A short, insightful reflection on the expatriate experience.

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Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside

Carroll’s debut novel, a character study of two Americans teaching English in rural China, gracefully contrasts idealism and cynicism.

Epigraphs from W. Somerset Maugham and Paul Bowles evoke two precedents for this contemplative work on being a purposeless outsider. But the greatest debt is to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. Carroll’s plot follows the uneasy relationship between two men, one older and jaded, the other young and idealistic. Thomas Guillard, a Minnesotan in his 60s, arrives in Ningyuan to work at an English language school. He has neither the passion nor affinity for teaching but persists halfheartedly—between bouts of drunkenness. Twenty-something Daniel, conversely, speaks Mandarin fluently and is popular with his students, especially enthusiastic Bella. “Daniel’s motive for moving abroad had been to reach out and learn something from the world,” which accounts for his embrace of new experiences, whether patronizing a brothel or sampling dog paw as the guest of honor at a holiday feast. There are no quotation marks, and the close third-person narration moves easily between Daniel’s and Guillard’s perspectives. The latter’s bad-tempered xenophobia emerges as he notices “the Chinese squatting…and eyeing him like children” in a bus station like “some cattle fair” and observes “the moon had risen—what a fat and ugly bitch.” Yet sympathy goes solely to Daniel, perhaps partially for autobiographical reasons—Carroll, too, taught English in China. No inner doubt or vulnerability humanizes Guillard, and the narrative unsubtly cements Daniel’s judgment: Guillard “had proven to be arrogant, lewd, and racist.” Guillard’s Scrooge-like persona doesn’t even lift for Christmas Day, when—in the novel’s standout sequence—Bella cooks him a duck. Never a romantic prospect for either man, Bella is enough of a desirable object to allow trumped-up sexual harassment charges to drive one of them away in a slightly forced plot twist. Set over one academic year, the novel has a clear mission it fulfills admirably while recalling W.G. Sebald and Ben Lerner with its picture of befuddled foreignness. A pleasingly inconclusive ending paints home and new destinations as equally appealing.

 A short, insightful reflection on the expatriate experience.

Pub Date: Nov. 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-941758-45-8

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Inkshares

Review Posted Online: Nov. 10, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

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With humor and insight, Straub creates a family worth rooting for.

ALL ADULTS HERE

When Astrid Strick witnesses a school bus run over a longtime acquaintance of hers—Barbara Baker, a woman she doesn't like very much—it's only the beginning of the shake-ups to come in her life and the lives of those she loves.

Astrid has been tootling along contentedly in the Hudson Valley town of Clapham, New York, a 68-year-old widow with three grown children. After many years of singlehood since her husband died, she's been quietly seeing Birdie Gonzalez, her hairdresser, for the past two years, and after Barbara's death she determines to tell her children about the relationship: "There was no time to waste, not in this life. There were always more school buses." Elliot, her oldest, who's in real estate, lives in Clapham with his wife, Wendy, who's Chinese American, and their twins toddlers, Aidan and Zachary, who are "such hellions that only a fool would willingly ask for more." Astrid's daughter, Porter, owns a nearby farm producing artisanal goat cheese and has just gotten pregnant through a sperm bank while having an affair with her married high school boyfriend. Nicky, the youngest Strick, is disconcertingly famous for having appeared in an era-defining movie when he was younger and now lives in Brooklyn with his French wife, Juliette, and their daughter, Cecelia, who's being shipped up to live with Astrid for a while after her friend got mixed up with a pedophile she met online. As always, Straub (Modern Lovers, 2016, etc.) draws her characters warmly, making them appealing in their self-centeredness and generosity, their insecurity and hope. The cast is realistically diverse, though in most ways it's fairly superficial; the fact that Birdie is Latina or Porter's obstetrician is African American doesn't have much impact on the story or their characters. Cecelia's new friend, August, wants to make the transition to Robin; that storyline gets more attention, with the two middle schoolers supporting each other through challenging times. The Stricks worry about work, money, sex, and gossip; Straub has a sharp eye for her characters' foibles and the details of their liberal, upper-middle-class milieu.

With humor and insight, Straub creates a family worth rooting for.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-59463-469-7

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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A daring concept not so daringly developed.

THE BOOK OF LONGINGS

In Kidd’s (The Invention of Wings, 2014, etc.) feminist take on the New Testament, Jesus has a wife whose fondest longing is to write.

Ana is the daughter of Matthias, head scribe to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. She demonstrates an exceptional aptitude for writing, and Matthias, for a time, indulges her with reed pens, papyri, and other 16 C.E. office supplies. Her mother disapproves, but her aunt, Yaltha, mentors Ana in the ways of the enlightened women of Alexandria, from whence Yaltha, suspected of murdering her brutal husband, was exiled years before. Yaltha was also forced to give up her daughter, Chaya, for adoption. As Ana reaches puberty, parental tolerance of her nonconformity wanes, outweighed by the imperative to marry her off. Her adopted brother, Judas—yes, that Judas—is soon disowned for his nonconformity—plotting against Antipas. On the very day Ana, age 14, meets her prospective betrothed, the repellent Nathanial, in the town market, she also encounters Jesus, a young tradesman, to whom she’s instantly drawn. Their connection deepens after she encounters Jesus in the cave where she is concealing her writings about oppressed women. When Nathanial dies after his betrothal to Ana but before their marriage, Ana is shunned for insufficiently mourning him—and after refusing to become Antipas’ concubine, she is about to be stoned until Jesus defuses the situation with that famous admonition. She marries Jesus and moves into his widowed mother’s humble compound in Nazareth, accompanied by Yaltha. There, poverty, not sexism, prohibits her from continuing her writing—office supplies are expensive. Kidd skirts the issue of miracles, portraying Jesus as a fully human and, for the period, accepting husband—after a stillbirth, he condones Ana’s practice of herbal birth control. A structural problem is posed when Jesus’ active ministry begins—what will Ana’s role be? Problem avoided when, notified by Judas that Antipas is seeking her arrest, she and Yaltha journey to Alexandria in search of Chaya. In addition to depriving her of the opportunity to write the first and only contemporaneous gospel, removing Ana from the main action destroys the novel’s momentum.

A daring concept not so daringly developed.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-42976-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Jan. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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