WORLD'S FAIR

A NOVEL

Doctorow continues his long romance with the past in this microcosmic story of a sensitive boy's early life (up to the fifth grade) in the Bronx of the 1930's. What might have been merely a long, warm bath in nostalgia becomes—through the sheer craft of the book—an evocative meditation on time past, and, by constant implication, time present. Edgar Altschuler grows up in a world now gone (a world of leather shaving strops and the horse-drawn carts of vegetable vendors), and his story itself, however compelling, is nothing if not familiar: as he grows up, his parents offer him a polarity of great extremes within which he must somehow shape his own identity. His father is adventurous, liberal-minded, and idealistically impulsive, but not always honest or sexually faithful, and he comes close (among other things, he loses his music-store business) to letting the family drift toward ruin. The quietly suffering mother—desirous of order and propriety and continuity—does what she can to shore up the family's lives against these potential ruins. Meanwhile, world history moves on, always just off-stage, but hinted at again and again, in ways both large and small (Edgar almost dies of a burst appendix, and thus learns of mortality; he witnesses the bizarre schoolyard death of a woman by car accident; and—in one of the book's most wondrous of many wondrous passages—he watches the great airship Hindenburg float marvellously through the sky en route to its disastrous and fiery end). Late in the book, Edgar enters an essay contest on the subject of The Typical American Boy (he writes: "He is kind. . . He knows the value of a dollar. He looks death in the face"). The essay wins honorable mention, and Edgar and his family are given free passes to the World's Fair, where they gaze upon the marvels of a clean, trim, idealized future—while clouds of cruelty and doom (the year is 1940) gather around the edges of all the world. With few overt concessions to the nostalgia-trade (nylon stockings are "new"), this is a delicately-faceted work, perhaps Doctorow's most austere and uncompromised since The Book of Daniel, though far more humble in its material—a quiet homage to a domestic world now quite gone, and one that makes our own world all the more frightening and awesome by its absence. Heavy with literary indebtedness, the book nevertheless, by its consistency of both passion and craft, achieves the radiance and sinuosity of a masterpiece.

Pub Date: Nov. 22, 1985

ISBN: 081297820X

Page Count: 312

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: March 24, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1985

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A compulsively readable account of a little-known yet extraordinary historical figure—Lawhon’s best book to date.

CODE NAME HÉLÈNE

A historical novel explores the intersection of love and war in the life of Australian-born World War II heroine Nancy Grace Augusta Wake.

Lawhon’s (I Was Anastasia, 2018, etc.) carefully researched, lively historical novels tend to be founded on a strategic chronological gambit, whether it’s the suspenseful countdown to the landing of the Hindenberg or the tale of a Romanov princess told backward and forward at once. In her fourth novel, she splits the story of the amazing Nancy Wake, woman of many aliases, into two interwoven strands, both told in first-person present. One begins on Feb. 29th, 1944, when Wake, code-named Hélène by the British Special Operations Executive, parachutes into Vichy-controlled France to aid the troops of the Resistance, working with comrades “Hubert” and “Denden”—two of many vividly drawn supporting characters. “I wake just before dawn with a full bladder and the uncomfortable realization that I am surrounded on all sides by two hundred sex-starved Frenchmen,” she says. The second strand starts eight years earlier in Paris, where Wake is launching a career as a freelance journalist, covering early stories of the Nazi rise and learning to drink with the hardcore journos, her purse-pooch Picon in her lap. Though she claims the dog “will be the great love of [her] life,” she is about to meet the hunky Marseille-based industrialist Henri Fiocca, whose dashing courtship involves French 75 cocktails, unexpected appearances, and a drawn-out seduction. As always when going into battle, even the ones with guns and grenades, Nancy says “I wear my favorite armor…red lipstick.” Both strands offer plenty of fireworks and heroism as they converge to explain all. The author begs forgiveness in an informative afterword for all the drinking and swearing. Hey! No apologies necessary!

A compulsively readable account of a little-known yet extraordinary historical figure—Lawhon’s best book to date.

Pub Date: March 31, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-385-54468-9

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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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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