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Category Archive for 'Social and Political Issues'

In this memoir, Hisham wastes no time, going straight to the heart of his life and telling the whole story, showing clearly the effects of the very real traumas which he has never fully explored, and the fears and insecurities which have dominated his life as a result. As the memoir opens in March, 2012, forty-one-year-old Matar, and Diana, a photographer, who have been living in New York, are at the airport in Cairo, waiting to take off for Benghazi. He is nervous because he and his family left Libya for exile in 1979, and he has never returned. His father, Jaballa Matar, worked for the Libyan government as first secretary to the Libyan Mission to the United Nations in 1970, and Hisham was born that year in New York. After three years, he, his father, mother, and older brother Ziad, returned to Libya, as Qaddafi was coming to power. Jaballa Matar, who opposed many of Qaddafi’s policies in favor of the resistance in the late 1970s, fell victim to Qaddafi’s ambitions. With their lives endangered, the family escaped from Libya for Egypt in the late 1970s, and Hisham did much of his early schooling in Egypt. Then his father was kidnapped and sent to Abu-Salim Prison in Libya. Matar’s story is enhanced by constant flashbacks which broaden the scope and the cast of characters, making them come more fully alive. This powerful memoir treats the subjects of memory and loss, innocence and guilt, power and vulnerability, and ultimately love and hope, giving the reader new insights into how one man eventually manages to cope with his past, present, and future.

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Beginning this novel in 1937, Junichiro Tanizaki (1886 – 1965), one of Japan’s most accomplished novelists, takes a new direction in this novel, his last. Here he describes the lives and cultures of a succession of Japanese house maids in a financially successful household. The novel’s time frame, 1937 – 1962, is obviously a time in which Japan faced some of its most dramatic changes and these changes, as described by Tanizaki, were at least as dramatic sociologically as they were historically during this period. The class system was being dismantled, local languages and dialects were changing, movement from the countryside to the city and back was becoming relatively common, and a sense of independence among young women was emerging. Tanizaki saw it all, and while a previous novel, The Makioka Sisters, focused on those who lived comfortable lives, this novel focuses on those who helped make the lives of those people as comfortable as they were. These were the people who saw and dealt with the greatest changes – the maids who lived “below stairs,” as translator Michael P. Cronin describes them in his Afterword. In this novel, which was published in installments in a Japanese newspaper in 1962, his purpose seems to have been, instead, to seize the opportunity to talk to his readers about the changes to Japanese society that he has noted over the past twenty-five years. While this is often intriguing and even fascinating, new readers to Tanizaki will want to start with one of the other Tanizaki novels previously reviewed on this site.

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Established in 1854 and billed as “the oldest bar in New York city,” McSorley’s, an Irish ale house, serves only dark and light ale. Owned and operated by only three families during its entire history, McSorley’s has existed continuously at the same location in the East Village since its inception, and many of its employees have been there for decades. Rafe Bartholomew, the author-son of Geoffrey “Bart” Bartholomew, appreciates the McSorley mystique which has attracted famous people from the arts. Poet e. e. cummings wrote a poem about McSorley’s, Dylan Thomas and Eugene O’Neill spent time there, Woody Guthrie sang there in the 1940s, artist John Sloan painted five scenes of McSorley’s in the years just before World War I. Abraham Lincoln stopped there in 1860 as he was campaigning for office, and an authentic WANTED poster for John Wilkes Booth from April 1865 is displayed on the wall following Lincoln’s assassination. Houdini left a pair of handcuffs there, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a letter from the White House, and a copy of the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Babe Ruth upon his retirement from baseball appears behind the bar. A high point of the book is the strong relationship between Rafe Bartholomew and his dad, a story of love and good humor, especially during Rafe’s mother’s two difficult bouts of cancer, fifteen years apart. Despite its many episodes of humor, its quirky personalities, the loving relationship between the Bartholomew father and son, and its revelations about this old ale house, the book does have a down side. Bathroom humor and crude language spoils the mood in the first part of the book, but as the father-son relationship grows, the book takes off.

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The prose of Irish debut novelist Lisa McInerney is so musical that even the horrors of characters living barebones existences in the drug-infested underworld of Cork begin to feel engaging. Here McInerney creates families and friends, enemies and predators, and lovers and their betrayers as they all try to survive the forces working against them. Their possibilities of flourishing within this fraught atmosphere are practically nil, and many characters use drugs and alcohol to make their lives more bearable, but most still have hope for a future in which they can find some level of happiness. These characters come to life – and in some cases, death – within a society which exists on its own terms, a dark society outside the dominantly Catholic mainstream, with its own rules about what is right, what is tolerated, and what requires repentance and/or punishment. Many of McInerney’s characters are aware of the ironies in their lives, as Maureen Phelan’s confession to a priest at the beginning of this review reveals, and her intentional humor in places throughout the novel keeps readers from being overwhelmed by the sad, inner battles her characters face.

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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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