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A HORSE WALKS INTO A BAR

Another thoughtful, if odd and caustic, story from one of Israel’s greatest contemporary writers.

Take my life. Take my life, please….

Dov Greenstein is on stage in Caesarea—Hello, is this microphone working?—or somewhere, at any rate, any of a hundred dusty Israeli towns, marking time before the spotlights in a tiny bar. “Looks like my agent fucked me again,” he says, and the audience laughs appreciatively. He throws out a few insults, a few jibes, and asks them, “Why are you dumbasses laughing? That joke was about you!” But he’s no Don Rickles, not Dovelah. He’s on the stage, it seems, to work out some personal issues and not a little bit of existential angst. To that end, he’s invited an old friend, Avishai Lazar, a former judge, to attend. Avishai, the narrator, has known Dov since childhood and summer camp, and he’s amazed at the amount of hurt the comedian has stowed away, the better to make jokes out of, perhaps, but enough to keep an army of psychiatrists busy. Besides, there’s some payback in the offing for some long-ago slight: “The sweetness of the revenge I am about to be subjected to,” Avishai thinks. Along the way, Grossman (To the End of the Land, 2010, etc.) unveils scenes from Israeli history and society: through Dov, he jokes that one woman’s hairdo was designed by the same engineer who built the nuclear plant at Dimona, and it’s not long before the Holocaust is dusted off and worked into the bit. The comic patter becomes ever more fraught, ever less funny; as one audience member protests, “People come here to have a good time, it’s the weekend, you wanna clear your head, and this guy gives us Yom Kippur.” Yes, and not a little Freud, too. The book is an assault on the reader, a provocation and a challenge; Grossman takes great risks, but in the end there is reward in a kind of redemption— and in any event, thank the heavens, the bad jokes stop.

Another thoughtful, if odd and caustic, story from one of Israel’s greatest contemporary writers.

Pub Date: Feb. 28, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-451-49397-2

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 6, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2016

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

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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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 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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HOUSE OF LEAVES

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...

An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and cinema-derived rhetoric up the ante continuously, and stunningly.  One of the most impressive excursions into the supernatural in many a year.

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000

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