An odd yet oddly affecting book.

NASHVILLE CHROME

Based on the career arc of a 1950s singing trio, this mythic novel is sadder than most country songs and stranger than any.

A book that defies categorization, and that reads more like cultural criticism than fictionalized biography, this narrative about the “bondage of fame” represents a radical departure for Bass (The Wild Marsh: Four Seasons at Home in Montana, 2009, etc.). Where the author writes often about the natural world in both his fiction and nonfiction, here he treats the Browns, a sibling country group remembered mainly for “The Three Bells,” as if they were fate’s playthings: “It had to be a freak of nature, a phenomenon, a mutation of history,” he proclaims of their harmonies. “As if some higher order had decided to use them as puppets—to hold them hostage to the powerful gifts whose time it was to emerge.” The narrative tone is often so portentously oracular and deliriously hyperbolic that the reader wonders whether there’s some irony intended, particularly when the grasp of the facts seems tenuous. Yet the descent of Maxine Brown into alcoholism and anonymity is ultimately tragic, as the narrative alternates between her bitter memories “after nearly fifty years of being forgotten” and the formative years of the Browns, whose sound “healed some deep wound within whoever heard it, whatever the wound.” Supporting players include Elvis Presley (for whom Bonnie Brown was his one true love, according to this account), Jim Reeves and Chet Atkins, though this is a novel less about individual characters than about “the heartbreak of immortality and the bitterness of pursuing it,” and how “the most constant thing in the world is change.” At the mercy of fate’s furies, the three Browns arrive at very different destinies, leaving Maxine to wonder whether “her life has been a huge mistake, a huge tragedy of waste and squander.”

An odd yet oddly affecting book.

Pub Date: Sept. 14, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-547-31726-7

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: July 13, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2010

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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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Romance and melodrama mix uneasily with mass murder.

THE WINTER GUEST

An 18-year-old Polish girl falls in love, swoons over a first kiss, dreams of marriage—and, oh yes, we are in the middle of the Holocaust.

Jenoff (The Ambassador’s Daughter, 2013, etc.) weaves a tale of fevered teenage love in a time of horrors in the early 1940s, as the Nazis invade Poland and herd Jews into ghettos and concentration camps. A prologue set in 2013, narrated by a resident of the Westchester Senior Center, provides an intriguing setup. A woman and a policeman visit the resident and ask if she came from a small Polish village. Their purpose is unclear until they mention bones recently found there: “And we think you might know something about them.” The book proceeds in the third person, told from the points of view mostly of teenage Helena, who comes upon an injured young Jewish-American soldier, and sometimes of her twin, Ruth, who is not as adventurous as Helena but is very competitive with her. Their father is dead, their mother is dying in a hospital, and they are raising their three younger siblings amid danger and hardship. The romance between Helena and Sam, the soldier, is often conveyed in overheated language that doesn’t sit well with the era’s tragic events: “There had been an intensity to his embrace that said he was barely able to contain himself, that he also wanted more.” Jenoff, clearly on the side of tolerance, slips in a simplified historical framework for the uninformed. But she also feeds stereotypes, having Helena note that Sam has “a slight arch to his nose” and a dark complexion that “would make him suspect as a Jew immediately.” Clichés also pop up during the increasingly complex plot: “But even if they stood in place, the world around them would not.”

Romance and melodrama mix uneasily with mass murder.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-7783-1596-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Harlequin MIRA

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2014

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