That Grooms’ incisive, gripping, and empathetic novel dares to probe beneath the humiliations, customs, and fears that...

THE VAIN CONVERSATION

A real-life racially motivated mass killing from 1946 is boldly and deeply reimagined—as are its long-term reverberations.

It is the summer of 1946, and 10-year-old Lonnie Henson, a young white boy living in the rural outskirts of Bethany, Georgia, is picking blackberries toward twilight when he stumbles upon a horrific sight: a crowd of white men and women, some of whom he recognizes, gathered together to shoot and bludgeon two African-American couples to death; one of the dead he recognizes as Bertrand Johnson, a family friend who’d found communion with Lonnie’s late father, an ex-GI traumatized by what he’d witnessed during World War II. From that jolting opening, Grooms (Trouble No More, 1996, etc.) gradually weaves his narrative back and forth to the days, months, and years preceding and following the murders, which are drawn from a real-life lynching of two couples that same year in the same region. (No one was ever arrested or prosecuted.) With dexterity and compassion, Grooms takes the full measure of his characters, white and black, including Lonnie’s parents and great aunt Grace; Bertrand’s outspoken wife, Luellen, and stoic mother, Milledge; Maribelle Crookshank, owner of the local diner and town gossip; Vernon Venable, the wealthy white businessman who sets the ugly events in motion by attacking the wife of Jimmy Lee, one of the four victims; and Venable’s friend Noland Jacks, who is one of those Lonnie remembers most in the lynch mob even after he’s grown up and left to join the Navy, forever agonized and conscience-stricken by what he’s seen. Grooms’ novel presents racism as a self-perpetuating monster piling large and small atrocities atop one another. No one is immune from those atrocities or their consequences, the book strongly asserts—though it also implies that redemption, at whatever cost, may be accessible to those who, like Lonnie, feel deeply enough to escape their grim legacy.

That Grooms’ incisive, gripping, and empathetic novel dares to probe beneath the humiliations, customs, and fears that sustain injustice implies that our seemingly eternal conversation on race, to which the title refers, may not be as vain as it often seems.

Pub Date: March 1, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-61117-882-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Univ. of South Carolina

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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