Brown was among a cadre of Black writers in the 1970s doing in print what Richard Pryor was doing on stage.

TRAGIC MAGIC

First published in 1978, this jazz-inflected novel reappears decades later as a prescient ancestor to today’s insurgent, boundary-breaching African American fiction.

Brown’s first and most celebrated novel comes across as a kind of compacted day-in-the-life spin of James Joyce’s Ulysses, only with one point of view at its center. It belongs to Melvin Ellington, who as the novel begins has just been paroled from prison, where he spent two years after refusing military induction to protest the Vietnam War. As he heads back to his family’s home in Queens, Melvin begins flashing back to various points in life, beginning with his days and weeks in stir, keeping at bay all manner of threats and assaults, especially from the rapacious con Chilly, while keeping his nose clean long enough to get out. Once back in his old neighborhood, Melvin’s reveries wander afield, as far back as school days with his childhood buddies, the swaggering Otis, demure Alice, and brash Pauline, and the collegiate years when he was swept up in political activism with its rallies, demonstrations, interracial parties called “freedom highs,” and even an act of “revolutionary suicide” by one of the activists. Things are no less volatile in Melvin’s post-parole life as he reunites with Otis, who, unlike Melvin, went into the Army and lost his right hand in Vietnam. The long day’s journey ends with Melvin, Otis, Alice, and Pauline party-hopping throughout New York and Otis’ bitterness at Melvin and life in general slow-boiling toward a violent climax. Brown’s coming-of-age novel, drawn from his own real-life experiences, explores a young Black man’s difficulties with negotiating his way to maturity during the tumultuous years of the civil rights era and its immediate aftermath. But the novel gets its energy and, ultimately, its staying power less from its plot or theme than from its style: discursive, scatological, ribald, and acerbic. It deserves rediscovery by a new generation of readers curious about where an earlier generation of Black protest came from and how they came through its challenges.

Brown was among a cadre of Black writers in the 1970s doing in print what Richard Pryor was doing on stage.

Pub Date: Feb. 23, 2021

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 176

Publisher: McSweeney’s

Review Posted Online: Jan. 27, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2021

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For devoted Hannah fans in search of a good cry.

THE FOUR WINDS

The miseries of the Depression and Dust Bowl years shape the destiny of a Texas family.

“Hope is a coin I carry: an American penny, given to me by a man I came to love. There were times in my journey when I felt as if that penny and the hope it represented were the only things that kept me going.” We meet Elsa Wolcott in Dalhart, Texas, in 1921, on the eve of her 25th birthday, and wind up with her in California in 1936 in a saga of almost unrelieved woe. Despised by her shallow parents and sisters for being sickly and unattractive—“too tall, too thin, too pale, too unsure of herself”—Elsa escapes their cruelty when a single night of abandon leads to pregnancy and forced marriage to the son of Italian immigrant farmers. Though she finds some joy working the land, tending the animals, and learning her way around Mama Rose's kitchen, her marriage is never happy, the pleasures of early motherhood are brief, and soon the disastrous droughts of the 1930s drive all the farmers of the area to despair and starvation. Elsa's search for a better life for her children takes them out west to California, where things turn out to be even worse. While she never overcomes her low self-esteem about her looks, Elsa displays an iron core of character and courage as she faces dust storms, floods, hunger riots, homelessness, poverty, the misery of migrant labor, bigotry, union busting, violent goons, and more. The pedantic aims of the novel are hard to ignore as Hannah embodies her history lesson in what feels like a series of sepia-toned postcards depicting melodramatic scenes and clichéd emotions.

For devoted Hannah fans in search of a good cry.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-2501-7860-2

Page Count: 464

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 18, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2020

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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