Essential, as always, for buffs and students of the modern short story.

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THE O. HENRY PRIZE STORIES 2019

Centenary volume of the esteemed short fiction annual, filled with standouts.

As the publisher writes, with welcome transparency, in an opening note, the choices in this volume are made by series editor and novelist/memoirist Furman (Ordinary Paradise, 1998, etc.); the jurors—in this case, Lara Vapnyar, Lynn Freed, and Elizabeth Strout—pick and comment on their favorite submission among the 20 Furman proffers. That understood, Furman appears to have broad tastes and no fear of sudden violence, something many of the stories exhibit. Perhaps the best—as with most prize volumes, especially those of limited scope, there’s not really a bad story in the bunch, but some are naturally enough better than others—is Canadian author Alexander MacLeod’s searing “Lagomorph,” whose title commemorates an unusually long-lived rabbit whose days are nearly ended by an unwonted visit outdoors and an encounter there with a hungry snake. The metaphor could be obvious in a story whose guiding arc is the deterioration of a long marriage, but MacLeod keeps his eye on the rabbit and firm control over a story packed with meaning: “I couldn’t feel anything out of place, and couldn’t tell if there was something else wrong, something broken deeper inside of him.” Speaking of control, Souvankham Thammavongsa turns the tables nicely with her story “Slingshot,” depicting a 70-year-old woman whose relationship with a 32-year-old man is sexual and sensual but whose terms she sets, quietly rebuking the noisy and nosy: “Old is a thing that happened outside,“ thinks her narrator when one bore reminds her of the age difference. The violence returns in John Edgar Wideman’s self-assured “Maps and Ledgers,” concerning a rising African American academic whose daily burden is by no means lessened when his father kills a man, while Rachel Kondo’s “Girl of Few Seasons” lays a memorable foundation for the reasons why a Vietnam-bound Hawaiian man must kill his flock of homing pigeons, “a steady heartbeat in his hands."

Essential, as always, for buffs and students of the modern short story.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-56553-6

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Anchor

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 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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