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Category Archive for 'A – B'

I am especially fond of Japanese novels for their quiet power, restraint, and careful structure, and I was looking forward to this one, written by a Japanese woman but focusing on characters who have immigrated to Australia, with its totally different culture and completely different language. Iwaki Kei, the Japanese author, knows all about this, having first gone to Australia herself twenty years ago when she was a recent college graduate. She has stayed there with her expatriate Japanese husband ever since, an eventuality which I expected would give much added insight into cultural adaptation, perhaps also including an overlay of analysis into how the differences between cultures affect every aspect of the lives of immigrants. What I found was completely different – surprising, even shocking at first, but which made this, ultimately one of the most intriguing and original debut novels I have read in years, as a Nigerian war refugee and a Japanese scholar both find themselves together in an ESL class in Australia, where they both learn more about life than pronunciation and grammar.

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George Washington Black, a young slave born in 1818, tells his life story – as much as he knows of it – beginning when he is eleven, a boy living on the sprawling Faith Plantation in Barbados. His master has just died, and he and Big Kit, the slave woman who watches over him, know nothing about the person who will take his master’s place. Wash, as he is known, is an orphan with no family, a person without a “real” name, known only by the slave name assigned to him by a master who is also in charge of every other aspect of his life – and his death. When the new master arrives from England a few months later, he is everyone’s worst nightmare. Canadian author Esi Edugyan does not dwell on the sadism of the master and the horrors he wreaks for long. She is far more committed to telling the story of “Wash,” whom we learn through a flashback in the first few pages, is a survivor, one who at eighteen is officially a Freeman. What unfolds in the ensuing three hundred pages is Wash’s story, a monument to the human spirit and what it takes for someone who has never known freedom or had the opportunity to make his own decisions to learn how to survive in an alien world. This is a dramatic and powerful study of slavery and its effects on people whose lives are what they are completely by the accident of their birth.

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Eric Vuillard’s latest prizewinner opens with the secret arrival of twenty-four wealthy industrialists at the Berlin palace of the President of the Assembly in 1933. When asked by Hermann Goering to donate to the Nazi cause, they do so without hesitation. The Nazi movement grows. Four years later, Hitler is on the verge of entering Austria and taking over. Surprising details emerge throughout this short work which shows how Hitler, an ordinary person with an unalterable goal, could affect the lives of so many other ordinary people through persuasion, fear, and raw power. Guilt, innocence, and ignorance get the full treatment here as Eric Vuillard brings life to the years leading up to the Second World War, and readers will be astonished by the breadth and depth of history which this author achieves within this very compressed work.

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In a novel widely regarded as the high point of his work to date, Australian author Tim Winton expands his view of the world and his ability to create fascinating, even symbolic, characters, placing them in circumstances in which they must take actions for which they may not be prepared. Set in the remote wilds of western Australia, where life is often raw and behavior sometimes lacks the constraints which “civilization,” by definition, requires, Winton creates two characters on their own, each one abused, and both trying to escape the events which have marked them for life. Jaxie Clackton, a seventeen-year-old whose family life has been significant primarily for his beatings, has lived through the lingering death of his mother. His father, a man who seemingly obeys no laws and feels no sense of love for anyone, takes his own frustrations out on Jaxie, beating him mercilessly, sometimes for no apparent reason. When he finds his father dead in an accident, Jaxie takes off into the outback, determined to walk almost two hundred miles to see the one person who had been kind to him in recent years. On the way he meets a former priest living alone in a hut, a man who also is rejected by his society but helps Jaxie for many days.

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This Prix Goncourt Winner in France, focuses on the country of Burundi between 1992 and 1995, when the civil war began there. Debut novelist Gael Faye creates a lively account of the life of a young boy and his friends between the ages of 10 and 13, concentrating on their emotions, understandings, their family lives, and their coming of age. Leaving the gruesome aspects of the country’s revolution till later, when the boy is older, he brings Burundi and its people to life. Beautifully organized and developed; sensitively depicted in terms of the human costs, both physical and psychological; vibrantly depicted in its historical setting and atmosphere; enlightening in its insights into the lives the children affected; and grand in its scope and emotional impact, Small Country is now at the top of my Favorites List for the year. It’s a gem!

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