A mysterious medieval epistle, bumbling romantic efforts and plenty of feel-good spirituality combine to offer good...

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KABBALAH

A LOVE STORY

Rabbi Kushner’s first novel for adults echoes The Gift of Asher Lev and The Da Vinci Code, but offers neither the former’s gravitas nor the latter’s intrigue.

Kalman Stern is a middle-aged, divorced scholar of Jewish mysticism. One of his most treasured possessions is an old book that a stranger in Safed, Israel, gave him. He finds in it a page glued inside the crumbling back cover, which appears to be both a kabalistic meditation and a love letter. Stern begins a search for the person who wrote the letter, and to find out what the letter means. He’s also on a personal quest. After years of lonely bachelorhood, he’s pursuing an astronomer who shares his interest in cosmology. The author interweaves Stern’s story with that of the letter-writer, a mystic in medieval Castile. Also strewn throughout are quasi–magical-realist asides in which Stern returns again and again to Safed. In each scene, the stranger who gave him the book (think Clarence, the ditzy angel in It’s a Wonderful Life) offers Stern new insight into the meaning of life and the shape of the universe, e.g., “The event horizon is not somewhere out there; it is homogenously distributed throughout all creation.” Kushner can be awfully didactic, as when he lets Stern lecture his date—and the reader—about “mystical monism” (the idea that “God is simply all there is”). Kushner also regularly interrupts the story’s flow with passages like, “Kabbalistic thought reached its zenith a century later with the appearance of what is now known as the Zohar.” Still, the hero’s likable quirkiness will hold many readers till the end.

A mysterious medieval epistle, bumbling romantic efforts and plenty of feel-good spirituality combine to offer good prospects for decent commercial, if not literary, success.

Pub Date: Oct. 10, 2006

ISBN: 0-7679-2412-6

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Morgan Road/Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2006

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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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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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