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

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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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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