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“We were innocent back then, even if we already didn’t have a future.   NO ONE GETS OUT OF THIS NEIGHBORHOOD ALIVE, someone had written on the side of a house, because the neighborhood was bad, really and truly bad.  If you’re born black,  you’re already screwed; imagine if, in addition, you have to live in squalid rooming houses of a neighborhood like this; and I’m a university graduate, a psychologist, and even have a master’s in business administration, you’d think I wouldn’t be so fucked.” – Alain Silva Acosta

Setting his novel in Puncover black cathedralta Gotica, the poorer side of Cienfuegos, a city on the south side of Cuba, author Marcial Gala, creates a grim novel of the non-stop action in this city, while, at the same time, breathing life into people, societies, and places new to many readers.  Often the narrative feels as if Marcial Gala himself, a resident of this city, is “hanging out,” invisibly, with some of the characters here, even as he is telling their stories, and on several occasions one character even recommends that another character go see “Marcial” for some kind of help with an issue.  As a result, the author creates the feeling that he is part of the action, living a personal story in Cienfuegos within the more objective stories of the main characters. Unconscionable, often life-changing difficulties, are drawn realistically, rather than intuitively or emotionally here, as his fellow-characters  react to traumas they have experienced in their daily lives. Casual murder, innocent cannibalism, the betrayal of lovers for cash, and a general mood of prevailing evil, which even infects the ghosts of some of the dead, make this a novel in which anything can – and often does – take place without warning.

GalaMarcial

Marcial Gala. Photo by Nestor Garcia.

The events which serve as the basic framework for the novel begin with the arrival in Cienfuegos of the mysterious Arturo Stuart, his wife, and his family, two teenage sons and an older daughter.  They have been living in Camaguey, but they offer no information about their pasts, giving no real background about what they have been doing there and why they have come to Cienfuegos.  Arturo is a preacher of sorts, a Salvationist, and as he sets out to establish a congregation, he is also paving the way for the building of a cathedral, to be the biggest church ever seen in Cuba, “something that, in these times when everything is in decline, dares to rise up and say I’m here despite it all, look at me.”  The pastor’s  first days do not get off to a positive start in Cienfuegos, however. Arturo’s younger son, Prince, about eleven, is immediately labeled by other children as gay because he is reading a book in the middle of the day, and while the psychologist whose quotation opens this review didn’t see what happened afterward, he was contacted immediately for help:  “Prince split open Lupe’s kid Barbaro’s head.  He did it with a book, terrible, blood everywhere.”  Another character, Guts, describes the attack as “a quick, skilled, and cunning blow, as if he’d practiced a lot. This dude has a future in the neighborhood,” Guts concludes.  Barbaro’s mother swears vengeance, and the pastor denies his son could have done the deed, but he eventually pays the mother five hundred pesos to keep her quiet.

Cienfuegos was divided into two sections, Punta Gotica on the right side of Marti Park, and Punta Gorda, the more affluent part of the city.

Cienfuegos was divided into two sections, Punta Gotica on the right side of Jose Marti Park, named for a man who dedicated his life to liberty and independence, and Punta Gorda, the more affluent part of the city.

The first murder takes place before the novel even reaches the twenty-page mark.  One young thug, Gringo, says he “slashed [a stranger’s] neck and didn’t stop until his eyes were like a dead cow’s.”  Then he and friends cut up the victim and take his money from a backpack, ten thousand pesos.  They make additional money by butchering the body and selling the meat as steak.  Gringo and his buddies now know that any time that they want more money, all they have to do is kill another “little cow” and “get more veal like that, the really tender kind,” the kind tourists want and will buy.  They butcher two more people without delay.  Dozens of characters get involved in the various kinds of evil which seems to be bubbling up from Cienfuegos, despite the emphasis on God by the Salvationists.  One young woman, Berta, is even being courted by Aramis, a ghost.  As the evil ones from Cienfuegos continue to spread in many directions outside Cuba, some of them continue to kill, others fall in love and marry (when it is convenient), and many remain on the dark side, committing serious crimes and additional murders, the “go-to” solution whenever some of these sadists get bored, frightened, or need money.  Only a few find success in a variety of occupations from writing to painting.

The Basilica de Sagrada Familia, designed by Antoni Gaudi, was begun in Barcelona in 1882, and is still unfinished. One character from Cienfuegos used to go to see this cathedral in remembrance of the cathedral in Cienfuegos.

The Basilica de Sagrada Familia, designed by Antoni Gaudi, was begun in Barcelona in 1882, and is still unfinished. One character from Cienfuegos used to go to see this cathedral in Barcelona in remembrance of the cathedral in Cienfuegos.

No matter how far these people travel or what they do, however, they never seem to escape the essence of Cienfuegos. Flashforwarded scenes show that Gringo, who becomes a major character, ends up in Portland, Oregon; Louisville, Kentucky; and later Texas, while Guts is in Barcelona. Though day-by-day scenes say little about the building of the temple in Cienfuegos, it is supposedly being built, slowly, in an effort to create the New Jerusalem.  The size of Arturo’s congregation continues to get bigger, eventually reaching twenty thousand Salvationists, but the building of the church makes little to no progress.  The godly life as a theme is almost ignored here, and the whole idea of sin and redemption, which would seem to be a logical choice for development on some level, considering the horrific crimes which some main characters commit, is virtually ignored.  Sins are committed, but no redemption is sought.  Life is superficial and sensual, with characters concentrating on the pleasures of the moment.

map cienfuegos

CLICK to enlarge.

Author Marcial Gala, immensely talented and with seemingly unlimited energy, is also an author who seems to enjoy scenes of the instant, the moment, and the dramatic.  Few long scenes exist, and many characters are introduced then disappear from the narrative.  Much of the dark action feels satirical, but the brief depiction of Americans in the United States by Gringo, which could have found a place in a satire in which so many Cuban characters escape to the US, is dropped shortly after it is introduced. Themes start to appear but fall away as a new scene with a new crisis introduces another idea.  A grand finale of horror ties the sad, cynical conclusion to the lives of killers and a writer’s vision of the passage of time, when “all of Cuba is underwater,” and nothing remains of the cathedral. “When everything dries up and nothing remains, and the extraterrestrial voyagers find it, how will they know that this cathedral was never finished? They will think that it was once the main temple of a city of happy beings and that the parishioners’ children once ran down its aisles, and over the course of time, will it matter that it wasn’t like that?”

Photos.  The author’s photo by Nestor Garcia, appears on https://www.clarin.com/

Cienfuegos was divided into two sections, Punta Gotica on the right side of Jose Marti Park, named for a man who dedicated his life to liberty and independence, and Punta Gorda, the more affluent part of the city.  https://www.123rf.com

The Basilica de Sagrada Familia, designed by Antoni Gaudi, was begun in Barcelona in 1882, and is still unfinished. One character from Cienfuegos used to go to see this cathedral in Barcelona in remembrance of the cathedral in Cienfuegos.  https://news.artnet.com/

The map of Cuba may be found on https://www.pinterest.ru/

THE BLACK CATHEDRAL
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Cuba, Experimental, Historical, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Marcial Gala
Published by: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Date Published: 01/07/2020
ISBN: 978-0374118013
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

“The only things that parents can really give their children are little knowledges: this is how you cut your own nails, this is the temperature of a real hug…this is how I love you.  And what children give their parents, in return, is something less tangible but at the same time larger and more lasting, something like a drive to embrace life fully and understand it, on their behalf, so they can try to explain it to them, pass it down to them ‘with acceptance and without rancor,’ as James Baldwin once wrote, but also with a certain rage and fierceness.”

The speakecover lost children's archiver of this passage, a mother and wife, is traveling by car from New York to Arizona one summer with her husband and two children – his son, age ten, and her daughter, age five.  The wife has been married to her husband for four years, having met him on a research project for NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress, the purpose of which is to sample and collect all “keynotes and soundmarks” that are emblematic of New York City.  The couple’s specific tasks have focused on collecting samples of all the languages spoken in the city over the past four years, over a hundred fifty at the time of this novel.  Because the wife is close to finishing her part of the project and is ready to start editing, she can devote only a month to the Arizona vacation trip.  Her husband, having already moved on to a detailed study of Apacheria, the historical land of the Apaches, now plans a future longterm study in the southwest.  Independently, the wife has become involved in researching the plight of children who have entered the country illegally to reconnect with parents who are also in the country illegally, where they sometimes work two jobs in an effort to provide food for their families outside the U.S.  One of the wife’s friends, Manuela, worries about an upcoming hearing regarding her possible deportation.  In the meantime, her two children have already been entrusted to a “coyote” who has abandoned them in the southern desert of the United States, where they have been captured by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. No one knows if they or Manuela will be deported before the family can reconnect, and the wife hopes to help her.

59534-1From the outset, the subject of what constitutes “lost children” becomes a major theme.  Certainly, Manuela’s children are lost, both within the bureaucracy and within the life of their mother, but as the novel develops, and the different interests of the speaker/wife and her husband become clearer, their own children, too, appear to be in danger of becoming lost in their parents’ failing marriage.  The husband’s studies of Geronimo and the Apaches illustrate the lost children of that devastated culture, while the wife’s recent studies of the lost children in the immigration system continue to develop dramatically as they travel.  Few readers will be able to forget the heartbreaking plight of those children, when the family observes a plane leaving the airport in Artesia, New Mexico, loaded with unaccompanied minors being returned “home” to Latin America.  The lost children “archive” expands further for the entire family as time continues.

geronimo

Geronimo, photographed by Edward Curtis.

Although the themes here regarding home, family, culture, and values are broad, unforgettable, and sensitively rendered, the most memorable aspect of this novel, for many readers, will be author Valeria Luiselli’s ability to create real people, including children, who are on vacation and looking for fun.  Without a touch of artifice, she brings the individuals in the family so fully to life, creating scenes of such intimacy and often humor, that I actually looked up the author’s own biography to see if, in fact, this was the story of her own life.  It is not, despite a few surface similarities.  The two children here, ten and five years old, are both extremely bright and thoughtful, and while they sometimes whine about how long it may be to get where they are going, they become fascinated by the stories told by their parents as they move south, visit places like Geronimo’s grave, listen to Golding’s Lord of the Flies, take Polaroid photos, and address each other by their adopted names – Swift Feather, Papa Cochise, Lucky Arrow, and Memphis.  The little girl often naps in the back of the car and still sucks her thumb, though she loves singing songs and has an unusual amount of energy and curiosity.  The son likes hearing stories about the Eagle Warriors, following maps, and learning about Native American culture.  Neither one complains about missing TV or the internet, and not a single “device” accompanies them on the trip.

children escapiong on trains

Children and families resting on the tops of railroad cars without any protection as they head for the US border.

Throughout the trip, the author includes references to literature, including works by Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, Jack Kerouac, Susan Sontag, Cormac McCarthy, Carson McCullers, and others, some of which are shared with the children.  For music, they visit Nashville and Graceland and play the songs of Odetta, Johnny Cash, and the Rolling Stones.  When the boy cannot figure out what scenes to photograph with his new Polaroid, the mother makes suggestions based on the work of famous road photographers – road signs, vacant land, cars, motels, diners, and ruins. Mother and son also have some complex discussions about time and space in the arts and real life – how people can feel time and space differently and why being overwhelmed by the present makes imagining the future impossible.  Throughout the novel, however, the most lasting and most often repeated image is that of a little red book: Elegies for Lost Children, by Ella Camposanto, an Italian author translated into English in 2014.  Camposanto’s book tells the stories of immigrants, especially children, trying to get into the US by riding on the roofs of trains.  Divided into “elegies,” not chapters, it focuses on the issues concerning one group of seven children as they try to get across the border to safety.

Chiricahua, Apache country, where the boy took a photograph which appears at the end of the book.

The Chiricahuas, in Apache country, where the boy took a photograph which appears at the end of the book.

As the trip draws closer to its end in Arizona, at least for the little girl and her mother, who has responsibilities back in New York, I found myself reading more and more slowly.  I have rarely cared about characters as much as Valeria Luiselli made me care about this family.  An emergency involving both parents and children, as the novel comes close to the end, suddenly overturns all my expectations for the ending, and I could not make myself read it slowly as it unfolded in stream-of-consciousness style.  As the well-developed themes all come together, and the characters individually come closer to resolving some of their problems, I began actually to feel the “resolution” which is the mark of an effective conclusion. A short section at the end, in which the little girl lists, phonetically, all the different kinds of echoes she has heard, is accompanied by a note from her ten-year-old brother as she gets ready to depart for New York.  A crowning gift to the reader of this astonishing book is the album of the young boy’s Polaroid photos, in which the places, people, and images of this book become really, truly real.

ALSO by Luiselli:  FACES IN THE CROWD   and   THE STORY OF MY TEETH

echo canyon narrows

Echo Canyon, a favorite place for the little girl, who keeps trying to figure out who is shouting the echoes.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.publishersweekly.com/

The photo of Geronimo by famed photographer Edward Curtis, is found here:  https://www.pinterest.com

Children and families riding without protection on the top of a railroad car, hoping to reach  freedom on the US border.  https://www.wnycstudios.org/

The Chiricahua Mountains, Apache territory, in Arizona, is one place that the boy took a photo of his little sister.  His own photo of this scene appears at the end of the book.  https://en.wikipedia.org

A favorite place of the little girl is Echo Canyon,  where the children enjoy calling out the name of Geronimo to hear the echo of “onimo, onimo, onimo.”  https://www.americansouthwest.net/

LOST CHILDREN ARCHIVE
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, Exploration, Literary, Social and Political Issues, Southwest, United States
Written by: Valeria Luiselli
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 02/12/2019
ISBN: 978-0525520610
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Note:  This book was WINNER of the Svenska Dagbladet Literature Prize and WINNER of the Aftonbladet Literature Prize in Sweden.

“There is an idea that every phenomenon has its own angel: that there is an angel of war, one for law, one for love.  The angel of history, according to historical philosopher Walter Benjamin, is a man who stares at something outside the picture…one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.…[ Now] a storm is blowing from Paradise, and has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm propels him into the future to which his back is turned – the storm is progress.”

cover storm blew in Telling the story of his father’s life, author Johannes Anyuru, the son of a Ugandan father and Swedish mother, focuses on the fraught political climates of several East African countries in the 1970s, when his father, then in his early twenties, was trying to find some sort of direction and sense of purpose.  As a young teen in Uganda in the early 1960s, his father, known here as P, took advantage of a program in Greece which taught him and other young men in Uganda how to fly military aircraft, a program which changed his life.  He loves the freedom of the air and sees himself flying professionally.  P is an ethnic Langi, belonging to the ethnic group of which President Obote of Uganda is also a member, but as the novel opens, Obote has just been deposed in a coup led by Idi Amin.  Assumed to be a supporter of Obote, P has no interest in being drafted into the air corps aiding Amin in his bloody rise to power.  Secretly escaping his program in Greece by going to Rome, he then flies to Lusaka in Zambia, hoping to start a job he found as a crop-duster. Tensions are so high in Zambia, however, that he is arrested after being interviewed at the airport, his pilot training in Greece seemingly too sophisticated for a simple crop-dusting job.  His interrogators want to know who he is really working for.  Deported to Tanzania, which is being attacked regularly by Idi Amin’s men, who are shooting grenades across the Ugandan border into Tanzania, P is regarded as an enemy in Tanzania – a pilot who could help their enemy, Uganda.

map east africa

Map of East Africa. CLICK TO ENLARGE

In a narrative best described as circular, P’s story unfolds, moving back and forth in time and place as P, seen through the eyes of his author son, is regarded as an outlaw in Uganda, Zambia, and Tanzania, where he is eventually tortured and half-starved in an effort to get him to confess to crimes connected to the Tanzanians’ belief that he is working for Amin’s air force.  Months pass as the imprisoned P becomes increasingly desperate to escape from Tanzania, this time to nearby Kenya, figuring that death in an escape attempt could not be worse than death from prison and torture. Kenya, however, is also in turmoil, as Jomo Kenyatta’s rule has been one of corruption in which his family acquired much land for their own use while the poor remained landless.  Eventually, P manages to get to Kenya on foot, and in time, he meets and marries a woman there from Sweden who wants to settle down.  A job offer materializes in Tanzania, which has been so cruel with its torture of P in the past, but P actually considers this job a better alternative than a return to Uganda would be.  Fearing arrest once again, he and his wife eventually leave Africa completely and go to Sweden to settle down and raise a family.

author photo anyuru

Author Johannes Anyuru

With a narrative which requires some effort on the part of the reader to put the various episodes into chronological order, Anyuru draws more attention to the individual details of P’s changing life than would occur with a faster moving narrative.  The reader feels for P and, to some degree, becomes part of his life as his series of disasters unfolds and develops.  In the opening chapter, in which he is being interrogated in Dar-es-Salaam following his expulsion from the airport in Zambia, for example, the complexity of life for an ordinary citizen becomes obvious.  President Obote, former president of Uganda, belongs to the same ethnic group as P, but Obote was attacked by “his own” people in P’s Ugandan village when he came to speak in 1969.  Though P was already in Greece when this attack on Obote took place, his Tanzanian interrogators still accuse him of being an Amin supporter.  He tells the interrogators that his “life was destroyed by [Uganda’s] military coup,” but he has great difficulty remembering “what he has said and what he hasn’t said, which lies, which omissions, and which confessions measure out the bounds of this conversation.”  He lies so regularly, in fact, that he even denies that a photograph of himself in a pilot’s uniform is himself, saying that it is one of his classmates.  Because of the lies and their suspicions, Tanzanian security sees him as a risk to Tanzanian security and decides to keep him in custody.

idi_amin_9791

Idi Amin, President of Uganda from 1971 – 1979.

Flashing back and flashing forward, the narrative reveals P’s difficult childhood, in which he was under the care of his sadistic older brother.  In a flash forward, years later, when the author, P’s son, is in Sweden, investigating P’s life and reading some of his father’s memoirs, he becomes aware that his father served for six months in the Ugandan military before he ever went to Greece, something he has never mentioned.  “There’s a strange weight in all those concrete details, a weight that has to do with death…[and] I see with new eyes the images of outcast-ness, scattered-ness, blowing leaves, petals filling the sky.”  The son, trying to understand himself and his place in the country of Sweden, also reads history and in a parallel narrative fills in some blanks from his father’s life.  We soon learn that while in the prison camp in Tanzania, P has told a fellow inmate a secret he had not told his interrogators, that he had additional dealings with Amin’s men during the summer and is now burdened with feelings of guilt and doubts.  He knows he cannot return to Uganda, but he cannot spend more time “sitting in a limousine and talking to the Ugandan military officers and cabinet members because he spent every moment in their company wondering if they had murdered his family, his friends.”

Cessna-T-37, the plane that P learned to fly in Greece.

Cessna-T-37, the plane that P learned to fly in Greece.

The back and forth narratives of P and his son continue as they try to figure out who they are and where they come from, and require the reader to fill in blanks by making their own connections.  For P, the biggest issue is escaping to someplace safe.  For his son, it is filling in the blanks in his own life by learning more about who is father is, or has been. P remains full of mysteries, largely because one never knows whether he is telling the whole truth about the things we do know about him.  As he is dying, P, in Sweden, connects with additional family there and becomes closer to his son.  Ultimately, the novel comes full circle, the final lines paralleling the lines which open this review, with one big difference in meaning: “A storm blew in from paradise.  The storm was life.

Photos.  The map of East Africa is from https://www.africa-ontherise.com

The author’s photo appears on https://sverigesradio.se/

The photo of Idi Amin may be found on https://tvtropes.org/

The Cessna T-37, the plane that P learned to fly at the Greek Military School, is shown on https://www.pinterest.com

A STORM BLEW IN FROM PARADISE
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Literary, Non-fiction, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, Sweden, Tanzania, Uganda
Written by: Johannes Anyuru
Published by: World Editions
Date Published: 11/05/2019
ISBN: 978-1642860443
Available in: Ebook Paperback

A few days ago, I listed the most popular reviews on this site for 2019.  These reviews reflect the number of hits a review receives when a reader searches for a particular review on this site.  They are not necessarily reviews of my personal favorites. I then posted a listing of my favorite books of special interest – books unique among the many here.  Here is an additional list of are some of my  favorite books of GENERAL interest, with links to the full reviews:

sarah janeSARAH JANE by James Sallis: This psychological mystery left me breathless! Through this  journal of Sarah Jane Pullman from her childhood until middle age, the reader quickly gets to share her life, but Sarah Jane avoids dealing with problems which feel much bigger to the reader than they do to her. She hints at events from the past, leading to palpable suspense and a blockbuster ending.

THROW ME TO THE WOLVES by Patrick McGuinness:  Here Patrick McGuinness uses the real murder of a young woman and its aftermath in the small British community in which she and the suspect both live as the starting point for his novel about a town’s various social groups, their values, and the extent to which the citizens will force their wills on others to protect their own vision of what a community should be. A brilliant and lively study of the power of rumor and of the press.

cover-a-devil-comes-to-townA DEVIL COMES TO TOWN by Paolo Maurensig  One can almost see the wink and the smirk on the face of Italian author Paolo Maurensig as he begins his dark satire of a literary community in the Swiss mountains where a formidable adversary – the devil incarnate – has established residence.

YOUNG ONCE by Patrick Modiano:  For those who have already read and liked SUSPENDED SENTENCES by French Nobel Prize winner (2014)Patrick Modiano, this one, YOUNG ONCE, is a great second selection, written about his life during one summer when he was twenty. NYReview Books calls it “crucial…his breakthrough novel,” while Der Speigel refers to it as “the most gripping Modiano book of all.”

cover-night-boat-tangierNIGHT BOAT TO TANGIER by Kevin Barry:  Relating their life stories in a uniquely Irish sentence structure, accent, and vocabulary, Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond, wait at the ferry terminal in Algeciras.  Involved in the drug trade for half their lives, they are now looking for Maurice’s daughter, whom he has not seen for three years. Through flashbacks, dark humor, and their own vulgar language, their lives and relationships unfold.

THE MAN WHO SAW EVERYTHING by Deborah Levy:  Saul Adler, a twenty-eight-year-old British historian is about to travel to East Germany in 1988 to study the rise of fascism in the 1930s.  Subsequent sections are set in Berlin in 1988 and in London again in 2016, as Saul is forced to examine his previously unexamined life, from which he learns much about reality and man’s place in the world. 

cover-smoke-and-ashesSMOKE AND ASHES by Abir Mukherjee: It is almost Christmas in 1921, and Captain Sam Wyndham of the Imperial Police Force in Calcutta is trying to escape by his own men who have raided the opium den where he has spent the night. Author Abir Mukherjee creates a sensational, non-stop narrative, creating a vivid picture of his main character, his problematic personal life, his fears, and the geopolitical difficulties of  the British trying to rule India.

DISAPPEARING EARTH by Julia Phillips:  In this involving and very human story about the women of the Kamchatka Peninsula, Julia Phillips highlights the various ethnic groups, their past histories, and life styles.  Two mysteries involving crimes against women lurk at the heart of this novel. Author Phillips inspires readers to supply their own interpretations of what is happening within the fully developed conclusion.

spring-time-in-a-broken-mirror-coverSPRINGTIME IN A BROKEN MIRROR by Mario Benedetti  Between 1973 and 1981, Uruguay was ruled by the rich and powerful – autocrats who used the power of the military to secure their rule and their continuing wealth, stopping at nothing. Uruguayan author Mario Benedetti, arrested and exiled during this time, uses his firsthand knowledge, to recreate a vibrant, literary study of the effects of imprisonment on the hearts, minds, and psyches of people like himself, and those who loved them.

THE SUBSTITUTION ORDER by Martin Clark: Written by a former circuit court judge, now retired, The Substitution Order is the most “legalistic” and complex of Martin Clark’s novels so far, focusing on Kevin Moore, a brilliant lawyer who, for three months of his life, lost control, made some terrible choices, and now must pay the penalty. When a slick scammer approaches him to participate in a plan to bilk an insurance company, he finds out the real meaning of someone “makincover-substitution-orderg an offer he cannot refuse.”

THE WILD BOY by Paolo Cognetti:  In this sequel to THE EIGHT MOUNTAINS, Paolo Cognetti admits that “At thirty I had almost forgotten what it was like to be alone in a forest, or to immerse myself in a river, or to run along the edge of a crest beyond which there is only sky. I had done these things and they were my happiest memories.”  Now, however, he has become the opposite of that boy, and he decides to go back to the mountains  in search of him. “

A few days ago, I listed the most popular reviews on this site for 2019.  These reviews reflect the number of hits a review receives when a reader searches for a particular review on this site.  They are not necessarily reviews of my personal favorites.  Here are some of my own favorite books of special interest, books with unique points of view, with links to the full reviews.  The list begins with a book that I have found the most inspiring book of the year, one written by a man in prison for life for something he did not do, but in which, amazingly, he maintains his good humor and does not descend into self-pity.

cover-11Most Inspiring Book of the Year: I WILL NEVER SEE THE WORLD AGAIN by Ahmet Altan was written by journalist Ahmet Altan, a Turkish author jailed for life for the “subliminal messages” he supposedly sent to rebels during a coup against President Erdogan in 2016. His prison memoir is so astonishing in its revelations of his good-humored emotional state that I cannot imagine anyone not rejoicing in its publication.  Even his sense of humor survives.

Best Novella of the Year:  SPACE INVADERS by Nona Fernandez:  This powerful story by Nona Fernandez takes place in Santiago de Chile during the years of the Pinochet regime from 1980, when the children who are the main characters here are ten years old, and extends to 1994 and later, when they are in their twenties and middle age.  Superb!

51Uh2j9Xp-L._SX322_BO1204203200_Most Important “Lost Book” of US World War II History:  NO-NO BOY by John Okada: The Foreword alone, written by Ruth Ozecki, attests to the fact that Okada, who died in his forties in 1971, never knew how important No-No Boy would become – the only such book ever written by a Japanese-American about the plight of Japanese immigrants who came under immediate and universal suspicion the instant Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

Most Surprising Novel from a Little-Heard Country:  IT WOULD BE NIGHT IN CARACAS by Karina Sainz Borgo: Of the more than one thousand reviews of international fiction I have posted over the past ten years, this is the first to have been written by a Venezuelan author about life in a country where turmoil and bloodshed dominate daily life. Author Karina Sainz Borgo, born and raised in Caracas, worked as a journalist there, like her main character, giving verisimilitude to the details leading up to her attempt to flee the country.

cover29Most Thought-Provoking Novel (of a Real Nuclear Meltdown):  SACRED CESIUM GROUND by Yusuke Kimura:  On March 11, 2011, the most powerful earthquake in Japanese history, registering 9.0 on the Richter scale, hit northeast Japan, killing sixteen thousand people and creating massive devastation. The powerful tsunami that resulted from this earthquake obliterated towns along the coast and created meltdowns at all three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Yusuke Kimura describes the human effects. SACRED CESIUM GROUND is the first of a pair of novellas in this book.

Most Surprising Debut (tie): THE SUN ON MY HEAD by Geovani Martins.  a collection of stories set in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro,  and  THE SECRETS WE KEPT by Lara Prescott,  the story of how Boris Pasternak’s DOCTOR ZHIVAGO was  smuggled out of Russia and published for the first time ever in the West.

cover-knifeBest Scandinavian Noir (maybe ever):   KNIFE by Jo Nesbo  While I am tired of main character Harry Hole’s alcoholism, blackouts, and complete lack of control, after reading all twelve Hole novels, this latest offering is so well written that it has made me regard Nesbo’s work in a new light. The best of the best, it has beautifully developed themes, flawless pacing, intriguing and repeating subordinate characters, imaginative plotting, unrelenting dark atmosphere, and plot twists the likes of which I have never seen any other author even come close to duplicating. 

Most Fascinating Autobiography or Biography:  UNQUIET by Linn Ullmann:  Here author Linn Ullmann summarizes her feelings about her father, Ingmar Bergman, and her complicated relationship with him.  The book, which she calls a “novel,” seems more like a memoir, containing descriptions of many intimate family events, the instinctive reactions of her father and mother, Liv Ullmann, to life’s circumstances as they face them, and her own thoughtful exploration of her own identity.

cover-marsMost Astonishing Collection of Stories (tie):  ARID DREAMS by Duanwad Pimwana, intriguing stories from Thailand,  and MARS by Asja Bakic, thought-provoking stories from Bosnia.

Most Unusual Older Book in Translation:   LIFE FOR SALE (1968) by Yukio Mishima:  Most famous for the samurai ritual suicide he committed in 1970, and for his failed attempt to return Emperor Hirohito to power, Mishima writes this one with tongue in cheek. Here main character Hanio, recovering from an overdose, resigns from his job and places a note on his front door: “Hanio Yamada – Life for Sale.” What follows is a series of adventures, as five different characters come to his door to hire him to work for them on projects so dangerous that Hanio could die.  Well developed dark humor.

cover-quentin-puzzle-for-foolsMost “Modern” Classic Novel, newly republished:  HAPPINESS, AS SUCH by Natalia Ginzburg, 1973  Filled with ironic humor, witty insights, and immense sensitivity to the hidden meanings of ordinary dialogue, this novel, originally published in 1973, emphasizes the uncertainties of knowing exactly what happiness is on a grand scale.  SUPERB!

Most Surprising Ending–A PUZZLE FOR FOOLS by Patrick Quentin:  Written in 1936 and long out of print, A Puzzle for Fools, part of Otto Penzler’s American Mystery Classics series, features main character Peter Duluth, a Broadway producer still suffering after the horrific death of his wife in a fire at the theatre, two years ago.  He has has admitted himself to a sanitarium to dry out and eventually becomes involved in searching for a gruesome murderer. Great fun!

Note:  Personal Favorites of General Interest, 2019,  to follow.

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