An elegant meditation on what might have been.

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TELL THEM OF BATTLES, KINGS, AND ELEPHANTS

Continuing his explorations of the meeting of East and West, French novelist Énard (Compass, 2017) imagines a lost episode in the life of Michelangelo Buonarroti.

History tells us that the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid, having rejected a design by Leonardo da Vinci to join Europe to Asia by a bridge over the Golden Horn, approached Michelangelo with the same project. History adds that Michelangelo said no. But what if the answer, Énard posits, had been yes, as newly discovered documents suggest? Michelangelo, after all, had been having endless troubles getting paid by Julius II, “the warlike, authoritarian pope who has treated him so poorly.” The temptation to slip across the border of the Papal States into Florence and thence to Venice and Constantinople would have been great, especially because the sultan knew just how to appeal to him by contrasting him to Leonardo: “You will surpass him in glory if you accept, for you will succeed where he has failed, and you will give the world a monument without equal….” That, and he’d quintuple his salary. Intrigue immediately ensues, for there are spies—of the pope, of Venice, of the sultan—everywhere, and where there are spies, there are lures and temptations. And then there’s Mesihi, the Kosovar Muslim who guides Michelangelo between two worlds and becomes more than a Virgil in the bargain, first taking Michelangelo to the former cathedral and now mosque of the Hagia Sophia, now devoted, as Michelangelo thinks, to “the one Dante sends to the fifth circle of Hell.” In his way, Mesihi is as great an artist as the master, a man who “loved men and women, women and men, sang the praises of his patron and the delights of spring, both sweet and full of despair at the same time.” Naturally, cultures and personalities come into collision, and all does not end well for Michelangelo, “afraid of love just as he’s afraid of Hell,” or, for that matter, for anyone in Michelangelo’s orbit.

An elegant meditation on what might have been.

Pub Date: Nov. 27, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-8112-2704-9

Page Count: 144

Publisher: New Directions

Review Posted Online: Aug. 21, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2018

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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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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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