all the incidents touching on the children's "growing outward" have an attractive starchiness that keeps this southern picture pert and provocative. There is much advance interest in this book; it has been selected by the Literary Guild and Reader's Digest; it should win many friends.

Pub Date: July 11, 1960

ISBN: 0060935464

Page Count: 323

Publisher: Lippincott

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1960

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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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