Literary culture is in good hands in this top-shelf collection.

READ REVIEW

THE BEST AMERICAN NONREQUIRED READING 2018

A decade and a half after its inception, the annual “nonrequired reading” continues along its quirky path—so quirky at times, in fact, that the editors want us to know that “no one was on drugs when we put it together.”

Founded by novelist Dave Eggers in 2002, the Nonrequired Reading has a delightful twist baked right into it: It’s judged by high school students, and the proceeds go to 826 National, a cluster of writing and tutoring centers around the country. By guest editor Heti’s account, the process of working with those young people was as important as the product; says one student judge, “we’re not worried about analyzing the pieces—we’re not worried about picking apart every motif because we’ll have to write an essay on it.” It should be said, on that note, that the product doesn’t suffer by comparison to older kin such as the Pushcart annual; in addition, the BANR volumes, drawing from a wide pool of reading, have tended to emphasize a welcome diversity along all lines as something more than a polite nod. The themes are often quite grown-up, too. A story early on, for instance, by the Chinese writer Qiu Miaojin, features alcohol, albeit alcohol ejected from the body in ways teenagers will understand, and same-sex lovemaking, accompanied by lashings of angst. From the late journalist Alex Tizon comes an essay that ignited a storm of controversy when it appeared in the Atlantic, recounting a dark family secret: “I had a family, a career, a house in the suburbs—the American dream. And then I had a slave.” Other stories and poems tend to less fraught but still engaging topics. A standout among many high points is Annie Baker’s decidedly centrifugal play, “The Antipodes,” which goes from family drama to horror as a character realizes that the fence of a neighbor’s house “is actually made out of bones and on the top of every post is a human skull.”

Literary culture is in good hands in this top-shelf collection.

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-328-46581-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Sept. 18, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2018

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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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