OLD BABES IN THE WOOD

Honest and artful depictions of aging and loss—plus some other stuff.

The celebrated author’s first collection of short fiction since Stone Mattress (2014).

Atwood is, of course, one of the most celebrated Anglophone writers working today. She has been nominated for the Booker Prize six times and has won it twice—for The Blind Assassin (2000) and The Testaments (2019). The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is a groundbreaking work of science fiction that should be on anybody’s list of the best—or, at least, most important—books of the 20th century. Her new collection of short stories is a mixed bag. The first section is a series of interconnected narratives centered around married couple Tig and Nell. “First Aid” begins with Nell coming home to find a trail of blood leading from an open front door into the kitchen. It ends up being a sweetly melancholy meditation on living in a world designed to kill us. “Two Scorched Men”—Nell’s account of getting to know two World War II veterans who are friends while she’s in France—is a fine story but an odd fit with the preceding work. In “Morte de Smudgie,” Nell rewrites Tennyson’s elegy for King Arthur for her dead cat, and the less said about this, the better. The middle section of this book is a hodgepodge of pieces that feel like experiments, exercises, and false starts. It’s hard to escape the feeling that they are gathered here simply to fill enough pages to make a book of reasonable length while the Hulu series based on Atwood’s greatest work is still in production—or while the author is still semi–internet famous for creating a Twitter flap about gender. This is too bad because, when Atwood returns to Nell and Tig, she offers a powerfully affecting quartet of stories in which Nell navigates widowhood—the best of these is the eponymous story that first appeared in the New Yorker.

Honest and artful depictions of aging and loss—plus some other stuff.

Pub Date: March 7, 2023

ISBN: 9780385549073

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 24, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2023

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DEMON COPPERHEAD

An angry, powerful book seething with love and outrage for a community too often stereotyped or ignored.

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Inspired by David Copperfield, Kingsolver crafts a 21st-century coming-of-age story set in America’s hard-pressed rural South.

It’s not necessary to have read Dickens’ famous novel to appreciate Kingsolver’s absorbing tale, but those who have will savor the tough-minded changes she rings on his Victorian sentimentality while affirming his stinging critique of a heartless society. Our soon-to-be orphaned narrator’s mother is a substance-abusing teenage single mom who checks out via OD on his 11th birthday, and Demon’s cynical, wised-up voice is light-years removed from David Copperfield’s earnest tone. Yet readers also see the yearning for love and wells of compassion hidden beneath his self-protective exterior. Like pretty much everyone else in Lee County, Virginia, hollowed out economically by the coal and tobacco industries, he sees himself as someone with no prospects and little worth. One of Kingsolver’s major themes, hit a little too insistently, is the contempt felt by participants in the modern capitalist economy for those rooted in older ways of life. More nuanced and emotionally engaging is Demon’s fierce attachment to his home ground, a place where he is known and supported, tested to the breaking point as the opiate epidemic engulfs it. Kingsolver’s ferocious indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, angrily stated by a local girl who has become a nurse, is in the best Dickensian tradition, and Demon gives a harrowing account of his descent into addiction with his beloved Dori (as naïve as Dickens’ Dora in her own screwed-up way). Does knowledge offer a way out of this sinkhole? A committed teacher tries to enlighten Demon’s seventh grade class about how the resource-rich countryside was pillaged and abandoned, but Kingsolver doesn’t air-brush his students’ dismissal of this history or the prejudice encountered by this African American outsider and his White wife. She is an art teacher who guides Demon toward self-expression, just as his friend Tommy provokes his dawning understanding of how their world has been shaped by outside forces and what he might be able to do about it.

An angry, powerful book seething with love and outrage for a community too often stereotyped or ignored.

Pub Date: Oct. 18, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-06-325-1922

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 13, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2022

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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