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

KADDISH.COM

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. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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