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Category Archive for 'C – D'

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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In 1985, thirty years after the period in which this novel is set, of this novel, and twenty years after the escape of author Heda Margolius Kovaly from Czechoslovakia to the United States, she wrote Innocence, her only novel, which takes an unusual approach to some of the issues which so dramatically affected her own life in the 1950s. Working in the library at Harvard after her escape, she had come to admire the work of Raymond Chandler, among other English-speaking authors, and in this novel, she uses Chandler’s abrupt, noir style to flash back and bring to life some of the crimes of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia against ordinary citizens. These abuses were so horrific and so universal that I found myself somewhat nonplussed to see them recreated here within the limitations of a Raymond Chandler-style novel, almost as if the author were understating the legitimate horrors of her own experience in order not to draw too much attention to her own amazing survival. Fortunately, Part I, the Chandleresque section (from which the introductory quotation is taken) is followed by a Part II, which pays more attention to the psychological effects on ordinary people caught up in the maelstrom of political unrest. The two parts, taken together, provide a unique perspective from which to evaluate both the daily horrors and their longer-term effects.

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In what appears to be a series of autobiographical episodes, Chilean author Alejandro Zambra creates eleven stories so firmly grounded in reality and filled with carefully chosen detail that they seem to be from his own life, though it is impossible to know for sure without hearing more from the author himself. Likewise, we cannot know how much may be inspired by his own life but altered for the purpose of improving the story, or how much may be created from whole cloth for the purpose of recreating a period in history or illustrating a theme. Ultimately, this collection of stories vibrantly recreates an unusual childhood from the perspective of a child, while also revealing the speaker’s early adulthood and his lack of confidence in his own maturity. In several stories, the author conveys the feelings at the heart of parent-child relationships, from the points of view of both; political revolution and trauma lurk in the background throughout all the stories. As he wrestles with his stories and how to present the personal and community values of Chile during this period in the late twentieth century, the author also contributes much to our understanding of the art of writing itself. Ultimately, these intense, compressed, clear, and unpretentious stories breathe with quiet life, focused on reality as a simple, if sometimes heart-breaking, concept.

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