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Category Archive for 'C – D'

DRESSED FOR A DANCE IN THE SNOW by Monika Zgustova is a collection of nine true stories about some of Russia’s brightest and most creative women who have defied life as it exists in those old epic romances – presenting, instead, the dark, often horrific revelations they have personally survived in the Gulags and prisons which they endured during the Stalinist years. Where the title deserves its happy image is that these women not only survived their near starvation and imprisonments but also came to some kind of peace regarding their torture. “The Gulag, just because it’s so terrible,” one woman says, “is also rewarding. That extreme suffering teaches you about yourself, about the people around you, and about human beings in general.” Svetlana Alliluiyeva, daughter of Stalin, is mentioned briefly in this book, in addition to Boris Pasternak (who shows up in two chapters), composer Sergei Prokofief, poet Marina Tsevetaeva, and briefly Joan Baez.

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Setting his novel in Punta Gotica, the poorer side of Cienfuegos, a city on the south side of Cuba, author Marcial Gala, creates a grim novel of the non-stop action in this city, while, at the same time, breathing life into people, societies, and places new to many readers. Often the narrative feels as if Marcial Gala himself, a resident of this city, is “hanging out,” invisibly, with some of the characters here, even as he is telling their stories, and on several occasions one character even recommends that another character go see “Marcial” for some kind of help with an issue. As a result, the author creates the feeling that he is part of the action, creating his own story in Cienfuegos within the characters’ more objective stories, despite the serious difficulties that many of these characters get into on their own or create for others. Unconscionable, often life-changing difficulties, are drawn realistically, rather than intuitively or emotionally, as the affected characters react to traumas they have experienced in their daily lives. Casual murder, innocent cannibalism, the betrayal of lovers for cash, and a general mood of prevailing evil, which even infects the ghosts of some of the dead, make this a novel in which anything can – and often does – take place without warning.

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Bridging the gap between a novel and a novella, Space Invaders by Nona Fernandez is, in fact, as short as a novella, but it feels more like a much larger novel in the grandeur of its themes, its well-developed controlling ideas, the world-changing historical events which give it drama, and the intense, literary style which brings it all to life and makes it work. This powerful story takes place in Santiago de Chile during the years of the Pinochet regime from 1980, when the children who are the main characters here are ten years old, and extends to 1994 and later, when they are in their twenties and middle age. Eight school children from Santiago who are close friends tell this story, which never succumbs to “cuteness” or patronizing simplicity here, as these bright, curious, and observant children react to conflicts around them, the military presence, and the sometimes bloody events which erupt and affect their lives as they grow up. Dreams, memories, and imagination form their visions of the past here and become even more clearly defined as this story develops. Time flips back and forth and around throughout the short sections, and the narrative develops dramatically and quickly. An important, unusual, and sensitive story of a tumultuous time in Chile.

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In what is the most excitingly creative and unusual group of stories I have read in many years, Bosnian author Asja Bakic not only captured my attention totally, but kept it through several readings of her ten stories – so much so that I could sit down and reread the entire collection right now and still find new ideas and new sparkle to enliven my day and my reading life. Translator Jennifer Zoble obviously plays a strong role, too, in making these stories feel bright, lively, often humorous, always ironic, and bursting with life, however different Bakic’s characters may be from anything a reader has encountered before. Translator Zoble’s contribution is so smooth and feels so comfortable that it is as if she is channeling the author in a direct line to the reader. It is no surprise to discover that Zoble, the translator, is also an author, and Bakic, the author, is also a translator. Together they provide a perfect match for these unique stories. High on my Favorites list, this is the most intriguing collection of short stories I’ve read in a long time.

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Returning to Prague for the location of this novel, after setting The Glass Room there in 2009, author Simon Mawer uses his familiarity with Prague, and his obvious love for it, to create this stirring novel of political history and intrigue. Set during the almost magical Prague Spring of 1968, a time in which Russian influence had waned and a broader view of socialism and some new freedoms were being celebrated by students and political writers in Prague, Mawer focuses on “the fleeting nature of presence” as the Prague Spring is cancelled by the sudden arrival of half a million Warsaw Pact troops led by the Soviet Union, which went on to occupy the country for the next twenty-three years. A writer who focuses primarily on people and their lives, rather than on politics or cultural movements, Mawer brings the Prague Spring to life by focusing on two couples who come together in Prague, live and love, engage in adventure, and find their lives permanently changed by the arrival of the Soviet-led troops. The couples represent different backgrounds, and they experience the Prague Spring in different ways. Each has connections with people from Prague who help them during the danger which evolves, providing a broader picture of the events as they affect all the people of Prague, instead of the more limited focus which might have occurred with fewer main characters. This is a carefully developed novel, filled with fascinating history and sidelights involving literature, music, and popular culture, a fine addition to Mawer’s bibliography.

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