In this feat of a novel, knowledge is a tiny first step on the way to understanding.

GOOD ON PAPER

A translator struggles to redefine her work, her family, and her sense of self.

Translation, done well, is less an act of comprehension than one of empathy—the translator must enter the writer’s head and decipher not only her words, but her intention. In Cantor’s (A Highly Unlikely Scenario, 2014) skillfully structured second novel, dilettante temp and single mom Shira Greene approaches translation work in stages: first she retypes, then she handwrites, scans for rhythm, takes notes, builds a lexicon, and ultimately throws the draft away before starting “the real business of translation, trusting that everything I’d noted had sunk into my cells.” Shira handles her relationships in a similarly convoluted way, dancing around and into them in bursts before stepping back to take stock. This tends to cause a fair amount of chaos, especially for her young daughter, Andi, and her old friend and surrogate co-parent, Ahmad, whose home they share. When Shira gets a telegram from a Nobel-winning poet about what seems like a dream translation project, she dives in despite the strangeness and reticence of the author. As his manuscript trickles in via fax, each section more impossible than the last, Shira’s personal life becomes just as tangled: Andi, feeling neglected, starts to act out; Ahmad, critical of Shira’s laissez faire parenting, threatens drastic measures; and Benny, a charmingly flawed rabbi and bookstore owner, seduces and rejects her in turns while hiding his own Noah-worthy flood of secrets. It’s a lot to absorb, but don't hesitate to try—Cantor clearly loves her characters, and she shows true mastery of their inner lives. Between endearingly wonky riffs about translation, she offers full access to Shira’s roller coaster of emotions, the collisions of her past and present, and keeps us hanging on through every curve. You’ll want to reread the final chapters more than once, delighted anew each time by how well Cantor speaks our language.

In this feat of a novel, knowledge is a tiny first step on the way to understanding.

Pub Date: Jan. 26, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-61219-470-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Melville House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 24, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2015

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THE COLDEST WINTER EVER

Debut novel by hip-hop rap artist Sister Souljah, whose No Disrespect (1994), which mixes sexual history with political diatribe, is popular in schools country-wide. In its way, this is a tour de force of black English and underworld slang, as finely tuned to its heroine’s voice as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The subject matter, though, has a certain flashiness, like a black Godfather family saga, and the heroine’s eventual fall develops only glancingly from her character. Born to a 14-year-old mother during one of New York’s worst snowstorms, Winter Santiaga is the teenaged daughter of Ricky Santiaga, Brooklyn’s top drug dealer, who lives like an Arab prince and treats his wife and four daughters like a queen and her princesses. Winter lost her virginity at 12 and now focuses unwaveringly on varieties of adolescent self-indulgence: sex and sugar-daddies, clothes, and getting her own way. She uses school only as a stepping-stone for getting out of the house—after all, nobody’s paying her to go there. But if there’s no money in it, why go? Meanwhile, Daddy decides it’s time to move out of Brooklyn to truly fancy digs on Long Island, though this places him in the discomfiting position of not being absolutely hands-on with his dealers; and sure enough the rise of some young Turks leads to his arrest. Then he does something really stupid: he murders his wife’s two weak brothers in jail with him on Riker’s Island and gets two consecutive life sentences. Winter’s then on her own, especially with Bullet, who may have replaced her dad as top hood, though when she selfishly fails to help her pregnant buddy Simone, there’s worse—much worse—to come. Thinness aside: riveting stuff, with language so frank it curls your hair. (Author tour)

Pub Date: April 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-671-02578-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Pocket

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1999

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

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A LITTLE LIFE

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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