A pipe dream of a world in which mere mortals can’t imagine any higher honor than dying aboard the Super Chief.

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SUPER

Everyone’s dying to take the Super Chief in TV newsman Lehrer’s 20th novel, which, like his 19th (Oh, Johnny, 2009), is a valentine to the days when life and death seemed simpler, even if the people who lived and died weren’t.

Most Hollywood stars have long since abandoned the railroads by April 1956. But Clark Gable, who hasn’t flown on a civilian aircraft since his wife, Carole Lombard, was killed in a plane crash in 1941, still takes the Super Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles. The King’s routine is so pat that porters who know him can schedule his dinner, his drinks and his assignations with star-struck fans with barely a syllable from him. Gable isn’t the only celebrity on the Super Chief; ex-President Harry S. Truman will board in Kansas City, setting up a memorable non-conversation between the two aging lions. But the real drama revolves around three less distinguished citizens. Hollywood producer Darwin Rinehart is already a has-been at 40. Wheelchair-bound cancer patient Otto Wheeler, a longtime regular aboard the Super Chief, is taking his very last trip to his home town of Bethel, Kan. And Dale L. Lawrence has negotiated privately with a redcap for a sleeper off the company books and a chance to speak to the former President on a matter of life or death. Before the train pulls into Los Angeles, two passengers will be dead by violence, another will be suspected as an imposter and passenger agent Charlie Sanders will find himself cast in the role of accidental detective. This isn’t Murder on the Orient Express, or North by Northwest, which gets prophetically brainstormed in the course of the journey; the plot complications flicker away with the miles. Instead it’s a humane, often gently humorous evocation of an era Lehrer obviously loves and mourns.

A pipe dream of a world in which mere mortals can’t imagine any higher honor than dying aboard the Super Chief.

Pub Date: April 27, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6763-3

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: March 1, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2010

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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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