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GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD

Ridiculously entertaining. If the movie people don’t snap this one up, somebody’s asleep at the switch.

In his ongoing crusade to reanimate tales of adventure set in days of yore, Chabon (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, 2007, etc.) offers an ebullient yarn that blithely defies probability, while plundering from innumerable semi-literary sources.

Originally serialized in the New York Times Magazine (January-May 2007), it’s a story that moves from a caravansary in the Caucasus, along the legendary Silk Road traveled by merchants and adventurers, to the royal city Atil, stronghold of the Khazars, but presently occupied by the usurper, Buljan, who had murdered its rightful rulers. We learn all this through the efforts of the eponymous “gentlemen”: an Abyssinian soldier of fortune, Amram, and a cadaverous Frankish opportunist, Zelikman, who possesses the skills of an apothecary and the soul of an emotionless killer. Living by their wits (e.g., staging fights to the death and absconding with money wagered by gullible spectators), they encounter a beardless young man, Filaq, who’s the only survivor of his family’s slaughter by Buljan, and who, after initially mistrusting Zelikman and Amram, enlists them in pursuit of the throne that is rightfully his. Eyebrows will arch at the many twists and turns, (not so surprising) surprises and reversals, as the trio proceed toward Atil, joining forces with an army of (Arsiyah) mercenaries weary from battle with Northern invaders (who appear to be in collusion with the nefarious Buljan), then a family of Jewish (Radanite) traders confident that wholesale slaughter need not interfere with business as usual. Nobody is quite who he seems to be. But the worst villains experience comeuppance, in the gratifying resolution of a complaint voiced by, of all people, Buljan: “There was no hope for an empire that had lost the will to prosecute the grand and awful business of adventure.” That might be the voice of Chabon addressing his readers.

Ridiculously entertaining. If the movie people don’t snap this one up, somebody’s asleep at the switch.

Pub Date: Oct. 30, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-345-50174-5

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2007

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A LITTLE LIFE

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 21, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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WE WERE THE LUCKY ONES

Too beholden to sentimentality and cliché, this novel fails to establish a uniquely realized perspective.

Hunter’s debut novel tracks the experiences of her family members during the Holocaust.

Sol and Nechuma Kurc, wealthy, cultured Jews in Radom, Poland, are successful shop owners; they and their grown children live a comfortable lifestyle. But that lifestyle is no protection against the onslaught of the Holocaust, which eventually scatters the members of the Kurc family among several continents. Genek, the oldest son, is exiled with his wife to a Siberian gulag. Halina, youngest of all the children, works to protect her family alongside her resistance-fighter husband. Addy, middle child, a composer and engineer before the war breaks out, leaves Europe on one of the last passenger ships, ending up thousands of miles away. Then, too, there are Mila and Felicia, Jakob and Bella, each with their own share of struggles—pain endured, horrors witnessed. Hunter conducted extensive research after learning that her grandfather (Addy in the book) survived the Holocaust. The research shows: her novel is thorough and precise in its details. It’s less precise in its language, however, which frequently relies on cliché. “You’ll get only one shot at this,” Halina thinks, enacting a plan to save her husband. “Don’t botch it.” Later, Genek, confronting a routine bit of paperwork, must decide whether or not to hide his Jewishness. “That form is a deal breaker,” he tells himself. “It’s life and death.” And: “They are low, it seems, on good fortune. And something tells him they’ll need it.” Worse than these stale phrases, though, are the moments when Hunter’s writing is entirely inadequate for the subject matter at hand. Genek, describing the gulag, calls the nearest town “a total shitscape.” This is a low point for Hunter’s writing; elsewhere in the novel, it’s stronger. Still, the characters remain flat and unknowable, while the novel itself is predictable. At this point, more than half a century’s worth of fiction and film has been inspired by the Holocaust—a weighty and imposing tradition. Hunter, it seems, hasn’t been able to break free from her dependence on it.

Too beholden to sentimentality and cliché, this novel fails to establish a uniquely realized perspective.

Pub Date: Feb. 14, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-399-56308-9

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Nov. 21, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2016

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