A valiant and intelligent failure: despite his best efforts, Salzman has created a kind of ecclesiastical drag-show that...

LYING AWAKE

A deliberate and somewhat plodding account of life inside a Carmelite convent, told with a surfeit of awe by Salzman (The Soloist, 1994; the nonfiction Lost in Place, 1995), who seems to have read too much Rumer Godden for his own good.

To write from the perspective of a contemplative nun is no small undertaking, since most enclosed convents allow few visitors (and certainly no men) much access to the inner workings of their daily lives. Salzman, however, has clearly researched his subject well, and has assembled a credible cast in a reasonable facsimile of a strictly enclosed convent. Center-stage here is Sister John of the Cross, who entered the Carmel (convent) in 1969. An intellectual (and a writer), Sister John suffers many years of barren unhappiness at the Carmel before she begins to enjoy visions and moments of ecstatic happiness in prayer. Suspicious of false visionaries by nature (and according to the precepts of the Rule of their order), the other nuns gradually come to trust the reality of Sister John’s spiritual insights and look upon her as a kind of guide and anchor for the community. But trouble intervenes when Sister John develops a series of chronic migraines and is diagnosed with a rare epileptic disorder. The doctor recommends surgery, and is fairly certain that he can cure the condition—which was quite probably the root of her visions in the first place. So Sister John has to face what is (to her) the worst catastrophe imaginable: a life devoid of the sensible perception of God. Salzman sketches her dilemma with great sensitivity and a light touch, using short, almost impressionistic chapters and flashbacks that attempt to capture the seasonal rhythms of religious life. But there is profound flatness in his perspective that—despite many moving interior passages—fails to convey any convincing sense of the interior life that is the central point of such vocations.

A valiant and intelligent failure: despite his best efforts, Salzman has created a kind of ecclesiastical drag-show that fails to get below the surface of life in the Carmel.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-40632-8

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2000

Did you like this book?

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Reader Votes

  • Readers Vote
  • 17

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2018

  • New York Times Bestseller

CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

Did you like this book?

THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

Did you like this book?

more