The drama is muted, but van Gogh’s mix of genius and madness continues to fascinate.

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LEAVING VAN GOGH

Wallace, who has written 20 mostly humorous or lightweight books since she co-authored The Official Preppy Handbook (1980), enters the realm of historical fiction with this novel about Vincent van Gogh.

Like Alyson Richman in The Last Van Gogh (2006), Wallace concentrates on the artist’s last days and his involvement with the family of Dr. Gachet. The basic facts are known: Van Gogh spent his last 70 days in Auvers painting a huge number of works before he shot himself; while in Auvers he spent considerable time with Gachet, a widower with two children, Marguerite and Paul. While Richman focused on Vincent’s relationship with Gachet’s daughter Marguerite—whose portrait he painted as well as Gachet’s—Wallace has Gachet narrate. According to him, he has always befriended painters, amassing an impressive collection of impressionist paintings, and dabbles in painting and etching himself. Vincent’s brother Theo, who supports Vincent, employs Gachet to watch over the artist. Gachet quickly recognizes the brilliance of Vincent’s work. When Vincent’s erratic behavior flares, Gachet suggests a “cordial” to soothe him, but Vincent tells Gachet that he must paint to keep sane. Both Marguerite and Paul grow obsessed with Vincent and follow him around. Vincent thinks of Marguerite only as a subject to paint. He becomes furious at Paul when Paul’s dog destroys one of his paintings. After Theo comes to visit with his wife and baby, Gachet realizes he has advanced syphilis. But Theo’s financial responsibility to his family drives him to keep working as an art dealer even as his health declines. Learning of Theo’s condition, Vincent becomes unable to paint. Without painting he has no wish to live. Gachet, still guilty that he refused his consumptive wife’s plea to help her die years earlier, decides to help Vincent by leaving his loaded gun where Vincent will find it.

The drama is muted, but van Gogh’s mix of genius and madness continues to fascinate.

Pub Date: April 19, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6879-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: Dec. 30, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2011

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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be...

LOVECRAFT COUNTRY

Some very nice, very smart African-Americans are plunged into netherworlds of malevolent sorcery in the waning days of Jim Crow—as if Jim Crow alone wasn’t enough of a curse to begin with.

In the northern U.S. of the mid-1950s, as depicted in this merrily macabre pastiche by Ruff (The Mirage, 2012, etc.), Driving While Black is an even more perilous proposition than it is now. Ask Atticus Turner, an African-American Korean War veteran and science-fiction buff, who is compelled to face an all-too-customary gauntlet of racist highway patrolmen and hostile white roadside hamlets en route from his South Side Chicago home to a remote Massachusetts village in search of his curmudgeonly father, Montrose, who was lured away by a young white “sharp dresser” driving a silver Cadillac with tinted windows. At least Atticus isn’t alone; his uncle George, who puts out annual editions of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, is splitting driving duties in his Packard station wagon “with inlaid birch trim and side paneling.” Also along for the ride is Atticus’ childhood friend Letitia Dandridge, another sci-fi fan, whose family lived in the same neighborhood as the Turners. It turns out this road trip is merely the beginning of a series of bizarre chimerical adventures ensnaring both the Turner and Dandridge clans in ancient rituals, arcane magical texts, alternate universes, and transmogrifying potions, all of which bears some resemblance to the supernatural visions of H.P. Lovecraft and other gothic dream makers of the past. Ruff’s ripping yarns often pile on contrivances and overextend the narratives in the grand manner of pulp storytelling, but the reinvented mythos here seems to have aroused in him a newfound empathy and engagement with his characters.

If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be doing triple axels in his grave at the way his imagination has been so impudently shaken and stirred.

Pub Date: Feb. 16, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-06-229206-3

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2015

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