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Category Archive for 'Historical'

Just when you might think Maurizio de Giovanni’s Neapolitan mystery series cannot get much better, he outdoes himself, building on everything he has been doing in the past seven novels in this series and creating this one, further developing the most delightful aspects of his characters and their relationships to date, and adding to them in complex ways which I suspect every fan will celebrate. In this novel, author Maurizio de Giovanni retains all the characters and relationships which fans of the series already delight in, and his sense of humor is more obvious here than it is in several of his previous novels. Though the nature of the murder in question (that of a loan shark), its victim and killer, and the motivations for it are well developed, many readers will become more interested in the psychological and social interactions of the characters than in the mystery itself, a situation common in de Giovanni’s work. De Giovanni, consummately aware of the need to provide background information to new readers, dedicates a page or two to each of the major players, and In the course of the novel, several favorite characters also make the equivalent of “guest appearances,” including Dr. Modo, the irreverent coroner who will say anything, the transvestite prostitute Bambinella, who often serves as an informant, and Don Pierino, the tiny priest from I Will Have Vengeance, the first novel in the series, who becomes a counselor both for Enrica’s father and for Commissario Ricciardi. Great fun.

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The author of eight previous novels, many of which have been nominated for international prizes, Abdulrazak Gurnah, from Zanzibar, specializes in novels which reflect a sense of alienation and loss as a person living, first, under the British colonial rule of his country, then later living under Zanzibar’s revolutionary rule after a coup following independence, and finally living in Britain itself. His characters often reflect similar dislocations, growing up and living without the pride one expects for the place where they grew up or much sense of belonging elsewhere within the world order. Sometimes at a loss and uncertain what will happen next politically, they may be unsure of how to go about traversing the multitude of competing influences on their lives and on the people they love. In this novel Gurnah examines these feelings through the life of Salim, a young man whose early childhood is upended when his father inexplicably leaves his mother and the home Salim thought was happy, and moves elsewhere, while his mother begins to spend time with another man. Salim’s alienation becomes more complicated as time passes. Gradually, the contrast between the life Salim thought he was living and life as it has become emerges more clearly. His father, who used to be a clerk for the Water Authority finds work in a market stall or just sits in his room after the separation. When real life at home becomes far more complicated for Salim, he readily accepts his uncle Amir’s offer of a chance to attend school in London, the place he lives for the next seven years, one which is not home, though Zanzibar no longer is home, either. Straightforward, honest, and filled with observations about alienation and the need for belonging.

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Having announced that this book will not be a “costume drama,” author Fay Weldon sets her story between 1922 and 1939, the period between the two world wars. While this is not a pure drawing room comedy, neither is it a story of postwar darkness – a story of families dealing with the deaths of their fathers and sons and the difficulties in supporting their families. Here Weldon’s characters are the elite and educated survivors from that Edwardian period, which shaped their thinking, behavior, and pocketbooks and which has left them out of touch with the real world as they now live in the war’s aftermath. Both satiric and ironic, the plot proves also to be very funny and cleverly revealing of social values. Sir Jeremy Ripple now runs a publishing house but likes to think of himself as a communist. Angela, his wife, the granddaughter of a Princess and niece of an Earl, is the money behind his company, and she still adheres to all the habits and behaviors of the upper class. Only Vivvie, their daughter, “large, ungainly five foot eleven inches tall, and twenty years old,” seems to have much realization of how the world works – and her conclusion is that small, pretty girls are the ones lucky in love. When Vivvie decides to propose marriage to a Douglas Fairbanks look-alike, the action begins, and it never quits. One of Fay Weldon’s best books to date.

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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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Beginning this novel in 1937, Junichiro Tanizaki (1886 – 1965), one of Japan’s most accomplished novelists, takes a new direction in this novel, his last. Here he describes the lives and cultures of a succession of Japanese house maids in a financially successful household. The novel’s time frame, 1937 – 1962, is obviously a time in which Japan faced some of its most dramatic changes and these changes, as described by Tanizaki, were at least as dramatic sociologically as they were historically during this period. The class system was being dismantled, local languages and dialects were changing, movement from the countryside to the city and back was becoming relatively common, and a sense of independence among young women was emerging. Tanizaki saw it all, and while a previous novel, The Makioka Sisters, focused on those who lived comfortable lives, this novel focuses on those who helped make the lives of those people as comfortable as they were. These were the people who saw and dealt with the greatest changes – the maids who lived “below stairs,” as translator Michael P. Cronin describes them in his Afterword. In this novel, which was published in installments in a Japanese newspaper in 1962, his purpose seems to have been, instead, to seize the opportunity to talk to his readers about the changes to Japanese society that he has noted over the past twenty-five years. While this is often intriguing and even fascinating, new readers to Tanizaki will want to start with one of the other Tanizaki novels previously reviewed on this site.

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