Well-wrought but painfully heartfelt: Hellenga’s (The Fall of a Sparrow, 1998, etc.) story creeps at a snail’s pace to a...

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BLUES LESSONS

An amiable if long-winded coming-of-ager set amid the quiet turmoil of 1960s rural Michigan.

Appleton is too far from New England to invite comparisons to Norman Rockwell, but it brings Andrew Wyeth to mind: Bleak, open countryside alternating with sparsely settled towns full of weather-beaten Dutch Reformed churches. Martin Dijksterhuis grew up in Appleton, on the orchard that had been in his family for generations, but he’s the son of an unusual household. His intellectual mother (a University of Chicago grad) speaks Latin and French with her son at home and drives him 40 miles to see The Fountainhead and the other highbrow movies that never make it to the hinterlands. Martin is an apt pupil but not sure he wants to follow his mother’s footsteps. For one thing, he’s in love with Cory Williams, the black daughter of the orchard foreman, and in the summer before his freshman year at the University of Chicago he discovers that Cory is pregnant. He wants to marry her and start a family, but she and her family suddenly leave town—and Martin finds out that his father paid them to go. He gives up on college, joins the Navy, later takes a job with the railroad in an attempt to forget her. The one thing that sustains him is his love of blues guitar, and he spends all his spare time tracking down old musicians and looking up arrangements of their work. He compiles an anthology of the music but lacks the confidence to go on stage himself. When he finally gets some advice from a preacher/bluesman about trusting in his own abilities, he faces up to his desire to be both a musician and a father.

Well-wrought but painfully heartfelt: Hellenga’s (The Fall of a Sparrow, 1998, etc.) story creeps at a snail’s pace to a conclusion obvious to most readers long before.

Pub Date: Jan. 21, 2002

ISBN: 0-7432-2533-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2001

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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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