Pulitzer Prize
2019
The Overstory
Book Jacket   Richard Powers
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. Powers' (Orfeo, 2014, etc.) 12th novel is a masterpiece of operatic proportions, involving nine central characters and more than half a century of American life.In this work, Powers takes on the subject of nature, or our relationship to nature, as filtered through the lens of environmental activism, although at its heart the book is after more existential concerns. As is the case with much of Powers' fiction, it takes shape slowlyfirst in a pastiche of narratives establishing the characters (a psychologist, an undergraduate who died briefly but was revived, a paraplegic computer game designer, a homeless vet), and then in the kaleidoscopic ways these individuals come together and break apart. "We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men," Powers writes, quoting the naturalist John Muir. "In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks." The idea is important because what Powers means to explore is a sense of how we become who we are, individually and collectively, and our responsibility to the planet and to ourselves. Nick, for instance, continues a project begun by his grandfather to take repeated photographs of a single chestnut tree, "one a month for seventy-six years." Pat, a visionary botanist, discovers how trees communicate with one another only to be discredited and then, a generation later, reaffirmed. What links the characters is survivalthe survival of both trees and human beings. The bulk of the action unfolds during the timber wars of the late 1990s, as the characters coalesce on the Pacific coast to save old-growth sequoia from logging concerns. For Powers, however, political or environmental activism becomes a filter through which to consider the connectedness of all thingsnot only the human lives he portrays in often painfully intricate dimensions, but also the biosphere, both virtual and natural. "The world starts here," Powers insists. "This is the merest beginning. Life can do anything. You have no idea."A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being nave. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2019
Amity and Prosperity
Book Jacket   Eliza Griswold
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. Griswold (The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, 2010, etc.) immerses herself with a few Pennsylvania families in rural areas near Pittsburgh to chronicle their life-threatening battles against the fracking industry.To extract natural gas deposits from deep within the ground, giant energy companies employ processes and chemicals that can disseminate dangerous substances into drinking water sources and into the air. The author, an extraordinarily versatile wordsmith as a poet, translator, and journalist, visited a region of Pennsylvania that had become a fracking crossroads. At a meeting of concerned citizens receiving payments for fracking on their land but angry about unforeseen environmental degradation, Griswold met Stacey Haney. A lifelong citizen of Amitynear the nearly depopulated town of ProsperityHaney, a nurse, has been worried that harmful elements from the fracking process have yielded chronic illnesses in herself and her children. Neither Haney nor most of her neighbors wanted to become social activists (many of them usually vote Republican and support Donald Trump). However, the increasing financial debt of the citizens from both towns, combined with the puzzling chronic ailments, led them to hire a team of lawyers to craft a court challenge or at least force the state's environmental protection agency to halt fracking operations of for-profit corporations. Because no scientific consensus has emerged about the societal benefits versus the public health hazards of fracking, the Haneys, as well as the other plaintiffs, worry that they will never prevail on technical grounds. Surprisingly, several Pennsylvania courts ruled against the fracking industry, but the Haneys and other plaintiffs received little in the way of tangible benefits. As the author inserts herself into the narrative about one-third of the way through, she becomes a character with apparent sympathies for the individual plaintiffs and their hardworking lawyers, but her reporting is, for the most part, evenhanded.A solid addition to the burgeoning literature on the social and health-related effects of fracking. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2019
The New Negro
 Jeffery C. Stewart
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. A magisterial biography of the 20th-century philosopher, curator, and prime mover of the Harlem Renaissance.Alain Locke (1885-1954) is a criticaland complexfigure in any discussion of African-American intellectual history. In his youth, he was the quintessential black Victorian, impeccably dressed and mannered, as if comportment alone could conquer racism. That posturing made him blinkered at times; he tried to deny the prejudice he experienced as a Rhodes scholar and would later submit to a wealthy patron's condescending celebration of black "primitivism" for the sake of financial support. But Locke also wrote forcefully about the value of black artists and advocated strongly for writers like Jean Toomer and Langston Hughes. He edited the landmark 1925 issue of Survey Graphic, which put Harlem on the map as black America's artistic center, argued for black artists' central place in American culture in his selections for the book The New Negro, and curated African art exhibits that persuasively fitted that work within modernism. Stewart (Black Studies/Univ. of California, Santa Barbara; Paul Robeson: Artist and Citizen, 1998, etc.) often frames his subject's life as a series of one-on-one conflicts: with his mother, whose apron strings he found hard to untangle himself from; with more vocal black activists like W.E.B. Du Bois, who wanted more from a racial movement than Locke's oft-aloof aestheticism; with institutions like Howard University, which had a hot-and-cold relationship with him; and with the lovers the closeted gay, peripatetic Locke endlessly pursued, not to mention writers like Hughes who rejected his advances. This hefty, deeply researched book is sometimes overwhelming in its detail about Lockeevery letter he wrote seems to be quotedbut it brilliantly doubles as a history of the philosophical debates that girded black artistic triumphs early in the 20th century.A sweeping biography that gets deep into not just the man, but the movements he supported, resisted, and inspired. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2018
Less
 Andrew Sean Greer
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. Facing his erstwhile boyfriend's wedding to another man, his 50th birthday, and his publisher's rejection of his latest manuscript, a miserable midlist novelist heads for the airport.When it comes to the literary canon, Arthur Less knows he is "as superfluous as the extra a in quaalude," but he does get the odd invitationto interview a more successful author, to receive an obscure prize, to tour French provincial libraries, that sort of thing. So rather than stay in San Francisco and be humiliated when his younger man of nine years' standing marries someone else (he can't bear to attend, nor can he bear to stay home), he puts together a patchwork busman's holiday that will take him to Paris, Morocco, Berlin, Southern India, and Japan. Of course, anything that can go wrong doesfrom falling out a window to having his favorite suit eaten by a stray dog, and as far as Less runs, he will not escape the fact that he really did lose the love of his life. Meanwhile, there's no way to stop that dreaded birthday, which he sees as the definitive end of a rather extended youth: "It's like the last day in a foreign country. You finally figure out where to get coffee, and drinks, and a good steak. And then you have to leave. And you won't ever be back." Yet even this conversation occurs in the midst of a make-out session with a handsome Spanish stranger on a balcony at a party in Parishinting that there may be steaks and coffee on the other side. Upping the tension of this literary picaresque is the fact that the story is told by a mysterious narrator whose identity and role in Less' future is not revealed until the final pages. Seasoned novelist Greer (The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, 2013, etc.) clearly knows whereof he speaks and has lived to joke about it. Nonstop puns on the character's surname aside, this is a very funny and occasionally wise book. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2017
The Underground Railroad
Book Jacket   Colson Whitehead
2016
The Sympathizer
Book Jacket   Viet Thanh Nguyen
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. A closely written novel of after-the-war Vietnam, when all that was solid melted into air.As Graham Greene and Robert Stone have taught us, on the streets of Saigon, nothing is as it seems. The racist suppositions of the empires of old helped shape a culture of subterfuge; not for nothing does the hero of Nguyen's (English and American Studies/Univ. of Southern Calif.) debut give a small disquisition on the meaning of being Eurasian or Amerasian ("a small nation could be founded from the tropical offspring of the American GI"), and not for nothing does a book meaningfully called Asian Communism and the Oriental Mode of Destruction play a part in the proceedings. Nguyen's protagonist tells us from the very first, in a call-me-Ishmael moment, that he's a mole: "I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces." Two faces, two races, neither wholly trusted. Our hero is attached to the command of a no-nonsense South Vietnamese general who's airlifted out at the fall of Saigon in 1975, protected by dewy Americans "with not a hint of a needle track in the crooks of their arms or a whiff of marijuana in their pressed, jungle-free fatigues"; whisked stateside, where the protagonist once spent time absorbing Americanness, the general is at the center of a potent community of exiles whom the protagonist is charged with spying onthough it turns out he's as much observed as observer. Think Alan Furst meets Elmore Leonard, and you'll capture Nguyen at his most surreal, our hero attempting to impress upon a Hollywood hopeful that American and Vietnamese screams sound different: "I was on my first assignment as a lieutenant," he recalls, "and could not figure out a way to save the man from my captain wrapping a strand of rusted barbed wire around his throat, the necklace tight enough so that each time he swallowed, the wire tickled his Adam's apple." Both chilling and funny, and a worthy addition to the library of first-rate novels about the Vietnam War. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2015
All the Light We Cannot See
 Anthony Doerr
  Book Jacket
2014
The Goldfinch: A Novel
 Donna Tartt
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. A long-awaited, elegant meditation on love, memory and the haunting power of art. Tartt (The Little Friend, 2002, etc.) takes a long time, a decade or more, between novels. This one, her third, tells the story of a young man named Theodore Decker who is forced to grapple with the world alone after his mother--brilliant, beautiful and a delight to be around--is felled in what would seem to be an accident, if an explosion inside a museum can be accidental. The terrible wreckage of the building, a talismanic painting half buried in plaster and dust, "the stink of burned clothes, and an occasional soft something pressing in on me that I didn't want to think about"--young Theo will carry these things forever. Tartt's narrative is in essence an extended footnote to that horror, with his mother becoming ever more alive in memory even as the time recedes: not sainted, just alive, the kind of person Theo misses because he can't tell her goofy things (his father taking his mistress to a Bon Jovi concert in Las Vegas, for instance: "It seemed terrible that she would never know this hilarious fact") as much as for any other reason. The symbolic echoes Tartt employs are occasionally heavy-handed, and it's a little too neat that Theo discovers the work of the sublime Dutch master Carel Fabritius, killed in a powder blast, just before the fateful event that will carry his mother away. Yet it all works. "All the rest of it is lost--everything he ever did," his mother quietly laments of the little-known artist, and it is Theo's mission as he moves through life to see that nothing in his own goes missing. Bookending Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud Incredibly Close, this is an altogether lovely addition to what might be called the literature of disaster and redemption. The novel is slow to build but eloquent and assured, with memorable characters, not least a Russian cracker-barrel philosopher who delivers a reading of God that Mordecai Richler might applaud. A standout--and well worth the wait.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2013
The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel
Book Jacket   Adam Johnson
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. Parasites Like Us, 2003, etc.) darkly satisfying if somewhat self-indulgent novel is Pak Jun Do, the conflicted son of a singer. He knows no more, for "That was all Jun Do's father, the Orphan Master, would say about her." The Orphan Master runs an orphanage, but David Copperfield this ain't: Jun Do may have been the only non-orphan in the place, but that doesn't keep his father, a man of influence, from mistreating him as merrily as if he weren't one of his own flesh and blood. For this is the land of Kim Jong Il, the unhappy Potemkin Village land of North Korea, where even Josef Stalin would have looked around and thought the whole business excessive. Johnson's tale hits the ground running, and fast: Jun Do is recruited into a unit that specializes in kidnapping Koreans, and even non-Koreans, living outside the magic kingdom: doctors, film directors, even the Dear Leader's personal sushi chef. "There was a Japanese man. He took his dog for a walk. And then he was nowhere. For the people who knew him, he'd forever be nowhere." So ponders Jun Do, who, specializing in crossing the waters to Japan, sneaking out of tunnels and otherwise working his ghostlike wonders, rises up quickly in the state apparatus, only to fall after a bungled diplomatic trip to the United States. Johnson sets off in the land of John le Carr, but by the time Jun Do lands in Texas we're in a Pynchonesque territory of impossibilities, and by the time he's in the pokey we're in a subplot worthy of Akutagawa. Suffice it to say that Jun Do switches identities, at which point thriller becomes picaresque satire and rifles through a few other genres, shifting narrators, losing and regaining focus and point of view. The reader will have to grant the author room to accommodate the show-offishness, which seems to say, with the rest of the book, that in a world run by a Munchkin overlord like Kim, nothing can be too surreal. Indeed, once Fearless Leader speaks, he's a model of weird clarity: "But let's speak of our shared status as nuclear nations another time. Now let's have some blues." Ambitious and very well written, despite the occasional overreach. When it's made into a film, bet that Kim Jong Il will want to score an early bootleg.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2011
A Visit from the Goon Squad
Book Jacket   Jennifer Egan
 
2010
Tinkers
 Paul Harding
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. Elderly New Englander on his deathbed finds his thoughts drifting back to the father who abandoned the family when he was 12. His organs failing and his mind wandering, retired antique-clock repairman George Washington Crosby prepares to leave this world surrounded by loving family in the house he built himself. In a parallel narrative, his father Howard, a traveling peddler, sells cleaning supplies and sundries to dirt-poor farm wives in 1920s Massachusetts. Barely eking out enough to support his increasingly bitter wife Kathleen and four children, Howard has the heart of a poet and prefers nature walks to selling soap. His quiet desperation is complicated by regular epileptic seizures that leave him bloody and dazed, sometimes miles from home. A violent fit in his home results in him badly biting young George, prompting Kathleen to take steps to send her husband to a state-run mental hospital. He flees, leaving George to grow up into a meticulous, practical man who stashes cash in safety-deposit boxes, most likely as a reaction to his own penniless youth. Debut author Harding (Creative Writing/Harvard Univ.) employs diary entries, stream-of-consciousness musings and excerpts from clock-repair manuals to tell both men's stories. Short on dialogue and filled with lovely Whitmanesque descriptions of the natural world, this slim novel gives shape to the extraordinary variety in the thoughts of otherwise ordinary men. An evocative meditation on the nonlinear nature of a life. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2009
Olive Kitteridge:
 Elizabeth Strout
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. The abrasive, vulnerable title character sometimes stands center stage, sometimes plays a supporting role in these 13 sharply observed dramas of small-town life from Strout (Abide with Me, 2006, etc.). Olive Kitteridge certainly makes a formidable contrast with her gentle, quietly cheerful husband Henry from the moment we meet them both in "Pharmacy," which introduces us to several other denizens of Crosby, Maine. Though she was a math teacher before she and Henry retired, she's not exactly patient with shy young people—or anyone else. Yet she brusquely comforts suicidal Kevin Coulson in "Incoming Tide" with the news that her father, like Kevin's mother, killed himself. And she does her best to help anorexic Nina in "Starving," though Olive knows that the troubled girl is not the only person in Crosby hungry for love. Children disappoint, spouses are unfaithful and almost everyone is lonely at least some of the time in Strout's rueful tales. The Kitteridges' son Christopher marries, moves to California and divorces, but he doesn't come home to the house his parents built for him, causing deep resentments to fester around the borders of Olive's carefully tended garden. Tensions simmer in all the families here; even the genuinely loving couple in "Winter Concert" has a painful betrayal in its past. References to Iraq and 9/11 provide a somber context, but the real dangers here are personal: aging, the loss of love, the imminence of death. Nonetheless, Strout's sensitive insights and luminous prose affirm life's pleasures, as elderly, widowed Olive thinks, "It baffled her, the world. She did not want to leave it yet." A perfectly balanced portrait of the human condition, encompassing plenty of anger, cruelty and loss without ever losing sight of the equally powerful presences of tenderness, shared pursuits and lifelong loyalty. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2008
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Book Jacket   Junot Diaz
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. A rich, impassioned vision of the Dominican Republic and its diaspora, filtered through the destiny of a single family. After a noted debut volume of short stories (Drown, 1996), D"az pens a first novel that bursts alive in an ironic, confiding, exuberant voice. Its wider focus is an indictment of the terrible Trujillo regime and its aftermath, but the approach is oblique, traced backwards via the children (Oscar and Lola) of a larger-than-life but ruined Dominican matriarch, Beli. In earthy, streetwise, Spanish-interlaced prose, D"az links overweight, nerdy fantasist Oscar, his combative, majestic sister and their once Amazonian mother to the island of their ancestry. There, an aunt, La Inca, with strange, possibly supernatural powers, heals and saves Beli after her involvement with one of Trujillo's minor henchman, who was married to the dictator's sister. Beli, at age14, had naively hoped this affair would lead to marriage and family, but instead her pregnancy incurred a near-fatal beating, after which she fled to New Jersey to a life of drudgery, single parenting and illness. By placing sad, lovelorn, virginal Oscar at the book's heart, D"az softens the horrors visited on his antecedents, which began when Trujillo cast his predatory eye on wealthy Abelard Cabral's beautiful daughter. Was the heap of catastrophes that ensued fukú (accursed fate), D"az asks repeatedly, and can there be counterbalancing zafa (blessing)? The story comes full circle with Oscar's death in Santo Domingo's fateful cornfields, himself the victim of a post-Trujillo petty tyrant, but it's redeemed by the power of love. Despite a less sure-footed conclusion, D"az's reverse family saga, crossed with withering political satire, makes for a compelling, sex-fueled, 21st-century tragi-comedy with a magical twist. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2007
The Road
Book Jacket   Cormac McCarthy
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. Even within the author's extraordinary body of work, this stands as a radical achievement, a novel that demands to be read and reread. McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, 2005, etc.) pushes his thematic obsessions to their extremes in a parable that reads like Night of the Living Dead as rewritten by Samuel Beckett. Where much of McCarthy's fiction has been set in the recent past of the South and West, here he conjures a nightmare of an indeterminate future. A great fire has left the country covered in layers of ash and littered with incinerated corpses. Foraging through the wasteland are a father and son, neither named (though the son calls the father "Papa"). The father dimly remembers the world as it was and occasionally dreams of it. The son was born on the cusp of whatever has happened—apocalypse? holocaust?—and has never known anything else. His mother committed suicide rather than face the unspeakable horror. As they scavenge for survival, they consider themselves the "good guys," carriers of the fire, while most of the few remaining survivors are "bad guys," cannibals who eat babies. In order to live, they must keep moving amid this shadowy landscape, in which ashes have all but obliterated the sun. In their encounters along their pilgrimage to the coast, where things might not be better but where they can go no further, the boy emerges as the novel's moral conscience. The relationship between father and son has a sweetness that represents all that's good in a universe where conventional notions of good and evil have been extinguished. Amid the bleakness of survival—through which those who wish they'd never been born struggle to persevere—there are glimmers of comedy in an encounter with an old man who plays the philosophical role of the Shakespearean fool. Though the sentences of McCarthy's recent work are shorter and simpler than they once were, his prose combines the cadence of prophecy with the indelible images of poetry. A novel of horrific beauty, where death is the only truth. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2006
March
 Geraldine Brooks
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. Brooks combines her penchant for historical fiction (Year of Wonders, 2001, etc.) with the literary-reinvention genre as she imagines the Civil War from the viewpoint of Little Women's Mr. March (a stand-in for Bronson Alcott). In 1861, John March, a Union chaplain, writes to his family from Virginia, where he finds himself at an estate he remembers from his much earlier life. He'd come there as a young peddler and become a guest of the master, Mr. Clement, whom he initially admired for his culture and love of books. Then Clement discovered that March, with help from the light-skinned, lovely, and surprisingly educated house slave Grace, was teaching a slave child to read. The seeds of abolitionism were planted as March watched his would-be mentor beat Grace with cold mercilessness. When March's unit makes camp in the now ruined estate, he finds Grace still there, nursing Clement, who is revealed to be, gasp, her father. Although drawn to Grace, March is true to his wife Marmee, and the story flashes back to their life together in Concord. Friends of Emerson and Thoreau, the pair became active in the Underground Railroad and raised their four daughters in wealth until March lost all his money in a scheme of John Brown's. Now in the war-torn South, March finds himself embroiled in another scheme doomed to financial failure when his superiors order him to minister to the "contraband": freed slaves working as employees for a northerner who has leased a liberated cotton plantation. The morally gray complications of this endeavor are the novel's greatest strength. After many setbacks, the crop comes in, but the new plantation-owner is killed by marauders and his "employees" taken back into slavery. March, deathly ill, ends up in a Washington, DC, hospital, where Marmee visits and meets Grace, now a nurse. Readers of Little Women know the ending. The battle scenes are riveting, the human drama flat. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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2005
Gilead: A Novel
 Marilynne Robinson
Kirkus Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission. In 1871, in the small town of Placid, Wis., a sister goes missing and a great adventure begins. Disconsolate over the end of a promising courtship, Agatha Burkhardt runs off without so much as a goodbye to her younger sister, Georgie. When the sheriff attempts to locate and retrieve Agatha, he brings home not the vibrant sister that Georgie adores, but an unidentifiable body wearing Agatha's ball gown. Alone in her belief that the body is not her sister's, Georgie sneaks away in the dead of night, determined to retrace Agatha's steps in order to solve the mystery of her disappearance and, she hopes, to bring her home. To Georgie's surprise, she's joined on the journey by her sister's former flame. And what a journey it is, fraught with mountain lions, counterfeiters and marriage proposals. The truly memorable characters and setting--particularly descriptions of the incredible phenomenon of passenger-pigeon nesting and migration--and the gradual unraveling of the mystery of Agatha's disappearance make this one hard to put down. The icing on the cake, though, is Georgie's narration, which is fresh, laugh-out-loud funny and an absolute delight to read. Georgie's story will capture readers' imaginations with the very first sentences and then hold them hostage until the final page is turned. (Historical fiction. 9-12)]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Horn Book (c) Copyright The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. 9780375869259 When her older sister Agatha is found dead (but unrecognizable), Georgie is certain that there has been a mistake. With her sister's unwelcome suitor Billy McCabe, Georgie sets off to find her sister, or, at least, to find out how she died. The adversarial relationship between Georgie and Billy provides superb comic relief in a gripping, gritty story set in 1870s Wisconsin. (c) Copyright 2013. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
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