Wideman’s recent work strides into the gap between fiction and nonfiction as a means of disclosing hard, painful, and...

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AMERICAN HISTORIES

In 1993, Wideman published a book called All Stories Are True, and this new collection represents both an affirmation of and a challenge to that claim.

The book's provocations begin with “A Prefatory Note” addressed to an unnamed president of the United States, asking when, or if, slavery will ever end, even with the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (“Slavery as a social condition,” the letter states, “did not disappear….Skin color continues to separate some of us into a category as unforgiving as the label property stamped on a person.” The next story, “JB & FD,” reimagines, often to startlingly persuasive effect, the real-life transactions between the 19th-century black author/activist Frederick Douglass and the militant white abolitionist John Brown, whose bloody scourge against slavery climaxed with the deadly 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. The voices of the two men, in correspondence and conversation, seem to blend in with each other even as they argue over tactics and ideology. Later in the book, Wideman (Writing to Save a Life, 2016, etc.) makes a bolder, riskier move by taking his own crack at the ill-fated insurgent slave Nat Turner’s confessions. In between, there are stories, or “stories,” such as “Maps and Ledgers,” in which the narrator recalls how his father’s murderous act upended his family’s perilous sense of harmony; “My Dead,” Wideman’s grim, haunting tally of “a bad ten months” during which he lost “a brother [and] a niece,” who joined other dead relatives from whom they received names and legacies; and “Williamsburg Bridge,” a digressive, quasi-surreal tour de force peering into the crowded mind of a man who’s both hesitant about and intent on diving into the East River. You can also find tips on storytelling (“Writing Teacher”) and even a review of the 2010 South Korean movie thriller The Yellow Sea that morphs into a meditation on the 2009 film Precious. You might, in other words, find this collection to be all over the place, and yet all of these pieces are linked by astringent wit, audacious invention, and a dry sensibility whose owner has for decades wrestled with what he describes as “the puzzle of how and why and where and who we come from.”

Wideman’s recent work strides into the gap between fiction and nonfiction as a means of disclosing hard, painful, and necessary truths.

Pub Date: March 20, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-7834-4

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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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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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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