Exuberant, erudite and satisfyingly enigmatic.

GENEROSITY

Nothing less than the phenomenon of happiness is explored in this rich, challenging novel from polymathic Powers (The Echo Maker, 2006, etc.).

Think of it as an extended Socratic or Platonic dialogue, animated and communicated by three generously imagined characters. The central contrasting figures are Thassadit Amzwar, an inexplicably optimistic and upbeat refugee from the horrors of ongoing ethnic and other conflicts in the northern African powder keg of Algeria, whose student visa brings her by way of Canada to Chicago and the “creative nonfiction” adult-education class (“Journal and Journey”) taught by failed fiction writer and generally downcast would-be autodidact Russell Stone. Thassa’s fellow students, a motley gathering of borderline-hopeful underachievers, suspect she’s nuts and dub her “the Bliss Chick.” But Russell believes there’s something really different about this irrepressible survivor of unthinkable calamity, as does the novel’s third major character and de facto antagonist, Thomas Kurton, a young scientific phenom who grows up to become a celebrity geneticist whose search for a “happiness gene” is chronicled in a widely seen film and who hopes to appropriate the luminously cheerful Algerian to star in his researches. A lesser writer might have made this a 21st-century Frankenstein. Powers instead channels his heady confluence of ideals and motives into suspenseful intellectual drama, set in painstakingly realistic Middle-American urban jungles populated by intelligent, well-meaning people who aim to do good by any means necessary. Even the irresistible Thassa comes abrasively alive, in her exasperated response to Christian fundamentalists determined to claim her as one of their own: “I’m a Maghreb Algerian Kabyle Catholic Atheist French Canadian on a student visa. I can’t help these people.” The mystery of Thassa’s impermeable optimism is never explained; it neither should nor could be.

Exuberant, erudite and satisfyingly enigmatic.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-374-16114-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2009

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ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH

While a few weeks ago it seemed as if Praeger would have a two month lead over Dutton in their presentation of this Soviet best seller, both the "authorized" edition (Dutton's) and the "unauthorized" (Praeger's) will appear almost simultaneously. There has been considerable advance attention on what appears to be as much of a publishing cause celebre here as the original appearance of the book in Russia. Without entering into the scrimmage, or dismissing it as a plague on both your houses, we will limit ourselves to a few facts. Royalties from the "unauthorized" edition will go to the International Rescue Committee; Dutton with their contracted edition is adhering to copyright conventions. The Praeger edition has two translators and one of them is the translator of Doctor Zhivago Dutton's translator, Ralph Parker, has been stigmatized by Praeger as "an apologist for the Soviet regime". To the untutored eye, the Dutton translation seems a little more literary, the Praeger perhaps closer to the rather primitive style of the original. The book itself is an account of one day in the three thousand six hundred and fifty three days of the sentence to be served by a carpenter, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. (Solzhenitsyn was a political prisoner.) From the unrelenting cold without, to the conditions within, from the bathhouse to the latrine to the cells where survival for more than two weeks is impossible, this records the hopeless facts of existence as faced by thousands who went on "living like this, with your eyes on the ground". The Dutton edition has an excellent introduction providing an orientation on the political background to its appearance in Russia by Marvin Kalb. All involved in its publication (translators, introducers, etc.) claim for it great "artistic" values which we cannot share, although there is no question of its importance as a political and human document and as significant and tangible evidence of the de-Stalinization program.

Pub Date: June 15, 1963

ISBN: 0451228146

Page Count: 181

Publisher: Praeger

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1963

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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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