An engaging autobiographical novel, really as much memoir as fiction, from the mandarin stylist renowned for both personal history (A Stroke of Genius, 1995, etc.) and zestfully inventive fiction (Terrestrials, 1997, etc.). West’s subject this time is his wife, poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman (herself a noted nonfiction writer); specifically, their romantic friendship throughout the 1970s when both taught at fictional “Coriolus” (surely Cornell) University, and formed a bond uniting their separate, then increasingly common explorations of the worlds of art and science. He waxes rhapsodic when devising the affectionate names “Swan” (for both her physical grace and her love of flight) and “Ariada Mencken” (a clever anagram for “Diane Ackerman”); impishly comparing them both to Dante’s Paolo and Francesca; and celebrating each’s penchant for (wonderfully awful) word coinages and puns—to wit: “Our oral lives (in the verbal domain, that is) have always been two interacting Niagaras, opaque and weird to overhearers.” Chronology is treated cavalierly, as West noodles agreeably on such topics as their fascination with astronomy (“Far from star-crossed, we were cosmic lovers”), his own admittedly eccentric writing habits and passion for foreign novels and Milton’s poetry, hers for close observation of the physical world and sedulous “conveyance” of what she learns to others. A book within a book in effect develops from accounts of their travels to (then) Cape Canaveral to observe Viking and Voyager liftoffs, shepherded by their pseudonymous colleague Raoul Bunsen (“an astronomical combination of Andre Breton and Salvador Dali”), who, we’re probably safe to guess, is a fictionalized Carl Sagan. The book tools along aimlessly, but never fails to entertain, while creating a rich illusion of intimacy with two gifted and fascinating people for whom curiosity is one of the highest human virtues. It’s probably something less than an authoritative dual biography. On the other hand, what a terrific Valentine’s Day present—for Diane Ackerman, and us.

Pub Date: Feb. 22, 1999

ISBN: 0-684-84864-3

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1999

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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A first novel, this is also a first person account of Scout's (Jean Louise) recall of the years that led to the ending of a mystery, the breaking of her brother Jem's elbow, the death of her father's enemy — and the close of childhood years. A widower, Atticus raises his children with legal dispassion and paternal intelligence, and is ably abetted by Calpurnia, the colored cook, while the Alabama town of Maycomb, in the 1930's, remains aloof to their divergence from its tribal patterns. Scout and Jem, with their summer-time companion, Dill, find their paths free from interference — but not from dangers; their curiosity about the imprisoned Boo, whose miserable past is incorporated in their play, results in a tentative friendliness; their fears of Atticus' lack of distinction is dissipated when he shoots a mad dog; his defense of a Negro accused of raping a white girl, Mayella Ewell, is followed with avid interest and turns the rabble whites against him. Scout is the means of averting an attack on Atticus but when he loses the case it is Boo who saves Jem and Scout by killing Mayella's father when he attempts to murder them. The shadows of a beginning for black-white understanding, the persistent fight that Scout carries on against school, Jem's emergence into adulthood, Calpurnia's quiet power, and all the incidents touching on the children's "growing outward" have an attractive starchiness that keeps this southern picture pert and provocative. There is much advance interest in this book; it has been selected by the Literary Guild and Reader's Digest; it should win many friends.

Pub Date: July 11, 1960

ISBN: 0060935464

Page Count: 323

Publisher: Lippincott

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1960

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