A sharp debut by a writer with wit and confidence.

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MY MONTICELLO

Stories centered on racism and Virginia, anchored by a dystopian tale set in Thomas Jefferson’s home.

The title novella that closes Johnson’s debut book is stellar and could easily stand on its own. Plainly inspired by the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Johnson imagines a near future in which an “unraveling” has forced some of the town’s brown and Black residents to find safety on Jefferson’s homestead. The narrator, a University of Virginia student named Da’Naisha, is a descendant of Jefferson and Sally Hemings and used to have an internship on the Monticello grounds. She’s well aware of the irony of taking cover on a former plantation, but she has more pressing issues: She’s pregnant, uncertain of the father, and her grandmother is suffering from asthma but lacks medicine. In depicting Da'Naisha's attempts to organize her fellow refugees to fend off an impending attack from marauding racists, Johnson crafts a fine-grained character study that also harrowingly reveals how racist violence repeats. Not all of the remaining stories have the same force, but Johnson has a knack for irony and inventive conceits. “Buying a House Ahead of the Apocalypse” is a story in the form of a checklist, suggesting all the ways that pursuing a sense of security can be products of self-delusion (“Never mind the dark-skinned guard who wouldn’t even let you in…”). And the opening “Control Negro” is narrated by a man who uses his son to study whether a Black man who's “otherwise equivalent to those broods of average American Caucasian males” could transcend racism. In a few taut pages, Johnson uses the setup to explore not just institutional racism, but fatherhood, fatalism, policing, and social engineering. “How does anyone know if they are getting more or less than they deserve?” the narrator asks, a question the story makes both slippery and plain as day.

A sharp debut by a writer with wit and confidence.

Pub Date: Oct. 5, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-250-80715-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2021

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Gigantic, strange, exquisite, terrifying, and replete with mystery.

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TO PARADISE

A triptych of stories set in 1893, 1993, and 2093 explore the fate of humanity, the essential power and sorrow of love, and the unique doom brought upon itself by the United States.

After the extraordinary reception of Yanagihara's Kirkus Prize–winning second novel, A Little Life (2015), her follow-up could not be more eagerly awaited. While it is nothing like either of her previous novels, it's also unlike anything else you've read (though Cloud Atlas, The House of Mirth, Martin and John, and Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy may all cross your mind at various points). More than 700 pages long, the book is composed of three sections, each a distinct narrative, each set in a counterfactual historical iteration of the place we call the United States. The narratives are connected by settings and themes: A house on Washington Square in Greenwich Village is central to each; Hawaii comes up often, most prominently in the second. The same names are used for (very different) characters in each story; almost all are gay and many are married. Even in the Edith Wharton–esque opening story, in which the scion of a wealthy family is caught between an arranged marriage and a reckless affair, both of his possible partners are men. Illness and disability are themes in each, most dramatically in the third, set in a brutally detailed post-pandemic totalitarian dystopia. Here is the single plot connection we could find: In the third part, a character remembers hearing a story with the plot of the first. She mourns the fact that she never did get to hear the end of it: "After all these years I found myself wondering what had happened....I knew it was foolish because they weren't even real people but I thought of them often. I wanted to know what had become of them." You will know just how she feels. But what does it mean that Yanagihara acknowledges this? That is just one of the conundrums sure to provoke years of discussion and theorizing. Another: Given the punch in the gut of utter despair one feels when all the most cherished elements of 19th- and 20th-century lives are unceremoniously swept off the stage when you turn the page to the 21st—why is the book not called To Hell?

Gigantic, strange, exquisite, terrifying, and replete with mystery.

Pub Date: Jan. 11, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-385-54793-2

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Oct. 13, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2021

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As the pieces of this magical literary puzzle snap together, a flicker of hope is sparked for our benighted world.

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CLOUD CUCKOO LAND

An ancient Greek manuscript connects humanity's past, present, and future.

Stranger, whoever you are, open this to learn what will amaze you” wrote Antonius Diogenes at the end of the first century C.E.—and millennia later, Pulitzer Prize winner Doerr is his fitting heir. Around Diogenes' manuscript, "Cloud Cuckoo Land"—the author did exist, but the text is invented—Doerr builds a community of readers and nature lovers that transcends the boundaries of time and space. The protagonist of the original story is Aethon, a shepherd whose dream of escaping to a paradise in the sky leads to a wild series of adventures in the bodies of beast, fish, and fowl. Aethon's story is first found by Anna in 15th-century Constantinople; though a failure as an apprentice seamstress, she's learned ancient Greek from an elderly scholar. Omeir, a country boy of the same period, is rejected by the world for his cleft lip—but forms the deepest of connections with his beautiful oxen, Moonlight and Tree. In the 1950s, Zeno Ninis, a troubled ex–GI in Lakeport, Idaho, finds peace in working on a translation of Diogenes' recently recovered manuscript. In 2020, 86-year-old Zeno helps a group of youngsters put the story on as a play at the Lakeport Public Library—unaware that an eco-terrorist is planting a bomb in the building during dress rehearsal. (This happens in the first pages of the book and continues ticking away throughout.) On a spaceship called the Argos bound for Beta Oph2 in Mission Year 65, a teenage girl named Konstance is sequestered in a sealed room with a computer named Sybil. How could she possibly encounter Zeno's translation? This is just one of the many narrative miracles worked by the author as he brings a first-century story to its conclusion in 2146.

As the pieces of this magical literary puzzle snap together, a flicker of hope is sparked for our benighted world.

Pub Date: Sept. 28, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-982168-43-8

Page Count: 656

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: June 29, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2021

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