HOCUS POCUS

Vonnegut's latest is his most insistently antiwar novel since Slaughterhouse-Five, and is haunted by Vietnam; the title refers to Uncle Sam's Vietnam propaganda outfit. The format is standard Vonnegut: homilies, refrains, and fragments of a life on planet Earth (with just a nod to Tralfamadore). The life belongs to Eugene Debs Hartke, soldier-turned-teacher; it's 2001, and the 61-year-old Eugene is getting his life down on scraps of paper while awaiting trial for allegedly masterminding a mass prison break (actually the work of a Jamaican drug kingpin). Though the setting is Tarkington College, Scipio, in Upstate New York, and the narrative is cluttered with campus trivia, Vietnam is invoked at every turn. The new wrinkle here is that Eugene, far from being a hapless Billy Pilgrim, was an accomplished professional soldier, a West Point graduate who rose to lieutenant colonel, a "puritanical angel of death" whose "100-percent-legal military kills" in Vietnam equal the grand total of his sexual conquests after 40 years of tomcatting. But Eugene, for all his medals, still has "ugly, personal knowledge" of Vietnam, which leads to his being fired from Tarkington and moving across the lake to teach at the all-black, Japanese-run prison (the Japanese now run most US prisons and hospitals) until the Jamaican-led exodus and its bloody aftermath. Eugene also has a wretched domestic life (wife and live-in mother-in-law who go mad, estranged kids), but this gets only perfunctory attention. Eugene is an unlikely and never fully convincing filter for Vonnegut's world-view; the snapshots of Vietnam horror ("I saw the severed head of a bearded old man resting on the guts of an eviscerated water buffalo") remain just that; and the Japanese prison warden's childhood memory of the Hiroshima atomic blast reads like a tired replay of Billy in Dresden. Yes, there are occasional flashes of the old Vonnegut magic (a lovely encounter between Eugene and an illegitimate son named after a cocktail, for example), but mostly he is working well below his top form here.

Pub Date: Sept. 5, 1990

ISBN: 0425161293

Page Count: 340

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: Oct. 6, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1990

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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