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Category Archive for 'United States'

Jamel Brinkley, author of this extraordinary debut collection of stories, is much more than “a lucky man” in having this collection published by Graywolf, one of the most respected literary publishing houses in the country.  Brinkley’s literary talents and his insights into people – all kinds of people of various backgrounds and ages – kept me spellbound for the entire time I spent reading and rereading these stories.  I am not young, black, male, or the resident of a city, as these characters are.  I have not experienced (or do not remember) most of the kinds of events which Brinkley’s characters experience as normal – growing up in a broken home, having few resources for dealing with the turmoil of the teen years, struggling with responsibilities which would be challenging even for an adult, and living a life in which “betrayal on the cellular level” is complicated by surprising naivete regarding love and sex, expectations and reality, and issues of identity and reputation.  Still, as the young male characters of the nine stories here live their lives as well as they can, given their ages and limitations, they achieve a kind of universality which cannot help but touch the heart of the reader as s/he connects with these characters on a deeply personal level.

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In Some Trick, a collection of thirteen thoughtful and challenging stories, author Helen DeWitt calls to mind a mood similar to that of her first published novel, The Last Samurai, published in 2000. Short-listed for the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Award, The Last Samurai tells the story of a single mother, Sybilla, as she brings up her genius son Ludo. DeWitt had written fifty novels before she felt comfortable enough with The Last Samurai to submit it for publication, and it was a ground-breaking literary success when it was published in 2000. Lightning Rods, her second novel, eleven years later, was a similar critical success, though less popular. Some Trick examines difficult issues about writing, publishing, an artist’s relationships with the public, the involvement of agents and representatives who sometimes distort an artist’s goals in the name of sales, the dependence of creative scholars on outsiders for professional survival, and the lonely life of a creative artist who will never be fully understood. The stories, darkly satiric and sometimes eerie or bizarre, are also heady, intense, concentrated, and often difficult, and the overall intellectualism of the collection is so weighty that readers unfamiliar with DeWitt would do well to read the more charming and character-driven The Last Samurai first. Some Trick, read leisurely, is a fascinating encore for those, who crave more.

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Tommy Orange, a Native American author, describes the contemporary culture of the Urban Indian, one who does not live on a reservation or in the countryside, but in the middle of cities, in this case, Oakland, California. Orange is especially interested showing the need for a unifying Indian culture and the fact that urban areas are totally different from any previous centers of Native American culture. Using twelve characters moving back and forth across three generations, he tells the interconnected stories of these people, the tragedies, the horrors of their lives, their frequent reliance on drugs and alcohol, and their difficulties continuing a culture which may not adapt well to twenty-first century urban life. All these characters come together in the final section, “Powwow,” which emphasizes their various relationships, some of them quite innocent, others not, as a dramatic and powerful ending unfolds.

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On the night before an auction of world-class paintings, thirty-something Matt Santos gets permission to spend the night at the auction house “saying goodbye” to “Budapest Street Scene,” painted in 1925 by Hungarian artist Ervin Kalman. Although Matt is considered the owner of the painting, he has, in fact, just recently learned about his connection to the painting as part of the on-going repatriation efforts made for paintings stolen by the Nazis. Author Mark Sarvas involves the reader from the outset of Memento Park as Matt spends a long night delving into memories going back three generations, considering whether they reflect truth or merely his interpretation of it based on his own experience. At the same time he also reflects on his present life in Los Angeles, where he has been working as a “reliable, drama-free,” B-list actor and living with his model fiancée, who spends her free time working on social causes. Ultimately, Matt relives his very recent trip to Budapest, describing what he has learned about the artist, and exploring his own Jewish roots for the first time. Staring at the painting in the auction house, he admits, “I find myself wondering yet again how I could have failed for so long to see this painting for what it is, a rotted memory, an epitaph to everything I thought I knew.” For the reader, it is equally an epitaph on the self-centered, disconnected life Matt Santos has been living to date. As he shares his life and thoughts with the reader, the novel develops into a complex personal story, at the same time that it is also a story filled with mysteries.

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In this fascinating, involving, often hypnotizing novel, Spanish author Antonio Munoz Molina creates a compelling story from several points of view and several different time periods, revolving around the life of James Earl Ray and his eventual murder of Martin Luther King in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Munoz Molina gives Ray’s story a different slant from purely journalistic accounts, concentrating on his life, his past, and his thoughts, and culminating in his two escapes – the first time in 1967, a year before the assassination, when he escapes from a Missouri prison and moves throughout the US and Canada for months, eventually living in Mexico. Leaving Mexico in November, 1967, he returns to the US, supports the Presidential campaign of George Wallace, has some facial reconstruction surgery, and considers emigrating to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), then under the rule of a white minority. Eventually, he gravitates to Memphis, where he commits the murder of Dr. King and escapes, first to Canada, then to London, Lisbon, and back to London, where he is apprehended. Though Munoz Molina often details the thoughts of James Earl Ray, he uses an unusual third person point of view, combining his journalistic skills regarding events and places with the fictionalized inner personality and emotions of Ray as he lives and travels, providing a kind of literary energy which goes beyond the limits of narrative reporting.

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