This collection charms with quiet, wry humor.

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THE WORLDS WE THINK WE KNOW

Stories about Jewish life—in all its painful absurdity—in the United States and in Israel.

Rosenfeld’s debut book of stories is funny, touching, awkward, and wry. In most of the stories, not all that much happens: instead, Rosenfeld deals with the quotidian and the absurd. In the title story, a young woman volunteers to keep an elderly Holocaust survivor company. Mostly, she watches him eat onions. “Lotzi ate it with bread, one slice for every three bites of onion, and washed it down with a cup of tepid Wissotzky made from old teabags reduced to the size of walnuts.” In “A Foggy Day,” a girl takes piano lessons. In “The Other Air,” a woman can’t stop sighing. Almost all the stories are told in the first person, and most of these narrators share a common voice. Then, too, there are certain images, or motifs, that recur throughout many of the stories: lemon trees, migraines, pianos, and books—more than books: some of her characters read compulsively, for hours, for days, almost unceasingly. Rosenfeld writes with a dry, sardonic deadpan. Her characters are lonely, homely, maladroit creatures. In “Vignette of the North,” the owner of a vegetable stand finds that an artist across the way has painted her stand. “Simona stared at a crumb that had settled on the painter’s beard and wished it away. As the object of artistic inspiration, she felt almost entitled to brush it off herself.” She invites him to her home to finish the painting “without all the distractions of the market.” She expects him to add her into the painting. He might as well stay for dinner. “I’m a very good cook,” she informs him. Inevitably, she’s disappointed. Readers won’t be.

This collection charms with quiet, wry humor.

Pub Date: May 9, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-57131-126-9

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Milkweed

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2017

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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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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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