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KALTENBURG

This scattershot novel could have used some livelier scenes to ensure a richer presentation of its protagonist.

Ornithologists single-mindedly pursue their vocation in post–World War II East Germany; a sui generis third novel from the German author. 

Hermann Funk’s destiny is ordained when the scared child notices that the bird, a swift, trapped in his living room has legs, contrary to popular belief; the future ornithologist has heeded the first rule of science: Observe. Hermann lives in Posen (today’s Poznan), where his father is a botany professor. One day in 1942 his father brings home his Viennese friend Ludwig Kaltenburg, a charismatic zoology professor based on Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz; then overnight their friendship ends, a mystery only resolved years later. In 1945 Funk hustles his family out of town to escape the oppression of Nazi faculty members. It’s their rotten luck to arrive in Dresden right before the Allies’ notorious firebombing. Eleven-year-old Hermann survives; his parents die. Their bodies are never found. Beyer tells his story obliquely; it’s a loosely chronological mosaic of memories. The omissions are disturbing. We are left to guess the extent of narrator’s Hermann pain. His difficult years with a Dresden foster family are barely glimpsed. Deliverance comes in the ’50s when father figure Kaltenburg installs him at his Dresden Institute and Hermann meets his future wife, the fearless Klara. While the primary focus is bird research, we are not allowed to forget that the ornithologists are working in the cross-currents of history; fear is pervasive in the East German police state. Kaltenburg’s glory years end when a protégé accidentally alarms a tame raven. The bird attacks. The professor intervenes, disarming his protégé before banishing him. His favoring bird over man unsettles the Institute; then the oblivious professor is dislodged by his conniving deputy. (Obvious irony: Kaltenburg has failed at observation.)  However, that striking raven scene has revealed more about Kaltenburg than all the skeletons of his World War II past, which come tumbling out at the end.

This scattershot novel could have used some livelier scenes to ensure a richer presentation of its protagonist. 

Pub Date: April 17, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-15-101397-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: March 20, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2012

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THE NIGHTINGALE

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 19, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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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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