Kalfus maps the boundary between science and mysticism while simultaneously muddying, in a way the 20th century soon would,...

EQUILATERAL

The fifth book and third novel by Kalfus (whose wonderful A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, a National Book Award finalist of 2006, dared to make 9/11 the backdrop to a divorce comedy) is a slender but ambitious tragicomedy of ideas set in 1890s Egypt.

British astronomer Sanford Thayer has mounted a gigantic international scientific and engineering effort—employing 900,000 fellahin—to dig out an equilateral triangle, each side 300 miles long, in the desolate Western Desert. His plan is to put nearly 5,000 square miles of pitch into the excavation and to set it afire...at a moment in the summer of 1894 when the desert will be clearly visible to Mars. The geometric conflagration cannot fail, he believes, to attract the attention of the no-doubt highly evolved inhabitants of the red planet, beings whose phenomenally impressive canal-building Thayer and other stargazers have for years been watching and mapping and/or fooling themselves about. There is another sort of triangle in play here, a romantic one involving the obsessive Thayer, a man near physical collapse and largely confined to quarters in the makeshift village at remote Point A, and two females: Miss Keaton, Thayer's limitlessly competent and patient helpmeet/assistant, and a young Arab serving girl who speaks no English. A compelling portrait emerges not only of Thayer and his brand of scientific imperialism, but also of 19th-century positivistic science at its most arrogant. Thayer proceeds with an air of utter certainty. Progress knows only one path, as he sees it, and the Earth is a pliant female creature whose duty it is to yield her secrets to the probing male scientist and his adjunct, the engineer. But there are forces and mysteries at work here that are beyond him.

Kalfus maps the boundary between science and mysticism while simultaneously muddying, in a way the 20th century soon would, the previously bright line between scientific certainty and arrogant, self-deluded error.

Pub Date: April 23, 2013

ISBN: 9781-62040-006-7

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: Feb. 3, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2013

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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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Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

THE NIGHTINGALE

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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