An engaging, character-driven tale set in South Korea.

THE KOREAN WORD FOR BUTTERFLY

A former record executive, a young administrator, and two American expatriates cross paths teaching English in South Korea in 2002.

In this novel, Zerndt (The Tree Poachers and Other Stories, 2016, etc.) switches among three narrators: Moon, who left a high-powered job in the music industry to deal with his alcoholism; Yun-ji, who works and goes to school, dreaming of opening her own internet cafe; and Billie, an American, who, along with her boyfriend, Joe, has come to South Korea to teach English in the school where Moon and Yun-ji work. The three interact frequently, but remain in their own worlds, never learning that although their backgrounds are different, they are united by ambivalent feelings about parenthood and a complicated relationship with alcohol. The main characters’ story arcs take place against a backdrop of tense relations between the United States and South Korea following the killing of two young girls by an American tank—Billie and Yun-ji become pregnant, Moon takes music lessons from Joe and develops a relationship with his toddler son, and Billie and Joe’s deceptions cause problems for their overseas adventure. The story is a quiet one, with most of the narrative taking place within the characters’ minds, but the interpersonal conflicts are sharply realized, driving the plot and bringing the narrative to life. The prose is mixed, sprinkled with clever turns of phrase (“She was a striking woman, though. And by ‘striking’ I mean she had the air of someone who might just hit you if you so much as looked at her the wrong way”) and burdened with choppy sentences and fragments (“Pusan National University. That was where Moon had met his wife. She’d been taking classes to be a nurse. The first time he saw her was at a bus stop”). But the characters are thoroughly engrossing—even self-centered Billie becomes sympathetic as she struggles to connect with a classroom of rambunctious children—and readers will likely keep turning pages to find out what happens in the book’s emotionally satisfying conclusion.

An engaging, character-driven tale set in South Korea.

Pub Date: Dec. 16, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4839-9747-6

Page Count: 276

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: April 26, 2018

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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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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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