A short but substantial work about aspiration and failure.

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FIRST, THE RAVEN

A PREFACE

In Rogoff’s debut novel, two old rivals reunite in a snowed-in bar in New England.

Forty-year-old Sy Kirschbaum has spent the last 17 years of his life doing two things: translating the magnum opus of an alcoholic Czech dissident writer, Jan Horak, and pining after his old flame, Ida Fields. Now Sy has returned from Prague to his hometown of Portland, Maine, at Ida’s behest. But before he can see her, he must meet with her husband—his estranged friend, Gabe Slatky, a playwright. The two meet in a nautical-themed hotel bar—The Captain’s Cabin—just as a blizzard blows into the region. It’s difficult for them to speak to each other, because Ida’s three-month affair with Sy 17 years ago stands between them, as does the fact that she returned to Gabe (and that she chose him in the first place). They’re ostensibly there to discuss Ida, who’s fallen into a crippling depression that’s causing her to neglect Gabe and their daughter Hannah, as well as the theater that she and her husband founded together in the city. However, as the men order round after round of drinks (with each occasionally threatening to leave), they discuss their friendship, Jan Horak’s novel, Gabe’s one truly great play, and the glimpsed lives of other bar patrons. “It’s a strange thing,” observes Gabe at one point, “this habit of sitting here surrounded by a bunch of strangers, being both observer and observed, observed, that is, doing basically nothing. And this is the great social gathering point, the barroom.” The bar becomes the setting for a continuing dialogue about love, memory, unrealized dreams, and the attempt to find redemption in a single, great work of art. Rogoff writes in a dense prose that displays the erudition and self-awareness of its narrator, Sy, critiquing every object and person in detail, veering into digressive anecdotes, and capturing dry but thoughtful exchanges (Sy: “The past is suffocating.” Gabe: “Can’t be any different in Prague or anywhere else for that matter.” Sy: “But it’s not my past, it’s not so personal”). Although some initial, deliberate murkiness about Ida’s condition may frustrate readers, they will soon realize that she’s mostly beside the point, from a narrative perspective. In the claustrophobic universe of The Captain’s Cabin, Sy and Gabe are themselves on a stage, and whatever conflicts exist between them must be resolved before they walk off into the darkness. Despite the title, Rogoff’s work doesn’t evoke Edgar Allan Poe; rather, Sy and Gabe’s back and forth calls to mind Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett—particularly their vision of the world as rigged, absurd, and ultimately hopeless. Information comes slowly and circuitously, and its importance isn’t always immediately apparent. But as the evening wears on, the lives of real people and fictional characters begin to overlap and blur. This premise might not strike everyone as compelling, but it results in an intriguing locked-room mystery—one in which the mystery is art itself.

A short but substantial work about aspiration and failure.

Pub Date: Sept. 15, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-944697-44-0

Page Count: 210

Publisher: Sagging Meniscus Press

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2017

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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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More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

THE RESCUE

High-stakes weepmeister Sparks (A Walk to Remember, 1999, etc.) opts for a happy ending his fourth time out. His writing has improved—though it's still the equivalent of paint-by-numbers—and he makes use this time of at least a vestige of credible psychology.

That vestige involves the deep dark secret—it has something to do with his father's death when son Taylor was nine—that haunts kind, good 36-year-old local contractor Taylor McAden and makes him withdraw from relationships whenever they start getting serious enough to maybe get permanent. He's done this twice before, and now he does it again with pretty and sweet single mother Denise Holton, age 29, who's moved from Atlanta to Taylor's town of Edenton, North Carolina, in order to devote her time more fully to training her four-year-old son Kyle to overcome the peculiar impediment he has that keeps him from achieving normal language acquisition. Okay? When Denise has a car accident in a bad storm, she's rescued by volunteer fireman Taylor—who also rescues little Kyle after he wanders away from his injured mom in the storm. Love blooms in the weeks that follow—until Taylor suddenly begins putting on the brakes. What is it that holds him back, when there just isn't any question but that he loves Denise and vice versa-not to mention that he's "great" with Kyle, just like a father? It will require a couple of near-death experiences (as fireman Taylor bravely risks his life to save others); emotional steadiness from the intelligent, good, true Denise; and the terrible death of a dear and devoted friend before Taylor will come to the point at last of confiding to Denise the terrible memory of how his father died—and the guilt that's been its legacy to Taylor. The psychological dam broken, love will at last be able to flow.

More Hallmarkiana, from a shameless expert in the genre.

Pub Date: Sept. 19, 2000

ISBN: 0-446-52550-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2000

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