Self-aware, cerebral, and delightful.

THE IDIOT

A sweetly caustic first novel from a writer whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and n+1.

It’s fall 1995, and Selin is just starting her first year at Harvard. One of the first things she learns upon arriving at her new school is that she has an email account. Her address contains her last name, “Karada?, but all lowercase, and without the Turkish ?, which was silent.” When presented with an Ethernet cable, she asks “What do we do with this, hang ourselves?” All of this occurs on the first page of Batuman’s (The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, 2011) debut novel, and it tells us just about everything we need to know about the author’s thematic concerns and style. Selin’s closest friends at Harvard are Ralph, a ridiculously handsome young man with a Kennedy fetish, and Svetlana, a Serbian from Connecticut. Selin’s first romantic entanglement—which begins via electronic mail—is with Ivan, a Hungarian mathematician she meets in Russian class. Selin studies linguistics and literature, teaches ESL, and spends a lot of time thinking about what language—and languages—can and cannot do. This isn’t just bloodless philosophizing, though. Selin is, among other things, a young woman trying to figure out the same things young people are always trying to figure out. And, as it happens, Selin is delightful company. She’s smart enough to know the ways in which she is dumb, and her off-kilter relationship to the world around her is revelatory and, often, mordantly hilarious. For example, this is how she describes a particular linguistics class: “we learned about people who had lost the ability to combine morphemes, after having their brains perforated by iron poles. Apparently there were several such people, who got iron poles stuck in their heads and lived to tell the tale—albeit without morphemes.” Some readers may get impatient with the slow pace of the narrative, which feels more like a collection of connected microfictions than a traditional novel, but readers who are willing to travel with Selin at her own contemplative pace will be grateful that they did.

Self-aware, cerebral, and delightful.

Pub Date: March 14, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-59420-561-3

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Dec. 6, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2016

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Rather than settle for a coming-of-age or travails-of-immigrants story, Hosseini has folded them both into this searing...

THE KITE RUNNER

Here’s a real find: a striking debut from an Afghan now living in the US. His passionate story of betrayal and redemption is framed by Afghanistan’s tragic recent past.

Moving back and forth between Afghanistan and California, and spanning almost 40 years, the story begins in Afghanistan in the tranquil 1960s. Our protagonist Amir is a child in Kabul. The most important people in his life are Baba and Hassan. Father Baba is a wealthy Pashtun merchant, a larger-than-life figure, fretting over his bookish weakling of a son (the mother died giving birth); Hassan is his sweet-natured playmate, son of their servant Ali and a Hazara. Pashtuns have always dominated and ridiculed Hazaras, so Amir can’t help teasing Hassan, even though the Hazara staunchly defends him against neighborhood bullies like the “sociopath” Assef. The day, in 1975, when 12-year-old Amir wins the annual kite-fighting tournament is the best and worst of his young life. He bonds with Baba at last but deserts Hassan when the latter is raped by Assef. And it gets worse. With the still-loyal Hassan a constant reminder of his guilt, Amir makes life impossible for him and Ali, ultimately forcing them to leave town. Fast forward to the Russian occupation, flight to America, life in the Afghan exile community in the Bay Area. Amir becomes a writer and marries a beautiful Afghan; Baba dies of cancer. Then, in 2001, the past comes roaring back. Rahim, Baba’s old business partner who knows all about Amir’s transgressions, calls from Pakistan. Hassan has been executed by the Taliban; his son, Sohrab, must be rescued. Will Amir wipe the slate clean? So he returns to the hell of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and reclaims Sohrab from a Taliban leader (none other than Assef) after a terrifying showdown. Amir brings the traumatized child back to California and a bittersweet ending.

Rather than settle for a coming-of-age or travails-of-immigrants story, Hosseini has folded them both into this searing spectacle of hard-won personal salvation. All this, and a rich slice of Afghan culture too: irresistible.

Pub Date: June 2, 2003

ISBN: 1-57322-245-3

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2003

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Morrison traces the shifting shapes of suffering and mythic accommodations, through the shell of psychosis to the core of a...

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BELOVED

Morrison's truly majestic fifth novel—strong and intricate in craft; devastating in impact.

Set in post-Civil War Ohio, this is the story of how former slaves, psychically crippled by years of outrage to their bodies and their humanity, attempt to "beat back the past," while the ghosts and wounds of that past ravage the present. The Ohio house where Sethe and her second daughter, 10-year-old Denver, live in 1873 is "spiteful. Full of a [dead] baby's venom." Sethe's mother-in-law, a good woman who preached freedom to slave minds, has died grieving. It was she who nursed Sethe, the runaway—near death with a newborn—and gave her a brief spell of contentment when Sethe was reunited with her two boys and first baby daughter. But the boys have by now run off, scared, and the murdered first daughter "has palsied the house" with rage. Then to the possessed house comes Paul D., one of the "Pauls" who, along with Sethe, had been a slave on the "Sweet Home" plantation under two owners—one "enlightened," one vicious. (But was there much difference between them?) Sethe will honor Paul D.'s humiliated manhood; Paul D. will banish Sethe's ghost, and hear her stories from the past. But the one story she does not tell him will later drive him away—as it drove away her boys, and as it drove away the neighbors. Before he leaves, Paul D. will be baffled and anxious about Sethe's devotion to the strange, scattered and beautiful lost girl, "Beloved." Then, isolated and alone together for years, the three women will cling to one another as mother, daughter, and sister—found at last and redeemed. Finally, the ex-slave community, rebuilding on ashes, will intervene, and Beloved's tortured vision of a mother's love—refracted through a short nightmare life—will end with her death.

Morrison traces the shifting shapes of suffering and mythic accommodations, through the shell of psychosis to the core of a victim's dark violence, with a lyrical insistence and a clear sense of the time when a beleaguered peoples' "only grace...was the grace they could imagine."

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1987

ISBN: 9781400033416

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1987

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