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Category Archive for 'Literary'

“If our mother had ever thought to phone us from wherever she was, we would no doubt have lied cautiously and said everything was fine, not mentioning the strangers who happened to be crowding into the house at that moment. They did not in any way resemble a normal family, not even a beached Swiss Family Robinson. The house felt more like a night zoo, with moles and jackdaws and shambling beasts who happened to be chess players, a gardener, a possible greyhound thief, a slow moving opera singer…”

As Nathaniel Williams, age fourteen, makes these comments to the reader, he is dealing with the absence of both of his parents as World War II and the aftermath of the blitz are paramount in England. His father has purportedly been promoted to take over the Asian office of a business. His mother, who plans to join him, stays behind with the children in London for the summer, sharing stories with Nathaniel and his sixteen-year-old sister Rachel about her early life growing up in rural Suffolk. When the school year is about to start again in September, their mother disappears, supposedly for Singapore to meet their father. The children remain behind with an assortment of characters like those mentioned in the opening quotation. Who these people really are and what they have done during the war become the main questions for the rest of the novel, as Ondaatje explores who we are, how we interpret our pasts, and what we can do about our futures.

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Light-hearted, full of fun, and set in exotic Casablanca, this novel by Vendela Vida may be just the thing to provide smiles and delighted “ah-ha” moments for anyone looking for a break. At the same time, it is a book which develops many variations on the theme of identity, all of which, while not exactly realistic, are still plausible and easy to envision in one’s own life under especially stressful conditions. With a smile in her voice, the author introduces an unnamed main character whose imaginative ruminations, spur-of-the-moment decisions, and panicked thoughts as she sees her life falling apart become those of the reader. Using the second person point of view in which every thought and action which takes place is described as belonging to “you,” the author introduces her main character in a time of great stress. The reader does not know, at first, why the main character has decided to come to Casablanca or what she plans to do there, but once she arrives at her hotel and signs in, she discovers that someone has stolen her backpack while she has been pre-occupied. Missing are her laptop, wallet, credit cards, all her cash, her camera, and toiletries. The novel speeds along on the strength of the comic scenes, combined with enough thought-provoking thematic material to keep the reader engaged. Fun!

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Written in 2007, this collection of twelve short stories by Irish author William Trevor, whom Michael Dirda in the Washington Post once described as “the best short story writer alive,” will restore a reader’s belief in the supreme ability of some writers to capture reality at a very specific moment, allowing all the subtle complications and emotional connotations to evolve for the reader. Trevor sees his characters for the ordinary, flawed people they are as they face seemingly ordinary problems sometimes made more complex by their own decisions made hurriedly, without concern for the possible complications. Major themes of love and loss, guilt and innocence, and good and evil, join with issues of sin and repentance, and selfishness and unselfishness to provide some serious insights within stories which are perfect in their style and structure. Trevor’s characters, their place, and their times come to life, regardless of their ages and their social positions, and the complications in their lives are ones which readers will understand and appreciate. This reader agrees completely with the New York Times Book Review (for an earlier collection, A Bit on the Side) that Trevor’s story collections are “treasures of gorgeous writing, brilliant dialogue, and unforgettable lives.” Reading this collection will restore one’s belief that truly great writing still exists, even in these days of the tweet and the sound bite.

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Each new book by Jane Gardam is an homage to her own love of ink. Though a small number of other fine authors may come close to her in terms of prizes, awards, and even titles bestowed by Queen Elizabeth, Jane Gardam may stands out among them for the sheer joy of writing which is so obvious in her novels. In The Flight of the Maidens, Jane Gardam is clearly having fun, and no matter how beautifully crafted her characters, how clever her use of irony, how accurate and often unique her descriptions, and how much empathy she may show for those who are having problems coping with the uncertainties of life, it is the “smile” which appears in her work which many of us love and celebrate. The Flight of the Maidens, written originally in 2000 and recently republished by Europa Editions, begins in 1946, as Britain begins its recovery after World War II, a time in which women’s issues began to become better recognized. Three young women, all aged seventeen, prepare for college during the summer and grow up in important ways.

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In 1984 twelve-year-old Pietro Guasti and his parents arrive in Grana, a quiet mountain village in northern Italy between Turin and Milan. Both parents love climbing the mountains, and though his father, who is at heart a loner, routinely climbs to the peaks of the higher mountains which attract him. Grana, a tiny farming village, has been losing its population, but it is adjacent to Monte Rosa, a well-known climbing location, which makes it attractive as a vacation site, far different from Pietro’s home in Milan. Pietro becomes fast friends almost instantly with Bruno Guglielmina, a local youth his age who is in charge of his family’s cows. Together they explore the mountain, the abandoned farms, a former school, and other places testifying to the decline of the village economy but fascinating for the images they conjure for the boys. The action throughout is quiet and thought-provoking, leaving the reader to sort through the various subplots and what they mean to both Pietro and Bruno as they try to find personal, emotional success – a sense of achievement based on effort and care for others. As this coming-of-age novel expands its themes and its characters, some face a future which they may not have been expecting. A surprising and very satisfying novel certain to appeal to those who appreciate understated, leisurely writing with much of value to say, and certainly to book clubs.

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