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Category Archive for 'Ur – Z'

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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Author C. B. George, a mysterious author who provides no biographical information and no photograph, tells a story of contemporary Zimbabwe, still being ruled after almost thirty-six years by dictator Robert Mugabe, now aged ninety-two. President for over thirty years, he has been a one-party ruler, famed for his appropriation of white-owned lands and their redistribution to black farmers and political allies, the disappearance and death of political enemies, the use of terror, and gross human rights abuses, all to enforce his will and to ensure the retention of his office and his wealth. Author C. B. George, who lives in the UK, according to the book jacket, presents the narratives of three couples who represent different aspects of contemporary life in Zimbabwe, primarily in the capital of Harare. The author’s sense of drama and his ability to pace the narrative to keep the reader continuously involved in the lives of his characters, while simultaneously focusing on the attempts of these people and their families to lead “normal” lives, suggests that he may have a background in television or film. An unusual vision of Zimbabwe, one of the most corrupt nations in the world.

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Though many other writers have written novels about various coups in South America, this story is unusual in that its focus is squarely on the foreign service and the role of its representatives. Not a single scene here reflects the tortures, the murders, or the disappearances which are so traumatizing, and none of the major military leaders responsible for these actions are featured here. This approach works well for people in Brazil, Uruguay, Chile (and eventually Argentina), who are well familiar with the events which have often dramatically affected their own lives, though much of the action in this book will be new to many American readers. The movement back and forth in time over the eventual course of over forty years and several countries is sometimes challenging, and the mysterious Max, a lone wolf, is not someone with whom the reader will identify. Ultimately, the author raises philosophical questions: “In the space of a generation, thousands of people…had been imprisoned, tortured, and killed in the name of priorities long since forgotten. Who would answer…[who] would face a camera to publicly lament what had happened, as Robert McNamara had with respect to the horrors caused by the Vietnam War? What had occurred four decades earlier…remained suspended in time…on a planet deprived of memory.” The author hopes to correct that.

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Already optioned for a miniseries by the producers of Downton Abbey, this novel has everything that will make this projected series a huge, popular success – a young, ingratiating main character who bumbles along as he tries to sort out his life; a woman to whom he becomes inadvertently engaged and who turns out to be a character worthy of great empathy; another woman who has still not recovered from her loss during World War I; and a Welsh setting in 1924 in Narberth, a small, rural town in Pembrokeshire in which everyone knows everyone else’s business. World War I is over, and the many young men from Narberth who were killed in the war have left behind broken hearts, ruined lives, and devastated families. Young men like Wilfred Price, who have not served in battle, have escaped many of the emotional horrors of the war, insulated from this reality because their professions have been considered essential to their community. Readers who yearn for an old-fashioned tale in which time seems to have stopped will cheer this novel which features fully developed characters who yearn for happiness and do what they can to achieve it within the limits of their society, a welcome respite from some of the harsh realities of twenty-first century life – and a story which will lend itself beautifully to a British mini-series centered on the life of a common man, instead of an aristocrat.

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The most detailed and complex novel that author Abdulrazak Gurnah (from Zanzibar) has written on the subjects of immigration and displacement so far, The Last Gift is a multigenerational novel which opens with Abbas, a sixty-three-year-old man whose origins are, at first, unknown, returning to his residence in England after work. A conscientious, driven man, he is also very private, keeping to himself and not sharing his past even with his family. He becomes ill on the way home one extremely cold day, so ill that this proud man “wishes for someone to pick him up and carry him home.” Collapsing, he is taken to the hospital, where, worried, in pain, and thinking he might die, he realizes “that he had left things for too long, as he had known for so many years. There was so much he should have said, but he had allowed the silence to set until it became immovable.” As Abbas tries to gain the courage to reveal his thirty-year-old secrets to his family, the points of view shift among Abbas, his wife Maryam, his daughter Hanna, and his son Jamal, all of whom are trying to discover who they are in the British culture which they find themselves and into which they do not seem to fit. Gurnah stresses the themes of alienation, displacement, escape, guilt, hope, and eventually resolution among the family.

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