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Category Archive for 'Literary'

With an introduction written by Jhumpa Lahiri, Domenico Starnone’s TIES gets a warm endorsement for this short but densely thematic novel about the ties and connections among four members of one family after the father decides to leave home to live with a much younger woman. Following the family through three plot sections which move from the children’s early childhood until the parents are in their 70s and the children in their 40s, the novel deals with the fact that we can put into “boxes” many aspects of our past and sometimes our present, but our ability to keep those boxes closed and “tied” depends on our emotional health and determination. Additional themes are concerned with aging, with making commitments, with planning for the future (as opposed to living for the moment), with how we define love and its connection to freedom, and with our search for contentment and whether it can be construed as a kind of love, adding density to the themes. Even the relationship between parents and children and how those are tied by a complex relationship that involves elements of both love and obligation is illustrated here. Though this novel is short, it feels much longer and much broader, without becoming tedious or turning into an allegory. Starnone, aided by his sensitive translator, makes every word count in this domestic novel of big ideas, and he keeps the story exciting at the same time.

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British author Andrew Miller creates a unique novel, one which breaks all the “rules” of structure, character, and plot but still manages to engage and involve the reader. In The Crossing, Miller maintains the clean prose and stunning descriptions for which he has always been noted, but here he accomplishes the nearly impossible feat of keeping the main character herself a mystery for the entire novel, a person with seemingly no personality or observable feelings for other people and no commitment to those around her, a “heroine” who is in no way heroic. Following a serious accident to Maud Stamp, main character, while she and Tim Rathbone are both working to restore a boat, as members of the university sailing club, Tim brings Maud to her apartment. In this first part, a domestic drama, Maud and Tim eventually set up housekeeping in a small house near his parents, and she remains committed to her job doing medical research out of town while he works on a concerto at home. Years pass, and gradual changes occur in their lives. Then a horrific accident upsets their world. Maud’s response is to take the boat which she and Tim have restored, a Nicholson 32, and set out to sea. This middle part of the novel is an exciting adventure story of Maud against nature as she battles huge storms at sea while heading south in the Atlantic from England, emulating a heroine, Nicolette Milnes Walker. She eventually lands somewhere in South America and is found by orphan children living in a kind of religious commune, adding a symbolic element to the novel which introduces some feelings to Maud. The conclusion may leave readers thinking about all the possible meanings of the ending.

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In 1874, the island of Tasmania, one hundred fifty miles off the southeast coast of Australia, is boiling with rage. Once a penal colony filled with the hardest criminals, and the site of almost total genocide of the original aboriginal inhabitants by the British, Tasmania, in 1874, is a seething cauldron of hungry men and the toughest of women, many of them homeless, trying to survive the only way they know – by using whatever weapons they have at hand to gain what they need to stay alive. The action and points of view alternate among William Toosey, age twelve, and the life he is leading after his mother’s death; Thomas Toosey, his estranged father, who is trying to reach his son William from another part of the island so he can help him; Fitheal Flynn and a “hooded man” who are trying to get back the money that Toosey has stolen from them; and Beatty and Webster, the local constables who are trying to capture any and all of them. Additional connections between Toosey and Fitheal Flynn and his hooded accomplice explain why Flynn’s hatred of Toosey is so visceral and unyielding and why he is willing to fight Toosey to the death. One more character, Jane Eleanor Hall, whose head is shaved and is thought, at first, to be a man, adds to the complexities and mysterious identities when she finds Flynn and his companion hiding in her house and offers to help them find Toosey if they pay her for her help. As in other gothic novels, the action here comes fast and furious, with elaborate descriptions bringing it alive, and violence the usual result of interactions of characters. Interestingly, the “hero” here, young William Toosey, and the anti-hero, Thomas Toosey, are from the same family and have some love for each other, adding a humanizing, if not sentimental, touch.

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Escaping the Great Famine in Ireland, Thomas McNulty, a boy in his mid-teens and the only survivor of his family, hopes for a new start in a new world. Sneaking onto a boat for Canada with other starving Irish, many of whom die on board, he discovers, upon his arrival, that “Canada was a-feared of us…We were only rats of people. Hunger takes away what you are.” Seeing no future there, he travels, eventually, to the US, working his way to Missouri, where he then meets John Cole, another orphan boy of his own age, whose great-grandmother was an Indian. They connect instantly, and “for the first time I felt like a human person.” Realizing that they have a better chance of surviving together than they would have separately, they figure out a way to keep working until they are old enough to enlist in the U.S. Army. Once in the Army, they end up in northern California, where recent settlers have been having trouble with the Yurok Indians, native to those lands. After fighting in the Indian Wars, they end up fighting in the Civil War. Sebastian Barry, a writer with almost unparalleled ability to control his characters, his story line, his style, and the peaks and valleys of the changing moods of his novel, succeeds brilliantly in this novel, already the winner of the Costa Award in the UK, and likely to be winner of several more major prizes, as well. Barry makes everything real in a novel which Kazuo Ishiguro describes as “the most fascinating line-by-line first-person narration I’ve come across in years,” and which Donal Ryan calls “a beautiful, savage, tender, searing work of art. Sentence after perfect sentence, it grips and does not let go.” #1 on my Favorites List for 2017.

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South Korean author Han Kang recreates May, 1980, as students and others rebel against military rule following the assassination of dictator Park Chung-hee. Developing a circular narrative of six overlapping chapters, she depicts vibrant, realistic characters who participate in the rebellion and overlap and reappear in each other’s narratives, revealing different points of view of the action they have observed. Han’s prodigious descriptive skills are more than equal to the task of describing the one-sided warfare between naïve young men and their heavily armed opponents, but she also sees this action in broad thematic terms taking it beyond the themes of her previous novel, The Vegetarian. Here she delves deeply into the questions raised in the review’s opening quotation on whether human beings are fundamentally cruel and whether cruelty, with its damage and degradation, is the only thing we share with each other as a species. Is cruelty, in fact, the “essential fate” of mankind and is it inevitable, she asks. Han’s work takes an emotional toll, but every detail works, and no detail is gratuitous. Ultimately, she recreates the turmoil and human cost of more than two decades of Korean history, and she does it in a mere two hundred pages.

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