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Category Archive for 'Social and Political Issues'

Focusing on elderly teacher Elsa Weiss and her life story, Israeli author Michal Ben-Naftali develops the character of this teacher in Israel into a stunning novel about aspects of the Holocaust and its effects unlike any other that I have read in my many years of reviewing. This novel has surprises on every page, differing from most other “Holocaust novels” in that it does not follow the customary pattern of presenting innocent victims, the horrors they face from the Nazis, their crises, and the new lives developed in the aftermath of the war. Instead, author Michal Ben-Naftali presents in Elsa Weiss, a woman who has hidden her personal details and personality throughout the Holocaust and even afterward, a woman who has become virtually anonymous, someone whose life feels peripheral to the horrors of the 1940s, someone who survives the wartime savagery in part because she blends in. Dramatic and thought-provoking, this novel abandons the traditional visions of Holocaust survivors and their stories, presenting Elsa Weiss in a series of seemingly hopeless situations from which she believes she can escape and does. The aftereffects of her survival on her values and sense of identity, however, show her spending the remainder of her life trying on some level to erase her naive decisions and to atone for her mistakes.

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Setting his novel in Punta Gotica, the poorer side of Cienfuegos, a city on the south side of Cuba, author Marcial Gala, creates a grim novel of the non-stop action in this city, while, at the same time, breathing life into people, societies, and places new to many readers. Often the narrative feels as if Marcial Gala himself, a resident of this city, is “hanging out,” invisibly, with some of the characters here, even as he is telling their stories, and on several occasions one character even recommends that another character go see “Marcial” for some kind of help with an issue. As a result, the author creates the feeling that he is part of the action, creating his own story in Cienfuegos within the characters’ more objective stories, despite the serious difficulties that many of these characters get into on their own or create for others. Unconscionable, often life-changing difficulties, are drawn realistically, rather than intuitively or emotionally, as the affected characters react to traumas they have experienced in their daily lives. Casual murder, innocent cannibalism, the betrayal of lovers for cash, and a general mood of prevailing evil, which even infects the ghosts of some of the dead, make this a novel in which anything can – and often does – take place without warning.

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A young couple and their children, a ten-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl, take a road trip from New York City to the Southwest where the father plans to do research on the Apache culture and where the mother continues her study of the “lost children” of the immigration system. Themes of home, family, culture, and values are broad and sensitively rendered here, but for many readers author Valeria Luiselli’s ability to create real people, including children, as they have fun but also face problems, will be the primary excitement of the novel. The children are intelligent and curious, and they are traveling without any “devices,” fascinated instead by the places they see and stories they hear from their parents and on tapes. I have rarely cared about characters as much as I did for these characters, and their stories will linger a long time. A big favorite!

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Telling the story of his father’s life, author Johannes Anyuru, the son of a Ugandan father and Swedish mother, focuses on the fraught political climates of several East African countries in the 1970s, when his father was in his early twenties, trying to find some sort of direction and sense of purpose. As a young teen in Uganda in the early 1960s, his father, known here as P, took advantage of a program in Greece which taught him and other young men in Uganda how to fly military aircraft, a program which changed his life. He loves the freedom of the air and sees himself flying professionally. P is an ethnic Langi, belonging to the group to which President Obote of Uganda also belongs, but as the novel opens, Obote has just been deposed in a coup led by Idi Amin. Assumed to be a supporter of Obote, P has no interest in being drafted into the air corps aiding Amin in his bloody rise to power. Secretly escaping his program in Greece by going to Rome, he then flies to Lusaka in Zambia, hoping to start a job he found as a crop-duster. The back and forth narratives of P and his son continue as they try to figure out who they are and where they come from, and require the reader to fill in blanks by making their own connections. For P, the biggest issue is escaping to someplace safe. For his son, it is filling in the blanks in his own life by learning more about who is father is, or has been. P remains full of mysteries, largely because one never knows whether he is telling the whole truth about the things we do know about him.

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From the opening story of the same name, Up in the Main House entertains and enlightens the reader with stories of life in modern day Bangladesh which recall the tales of servants and their privileged employers from colonial England years ago. Here, however, author Nadeem Zaman focuses on the lives of domestic employees in the capital city of Dhaka, most of them working for families of wealth that they have worked for during all or most of their lives. As in the typical British “upstairs” and “downstairs” stories, the servants often have clearer visions of what really matters and closer relationships with each other than what the reader usually sees from the often absent “upstairs” owners of these houses and their friends. As the servants share their daily lives and do their daily work, they reveal their genuine emotions and insights into real life. Vividly described and more casual than the formal stories of upperclass British servants, the lives of these Bangladeshi workers and their values become far more intimate and genuinely real than what most readers will expect, their lives complicated primarily by their sense of position regarding their employers.

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