This promising first novel stumbles too often for its young narrator to come fully to life.

ON BITTERSWEET PLACE

A portrait of immigrant life in 1920s Chicago, focused on a Jewish girl’s coming-of-age, yields mixed results in short story writer Wineberg’s (Second Language, 2005) first novel.

Life in America for young, artistically inclined Lena Czernitski proves terribly difficult after her family flees violence in 1922 Russia, where her grandfather was murdered at the dinner table and people on the street chanted, “Peace, land and bread. Kill Jews and save Russia.” Arriving in Chicago at age 10, Lena writes lists of her fears, worrying at first about her safety and never learning English, evolving over six years to despair that she’ll never be happy again. Wineberg heaps endless tsuris, or troubles as the family calls them in Yiddish, upon Lena, her older brother, Simon, and her parents. A new hardship arises in almost every early chapter, including a lecherous relative, the death of a child, an anti-Semitic schoolteacher who threatens to fail Lena and mysterious strife between her hardworking parents. There are strong scenes of Lena in conversation with her father, who supports her talent for drawing but whose goodness is in constant question. Lena’s disgust with her mother’s pessimism, grief and need to keep secrets drives her to take risks to find happiness, and she does, dating a boy named Max and declaring that as an artist, “I wanted to rip open the world.” But Wineberg has Lena tell her story in the moment rather than in retrospect, devoting too little to Lena’s thoughts and reflections on her life. Weighed down in key moments by clichéd language, the book becomes an unfortunate series of repetitive scenes rather than a unified whole.  

This promising first novel stumbles too often for its young narrator to come fully to life.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-9847648-1-5

Page Count: 270

Publisher: Relegation Books

Review Posted Online: July 12, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2014

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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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