SPIRITS OF THE ORDINARY

A TALE OF CASAS GRANDES

Like a vivid dream, this debut novel, the first of a projected trilogy by the Mexican-American author (Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist, 1992: stories), blurs fantasy and reality as it details in luminous prose one family's search for identity and meaning. The story is set in northern Mexico in the late 19th century, at a time when the authorities fear that the peasants and Indian tribes are about to revolt. The Roman Catholic Church is all- powerful; Jewish families like the Carabajals have long been forced to practice their faith in secret. Though Zacarças Carabajal converted when he married Estela, his father Julio lives in expectation of the Messiah, and his mother Mariana, a mystic, has not spoken since the age of 12, when she fell into a 30-day trance. As the novel opens, Zacarças, leaving Estela and their three children—son Gabriel and twin daughters—behind, has set off on yet another search for gold. Estela fears Zacarças is wasting her dowry and their children's future on these futile ventures; and when Zacarças shows no signs of returning, she embarks on a brief but intense affair with an Army doctor. Meantime, Zacarças, frequently traveling through rough and dangerous terrain, has his own amorous diversions. While a hospitable tribal elder and an American woman photographer disguised as a man and add further color, Zacarças's transformation from a prospector into a visionary and healer lies at the heart of the tale. It's only when the army brutally attacks the old cliff village of Casas Grandes, where Zacarças and the followers he's gradually gathered have hidden, that he finds the answer to his long quest. Gabriel, it seems likely, will soon be called to a quest of his own. Some characters seem more decorative than essential, but, still, Alcal† offers a beautifully imagined if quiet portrait of the insistent urgings of the human spirit.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1997

ISBN: 0-8118-1447-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Chronicle Books

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 1996

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An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

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DEACON KING KONG

The versatile and accomplished McBride (Five Carat Soul, 2017, etc.) returns with a dark urban farce crowded with misjudged signals, crippling sorrows, and unexpected epiphanies.

It's September 1969, just after Apollo 11 and Woodstock. In a season of such events, it’s just as improbable that in front of 16 witnesses occupying the crowded plaza of a Brooklyn housing project one afternoon, a hobbling, dyspeptic, and boozy old church deacon named Cuffy Jasper "Sportcoat" Lambkin should pull out a .45-caliber Luger pistol and shoot off an ear belonging to the neighborhood’s most dangerous drug dealer. The 19-year-old victim’s name is Deems Clemens, and Sportcoat had coached him to be “the best baseball player the projects had ever seen” before he became “a poison-selling murderous meathead.” Everybody in the project presumes that Sportcoat is now destined to violently join his late wife, Hettie, in the great beyond. But all kinds of seemingly disconnected people keep getting in destiny's way, whether it’s Sportcoat’s friend Pork Sausage or Potts, a world-weary but scrupulous White policeman who’s hoping to find Sportcoat fast enough to protect him from not only Deems’ vengeance, but the malevolent designs of neighborhood kingpin Butch Moon. All their destines are somehow intertwined with those of Thomas “The Elephant” Elefante, a powerful but lonely Mafia don who’s got one eye trained on the chaos set off by the shooting and another on a mysterious quest set in motion by a stranger from his crime-boss father’s past. There are also an assortment of salsa musicians, a gentle Nation of Islam convert named Soup, and even a tribe of voracious red ants that somehow immigrated to the neighborhood from Colombia and hung around for generations, all of which seems like too much stuff for any one book to handle. But as he's already shown in The Good Lord Bird (2013), McBride has a flair for fashioning comedy whose buoyant outrageousness barely conceals both a steely command of big and small narrative elements and a river-deep supply of humane intelligence.

An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

Pub Date: March 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1672-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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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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