This incandescent elegy to age, change, and acceptance burns with an urgency that seems to have pared Calisher’s...


Calisher is the bridesmaid of contemporary American fiction: for more than 50 years an imposingly brilliant stylist whose densely declarative and analytical, richly woven fiction has never achieved the canonical status awarded to many writers far less accomplished.

Calisher has skirted obscurity (in her ebullient “space opera” Journal from Ellipsia, 1965, and In the Palace of the Movie King, 1994), but at her best (Standard Dreaming, 1972, and Mysteries of Motion, 1983, her complex, luminous short stories), she has surveyed the recently concluded century at all its personal, familial, social, and global levels with a verbal eloquence and intensity of observation that make her writing mandatory, if demanding, reading. Sunday Jews, her 15th novel, published in her 91st year, is a summa, and a triumph. Its tower-of-strength central figure is Zipporah Zangwill, an eminent anthropologist and the 60ish Manhattan matriarch of an extended family of intellectuals and activists who define themselves, and are defined by others, by both their adherence to Zipporah’s Jewish heritage and the degrees to which they have fulfilled, or failed to fulfill, their various potentials. When Zipporah’s beloved husband, philosophy professor Peter Duffy, begins a slow decline into senility, she decides to sell their townhouse and stimulate Peter’s enfeebled faculties by touring all the exotic places she had visited and studied. This decision triggers a seamless interweaving of memory, meditation, and narrative, as Zipporah’s plans resolve themselves into a patient, courageous vigil that also becomes an almost unbearably moving celebration of a long and happy marriage. Interpolated stories depicting the conflicted lives of the Zangwill-Duffy children (the most interesting of them is Nell, a world-weary attorney who has borne two illegitimate children) are amply and interestingly developed, but really only secondary. The fulcrum of this rich tale is the love that bonds Zipporah to her husband and also to her splendid grandson Bert, the unlikely vessel through whom all that she cares for will be preserved.

This incandescent elegy to age, change, and acceptance burns with an urgency that seems to have pared Calisher’s often-reviled ornate style down to a taut, focused simplicity and purity. She has often before written as fervently, even as generously, but she has never written better.

Pub Date: May 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-15-100930-9

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2002

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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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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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These letters from some important executive Down Below, to one of the junior devils here on earth, whose job is to corrupt mortals, are witty and written in a breezy style seldom found in religious literature. The author quotes Luther, who said: "The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn." This the author does most successfully, for by presenting some of our modern and not-so-modern beliefs as emanating from the devil's headquarters, he succeeds in making his reader feel like an ass for ever having believed in such ideas. This kind of presentation gives the author a tremendous advantage over the reader, however, for the more timid reader may feel a sense of guilt after putting down this book. It is a clever book, and for the clever reader, rather than the too-earnest soul.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1942

ISBN: 0060652934

Page Count: 53

Publisher: Macmillan

Review Posted Online: Oct. 17, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1943

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