Varied and risky—with the fingerprint of Oates’s fetish for the macabre.

BEST NEW AMERICAN VOICES 2003

Ultraprolific Oates (I’ll Take You There, p. 985) perhaps doesn’t have enough to do; this time out, she leans toward the experimental with 15 tales selected from writing programs’ brightest and best.

Some of the edges are rough, but the breadth of approach is what’s most encouraging here. The protagonist of Esi Edugyan’s “The Woman Who Tasted of Rose Oil” is a ghost; Eastern philosophy and medicine trigger healing in Westerners in Susan Austin’s “At Celilo”; the reinvention of war stories in the wake of computer games and the Gulf War continues in Otis Haschmeyer’s choppy but nonetheless pleasing “The Storekeeper”; the best first sentence prize goes to Dylan Tai Nguyen for “At first glance she mistook his handwriting for barbed wire,” in “Peace,” a tale about a Communist but peaceful Vietnam. Meanwhile, Barry Matthews’s “Everything Must Go” seems pulled straight from the headlines when improperly disposed-of corpses are discovered at an undertaker’s a few hundred yards from the protagonist’s home; violence intrudes upon, and shapes, theories on love and family in Jenn McKee’s “Under the Influence”; Hal Horton’s “The Year Draws in the Day” is a survey of love and death via the gay culture; Brad Vice’s “Chickensnake” is a version of an oft-told tale in which a snake crawls up a 20-foot post to feed on birds, only to be shot down by the protagonist’s father (he was “only a snake doing what snakes do,” the boy laments); the most conventional story is probably Cheryl Strayed’s “Good,” in which two people helping to care for loved ones at a home for the infirm turn guiltily to one another for needed affection. These tales may be a better mirror of Oates’s own huge body of work than a survey of the best of anything. As Oates herself says, “The emerging writers . . . are a testament to the ongoing vitality, imagination, and richness of that culture.”

Varied and risky—with the fingerprint of Oates’s fetish for the macabre.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2002

ISBN: 0-15-600716-9

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2002

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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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