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Category Archive for 'Book Club Suggestions'

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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Author Hiromi Kawakami, for all her prizes and prize nominations, also wins hearts and creates smiles with her off-beat and surprising novels. With an ability to create characters who are sometimes so ordinary that they become interesting, she puts her characters into new situations in which they, with their limited personal and emotional resources, live their lives in full sight of us all. Unpretentious and casual, her main character here, Hitomi Suganuma works as a cashier at the Nakano Thrift Shop, where she sometimes has only half a dozen customers a day. She has plenty of time to observe those around her, to think about their lives, and to contemplate her own future. Fun and funny, the novel that results is almost as unfocused as Hitomi is, lying halfway between a novel and a collection of interrelated short stories, and it all works. The character portraits are unforgettable as author Kawakami brings them to life in ways that will surprise those readers who think of the Japanese as formal and reserved. The characters here are unafraid to say what they think, to be sexy and uninhibited while remaining polite, and to be independent in their lifestyles.

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A purple swamp hen from the famed mural of Pompeii is the speaker of the first story in this collection of short stories by Penelope Lively. As the hen describes, the garden was unlike anything any of us have ever known, hosting “fornication, incest, rape, child abuse, grievous bodily harm – and that’s just Quintus Pompeius, his household, and his associates.” And, the hen states, the humans were far more imaginative than the fauna, which “simply got on with the business of copulation and reproduction.” Clearly establishing the satiric tone of this and many other stories in her new story collection, her first in almost two decades, author Penelope Lively continues to prove that great writing – elegant, precise, completely attuned to nuance, and committed to using exactly the right word and not one word more – still exists for lovers of fine prose. She further shows that fine writing need not be stuffy or effete, that humor is an integral part of life, and that satire may be more effective in conveying ideas than polemics and criticism. Best of all, she shows that stories, though short, may convey big ideas and that collections of stories may represent different times and different forms and still develop a broad thematic unity within the collection.

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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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Julie Lekstrom Himes, in Mikhail and Margarita, writes an enthralling companion book honoring one of her favorite novels, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. In HImes’s novel, Mikhail and Margarita, Bulgakov himself is a sympathetic main character. Himes, like Bulgakov, a physician and writer, has traveled in Russia, and has spent a year doing research for this book, and seven years writing it. The resulting novel, remarkable in its ability to bring author Mikhail Bulgakov and his times fully to life for the reader, recreates Bulgakov’s “thoughts” so effectively that the reader feels as if the author has inserted actual autobiographical commentary. The story of a romantic triangle, the novel stars features Bulgakov himself; Margarita, an attractive younger woman; and Ilya Ivanovich, an official in Stalin’s dictatorship. Many overlaps with Bulgakov’s own novel, this novel develops at an extraordinary pace, both thematically and dramatically. Serious, well developed, and consummately literary, this is one of the outstanding books of the year.

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