THE DEAN'S DECEMBER

Rich yet dry and static, Bellow's somber new book (his first as Nobel laureate) is often more essay than novel: a wintery meditation on death—a death in the family, the death of American cities, the death of the planet—as filtered through the mind of Albert Corde, one of Bellow's least vivid or particularized alter egos. Former full-time journalist, now dean at a Chicago university and devoted husband of astronomer Minna, Corde spends this December in Bucharest—where Minna's beloved mother Valeria (a government Health Dept. official who fell out of favor) is dying in a state hospital. And this very life-sized death—height-ened yet softened by the family's fierce love for Valeria—unnerves Corde as he first tries to break through the hostile Bucharest bureaucracy (hospital visits are cruelly restricted), then helps to handle the unlovely details of Valeria's funeral. But, throughout, more of Corde's mind is on the wrangles he has left behind in Chicago, both of which involve his Jeremiah-an (arguably racist) view of dying American society. There's the trial of two blacks for the iffy murder of a student—a trial which Corde pressed for despite his radical nephew's noisy opposition. (Moreover, another crude relative—cousin Max—is the colorful defense attorney at the trial.) And there's the brouhaha over Corde's articles in Harper's, nakedly realistic articles which paraded the horror of US cities (Chicago in particular), the "doomed" future of the "black underclass," the moral bankruptcy of the media and academia. ("Liberals found him reactionary. Conservatives called him crazy.") One reader, however, is powerfully impressed by the articles: an eminent scientist who has made some startling findings ("Crime and social disorganization in inner city populations can all be traced to the effects of lead") and wants Corde—who's intrigued but dubious—to bring this lead-is-killing-the-planet message to the world at large. Thus, Bellow here (as in Mr. Sammler's Planet) puts death under a microscope that has a slippery magnifier: the focus slides from personal to cosmic and back, with due notice of the drawbacks involved in this sort of whole-earth existentialism. (Minna snaps: "I tell you how horrible my mother's death is, and the way you comfort me is to say everything is monstrous. . . ." Corde answers: "The only excuse is that I'm convinced it's central. That's where the real struggle for existence is. . . .") But, while all of Bellow's later novels have thrived on just such a tension between philosophical discourse and juicy portraiture, this time the juice is sternly monitored, with only brief, occasional flarings-up of comic, scene-making brilliance. And, though Corde does reluctantly consider the self-destructive psychology behind his dour doomsday-crusade (an old chum, now a slimy syndicated columnist, analyzes Corde's behavior, then stabs him in the back), the character is neither fully-fleshed enough nor dramatically propelled enough to stand apart and free: the recurrent feeling that Corde is merely the author's mouthpiece (there's a strange ten-page slip into the first-person at one point) provides a provocative, but ultimately unsatisfying, subtext. Finally, in fact, apocalyptic sociology seems not to suit Bellow (as it suits, for instance, Walker Percy): the novel picks up more of the "hot haze" of Corde's angst than the sharpness of his uncompromising world-view; the issues don't bring forth the essential Bellovian passions. But, if this is lesser Bellow, it certainly displays all his paragraph-by-paragraph greatness—the gravely exuberant, not-a-word-wasted style; the wide-ranging powers of observation; the Talmudically restless intelligence. And every page of it commands the attention.

Pub Date: Feb. 7, 1981

ISBN: 0140189130

Page Count: -

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1981

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A touching family drama that effectively explores the negative impact of stress on fragile relationships.

A WEEK AT THE SHORE

A middle-aged woman returns to her childhood home to care for her ailing father, confronting many painful secrets from her past.

When Mallory Aldiss gets a call from a long-ago boyfriend telling her that her elderly father has been gallivanting around town with a gun in his hand, Mallory decides it’s time to return to the small Rhode Island town that she’s been avoiding for more than a decade. Mallory’s precocious 13-year-old daughter, Joy, is thrilled that she'll get to meet her grandfather at long last, and an aunt, too, and she'll finally see the place where her mother grew up. When they arrive in Bay Bluff, it’s barely a few hours before Mallory bumps into her old flame, Jack, the only man she’s ever really loved. Gone is the rebellious young person she remembers, and in his place stands a compassionate, accomplished adult. As they try to reconnect, Mallory realizes that the same obstacle that pushed them apart decades earlier is still standing in their way: Jack blames Mallory’s father for his mother’s death. No one knows exactly how Jack’s mother died, but Jack thinks a love affair between her and Mallory’s father had something to do with it. As Jack and Mallory chase down answers, Mallory also tries to repair her rocky relationships with her two sisters and determine why her father has always been so hard on her. Told entirely from Mallory’s perspective, the novel has a haunting, nostalgic quality. Despite the complex and overlapping layers to the history of Bay Bluff and its inhabitants, the book at times trudges too slowly through Mallory’s meanderings down Memory Lane. Even so, Delinsky sometimes manages to pick up the pace, and in those moments the beauty and nuance of this complicated family tale shine through. Readers who don’t mind skimming past details that do little to advance the plot may find that the juicier nuggets and realistically rendered human connections are worth the effort.

A touching family drama that effectively explores the negative impact of stress on fragile relationships.

Pub Date: May 19, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-11951-3

Page Count: 416

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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