Original and thought-provoking.

AFTER ABEL AND OTHER STORIES

In this debut collection, nine stories shed light on Old Testament women famous, infamous and obscure. 

“God said one thing. The snake said another. Which is how I learned that someone had to be lying,” Eve remarks in the title story. Where the Bible’s women are concerned, Lemberger, a respected scholar in the field, is as skeptical as Eve. After her husband (in “Lot’s Wife”) threatens to throw his daughters to a mob of rapists, Lot’s wife rescues the girls, torches Sodom and escapes—no divine wrath or pillar of salt in sight. The familiar story of Sarah and Hagar (“The Watery Season”) highlights the downside of selling young women as handmaidens to produce children for men whose wives are barren. In Lemberger’s take on Exodus (“Drawn from the Water”), colicky, wailing Moses can’t be hidden, like other male newborns, from the Egyptian slave masters, so his sister Miriam, a wisecracking adolescent, is charged with setting him afloat in the Nile. The reader’s sympathy will be drawn not to established biblical heroes but to misunderstood or otherwise marginalized minor players. Vashti, the deposed queen of Persia, and her sister Zeresh, the narrator, are the focus of “Zeresh, His Wife,” not Esther, who takes Vashti’s place, nor her uncle Mordechai, who brings down Zeresh’s hapless husband, Haman. When Yael, in “City of Refuge,” kills enemy general Sisera, she is glorified by warrior queen Deborah; but Yael is revealed as a true pacifist. In “Shiloh,” fecund Penina, another woman sold as a “breeder” and traditionally seen as resentful, nobly forgoes an opportunity to displace her rival wife, Hannah. The most villainous character here is King David: Not only does he overthrow his mentor, King Saul, but he abandons his first wife, Saul’s daughter Michel, for years, forcibly reclaiming her out of spite (“Saul’s Daughter”). While avoiding outright irreverence or anachronism, Lemberger’s diction gives cogent voice to all her underestimated or overlooked narrators. 

Original and thought-provoking.

Pub Date: April 1, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-938849-47-3

Page Count: 276

Publisher: Prospect Park Books

Review Posted Online: Feb. 5, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2015

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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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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

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 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

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THE WATER DANCER

The celebrated author of Between the World and Me (2015) and We Were Eight Years in Power (2017) merges magic, adventure, and antebellum intrigue in his first novel.

In pre–Civil War Virginia, people who are white, whatever their degree of refinement, are considered “the Quality” while those who are black, whatever their degree of dignity, are regarded as “the Tasked.” Whether such euphemisms for slavery actually existed in the 19th century, they are evocatively deployed in this account of the Underground Railroad and one of its conductors: Hiram Walker, one of the Tasked who’s barely out of his teens when he’s recruited to help guide escapees from bondage in the South to freedom in the North. “Conduction” has more than one meaning for Hiram. It's also the name for a mysterious force that transports certain gifted individuals from one place to another by way of a blue light that lifts and carries them along or across bodies of water. Hiram knows he has this gift after it saves him from drowning in a carriage mishap that kills his master’s oafish son (who’s Hiram’s biological brother). Whatever the source of this power, it galvanizes Hiram to leave behind not only his chains, but also the two Tasked people he loves most: Thena, a truculent older woman who practically raised him as a surrogate mother, and Sophia, a vivacious young friend from childhood whose attempt to accompany Hiram on his escape is thwarted practically at the start when they’re caught and jailed by slave catchers. Hiram directly confronts the most pernicious abuses of slavery before he is once again conducted away from danger and into sanctuary with the Underground, whose members convey him to the freer, if funkier environs of Philadelphia, where he continues to test his power and prepare to return to Virginia to emancipate the women he left behind—and to confront the mysteries of his past. Coates’ imaginative spin on the Underground Railroad’s history is as audacious as Colson Whitehead’s, if less intensely realized. Coates’ narrative flourishes and magic-powered protagonist are reminiscent of his work on Marvel’s Black Panther superhero comic book, but even his most melodramatic effects are deepened by historical facts and contemporary urgency.

An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-59059-7

Page Count: 432

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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