Beautifully constructed and very rich but, still, tales with a narrow focus that may seem foreign and strange to the...

SEPHARAD

Seventeen stories, most portraying historical figures trapped in the political convulsions of the 1930s and ’40s, by award-winning Spanish novelist Muñoz Molina.

Muñoz Molina writes with a kind of political nostalgia, recalling the great conflicts between Communists and Fascists and the various factions caught in between during WWII and the years leading up to it. His style is leisurely and anecdotal, somewhat in the manner of Borges, and it nearly always takes the form of personal recollections of events seen now across the expanse of many years. Some of the stories, like “Sacristan” (a provincial Spaniard who moved to Madrid many years ago continues to return to his native village for Holy Week and observes the changes brought on with the passing of time), are simple elegies, but most are rooted in actual events and some are populated by historical figures. “Munzenburg,” for example, depicts the real-life adventures of Willi Munzenburg, a German Communist spy who ended up being pursued by the Gestapo and the KGB alike during the early days of WWII. “Silencing Everything” gives us the recollections of a Spanish university student who, too young to fight in the Spanish Civil War, made his way to Russia a few years later to fight the Germans in WWII, while “Those Who Wait” recounts the stomach-churning tension suffered by those who tried to go on with their daily lives while trying to evade arrest by the Soviet or Nazi secret police (Jews such as Victor Klemperer of Dresden, or hapless Communist Party rejects like Margarete Buber-Neumann or Nadezhda Mandelstam). The title piece is a rambling memoir that moves from the author’s recollections of the abandoned Jewish ghetto in his native Spanish town to a visit many years later to the Sephardic cemetery in Manhattan.

Beautifully constructed and very rich but, still, tales with a narrow focus that may seem foreign and strange to the majority of American readers.

Pub Date: Dec. 1, 2003

ISBN: 0-15-100901-5

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2003

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 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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