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KADDISH.COM

Again, Englander demonstrates his skill at placing timeless concerns of Judaism in sharply modern circumstances. This one...

A lapsed Jew returns to the fold and becomes obsessed with redeeming a spiritual mistake made 20 years earlier.

When Larry's father dies, he must travel from Brooklyn to his sister Dina's house in Memphis, Tennessee, to sit shiva in the style of the Orthodox community from which he has vigorously removed himself. "The second day of shiva is even harder than the first....He lets himself be small-talked and well-wished, nodding politely....One after another, he receives the pathologically tone-deaf tales of everyone else's dead parents....Larry wants to say, in response, 'Thanks for sharing, and fuck your dead dad.' " As his sister and her rabbi clearly understand, there is no way, no how this guy will fulfill his duty as his father's only son to recite the mourner's kaddish daily for 11 months. But without it, his father will be "gathering wood for his own fire" in the World to Come. As a last resort, the rabbi explains that he can find a proxy to do it for him. So Larry does, hitting upon a website that provides just this service at Kaddish.com, "a JDate for the dead." Then, a week or two after the contract ends, Larry receives a note from Chemi, the yeshiva boy with whom he was matched. It includes a photo that somehow shakes loose in Larry all his grief for his father and himself. It leads him to change his life and his name; frankly, the person he becomes, whom we encounter two decades later, seems to have nothing in common with the original Larry. Incidents in his new life lead to his determination to find a way to atone for his long-ago shirking, no matter what it costs in the present. From the title and the tone in the "Larry" part of the book, Englander's (Dinner at the Center of the Earth, 2017, etc.) novel might seem to be a satire, but it ends up feeling more like a straightforward, almost simplistic parable designed to teach a spiritual lesson, one which takes very seriously Orthodox views of the soul and afterlife. On the other hand, it contains what is certainly one of the weirdest sex scenes ever found in a nice Jewish story.

Again, Englander demonstrates his skill at placing timeless concerns of Judaism in sharply modern circumstances. This one feels oddly preachy, though.

Pub Date: March 27, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5247-3275-2

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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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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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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