THE COUP

Updike's long interest in African literature was bound to up and produce something like this eventually. Hakim Felix Ellellou, college-educated in Wisconsin, is the dictator of Kush (called Noire when it was French), a sub-Saharan dustbowl of such proportions that even the government doesn't know what's going on in some of the distanter reaches. By dint of a cleverly deduced belief in government-by-mythology, Ellellou rules quite nicely, thank you; things are kept under control by Islam, a Russian-cozy socialism (the Soviets have got a secret missile base planted in the drought-parched, famine-reeling north), and Ellellou's penchant for incognito tours of the country. When the Americans try sending in food aid (Kix, Total, and other junk cereals), Ellellou has the stuff burned. But the Americans are not so easily daunted; a deal for oil-leasing rights is secretly being negotiated by Ellellou's second-in-command, a technocrat with one eye on the World Bank. And suddenly there are signs—like rock music, jeans, Women's Lib, and MacDonalds—that speak of change for Kush. This being Updike, all the Africana fits tight as a glove, well-researched and intellectually digested. (The Africans, for instance, speak in an excruciatingly rhetorical style, counterpointed by the hilarious folksiness of the Americans, one of whom is Candace, Ellellou's third wife of four, whom he met in Wisconsin and brought home.) The general play of intelligence over this novel's surfaces is exquisite; the wry, moralistic denouement—America wins, but what?—is combed into lots of smart political, sociological, or economic opinions. But Updike is not basically a comic writer—comedy makes him tighten his grip and get manically inventive and crabbed; so whole sections here are as hard as walnuts to get through. As intellectual tour de force, The Coup scores fairly well. As serious work, even serious comedy, it never invites any species of emotional involvement—and never straightens out its curlicues enough to hit home.

Pub Date: Dec. 7, 1978

ISBN: 0449242595

Page Count: 324

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Oct. 6, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 1978

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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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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