Almost certainly the oddest love story you’ll have read in a long time. Think of Murakami drifting into the lands of Borges...

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THE PRIVATE LIFE OF PLANTS

“All trees are incarnations of frustrated love.” So avers this beguiling novel by the writer whom J.M. Clezio has called Korea’s most likely Nobel Prize contender.

Ki-hyeon is a lascivious and shallow young man. As Lee’s story opens, with a somewhat fusty term, he is negotiating with a “lady of the night,” one of his conditions being that she remove her makeup. He approves of her “voluptuous breasts,” and then again of her “voluptuous body and gigantic breasts,” and then—well, it doesn’t matter, because he is not procuring the hooker for himself but instead for his brother Woo-hyeon, having taken over that duty from his mother. Say what? Yes, said brother has lost both legs in a military accident and, with them, much of his will to live, though when a bright young singer named Soon-mee enters the picture, the brother, glad to be done with sex for hire, perks up. Soon enough, he and Soon-mee are addressing each other in gigglingly mythical terms, he calling her his “nymph” and she calling him her “beast.” Ki-hyeon falls in love with Soon-mee himself, though there’s a tangle with a brutal brother-in-law to sort out. If you’re confused, only a bit into the book, there are more conundrums to come. Some are served up by a taciturn father who doesn’t have much to say about human affairs but insists that plants are more worthy of love than most people—which may explain why Woo-hyeon winds up, in a dreamlike conclusion, borrowing a page from the Greek myth of Apollo and Daphne, “pray[ing] to be transformed into a tree.” But who is Apollo in the tale? Try to diagram the plot, and you might give yourself whiplash; at the very least, you’re likely to feel a little unmoored as the real world, such as it is, slips away into myth and dream.

Almost certainly the oddest love story you’ll have read in a long time. Think of Murakami drifting into the lands of Borges and Kafka, and you’ll have some of the feel of this strange, enchanting tale.

Pub Date: Dec. 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-62897-116-3

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Dalkey Archive

Review Posted Online: Sept. 24, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2015

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With humor and insight, Straub creates a family worth rooting for.

ALL ADULTS HERE

When Astrid Strick witnesses a school bus run over a longtime acquaintance of hers—Barbara Baker, a woman she doesn't like very much—it's only the beginning of the shake-ups to come in her life and the lives of those she loves.

Astrid has been tootling along contentedly in the Hudson Valley town of Clapham, New York, a 68-year-old widow with three grown children. After many years of singlehood since her husband died, she's been quietly seeing Birdie Gonzalez, her hairdresser, for the past two years, and after Barbara's death she determines to tell her children about the relationship: "There was no time to waste, not in this life. There were always more school buses." Elliot, her oldest, who's in real estate, lives in Clapham with his wife, Wendy, who's Chinese American, and their twins toddlers, Aidan and Zachary, who are "such hellions that only a fool would willingly ask for more." Astrid's daughter, Porter, owns a nearby farm producing artisanal goat cheese and has just gotten pregnant through a sperm bank while having an affair with her married high school boyfriend. Nicky, the youngest Strick, is disconcertingly famous for having appeared in an era-defining movie when he was younger and now lives in Brooklyn with his French wife, Juliette, and their daughter, Cecelia, who's being shipped up to live with Astrid for a while after her friend got mixed up with a pedophile she met online. As always, Straub (Modern Lovers, 2016, etc.) draws her characters warmly, making them appealing in their self-centeredness and generosity, their insecurity and hope. The cast is realistically diverse, though in most ways it's fairly superficial; the fact that Birdie is Latina or Porter's obstetrician is African American doesn't have much impact on the story or their characters. Cecelia's new friend, August, wants to make the transition to Robin; that storyline gets more attention, with the two middle schoolers supporting each other through challenging times. The Stricks worry about work, money, sex, and gossip; Straub has a sharp eye for her characters' foibles and the details of their liberal, upper-middle-class milieu.

With humor and insight, Straub creates a family worth rooting for.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-59463-469-7

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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A daring concept not so daringly developed.

THE BOOK OF LONGINGS

In Kidd’s (The Invention of Wings, 2014, etc.) feminist take on the New Testament, Jesus has a wife whose fondest longing is to write.

Ana is the daughter of Matthias, head scribe to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. She demonstrates an exceptional aptitude for writing, and Matthias, for a time, indulges her with reed pens, papyri, and other 16 C.E. office supplies. Her mother disapproves, but her aunt, Yaltha, mentors Ana in the ways of the enlightened women of Alexandria, from whence Yaltha, suspected of murdering her brutal husband, was exiled years before. Yaltha was also forced to give up her daughter, Chaya, for adoption. As Ana reaches puberty, parental tolerance of her nonconformity wanes, outweighed by the imperative to marry her off. Her adopted brother, Judas—yes, that Judas—is soon disowned for his nonconformity—plotting against Antipas. On the very day Ana, age 14, meets her prospective betrothed, the repellent Nathanial, in the town market, she also encounters Jesus, a young tradesman, to whom she’s instantly drawn. Their connection deepens after she encounters Jesus in the cave where she is concealing her writings about oppressed women. When Nathanial dies after his betrothal to Ana but before their marriage, Ana is shunned for insufficiently mourning him—and after refusing to become Antipas’ concubine, she is about to be stoned until Jesus defuses the situation with that famous admonition. She marries Jesus and moves into his widowed mother’s humble compound in Nazareth, accompanied by Yaltha. There, poverty, not sexism, prohibits her from continuing her writing—office supplies are expensive. Kidd skirts the issue of miracles, portraying Jesus as a fully human and, for the period, accepting husband—after a stillbirth, he condones Ana’s practice of herbal birth control. A structural problem is posed when Jesus’ active ministry begins—what will Ana’s role be? Problem avoided when, notified by Judas that Antipas is seeking her arrest, she and Yaltha journey to Alexandria in search of Chaya. In addition to depriving her of the opportunity to write the first and only contemporaneous gospel, removing Ana from the main action destroys the novel’s momentum.

A daring concept not so daringly developed.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-42976-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Jan. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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