An odd pastiche that never coheres: storywriter and editor Wolff (Best New American Voices 2000, etc.) offers some nice...

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OLD SCHOOL

A witty but ultimately rather pointless debut novel about life at a New England boarding school.

It’s the early 1960s, and our unnamed narrator, like Wolff himself (as wonderfully described in his memoir, This Boy’s Life, 1988), is an outsider working his way carefully through an alien world. A poor boy from Baltimore who won a scholarship to an elite prep school up north, the narrator finds acceptance through literature, continually competing with his wealthier classmates to craft the perfect poem, story, or novel, as well as to win a seat on the editorial board of the school journal. One of the traditions at the school is to invite a famous author to address the students, and afterward to meet privately with the one boy who has written the best imitation of the author’s work. Doddering old Robert Frost passes through, just back from Kennedy’s inauguration. Later on, the boys are harangued by the venomous Ayn Rand. But the visit that arouses the most expectation is that of Ernest Hemingway, revered almost as a god by the young adventure seekers, especially since he’s known to have been a WWI comrade of one of the school’s most enigmatic teachers. The narrator succeeds in having his story chosen by Hemingway—a choice that turns out to have disastrous consequences for the boy and the teacher alike. Wolff writes well page by page, and he manages to evoke the supercharged atmosphere of ambitious teenagers cooped up together, but the narrator’s reminiscences have a distant, lifeless quality, as if he cannot, even years after the fact, make any sense of the catastrophe that he brought upon himself.

An odd pastiche that never coheres: storywriter and editor Wolff (Best New American Voices 2000, etc.) offers some nice vignettes that add up to considerably less than the sum of their parts.

Pub Date: Nov. 9, 2003

ISBN: 0-375-40146-6

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2003

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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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