An elegant account, told with clarity and grace: van Straten’s history has a limited scope but should strike a chord with...

MY NAME, A LIVING MEMORY

A fictionalized family history traces the fortunes of the ancestors of Italian novelist van Straten from Rotterdam in 1811 to the present day.

In the early-19th century, the Jews across Europe began to be integrated into the mainstream of society, in a gradual and halting process that alleviated many old injustices but also gave rise to some new ones. The narrator (named Giorgio van Straten) is an Italian art restorer who begins the saga with his great-great-grandfather Hartog’s choice of a family name in 1811 (when Napoleon decreed that Jews were henceforth citizens and had to be officially registered as such). A cucumber seller and father of five in Rotterdam, Hartog sees little to be gained from his new status, but he dutifully registers himself as Hartog van Straaten (Henry of the Street) and goes about his business as before. Over the next two centuries, the van Stratens (the second “a” was lost when Giorgio’s grandfather moved to Genoa in 1913) step carefully through history in a larger world that encompasses wars, revolutions, and massacres, as well as the smaller family dramas of marriages, births, and emigration. Hartog’s grandson Benjamin, for example, quarrels with his father Emanuel and runs away to sea, ending up in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. Benjamin’s nephew George, on the other hand, applies himself so dutifully to his work as an insurance agent that he is sent to Italy to manage a new branch of his company. We learn the history of how George’s boss Henry Goldstuck rose from obscure beginnings in Latvia to become an international tycoon. George’s nephew in Russia gets himself into trouble with the NKVD, and nearly everyone in the family has to scramble to escape the Nazis. The story ends with the death of the author’s father, but like all family sagas it is primarily an account of the generations the narrator never knew in his own lifetime.

An elegant account, told with clarity and grace: van Straten’s history has a limited scope but should strike a chord with amateur genealogists everywhere.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2003

ISBN: 1-58642-071-2

Page Count: 285

Publisher: Steerforth

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2003

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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