A dense exploration of the familial ties that bind one Jewish family.

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Uncle Sol's Women

A sprawling novel about family, faith and fortune that offers a fresh look at the lives of American Jews in the middle of the last century.

Leo Tolstoy, in Anna Karenina, famously said that while happy families are all alike, unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways. It’s hard to call the Forshtayns at the center of Maslin’s (…And Turn It Again, 2008, etc.) ambitious new effort unhappy, but they certainly are unique. In 1904, members of that family are forced to flee Vilnius, Lithuania, in the midst of deadly pogroms, moving to the United States to start life afresh. The book then follows multiple generations as a momentous new American century dawns. This decades-spanning novel reads a bit like family sagas such as Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1901) or John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga (1922), as it traces one clan’s changing fortunes over the course of many years, including those of the titular Sol. Yet the narrative eventually settles on the story of Sol’s favored nephew, Justin—later called Jacob—and tracks his academic and romantic maturation from New England to Illinois and back again. The story follows his progress through Harvard and the University of Chicago and his deepening love for a French-Canadian woman named Marie. Like Chaim Potok and Philip Roth before him, Maslin—himself a rabbi—focuses on the lives of 20th-century American Jews. But Maslin’s approach shares more with Potok’s than Roth’s; his style is true and earnest, and although he lacks Roth’s trademark sardonic wit, he has Potok’s eye for domestic detail. His book is fueled by human relationships, and there’s an intimacy and tenderness in his treatment of his characters that keeps his sweeping narrative from abandoning its concern with its heroes’ humanity. Furthermore, the novel is not only culturally, but religiously Jewish, as Maslin’s rabbinic training allows him to explore not only Judaism’s traditions, but also its scriptures and sacred spaces. His engagement with Judaism’s spiritual pith—and with the temptations that may draw one away from it—serves as the book’s sturdy backbone.

A dense exploration of the familial ties that bind one Jewish family.

Pub Date: April 16, 2014

ISBN: 978-1495325366

Page Count: 454

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: July 3, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2014

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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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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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