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

DAN

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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THE COLDEST WINTER EVER

Debut novel by hip-hop rap artist Sister Souljah, whose No Disrespect (1994), which mixes sexual history with political diatribe, is popular in schools country-wide. In its way, this is a tour de force of black English and underworld slang, as finely tuned to its heroine’s voice as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The subject matter, though, has a certain flashiness, like a black Godfather family saga, and the heroine’s eventual fall develops only glancingly from her character. Born to a 14-year-old mother during one of New York’s worst snowstorms, Winter Santiaga is the teenaged daughter of Ricky Santiaga, Brooklyn’s top drug dealer, who lives like an Arab prince and treats his wife and four daughters like a queen and her princesses. Winter lost her virginity at 12 and now focuses unwaveringly on varieties of adolescent self-indulgence: sex and sugar-daddies, clothes, and getting her own way. She uses school only as a stepping-stone for getting out of the house—after all, nobody’s paying her to go there. But if there’s no money in it, why go? Meanwhile, Daddy decides it’s time to move out of Brooklyn to truly fancy digs on Long Island, though this places him in the discomfiting position of not being absolutely hands-on with his dealers; and sure enough the rise of some young Turks leads to his arrest. Then he does something really stupid: he murders his wife’s two weak brothers in jail with him on Riker’s Island and gets two consecutive life sentences. Winter’s then on her own, especially with Bullet, who may have replaced her dad as top hood, though when she selfishly fails to help her pregnant buddy Simone, there’s worse—much worse—to come. Thinness aside: riveting stuff, with language so frank it curls your hair. (Author tour)

Pub Date: April 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-671-02578-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Pocket

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1999

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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