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Category Archive for 'Historical'

Having given up his thesis on “Jewish Views of Jesus,” young Israeli student Shmuel Ash needs a job and a place to live. On the college bulletin board, he finds a notice advertising a job for a Humanities student willing to spend five hours each evening chatting with a seventy-year-old invalid who craves company. The notice indicates that the employer will provide housing for the person who accepts this job, but the new employee will have to agree to have no visitors and to keep confidential everything he learns about his employers. With nothing to lose, Shmuel accepts the job. As Oz develops the stories of these mysterious people and how they are connected, he also establishes deep-seated theological and historical conflicts which continue to plague the world, especially the Middle East, to the present day. What begins as a highly descriptive novel of the real world quickly blossoms into a grand exploration of the ideas and theological beliefs which are the bedrock of Christianity and Judaism, their history and cultures – a novel “writ large” in the best possible meaning of those words. Though the book is dense, it is also enlivening, and for an American audience, it provides historical context for some of the issues between the US and Israel in the present. The religious subject matter, new to me, was stunning, and the connections between desire and error, and betrayal and vengeance, seen throughout, have never seemed so small.

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In a novel which is both emotionally intimate and broad in its scope and thematic impact, this debut novel by twenty-six-year-old Ya’a Gyasi, formerly of Ghana, truly deserves its description as an “epic.” The young recipient of NPR’s Debut Novel of the Year last year for Homegoing, the much lauded Gyasi was today awarded the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize for Best Debut Novel of 2016, for this same novel. Opening her novel in the mid-1700s, Gyasi recreates the tumult of what is now Ghana as the Fante tribes from the coastal area and the Asante (Ashanti) tribes from inland constantly battle each other for power, a task complicated by the fact that the British have occupied the coastal areas so that they can manage the lucrative shipping of slaves to America. Anyone captured by an enemy soldier, of either tribe, is destined to be sold to the British for export. The opening chapters introduce the first of eight generations as reflected in the lives of two families: the descendants of the beautiful Effia, born in Fanteland, and the descendants of Esi, her half-sister, an Asante royal whom she does not know. While Effia strikes the fancy of James Collins, governor of the colony, who marries her and brings her to the Cape Coast Castle where he lives and works, Esi is shipped to America, living out the sad history of slavery and its aftermath. Gyasi incorporates elements common to great, majestic novels within this highly compressed epic of black lives and struggles. Folk stories, legends which evolve about some characters, the fears created by dreams and vague family memories, and the persistent drive to be successful while lacking a true understanding of themselves and their past make this novel “speak” to a modern audience, regardless of race or color.

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One of tcover coelho spyhe legends of World War I, Mata Hari has been, for over a hundred years, a symbol of mystery, excitement, and danger. Her exotic life and her eventual fate – an early morning execution by a firing squad of French soldiers on October 15, 1917 – has always felt somehow “deserved” by a woman who so craved attention that she publicly flouted every norm of society in order to develop a reputation as an erotic dancer and lover, and who was finally declared a spy by the French government. Fearless in her private life and pragmatic enough to realize, as she was approaching age forty, that she was not as supple – or as slim – as she once had been, she eventually accepted a six month contract to perform in Berlin in 1916, seeing this change of location as an opportunity for new rewards and wider opportunities. The big question raised by this novel is whether her various liaisons in Germany and France provided her with opportunities to share real secrets or whether she was merely a scapegoat, conveying the society gossip of the day, as she has claimed. When she left Germany precipitously in an attempt to return to Paris in 1917, the French declared her a German spy trying to re-enter. Whether this is true has never been fully answered, though this author has some suggestions.

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In this dramatic and thought-provoking novel, Edmundo Paz Soldan, a Bolivian writer, displays his enormous gifts of both narrative and character development while also examining serious themes and social and psychological problems. Creating three characters from three different time periods, all of whom are native to Mexico or South America and all of whom are in the US for various reasons and for various periods of time, Paz Soldan explores their lives and creates comparisons and contrasts before making connections among them. Jesus, a young man from Northern Mexico in 1984, is a boy/man who responds impulsively to situations as they arise in his life and does not hesitate to be violent. In contrast to Jesus, Michelle, a graduate student in South Texas who appears as the second main character, is working hard to establish herself as a writer/cartoonist working on a comic book about a librarian with special powers who is bent on revenge. The third main character is Martin Ramirez, living illegally in Stockton, California, in 1931, trying to pay off some debts and help his family back in Mexico by working as a migrant worker. Paz Soldan rotates the action through these three characters’ lives, developing themes as he goes, and the reader cannot help but become involved both in the action of their lives and in the psychological crises they face. All are dealing with issues of identity and a sense of belonging/ . One becomes a killer. Throughout the novel, the author shows the inner conflicts of people who are from one country but live in another, exploring their personal predicaments, their sense of displacement or their sense of hope.

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Within a swirling time frame and several settings which change suddenly through unexpected flashbacks, Italian author Erri De Luca creates a character whose life breathes with subdued passion and the tragedy of sudden terror. Now fifty, the unnamed speaker is working as a gardener/landscaper on a large estate in Italy owned by Mimmo, a filmmaker, someone the speaker knew when they were youths in Turin. Leading a solitary life, the speaker is surprised one evening when an attractive younger woman flirts with him while she is eating lunch with another man at a tavern. After she’s gone, he plans what he might say if he were to see her again. He has had little social contact with other people in recent years, using his gardening skills and his connection with nature for his satisfaction – “caring more about it than about people.” For twenty years he lived in Argentina, participating in the “dirty war” there, “days filled with trouble, ruined by death that tears away clumps of us folks, stuffs thousands of the living, freshly plucked, into its sack.” As he tries to sort out his life, the reader learns of his marriage there, his traumas, and his wandering life since then, and as the speaker contemplates the meaning of his present condition, the novel works its way up to a grand climax and startling finale. Themes related to life and death, war and peace, fear and commitment, and responsibility and self-preservation combine to affect the conclusion. Erri De Luca has been described by Milan’s daily newspaper Corriere della Serra as “the only true first-rate writer that the new millennium has given us for now.”

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