Generalizations aside, the 29 stories here are excellent and frequently brilliant, with none of the workshopped feel of so...

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BEST EUROPEAN FICTION 2017

The across-the-pond rejoinder to Best American Short Stories delivers another fine collection of continental conjuring.

To judge by this sparkling anthology, the eighth in the series, Europeans live in high places and are given to throwing themselves from them—or at least in front of buses. The protagonist of Danish writer Ida Jessen’s “Postcard to Annie,” for instance, lives in an attic room from which “she could see the red rooftops of Trøjborg, the woods, and the bay of Aarhus Bugt.” We should have a sense of foreboding: Scandinavian gloom and heights do not make a good combination, but the story resolves in vehicular mayhem instead, which just makes the protagonist hungry, if a touch world-weary. In Mikkel Bugge’s contribution from Norway, a “girl leaps from the fifth floor wearing an Alice in Wonderland costume,” while in Macedonian writer Snežana Mladenovska Angjelkov’s “Beba,” the jumper is less clearly defined: “Something fell from the building. I didn’t see exactly what it was.” What that “something” is lies at the heart of her pensive, economical tale. Other writers take those heights even higher: more than one turns to outer space, including Liechtenstein’s contribution to the proceedings, in which binational writer Jonathan Huston imagines a grumpy retired astronaut, very much in his dotage, recalling a lunar rock whose “color was alien, like a rainbow trapped in amber, graceful and fragile and bound to give the geologists on Earth wet dreams.” Wet dreams? Well, it being Europe and all, there’s some sex, mostly understated and angst-y—and on that aging continent there’s also a pronounced thematic preference for the experiences of the old, such as the narrator of Ticinese writer Giovanni Orelli’s “Death by Laughter,” who is “ninety nine point nine years old, a hundred let’s say,” with all the intimations of mortality attendant.

Generalizations aside, the 29 stories here are excellent and frequently brilliant, with none of the workshopped feel of so many of their American counterparts. Of interest to literary readers of English on both sides of the water.

Pub Date: Oct. 28, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-62897-143-9

Page Count: 324

Publisher: Dalkey Archive

Review Posted Online: Sept. 7, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2016

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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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