Giddy, intriguing stuff from a writer eager to let words misbehave.



A young woman becomes increasingly aware of authority—and the urge to push back against it—in this linguistically free-wheeling and challenging novel.

Ruocco doesn’t engage in wordplay so much as she performs a gut rehab on vocabulary, reshaping the meanings of words and testing new resonances within a familiar narrative structure. In broad outline, this is a coming-of-age story centered on Melba, who lives in the small town of the book’s title working as a clerk in a bakery. Over the course of the story, she ponders time’s passing and talks with various controlling figures in her life—her mother, a policeman, a doctor, her school principal, her landlord and so on. Melba asks questions; the responses she receives are generally encouragements to acquiesce. But that plot sketch doesn’t capture the surreal quality of Ruocco’s sentences. “He said you have a kind of bleak power over people, that you turn men into stalagmites, but you don’t stay with them for long,” Melba is told. “You break into a stream of bats and rush away.” Sensible? Not exactly. But the emotional pitch of the sentences is clear, and if the novel is occasionally opaque, Ruocco has given serious thought to how much she can do with language while still preserving a story’s integrity. Ruocco suggests that Melba is trying to bring wisdom to a community that resists it—in one moment, Melba imagines resting against a rock and, Prometheus-like, being pecked at by birds. If you’re willing to submit to their weirdness, Ruocco’s sentences send off sparks: “Have you ever discovered voles in your pillowcasings?” “It tasted like when, as a child, she had mashed anchovy in the wall socket and licked the wall socket on all fours.” Modernist-style experimentation ain’t dead yet.

Giddy, intriguing stuff from a writer eager to let words misbehave.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-9897607-2-0

Page Count: 152

Publisher: Dorothy

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2014

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A strange, subtle, and haunting novel.

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A financier's Ponzi scheme unravels to disastrous effect, revealing the unexpected connections among a cast of disparate characters.

How did Vincent Smith fall overboard from a container ship near the coast of Mauritania, fathoms away from her former life as Jonathan Alkaitis' pretend trophy wife? In this long-anticipated follow-up to Station Eleven (2014), Mandel uses Vincent's disappearance to pick through the wreckage of Alkaitis' fraudulent investment scheme, which ripples through hundreds of lives. There's Paul, Vincent's half brother, a composer and addict in recovery; Olivia, an octogenarian painter who invested her retirement savings in Alkaitis' funds; Leon, a former consultant for a shipping company; and a chorus of office workers who enabled Alkaitis and are terrified of facing the consequences. Slowly, Mandel reveals how her characters struggle to align their stations in life with their visions for what they could be. For Vincent, the promise of transformation comes when she's offered a stint with Alkaitis in "the kingdom of money." Here, the rules of reality are different and time expands, allowing her to pursue video art others find pointless. For Alkaitis, reality itself is too much to bear. In his jail cell, he is confronted by the ghosts of his victims and escapes into "the counterlife," a soothing alternate reality in which he avoided punishment. It's in these dreamy sections that Mandel's ideas about guilt and responsibility, wealth and comfort, the real and the imagined, begin to cohere. At its heart, this is a ghost story in which every boundary is blurred, from the moral to the physical. How far will Alkaitis go to deny responsibility for his actions? And how quickly will his wealth corrupt the ambitions of those in proximity to it? In luminous prose, Mandel shows how easy it is to become caught in a web of unintended consequences and how disastrous it can be when such fragile bonds shatter under pressure.

A strange, subtle, and haunting novel.

Pub Date: March 24, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-52114-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.


A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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