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AS CLOSE TO US AS BREATHING

Beautifully written, stringently unsentimental, and yet tender in its empathy for the perennial human conflict between...

Poliner’s follow-up to Mutual Life & Casualty (2005) limns a Jewish family too close-knit for its individual members’ good.

“The summer of 1948 my brother Davy was killed in an accident,” Molly tells us in her first sentence. Twelve years old at the time, she looks back from the vantage point of 1999 to consider the fraught family dynamic that contributed to the accident. The Syrkin sisters—Vivie, Bec, and Molly’s mother, Ada—summer every year with their families on “Bagel Beach,” one of the few portions of the Connecticut shore open to Jews. Their distrust of outsiders is understandable, with the Holocaust a recent memory, but as Molly’s narration delves into dramas from before and after Davy’s death, we see that the family’s collective needs too often take precedence over personal happiness—especially if it involves moving beyond their tight little community’s boundaries. Molly’s uncle Nelson lost the love of his life when he dutifully went to work in the family department store instead of pursuing the academic career he wanted. Her brother Howard, in love with an Irish Catholic girl, rejects her after Davy’s death, seeing it as punishment for being “self-indulgent.” Molly’s cousin Nina also takes away from the accident a deep sense of guilt and unworthiness to be loved that scars her life. Warm scenes of Shabbos dinners and summer leisure evoke the appeal of this sheltering world, but an ugly quarrel between Molly’s parents makes clear that it's governed by strict rules, and those who violate them will be punished. Selfish, fun-loving, ultimately devastated Ada is perhaps the most emotionally tangled family member, but Poliner depicts each character with sensitivity and insight. Molly’s coming-of-age is the delicate connective tissue that binds together the novel’s chronologically fragmented episodes, revealing them as pieces in a mosaic of enlarged understanding—the narrator’s and ours.

Beautifully written, stringently unsentimental, and yet tender in its empathy for the perennial human conflict between service and self.

Pub Date: March 15, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-316-38411-7

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Lee Boudreaux/Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

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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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