Stylish, sincere tales that go to dark, sometimes-uncomfortable places.

Jerusalem Ablaze

STORIES OF LOVE AND OTHER OBSESSIONS

In Ortega-Medina’s debut short story collection, characters are consumed by their fascinations with sex, death, and inescapable fate.

The unnamed Japanese narrator in the opening story, “Torture by Roses,” takes a job working for millionaire Ikeda Yataro in Tokyo. All he has to do to become Ikeda’s heir is deliver meals and correspondence. But what Ikeda takes from the narrator is far greater: he wants to teach him how to hate, which would, for starters, entail calling off his engagement with his fiancee. The narrator, who’s told to ask no questions, is a prisoner of sorts, which makes him akin to other characters throughout the book. In “Cactuses,” for example, an aspiring writer meets an older, well-known author who’s resigned to his inevitable, imminent death: “I just know,” he tells the young man, that it will happen soon. In “Star Party,” a man named Isaac is granted temporary asylum in the United States and can’t leave the country until his case is decided, and in “And a Little Child Shall Lead Them,” Sadie Hunter, a battered woman, gets no help from her mother or a priest. Ortega-Medina’s tales are predominantly somber and often dabble in the macabre, as when lonely Susan Foltz, in “After the Storm,” finds a dead body on the beach and drags it back to her lighthouse home. In “Invitation to the Dominant Culture,” a man named Guillermo Fausto Perez III discovers sex as well as a disturbing, kinky side of his personality. There’s definitely poignancy in these stories, however, as characters search for identity, be it religious or sexual; for example, Marc Sadot, in the two-part story “An Israel State of Mind,” hopes that his Israel trip will help him in “ridding himself” of his desires, but instead it reunites him with the man he loves. The surprisingly amusing “The Shovelist” is a bright spot among gloomier themes, as new neighbors Jake and Ronny find it difficult to say no to elderly Guillaume’s offer to be their snow-shoveler. Ortega-Medina’s prose is elegant and potent throughout, with visceral passages bathed in lyricism: “Down below, the ocean continued to vomit forth waves of foam and debris on to the beach.”

Stylish, sincere tales that go to dark, sometimes-uncomfortable places.

Pub Date: Jan. 26, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5262-0253-6

Page Count: 180

Publisher: Cloud Lodge Books

Review Posted Online: July 29, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2016

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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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THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS

These letters from some important executive Down Below, to one of the junior devils here on earth, whose job is to corrupt mortals, are witty and written in a breezy style seldom found in religious literature. The author quotes Luther, who said: "The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn." This the author does most successfully, for by presenting some of our modern and not-so-modern beliefs as emanating from the devil's headquarters, he succeeds in making his reader feel like an ass for ever having believed in such ideas. This kind of presentation gives the author a tremendous advantage over the reader, however, for the more timid reader may feel a sense of guilt after putting down this book. It is a clever book, and for the clever reader, rather than the too-earnest soul.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1942

ISBN: 0060652934

Page Count: 53

Publisher: Macmillan

Review Posted Online: Oct. 17, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1943

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