Whatever their ostensible subjects, most of these pieces are about looking closely and paying attention.

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GIRLFRIENDS, GHOSTS, AND OTHER STORIES

The title suggests a miscellany, which this collection of 88 short pieces certainly delivers.

These sketches, essays, parables, prose poems, newspaper pieces, maybe even diary entries by the enigmatic Swiss author (A Schoolboy’s Diary, 2013, etc.) were written during the first third of the 20th century, right up to the point when the previously prolific writer was hospitalized for anxiety and depression in 1933. He was 55 at the time, and he never published again, though he lived another two decades. Many of these pieces consist of a single, dense paragraph, and few run much longer than a page. Recurring motifs concern a man (characters rarely have names) who encounters an attractive woman in a pastoral setting, a man who feels similarly attracted and seduced by a personification of nature (in “The Goddess,” the title character is a cloud in a sunny sky), a man who ponders his own process of writing or that of others. In “Walser on Walser,” he opens, “Here you can hear Walser the writer speaking” and asks, “Is it perhaps asleep in me, my passion for writing?” Many of the pieces open with commentary on the piece the reader is about to read or close with reference to the piece the reader is finishing. Some of them are character studies that suggest just how hard it is for anyone to know anyone, including oneself. The earliest pieces are the most conventionally storylike, with hints of plot. In “She Writes,” a woman who served as an artist’s model begins her letter, “Hey, old monster” and addresses him as his supplicant, critic, and accuser, haranguing him for money after she feels he has done her ill. “You pretend it’s me you painted in this picture? No, swine, that’s neither I nor any girl who exists; rather it merely bears a few rough similarities to womanhood.” Considered by contemporaries to be an inspiration for Kafka and a kindred spirit, Walser is generally lighter and more playful and very attuned to detail. “We need only open our eyes and look around carefully to see valuable things,” he writes, “if we look at them closely enough and with a certain degree of attention.”

Whatever their ostensible subjects, most of these pieces are about looking closely and paying attention.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-68137-016-3

Page Count: 200

Publisher: New York Review Books

Review Posted Online: June 22, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2016

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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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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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