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Category Archive for '1-2016 Reviews'

The cold and snow swirling across Lake Superior in the opening paragraph set the scene, the tone, and the atmosphere of the conclusion of this love story, which is presented in the opening chapter and told in flashbacks from that moment on. The unnamed narrator, a student researcher writing a book about luxury trains, also writes fiction in his spare time. Having come to Chicago from Switzerland to work on an advanced degree, he soon meets Agnes, a twenty-five-year-old graduate student in physics, working on her own dissertation. Like him, she uses the resources of the Chicago Public Library, and from the first time that she sits opposite him at the library, the narrator is drawn to her. Though Agnes is a plain woman, her eyes “had something unusual about them, an expressiveness [the narrator] hasn’t often seen.” Before long, they take cigarette breaks together and, later, go out for coffee, though Agnes admits that she is “not a very sociable person.” Still, it is April, spring-time – a time of promise and growth, and within a couple of weeks, the narrator and the innocent Agnes are spending nights together. As the novel develops, change and decay pervade the action, but it is the related question of how we perceive reality and the role of fiction as part of that reality which make the conclusion such a shock. It is one thing for the observant reader to become so involved in the story that s/he is horrified by the ending, and quite another for an author to write fiction with the idea of encouraging a particular outcome in real life.

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WORLD THROUGH BOOKS, here is the list of my own favorites from among the many wonderful books I read this year:

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Michael Cunningham’s ten tales, distortions of fairy tales we have all heard as children, will make most readers smile in recognition and sometimes sardonic glee, while annoying some traditionalists who would like to preserve intact their memories of an idyllic childhood. All readers will probably agree, however, that Cunningham’s interpretations of these stories deserve the more serious thought that none of us were able to accord them when we were much younger. Including stories based on Hansel and Gretel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Snow White, Rumplestiltskin, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, and several other less famous tales, Cunningham begins by examining the answer to the real, unasked question which haunts the traditional fairy tale conclusions. The convenient “And they lived happily ever after” no longer applies here, as Cunningham employs reason and some dark humor to develop the tales in more modern and more surprising ways. With these stories, we get the answers to “And then, what?” The joys and burdens of fate, the delights of dreams fulfilled and the horrors of dreams destroyed, the ability to survive life’s vagaries and the need to accept some things that cannot be changed are all themes here which make Cunningham’s depictions of life in these new tales feel more honest than the fairy tales they emerge from, and, certainly more fun for adult readers, many of whom have outgrown the black and white tales of the past.

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Every six months or so, I like to check to see what are the most popular reviews on this site, and I’ve always been surprised by how many of the most-read reviews are for classics, rather than for more recent books. That is not the case this year. Numbers 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 10 are new to this list!

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In this dramatic and thought-provoking novel, Edmundo Paz Soldan, a Bolivian writer, displays his enormous gifts of both narrative and character development while also examining serious themes and social and psychological problems. Creating three characters from three different time periods, all of whom are native to Mexico or South America and all of whom are in the US for various reasons and for various periods of time, Paz Soldan explores their lives and creates comparisons and contrasts before making connections among them. Jesus, a young man from Northern Mexico in 1984, is a boy/man who responds impulsively to situations as they arise in his life and does not hesitate to be violent. In contrast to Jesus, Michelle, a graduate student in South Texas who appears as the second main character, is working hard to establish herself as a writer/cartoonist working on a comic book about a librarian with special powers who is bent on revenge. The third main character is Martin Ramirez, living illegally in Stockton, California, in 1931, trying to pay off some debts and help his family back in Mexico by working as a migrant worker. Paz Soldan rotates the action through these three characters’ lives, developing themes as he goes, and the reader cannot help but become involved both in the action of their lives and in the psychological crises they face. All are dealing with issues of identity and a sense of belonging/ . One becomes a killer. Throughout the novel, the author shows the inner conflicts of people who are from one country but live in another, exploring their personal predicaments, their sense of displacement or their sense of hope.

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