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Category Archive for 'Literary'

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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Setting her novel in Jordan, author Siobhan Fallon focuses on Americans who serve abroad in the military, protecting U. S. Embassies, and how cultural differences with their host countries affect their lives. These are subjects that the author knows well. Drawing on her own life in Jordan and her observations and insights about how Americans behave, she creates two characters who act and feel real. Cassie Hugo, who has been in Jordan for two years, and Margaret Brickshaw, who is a new arrival, live near each other, each dealing with her own personal problems unrelated to the setting, but each also hoping that she can find a friend in the other. Cassie is desperate to have a baby but is still childless after nine years. Margaret, a naïve young woman with a new baby, has grown up in a home in which her mother, with a serious, eventually fatal, illness depended on Margaret for virtually all of life’s necessities. Margaret’s unplanned pregnancy and quick, subsequent marriage to Crick Brickshaw, brought her out of the country to Jordan almost simultaneously with her mother’s death. The personal trials and tribulations, both real and imagined, which the two women experience, and the absence of their husbands sometimes for weeks, on trips to the embassies in other countries, leave the women on their own in a foreign culture. Domestic episodes involving love and honor in relationships eventually become broad underlying themes within a multicultural environment, providing much to think about in this well developed and often fascinating novel.

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Though it deals with nothing less than the meaning of existence, the nature of reality, and ultimately, a search for the legendary “City of Dreams,” which has haunted the lives of writers and philosophers for centuries, Found Audio is also great fun. Debut author N. J. Campbell makes his own rules here as he creates a novel which is entertaining and, at times exciting, even as it also deals with philosophical questions which have been the subjects of treatises, novels, plays, and poetry since the beginning of time. Who we are, where we are going, what we see as the nature of reality, how importantly we regard our dreams, and the universal need to give meaning to our lives are questions for most of us, and what Campbell has to say is not new. What is new is his enthusiastic, down-to-earth treatment of these ideas within a novel which is experimental and often charming, drawing the reader into participating in a search for truth through mysterious audio tapes which have been found by an unknown narrator who has traveled the world to exotic places. In a Foreword, which begins the novel, a transcriber has received a manuscript from an unidentified writer in 2006 while working in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. The writer has also provided three audio tapes, and he is prepared to pay her a significant sum in cash for two days of work on the tapes in an effort to determine where they came from, how they were produced, and who might have recorded them. Fresh, often charming, and full of insights into the need for a City of Dreams and what these dreams represent for us all.

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