The use of several recurring images (an ornamental white bowl, a fire in a sewing machine factory) and Whitman’s visionary...

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SPECIMEN DAYS

Ohioan Michael Cunningham produced two well-received early novels, A Home at the End of the World (1990) and Flesh and Blood (1995), then expanded his range decisively with The Hours (1998). That moving novel, which juxtaposes Virginia Woolf’s final breakdown under the looming shadow of world war with emotional crises endured by two women of later generations, was widely and appreciatively read, won the PEN/Faulkner Award and Pulitzer Prize, and inspired an Oscar-winning film.

The method of The Hours is even more brilliantly employed in Speciman Days, Cunningham’s fifth novel, which tells three interrelated stories set in New York City in the historical past, near-present and imagined future. Each focuses on three characters: a physically or genetically deformed boy, a bereaved woman and a man whose fate influences, or is influenced by, their actions. “In the Machine” is set in the post–Civil War years dominated by the rise of industrialism. In it, an Irish immigrant family’s son, Simon, is mangled and killed by a machine at an ironworks that subsequently also employs his 13-year-old brother Lucas, a stoical “misshapen boy with…a habit of speaking in fits.” These “fits” are verses from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which Lucas has memorized, and from which he infers a hopeful vision of eternal recurrence; human absorption into the universal; the faith that even amid death and dissolution, “We are part of something vaster and more mysterious than the living can imagine.” Lucas’s relationships with the ghost of Simon that he hears “singing” in the machines and with Simon’s grieving fiancée Catherine (a seamstress and prostitute) is echoed, with imaginative variations, in two subsequent narratives. The Catherine of “The Children’s Crusade” is “Cat” Martin, a black forensic psychologist employed by NYC’s “Deterrence” squad to profile preadolescent suicide bombers, presumably parentless members of a deranged millennial “family” announcing the apocalyptic “end of days.” Cat forsakes the safety offered by her affluent lover, Simon (a broker who “trades in futures”), bonding with a dwarflike boy who evokes memories of her own dead son, leading her toward a “strange new life, of which he confides, “You're in the family now.” The theme of escape from a destroyed planet is stated explicitly in “Like Beauty,” in which a scientifically created “simulo” (Simon), a lizard-like alien (Catereen) and a disfigured Jonah-like boy (Luke) meet, then separate—as other survivors of a nuclear “meltdown” are “setting out to colonize a new world.”

The use of several recurring images (an ornamental white bowl, a fire in a sewing machine factory) and Whitman’s visionary idealism superbly underscore a symphonic poem of sorrow, loss, survival—and hope: Cunningham’s finest novel, and one of the important literary achievements of the new century.

Pub Date: June 7, 2005

ISBN: 978-0-374-29962-0

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Sept. 23, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2005

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A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

DEVOLUTION

Are we not men? We are—well, ask Bigfoot, as Brooks does in this delightful yarn, following on his bestseller World War Z (2006).

A zombie apocalypse is one thing. A volcanic eruption is quite another, for, as the journalist who does a framing voice-over narration for Brooks’ latest puts it, when Mount Rainier popped its cork, “it was the psychological aspect, the hyperbole-fueled hysteria that had ended up killing the most people.” Maybe, but the sasquatches whom the volcano displaced contributed to the statistics, too, if only out of self-defense. Brooks places the epicenter of the Bigfoot war in a high-tech hideaway populated by the kind of people you might find in a Jurassic Park franchise: the schmo who doesn’t know how to do much of anything but tries anyway, the well-intentioned bleeding heart, the know-it-all intellectual who turns out to know the wrong things, the immigrant with a tough backstory and an instinct for survival. Indeed, the novel does double duty as a survival manual, packed full of good advice—for instance, try not to get wounded, for “injury turns you from a giver to a taker. Taking up our resources, our time to care for you.” Brooks presents a case for making room for Bigfoot in the world while peppering his narrative with timely social criticism about bad behavior on the human side of the conflict: The explosion of Rainier might have been better forecast had the president not slashed the budget of the U.S. Geological Survey, leading to “immediate suspension of the National Volcano Early Warning System,” and there’s always someone around looking to monetize the natural disaster and the sasquatch-y onslaught that follows. Brooks is a pro at building suspense even if it plays out in some rather spectacularly yucky episodes, one involving a short spear that takes its name from “the sucking sound of pulling it out of the dead man’s heart and lungs.” Grossness aside, it puts you right there on the scene.

A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

Pub Date: June 16, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-2678-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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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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