Darkly comic, subtle, and thoughtful about geopolitics...and cringe-inducing whenever it turns to romance or the erotic.

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WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS

Book critic Al-Shawaf's first novel, set in the tumultuous aftermath of 9/11, is an often fascinating, sometimes funny picaresque about ethnic, religious, and national identities and the ways we wear them, shed them, embrace them, redefine them.

The novel opens on Sept. 12, 2001. Hunayn, an Iraqi-born Chaldean Christian educated in Rome and Beirut, lives in Orlando and attends the University of Central Florida. Casting about for someone to talk to about the implications of the attacks for people who look like him (Hunayn is neither Muslim nor Arab, but he fears such distinctions won't matter), he goes to visit his friend Hashem—and finds him rehearsing his deportation, having enlisted a neighbor to burst into his apartment and give him just five minutes to throw on clothes and gather belongings. But that's not what happens; instead, America's slide into the hypervigilant, skeptical, xenophobic (or in some cases clumsily xenophilic) state Hunayn calls "Septemberland" takes time, and what he faces, with one horrendous exception, isn't violent discrimination. Instead, America slowly retreats toward fear, tribalism, and the unwillingness or inability to engage with the "foreign," especially the Middle Eastern foreign. In time, Hunayn decamps for Lebanon, which is no less chaotic and no less riven by religious tensions but where he feels more at home and less alone—only to have that country, too, descend into war. Meanwhile, he is casting about for a profession, working as a freelance critic, a journalist, a teacher. The novel's strength is in Hunayn's sustained meditation on the costs and benefits of ethnic, religious, and national identity and on the complexities of geopolitics. Much less persuasive—and often off-puttingly porny—is the parallel narrative of Hunayn's sexual coming-of-age.

Darkly comic, subtle, and thoughtful about geopolitics...and cringe-inducing whenever it turns to romance or the erotic.

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-62371-977-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Interlink

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in White society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so Black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her White persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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