This novel manages the impressive task of being both experimental and accessible—and thoroughly moving to boot.

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MY RED HEAVEN

Olsen’s latest novel details the lives of formally inventive artists over the course of a day in 1927 while deploying some literary innovations of its own.

Berlin in 1927 was home to a number of thinkers, writers, artists, and filmmakers whose work would change the 20th century. Berlin in 1927 was also a liberated society on the brink of falling prey to fascism, adding a harrowing sense of tension to any retrospective account set in that time and place. This novel from Olsen (Dreamlives of Debris, 2017, etc.), whose work often makes use of innovative structures, pays homage to the creative figures who populated that world. Structurally, it moves from artist to artist—including Käthe Kollwitz, looking back on her life; Rosa Luxemburg, pondering the volatile politics of the time; and Billie Wilder, considering the nature of desire and taking a historic view of the making of art. Olsen employs an array of literary styles, moving from prose to newsreels to a screenplay and a shot-by-shot breakdown of a short film. At times, it reads like a postmodern take on modernist fiction, a contemporary homage to the work of John Dos Passos. The vignettes following these characters sometimes leap headlong into their pasts or futures even as the action of the book confines itself temporally to one day, and the narrative itself is well aware of the horrors to come in Germany: One newsreel alludes to a series of newborns as being “every one an Aryan King or Queen!” The combined effect of the different styles on display here is virtuosic, but Olsen never loses sight of the bigger scope of history—or the tragedies the future will hold for most of these characters.

This novel manages the impressive task of being both experimental and accessible—and thoroughly moving to boot.

Pub Date: Jan. 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-950539-03-1

Page Count: 264

Publisher: Dzanc

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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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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