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NINETY-NINE STORIES OF GOD

Admirers of Williams—and anyone who treasures a story well told should be one—will find much to like here.

“Hell is unpleasant. Heaven is more pleasant.” Williams, maker of superb short fictions, plumbs the distinction in this slender, evocative collection.

Absent a direct statement otherwise, we should understand the deity here to be something along the lines of what old John Lennon said: “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” The God that lurks in Williams’ brief, elegant stories is very often puzzled by creation, as when he tries to understand why humans should so have it in for wolves: “You really are so intelligent,” he tells one pack, “and have such glorious eyes. Why do you think you’re hounded so?” Ever gracious, the wolves thank God for including them in his plan, leaving him to ponder—well, never mind, since we don’t want to step on the punch line. Suffice it to say that sometimes God shows up on time, sometimes not, sometimes not at all; sometimes he extends grace, and sometimes, as with a colony of bats he’s been living with in a cave, he “had done nothing to save them.” This isn’t theology in the Joel Osteen vein, but it is deep and thought-through theology all the same, and even when God doesn’t figure in the narrative by name, the divine presence is immanent. And sometimes, of course, God is there without announcing himself, taking the form of, say, that homeless fellow who mutteringly assures us, “You don’t get older during the time spent in church.” Seldom occupying more than a couple of pages, Williams’ stories are headed by a number, one to 99, but carry an “undertitle” at the end that glosses the tale in question, sometimes quite offhandedly: in the case of that heaven and hell distinction, for example, it’s “PRETTY MUCH THE SAME, THEN,” while an argument about the impossibility of really knowing God is slugged, rather more mysteriously, “NAKED MIND.”

Admirers of Williams—and anyone who treasures a story well told should be one—will find much to like here.

Pub Date: July 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-941040-35-5

Page Count: 168

Publisher: Tin House

Review Posted Online: April 12, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

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 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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HOUSE OF LEAVES

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...

An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and cinema-derived rhetoric up the ante continuously, and stunningly.  One of the most impressive excursions into the supernatural in many a year.

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000

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