Pynchon is both wordsmith and world-smith. He's Dickens with degrees in chemistry and mathematics, Dostoevsky with a...

AGAINST THE DAY

            History and its discontents figure as prominently in Thomas Pynchon's formidably brainy novels as do most of the sciences and pseudo-sciences.  He entered our consciousness as a learned hipster almost immediately, in the early story "Entropy," a phlegmatic consideration of the heat death of the universe, and in the ironic epic V (1963), a tale of parallel searches for a mysterious woman whose despairing momentum is mitigated by the stoical mantra "Keep cool, but care."

            The combination of a rationalist's fatalism with a romantic's reverence for human creativity and resilience took brilliant form in a trim fable of conspiracy and disinformation linked to an "underground" postal system (The Crying of Lot 49, 1965); the massive Melvillean Gravity's Rainbow (1973), in which the science of modem warfare walks arm in arm with Armageddon; and the fetching fictional contrast between two legendary surveyors' efforts to map a new world and the redirection of scientific and technical innovations to serve agendas of conquest and exploitation (Mason & Dixon, 1997).             Pynchon now blends the yeasty period style of his most recent novel with the encyclopedic chutzpah of Gravity's Rainbow as he reaches back to the late-19th century and the origins of the first global götterdämmerung to be designated a World War.  Its array of parallel plots begins in the air, aboard a "hydrogen skyship" carrying an aeronautics club, the Chums of Chance (whose adventures inspire a series of dime novels), toward Chicago and the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.  The image of adventurous progress thus created is then systematically dismantled by a series of ventures into increasingly dangerous territories.  Colorado miner Weeb Traverse opposes perceived injustice with acts of anarchy (which soon looms as the very Spirit of the Age), initiating a pattern of exile and antagonism that will engulf all his loved ones.  Weeb's son Kit, Yale-educated and severed from his roots, travels compulsively, moving across continents and through successive zones of conflict, into the heart of his deepest longings and fears.             Dozens of other characters – adventurers, spies, research scientists, disoriented celebrities and dedicated agents of the 20th century's culture of death – meet, recombine and redefine themselves. Revolutions break out in Russia and Mexico; ultimate weapons are built and deployed; and natural disasters (such as the 1908 explosion of a comet above the Siberian wasteland) eerily increase and multiply.

            Pynchon is both wordsmith and world-smith. He's Dickens with degrees in chemistry and mathematics, Dostoevsky with a fondness for dumb jokes and awful puns, Faulkner with an even more pronounced apocalyptic imagination.  Master of the knowledge he has acquired and the worlds he surveys, he challenges us to envision with him an opaque and threatening future, while mourning perversions of humanity's accomplishments and aspirations, fearing the worst, and laughing all the way.

Pub Date: Nov. 21, 2006

ISBN: 1-59420-120-X

Page Count: 1120

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2006

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

A wild child’s isolated, dirt-poor upbringing in a Southern coastal wilderness fails to shield her from heartbreak or an accusation of murder.

“The Marsh Girl,” “swamp trash”—Catherine “Kya” Clark is a figure of mystery and prejudice in the remote North Carolina coastal community of Barkley Cove in the 1950s and '60s. Abandoned by a mother no longer able to endure her drunken husband’s beatings and then by her four siblings, Kya grows up in the careless, sometimes-savage company of her father, who eventually disappears, too. Alone, virtually or actually, from age 6, Kya learns both to be self-sufficient and to find solace and company in her fertile natural surroundings. Owens (Secrets of the Savanna, 2006, etc.), the accomplished co-author of several nonfiction books on wildlife, is at her best reflecting Kya’s fascination with the birds, insects, dappled light, and shifting tides of the marshes. The girl’s collections of shells and feathers, her communion with the gulls, her exploration of the wetlands are evoked in lyrical phrasing which only occasionally tips into excess. But as the child turns teenager and is befriended by local boy Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, the novel settles into a less magical, more predictable pattern. Interspersed with Kya’s coming-of-age is the 1969 murder investigation arising from the discovery of a man’s body in the marsh. The victim is Chase Andrews, “star quarterback and town hot shot,” who was once Kya’s lover. In the eyes of a pair of semicomic local police officers, Kya will eventually become the chief suspect and must stand trial. By now the novel’s weaknesses have become apparent: the monochromatic characterization (good boy Tate, bad boy Chase) and implausibilities (Kya evolves into a polymath—a published writer, artist, and poet), yet the closing twist is perhaps its most memorable oddity.

Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1909-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

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