Flirts dangerously with unreadability.

THE GIRL WITH THE LEICA

A charismatic martyr of the Spanish Civil War lives on in the memories of three erstwhile pals who have an axe to grind.

In 2018, Janeczek won Italy’s prestigious annual Strega prize, the first woman to have done so in 15 years. Gerda Pohorylle, working pseudonymously as Gerda Taro, was also a first in the 1930s, a female photojournalist on the front lines as leftist troops waged their ultimately unsuccessful battle against the Franco coup. A German Jew who fled Leipzig for Paris, Gerda and her 20-something friends enjoy a brief idyll of cafe society. A typist, she becomes obsessed with photography and heads for Spain with her mentor and lover, André Friedmann, a Hungarian refugee, who takes on the name Robert Capa. (Together they concocted both aliases.) The two separate to cover the rebellion, intending to reunite, but shortly before her 27th birthday, Gerda is killed in a collision with a tank. Janeczek, as an epilogue confirms, hews closely to the known facts about her characters, all real people. The pre–World War II upheaval is very much in the background. Instead we have mostly retrospective musings, half-realized scenes of young love and its attendant angst as recounted by Gerda’s surviving contemporaries, all, like her, German exiles. Dr. Willy Chardack lives in Buffalo, New York, where his routine of the New York Times and pastries is disrupted by a phone call from an old friend that prompts him to ruefully recall his mostly unrequited crush on Gerda. Ruth Cerf, Gerda’s best girlfriend, seems to view Gerda mainly as a rival for male attention. Georg Kuritzkes, a neurologist in Italy, still rankles over being displaced by Capa as Gerda’s love interest. For long stretches, little happens. Gerda is seen only through a glass darkened by resentment. But the chief hurdle for readers of English is the prose. Surprisingly, Goldstein's translation fails to unknot frequent syntactic snarls, in contrast to her limpid renderings of Elena Ferrante’s work. The text is replete with head-scratcher sentences like this: “The ladies of high society were already competing to see who could gorge Hitler, in the face of the workers reduced to poverty by their consorts.”

Flirts dangerously with unreadability.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-60945-547-7

Page Count: 297

Publisher: Europa Editions

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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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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