Acerbic, playful, full of quick-witted philosophy, and unstintingly original, this is a varied and unsettling reader for our...

NIGHT SCHOOL

Award-winning Brazilian/Hungarian essayist, historian, and critic Bán's fiction debut presents itself as a tongue-in-cheek student textbook.

Within dryly titled sections—"French," "Chemistry/Physical Education," "English/Home Economics," "The Foundations of Our Worldview"—strange stories unfold, sprinkled liberally with interjections and assignments for the student: "CALCULATE how many angels can fit on the head of a pin if each angel is approximately 45mm and faithless," or "WHAT is the meaning of allegro, ma non troppo? AND HOW DO WE KNOW when allegro is too troppo?" There is a meditation on the Mathematics of Randomness, a "blog opera" based on Fidelio, a love story found in a bottle on a Borneo beach, an account of the death of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's second wife. Flaubert travels in Egypt with his friend Maxime, and years later a literary scholar devotes his career to the great writer's "deletions." Lesbian lovers meet clandestinely at a Night Zoo where a tapir "liked to plop right down on the tracks in front of the little zoo train like some despairing heroic lover." Bán inverts the primer model, giving free rein to a restless and inventive intellect and delighting in unexpected angles on the seemingly familiar. Characters from Choderlos de Laclos' Dangerous Liaisons correspond by email, undergo IVF, and meet up in NYC, where their stories intersect with 9/11. In "Drawing/Art History," the strong-willed model for Manet's Olympia dictates her conditions for posing to the artist: "You will never be free of this painting....All your life, you will be successful but wretched." In "Self Help," a teacher instructs her pupils what to do if they find themselves in a tsunami ("Grab your surfboard and paddle out at an angle until you reach the point where the wave is cresting but hasn't yet started to break") or if threatened by domestic assault. An idyllic childhood summer day in "Singing/Music" ends in sexual violence. The roving pedagogical voice is feminist, earthy, erudite, and subversive. "Don't take anything for granted!" the reader is exhorted. "Ask, and ask again!" The book's most moving section, "Teacher's Edition/Russian," is narrated by Laika, the dog sent into space by the Soviet space program in 1957. "This recording is for you, Soviet children, so you can write its message on a sky full of meteors and stardust: THESE PEOPLE ARE ALL GALACTIC LIARS." Later Laika adds, "Learn that accepting the explanation there is no explanation is one of the most difficult and noble lessons."

Acerbic, playful, full of quick-witted philosophy, and unstintingly original, this is a varied and unsettling reader for our varied and unsettling times.

Pub Date: Jan. 15, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-940953-88-5

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Open Letter

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

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Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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