Awkward transitions and blustering characterizations of Twain, Sherman, and others don't undercut the emotional punch here:...

THAT FATEFUL LIGHTNING

Sentimental but stirring salute to Ulysses S. Grant that visits the former Civil War general and American president near the end of his life, as he suffers stoically with poverty and throat cancer while struggling to complete his memoirs.

Previously dismissed as a cigar-chewing drunk who ruthlessly wasted troops in battle, presided over a corrupt administration as a two-term president, and blithely permitted Sherman to carry out his brutal slaughter of Native Americans, Grant is becoming the darling of revisionist Civil War historians. For them, the Ohio-born warrior is an American icon whose triumph over alcoholism, depression, and business failure taught him that war was not a God-given opportunity to fight romantically for a worthy cause but, rather, a horrific contest in which survival was more important than winning. Parry (The Wolf's Pack, 1998, etc.) opens his story at Appomattox, with a mud-spattered, unusually perceptive Grant quietly enduring Lee's aristocratic bombast out of pity for his beaten rival. The narrative then leaps ahead to a New York surgery where a team of physicians can't bear to tell the former president, recently impoverished by a corrupt business partner, that he has less than a year to live. After refusing offers of public and private charity, Grant agrees to write his memoirs for Mark Twain's nascent publishing company, hoping to earn enough to provide for his wife and children. From here on, a series of battlefield flashbacks fill in some of the more speculative blanks in the memoir, where Grant learns from his awful misjudgments and draws strength from so much wartime misery—strength that helps him complete his book and die with amazing dignity.

Awkward transitions and blustering characterizations of Twain, Sherman, and others don't undercut the emotional punch here: Parry's burnished Grant is nothing less than an American saint, whose proud but lonely end will bring tears from the most hardened Robert E. Lee fan.

Pub Date: June 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-345-42728-9

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2000

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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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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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