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Category Archive for 'Social and Political Issues'

“Dawn breaks over the horizon. It moves across the sea, soaring over the empty beach….It reaches the top of the hill and lingers there, gray and hazy for a moment, before suddenly plunging down the far side. It sweeps over houses, streets, trees, and flowers asleep on balconies. Down in the valleys it seems to dance, lightly, discreetly. It seeps into the forest and spills across the lake where no one ventures now since Adele drowned there four years, five months, and thirteen days ago.”—from the opening paragraph. In approximately six hundred words in the first two pages of this novel, author Nathacha Appanah provides the entire conclusion of the novel, telling of three additional personal disasters, taking the chance that the reader will become more interested in the circumstances which caused these disasters for her characters than in the ultimate results. It is a big chance. It does, however, give the author the opportunity to develop the characters – and interest in them – in what might otherwise appear to be a melodrama. The drama here is powerful and moving in its effects, as the reader cannot help but revisit the action to see if, or how, the details of the conclusion could have been avoided. Nathacha Appanah writes with passion and concern for her characters, and she develops that same concern in the reader as the characters meet their fates.

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After I remarked to some book friends that one of the joys of having finished my schooling and my teaching career was that I would never again have to read a novel by Henry James, both of these friends responded that I really should read The Beast in the Jungle (1903), which they found to be quite different from many of his other works. Though I admit to having loved some of the films of James’s novels, I did not love reading any of the six novels I had had to read for classes, and I have always found James’s prose style to be so contorted, by today’s standards, and so artificial, that I have often had to reread and self-translate it into less formal English in order to come close to understanding what James is saying. My friends persuaded me by their enthusiasm, however, and I decided to try reading Henry James again after so many years of avoiding him. Voluntarily returning to his company, it turned out, was a mixed blessing. I admired much of the book and, for the first time, I really began to feel as if I were beginning to know who Henry James really was as a man, not just as a writer. The Beast in the Jungle parallels what we know of his life very closely, and it feels so autobiographical that the reader cannot help but believe that it is based on a very real inner turmoil in his life and may also explain some the mysteries which have always surrounded him.

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Unusual and perhaps even unique for an American audience, Moshe Sakal’s The Diamond Setter follows three generations of several interconnected families as they move though Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and eventually Israel, following their dreams and their hopes for their families over the course of a century. Narrated in the present by Tom, much of the novel is a metafictional account of his life and his involvement in events surrounding a magnificent blue diamond which has been in the possession of members of his extended family for several generations. The diamond, however intriguing its story, is not the main story here, however. Rather, it is the belief of those who possess it, that the diamond has a mind of its own and that it can affect their lives in unexpected ways. An unusual novel with a casual, almost relaxed attitude toward major issues, The Diamond Setter is, nevertheless, a difficult and challenging study of the places all of us regard as home, especially when others, very different from ourselves, feel just as passionately that the same places are their homes, too.

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A caveat. I almost did not read this book. Our current political situation and all the anger generated daily in the news and on TV had me longing for something fun and funny to read, something to break the monotony of our nasty political reality. I started it, however, and as I became involved with the very real – and very naïve – main characters as they faced the terrifying, life-changing situations of World War II in Germany, I found myself emerging from the stupor of TV reality into a much bigger, more comprehensive world view. The subject matter is harrowing, but this sensitively written book generates so much empathy for its very human main characters as they come to terms with who they are, where they are, and how they must cope with a war they know is already lost, that I was able to escape the pettiness of the latest news cycle and appreciate the confidence with which the author develops big ideas for a world audience. Ultimately, I felt the much-needed thrill of having read something that was sadly enlightening and presented on a level way beyond anything I could have imagined if I had looked for something “fun.”

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Alan Parks lived for years in Glasgow, Scotland, the place where he has set his debut novel – and the same place where revered author William McIlvanney set his three famed Laidlaw novels between the mid-1970s and the early 1990s. McIlvanney, credited as the founder of “Tartan noir,” casts a wide shadow with his Scottish writing, not only as a novelist, but also as a poet, a writer of literary fiction, a journalist, and a writer of screenplays, and recent publishers and critics have drawn comparisons between McIlvanney and Parks, whose style, when examined, is quite different in approach. It is 1973, and Det. Harry McCoy, just thirty, has been summoned to Barlinnie Prison, a Victorian building which houses many more prisoners than it was ever built for. “No wonder the whole prison stank. The smell of overflowing slop buckets and stale sweat was so thick it caught in the back of your throat as soon as the big doors opened; stuck to your clothes when you left.” He is meeting Howie Nairn, a convict confined to the Special Unit who wants to tell him that a girl named Lorna will be murdered the next day. All he knows about her is that she works in a “posh restaurant,” possibly Malmaison, and “someone’s gonnae do her tomorrow.” He doesn’t know her last name, but he feels that if he can do a favor for McCoy that his own position in jail might improve. What follows is an examination of the depths of Glasgow during the 1970s, when the city was dying and its poor were often desperate.

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