A quirky, rich, and elegantly written epic.

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FORTY STEPS AND OTHER STORIES

Sixteen tales span about 1,000 years as a New England town emerges, becomes an art colony and tourist destination, and faces a dark age. 

This collection returns to Murphy’s (Assumption City, 2012) fictional community of Egg Rock on Massachusetts’ North Shore. In an elegiac tone that brings to mind Edgar Lee Masters’ 1915 poetry collection Spoon River Anthology, the tales follow characters as they make important decisions and show the ramifications of their actions. The book opens with Vikings arriving at a “magical” paradise—the future Egg Rock. The stories then sail on to address the town’s early-1800s ice trade with the Caribbean; the impact of prejudice on Boston’s Irish community during a cholera epidemic; New England’s abolition and pacifist movements before the Civil War; the dangers of 1880s lighthouse-keeping; mental health care in the early 20th century; U-boat spying during World War II; the agony of veterans following various wars; and the rise of feminism. The book breaks the narrative flow with a compelling literary experiment, as “John’s Peril I” and “John’s Peril II” offer different outcomes for the same character. It’s reminiscent of author Jack Finney’s twig-in-a-stream concept in Time and Again (1970), showing how small occurrences bump into one another to alter history. Indeed, the idea of cause and effect forms a strong undercurrent in this collection—one that results in intriguing effects. In “Shore Leave,” for example, a lighthouse keeper’s wife teaches her son, Ben, everything she knows about the heavens (“She made sure Ben saw moonrises and moonsets and the morning and evening stars”), and, by doing so, she inadvertently sets in motion Ben’s undoing in “Bottoms Up.” Readers may wish that the author provided a map of the many characters in these tales, but they’ll still find it fun to track their connections.

A quirky, rich, and elegantly written epic.

Pub Date: July 27, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5320-5303-0

Page Count: 206

Publisher: iUniverse

Review Posted Online: Nov. 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2019

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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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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