A modest but affecting work with timeless relevance.

THE TALE OF A NIGGUN

A narrative poem explores a ghastly dilemma faced by Jewish ghetto dwellers during World War II.

Written in the late 1970s and included in a long-out-of-print collection of Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Wiesel's essays, the poem is set on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Purim. That's when the "enemy" (the word "Nazi" is never used) announces they will massacre everyone in the ghetto unless 10 Jews are turned over for hanging—this to avenge the killing of the 10 sons of Haman, the anti-Semitic scourge of the Purim story. Overwhelmed by this unthinkable dilemma, the ghetto rabbi feels "his knees weakening, the blood rushing to his face." Searching for answers, he consults the great religious thinkers through their writings. Maimonides, the Rambam, states that a community should perish before handing over one of its members to the enemy, but pressed by the rabbi, his talking spirit concedes that he can't be of help because he never could have foreseen such a predicament. The Baal Shem Tov, or Besht, the founder of Hasidism, teaches the rabbi a special niggun, or song, that confers hidden powers "to break the chains of evil and malediction." But the Besht is so overcome by sadness that he can't infuse the song with the joy it needs. Ultimately, when the niggun is sung by the ghetto community, it conjures a miraculous coming together of Jews—not only from all over Europe, but also from the pages of the Talmud. Accompanied by Podwal's quietly haunting full-page illustrations, Wiesel's spare language cuts to the heart of human loss while the rhythms of the poetry capture the sad, endless march of inhumanity through history. At the same time, this poem sings out the power of belief and community and love.

A modest but affecting work with timeless relevance.

Pub Date: Nov. 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-805-24363-5

Page Count: 64

Publisher: Schocken

Review Posted Online: Sept. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2020

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Franzen’s intensely absorbing novel is amusing, excruciating, and at times unexpectedly uplifting—in a word, exquisite.

CROSSROADS

This first novel in an ambitious trilogy tracks a suburban Chicago family in a time of personal and societal turmoil.

It says a lot that, at almost 600 pages, Franzen’s latest novel, set amid the waning years of the Vietnam War, leaves you wanting more. That it does so is also very good news: It’s the first in what promises to be a sprawling trilogy, continuing to the present day, which the author has titled A Key to All Mythologies in what is presumably a wink at its far-from-modest ambitions—yes, à la Middlemarch. That reference is classic Franzen, who imbues his books with big ideas, in this case about responsibility to family, self, God, country, and one’s fellow man, among other matters, all the while digging deep into his characters’ emotions, experiences, desires, and doubts in a way that will please readers seeking to connect to books heart-first. Here, the story follows two generations of the Hildebrandt family, headed by Russ, the associate pastor of a church in the fictional town of New Prospect, Illinois, who, when we first meet him in the lead-up to Christmas 1971, is nursing a crush on a recently widowed parishioner and a grudge against the groovily charismatic leader of the church’s popular youth group, Crossroads, in which three of Russ’ four children are variously involved. Russ’ wife, Marion, who has gained weight over the years and lost her pre-maternal intensity and with it her husband’s sexual interest, is nursing a few secret preoccupations of her own, as are the couple’s three oldest children, Clem, Becky, and Perry. Each of the five characters, among whose perspectives Franzen adroitly toggles, is struggling with matters of morality and integrity, privilege and purpose, driven in part by the dueling desires for independence and connection. Their internal battles—to fight in an unjust war or unjustly let others fight in your stead, to fight their way out of a marriage or fight to stay in it, to fight for sanity or surrender to madness, to fight to define themselves and determine their paths or to cede that control to others, to name a few—are set against the backdrop of an era in which “love” is everywhere but empathy is in short supply, where hugs are liberally dispensed but real connection’s harder to come by.

Franzen’s intensely absorbing novel is amusing, excruciating, and at times unexpectedly uplifting—in a word, exquisite.

Pub Date: Oct. 5, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-374-18117-8

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: June 29, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2021

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

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THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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