A faintly lewd farce that reads like a better-educated version of a Mel Brooks movie, complete with gypsy curses and Nazis.

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THE BALLAD OF BARNABAS PIERKIEL

A swineherd dreams of romance and glory as he fumbles his way toward destiny on the eve of World War II.

The book starts with a dirty joke and ends with a bloody battle, and in between lies a great deal of carefully measured absurdist humor. For her debut novel, Polish-born indie screenwriter Zyzak (Redland, 2009) has fabricated an almost obsessive recreation of a picaresque novel in the vein of Don Quixote, with shades of the Marx Brothers, Monty Python and Nikolai Gogol thrown in. The author sets her little play in 1939 in a fictionalized Poland called Scalvusia, a country that no longer exists, centering on the small village of Odolechka. The story is told from the point of view of an anonymous villager remembering the events of that year, with its focus on a swineherd named Barnabas Pierkiel. The village is populated by a host of absurdist characters, including a mad priest, a bickering mayor and police chief, the mayor’s busybody wife, and Barnabas’ addled cousin Yurek. Young Barnabas has set his sights on lovely young gypsy Roosha Papusha, whom the swineherd hopes to steal from wealthy Karol von Grushka. If it sounds excessively stylized, it is, and the flowery prose that Zyzak applies to her fable may not be for everyone. Take a scene in which Barnabas has earned a moment of ministration from Roosha: “A strange sensation crashed over our hero like a blood-red wave full of water-logged trombones and broken short gourds (not quite translatable from Scalvusian, but one of my best turns of phrase, if the reader will go on trust), in which wave, he had to admit, there was something of the urgency of farmer Charek’s scrofulous krskopolje boar.” Like the novels on which it’s modeled, events play out in loosely connected episodes that fail to foreshadow the novel’s abrupt ending.

A faintly lewd farce that reads like a better-educated version of a Mel Brooks movie, complete with gypsy curses and Nazis.

Pub Date: Jan. 14, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8050-9510-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2013

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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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