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Category Archive for 'M – N'

WINNER of the IMPAC Dublin Award, this novel is set in rural Norway with a swirling chronology which incorporates both modern times and, briefly, the days of Norway’s occupation by the Germans during World War II. Powerful and rich thematically, the novel focuses on the life of Trond Sander, a sixty-seven-year-old man, as he relives events which occurred when he was a teen. After the war, in 1948, when Trond was fifteen, he and his father spent the summer together in a cabin in the countryside of Norway, near the Swedish border, a time which affected his entire life. As the novel opens, the aged Trond has returned to a cabin in that same village, intending to live there in retirement, wanting to be alone but living independently, though the reasons for his self-imposed solitude are not clear, even to him. Nature is the important factor in his new life in retirement, and the lyricism with which he views that nature and its power is palpable. At the same time, he is aware this “simple” life will be difficult, with many responsibilities which only he can fulfill.

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I am especially fond of Japanese novels for their quiet power, restraint, and careful structure, and I was looking forward to this one, written by a Japanese woman but focusing on characters who have immigrated to Australia, with its totally different culture and completely different language. Iwaki Kei, the Japanese author, knows all about this, having first gone to Australia herself twenty years ago when she was a recent college graduate. She has stayed there with her expatriate Japanese husband ever since, an eventuality which I expected would give much added insight into cultural adaptation, perhaps also including an overlay of analysis into how the differences between cultures affect every aspect of the lives of immigrants. What I found was completely different – surprising, even shocking at first, but which made this, ultimately one of the most intriguing and original debut novels I have read in years, as a Nigerian war refugee and a Japanese scholar both find themselves together in an ESL class in Australia, where they both learn more about life than pronunciation and grammar.

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In her debut novel, just translated and published in English, Norwegian author Gunnhild Oyehaug explores many facets of love among three different women and their lovers, a novel which led in her own country to her involvement with the acclaimed film “Women in Oversized Men’s Shirts” in 2015, based on a repeating theme throughout this novel. Here men believe that women in oversized men’s shirts – and little else – are inherently attractive, and most of the female characters find themselves in oversize men’s shirts or pajama tops at some point in the novel as they search for the perfect love. Gunnhild Oyehaug does not lack for imagination, literary credentials, or intelligence. The book is great fun as often as it is annoying for its extreme self-consciousness. Ironies abound, even including what constitutes a cliché, as seen in the opening quotation of this review and some of the events and descriptions which follow. The never-ending and problematic love stories, all involving women between twelve and twenty years younger than their lovers (for reasons not even hinted at by the author) are strangely off kilter much of the time, though these “intellectual” characters take great delight in analyzing them to death. The academic and literary worlds and those who take them seriously are presented as serious characters here, but I found that I liked the book and the characters much more when I assumed that the whole novel was a wild satire of those who need to “get a life.”

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In a novel of Nigeria which defies the usual stereotypes for that country, author Chibundu Onuzo tells a story of five individuals who form a surprising “family” in Lagos, and two others from the outside who affect the very lives of this group. Author Chibundu Onuzo’s offering introduces Nigeria as a place in which the people themselves feel familiar to the reader – at least at first. Two former soldiers, a wife escaping her abusive husband, a young rebel dreaming of a life as a radio star, and a young teenage runaway who intends to fight if she is in danger, resemble those one might find in books from many other countries. As the action begins, however, the author, while still writing with a smile on her face, places her characters within the context of their lives in Lagos, Nigeria. Two other men also play major roles in the novel: One is Ahmed Bakare, son of a wealthy financier, who has left a good job in England, where he went to school, and returned to Lagos, where he has founded a newspaper, the Nigerian Journal. The second “important” character is Chief Remi Sandayo, who has recently become the Honorable Minister of Education for the Federal Republic of Nigeria, a post of little interest to most citizens, and burdened with a small budget. A month after one of the characters finds an underground apartment for them all to live in, the novel becomes something akin to farce. It is Sandayo’s secret apartment, and he cannot reveal himself publicly without instant arrest by the police, while the “family,” which wants to live good lives, also wants some of the money to live on. Gives new life to the traditional novel of place and character.

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Light-hearted, full of fun, and set in exotic Casablanca, this novel by Vendela Vida may be just the thing to provide smiles and delighted “ah-ha” moments for anyone looking for a break. At the same time, it is a book which develops many variations on the theme of identity, all of which, while not exactly realistic, are still plausible and easy to envision in one’s own life under especially stressful conditions. With a smile in her voice, the author introduces an unnamed main character whose imaginative ruminations, spur-of-the-moment decisions, and panicked thoughts as she sees her life falling apart become those of the reader. Using the second person point of view in which every thought and action which takes place is described as belonging to “you,” the author introduces her main character in a time of great stress. The reader does not know, at first, why the main character has decided to come to Casablanca or what she plans to do there, but once she arrives at her hotel and signs in, she discovers that someone has stolen her backpack while she has been pre-occupied. Missing are her laptop, wallet, credit cards, all her cash, her camera, and toiletries. The novel speeds along on the strength of the comic scenes, combined with enough thought-provoking thematic material to keep the reader engaged. Fun!

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