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Category Archive for 'Literary'

This magnificent, accessible, humane, and thoughtful book by Alice McDermott concerns itself with the highest levels of universality for all people, not specifically the Catholic doctrine which sometimes permeates her novels. Following three generations of a single family, the novel opens with a handsome, thirty-two-year-old man named Jim, who sends his wife out to buy food one afternoon, then seals up the flat, turns on the gas, and kills himself in a fiery explosion. His pregnant wife is left devastated. She goes on to work in the laundry of the convent of sisters who have helped her, as the novel goes back and forth in time. Throughout the novel, as the past and present are revealed, the action keeps the reader totally engaged, but it also keeps the reader thinking, pondering decisions and outcomes and the position of the church in evaluating right and wrong. Here she treats the grand subjects of life and death, innocence and guilt, voluntary good works rather than unavoidable obligations, the rewards, if any, which come from leading a “good” life, the penances one self-imposes for actions which feel like crimes, and the decisions one sometimes makes with the most honorable of intentions, even though they may violate the boundaries most of us consider sacred.

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Set in the aftermath of World War II in the southwestern countryside outside of Oslo, Gaute Heivoll’s emotionally engrossing novel involves big themes, a sense of involvement by the reader, and some lingering questions at the end. The novel draws its action from life in an extended family, where both the mother and father, parents of the unnamed young narrator, once worked as nurses and caregivers at a psychiatric hospital for eleven years. When the father’s old family home in the country burned to the ground before the war, the parents looked on the bright side and decided to rebuild, creating “their own little asylum in the midst of the parish where Papa was born and grew up.” Starting with three adults, they later add five disabled children from the same family. The five Olsen children range in age from Lilly, age seventeen, to Sverre, age four, and all live together in one spacious upstairs room of the home asylum. The writing is remarkably simple in style and often lacks elaboration. As the reader fills in the blanks, his/her involvement with the novel becomes even stronger. The book has little real plot, other than the daily lives of these people, yet I could hardly put it down, wanting to know whether the characters will find happiness, despite some of the complications and tragedies in their lives. Ultimately, the reader cannot help but be drawn in by the force of the writing and the emotions the author creates on the subject of what it means to be human.

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Patrick Modiano establishes the tone and many of the themes for this often dream-like collection of interconnected stories, filled with mysteries and riddles, by setting the story at a school much like the one he himself attended. Nobel Prize-winner Modiano also saw almost nothing of either of his parents from the time he was a child until he was in his early twenties, when he went out on his own. His father, a smuggler of food and weapons from Africa and South America to the French Gestapo in Nazi-occupied France, had made a fortune, and his mother, an actress often out of the country, had no time for her sons, leaving them to be brought up with no sense of home by surrogates – at one point a group of circus acrobats who lived near a falling-down chateau. Modiano has spent his life since then recreating his early life in his novels and raising questions about it, including details from many aspects of his life. This is the first of his novels that I have seen which concentrates on his time at an elite boys’ boarding school, a school in which most of the other boys were also on their own, isolated from their busy parents and prevented from growing up in a home of love and attention. Overlapping stories of ten alums show the results of their schooling as time passes, and many of them are as lost and purposeless as adults as they were as teenagers. Memory and identity and its connection to these formative years become major themes.

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During his Fulbright Program in Egypt, beginning in 2009, debut novelist Ian Basingthwaighte had personal, daily contact with the horrors of displaced families – not just Egyptians but throughout the Middle East – as they flooded Cairo seeking help from the legal aid organization in which he worked helping refugees. Each day, he saw their scars and heard their stories as they left their homes, and often their families, to flee for their lives and the lives of their children. Unfortunately, getting to Cairo, often by foot, the goal of most of these refugees, does not guarantee the solutions they seek, no matter how much they are willing to give up. As the Liaison for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees points out in the opening quotation of this review, the size of the crisis is just too great. Setting his book in 2011, just after the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the student revolt in Tahrir Square, which students hoped would change the nature of Egyptian government, Basingthwaighte creates a moving and absorbing novel of the human costs borne by innocent victims of the religious and political strife throughout the Middle East. Bassingthwaighte has created a big novel with important themes and information about a world crisis within an intimate novel in which real human beings do the best they can and with the best of intentions. Exciting, enlightening, and very human. It actually feels “Live from Cairo.”

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In what may be the best debut novel I have ever read, Irish author Karl Geary creates fully developed characters, a variety of moods, an atmosphere of intense caring, and the sad and often unavoidable events that all people face as they make the sometimes naïve decisions that ultimately allow them to grow into adulthood. His main character, Sonny Knolls, a Dublin boy in his mid-teens, comes from a large family, with a father addicted to gambling, a mother who has so many sons and so little money that she does not know how to deal with it all, and five older brothers who sometimes feel that they can celebrate their own sense of independence by exercising control over Sonny’s life. Sonny, working part-time as a butcher’s apprentice and part-time doing house repairs with his father, would like the opportunity to become a painter – a painter of pictures, not the house painter that his insensitive school teacher has assumed – if only he had a choice. His work for Vera, a wealthy woman on Montpelier Parade, introduces him to many aspects of life that he has never seen before, and his attraction to Sharon Burke, a long-time friend, provide him with some lessons in making connections. Vulnerable at home, at school, and in all his relationships, Sonny tries to learn on his own, but his innocence and his lack of certainty about who he is and what he can do, leave him vulnerable on many counts. This book goes way beyond the ordinary and into the realm of the truly memorable.

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