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Category Archive for 'Social and Political Issues'

On March 11, 2011, the most powerful earthquake in Japanese history, registering 9.0 on the Richter scale, hit northeast Japan, killing sixteen thousand people and creating massive devastation. The powerful tsunami that resulted from this earthquake obliterated towns along the coast, and was so powerful it would go on to affect even the coasts of North and South America. Most frighteningly, the rush of sea water had the immediate effect of creating meltdowns at all three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which then released terrifying amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere and precipitated the evacuation of over three hundred thousand people. With a succession of disasters like these – a powerful earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear disaster – and all the cleanup and social management involving the population of the area, life in the Fukushima area was frantic – people displaced, many deaths, families torn apart, livelihoods gone, and the earth itself contaminated. In the eight years since then, life has been in “emergency mode,” with so much of immediate importance being faced every day by the people of the area that few former residents, service organizations, or concerned citizens have been able to go there, stand back, and see the results of this emergency in any kind of universal perspective. Until now. These two novellas, recently translated into English, provide the first real glimpses of life in this area of Japan in the aftermath of the disasters.

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WINNER of the IMPAC Dublin Award, this novel is set in rural Norway with a swirling chronology which incorporates both modern times and, briefly, the days of Norway’s occupation by the Germans during World War II. Powerful and rich thematically, the novel focuses on the life of Trond Sander, a sixty-seven-year-old man, as he relives events which occurred when he was a teen. After the war, in 1948, when Trond was fifteen, he and his father spent the summer together in a cabin in the countryside of Norway, near the Swedish border, a time which affected his entire life. As the novel opens, the aged Trond has returned to a cabin in that same village, intending to live there in retirement, wanting to be alone but living independently, though the reasons for his self-imposed solitude are not clear, even to him. Nature is the important factor in his new life in retirement, and the lyricism with which he views that nature and its power is palpable. At the same time, he is aware this “simple” life will be difficult, with many responsibilities which only he can fulfill.

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In this collection of eleven short stories, author Joseph O’Neill focuses on imperfect and often uncommitted men as they live their usually unexciting and unrewarded lives. Their stories are, from a “story” point of view, as unexciting as their lives, yet they are also fun and often even funny. O’Neill, the son of an Irish father and Turkish mother who traveled and lived with their family all over the world, writes without the clever and quirky characteristics one usually associates with stereotyped “Irish writers,” presenting his stories instead with a “straight face” as he recreates his characters’ lives and leaves it up to the reader to form judgments and draw conclusions. Throughout the collection, O’Neill varies his literary style to fit the subject, and in “The Mustache in 2010,” his overtly academic tone for a subject like mustaches, as he traces the history of facial hair, serves as an amusing introduction to “the drama of Alexandre Dubuisson’s mustache.” Ultimately, the collection feels somewhat anti-climactic, lacking real, direct conflicts resulting in final resolutions. The male characters are weak and are often afraid or too easily distracted from the real issues to make independent moves.

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Set in Patagonia, in the southernmost part of Argentina and Chile, during an unspecified time period, this novel by French author Sandrine Collette shows life at the edges, as a dysfunctional family tries to stay alive though the herding of cattle and sheep on a remote ranch in the steppe. Shortly after the novel begins, the father disappears, their mother saying that he “took off,” without explanation. After that, the mother assumes the role of boss – and she is one of the most demanding bosses imaginable, performing the kitchen duties and managing the finances while assigning the hard work out on the steppe to her four sons. The grim novel which follows is a difficult read with the boys experiencing no joyfulness, no satisfaction with their work, no love, and no let-up in sight throughout the book. When the mother becomes an alcoholic, as was her husband, and often disappears to gamble at the bar in the remote town nearest their ranch, the boys are left on their own, with unstable Mauro in charge, a situation obviously headed for disaster. When the mother runs into debt from gambling, their fraught lives become even more horrific. Full of action, the novel will appeal especially to those who enjoy seeing life lived on the edge, with violence always just a step away, though it sometimes intrudes unexpectedly here and complicates the characters’ lives.

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Returning to Prague for the location of this novel, after setting The Glass Room there in 2009, author Simon Mawer uses his familiarity with Prague, and his obvious love for it, to create this stirring novel of political history and intrigue. Set during the almost magical Prague Spring of 1968, a time in which Russian influence had waned and a broader view of socialism and some new freedoms were being celebrated by students and political writers in Prague, Mawer focuses on “the fleeting nature of presence” as the Prague Spring is cancelled by the sudden arrival of half a million Warsaw Pact troops led by the Soviet Union, which went on to occupy the country for the next twenty-three years. A writer who focuses primarily on people and their lives, rather than on politics or cultural movements, Mawer brings the Prague Spring to life by focusing on two couples who come together in Prague, live and love, engage in adventure, and find their lives permanently changed by the arrival of the Soviet-led troops. The couples represent different backgrounds, and they experience the Prague Spring in different ways. Each has connections with people from Prague who help them during the danger which evolves, providing a broader picture of the events as they affect all the people of Prague, instead of the more limited focus which might have occurred with fewer main characters. This is a carefully developed novel, filled with fascinating history and sidelights involving literature, music, and popular culture, a fine addition to Mawer’s bibliography.

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