BECOMING JOSEPHINE

Webb adds new frisson to the often fictionalized travails of an unlikely empress.

Before she achieved the ultimate in distaff power, Josephine, nee Rose Tascher, was the least favorite daughter of a Caribbean sugar planter whose wealth was eroded by gambling. The death of a favored younger sister creates an opportunity for Josephine: In her sister’s stead, she is sent to Paris to wed Alexandre de Beauharnais. Her youthful expectations are soon dampened: While she gives birth to two children, Alexandre philanders. Fidelity in marriage is neither expected nor encouraged for either sex. (This is France, after all.) Josephine, schooled by her friend Fanny, hostess at one of Paris’ most illustrious salons, becomes an adept seductress. (In her 30s now, she is pressed for time.) Revolution interrupts her plan to be supported by a powerful man. Alexandre attempts to find his niche in the new regime, a strategy that will, eventually, lead straight to Madame Guillotine. Josephine languishes in a squalid prison for months. There, she meets Gen. Lazare Hoche, who becomes, pre-Napoleon, her first true love. Lazare engineers Josephine’s release, then departs for foreign service in the company of his new wife. Heartbroken, Josephine takes up with Paul Barras, Paris’ most notorious libertine and richest man, whose fortune derives from supplying revolutionary troops. He’s putty in Josephine’s hands until, all too soon, he’s not. Feeling more overshadowed than ever by time’s winged chariot, she takes up the military supply game herself and is almost ready to declare independence from men when she meets a certain height- and hygiene-challenged Corsican conqueror. After she finally succumbs to Napoleon’s persistent pleas for her hand, there is his large, scheming and vindictive family to contend with. Although the book covers the same ground as many other treatments of Josephine’s life and times, Webb’s portrayal of the range of Josephine’s experience—narrow escapes from bloodshed and disease, dinner-table diplomacy, and her helpless love for Napoleon, her children and a small dog—is exceptionally concise and colorful. A worthy fictional primer on Empress Josephine.

 

Pub Date: Dec. 31, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-14-218065-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Plume

Review Posted Online: Dec. 2, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2013

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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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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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