You can’t blame Raffel or Modern Library. An unabridged dual-language version would run more than 1,000 pages, making it...

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THE CANTERBURY TALES

Burton Raffel has made two key decisions in his rendition of Chaucer’s greatest work. While most editions stick to the half-dozen or so best-known stories—the raunchy “Miller’s Tale” and the proto-feminist “Wife of Bath’s Tale” being the most popular with contemporary readers—Raffel offers modern English versions of even such unfinished fragments as “The Squire’s Tale” and such often-skipped sections as “The Parson’s Tale.” Few today will be burning to hear from the longwinded parson, but in general this unabridged edition is a delight. It lets you appreciate the masterful way Chaucer unifies his stylistically and topically diverse stories with a few overarching themes: the proper relationship between man and woman (the answer’s not what you’d expect from a 14th-century civil servant), the role of the clergy (they’re only human in his realistic portraits), the all-powerful impact of chance on our destinies. Having the full text also enables readers to enjoy the sly way Chaucer toys with them, allowing his raconteurs to interrupt their narratives with such tantalizing phrases as, “but nothing like that can be included here.” The unabridged edition provides more opportunities to savor the counterpoint of Chaucer’s earthy humor against passages of piercingly beautiful lyric poetry.

That glorious language—there’s the rub in Raffel’s second decision. Most modern editions of Chaucer include his Middle English text on the facing page; it’s the simplest way to make sure readers know what’s going on but still hear Chaucer’s distinctive voice. Raffel’s modern English captures to a large extent the polyphonic vigor of Chaucer’s verse and prose. But he cannot capture Chaucer’s voice. “When April arrives, and with his sweetened showers / Drenches dried-up roots, gives them power / To stir dead plants and sprout the living flowers / That spring has always spread across these fields,” is lovely. Can it equal, “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, / And bathed every veyne in swich licour / Of which vertu engendred is the flour”? Of course not, and it would be unfair to expect it. But it would be nice to look across the page from Raffel’s lucid, lyrical rendition and be able to see the gnarled yet delicate taproot from which grew Shakespeare, John Donne and the King James Bible.

You can’t blame Raffel or Modern Library. An unabridged dual-language version would run more than 1,000 pages, making it prohibitively expensive and inaccessible to non-students who might want to use it somewhere other than at their desks. Keeping the oldest portions of our literary heritage alive for contemporary readers always involves compromise. If we lose some of the deepest levels of Chaucer’s poetry here, we are partly compensated with the full sweep of his zestful, unsentimental understanding of human nature and his abiding love for all kinds of good stories.

Pub Date: Nov. 18, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-679-64355-5

Page Count: 630

Publisher: Modern Library

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2009

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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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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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