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Category Archive for 'Social and Political Issues'

This magnificent, accessible, humane, and thoughtful book by Alice McDermott concerns itself with the highest levels of universality for all people, not specifically the Catholic doctrine which sometimes permeates her novels. Following three generations of a single family, the novel opens with a handsome, thirty-two-year-old man named Jim, who sends his wife out to buy food one afternoon, then seals up the flat, turns on the gas, and kills himself in a fiery explosion. His pregnant wife is left devastated. She goes on to work in the laundry of the convent of sisters who have helped her, as the novel goes back and forth in time. Throughout the novel, as the past and present are revealed, the action keeps the reader totally engaged, but it also keeps the reader thinking, pondering decisions and outcomes and the position of the church in evaluating right and wrong. Here she treats the grand subjects of life and death, innocence and guilt, voluntary good works rather than unavoidable obligations, the rewards, if any, which come from leading a “good” life, the penances one self-imposes for actions which feel like crimes, and the decisions one sometimes makes with the most honorable of intentions, even though they may violate the boundaries most of us consider sacred.

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Set in the aftermath of World War II in the southwestern countryside outside of Oslo, Gaute Heivoll’s emotionally engrossing novel involves big themes, a sense of involvement by the reader, and some lingering questions at the end. The novel draws its action from life in an extended family, where both the mother and father, parents of the unnamed young narrator, once worked as nurses and caregivers at a psychiatric hospital for eleven years. When the father’s old family home in the country burned to the ground before the war, the parents looked on the bright side and decided to rebuild, creating “their own little asylum in the midst of the parish where Papa was born and grew up.” Starting with three adults, they later add five disabled children from the same family. The five Olsen children range in age from Lilly, age seventeen, to Sverre, age four, and all live together in one spacious upstairs room of the home asylum. The writing is remarkably simple in style and often lacks elaboration. As the reader fills in the blanks, his/her involvement with the novel becomes even stronger. The book has little real plot, other than the daily lives of these people, yet I could hardly put it down, wanting to know whether the characters will find happiness, despite some of the complications and tragedies in their lives. Ultimately, the reader cannot help but be drawn in by the force of the writing and the emotions the author creates on the subject of what it means to be human.

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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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On the morning of August 4, 1892, Abby Gray Borden and her husband, Andrew Jackson Borden were found dead in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, both brutally butchered with an axe or hatchet. Borden was a highly successful merchant, maker of caskets, and owner and developer of commercial property, a wealthy man who nevertheless lived a frugal life and kept his daughters and his wife totally dependent on him. His body was found reclining on the living room sofa by his younger daughter Lizzie, aged thirty-two, and the body of his wife Abby was found shortly afterward. She, too, was hacked to death and was found lying beside her bed upstairs. The only people in the house at the time were Lizzie and Bridget, the maid, who was up in her room resting after having been assigned the task of washing the outside of the downstairs windows in the August heat, though she was still recuperating from a violent stomach upset. Lizzie claimed that someone must have broken into the house to kill her father. As Australian author Sarah Schmidt recreates this famous murder and its aftermath, she delves into all the psychological complications surrounding the individual characters, gradually providing other imaginative possibilities regarding the murder. An iintriguing structure and four points of view, including that of Lizzie, make this novel both inventive and 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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