THE ATLAS

Making a bid for the bleakest book of the year, Vollmann (Butterfly Stories, 1993, etc.) fashions a world-wide web of despair in a palindrome of 53 stories, each having to do with sorrow or loss, and often involving the hopeless lives of whores from Cambodia to Canada. From the jungle to the tundra, from the smog of L.A. to the fog of Hong Kong, from bullfights in Mexico City to firefights in Sarajevo, these stories, often drawing on Vollmann's own travels and life, mingle autobiography and invention, creating a provocative, sometimes dizzying, hybrid. Among the most resonant pieces are the unsparing description of childhood loss of a sister, and a tale set in Bosnia, involving an incident when a friend was shot dead in a car in which the author was also riding. Loves lost also figure prominently: the tender prostitute Vollmann met during his first trip to Phnom Penh; a lame Ojibway in Winnepeg, whose husband took him on a drunk; his first girlfriend, now married with children and locked in a battle with breast cancer. Diverse adventures, which also have a way of distancing the writer from his world, mingle with the sexual ones. He pays to go on a walrus hunt with an old Inuit and his grandsons and is mostly ignored, cuts short a night of ringside kickboxing in Bangkok when the sport's brutality overwhelms him, and is tolerated by urban aborigines in Sydney only as long as the beer he's bought holds out. Despite their distanced quality, these fantasies and terrifying visions of underclass reality at every latitude and longitude are poetically, damningly precise. As in other recent work from Vollmann, however, repetitive images seem to reiterate rather than advance the theme, turning terrific writing into tedium. One weeps somewhat reflexively for the lost souls mirrored in these fragments; more heartfelt, unfortunately, is a horror at the squandering of such a prodigious prose talent. (Author tour)

Pub Date: April 1, 1996

ISBN: 0-670-86578-8

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1996

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Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

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SUCH A FUN AGE

The relationship between a privileged white mom and her black babysitter is strained by race-related complications.

Blogger/role model/inspirational speaker Alix Chamberlain is none too happy about moving from Manhattan to Philadelphia for her husband Peter's job as a TV newscaster. With no friends or in-laws around to help out with her almost-3-year-old, Briar, and infant, Catherine, she’ll never get anywhere on the book she’s writing unless she hires a sitter. She strikes gold when she finds Emira Tucker. Twenty-five-year-old Emira’s family and friends expect her to get going on a career, but outside the fact that she’s about to get kicked off her parents’ health insurance, she’s happy with her part-time gigs—and Briar is her "favorite little human." Then one day a double-header of racist events topples the apple cart—Emira is stopped by a security guard who thinks she's kidnapped Briar, and when Peter's program shows a segment on the unusual ways teenagers ask their dates to the prom, he blurts out "Let's hope that last one asked her father first" about a black boy hoping to go with a white girl. Alix’s combination of awkwardness and obsession with regard to Emira spins out of control and then is complicated by the reappearance of someone from her past (coincidence alert), where lies yet another racist event. Reid’s debut sparkles with sharp observations and perfect details—food, décor, clothes, social media, etc.—and she’s a dialogue genius, effortlessly incorporating toddler-ese, witty boyfriend–speak, and African American Vernacular English. For about two-thirds of the book, her evenhandedness with her varied cast of characters is impressive, but there’s a point at which any possible empathy for Alix disappears. Not only is she shallow, entitled, unknowingly racist, and a bad mother, but she has not progressed one millimeter since high school, and even then she was worse than we thought. Maybe this was intentional, but it does make things—ha ha—very black and white.

Charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-54190-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

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Well-written and insightful but so heartbreaking that it raises the question of what a reader is looking for in fiction.

DEAR EDWARD

A 12-year-old boy is the sole survivor of a plane crash—a study in before and after.

Edward Adler is moving to California with his adored older brother, Jordan, and their parents: Mom is a scriptwriter for television, Dad is a mathematician who is home schooling his sons. They will get no further than Colorado, where the plane goes down. Napolitano’s (A Good Hard Look, 2011, etc.) novel twins the narrative of the flight from takeoff to impact with the story of Edward’s life over the next six years. Taken in by his mother’s sister and her husband, a childless couple in New Jersey, Edward’s misery is constant and almost impermeable. Unable to bear sleeping in the never-used nursery his aunt and uncle have hastily appointed to serve as his bedroom, he ends up bunking next door, where there's a kid his age, a girl named Shay. This friendship becomes the single strand connecting him to the world of the living. Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, we meet all the doomed airplane passengers, explore their backstories, and learn about their hopes and plans, every single one of which is minutes from obliteration. For some readers, Napolitano’s premise will be too dark to bear, underlining our terrible vulnerability to random events and our inability to protect ourselves or our children from the worst-case scenario while also imagining in exhaustive detail the bleak experience of survival. The people around Edward have no idea how to deal with him; his aunt and uncle try their best to protect him from the horrors of his instant celebrity as Miracle Boy. As one might expect, there is a ray of light for Edward at the end of the tunnel, and for hardier readers this will make Napolitano’s novel a story of hope.

Well-written and insightful but so heartbreaking that it raises the question of what a reader is looking for in fiction.

Pub Date: Jan. 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-5478-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Dial

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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