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Category Archive for 'Social and Political Issues'

Stories both new and old surround the often wild river which flows through North Yorkshire, exerting an almost incalculable force on the lives of the residents of the village of Starome. Good and evil, happiness and sadness, all begin and end with the unnamed river, which becomes almost a character in The River Within by Karen Power. A body is floating near the village, and it belongs to a resident and recent army recruit, on vacation, who has been friends with three other late teens in the village. Telling the story from three points of view – the victim, a female friend, and the mother of another teen – the relationships among these characters become clear. Dramatic events occur, and some critics have pointed out similarities between some of the plot and Hamlet. Those who love romances, dark melodrama, and psychological studies will have great fun reading this one, which celebrates the emotions, feelings, and self-focused behavior of many of its characters.

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In a remote, almost unpopulated area adjacent to Argentina’s pampas, China Iron, the main character and speaker in this small epic, grew up believing that she was “born an orphan,” never having known her mother. Brought up as a virtual slave by a woman known as Las Negra, she was then married off to Martín Fierro, a gaucho-singer who won her in a card game and by whom she had two sons before reaching the age of fourteen. Now, in 1872, her husband has been conscripted by the army, along with all the other young men of the outpost, and China has decided to take off, not in search of her sometimes violent husband, but in search of a life. Leaving her babies with an elderly couple, she joins with Liz, a red-haired Scottish woman whose husband Oscar was conscripted before he could take possession of land he had planned to purchase and develop. Liz, with an oxcart, supplies, and clothing from her previous life abroad, is about to set off across the pampas in her cart to find and rescue Oscar, and she is happy to have some company. The trip becomes a mini-epic (with a twist) based on the Martín Fierro work from 1872, as China, Liz, and the cowherd Rosario head for new worlds beyond the pampas. Brilliant descriptions, lively characters, and a picture of Argentina in the 1800s that few will forget. On the Favorites List.

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In this autobiographical novel of his early life and family in Gjirokastra, Albania, author Ismail Kadare focuses primarily on his mother, “the center of his universe” for his early years. Though she was not a warm, demonstrative person, her son stresses that she did have a caring nature and that it was “her self-restraint, her inability to cross a certain barrier,” that gave her a “doll-like mystery, but without the terror.” Her tears, he says, sometimes “flowed like those in cartoon films,” but when he asked her once about the reason for them, her answer “[made] my skin creep to recall it: ‘The house is eating me up!’ ” she claimed. Totally different from the newer, warmer house in which his mother had lived with her own family before her marriage, the Kadare residence was a grim, three-hundred-year-old building almost devoid of people, and for Kadare, it is as much of a character here as the family itself. Kadare’s early interest in writing eventually causes him to leave his home for later schooling in Tirana and Moscow, exposing him to many philosophies alien to his Russian teachers. These ideas further develop for him as he continues his work into the future and in exile in Europe. Trips back to his old house bring back last memories and the perplexity of his early life and family.

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Australian author Christian White uses two separate narratives to create a murder mystery which goes way beyond the usual thin characters forced to deal with bizarre and unexpected experiences. By alternating chapters between two families, he focuses instead on creating real people who find themselves suddenly dealing with events for which they have never prepared, many of which are now crises that have evolved from experiences buried deep in their past. The two narratives have few connections until late in the novel, as “The Wife” and “The Widow” share their lives with the reader but do not know each other and have virtually no contact. It is not until the ferry arrives on tiny Belport Island with Kate Keddie and her father-in-law, Fisher Keddie, about a third of the way into the novel, that the mystery takes off. Arriving at their summer house, they discover that there is food in the microwave, a shopping bag on the counter, and a note to himself written by John Keddie. Fresh sheets on a bed, items in the bar fridge, and a room service menu prove to Kate and Fisher that John has, in fact, been at the island during his “missing” weeks. Unfortunately, however, a body is soon found inside a car that has been located in deep water off the harbor docks, and, not surprisingly, the body inside is John’s. He has been murdered. Written in clear, precise prose, and filled with drama and excitement, the novel raises questions about sacrifice and guilt which will linger long.

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Author Eshkol Nevo, a highly skilled and very popular Israeli author, takes a unique approach to this novel, simply answering typical interview questions without connecting them thematically – “What motivates you to write?” “What is your earliest memory?” “Do you have a recurring dream?” In the course of almost five hundred pages, his true purpose and his underlying themes emerge, especially regarding a writer’s connections with friends, family, and his own memories. The author soon discovers, however, that answering the interview questions unexpectedly raises additional questions within the author himself. Determined to be completely honest, while also creating “fiction,” Nevo obviously feels the inherent conflict between those two approaches to describing life, and as he slowly edges into some serious self-examination, his skills as a writer get a real workout. Ultimately, his scenes from a writer’s life, including, almost certainly, episodes from his own life, challenge him to maintain the true honesty he has promised himself and the reader, while also recognizing the hurt that such honesty can sometimes bring to those he loves and admires. Filled with insights into life in Israel, life within his family, and life within himself, the author has created a unique look at the writing life and what it means to at least one author, what he has given up for it, and what he hopes to regain from taking it back. Truly unique.

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