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Category Archive for 'J – K – L'

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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Powerful, dramatic, and psychologically unsettling, author Han Kang’s prizewinning novel delves into the inner lives, the secret goals, the hidden fears, and the mysterious dreams, of three members of one Korean family. These family members – a young woman who has decided to become a vegetarian; her successful, married sister; and her sister’s artist husband – each become the intense focus of their own section of the novel, as they live their lives, make their mistakes (some of them drastic), and live with the results. The separate sections allow the reader to share each person’s thoughts and motivations from the inside. At the same time, the characters appear and reappear in each other’s sections, providing new information so that the reader sees each person interacting with others – a clever technique which makes it possible for the reader to observe the characters from the outside and to see how the actions of one affect the actions of all. Han Kang asks and illustrates many basic questions about who we are as humans, who we are in relation to the outside world, and how much control we have over our lives. Where the novel excels is in its ability to create psychologically rich characters who do not fit molds, a novel which is unsettling and sometimes overwhelming.

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Like so many other young men in the 1960s, Jonathan Ashe, a young man from a farm in rural Norfolk, England, has escaped his small village to travel the world and, on some level, to find out who he really is. He and his older brother, who has been left in charge of the family farm following the death of his father, have little in common, and some event from the past has alienated them. Though he has feelings for his mother, he cannot bring himself to write to her on a regular basis. Now in Viet Nam, half a world away from England, Jonathan decides to challenge himself as a photographer during the Vietnam War, anxious to expand his views of the world in an effort to understand more about life and death and survival. Jonathan’s own father died of an accidental gunshot wound when Jonathan was a young child, and the suddenness of the death and the memories he has of the aftermath have haunted Jonathan ever since. Now he as he thinks back on his childhood, he wonders how much of what we remember about a person or event is actually real and how much is what we wish for – or what we choose to remember? Can we ever learn to see traumatic experiences in new ways without lying to ourselves and others about the realities? Harding keeps her style simple and quiet, and except for one surprising coincidence, the novel resonates with honesty and truth, as Jonathan begins to find out what he needs to do to be happy, ending the novel on an upbeat note.

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Mai Al-Nakib, an author from Kuwait who got her PhD. in English literature from Brown University, knows how to capture an American audience, and her descriptions and her narrative style in this remarkable collection of stories are so attuned to her characters and subjects that readers will actually experience – not just “learn about” – parts of the world which most of us know only second-hand. Set in Kuwait, Lebanon, and Palestine, and, through the travel of some of these characters, in Japan and Greece, her stories are filled with word pictures so vivid that many readers will come close to feeling the reality of day-to-day life in these places. She opens new worlds, and by the time the collection ends, many readers will be viewing life in these parts of the world with clearer vision and greater empathy. The passage of time, the fragility of life, the effects of change, and the transcience of memory unite this story and connect it to other stories in this collection. The title of the collection, The Hidden Light of Objects, attests to the importance of the story objects within these stories, and while none of us, perhaps, regard our own “souvenirs” or keepsakes as “story objects” in quite the same way as they are used here, it is impossible not to identify with the characters here as they share their intimate thoughts and feelings with us as readers. Separating the ten short stories are series of ten short vignettes, which sometimes connect with each other and within various stories. This extraordinary collection deals with the biggest, most universal themes of literature, told through the eyes of characters with whom readers will identify and, perhaps, gain in understanding.

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In an opening quotation of just eighty words, author Richard Crompton establishes a prison setting, its sights, sounds and smells, its fraught atmosphere, the state of mind of the prisoner, his cultural background, the antagonistic attitude of the guard, and the guard’s triumphant, even delighted, threatening of his prisoner. It is not because the prisoner is a Maasai that he is likely to be tormented, however. In this case, the prisoner is also known as Constable Mollel of the Nairobi police. Mollel had been a Maasai moran twenty years ago when he left his roots in “Maasai-land” in southern Kenya to begin work as a policeman in Nairobi, hoping to bring justice to Kenya’s hard-working poor within an atmosphere in which corruption is a way of life. For even the most dedicated police officers, however, creating a sense of peace is often more important than bringing pure justice, and Mollel has been a constant trial to many of his superiors and to the judicial system. Constantly challenging and questioning them, he is also cursed with a hair-trigger temper and willingness to do violence to bring about “justice,” which has resulted in his being moved around among police departments throughout the country. Now he is imprisoned for an unspecified crime, and he must somehow survive among a number of former policemen he helped send to jail. The deaths of some of the characters, killed in bizarre ways no one in the US would ever dream of, combine with scenes of touching honesty to create a novel filled with surprises and new visions of contemporary life in Kenya. And though there are enough plot lines here to fill two or three books, the author keeps his style so simple and the novel so filled with fascinating new information that few will begrudge the author his expansive plot.

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