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Category Archive for 'Literary'

For those who have always seen Edgar Degas’s most famous ballerina statue as a sweet, romantic symbol combining dreams of the past with dreams of the present, this study of the model, the artist, and the environment in which the sculpture was created may be a shock. Author Camille Laurens spent over two years doing research on this sculpture and its little model as part of her PhD. thesis, and she became totally consumed with the little dancer’s victimization. In 1880, the girl who became the model for the sculpture, Marie van Goethem, was the fourteen-year-old child of Belgian immigrants, unschooled and working as a “little rat” in the Paris Opera, a child in training for the corps de ballet and earning almost no money. Harsh reality comes alive as Marie is needed by her family to help support them, and she eventually follows in the footsteps of her older sister, accepting a modeling job with Edgar Degas, in addition to working at the ballet. When Degas finally exhibits “Little Dancer” in 1881, it is a shock to viewers and critics. No one likes it – for many reasons – discussed in detail by the author. Ultimately, she feels sorry for the little dancer, and decides to do additional research on her life. Fascinating story of an intriguing sculpture by an author who has “done her homework.”

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I am especially fond of Japanese novels for their quiet power, restraint, and careful structure, and I was looking forward to this one, written by a Japanese woman but focusing on characters who have immigrated to Australia, with its totally different culture and completely different language. Iwaki Kei, the Japanese author, knows all about this, having first gone to Australia herself twenty years ago when she was a recent college graduate. She has stayed there with her expatriate Japanese husband ever since, an eventuality which I expected would give much added insight into cultural adaptation, perhaps also including an overlay of analysis into how the differences between cultures affect every aspect of the lives of immigrants. What I found was completely different – surprising, even shocking at first, but which made this, ultimately one of the most intriguing and original debut novels I have read in years, as a Nigerian war refugee and a Japanese scholar both find themselves together in an ESL class in Australia, where they both learn more about life than pronunciation and grammar.

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Jamel Brinkley, author of this extraordinary debut collection of stories, is much more than “a lucky man” in having this collection published by Graywolf, one of the most respected literary publishing houses in the country.  Brinkley’s literary talents and his insights into people – all kinds of people of various backgrounds and ages – kept me spellbound for the entire time I spent reading and rereading these stories.  I am not young, black, male, or the resident of a city, as these characters are.  I have not experienced (or do not remember) most of the kinds of events which Brinkley’s characters experience as normal – growing up in a broken home, having few resources for dealing with the turmoil of the teen years, struggling with responsibilities which would be challenging even for an adult, and living a life in which “betrayal on the cellular level” is complicated by surprising naivete regarding love and sex, expectations and reality, and issues of identity and reputation.  Still, as the young male characters of the nine stories here live their lives as well as they can, given their ages and limitations, they achieve a kind of universality which cannot help but touch the heart of the reader as s/he connects with these characters on a deeply personal level.

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George Washington Black, a young slave born in 1818, tells his life story – as much as he knows of it – beginning when he is eleven, a boy living on the sprawling Faith Plantation in Barbados. His master has just died, and he and Big Kit, the slave woman who watches over him, know nothing about the person who will take his master’s place. Wash, as he is known, is an orphan with no family, a person without a “real” name, known only by the slave name assigned to him by a master who is also in charge of every other aspect of his life – and his death. When the new master arrives from England a few months later, he is everyone’s worst nightmare. Canadian author Esi Edugyan does not dwell on the sadism of the master and the horrors he wreaks for long. She is far more committed to telling the story of “Wash,” whom we learn through a flashback in the first few pages, is a survivor, one who at eighteen is officially a Freeman. What unfolds in the ensuing three hundred pages is Wash’s story, a monument to the human spirit and what it takes for someone who has never known freedom or had the opportunity to make his own decisions to learn how to survive in an alien world. This is a dramatic and powerful study of slavery and its effects on people whose lives are what they are completely by the accident of their birth.

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LOVE IS BLIND, British author William Boyd’s thrilling new novel, reflects the kinds of excitements, revelations, and atmosphere so common to the great Russian romances of the nineteenth century. Partially set in St Petersburg, this is a big, broad, romantic story which moves around the world as Brodie Moncur, a Scottish piano tuner, becomes totally consumed by his love for a married woman and follows his love throughout Europe. Certain to appeal to those looking for well written literary excitement and fast-paced action, the novel will also appeal to those with a fondness for Russian novels.

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