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THE PENGUIN BOOK OF THE MODERN AMERICAN SHORT STORY

A fresh gathering that highlights the work of mostly well-known story writers through their lesser-known works.

A well-selected anthology of short fiction, ranging from long to flash, representing the last half-century.

Former Granta editor Freeman writes in his introduction that where the 1960s were once seen as a fulcrum of the short story form, the succeeding decade has “begun to seem like one of the most fertile periods of American life.” Certainly that was a time when writing by members of marginalized communities, post-apocalyptic science fiction, and politically engaged reexaminations of history came to the fore. All these strands are represented in Freeman’s collection, which begins with Toni Cade Bambara, a writer not heard from often enough, whose “The Lesson,” from 1972, finds a group of Black children inside F.A.O. Schwarz under the aegis of a well-meaning college graduate who has returned to the neighborhood. The narrator, beholding a $35 clown doll (that would be about $220 today), imagines asking for the money from her mother: “ ‘You wanna who that cost what?’ she’d say, cocking her head to the side to get a better view of the hole in my head.” The exotic field trip yields one lesson for the children: “White folks crazy.” Certainly you’d think so on reading Grace Paley’s “A Conversation With My Father,” with its story within a story of a boy who has become addicted to drugs in “the fist of adolescence” and whose mother, not wishing him to feel isolated, joins him in junkiedom. Andrew Holleran evokes the ravages of the AIDS epidemic in “The Penthouse,” a long story from 1999 that is full of ghosts but scores the comic aperçu that because sex is off the table, “it seemed as if that was all there was to do in New York: eat in public.” George Saunders packs a story into 392 words; finally recognized as a literary writer, Stephen King turns in a characteristically spooky tale; and the closing stories, from Ted Chiang and Lauren Groff, speak to impending extinction, death, and fear.

A fresh gathering that highlights the work of mostly well-known story writers through their lesser-known works.

Pub Date: May 4, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-984877-80-2

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 9, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2021

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JAMES

One of the noblest characters in American literature gets a novel worthy of him.

Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as told from the perspective of a more resourceful and contemplative Jim than the one you remember.

This isn’t the first novel to reimagine Twain’s 1885 masterpiece, but the audacious and prolific Everett dives into the very heart of Twain’s epochal odyssey, shifting the central viewpoint from that of the unschooled, often credulous, but basically good-hearted Huck to the more enigmatic and heroic Jim, the Black slave with whom the boy escapes via raft on the Mississippi River. As in the original, the threat of Jim’s being sold “down the river” and separated from his wife and daughter compels him to run away while figuring out what to do next. He's soon joined by Huck, who has faked his own death to get away from an abusive father, ramping up Jim’s panic. “Huck was supposedly murdered and I’d just run away,” Jim thinks. “Who did I think they would suspect of the heinous crime?” That Jim can, as he puts it, “[do] the math” on his predicament suggests how different Everett’s version is from Twain’s. First and foremost, there's the matter of the Black dialect Twain used to depict the speech of Jim and other Black characters—which, for many contemporary readers, hinders their enjoyment of his novel. In Everett’s telling, the dialect is a put-on, a manner of concealment, and a tactic for survival. “White folks expect us to sound a certain way and it can only help if we don’t disappoint them,” Jim explains. He also discloses that, in violation of custom and law, he learned to read the books in Judge Thatcher’s library, including Voltaire and John Locke, both of whom, in dreams and delirium, Jim finds himself debating about human rights and his own humanity. With and without Huck, Jim undergoes dangerous tribulations and hairbreadth escapes in an antebellum wilderness that’s much grimmer and bloodier than Twain’s. There’s also a revelation toward the end that, however stunning to devoted readers of the original, makes perfect sense.

One of the noblest characters in American literature gets a novel worthy of him.

Pub Date: March 19, 2024

ISBN: 9780385550369

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 16, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2024

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DEMON COPPERHEAD

An angry, powerful book seething with love and outrage for a community too often stereotyped or ignored.

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  • Kirkus Reviews'
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  • Pulitzer Prize Winner

Inspired by David Copperfield, Kingsolver crafts a 21st-century coming-of-age story set in America’s hard-pressed rural South.

It’s not necessary to have read Dickens’ famous novel to appreciate Kingsolver’s absorbing tale, but those who have will savor the tough-minded changes she rings on his Victorian sentimentality while affirming his stinging critique of a heartless society. Our soon-to-be orphaned narrator’s mother is a substance-abusing teenage single mom who checks out via OD on his 11th birthday, and Demon’s cynical, wised-up voice is light-years removed from David Copperfield’s earnest tone. Yet readers also see the yearning for love and wells of compassion hidden beneath his self-protective exterior. Like pretty much everyone else in Lee County, Virginia, hollowed out economically by the coal and tobacco industries, he sees himself as someone with no prospects and little worth. One of Kingsolver’s major themes, hit a little too insistently, is the contempt felt by participants in the modern capitalist economy for those rooted in older ways of life. More nuanced and emotionally engaging is Demon’s fierce attachment to his home ground, a place where he is known and supported, tested to the breaking point as the opiate epidemic engulfs it. Kingsolver’s ferocious indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, angrily stated by a local girl who has become a nurse, is in the best Dickensian tradition, and Demon gives a harrowing account of his descent into addiction with his beloved Dori (as naïve as Dickens’ Dora in her own screwed-up way). Does knowledge offer a way out of this sinkhole? A committed teacher tries to enlighten Demon’s seventh grade class about how the resource-rich countryside was pillaged and abandoned, but Kingsolver doesn’t air-brush his students’ dismissal of this history or the prejudice encountered by this African American outsider and his White wife. She is an art teacher who guides Demon toward self-expression, just as his friend Tommy provokes his dawning understanding of how their world has been shaped by outside forces and what he might be able to do about it.

An angry, powerful book seething with love and outrage for a community too often stereotyped or ignored.

Pub Date: Oct. 18, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-06-325-1922

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 13, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2022

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