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Category Archive for '5-2012 Reviews'

Algerian author Amara Lakhous, now an Italian resident, pens a sly satire of an immigrant’s life in Italy, using the murder of a young man in the elevator of an apartment building adjacent to Piazza Vittorio as the catalyst through which he explores the hidden and not-so-hidden prejudices of Roman residents toward “outsiders.” The victim, Lorenzo Manfredini, also known as the Gladiator, drew nasty pictures, wrote obscenities, and urinated in the building’s elevator, earning the enmity of every resident. When the police investigate, each of the residents and merchants in the immediate vicinity tells his story, revealing hidden agendas and casual resentments against immigrants. Amedeo, a respected resident thought to be an Italian volunteer helping immigrants deal with Roman bureaucracy, is sought for the crime. No one has seen him since the murder. Lakhous cleverly creates twelve unique voices, with each person telling “the truth according to…” These separate voices alternate with “wails” from Amadeo, as he gives his own “take” in response to each statement. Amedeo is not, in fact, an Italian, though he speaks Italian like a native, and his running commentary on life in the apartment building and in Rome, as an immigrant sees it, points up the contrasts between what people say when they think he is Italian and what they say and do about their immigrant neighbors behind their backs.

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Palace intrigue of the highest order, conducted by courtiers and officials who will do anything to achieve their goals, makes this novel by Swedish author Per Olov Enquist both stimulating and thoroughly engrossing, and few who read it will fail to notice the similarities of the “normal” behavior one sees between these courtiers in their time and place and those “aides” or sycophants who surround other leaders of other countries in other times. The Danish court from 1768 – 1772 pulses with life as powerful personalities collide in their rush to fill the power vacuum resulting from the weakness of King Christian VII, a sensitive, half-mad 17-year-old boy, who married the innocent and unsuspecting Princess Caroline Mathilde, the 15-year-old sister of Britain’s King George III, just two years before the novel opens. When the young king becomes interested in the enlightened ideas of Voltaire and Diderot and is celebrated by these philosophers on a trip around the continent, his nervous and threatened court decides he needs a physician to disabuse him of these “follies.” What they never expect is that the physician they engage, Johann Friedrich Struensee from Germany, will quickly establish a strong and genuinely caring relationship with Christian, share his enlightened ideas, and eventually become the de facto king and lover of the young queen Caroline Mathilde.

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Author Elizabeth Jolley, whose portraits of elderly characters are unparalleled in their sensitivity and in the sly amusement she brings to their creation, gives life to Dorothy Peabody – or as much life as this quiet, fearful, and unimaginative woman can be said to possess, until that moment in which her life suddenly takes wing through her ongoing correspondence with author Diana Hopewell. Jolley also creates additional, vibrant and often surprising characters, also middle-aged single women, who are the protagonists of the new novel-in-progress which she shares in her correspondence with Miss Peabody. As the point of view moves back and forth between Miss Peabody’s life in Weybridge, outside of London, and Diana Hopewell’s novel-in-progress, which takes place in a polite boarding school in western Australia, Elizabeth Jolley keeps the humor and surprise at a high level, while also commenting on the nature of writing and the role of the novelist. With her wry, often poignant descriptions, and the ability to reveal her characters’ deepest yearnings through subtle and beautifully developed scenes and dialogue, Elizabeth Jolley is a writer of formidable talents and remarkable insights. Outstanding novel!

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Originally from Belfast, forty-year-old Killian has tried to remake his life, having emigrated to New York City after spending his first twenty-three years in The Life in Belfast. A tinker, or Pavee, sometimes even referred to as a gypsy, Killian was in involved crimes of many varieties, including drugs, extortion, and even murder there, but he managed to get out of that life, learn to read, go to college, study history and the arts, and live a more “normal” life. Or more normal for him. He still adheres to his aboriginal values: “We [Pavee] live two lives. A life here on Earth in what we call the real world and a life in The Dreaming which is really the real world, where everything has a purpose, where we are more than thinking reeds, are part of some great scheme of things.” Author Adrian McKinty, who grew up in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, before emigrating to New York City, endows both New York and Ireland with life as he creates a sometimes likeable, though often violent main character, who is unable to abide by the rules set by governments for society and instead abides by his own inner code and a more vengeful sense of honor and justice. As Killian tries to locate a missing ex-wife and her two children, the author keeps the action moving quickly, providing new insights into post-ceasefire life in Northern Ireland.

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This strange and sometimes eerie collection of short stories by Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan is guaranteed to stick in the minds of its readers, not just because it is wonderfully written by a man whose country is not as open to foreigners as this book is, but because its reality is so far removed from what any of us have experienced or even imagined. Seven short stories and one novella create a sometimes mystical or mysterious mood, oftentimes more akin to horror than to fantasy, a mood that is guaranteed to make readers sit up and take notice, even as they may be lulled by the “folky” and confidential attitude of several speakers as they reflect on their lives. Whether one should interpret some of the events described in this collection as dark humor, shocking dramatic irony, or simply as the reality of the various Chinese speakers and, one presumes, the author, is a question which readers will have to explore on their own. Though author Amy Tan, in a blurb on the book’s cover, suggests that “Mo Yan’s voice will find its way into the heart of the American reader, just as Kundera and Garcia Marquez have,” I suspect that many readers will react as I did – my heart was, in fact, aching, often shocked, and sometimes appalled at what passes for normal life in rural China. The residual feeling of this collection, at least for me, is not that of folk tales or fantasy, in which one can smile, amused, at the flights of imagination, but of the sometimes terrible realities which underlie these stories.

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