A MAPMAKER'S DREAM

THE MEDITATIONS OF FRA MAURO, CARTOGRAPHER TO THE COURT OF VENICE

The subject of Cowan's (Messengers of the Gods, 1993, etc.) first novel—the thoughts of an intellectually adventurous Renaissance cartographer—should make it soar, but instead it remains painfully inert. Fra Mauro is a Venetian monk who never leaves his cell yet wants to create the greatest map of the world. Is this folly, or is he as well equipped as anyone—since mightn't ``the world [be...] a place entirely constructed from thought''? Mauro tests his hypothesis by receiving men who have traveled widely and come to him with their tales—a merchant who has seen the Orient, another who has been among the Mongols, others with tales of one-eyed and one-armed humans, or one-legged people, or collectors of heads and eaters of their own flesh. That the mind may create the world as much as vice versa is an idea equally at home in the Renaissance world of Hamlet and in the age of Picasso—but Cowan's tale brings it forward on feet of lead and too often with prose to match (``The more I translated his words, the more I began to believe that neither of us had a hegemony over truth''). Fra Mauro's visitors, and the good monk himself, remain underdetailed and dimensionless as an essay-like tone presides over dramatic near-inertia (``It dawned on me then that the world had to be considered as an elaborate artifice . . .''). ``What these men bring to me . . . is a feeling of awe,'' Mauro says at one point, making the reader only regret being unable to feel the same. Near books's end, as Mauro actually sits down to draw his map, Cowan produces a handful of pages as brightly filled with a wealth of life as Homer's description of Achilles' shield—but these are a small number among the gray many. A potential feast for thought, but in a novelistic equivalent of talking heads.

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 1996

ISBN: 1-57062-196-9

Page Count: 208

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1996

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Wingate sheds light on a shameful true story of child exploitation but is less successful in engaging readers in her...

BEFORE WE WERE YOURS

Avery Stafford, a lawyer, descendant of two prominent Southern families and daughter of a distinguished senator, discovers a family secret that alters her perspective on heritage.

Wingate (Sisters, 2016, etc.) shifts the story in her latest novel between present and past as Avery uncovers evidence that her Grandma Judy was a victim of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and is related to a woman Avery and her father meet when he visits a nursing home. Although Avery is living at home to help her parents through her father’s cancer treatment, she is also being groomed for her own political career. Readers learn that investigating her family’s past is not part of Avery's scripted existence, but Wingate's attempts to make her seem torn about this are never fully developed, and descriptions of her chemistry with a man she meets as she's searching are also unconvincing. Sections describing the real-life orphanage director Georgia Tann, who stole poor children, mistreated them, and placed them for adoption with wealthy clients—including Joan Crawford and June Allyson—are more vivid, as are passages about Grandma Judy and her siblings. Wingate’s fans and readers who enjoy family dramas will find enough to entertain them, and book clubs may enjoy dissecting the relationship and historical issues in the book.

Wingate sheds light on a shameful true story of child exploitation but is less successful in engaging readers in her fictional characters' lives.

Pub Date: June 6, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-425-28468-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: March 21, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2017

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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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