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THE TALE OF A NIGGUN

A modest but affecting work with timeless relevance.

A narrative poem explores a ghastly dilemma faced by Jewish ghetto dwellers during World War II.

Written in the late 1970s and included in a long-out-of-print collection of Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Wiesel's essays, the poem is set on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Purim. That's when the "enemy" (the word "Nazi" is never used) announces they will massacre everyone in the ghetto unless 10 Jews are turned over for hanging—this to avenge the killing of the 10 sons of Haman, the anti-Semitic scourge of the Purim story. Overwhelmed by this unthinkable dilemma, the ghetto rabbi feels "his knees weakening, the blood rushing to his face." Searching for answers, he consults the great religious thinkers through their writings. Maimonides, the Rambam, states that a community should perish before handing over one of its members to the enemy, but pressed by the rabbi, his talking spirit concedes that he can't be of help because he never could have foreseen such a predicament. The Baal Shem Tov, or Besht, the founder of Hasidism, teaches the rabbi a special niggun, or song, that confers hidden powers "to break the chains of evil and malediction." But the Besht is so overcome by sadness that he can't infuse the song with the joy it needs. Ultimately, when the niggun is sung by the ghetto community, it conjures a miraculous coming together of Jews—not only from all over Europe, but also from the pages of the Talmud. Accompanied by Podwal's quietly haunting full-page illustrations, Wiesel's spare language cuts to the heart of human loss while the rhythms of the poetry capture the sad, endless march of inhumanity through history. At the same time, this poem sings out the power of belief and community and love.

A modest but affecting work with timeless relevance.

Pub Date: Nov. 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-805-24363-5

Page Count: 64

Publisher: Schocken

Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2020

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LONG ISLAND

A moving portrait of rueful middle age and the failure to connect.

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An acclaimed novelist revisits the central characters of his best-known work.

At the end of Brooklyn (2009), Eilis Lacey departed Ireland for the second and final time—headed back to New York and the Italian American husband she had secretly married after first traveling there for work. In her hometown of Enniscorthy, she left behind Jim Farrell, a young man she’d fallen in love with during her visit, and the inevitable gossip about her conduct. Tóibín’s 11th novel introduces readers to Eilis 20 years later, in 1976, still married to Tony Fiorello and living in the titular suburbia with their two teenage children. But Eilis’ seemingly placid existence is disturbed when a stranger confronts her, accusing Tony of having an affair with his wife—now pregnant—and threatening to leave the baby on their doorstep. “She’d known men like this in Ireland,” Tóibín writes. “Should one of them discover that their wife had been unfaithful and was pregnant as a result, they would not have the baby in the house.” This shock sends Eilis back to Enniscorthy for a visit—or perhaps a longer stay. (Eilis’ motives are as inscrutable as ever, even to herself.) She finds the never-married Jim managing his late father’s pub; unbeknownst to Eilis (and the town), he’s become involved with her widowed friend Nancy, who struggles to maintain the family chip shop. Eilis herself appears different to her old friends: “Something had happened to her in America,” Nancy concludes. Although the novel begins with a soap-operatic confrontation—and ends with a dramatic denouement, as Eilis’ fate is determined in a plot twist worthy of Edith Wharton—the author is a master of quiet, restrained prose, calmly observing the mores and mindsets of provincial Ireland, not much changed from the 1950s.

A moving portrait of rueful middle age and the failure to connect.

Pub Date: May 7, 2024

ISBN: 9781476785110

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Feb. 3, 2024

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2024

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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