A sad but elegantly told story punctuated with photos, letters and a verisimilitude that elevate its fictional ambitions.

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THE STORM AT THE DOOR

Through fiction and the imprecision of memory, a writer examines the challenging relationship between his grandparents.

After garnering raves and sales for his first novel, Block (The Story of Forgetting, 2008) once again delves into that murky area between lost love, memory and deeply held melancholy. This round, the author builds his story largely on the true-life history of his grandparents, who found themselves at an impasse when his grandmother had his grandfather committed to a mental institution. The novel opens on Echo Cottage, as the writer contemplates his steely-eyed grandmother, Katharine Mead Merrill, in 1989. At 69, Alzheimer’s has started to chip away at long-held memories. Then the story lurches forward to July of 1962, finding the grandfather Frederick Francis Merrill in a drug-induced stupor at the Mayflower Home for the Mentally Ill, where he has been incarcerated for a long history of drinking, bad behavior and, finally, flashing two old ladies on a New Hampshire back road. Block examines, through cautious language and nearly imperceptible sympathy, the events that have brought the couple from here to there. And it is true that Katherine is in an awful state. “Katherine is a mother of four, with a husband in a mental hospital,” Block writes. “The winter is coming, and the money is running out. Her marriage has failed, everyone knows it, and she has no real friends. Her relatives have turned against her husband first, and now they are turning on her too. She can no long be anything other than what everyone plainly sees her to be.” But there is sympathy to be unearthed for Frederick, too, as Block expertly captures the frustration and personal devastation wreaked by his grandfather’s depression, equally hard on him as it is on his family. As he suffers in the institution he dubs “Horrorland,” Katherine begins to reconsider her responsibility for her husband’s condition.

A sad but elegantly told story punctuated with photos, letters and a verisimilitude that elevate its fictional ambitions.

Pub Date: June 21, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6945-3

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 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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