Levin writes with elegant precision, but ultimately her account, hewing closely to the record, adds little to what’s already...

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A MADMAN DREAMS OF TURING MACHINES

In her first novel, Levin, using two mathematical geniuses, showcases the life of the mind.

The Austrian Kurt Gödel (1906–78) and the British Alan Turing (1912–54) never met, but they were intensely aware of each other’s work. Levin, a mathematics professor, cuts between their life stories. We meet Gödel in 1931 at a café gathering of the Vienna Circle founded by philosophy professor Moritz Schlick (later murdered by a Nazi student). Its members, in Wittgenstein’s shadow, oppose religion and mysticism. Gödel’s incompleteness theorems cause him to break reluctantly with Moritz, another tribulation for a paranoid individual fearful of food poisoning. Despite being mothered by his guardian angel Adele, a nightclub dancer, he must spend time in a sanatorium before leaving for the U.S. and Princeton with Adele. Years later, he will die there from self-starvation, bitter at inadequate professional recognition, unlike Turing. The Englishman now has the higher profile, thanks to the successful play Breaking the Code. His difficulties begin in boarding school, where some boys bury him beneath floorboards. He’s rescued from this traumatic ordeal by his friend Chris, the (unrequited) love of Turing’s life. At Cambridge, Turing rejects God, embraces materialism, debates Wittgenstein and dreams of thinking machines. As a Government cryptographer during the war, he breaks the Germans’ Enigma Code, an important contribution to the Allied victory. But Turing’s homosexuality catches up with him, dooming his engagement to a fellow cryptographer. After the war, involved with a thief, he guilelessly incriminates himself and is sentenced to castration. A broken man, he kills himself by eating a poisoned apple. Levin highlights intriguing details (apples, blue liquids, visits to psychics) that unite these tormented men, whose intellectual journeys may give readers a frisson. It’s a fair bet, however, that the lurid material will resonate more, and that their achievements as trailblazers will be overshadowed by, their plight as victims.

Levin writes with elegant precision, but ultimately her account, hewing closely to the record, adds little to what’s already available.

Pub Date: Aug. 25, 2006

ISBN: 1-4000-4030-2

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2006

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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 promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

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HOMEGOING

A novel of sharply drawn character studies immersed in more than 250 hard, transformative years in the African-American diaspora.

Gyasi’s debut novel opens in the mid-1700s in what is now Ghana, as tribal rivalries are exploited by British and Dutch colonists and slave traders. The daughter of one tribal leader marries a British man for financial expediency, then learns that the “castle” he governs is a holding dungeon for slaves. (When she asks what’s held there, she’s told “cargo.”) The narrative soon alternates chapters between the Ghanans and their American descendants up through the present day. On either side of the Atlantic, the tale is often one of racism, degradation, and loss: a slave on an Alabama plantation is whipped “until the blood on the ground is high enough to bathe a baby”; a freedman in Baltimore fears being sent back South with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act; a Ghanan woman is driven mad from the abuse of a missionary and her husband’s injury in a tribal war; a woman in Harlem is increasingly distanced from (and then humiliated by) her husband, who passes as white. Gyasi is a deeply empathetic writer, and each of the novel’s 14 chapters is a savvy character portrait that reveals the impact of racism from multiple perspectives. It lacks the sweep that its premise implies, though: while the characters share a bloodline, and a gold-flecked stone appears throughout the book as a symbolic connector, the novel is more a well-made linked story collection than a complex epic. Yet Gyasi plainly has the talent to pull that off: “I will be my own nation,” one woman tells a British suitor early on, and the author understands both the necessity of that defiance and how hard it is to follow through on it.

A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

Pub Date: June 7, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-94713-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2016

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