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Category Archive for 'Social and Political Issues'

Written by Jean-Christophe Rufin, one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders and former president of Action Against Hunger, Checkpoint provides a new look at the whole idea of humanitarian service, in this case during the Bosnian War (1992 – 1995) which followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. The author, both a doctor and writer of popular novels, puts all his talents to use in this novel in which a team of four young people and one middle-aged man joins La Tete d’Or in Lyon, France, to deliver food, clothing, and medical supplies to people stranded without resources in the war zone. Each of the five volunteers has his/her own reason for risking all in the name of humanity, and none of them are acting purely out of altruism as they work their way through Bosnia on their way to Kakanj, a place where the Muslim, Croat, and Serb populations are so integrated that some adjacent areas within the same community have become enemies. As the two-truck convoy heads into the Bosnian war zone, they must pass regularly through checkpoints, operated by local warlords, where “the only true subject, the ultimate motor of all behavior and all thought, was fear. Would make a good film.

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Julie Lekstrom Himes, in Mikhail and Margarita, writes an enthralling companion book honoring one of her favorite novels, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. In HImes’s novel, Mikhail and Margarita, Bulgakov himself is a sympathetic main character. Himes, like Bulgakov, a physician and writer, has traveled in Russia, and has spent a year doing research for this book, and seven years writing it. The resulting novel, remarkable in its ability to bring author Mikhail Bulgakov and his times fully to life for the reader, recreates Bulgakov’s “thoughts” so effectively that the reader feels as if the author has inserted actual autobiographical commentary. The story of a romantic triangle, the novel stars features Bulgakov himself; Margarita, an attractive younger woman; and Ilya Ivanovich, an official in Stalin’s dictatorship. Many overlaps with Bulgakov’s own novel, this novel develops at an extraordinary pace, both thematically and dramatically. Serious, well developed, and consummately literary, this is one of the outstanding books of the year.

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The scale, scope, and significance of this magnificent biography by National Book Award-winner Timothy Egan are only slightly eclipsed by the immense scale, scope, and significance of the work of photographer Edward Curtis (1868 – 1952). Curtis, at age twenty-eight, took his first photograph of a Native American when he did a portrait of “Princess Angeline,” an aged woman who was the last surviving child of Chief Seattle, for whom the American city was named. By 1896, when Curtis took this photo, it was illegal for Princess Angeline and other Indians to live within the city named for her father, and Curtis was all too aware of that sad reality. Though he was married with several young children, Edward Curtis spent the next thirty-three years investigating the remaining cultures of Native Americans throughout the West, determined to record every aspect of their cultures before they vanished completely from history. Ultimately, he traveled on a mission that took him to virtually every remaining tribal area and state west of the Mississippi River. Totally devoted to his self-imposed task, he gave up virtually everything of personal value, working for no money at all, and living most of his life hopelessly in debt in order to fulfill his personal mission. As Egan presents his insights into Curtis’s personality, quirks, and even blind spots, this biography becomes a rarity – a biography closer to a classical Greek tragedy than to the more familiar saga of a man’s life.

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“Deep in Honduras in a region called La Mosquitia, lie some of the last unexplored places on earth. Mosquitia is a vast, lawless area…of rainforests, swamps, lagoons, mountains…and the thickest jungle in the world….For centuries, [it] has been home to one of the world’s most persistent and tantalizing legends. Somewhere in this impassable wilderness, it is said, lies a “lost city” built of white stone. It is called Ciudad Blanca, the “White City,” also referred to as the “Lost City of the Monkey God.” No one knows whether this place actually exists and, if it does, whether it was built by the Mayas or some other, unknown indigenous group, but Mosquitia’s thirty-two thousand square miles, filled with rainforests, swamps, lagoons, rivers, mountains, ravines, waterfalls and roaring torrents have been virtually impassable throughout modern history, and early maps have labeled this place “Portal del Infierno,” or “Gates of Hell.” Any adventurer willing to test himself against these natural barriers would also have to be willing to deal with deadly snakes, jaguars, catclaw vines, with their hooked thorns, and hordes of insects and flies carrying unknown, possibly virulent diseases. And if someone were still determined to look for this lost city, s/he would also have to deal with equally dangerous human problems: Much of the area surrounding Mosquitia is ruled by drug cartels. In February, 2015, an expedition of researchers decides to investigate this area, fearing that the on-going clear-cutting of the land could lead to the inadvertent discovery and destruction of ancient ruins and artifacts from the “lost cities” in Mosquitia. Author Douglas Preston joina a small group of researchers headed into a part of the jungle which “had not seen human beings in living memory.” This is their story.

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In 1874, the island of Tasmania, one hundred fifty miles off the southeast coast of Australia, is boiling with rage. Once a penal colony filled with the hardest criminals, and the site of almost total genocide of the original aboriginal inhabitants by the British, Tasmania, in 1874, is a seething cauldron of hungry men and the toughest of women, many of them homeless, trying to survive the only way they know – by using whatever weapons they have at hand to gain what they need to stay alive. The action and points of view alternate among William Toosey, age twelve, and the life he is leading after his mother’s death; Thomas Toosey, his estranged father, who is trying to reach his son William from another part of the island so he can help him; Fitheal Flynn and a “hooded man” who are trying to get back the money that Toosey has stolen from them; and Beatty and Webster, the local constables who are trying to capture any and all of them. Additional connections between Toosey and Fitheal Flynn and his hooded accomplice explain why Flynn’s hatred of Toosey is so visceral and unyielding and why he is willing to fight Toosey to the death. One more character, Jane Eleanor Hall, whose head is shaved and is thought, at first, to be a man, adds to the complexities and mysterious identities when she finds Flynn and his companion hiding in her house and offers to help them find Toosey if they pay her for her help. As in other gothic novels, the action here comes fast and furious, with elaborate descriptions bringing it alive, and violence the usual result of interactions of characters. Interestingly, the “hero” here, young William Toosey, and the anti-hero, Thomas Toosey, are from the same family and have some love for each other, adding a humanizing, if not sentimental, touch.

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