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Category Archive for 'A – B'

In a remote, almost unpopulated area adjacent to Argentina’s pampas, China Iron, the main character and speaker in this small epic, grew up believing that she was “born an orphan,” never having known her mother. Brought up as a virtual slave by a woman known as Las Negra, she was then married off to Martín Fierro, a gaucho-singer who won her in a card game and by whom she had two sons before reaching the age of fourteen. Now, in 1872, her husband has been conscripted by the army, along with all the other young men of the outpost, and China has decided to take off, not in search of her sometimes violent husband, but in search of a life. Leaving her babies with an elderly couple, she joins with Liz, a red-haired Scottish woman whose husband Oscar was conscripted before he could take possession of land he had planned to purchase and develop. Liz, with an oxcart, supplies, and clothing from her previous life abroad, is about to set off across the pampas in her cart to find and rescue Oscar, and she is happy to have some company. The trip becomes a mini-epic (with a twist) based on the Martín Fierro work from 1872, as China, Liz, and the cowherd Rosario head for new worlds beyond the pampas. Brilliant descriptions, lively characters, and a picture of Argentina in the 1800s that few will forget. On the Favorites List.

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In this autobiographical novel of his early life and family in Gjirokastra, Albania, author Ismail Kadare focuses primarily on his mother, “the center of his universe” for his early years. Though she was not a warm, demonstrative person, her son stresses that she did have a caring nature and that it was “her self-restraint, her inability to cross a certain barrier,” that gave her a “doll-like mystery, but without the terror.” Her tears, he says, sometimes “flowed like those in cartoon films,” but when he asked her once about the reason for them, her answer “[made] my skin creep to recall it: ‘The house is eating me up!’ ” she claimed. Totally different from the newer, warmer house in which his mother had lived with her own family before her marriage, the Kadare residence was a grim, three-hundred-year-old building almost devoid of people, and for Kadare, it is as much of a character here as the family itself. Kadare’s early interest in writing eventually causes him to leave his home for later schooling in Tirana and Moscow, exposing him to many philosophies alien to his Russian teachers. These ideas further develop for him as he continues his work into the future and in exile in Europe. Trips back to his old house bring back last memories and the perplexity of his early life and family.

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Australian author Christian White uses two separate narratives to create a murder mystery which goes way beyond the usual thin characters forced to deal with bizarre and unexpected experiences. By alternating chapters between two families, he focuses instead on creating real people who find themselves suddenly dealing with events for which they have never prepared, many of which are now crises that have evolved from experiences buried deep in their past. The two narratives have few connections until late in the novel, as “The Wife” and “The Widow” share their lives with the reader but do not know each other and have virtually no contact. It is not until the ferry arrives on tiny Belport Island with Kate Keddie and her father-in-law, Fisher Keddie, about a third of the way into the novel, that the mystery takes off. Arriving at their summer house, they discover that there is food in the microwave, a shopping bag on the counter, and a note to himself written by John Keddie. Fresh sheets on a bed, items in the bar fridge, and a room service menu prove to Kate and Fisher that John has, in fact, been at the island during his “missing” weeks. Unfortunately, however, a body is soon found inside a car that has been located in deep water off the harbor docks, and, not surprisingly, the body inside is John’s. He has been murdered. Written in clear, precise prose, and filled with drama and excitement, the novel raises questions about sacrifice and guilt which will linger long.

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Author Aravind Adiga, whose Indian family immigrated to Australia during his childhood, is well familiar with Australia’s social and economic conditions, and with its attitudes toward “brown”people, both legal and illegal. His sensitivity and empathy in his presentation of Danny as a kind, thoughtful, and honest main character make Danny’s problems as an illegal resident from Sri Lanka and his lack of options particularly vivid for the reader. When he arrives at work one morning, he finds a police van parked across the street and learns that there has been a murder across from where he is working – in a house which he himself has cleaned many times over the past two years. He knows the female owner, Radha, a married woman who is having an affair, and he is also a worker of the person who may have killed her. With the author’s stunning ability to present Danny’s hopes, his memories of beauty from the past, and his fully imagined dreams for the future, which he presents impressionistically, Danny comes fully to life – a real person with a real life and personality – and not simply a character who is illustrating social conditions, themes, and ethical problems. Danny must decide whether to help the police with much-needed information and risk deportation, or keep quiet and let events take their course. Outstanding!

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From the opening story of the same name, Up in the Main House entertains and enlightens the reader with stories of life in modern day Bangladesh which recall the tales of servants and their privileged employers from colonial England years ago. Here, however, author Nadeem Zaman focuses on the lives of domestic employees in the capital city of Dhaka, most of them working for families of wealth that they have worked for during all or most of their lives. As in the typical British “upstairs” and “downstairs” stories, the servants often have clearer visions of what really matters and closer relationships with each other than what the reader usually sees from the often absent “upstairs” owners of these houses and their friends. As the servants share their daily lives and do their daily work, they reveal their genuine emotions and insights into real life. Vividly described and more casual than the formal stories of upperclass British servants, the lives of these Bangladeshi workers and their values become far more intimate and genuinely real than what most readers will expect, their lives complicated primarily by their sense of position regarding their employers.

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