Smiley (Duplicate Keys, The Age of Grief, etc.) has produced a bulky, sometimes spectacular saga of 14th-century Greenland—a tapestry of hunger, revenge and the disintegration of social institutions. Since the tenth century, Norsemen had farmed and hunted from spring until fall, trying to amass enough food to survive the winters. Smiley's novel plops down at a crucial turning point: the Plague has hit Europe hard, and contact with the continent (as well as the all-important inflow of churchmen) is falling off. Meanwhile, Asgeir Gunnarsson is at odds with his strange neighbors at Ketils Stead. When Asgeir murders a woman he believes to be a witch, the bishop awards the use of his prime field to his hatred rivals. This bitterness trickles down to the next generation—to quiet Gunnar and his sister Margret, whose ancestral stead is eventually usurped by the politically adept Ketils Stead crowd. Winter starvation has always been common, but a vomiting ill and a string of bad hunts prompts widespread death. Amidst the marriages; births and grievances, the bishop dies. The priests are now a low-profile lot, except for former cowherd Larus, who's turning some heads with his apocalyptic visions. And Bjorn Bollason, the lawspeaker, is benevolent and popular at first, but he gets impressed by talky visitors from Iceland and allows them to burn wild Koll-grim, Gunnar's son, at the stake. The annual "Thing" melts down into a bloody melee, pirates plunder and kill, and the saddened Greenlanders bury their dead. Into this icy historical vacuum—the period between the end of outside contact and the eventual disappearance of the Greenland settlers—Smiley pours a thin-broth existence, flavored in spots by dramatic events and complicated emotional relationships. Particularly interesting: the portrayal of the spiritual life as a bleak—and without priests—unconvincing go-round of tithes and half-remembered prayers. Smiley's uninflated prose lulls at first, but gradually accumulates the incantory power of a strange winter-told tale. A bleak, stirring picture of the slow slouch towards the death of a civilization.

Pub Date: April 18, 1988

ISBN: 1400095468

Page Count: 807

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: April 11, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1988

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Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

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The relationship between a privileged white mom and her black babysitter is strained by race-related complications.

Blogger/role model/inspirational speaker Alix Chamberlain is none too happy about moving from Manhattan to Philadelphia for her husband Peter's job as a TV newscaster. With no friends or in-laws around to help out with her almost-3-year-old, Briar, and infant, Catherine, she’ll never get anywhere on the book she’s writing unless she hires a sitter. She strikes gold when she finds Emira Tucker. Twenty-five-year-old Emira’s family and friends expect her to get going on a career, but outside the fact that she’s about to get kicked off her parents’ health insurance, she’s happy with her part-time gigs—and Briar is her "favorite little human." Then one day a double-header of racist events topples the apple cart—Emira is stopped by a security guard who thinks she's kidnapped Briar, and when Peter's program shows a segment on the unusual ways teenagers ask their dates to the prom, he blurts out "Let's hope that last one asked her father first" about a black boy hoping to go with a white girl. Alix’s combination of awkwardness and obsession with regard to Emira spins out of control and then is complicated by the reappearance of someone from her past (coincidence alert), where lies yet another racist event. Reid’s debut sparkles with sharp observations and perfect details—food, décor, clothes, social media, etc.—and she’s a dialogue genius, effortlessly incorporating toddler-ese, witty boyfriend–speak, and African American Vernacular English. For about two-thirds of the book, her evenhandedness with her varied cast of characters is impressive, but there’s a point at which any possible empathy for Alix disappears. Not only is she shallow, entitled, unknowingly racist, and a bad mother, but she has not progressed one millimeter since high school, and even then she was worse than we thought. Maybe this was intentional, but it does make things—ha ha—very black and white.

Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-54190-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

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Offill is good company for the end of the world.


An ever growing list of worries, from a brother with drug problems to a climate change apocalypse, dances through the lively mind of a university librarian.

In its clever and seductive replication of the inner monologue of a woman living in this particular moment in history, Offill’s (Dept. of Speculation, 2014, etc.) third novel might be thought of as a more laconic cousin of Lucy Ellmann's Ducks, Newburyport. Here, the mind we’re embedded in is that of a librarian named Lizzie—an entertaining vantage point despite her concerns big and small. There’s the lady with the bullhorn who won’t let her walk her sensitive young son into his school building. Her brother, who has finally gotten off drugs and has a new girlfriend but still requires her constant, almost hourly, support. Her mentor, Sylvia, a national expert on climate change, who is fed up with her fans and wants Lizzie to take over answering her mail. (“These people long for immortality, but can’t wait ten minutes for a cup of coffee,” says Sylvia.) “Malodorous,” “Defacing,” “Combative,” “Humming,” “Lonely”: These are just a few of the categories in a pamphlet called Dealing With Problem Patrons that Lizzie's been given at work, Also, her knee hurts, and she’s spending a fortune on car service because she fears she's Mr. Jimmy’s only customer. Then there are the complex mixed messages of a cable show she can't stop watching: Extreme Shopper. Her husband, Ben, a video game designer and a very kind man, is getting a bit exasperated. As the new president is elected and the climate change questions pour in and the doomsday scenarios pile up, Lizzie tries to hold it together. The tension between mundane daily concerns and looming apocalypse, the "weather" of our days both real and metaphorical, is perfectly captured in Offill's brief, elegant paragraphs, filled with insight and humor.

Offill is good company for the end of the world.

Pub Date: Feb. 11, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-385-35110-2

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 11, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2019

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