A satirical masterpiece, very funny for all its footnotes. You can bet the authorities in Beijing are scratching their heads...

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LENIN'S KISSES

Sprawling, sometimes goofy, always seditious novel of modern life in the remotest corner of China.

Set Rabelais down in the mountains of, say, Xinjiang, mix in some Günter Grass, Thomas Pynchon and Gabriel García Márquez, and you’re in the approximate territory of Lianke’s (Serve the People! 2008, etc.) latest exercise in épatering the powers that be. Oh, and then there’s Friedrich Dürrenmatt, too, whose The Visit afforded the lesson that you should never mess with little people in the high country. Deep inside the Balou Mountains, Lianke imagines, lies a Macondo-like village inhabited by a great heroine of the Long March, broken of leg and frostbitten of toe, along with her cohort of—well, let one of them tell it: “thirty-five blind people, forty-seven deaf people, and thirty-seven cripples, together with several dozen more who are missing an arm or a finger, have an extra finger, stunted growth, or some other handicap.” These odd folks would seem an impediment to the grand plans of the local Communist leadership, smitten by dreams of revolutionary capitalism, who have a grand plan even for the hamlet of Liven, a place that prompts one of them, Chief Liu, to complain, “Fuck, I simply can’t believe it could possibly get too cold for me.” Cold is the least of his concerns in fulfilling his dream, which is to promote tourism and investment in order to turn the mountains into a Red Disneyland featuring the embalmed corpse of V.I. Lenin himself, to be bought from an ungrateful Russia and turned into a tourist attraction. Needless to say, the bureaucrats’ plans get turned on their heads, and the Cloud Cuckoo-Land that emerges isn’t quite what they bargained for. Lianke writes long, but there’s not a wasted word or scene. And who can resist a book with characters with names the likes of Grandma Mao Zhi, Little Polio Boy and One-Legged Monkey?

A satirical masterpiece, very funny for all its footnotes. You can bet the authorities in Beijing are scratching their heads about it.

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2037-3

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2012

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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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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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