An engrossing social tapestry, filled with quiet spiritual dramas.

SIGNALS FROM A LAMPLESS BEACON

BEASTS OF BURDEN

Subtle moral conundrums stir this luminous saga of genteel Southern society in the mid-20th century.

Traywick’s loose, episodic tale follows a sprawling cast of characters from World War II through the mid-1960s as their lives are changed or upended by the inscrutable workings of fate. At one focus is the family of Thomas Strikestraw, an Episcopal minister in a small North Carolina town who likes to confound his flock with mildly heretical sermons. His son, a naval officer, disappears under circumstances that implicate him in a German spy ring. At the other focal point is the Ashfield clan, aristocrats of South Carolina’s Low Country, along with their African-American companions in the Gadsden family, whose daughter, Lilia Belle, is raped by a congressman. Around these poles orbit neighbors, friends, small-town eccentrics and several isolated subplots that gradually weave themselves together, including a man who wakes up with amnesia aboard a U-boat just as it’s captured by the British and a World War I veteran who, having survived one calamity after another against all odds, decides he’s destined to never die. The novel treats its characters’ travails with serene equanimity. Estrangements, crimes, miscarriages and deaths violent or tranquil are folded calmly into the narrative flow, their consequences surfacing only much later in musings on religion and ethics or in surreptitious acts of generosity and honor. Traywick’s richly textured prose creates a fictive world that’s almost Faulknerian in its density, revealing to the reader a burnished, elegiac view of upper-crust Southern life on the cusp of the civil rights movement—a gracious world of plantations, glamorous balls, weddings and shooting parties. For now, racial tensions are muted and salved by humane courtliness. Traywick’s vision is limited—almost cloistered—and so meditative that it seems detached at times, even though it sheds a captivating glow.

An engrossing social tapestry, filled with quiet spiritual dramas.

Pub Date: March 23, 2009

ISBN: 978-1440126390

Page Count: 312

Publisher: iUniverse

Review Posted Online: May 31, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2012

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Franzen’s intensely absorbing novel is amusing, excruciating, and at times unexpectedly uplifting—in a word, exquisite.

CROSSROADS

This first novel in an ambitious trilogy tracks a suburban Chicago family in a time of personal and societal turmoil.

It says a lot that, at almost 600 pages, Franzen’s latest novel, set amid the waning years of the Vietnam War, leaves you wanting more. That it does so is also very good news: It’s the first in what promises to be a sprawling trilogy, continuing to the present day, which the author has titled A Key to All Mythologies in what is presumably a wink at its far-from-modest ambitions—yes, à la Middlemarch. That reference is classic Franzen, who imbues his books with big ideas, in this case about responsibility to family, self, God, country, and one’s fellow man, among other matters, all the while digging deep into his characters’ emotions, experiences, desires, and doubts in a way that will please readers seeking to connect to books heart-first. Here, the story follows two generations of the Hildebrandt family, headed by Russ, the associate pastor of a church in the fictional town of New Prospect, Illinois, who, when we first meet him in the lead-up to Christmas 1971, is nursing a crush on a recently widowed parishioner and a grudge against the groovily charismatic leader of the church’s popular youth group, Crossroads, in which three of Russ’ four children are variously involved. Russ’ wife, Marion, who has gained weight over the years and lost her pre-maternal intensity and with it her husband’s sexual interest, is nursing a few secret preoccupations of her own, as are the couple’s three oldest children, Clem, Becky, and Perry. Each of the five characters, among whose perspectives Franzen adroitly toggles, is struggling with matters of morality and integrity, privilege and purpose, driven in part by the dueling desires for independence and connection. Their internal battles—to fight in an unjust war or unjustly let others fight in your stead, to fight their way out of a marriage or fight to stay in it, to fight for sanity or surrender to madness, to fight to define themselves and determine their paths or to cede that control to others, to name a few—are set against the backdrop of an era in which “love” is everywhere but empathy is in short supply, where hugs are liberally dispensed but real connection’s harder to come by.

Franzen’s intensely absorbing novel is amusing, excruciating, and at times unexpectedly uplifting—in a word, exquisite.

Pub Date: Oct. 5, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-374-18117-8

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: June 29, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2021

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As one of Whitehead’s characters might say of their creator, When you’re hot, you’re hot.

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HARLEM SHUFFLE

After winning back-to-back Pulitzer Prizes for his previous two books, Whitehead lets fly with a typically crafty change-up: a crime novel set in mid-20th-century Harlem.

The twin triumphs of The Underground Railroad (2016) and The Nickel Boys (2019) may have led Whitehead’s fans to believe he would lean even harder on social justice themes in his next novel. But by now, it should be clear that this most eclectic of contemporary masters never repeats himself, and his new novel is as audacious, ingenious, and spellbinding as any of his previous period pieces. Its unlikely and appealing protagonist is Ray Carney, who, when the story begins in 1959, is expecting a second child with his wife, Elizabeth, while selling used furniture and appliances on Harlem’s storied, ever bustling 125th Street. Ray’s difficult childhood as a hoodlum’s son forced to all but raise himself makes him an exemplar of the self-made man to everybody but his upper-middle-class in-laws, aghast that their daughter and grandchildren live in a small apartment within earshot of the subway tracks. Try as he might, however, Ray can’t quite wrest free of his criminal roots. To help make ends meet as he struggles to grow his business, Ray takes covert trips downtown to sell lost or stolen jewelry, some of it coming through the dubious means of Ray’s ne’er-do-well cousin, Freddie, who’s been getting Ray into hot messes since they were kids. Freddie’s now involved in a scheme to rob the Hotel Theresa, the fabled “Waldorf of Harlem," and he wants his cousin to fence whatever he and his unsavory, volatile cohorts take in. This caper, which goes wrong in several perilous ways, is only the first in a series of strenuous tests of character and resources Ray endures from the back end of the 1950s to the Harlem riots of 1964. Throughout, readers will be captivated by a Dickensian array of colorful, idiosyncratic characters, from itchy-fingered gangsters to working-class women with a low threshold for male folly. What’s even more impressive is Whitehead’s densely layered, intricately woven rendering of New York City in the Kennedy era, a time filled with both the bright promise of greater economic opportunity and looming despair due to the growing heroin plague. It's a city in which, as one character observes, “everybody’s kicking back or kicking up. Unless you’re on top.”

As one of Whitehead’s characters might say of their creator, When you’re hot, you’re hot.

Pub Date: Sept. 14, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-385-54513-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: June 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2021

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