Rambling and disjointed, but enthralling.

THE EMPRESS OF WEEHAWKEN

Three generations of unconventional women figure in this autobiographical novel from Dische (The Job, 2002, etc.).

The boundaries separating fiction and memoir are cheerfully trampled by Elisabeth Rother, the author’s real-life grandmother, whose narration—fictional, one assumes—maps a maze of recollections with plenty of wrong turns and cul-de-sacs (e.g., what “circumstances so demeaning” prompted granddaughter Irene to sell Elisabeth’s heirloom jewelry?). A staunch Catholic of aristocratic Rhineland stock, young Elisabeth marries Carl, a Jewish doctor who at her insistence converts to Christianity. As Hitler’s persecution of the Jews escalates from petty indignities to Final Solution, Carl finally heeds Elisabeth’s warnings to flee to America. She follows later with daughter Renate, a talented pianist. Once ensconced in New York, Renate struggles to become a physician, meeting husband-to-be Dische in the course of her chemistry studies. A brilliant scientist but a deeply dysfunctional human being, the Jewish Dische is barely tolerated by the Rothers and merely a marginal presence in the lives of Irene and Little Carl. His children’s destinies are controlled by Elisabeth and her faithful maid Liesel from the Rothers’ suburban New Jersey stronghold. (Renate, a coroner, parents sporadically and incompetently.) Little Carl is a child genius and bookish recluse. Irene grows up wild in the ’50s and ’60s, gets kicked out of school as often as her forebears and experiments with hippiedom while avoiding sex and drugs. At 17, she explores Europe, then moves on to Libya, where she’s stranded during Qaddafi’s coup, and to Kenya, where she bluffs her way into a job with Louis Leakey, who then shoehorns the high-school dropout into Harvard. Through it all, Elisabeth recounts the foibles and follies of her American descendants through befuddled but canny Old World eyes.

Rambling and disjointed, but enthralling.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-374-29912-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2007

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH

While a few weeks ago it seemed as if Praeger would have a two month lead over Dutton in their presentation of this Soviet best seller, both the "authorized" edition (Dutton's) and the "unauthorized" (Praeger's) will appear almost simultaneously. There has been considerable advance attention on what appears to be as much of a publishing cause celebre here as the original appearance of the book in Russia. Without entering into the scrimmage, or dismissing it as a plague on both your houses, we will limit ourselves to a few facts. Royalties from the "unauthorized" edition will go to the International Rescue Committee; Dutton with their contracted edition is adhering to copyright conventions. The Praeger edition has two translators and one of them is the translator of Doctor Zhivago Dutton's translator, Ralph Parker, has been stigmatized by Praeger as "an apologist for the Soviet regime". To the untutored eye, the Dutton translation seems a little more literary, the Praeger perhaps closer to the rather primitive style of the original. The book itself is an account of one day in the three thousand six hundred and fifty three days of the sentence to be served by a carpenter, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. (Solzhenitsyn was a political prisoner.) From the unrelenting cold without, to the conditions within, from the bathhouse to the latrine to the cells where survival for more than two weeks is impossible, this records the hopeless facts of existence as faced by thousands who went on "living like this, with your eyes on the ground". The Dutton edition has an excellent introduction providing an orientation on the political background to its appearance in Russia by Marvin Kalb. All involved in its publication (translators, introducers, etc.) claim for it great "artistic" values which we cannot share, although there is no question of its importance as a political and human document and as significant and tangible evidence of the de-Stalinization program.

Pub Date: June 15, 1963

ISBN: 0451228146

Page Count: 181

Publisher: Praeger

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1963

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