Elegant, lyrical tales woven with melancholy and world-weariness—but also with a curious optimism. A gem.

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AETHERIAL WORLDS

Long-awaited new collection of stories by Russian writer and former talk show host Tolstaya (The White Walls: Collected Stories, 2007, etc.).

Related to Leo Tolstoy (albeit distantly) as well as Ivan Turgenev, her grandfather the science-fiction and historical novelist Aleksey Tolstoy, Tolstaya admits in the opening, semiautobiographical story “20/20” to having the latter’s “ability to daydream…although not to the same extent.” That story goes on to describe a period of blindness following eye surgery, when she discovered the ability to see, not just remember, the past and enter a “heretofore invisible, hidden world” of the imagination. A poet of silences and small gestures, Tolstaya often writes of love, if sometimes love that has gone off the rails because one or the other of the partners is either not listening or asking the wrong questions; says Eric, the illicit lover of one émigré academic, “Tell me something surprising about your alphabet. The Russian alphabet.” Answering that it has a letter that represents, yes, “a certain type of silence,” she wonders why he wants to know, inasmuch as he has no intention of learning Russian and therefore no need for that bit of information. And what of mere curiosity? Well, that way lies trouble. Several stories are set on campus, but some of the most memorable take place in quiet places such as the Russian woods far from the city: “It’s the most important place in the world—nowhere,” Tolstaya writes. Meanwhile, in the city, life’s daily difficulties mount: in a wonderful aperçu, a beleaguered apartment dweller in the middle of a renovation notes that, as the famed clay tablets of early Greek civilization recorded that a carpenter named Tirieus didn’t show up for work, contemporary carpenters are just as "eternally flaky": “a Russian carpenter (or plumber, tile layer, spackler) stretches out his arm to his Mycenaean brethren across millennia: Workers of the world unite, if not in space then in time.”

Elegant, lyrical tales woven with melancholy and world-weariness—but also with a curious optimism. A gem.

Pub Date: March 22, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-3277-6

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Dec. 24, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 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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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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