Carlson serves up a nice commentary on the entertainment racket, and with carefully crafted prose that too often goes on...

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AMONG THE WONDERFUL

Talky historical novel about the business of the freak show business.

It never amounts to a tour de force, but Carlson’s debut does a creditable job of bringing 1840s New York to life—the language is right, the clothing correct, the mundane details of ordinary encounters just so. Trouble is, much of the novel concerns encounters very far out of the ordinary, with required lashings of willingly suspended disbelief that venture into the realm of magical realism, always a difficult genre for an American to pull off. The setup is promising: A staff taxidermist at a New York natural history museum, Emile Guillaudeu, is required to remake his collections to suit new owner P.T. Barnum, who has little use for the stuffed owls of old and is intent on crafting the cabinet of curiosities that would make his name. The transformation is not easy, and not eagerly awaited by every member of the public, either; says one protestor against the scheme, “Barnum’s Congress is an abomination! It must be stopped!” Alas for Guillaudeu, the rubes require constant entertainment, and so his glass cases are out in the hallway and strange bits of living creation are in. Enter Ana Swift, a giantess, who would rather be anywhere else but playing her part in the freak show to earn her keep. Ana is self-aware, smart, concerned for the well-being of her fellows as they’re jostled by crowds and robbed by management—a case in point being the so-called Aztec Children, who, as their keeper puts it, were “malnourished and frightened” but were kind enough to lead him “into the jungle to the site of their former glory,” revealing urns of gold so abundant “that Cortés himself would have been jealous.” Both Guillaudeu and Swift, then, are on a collision course with the elusive Barnum, the Godot of the piece—and when the crash comes, it does so, of course, tragically.

Carlson serves up a nice commentary on the entertainment racket, and with carefully crafted prose that too often goes on just a beat too long. Still, a refreshing take on an aspect of and time in American history that are too little known.

Pub Date: Aug. 2, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-58642-184-7

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Steerforth

Review Posted Online: July 6, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2011

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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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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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