by Phillip Bannowsky ‧ RELEASE DATE: June 3, 2021
An engrossing, lushly written, sometimes bleak, but often exuberant meditation on human connectedness.
A restless migrant gets ensnared in the war on terror in this labyrinthine poem cycle.
Bannowsky’s poems follow the misadventures of Jacobo Males Bitar, the illegitimate son of an immigrant Lebanese spa owner in Ecuador and his Native Ecuadorian accountant. Born in 1985, Jacobo becomes steeped in his mother’s Inca folk traditions and the lore of his father’s far-flung Maronite Catholic clan. True to his immigrant heritage, Jacobo embarks on his own international picaresque when, entranced by the idea of America, he goes to Delaware on a work visa in 2005 and gets a series of cruddy jobs. After he loses his passport, he’s arrested in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid and deported to Lebanon, a country he has never seen. There, he’s taken in by Muhammad Abu Barghouti Hamoudi, a Palestinian whose family lives in a refugee camp. Using money earned by smuggling hashish, Jacobo and Hamoudi get forged Turkish passports and leave Beirut during the Israel-Hezbollah War of 2006. Jacobo winds up in Istanbul, where he is kidnapped, handed over to United States intelligence officials, falsely charged with being a terrorist, and flown to Guantánamo Bay. Intertwined with his travails are poetic sketches of other characters, including his father, Elías; Olga Fisch, a Hungarian Jewish woman who left Europe in the 1930s and opened an Indigenous arts-and-crafts shop in Quito; Lawrence Wells, a U.S. special forces officer whose path repeatedly crosses Jacobo’s; and Leila, a Black American woman who shares a brief romance with the protagonist. Other poems digress into deep history. One explores an effort by the seventh-century Byzantine Emperor Constans II to stamp out theological controversies.
Bannowsky makes Jacobo a modern, global Everyman, adrift with other migrant strivers in a world that seems bent on either exploiting or scapegoating him. Yet Jacobo isn’t isolated. He and other wanderers stay tethered to a remembered past while they search for uncertain opportunities and new relationships—the very essence of the human condition from its ancient beginnings, the author suggests. (“Every Maronite shows haplotype J2, / the gene that presents in all Phoenicia’s costal colonies,” Elías boasts. “Thus, from a hundred streams, / we bear the traits of our great ancestors.”) Bannowsky’s characters explore these themes in a profusion of distinctive voices, from the stolid bureaucratese of Jacobo’s Guantánamo interrogators—“History of anxiety and depression: bi-polar symptoms including delusions of being a U.S. Citizen, an American Indian, or an ‘Otavalo from Ecuador’—to Leila’s wary rap soliloquy. (“Whatchu know about my people; / watchu know about the street? / You see a pusher for a preacher / and a hustler for a teacher / in every brother that you meet?”) The author’s poetry mixes quirky erudition with perfectly pitched demotic speech that jumbles street slang with pop genetics and doughnut recipes. His verse captures even a poultry plant with an evocative lyricism (“Like a lone star in the manurey firmament that was / the warehouse, a single light bulb shown / on thousands of white chickens across a sea of dark dirt; they / roiled softly like expiring foam, / clucking mild reproaches at our approach”). The result is an entertaining, soulful verse tale of people trying to find their places in the world.An engrossing, lushly written, sometimes bleak, but often exuberant meditation on human connectedness.
Pub Date: June 3, 2021
Page Count: 132
Publisher: Broken Turtle Books LLC
Review Posted Online: Oct. 27, 2021
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by Zadie Smith ‧ RELEASE DATE: Sept. 5, 2023
Intelligent and thoughtful but not quite at this groundbreaking writer’s usual level of excellence.
An obscure English novelist and a missing-heir trial are the real historical springboards for Smith’s latest fiction.
Eliza Touchet is cousin and housekeeper to William Ainsworth, whose novel Jack Sheppard once outsold Oliver Twist but who, by 1868, has been far eclipsed by his erstwhile friend Dickens. Widower William is about to marry his maid Sarah Wells, who has borne him a child. Characteristically, he leaves the arrangements to Eliza, who manages everything about his life except the novels he keeps cranking out, which his shrewd cousin knows are dreadful. The new Mrs. Ainsworth is obsessed with the man claiming to be Sir Roger Tichborne, heir to a family fortune who was reported drowned in a shipwreck. The Claimant, as he is called, is likely a butcher from Wapping, but Sarah is one of many working-class Britons who passionately defend him as a man of the people being done wrong by the toffs. Eliza gets drawn into the trial by her fascination with Andrew Bogle, formerly enslaved by the Tichbornes in Jamaica, who recognizes the Claimant as Sir Roger. A Roman Catholic in Protestant Britain and William’s former lover who's been supplanted by a younger woman, Eliza feels a connection to Bogle as a fellow outsider. (Some pointed scenes, however, make it clear that this sense of kinship is one-sided and that well-intentioned Eliza can be as patronizing as any other white Briton.) Smith alternates the progress of the trial with Eliza’s memories of the past, which include tart assessments of William’s circle of literary pals, who eventually make clear their disdain for his work, and intriguing allusions to her affair with William’s first wife and to her S&M sex with William. (Eliza wielded the whips.) It’s skillfully done, but the minutely detailed trial scenes provide more information than most readers will want, and a lengthy middle section recounting Bogle’s African ancestry and enslaved life, though gripping, further blurs the narrative’s focus. Historical fiction doesn’t seem to bring out Smith’s strongest gifts; this rather pallid narrative lacks the zest of her previous novels’ depictions of contemporary life.Intelligent and thoughtful but not quite at this groundbreaking writer’s usual level of excellence.
Pub Date: Sept. 5, 2023
Page Count: 464
Publisher: Penguin Press
Review Posted Online: June 8, 2023
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2023
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by James McBride ‧ RELEASE DATE: Aug. 8, 2023
If it’s possible for America to have a poet laureate, why can’t James McBride be its storyteller-in-chief?
Awards & Accolades
New York Times Bestseller
McBride follows up his hit novel Deacon King Kong (2020) with another boisterous hymn to community, mercy, and karmic justice.
It's June 1972, and the Pennsylvania State Police have some questions concerning a skeleton found at the bottom of an old well in the ramshackle Chicken Hill section of Pottstown that’s been marked for redevelopment. But Hurricane Agnes intervenes by washing away the skeleton and all other physical evidence of a series of extraordinary events that began more than 40 years earlier, when Jewish and African American citizens shared lives, hopes, and heartbreak in that same neighborhood. At the literal and figurative heart of these events is Chona Ludlow, the forbearing, compassionate Jewish proprietor of the novel’s eponymous grocery store, whose instinctive kindness and fairness toward the Black families of Chicken Hill exceed even that of her husband, Moshe, who, with Chona’s encouragement, desegregates his theater to allow his Black neighbors to fully enjoy acts like Chick Webb’s swing orchestra. Many local White Christians frown upon the easygoing relationship between Jews and Blacks, especially Doc Roberts, Pottstown’s leading physician, who marches every year in the local Ku Klux Klan parade. The ties binding the Ludlows to their Black neighbors become even stronger over the years, but that bond is tested most stringently and perilously when Chona helps Nate Timblin, a taciturn Black janitor at Moshe’s theater and the unofficial leader of his community, conceal and protect a young orphan named Dodo who lost his hearing in an explosion. He isn’t at all “feeble-minded,” but the government wants to put him in an institution promising little care and much abuse. The interlocking destinies of these and other characters make for tense, absorbing drama and, at times, warm, humane comedy. McBride’s well-established skill with narrative tactics may sometimes spill toward the melodramatic here. But as in McBride’s previous works, you barely notice such relatively minor contrivances because of the depth of characterizations and the pitch-perfect dialogue of his Black and Jewish characters. It’s possible to draw a clear, straight line from McBride’s breakthrough memoir, The Color of Water (1996), to the themes of this latest work.If it’s possible for America to have a poet laureate, why can’t James McBride be its storyteller-in-chief?
Pub Date: Aug. 8, 2023
Page Count: 400
Review Posted Online: May 9, 2023
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2023
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