As one Crace character puts it, “Life is uncertain. Eat the pudding first.” Readers would be well advised not to bypass a...

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THE DEVIL’S LARDER

The award-winning British author of such inventive and memorable fiction as Quarantine (1997) and Being Dead (2000) enters new territory with this beguiling collection of 64 very short stories about what may as well be called the metaphysics of food.

Crace prefaces these untitled pieces with a tantalizing pseudo-biblical epigraph including the orotund declaration, “Nor is there honey in the devil’s larder.” Then he treats us to freely ranging anecdotes (some a single paragraph, none more than a half-dozen pages) that dramatize with terse wit the exigencies of appetite and custom as expressed in both seemingly realistic and expressly parabolic terms. Several take the form of generic character contrast: a woman who finds love in middle age simultaneously develops the healthy appetite denied the withdrawn younger woman listening to her story; a private club’s dining-room manager punishes his staff for the same breaches of etiquette he finds himself compulsively committing; and a truculent, self-denying health faddist who preached that “Migraines are occasioned by modern life” is remembered by the jaded voluptuary who long outlives her. Echoes of Kafka, Borges, Cortázar, and the Kosinski of Steps are heard in such shapely fables as the tale of a celebrated restaurant that scorns to serve food whose patrons nevertheless pay handsomely to soak up its unique ambience (“It celebrated emptiness in an otherwise sated world”); a vision of God observing innocents plucking bitter crab apples from a “forbidden” tree; and an erotic roundelay in which dining companions play “Strip Fondue,” impulsively subjecting themselves to “the scorching treachery of cheese.” The “lessons” of these sophisticated stories might have been devised by an epicurean Aesop who wisely balances the pleasures of seizing the day with a resigned understanding of the vanity and evanescence of sensual gratification.

As one Crace character puts it, “Life is uncertain. Eat the pudding first.” Readers would be well advised not to bypass a morsel of this sumptuous fictional feast.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-374-13859-1

Page Count: 128

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2001

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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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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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