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Category Archive for '1-2016 Reviews'

Within a swirling time frame and several settings which change suddenly through unexpected flashbacks, Italian author Erri De Luca creates a character whose life breathes with subdued passion and the tragedy of sudden terror. Now fifty, the unnamed speaker is working as a gardener/landscaper on a large estate in Italy owned by Mimmo, a filmmaker, someone the speaker knew when they were youths in Turin. Leading a solitary life, the speaker is surprised one evening when an attractive younger woman flirts with him while she is eating lunch with another man at a tavern. After she’s gone, he plans what he might say if he were to see her again. He has had little social contact with other people in recent years, using his gardening skills and his connection with nature for his satisfaction – “caring more about it than about people.” For twenty years he lived in Argentina, participating in the “dirty war” there, “days filled with trouble, ruined by death that tears away clumps of us folks, stuffs thousands of the living, freshly plucked, into its sack.” As he tries to sort out his life, the reader learns of his marriage there, his traumas, and his wandering life since then, and as the speaker contemplates the meaning of his present condition, the novel works its way up to a grand climax and startling finale. Themes related to life and death, war and peace, fear and commitment, and responsibility and self-preservation combine to affect the conclusion. Erri De Luca has been described by Milan’s daily newspaper Corriere della Serra as “the only true first-rate writer that the new millennium has given us for now.”

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When my youngest grandson had his sixth birthday a year ago, he was already telling stories. Full of excitement about everything in his real world, everything he saw and heard, and everything he could imagine, he suddenly decided to write his own books – and these were not one-page books, however much fun those are, also. Modeling his stories on the many stories read to him and which he had begun to read himself, he decided that he would write his own stories – long stories – and that he would illustrate them. Our surprise Christmas present last year was our six-year-old grandson’s first “book,” an eighteen-pager written in often-phonetic spelling, about a young boy trying to escape from a T. Rex. In the first chapter the boy, Jack, and his buddies see a T. Rex but hide in the woods. Soon Jack and the T. Rex find themselves on a bridge, but the T. Rex is too heavy, and when the bridge breaks, the boy escapes with his friends to a tree house. The boys look out as the T. Rex stomps away. Later, when Jack heads for a tall mountain, he sees that the T. Rex is back. Fortunately, there is a handy zip-line on which Jack can escape over the valley. When he gets off the zipline, however, a fire dragon grabs him, but Jack manages to escape and run back to the tree house. The dragon breathes fire on the front gate. A water dragon suddenly appears and squirts water at the flaming gate. Then a Stegosaurus appears. So does the T. Rex. The Stegosaurus “shoots his spikes” and stops the T. Rex. End of story. Whew.

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Powerful, dramatic, and psychologically unsettling, author Han Kang’s prizewinning novel delves into the inner lives, the secret goals, the hidden fears, and the mysterious dreams, of three members of one Korean family. These family members – a young woman who has decided to become a vegetarian; her successful, married sister; and her sister’s artist husband – each become the intense focus of their own section of the novel, as they live their lives, make their mistakes (some of them drastic), and live with the results. The separate sections allow the reader to share each person’s thoughts and motivations from the inside. At the same time, the characters appear and reappear in each other’s sections, providing new information so that the reader sees each person interacting with others – a clever technique which makes it possible for the reader to observe the characters from the outside and to see how the actions of one affect the actions of all. Han Kang asks and illustrates many basic questions about who we are as humans, who we are in relation to the outside world, and how much control we have over our lives. Where the novel excels is in its ability to create psychologically rich characters who do not fit molds, a novel which is unsettling and sometimes overwhelming.

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Author Eugen Ruge grew up in East Berlin during the time of the Berlin Wall and lived there till the age of thirty-four, leaving the East for the West a year before the Wall fell, and perhaps it is this background which enables him to create a main character like Peter Handke. Handke is disconnected from those around him, alienated, his profound loss of motivation preventing him from making changes in his own world. Like the author, Handke is also a man from Berlin, one who has just lost his girlfriend and his sense of direction, and he has decided to start over in a new country. Not as young as he seems, he is a former professor of chemical engineering with a well-paid, permanent position, one he has recently resigned in order to become a writer. A novel of absurdity which sometimes borders on the bizarre, Cabo de Gata (“Cape of the Cat”) begins with Peter’s travels from Basel to Barcelona and then on to Andalusia, the southernmost region of Spain. Peter Handke is not a “hero” or even an anti-hero. He is too neutral and uncommunicative to attract the long-term interest of the reader, and his journey is a solitary one, with no antagonist, other than life itself, to fight him. He raises questions but does not come to many conclusions, and those he does draw are often offbeat and darkly comic. The novel ends without a clear resolution, adding to the feeling that this novel defies all the “rules” and presents itself on its own terms. Readers who can be satisfied with letting the novel unfold in its own way will enjoy this unusual and often humorous creation which offers more than mere laughs.

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Like so many other young men in the 1960s, Jonathan Ashe, a young man from a farm in rural Norfolk, England, has escaped his small village to travel the world and, on some level, to find out who he really is. He and his older brother, who has been left in charge of the family farm following the death of his father, have little in common, and some event from the past has alienated them. Though he has feelings for his mother, he cannot bring himself to write to her on a regular basis. Now in Viet Nam, half a world away from England, Jonathan decides to challenge himself as a photographer during the Vietnam War, anxious to expand his views of the world in an effort to understand more about life and death and survival. Jonathan’s own father died of an accidental gunshot wound when Jonathan was a young child, and the suddenness of the death and the memories he has of the aftermath have haunted Jonathan ever since. Now he as he thinks back on his childhood, he wonders how much of what we remember about a person or event is actually real and how much is what we wish for – or what we choose to remember? Can we ever learn to see traumatic experiences in new ways without lying to ourselves and others about the realities? Harding keeps her style simple and quiet, and except for one surprising coincidence, the novel resonates with honesty and truth, as Jonathan begins to find out what he needs to do to be happy, ending the novel on an upbeat note.

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