A brilliant fusion of satire, science fiction, and political commentary. Gogol is probably tearing his hair out, wishing...

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THE COMMISSARIAT OF ENLIGHTENMENT

An inventive first novel briskly reimagines 20th-century Russian history.

The story’s first half (titled “Pre-”) is set in 1910, at the remote railway station in Astapovo where Count Leo Tolstoy, having fled his estate, lies dying. The world beats a path to Astapovo. Young cinematographer Nikolai Gribshin works with the “Pathé frères” news service, which hopes to film the revered writer’s final hours. A Dr. Strangelovian scientist, Professor Vorobev, offers to apply to the moribund Count his newly perfected technique for preserving “the qualities of the vital force in a dead animal”—as evidenced by the stuffed rat Vorobev carries everywhere with him. And, in the wake of the failed 1905 Revolution, comrades Lenin and Stalin scheme to share in the world attention focused on Astapovo, reasoning that “in the right hands, the Count can be transformed into a revolutionary hero. . . .” The rich comedy of these early scenes is skillfully darkened in the second half (entitled “Post-”), which takes place in 1919, after WWI and the successful October Revolution have totally altered the political and economic landscape. Kalfus (stories: PU-239, 1999, etc.) now turns his attention to pseudonymous “Comrade Astapov” (whom we’ve met previously), a veteran of the European War and connoisseur of the still-developing art of cinema, whose technical knowledge is now employed by the eponymous Commissariat, a recently formed ministry entrusted with reshaping all art forms in a manner suitable for the supposedly obedient (often recalcitrant) masses. Astapov’s duties lead to an unexpected reunion with Professor Vorobev (madder than ever) and a climactic effort to “revive” the Soviet Party (so to speak) that will cast bizarre shadows over the eagerly anticipated “glorious future.”

A brilliant fusion of satire, science fiction, and political commentary. Gogol is probably tearing his hair out, wishing he’d dreamed this up.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2003

ISBN: 0-06-050136-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2002

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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