Inferior (save invented dialogue) to Miles Unger’s Machiavelli: A Biography (2011) and Corrado Vivanti’s Niccolò...

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MACHIAVELLI

A RENAISSANCE LIFE

A bland “nonfiction novel” about the life of the civil servant who lent his name as a byword for self-serving machination.

The notion of a nonfiction novel owes much to Truman Capote, whose In Cold Blood was so branded owing to a few gaps that he guessed at in the exchanges between major characters. In the case of the 15th-century Florentine Machiavelli, there are scarcely more than gaps: some surviving letters, testimonials from contemporaries and, of course, Machiavelli’s own writings, most famously The Prince. Why Markulin chose to cast Machiavelli’s life in the form of fictive back and forth is anyone’s guess, but the dialogue is quite staggeringly uninteresting and quite Middle American: “ ‘Do you think he’s guilty, Pagolo?’ said Rinuccio. ‘Guilty? Hell, yes! Guilty of being a goddamn public nuisance.’ ” Machiavelli himself has all the narrative zing of a grocery clerk in Piscataway, though Markulin correctly portrays him as a man smart enough to be able to read the political winds and adapt accordingly in a time when Italy’s powerful families—Medicis, Sforzas and so on—were falling upon and hacking each other up with wild abandon: Old Niccolò was the original survivor, if not the comeback kid. There are a couple of nice and defensible turns, such as Machiavelli’s run-ins with a very stern, very bad local archbishop whose behavior taught him a thing or two about power and its application. And Markulin does get most of the historic details correct (notably the bad smell of medieval streets, to which he often returns), but what is actual history in these overabundant pages is textbook-ish and didactic. The overall effort is a ham-fisted blend of historical novel, with none of the grace of a Mary Renault or Robert Graves, with documentary script for some lesser version of the History Channel, one that allows for plenty of smelling—and bad aromas.

Inferior (save invented dialogue) to Miles Unger’s Machiavelli: A Biography (2011) and Corrado Vivanti’s Niccolò Machiavelli: An Intellectual Biography (2013).

Pub Date: Sept. 3, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-61614-805-8

Page Count: 740

Publisher: Prometheus Books

Review Posted Online: Sept. 26, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2013

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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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