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Category Archive for 'C – D'

In his first novel published in English since the IMPAC Dublin Award-winning The Sound of Things Falling, Juan Gabriel Vasquez further develops some of the themes of identity and reality which made that novel so rich, mesmerizing, and dramatically exciting. In this more compressed and even more insightful and exciting novel, Vasquez homes in on the many kinds of events which affect our lives and our visions of reality, while also adding a whole new layer of “reality”– that of art and its ability to change the way we see life and even to control our perceptions of it. Key to this approach is his focus on main character Javier Mallarino, a sixty-five-year-old artist who has worked for forty years as a caricaturist for one of Bogota, Colombia’s major newspapers. Reputations, the assessments of a person’s life by those who know him, can be confirmed, enhanced, or, in some cases, utterly destroyed by a cartoonist who is, in actuality, inserting himself into the life of that person through his satirical artwork. and permanently manipulating aspects of that life as others see it. Ultimately, the novel is filled with wonderful images, symbols, observations, and sly commentary on the role of art, creation, and imagination in our lives, even when it affects our views of reality. The conclusion, appropriately enigmatic, reflects the changes which occur whenever one’s past must be reconsidered in light of new information, and Mallarino shows here how new information will affect his own life. One of the best books of the year.

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Brunelleschi’s Dome opens with a description of the city of Florence in 1418, when it is holding a competition for artists or architects to produce a model or design for the vaulting of the main dome of the large new cathedral being built there. Six weeks are allowed for the candidate to produce his sample work for the dome, which will complement the cathedral campanile on which the artist Giotto has worked for twenty years. Because of the proportions of the work already completed, the crowning dome will have to be the highest and widest dome ever built – higher and wider than the 143’ 6” diameter of the Pantheon built in Rome a thousand years earlier and never duplicated. The Gothic architecture popular in the rest of Europe, with its flying buttresses to draw the weight of large arches and domes away from the center of the cathedral, does not appeal to the Florentines, who want something different for their cathedral. The finalists in the competition are Filippo Brunelleschi, a goldsmith and clockmaker, and Lorenzo Ghiberti, a worker in bronze who has designed the doors of the Baptistery of Florence. Detailing the issues that Brunelleschi faced for twenty-five years as he designed and built the dome of the cathedral, Ross King makes the complex engineering and structural feats of building this dome understandable to the lay reader and makes Brunelleschi’s behavior human

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Recognized as one of the most exciting young novelists in Latin America, Santiago Gamboa of Colombia has written a novel which defies easy labeling. Filled with non-stop action and much like a thriller in its ability to generate and maintain suspense, it is also a sociological illustration of crime on a grand scale, a study of political corruption and violence in more than one country, a close look at the interactions of one middle class Colombian family trapped in the complex social milieu of Bogota, the unusual love story of a brother and his nurturing sister who depend on each other for love, and ultimately, a story of innocence and overwhelming guilt, as felt by more than one character. Scenes set in Colombia during the rule of Alvaro Uribe (2002 – 2010) provide insights into that country’s political challenges and the power of its drug trade and are balanced by scenes in Thailand, where the often sadistic interpretation of “justice” bears little relationship to anything most of us have ever known. Ultimately, Gamboa’s wide-ranging plot lines keep the reader moving at a rapid pace, hopping from country to country – from Colombia and Thailand to India, Japan, and Iran, and back.

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On a magnificent, clear night, Franklin Starlight, age sixteen, and his father Eldon, from whom he has been estranged for nearly all of his life, sit smoking around a campfire in the mountains, as their stories, often sad, emerge to be shared. Eldon, an alcoholic who is just days away from death, has persuaded his son-in-name-only to accompany him on his final trip “beyond the ridge.” Riding Franklin’s horse, to which he eventually needs to be tied hand and foot as he sinks in and out of consciousness, Eldon shares his life story, and stories involving other people around him, in a final effort to connect with his son and to reconcile himself with his own guilt about actions from his past. Young Franklin has been brought up by “the old man,” a white man, who has devoted his life to him, while Eldon Starlight, his real father, has lived many miles away and avoided all sense of responsibility since Franklin’s birth, losing himself in drink instead. The old white man has taught Franklin everything he knows, and, unlike the disengaged Eldon Starlight, the boy and the old man love and honor each other through their actions. The novel that Ojibway author and storyteller Richard Wagamese creates from this outline is thoughtful and full of heart – and so gripping that it is hard to imagine any reader not being left breathless from the sheer drama of the writing and its overwhelming message. It is a wondrous novel about stories, their importance in our lives and memories, their ability to help us reconcile the past with the present, and ultimately their power to teach us the nature of the world and our relationship to it.

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Although Jack Livings’s experiences in China were in the 1990s, when he was a student and then an English teacher, the life he lived there and the knowledge he gained from his conferences with students about their writing have stood him in good stead with this stunning and dramatic story collection. As he tells the Wall Street Journal, the title story, “The Dog,” is a story told to him by one of his students, a story he embellishes in his own writing here, about a weekend trip to the countryside taken by his student and her family. Also on the trip was her father’s cousin Zheng, a sleazy operator in the import/export business who “moved in dangerous circles” in the city and who brought with him a dog which he owned jointly with her father, one they had been using for gambling in illegal dog racing in Beijing. Because of a government crackdown, the men need to get rid of the dog; hence, the weekend trip to the countryside and a planned family barbecue. The bleak ironies and absurdities of this story and its surprising descriptions epitomize the author’s style as he creates seven additional stories of personal crisis from all parts of China, including some areas and cultures with which most of us in the West are unfamiliar.

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