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

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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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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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