For students of Iron Curtain–era Eastern European letters, a lost treasure.



A once-subversive, picaresque life of an imagined philosopher who speaks in torrents and trades in absurdity.

Given history, it’s unfortunate that Calinescu, a Romanian novelist who published this book in 1969 and then spent his later years as an expatriate in Indiana, should have decided that his Romanian-German-Jewish protagonist, Zacharias Lichter, be “so ludicrously ugly he produces a strong impression on even the indifferent observer”—and with a “peerless Semitic nose” to boot. Lichter may be hideous and ill-dressed (to convey, Calinescu ventures, the Platonic ideal of poverty), but he is also exuberant and irrepressible, given to waving his hands around wildly while putting the finer points on arguments that are blunt-force weapons. Where Kierkegaard spoke of the elevated triad of the aesthetic, ethical, and religious spheres, for instance, Lichter intones that the proper hierarchy for our day is “circusmadnessperplexity.” That fits because, he adds, all people are clowns, if delayed in their recognition of their essential clownness; moreover, he later holds, “words no longer mean anything,” they “are mere vehicles of a reality beyond signifiers.” Lichter would be as goofy as Vonnegut’s Bokonon, a kind of pastiche Žižek, if Calinescu did not invest in his philosophy a commitment to human freedom, and for this reason it’s easy to see why the book should have been a favorite of Romanian dissidents on its publication in 1969, a dozen or so years after Calinescu began writing the tales of his antiheroical philosopher. Sometimes Calinescu/Lichter is wonderfully prescient, prefiguring Susan Sontag when he writes that in our era “a kind of a debased religion of health, of ‘normality,’ has been created, obsessed with the problem of illness.” Mostly, though, the free-wheeling Lichter, who sometimes delivers his pronouncements in indifferent poetry, lives up to what an acolyte and apprentice of his calls “a pedagogy of beguilement.”

For students of Iron Curtain–era Eastern European letters, a lost treasure.

Pub Date: March 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-68137-195-5

Page Count: 168

Publisher: New York Review Books

Review Posted Online: Dec. 24, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 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.


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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If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be...


Some very nice, very smart African-Americans are plunged into netherworlds of malevolent sorcery in the waning days of Jim Crow—as if Jim Crow alone wasn’t enough of a curse to begin with.

In the northern U.S. of the mid-1950s, as depicted in this merrily macabre pastiche by Ruff (The Mirage, 2012, etc.), Driving While Black is an even more perilous proposition than it is now. Ask Atticus Turner, an African-American Korean War veteran and science-fiction buff, who is compelled to face an all-too-customary gauntlet of racist highway patrolmen and hostile white roadside hamlets en route from his South Side Chicago home to a remote Massachusetts village in search of his curmudgeonly father, Montrose, who was lured away by a young white “sharp dresser” driving a silver Cadillac with tinted windows. At least Atticus isn’t alone; his uncle George, who puts out annual editions of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, is splitting driving duties in his Packard station wagon “with inlaid birch trim and side paneling.” Also along for the ride is Atticus’ childhood friend Letitia Dandridge, another sci-fi fan, whose family lived in the same neighborhood as the Turners. It turns out this road trip is merely the beginning of a series of bizarre chimerical adventures ensnaring both the Turner and Dandridge clans in ancient rituals, arcane magical texts, alternate universes, and transmogrifying potions, all of which bears some resemblance to the supernatural visions of H.P. Lovecraft and other gothic dream makers of the past. Ruff’s ripping yarns often pile on contrivances and overextend the narratives in the grand manner of pulp storytelling, but the reinvented mythos here seems to have aroused in him a newfound empathy and engagement with his characters.

If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be doing triple axels in his grave at the way his imagination has been so impudently shaken and stirred.

Pub Date: Feb. 16, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-06-229206-3

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2015

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