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

THE DYING GRASS

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 It’s not a bit outdated.”)—a good ploy if you’re at a chessboard, perhaps less so if you’re on a field of battle with an opponent who doesn’t play the game.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 29, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2015

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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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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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