A masterwork that, 220 years on, holds up well thanks to this fluent translation.

MICHAEL KOHLHAAS

Foundational novella of the German romantic era, celebrating a folk hero of the 1530s.

First published in 1810, the year before von Kleist committed suicide at 34, this short, elegant novel is well known to students of German literature. It’s easy to see why Franz Kafka should have esteemed it so much, drawing on it for books like The Castle and The Trial: The hero of the piece is a law-abiding man who confronts an obdurate bureaucracy and loses—though not without a fight, for, as von Kleist writes, “his sense of justice led him to robbery and murder.” The eponymous horse trader travels a well-worn path to market only to find a new tollbooth blocking his way. It seems that Wenzel von Tronka, heir to the newly deceased lord of the territory, is exercising his royal privilege to issue visas to cross it for a fee, and although Kohlhaas protests that “he had passed this frontier seventeen times in the course of his life without any such document,” he is forced to leave two horses from his string as security. Arriving in Dresden, the regional capital, Kohlhaas learns both that this demand for collateral was imposed arbitrarily and that his captive horses have been ill treated, though the lawsuit he files is eventually dismissed as a “baseless fuss” thanks to von Tronka’s influence. That’s reason enough for him to become a fierce avenger who sets out in fury to reclaim what’s his—and, in the orderly realm of the Electorate of Saxony, such outlaw acts, no matter how well justified, are enough to earn a person a death penalty. Von Kleist complicates the story, which he relates as a matter-of-fact chronicle, with a few neat twists toward the end, quietly satirizing both the legal system and the imperial order of his day while suggesting that the quest for justice is more likely to backfire on the petitioner than be rewarded with anything other than “near-universal mourning.”

A masterwork that, 220 years on, holds up well thanks to this fluent translation.

Pub Date: March 31, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-8112-2834-3

Page Count: 144

Publisher: New Directions

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

A wild child’s isolated, dirt-poor upbringing in a Southern coastal wilderness fails to shield her from heartbreak or an accusation of murder.

“The Marsh Girl,” “swamp trash”—Catherine “Kya” Clark is a figure of mystery and prejudice in the remote North Carolina coastal community of Barkley Cove in the 1950s and '60s. Abandoned by a mother no longer able to endure her drunken husband’s beatings and then by her four siblings, Kya grows up in the careless, sometimes-savage company of her father, who eventually disappears, too. Alone, virtually or actually, from age 6, Kya learns both to be self-sufficient and to find solace and company in her fertile natural surroundings. Owens (Secrets of the Savanna, 2006, etc.), the accomplished co-author of several nonfiction books on wildlife, is at her best reflecting Kya’s fascination with the birds, insects, dappled light, and shifting tides of the marshes. The girl’s collections of shells and feathers, her communion with the gulls, her exploration of the wetlands are evoked in lyrical phrasing which only occasionally tips into excess. But as the child turns teenager and is befriended by local boy Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, the novel settles into a less magical, more predictable pattern. Interspersed with Kya’s coming-of-age is the 1969 murder investigation arising from the discovery of a man’s body in the marsh. The victim is Chase Andrews, “star quarterback and town hot shot,” who was once Kya’s lover. In the eyes of a pair of semicomic local police officers, Kya will eventually become the chief suspect and must stand trial. By now the novel’s weaknesses have become apparent: the monochromatic characterization (good boy Tate, bad boy Chase) and implausibilities (Kya evolves into a polymath—a published writer, artist, and poet), yet the closing twist is perhaps its most memorable oddity.

Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1909-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

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