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Category Archive for 'Social and Political Issues'

Having given up his thesis on “Jewish Views of Jesus,” young Israeli student Shmuel Ash needs a job and a place to live. On the college bulletin board, he finds a notice advertising a job for a Humanities student willing to spend five hours each evening chatting with a seventy-year-old invalid who craves company. The notice indicates that the employer will provide housing for the person who accepts this job, but the new employee will have to agree to have no visitors and to keep confidential everything he learns about his employers. With nothing to lose, Shmuel accepts the job. As Oz develops the stories of these mysterious people and how they are connected, he also establishes deep-seated theological and historical conflicts which continue to plague the world, especially the Middle East, to the present day. What begins as a highly descriptive novel of the real world quickly blossoms into a grand exploration of the ideas and theological beliefs which are the bedrock of Christianity and Judaism, their history and cultures – a novel “writ large” in the best possible meaning of those words. Though the book is dense, it is also enlivening, and for an American audience, it provides historical context for some of the issues between the US and Israel in the present. The religious subject matter, new to me, was stunning, and the connections between desire and error, and betrayal and vengeance, seen throughout, have never seemed so small.

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In a novel which is both emotionally intimate and broad in its scope and thematic impact, this debut novel by twenty-six-year-old Ya’a Gyasi, formerly of Ghana, truly deserves its description as an “epic.” The young recipient of NPR’s Debut Novel of the Year last year for Homegoing, the much lauded Gyasi was today awarded the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize for Best Debut Novel of 2016, for this same novel. Opening her novel in the mid-1700s, Gyasi recreates the tumult of what is now Ghana as the Fante tribes from the coastal area and the Asante (Ashanti) tribes from inland constantly battle each other for power, a task complicated by the fact that the British have occupied the coastal areas so that they can manage the lucrative shipping of slaves to America. Anyone captured by an enemy soldier, of either tribe, is destined to be sold to the British for export. The opening chapters introduce the first of eight generations as reflected in the lives of two families: the descendants of the beautiful Effia, born in Fanteland, and the descendants of Esi, her half-sister, an Asante royal whom she does not know. While Effia strikes the fancy of James Collins, governor of the colony, who marries her and brings her to the Cape Coast Castle where he lives and works, Esi is shipped to America, living out the sad history of slavery and its aftermath. Gyasi incorporates elements common to great, majestic novels within this highly compressed epic of black lives and struggles. Folk stories, legends which evolve about some characters, the fears created by dreams and vague family memories, and the persistent drive to be successful while lacking a true understanding of themselves and their past make this novel “speak” to a modern audience, regardless of race or color.

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One of tcover coelho spyhe legends of World War I, Mata Hari has been, for over a hundred years, a symbol of mystery, excitement, and danger. Her exotic life and her eventual fate – an early morning execution by a firing squad of French soldiers on October 15, 1917 – has always felt somehow “deserved” by a woman who so craved attention that she publicly flouted every norm of society in order to develop a reputation as an erotic dancer and lover, and who was finally declared a spy by the French government. Fearless in her private life and pragmatic enough to realize, as she was approaching age forty, that she was not as supple – or as slim – as she once had been, she eventually accepted a six month contract to perform in Berlin in 1916, seeing this change of location as an opportunity for new rewards and wider opportunities. The big question raised by this novel is whether her various liaisons in Germany and France provided her with opportunities to share real secrets or whether she was merely a scapegoat, conveying the society gossip of the day, as she has claimed. When she left Germany precipitously in an attempt to return to Paris in 1917, the French declared her a German spy trying to re-enter. Whether this is true has never been fully answered, though this author has some suggestions.

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For the past ten years, award-winning Irish author John Banville has been writing crime novels under the pen name of Benjamin Black, in addition to his literary fiction under his own name. Seven of these novels feature an alcoholic pathologist in 1950s Dublin named Quirke. Quirke has had a sad life from his earliest years, having spent time in an orphanage before he was unofficially adopted by Judge Garret Griffin, and brought into his household to live with his adoptive brother Malachi Griffin, who also became a physician in later life. In his mid-forties when he appears in Christine Falls, the first novel in the series, Quirke has never come to terms with who he is because he does not know who he is. Now many years later, his past is still largely a mystery to him. As this novel opens, Quirke, the chief of the pathology lab of , has been on a leave of absence from the Hospital of the Holy Family, receiving treatment for his alcohol addiction and related emotional problems. When an accident occurs and the pathologist performing the autopsy has questions, he comes to Quirke for help, and Quirke leaves his house for the first time in over two months to meet Hackett, his friend in the police. Though it is easy to speed through these introductory pages in an effort to get to the plot, it is the information which Quirke learns about himself and his condition which deserves the most attention, especially at the beginning. Many revelations throughout this book, and many questions from the past answered.

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NOTE: The second of the “Quirke series” by Benjamin Black (the pen name for renowned author John Banville), The Silver Swan (2008) follows Christine Falls (2007). At present (January, 2017) there are seven Quirke novels in this series, which is set in the 1950s. Quirke’s complex personal story unfolds very slowly in the background during these seven novels, some of it especially important to understanding him, though it is referenced, but not usually explained, in subsequent novels. I am therefore reposting these early reviews because they introduce key information in Quirke’s life, important to know in later novels, including Even the Dead, published on Jan. 3, 2017 and to be reviewed here this week.

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