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Category Archive for 'Social and Political Issues'

Originally published in November, 1996, when French author Patrick Modiano was fifty-one, Dora Bruder gives new insights into the complex life and career of this Nobel Prize winner from 2014. As the novel opens, Modiano is remembering back to 1988, when he discovered an ad in an old copy of Paris-Soir dated 31 December, 1941, announcing as MISSING young girl, Dora Bruder, age 15, followed by her description. Since he knows the neighborhood in which the girl’s family lived, he decides to find out as much as he can about her life. Including his own memories, as he explores coincidences and events suggesting clairvoyance, Modiano spends eight years, during which he worked on other novels, searching for the missing Dora Bruder and her fate.

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When I finished reading Arid Dreams, the first of Thai author Duanwad Pimwana’s story collections ever to be translated into English, I was so stunned that I had to wait a day before even beginning this review. To say it is a powerful and dramatic collection of thirteen short stories so understates the collection’s ability to affect the reader emotionally that it would be unfair to characterize it in such a limited fashion. Vibrant characters, intense interactions, and beautifully controlled themes feature in realistic stories about the daily lives of the hard working poor and those who have dreams but little or no opportunity to act upon them. Cultural expectations play a big part in the conflicts and disasters which some of the characters face, and though these may be shocking to American readers, they are taken for granted by the characters themselves. As the reader becomes more and more deeply involved with these stories, which show people both as individuals and as members of a broader society, it is impossible not to care about them and how they live, doing what they must do to survive. A collection which is truly unforgettable.

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In Melville House Publishing’s Last Interview series, Billie Holiday’s own words define her and and reflect her difficult life through eight interviews. The first is given on November 1, 1939, published in Downbeat Magazine, and the last is twenty years later, published in October, 1959, in Confidential Magazine, an interview she granted two days before her death in a New York hospital at age forty-four. Born in Philadelphia, she grew up in Baltimore, the daughter of Clarence Holiday of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, with whom she had little contact after the age of ten. According to Khanya Mtshali, who wrote the substantial Introduction to this book, Billie was raped at around age ten and sent to a Catholic reformatory school for about two years, but was released “with the help of relatives” and later moved to New York with her mother, “where they began engaging in sex work to make ends met. Holiday was only fourteen.” In the the book’s first interview by Dave Dexter, with Downbeat Magazine on Nov. 1, 1939, she talks about those early years when she and her mother “were so hungry we could barely breathe.” Then at fifteen she got her chance singing in a “joint” in New York. Eight years later, at twenty-three, she was a giant in the music world. This book describes her ascent, and her difficulties, in her own words.

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Originally published in Italy in 1973, under the title Caro Michele (Dear Michele), Natalia Ginzburg’s most popular Italian novel changed its title for an English-speaking audience in this new edition. Happiness, as Such, the English title, conveys the author’s purpose, emphasizing the uncertainties of knowing exactly what happiness is on a grand scale, the major point of this novel, and applies to a broader cast of characters than just “dear” Michele, the “oblivious” son of a forty-three-year-old mother whose life is a mashup of strange experiences and uncertain goals and values. Told through a series of letters, primarily between Adriana, the mother, and twenty-one-year-old Michele, her son, the letters reveal the often interconnected stories of several other characters – family, friends, and lovers, past and present – as they go about living and describing their daily lives. Author Ginzburg, whose style is so unpretentious and seemingly spontaneous that a reader cannot help but become involved in the various narratives, gradually shows how each person protects his/her happiness by doing whatever seems right at the time in order to escape misery, unpleasant consequences, and time-consuming self-analysis. As she reveals her characters, author Ginzburg herself begins to come alive, a person of ironic humor, witty insights, and immense sensitivity to hidden meanings as revealed in seemingly ordinary dialogue.

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“Tell me the truth,” I said.
“What truth?” he echoed. He was making a rapid sketch
in his notebook and now he showed me what it was: a long,
long train with a big cloud of black smoke swirling over it,
and himself leaning out of a window to wave a handkerchief.
I shot him between the eyes. – Opening lines of this book.

In The Dry Heart, her first novel after the war, author Natalia Ginzburg deals with the “world writ small” telling the story of the marriage of an uncommunicative and unnamed woman married to an even more uncommunicative man. Less than a hundred words after the novel opens, the conclusion is revealed: “I shot him between the eyes,” a statement of great drama because of the context’s lack of drama. Using the woman’s point of view, the author carefully shifts back and forth in time, illustrating what happens, and more importantly, what often does not happen, in this marriage. Matching her realistic style to the undramatic nature of the marriage, Ginzburg slowly builds the tensions, eventually revealing everything the reader needs to know about the past which will explain the bold admission of murder in the first few words.

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