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Category Archive for 'A – B'

Set in Patagonia, in the southernmost part of Argentina and Chile, during an unspecified time period, this novel by French author Sandrine Collette shows life at the edges, as a dysfunctional family tries to stay alive though the herding of cattle and sheep on a remote ranch in the steppe. Shortly after the novel begins, the father disappears, their mother saying that he “took off,” without explanation. After that, the mother assumes the role of boss – and she is one of the most demanding bosses imaginable, performing the kitchen duties and managing the finances while assigning the hard work out on the steppe to her four sons. The grim novel which follows is a difficult read with the boys experiencing no joyfulness, no satisfaction with their work, no love, and no let-up in sight throughout the book. When the mother becomes an alcoholic, as was her husband, and often disappears to gamble at the bar in the remote town nearest their ranch, the boys are left on their own, with unstable Mauro in charge, a situation obviously headed for disaster. When the mother runs into debt from gambling, their fraught lives become even more horrific. Full of action, the novel will appeal especially to those who enjoy seeing life lived on the edge, with violence always just a step away, though it sometimes intrudes unexpectedly here and complicates the characters’ lives.

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The speaker of this work of “fiction,” who appears in every way to be the author himself, insists that this book is, in fact, a report – “pages intended only for my files.” Despite this assertion, the resulting work is so introspective and so intimate, and the many known “facts” of the author’s own life are so clearly identical to events of the speaker’s life that the very borders between fact and fiction, reality and imagination, and observation and interpretation are blurred. The book feels like an internal monologue by a talented writer exploring the very nature of his own being, Its Australian author, Gerald Murnane, often suggested as a candidate for the Nobel Prize, appears to be so invested in the nature of thought and its creative manifestation through writing that he is willing to sacrifice what many of us would regard as everything physical that has had meaning for him in the past to find answers to his inner questions. The book which has resulted is unlike anything else I have ever read – a book without a plot, without a real conflict, and without a clear sense of direction – yet I found it hypnotizing.

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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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