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THE LAST WATCHMAN OF OLD CAIRO

An appealing family drama illuminates the fascinating story of a famous repository of Jewish documents, the Cairo Geniza.

An American student with a Jewish mother and Muslim father explores his family’s tangled roots in the history of Cairo's ancient synagogue.

When he receives the bequest of an ancient document fragment after the death of his Egyptian father, Berkeley grad student Joseph al-Raqb embarks on a search to discover its provenance. His journey unfolds, for the most part, in an extended visit to Cairo, where he learns more details of his family’s nearly 1,000 years of continuous service as night watchmen for the city’s Ibn Ezra Synagogue. In a dusty attic space, the synagogue once contained a geniza, a storeroom filled with hundreds of years of discarded documents, from records of mundane commercial transactions and routine legal disputes to sacred texts. It was a treasure trove that shed light on a broad swath of life in Cairo’s once-thriving Jewish community. Blending his fictional creations with real characters—including Rabbi Solomon Schechter, the scholar who persuaded the leaders of the remnant of the Cairo Jewish community and Egyptian authorities to allow him to export a substantial portion of the contents of the geniza to Cambridge University in 1897, where most of it remains to this day, and Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, the British Presbyterian twins and antiquarians who inspired his effort—Lukas creates a thoroughly credible mystery, centering on the whereabouts of an apocryphal text of the Torah known as the Ezra Scroll, without sacrificing any of the complexity and subtlety of a work of character-centered literary fiction. In Joseph’s voice, Lukas (The Oracle of Stamboul, 2011) also reveals, through quietly moving scenes, the challenges of identity posed by the ambiguity of his protagonist’s own heritage, as the son of a Muslim father and a Jewish mother who never married each other. And in his exploration of some 10 centuries of Cairo’s history, including times when the city’s Jews and Muslims lived side by side in relative harmony, Lukas at least hints that another era of peaceful coexistence is not beyond imagining.

An appealing family drama illuminates the fascinating story of a famous repository of Jewish documents, the Cairo Geniza.

Pub Date: March 13, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-399-18116-0

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: Jan. 22, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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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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