A curious, even eccentric book, and a must-read for fans of post-boom Latin American literature.

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EMPTY WORDS

Change your handwriting, change your life: an enigmatic 1996 novel, his first to be translated into English, by Uruguayan writer Levrero.

In Latin America, there’s a literary saw that says that Mexico produces novelists, Chile poets, and Uruguay “strange ones.” So notes translator McDermott in her scene-setting introduction to this slender story à clef, in which Levrero recounts trying to make his handwriting more calligraphic and, by improving it, to alter bad habits and become an altogether better person. The problem is the solution: He tries to write “empty words,” words chosen simply for their power to test the musculature of composition, say with lots of instances of the troublesome letter r in them. By not lifting the pen from the page, Levrero writes, “I think this will help me improve my concentration and the continuity of my thoughts, which are currently all over the place.” Write he does, scattered thoughts and all, and amid the humdrum, meaningful compositions begin to emerge, unbidden, tempting the author “to turn my calligraphical prose into narrative prose, with the idea of building a series of texts that, like the steps of a staircase, would carry me back up to those longed-for heights I was once able to reach.“ More than just an exercise in chasing his own tail, Levrero takes himself into dangerous psychological territory, wrestling with the things that underlie his loopy a’s: anxiety builds, he smokes like a chimney, he bloats and becomes listless—and then comes, if not a breakthrough, at least the emergence of some interesting if sometimes unpleasant sketches, marked by second thoughts, strike-throughs, revisions, and other such signs of the alchemy that is writing. Vita contemplativa, vita scripta: What Levrero learns about himself, in the end, is of universal application, and while it’s not necessarily cheerful, it allows him to proceed “by means of a kind of spiritual acrobatics.”

A curious, even eccentric book, and a must-read for fans of post-boom Latin American literature.

Pub Date: May 21, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-56689-546-0

Page Count: 152

Publisher: Coffee House

Review Posted Online: June 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 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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