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THE DYING GRASS

Telegraphic and episodic—so much so that it recalls the later work of Eduardo Galeano—Vollmann’s saga is a note-perfect...

The indefatigable, seemingly inexhaustible Vollmann (Last Stories and Other Stories, 2014, etc.) returns with another impossibly long—and peerless—book, this one an epic study of the Nez Percé War of 1877.

That war is largely forgotten today, and though Chief Joseph is among the iconic Native American leaders of the 19th century, not many people could tell you why, notwithstanding Robert Penn Warren’s elegant narrative poem about him. Vollmann restores that history with an onrushing immediacy that takes on all the contours of a good Greek tragedy, complete with hubris born of supposed military superiority and an avenging angel taking wings in the form of the flight of an arrow. Vollmann’s central character, though not always at the center of events, is the American general Oliver Otis Howard, who pursues his prey, Chief Joseph, with the studied strategy of a game of chess (“Is Staunton’s chess chronicle still of use to you?” “Sure is, sir. It’s not a bit outdated.”)—a good ploy if you’re at a chessboard, perhaps less so if you’re on a field of battle with an opponent who doesn’t play the game. Howard is self-deprecating and cautious, quick to accept responsibility for failures in the field. Less so are his subordinates, including one Lt. Thellen, who falls at the battle of White Bird Canyon, the highest-ranking casualty there; Vollmann provides him with a compelling back story that includes a close association with a fellow officer: “I have imagined,” he writes in one of several appendixes, “without knowing for a fact, that they were close friends.” If not every moment of the narrative can be backed by historical documentation, Vollmann’s vivid reconstruction is believable and achingly beautiful, as often rendered in a kind of poetry as in ordinary prose: “he spies out the dark-tipped wings of the otherwise white snow goose, / the black beak and white breast of the long-billed curlew / but no brothers or enemies.”

Telegraphic and episodic—so much so that it recalls the later work of Eduardo Galeano—Vollmann’s saga is a note-perfect incantation. Stunning.

Pub Date: July 28, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-670-01598-6

Page Count: 1376

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2015

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THE NIGHTINGALE

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 19, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules...

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Sentenced to house arrest in Moscow's Metropol Hotel by a Bolshevik tribunal for writing a poem deemed to encourage revolt, Count Alexander Rostov nonetheless lives the fullest of lives, discovering the depths of his humanity.

Inside the elegant Metropol, located near the Kremlin and the Bolshoi, the Count slowly adjusts to circumstances as a "Former Person." He makes do with the attic room, to which he is banished after residing for years in a posh third-floor suite. A man of refined taste in wine, food, and literature, he strives to maintain a daily routine, exploring the nooks and crannies of the hotel, bonding with staff, accepting the advances of attractive women, and forming what proves to be a deeply meaningful relationship with a spirited young girl, Nina. "We are bound to find comfort from the notion that it takes generations for a way of life to fade," says the companionable narrator. For the Count, that way of life ultimately becomes less about aristocratic airs and privilege than generosity and devotion. Spread across four decades, this is in all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight. Though Stalin and Khrushchev make their presences felt, Towles largely treats politics as a dark, distant shadow. The chill of the political events occurring outside the Metropol is certainly felt, but for the Count and his friends, the passage of time is "like the turn of a kaleidoscope." Not for nothing is Casablanca his favorite film. This is a book in which the cruelties of the age can't begin to erase the glories of real human connection and the memories it leaves behind.

A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules of Civility (2011).

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-670-02619-7

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 20, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2016

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