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Category Archive for '4-2014 Reviews'

It’s hard to remember when a story as absorbing as this has come along in recent years – and I choose the world “story” deliberately, because it is more personal and involving than words like “novel” or “narrative.” Here, author Anthony Doerr has recreated a whole world, a world of war and love and honor and betrayal, and has told about it in detail, the writing of which took the author himself ten years to complete. It is a lush and glorious story on every level, one that sidles up to you in the first few pages, puts its arm around you a hundred or so pages later, and then ends up holding your heart in its hand. (And if this description seems a bit over-the-top, it’s undoubtedly because I am still totally enraptured by the author’s achievement here.) A grand, old-fashioned saga filled with emotion, intense description, life-changing events, and characters one really cares about, the novel straddles that fine line between the romantic and the sentimental in its approach, incorporating the magic of secret locked rooms, a magnificent jewel, and a blind child who loves The Three Musketeers and Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, then contrasts them with the horrors of Hitler, his use of children for his own ends, and the institutionalized bullying which marked the rise of the Hitler Youth. A great book for a book club, despite its length.

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Gillian, a TV commentator and drama school graduate, has just begun to regain consciousness in the hospital following an accident which has killed her husband Matthias, the editor of a magazine, and as her memory of blue water and empty space comes and goes, she alternates between awareness of her surroundings and complete befuddlement. The impact of the crash has destroyed her face, and it will be many surgeries and many months before it can be rebuilt. She and her husband, both intoxicated, had been quarreling because he had found a long-forgotten roll of film hidden in her desk, had had it developed, and had discovered that the film contained nude pictures for which she herself had posed. Already jealous about her career, her friendships, and her easy conversations with those she interviewed, Matthias was outraged – “no one took him seriously” – and went on to embarrass her at a party, later refusing to let her drive home, though he was even more intoxicated than she. Now he is dead, and she will not have a real face for six months, at least. What follows in this novel of relationships by Swiss author/dramatist Peter Stamm is a vibrant story of love with its many complications, as damaged people, including Gillian, try to rebuild their lives and find some sort of peace. Time is fluid here, as memories intrude for Gillian, and as Stamm, dramatist that he is, recreates much of her life in vivid scenes of natural and revelatory dialogue. The novel speeds along, helped by some humor, which highlights the absurdities in the characters’ lives.

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This unusual novel features a cast of characters whose lives change constantly in response to the circumstances of their lives. Even death is not permanent. If the unnamed main character makes a bad choice and dies, usually through no fault of her own, author Jenny Erpenbeck simply changes one or more of the conditions which brought about the character’s death and its terrible consequences to the family and retells her story. In fact, the unnamed main character here has five “deaths” in the novel’s five “books,” and other characters experience similar changes of fortune as the author examines the very nature of time, mortality, fate, coincidence, and the effects of a death or other terrible event on the people connected to that character. There is no heavenly hand, no higher deity, no fate with predictable goals or rewards controlling the outcomes here, only the hand of the author, with her long view and broad themes. Erpenbeck aims high, creating an unnamed main character from early twentieth-century Galicia (now incorporated as parts of Poland and Ukraine) who endures two world wars and their aftereffects, the growth of communism, the division of Germany and later the fall of the Berlin Wall, and other major events of European history over the course of a century. The main character’s death-defying personal traumas match those wrought by political changes, and as she endures, or dies and is given a second chance, she also becomes an “Everywoman” for the century. The main character’s intimate life story, portrayed within the context of major historical events in various locations in Eastern Europe, makes the small details of a person’s life feel real at the same time that major political and sociological ideas are sweeping the continent. Her setting becomes the world of Europe in miniature, a microcosm of the continent over the course of a century.

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You have to give Jack Laidlaw credit. He does see himself as others see him, and his life definitely does lack continuity. In this third novel of William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy, published in 1991, after Laidlaw (1977) and The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983), the main character, a detective with the Glasgow police, is divorced, alienated from his teenage children, at a crisis in his relationship with a new woman, and addicted to the possibilities of escape through alcohol. Now he has learned that his troubled younger brother Scott, a teacher, has died in a pedestrian accident, his life “snuffed out on the random number plate of a car,” and Laidlaw is about ready to “shut up shop on [his] beliefs and hand in [his] sense of morality at the desk. The world was a bingo stall,” a conclusion which depresses him beyond words. He is convinced that Scott’s death must mean more than it seems to mean, and he feels an inexplicable sense of guilt. Requesting a week’s time off from the job, he decides to investigate Scott’s death in an effort to learn how it happened and if it was truly random. Despite the large number of characters and the complex interrelationships among them, the novel provides a perfect ending, tying up the details of the themes and the action at the same time that it suggests a memorable coda: “And the meek shall inherit the earth, but not this week.” Outstanding and memorable, a classic.

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Irish author Joseph O’Neill, a citizen of the world, was born in Cork, Ireland, lived in Mozambique as a toddler, in Turkey (his mother’s place of birth) till he reached school age, and in Iran, the Netherlands, and England (where he attended college and then practiced law for ten years), before moving to New York City, where he has lived for the past fifteen years. Perceptive and particularly attuned to cultural differences and their ironies as a result of his own upbringing, O’Neill writes a darkly comic novel set in Dubai, creating an unnamed narrator whose real first name, never mentioned because he hates it, begins with the letter X. In an unusual twist, this main character is a man so lacking in personality that he himself also resembles an X. A lawyer who for nine years lived with Jenn, a co-worker, X is now single, with almost no resources, emotional or financial. The breakup, coming as it did when he and Jenn were in their mid-thirties, was toxic, her revenge leaving him with few funds, no apartment, no friends among their mutual acquaintances and fellow employees, and virtually no prospects for a better life. Public scorn and denigration, perhaps engineered by Jenn, are widespread on the internet’s social media, and even Facebook provides no refuge for him.

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