A thoughtful, melancholy study of loss.

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ALL RUSSIANS LOVE BIRCH TREES

A young Azerbaijan-born Jew tries to escape those ethnic and racial modifiers, with limited success, in Grjasnowa’s flinty debut.

Masha, the narrator of this trim but forceful novel, was born in Baku and has vivid memories of the violent ethnic strife among Azeris, Armenians and Russians there in the early 1990s. As the novel opens, she’s a young woman living in Frankfurt with Elias, a German Christian, and working as a translator (she’s fluent in five languages). But when Elias dies from an infected leg injury, Masha is cast adrift. She reconnects with Muslim friends and decides to take a job in Tel Aviv, which exposes her to the entrenched Jewish and Palestinian factions there. “I didn’t want a genocide to be the key to my personality,” she says, but past injustice is a raw wound wherever she goes, with whomever she meets. After falling for a relatively carefree Israeli, Ori, she’s increasingly attracted to his sister, Tal, who’s a more vociferous activist on behalf of Palestinians; the two become symbols of the opposite poles that Masha strives to avoid. Grjasnowa has endowed Masha with a caustic sense of humor that doesn’t shortchange the grief she’s suffered as a child or after Elias’ death, and her frustration with being boxed in by identity politics is palpable. Grjasnowa is also skilled (via Bacon’s translation) at describing Israel’s monuments, landscapes, checkpoints and bars in clear, simple strokes. The novel’s chief flaw is that the people in Masha’s orbit are sometimes underdrawn—we hardly know Elias’ character, or Masha’s depth of feeling for him, before he’s cut down. Even so, the novel closes on a note that reveals the fullness of her childhood anguish, bringing the story to a downbeat but effective end.

A thoughtful, melancholy study of loss.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-59051-584-6

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: Sept. 18, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2013

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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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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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