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Category Archive for 'J – K – L'

Setting her novel in Jordan, author Siobhan Fallon focuses on Americans who serve abroad in the military, protecting U. S. Embassies, and how cultural differences with their host countries affect their lives. These are subjects that the author knows well. Drawing on her own life in Jordan and her observations and insights about how Americans behave, she creates two characters who act and feel real. Cassie Hugo, who has been in Jordan for two years, and Margaret Brickshaw, who is a new arrival, live near each other, each dealing with her own personal problems unrelated to the setting, but each also hoping that she can find a friend in the other. Cassie is desperate to have a baby but is still childless after nine years. Margaret, a naïve young woman with a new baby, has grown up in a home in which her mother, with a serious, eventually fatal, illness depended on Margaret for virtually all of life’s necessities. Margaret’s unplanned pregnancy and quick, subsequent marriage to Crick Brickshaw, brought her out of the country to Jordan almost simultaneously with her mother’s death. The personal trials and tribulations, both real and imagined, which the two women experience, and the absence of their husbands sometimes for weeks, on trips to the embassies in other countries, leave the women on their own in a foreign culture. Domestic episodes involving love and honor in relationships eventually become broad underlying themes within a multicultural environment, providing much to think about in this well developed and often fascinating novel.

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In this memoir, Hisham wastes no time, going straight to the heart of his life and telling the whole story, showing clearly the effects of the very real traumas which he has never fully explored, and the fears and insecurities which have dominated his life as a result. As the memoir opens in March, 2012, forty-one-year-old Matar, and Diana, a photographer, who have been living in New York, are at the airport in Cairo, waiting to take off for Benghazi. He is nervous because he and his family left Libya for exile in 1979, and he has never returned. His father, Jaballa Matar, worked for the Libyan government as first secretary to the Libyan Mission to the United Nations in 1970, and Hisham was born that year in New York. After three years, he, his father, mother, and older brother Ziad, returned to Libya, as Qaddafi was coming to power. Jaballa Matar, who opposed many of Qaddafi’s policies in favor of the resistance in the late 1970s, fell victim to Qaddafi’s ambitions. With their lives endangered, the family escaped from Libya for Egypt in the late 1970s, and Hisham did much of his early schooling in Egypt. Then his father was kidnapped and sent to Abu-Salim Prison in Libya. Matar’s story is enhanced by constant flashbacks which broaden the scope and the cast of characters, making them come more fully alive. This powerful memoir treats the subjects of memory and loss, innocence and guilt, power and vulnerability, and ultimately love and hope, giving the reader new insights into how one man eventually manages to cope with his past, present, and future.

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Beginning this novel in 1937, Junichiro Tanizaki (1886 – 1965), one of Japan’s most accomplished novelists, takes a new direction in this novel, his last. Here he describes the lives and cultures of a succession of Japanese house maids in a financially successful household. The novel’s time frame, 1937 – 1962, is obviously a time in which Japan faced some of its most dramatic changes and these changes, as described by Tanizaki, were at least as dramatic sociologically as they were historically during this period. The class system was being dismantled, local languages and dialects were changing, movement from the countryside to the city and back was becoming relatively common, and a sense of independence among young women was emerging. Tanizaki saw it all, and while a previous novel, The Makioka Sisters, focused on those who lived comfortable lives, this novel focuses on those who helped make the lives of those people as comfortable as they were. These were the people who saw and dealt with the greatest changes – the maids who lived “below stairs,” as translator Michael P. Cronin describes them in his Afterword. In this novel, which was published in installments in a Japanese newspaper in 1962, his purpose seems to have been, instead, to seize the opportunity to talk to his readers about the changes to Japanese society that he has noted over the past twenty-five years. While this is often intriguing and even fascinating, new readers to Tanizaki will want to start with one of the other Tanizaki novels previously reviewed on this site.

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Serialized simultaneously in two newspapers in Tokyo and Osaka in 1918, this short novel found a ready audience in a country already well familiar with Edgar Allan Poe, and author Tanizaki added some twists of his own, making his novel even more attractive to his audience – it is far more psychological, even twisted, and more obviously sexual than Poe. Romantic, even gothic in its approach, it is a tale which entices the reader through the speed of its narrative, moving so quickly that Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” is intensified – the reader wants to get on with the excitement of this wild story and does not want to be bothered much about the obviously bizarre (and unrealistic) circumstances which make the excitement possible. The atmosphere and tone of the novel is set when the narrator, Takahashi, recalls a telephone call he received from his friend Sonomura, who asks him to come to his house immediately. Takahashi, a writer, has been up all night, working on a deadline, and is not able to travel to Sonomura’s right away. He is nervous about the call, informing the reader that mental illness runs in Sonomura’s family, and that he has concluded that “This time…Sonomura really had been stricken with lunacy.” Sonomura, quoted in the opening lines of this review, tells Takahashi (and the reader) that he knows, for sure, that at one o’clock that night, a murder will take place in a certain part of Tokyo. He does not know exactly where, but he wants to go see it happen. He also wants Takahashi to be there with him.

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South Korean author Han Kang recreates May, 1980, as students and others rebel against military rule following the assassination of dictator Park Chung-hee. Developing a circular narrative of six overlapping chapters, she depicts vibrant, realistic characters who participate in the rebellion and overlap and reappear in each other’s narratives, revealing different points of view of the action they have observed. Han’s prodigious descriptive skills are more than equal to the task of describing the one-sided warfare between naïve young men and their heavily armed opponents, but she also sees this action in broad thematic terms taking it beyond the themes of her previous novel, The Vegetarian. Here she delves deeply into the questions raised in the review’s opening quotation on whether human beings are fundamentally cruel and whether cruelty, with its damage and degradation, is the only thing we share with each other as a species. Is cruelty, in fact, the “essential fate” of mankind and is it inevitable, she asks. Han’s work takes an emotional toll, but every detail works, and no detail is gratuitous. Ultimately, she recreates the turmoil and human cost of more than two decades of Korean history, and she does it in a mere two hundred pages.

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