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“I was still young when I lived with her and in many ways depended on her, even as a woman; she cooked and cleaned for us, she patched Antal’s clothes.  But now she can’t see that I have fully grown up and don’t need to be mothered.  She has aged and grown weak, she needs support and advice.   If I want her to be happy with me I have to pretend to be a child.”  Iza Szocs discusses her mother.

cover isa's ballad_Few authors convey the inner thoughts of characters with the insight and sensitivity of Hungarian author Magda Szabo, and this novel may be one of her most insightful.  Setting the novel in Hungary in the 1960s, the novel is surprisingly non-political, though the failed revolution of 1956 against their Soviet occupiers is a recent memory for her characters.  The novel, dealing with the subject of love and how one expresses it, focuses not on one main character, but on four main characters, two men and two women of different generations and commitments.  Creating a novel which is almost totally character-based, Szabo uses the plot primarily to provide incidents which reveal character.  Ettie (whose actual name is not mentioned for almost the entire book) is an elderly homemaker who has been a devoted wife of Vince, and mother of Iza. Vince, a magistrate with a conscience, ran afoul of the communist government and was blacklisted, unable to work in the legal field for many years before his death.  Though the family struggled in every way, Ettie’s own background in poverty allowed her to be supportive and resourceful in helping to keep the family secure.

Author Magda Szabo

Author Magda Szabo

With the death of Vince, wife Ettie might have come into her own as a personality, something she sets out to do in creating a cemetery monument to her husband Vince, but daughter Iza soon decides to become heavily involved in “helping” her mother in her day-to-day life.  Iza, a super-conscientious physician works late and stresses over her patients and over the life of her mother, and she cannot bear the thought that her mother is alone.  She decides that moving her from her life-long village to Budapest, where Iza works, would solve a lot of problems, and their relationship becomes the major crux of the novel’s action.  On a parallel track with Iza and Ettie are Anton, Iza’s former husband, a physician who has left the marriage unexpectedly, and Lidia, a nurse, whose kindness and sensitivity are crucial to Vince when he is in the hospital on his deathbed.  As the separate, and eventually combined, lives of Anton and Lidia unfold and often interact with the lives of Ettie and Iza, the values and relative sensitivity of all four main characters can be seen, compared, and contrasted as they deal with personal issues of love.

In Dorozs, Ettie's native village, storks in nests on thatched roofs are a common sight.

In Dorozs, Ettie’s native village, storks in nests on thatched roofs are a common sight.

Overlaps among characters make scenes come alive and comparisons clear. In one key scene, for example, as Vince is dying, Ettie goes to visit him in hospital. Ettie fears that Vince “would leave her without a word, that he might cast his terrified conscious eyes on her one last time and, after having dozed off with pain or with the assistance of drugs, his thoughts might turn to silent accusation or complaint.” Lidia is with Vince when Ettie arrives, and she leaves when Ettie enters, something Ettie finds strange – as if Lidia was “without sense that she was part of this.”  When Lidia returns to the room, it bothers Ettie “having a strange pair of eyes on her so she turned her back.”  When Vince eventually speaks, Ettie insists he is calling for water, and she was “rejoicing because the nurse didn’t know what to do and it was only she who could hear Vince’s words.”  She demands water for Vince and resents Lidia’s refusal to respond.  Ultimately, Lidia informs her that Vince did not want water – “he wanted, his daughter Iza.”

Iza and Ettie bought a pretzel in front of the old National Theatre on a visit to Budapest.

Iza and Ettie bought a pretzel in front of the old National Theatre on a visit to Budapest.

The mystery of Anton, Iza’s former husband, pervades the novel, and when he offers to buy the village house which had been owned by Ettie and Vince, and where Iza grew up, Ettie is thrilled, feeling that even though “Antal, it is true, had abandoned them…in some ways he did belong here,” even after the end of his marriage to Iza.  For Ettie, the idea of having someone she knows living in her house is a blessing because she believes that he will take care of it and some of her favorite possessions in ways that she will approve.  He will also take care of Vince’s dog. Eventually, the story of Antal’s sad childhood, schooling, and eventual courtship of Iza emerges, and the contrasts between his early life and his later life with Iza, Ettie, and Vince become clear.  The shared professions of Iza and Vince and their later desire to create a spa/sanatorium give them much to do, and when Antal eventually decides to leave Iza, the reader has enough information about his real emotional life and needs to understand completely why he does so.

Å statue of poet Sandor Petofi welcomed her when she made a trip back home to Dorozs

A statue of poet Sandor Petofi welcomed her when she made a trip back home to Dorozs

Throughout, the details of the move of Ettie to the city and the tensions that evolve between Iza and her mother as a result, become more and more obvious.  Each tries to do what is “right,” but so many gaps exist in their understanding of each other, based, in large part on their very real differences in background, history, personality, and generation, that their connection becomes frayed. Iza’s new boyfriend Domokos becomes especially helpful to her during one emergency which also involves Antal, Lidia, and Gica, a helper in the village.  All have opinions of Iza, and as the book moves to a conclusion, so, too, does the reader. It is in this section in which the song/poem, Iza’s “Ballad,” important enough to have become the title of the novel, is quoted, explained, and presented with dramatic irony, an image which no reader will forget for its impact and insights into Iza and the characters around her.  Presented honestly and personally, author Magda Szabo creates her characters and their stories, giving them additional depth and universality by organizing them into four parts – Earth,  Fire, Water, and Air, as she tells their stories of elemental love.

ALSO by Szabo:  ABIGAIL    and   THE DOOR

Photos.  The author photo appears on https://www.alamy.com

The stork on thatched roof is from https://www.bigstockphoto.com

The photo of the old National Theatre may be found on  http://old-time-budapest.blogspot.com   That theatre has since been razed.

The statue of Sandor Petofi appears on https://www.featurepics.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Hungary, Literary, Psychological Study
Written by: Magda Szabo
Published by: New York Review Books
Date Published: 10/18/2016
ISBN: 978-1681370347
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“By now the newspapers have said everything about me that could be said, except the truth.  The first condition that I place on you, therefore, is that you will fill this gap.  If you promise to be sincere I will tell you every detail of my life, and describe how karma has acted on it since childhood.  The second condition is that you not let anyone know where I am, at least not as long as I am alive.”—Malik Mir Sultan Khan, almost forgotten chess champion.

It is no secret that Italian author Paolo Maurensig loves chess.  His first novel, The Luneberg Variation, 1997, revolves around a chess match between a persecuted Jew and his Nazi persecutor.  His 2018 novel, The Theory of Shadows, focuses on a possible international conspiracy involved in the death of Alexandre Alekhine, a world chess champion who died under suspicious circumstances in Portugal in 1946, a man suspected of “collaboration” by, variously, the Nazis, the French, and the Russians.  The Game of the Gods, just released in the US, continues the chess focus, but this novel focuses primarily on the people who play chess and their feelings about playing – what the game means to them, not on the specifics of the game itself.  As it develops, it weaves such a spell about chess and those who play it that even those, like me, who are not chess fanatics, can become totally absorbed in this story of one champion, known as Sultan Khan.  His early life as a low-caste Indian, his experiences as he masters the game and begins to play on the international level, and the effects of the game on his personal life make him seem so “human” that the author is also able to elevate the narrative beyond the personal to include the history of the game, its mysteries, and the philosophies which give it religious status for many players.

Chess player Sultan Khan (1903 - 1966)

Chess player Sultan Khan (1903 – 1966)

The novel opens with the author introducing Sultan Khan, whose real name, Malik Mir Sultan Khan, was given to him to honor the Maharajah for whom his family worked.  Sultan Khan, a real person, left behind a “luminous trail, [like] a shooting star: a dazzling radiance that precedes the most utter darkness, [and] if it were not for the testimony he himself gave to Washington Post correspondent ‘Norman La Motta,’ on the eve of war between India and Pakistan, we would not know anything about him other than the games documented in various tournament records of the time.”  The only Asian player to achieve such extraordinary results would have vanished  completely from history, except for his tournament records, if reporter “LaMotta” had not dedicated himself to finding his idol from childhood in hopes of writing his biography.  Ironically, it was a scandal from the mid-1950s in which Sultan Khan was mentioned as a suspect which gave La Motta some new inspiration to keep searching, and he eventually found Sultan Khan, who demanded that he agree to certain conditions, given in the opening quotation of this review, before he would agree to be interviewed.  What follows is a narrative that is partly true and partly imagined, as Sultan Khan tells his story and “Norman LaMotta” tries to learn everything possible before Sultan Khan’s imminent death.

Regarded at first as the goddess Parvati, b ride of Shiva, the tiger soon became Kali, the bloodiest goddess in the pantheon.

Regarded at first as the goddess Parvati, bride of Shiva, the tiger soon became Kali, the bloodiest goddess in the pantheon.

The novel divides into several sections, each of which is fascinating in its own right.  Sultan Khan, known then by his common name of Malik, spends his childhood in rural India, where a killer tiger targets his village.  The village elders regard this tiger as “an emanation of the goddess Parvati, the bride of Shiva.” Before long, however, the tiger transforms into “the embodiment of the bloodiest goddess in our entire pantheon: the goddess Kali, who regularly demands a human sacrifice. Eventually, the tiger kills a baby and a young man, a sign it belongs to the demonic world, a conclusion which is further confirmed for Malik when it kills people close to him.  While waiting for his master and a high level British friend to hunt and, hopefully, kill the tiger, Sir Umar Khan invites the villagers to approach him and express grievances and requests.  Malik requests to learn chaturanga, the precursor of chess.  Eventually, Malik is summoned to the palace and hired to work in the maharaja’s court as a servant but also as a chaturanga player with the prince.  There he learns the rules and the etiquette, and eventually understands that learning the subtleties of chaturanga will teach him to “know himself…and be able to predict the fate of any battle.”

Hindu God Ganesha. Ganesha Idol on brown background

When Sultan Khan became stuck for a move during a tense game, Ganesha would appear to him with the answer.

He begins to win local tournaments, and before long, he accompanies his master to England, studies chess, and begins to win there, too. His “career was meteoric, like the luminous trail of a bengal light…[lasting] for three years or so.”  Unfortunately, the social conflicts between the British and the Indians in that period lead to resentments when Malik begins to win often, including winning the British Chess Championship twice in a row, and though he continues to win, the game has lost its charm for him.  When his master needs medical treatment, Malik  learns to drive and gets a job working as a chauffeur at a British estate.  It is there that he learns how chess can connect to warfare and how chess players, with their ability to think ahead, can be useful in predicting outcomes in battles.  Eventually, he leaves England and the chess life, heads to New York, and befriends a blind, elderly woman who becomes his special mentor, a woman who lovingly teaches him to read and write, speak well, and pursue some new intellectual interests.  The final section returns to the narrative of “Norman LaMotta,” and the ultimate fate of Malik Mir Sultan Khan.


Author Paolo Maurensig

The novel attempts to fulfill an extraordinary number of admirable goals, and it succeeds with many of them.  It moves quickly and provides innumerable insights into chess, its history, and its connections to Indian spiritual karma, and it touches on issues related to India and its connections with the outside world. Its likable characters of varying cultures and different outlooks add breadth to the characterizations, themes, and visions of life. Ultimately, the author Maurensig’s confidential and relaxed, almost conversational, tone draws in the reader and makes even a newcomer to chess feel like part of the narrative.  Though the novel would have benefited from a tighter plot with fewer locations and subplots, few novels these days have as much élan as this one does.  I recommend it highly to those looking for some fresh insights into new worlds at a time in which many are desperately searching for a change of pace.


1930 rolls royce

While working for his mentor in NYC, Sultan Khan drove a 1930 Rolls Royce.

Photos: The photo of Sultan Khan appears on https://www.amazon.com

The pouncing tiger is found on https://www.pinterest.com

The Ganesha model may be found on https://www.123rf.com

The author’s photo is from http://www.paolomaurensig.it/

The 1930 Rolls Royce appears on http://greatentertainersarchives.blogspot.com


REVIEW. PHOTOS. Exploration, Historical, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Paolo Maurensig
Published by: World Editions
Date Published: 01/12/2021
ISBN: 978-1642860436
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Note:  This novel was the National Book Award WINNER for 2020.

“Ever since you were a boy, you’ve dreamt of being Kung Fu Guy.     You are not Kung Fu Guy.    You are currently Background Oriental Male, but you’ve been practicing.     Maybe tomorrow will be the day.”

cover Interior Chinatown

Young main character Willis Wu spends the most important parts of his life at the Golden Palace, a Chinese restaurant/film studio in an unnamed time period in an unnamed English-speaking city.  As Willis, whose parents were immigrants, lives his life there and in the broader enclave of Chinatown, his creator, author Charles Yu explores Willis’s reality,quickly constructing level upon level of different “realities”  and creating an experimental novel, often satiric, which includes the reader from the opening pages.  Visually, the “novel” appears to be a screenplay, its typeface resembling the pre-computer look of a typewritten script.  Willis, an actor in a film being made in off-hours at the Golden Palace, is being addressed by an unknown “director,” who may be his own inner self.  The “director” is realistic in evaluating Willis’s chances at improving his role from that of Background Oriental Male to his ideal role, that of Kung Fu Guy, the hero.  Willis’s family has been in the film business at the Golden Palace for a generation;  his father was once a major actor in the films shot there, though his role has now been reduced to that of Old Asian Man.  The roles of his mother and Older Brother are also explored in brief paragraphs of introduction, like the role descriptions of a script.  Quotations from the action of the film are indented and set off, and possible interpretations are emphasized by the unidentified author/director addressing the unknown reader –  “you.”


Many Chinese immigrants worked and participated in the making of films at a restaurant called the Golden Palace, which may have resembled this one.

Willis was born in the United States, but he and his Chinese family, like many other Asians, have always lived and worked in Chinatown.  Their limited opportunities and outlooks are part of the social fabric of the period, though no dates are provided.  Immigration policy in the US from 1921 on, was based on a “National Origins Formula,” allowing foreign-born people to become citizens but not allowing them to own property or businesses. In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act was passed by the 89th Congress and signed by President Lyndon Johnson, ending the quota-based National Origins Formula.  By then, however, many groups of immigrants had created their own lives in communities, like Chinatown, made up almost entirely of people of their own backgrounds.  As Willis and his family live their lives – and maintain memories of their past by participating in the shows and films made at the Golden Palace – the full picture of what is lost to society and to the immigrants who have come to the United States begins to become clearer.   Willis, a young man, wants to feel success, and the best way for that to happen, as far as he can see, is to stay where he is and progress through the various roles open to him as a film participant, hoping to move, in time,  from Delivery Guy, Silent Henchman, or Generic Asian Man to, eventually, King Fu Guy.

bruce lee king of king-fu

This biography of Bruce Lee gives his philosophy of life and the importance of Kung-Fu.

Being Kung Fu Guy is the highest “rank” possible for the films Willis is in, but Willis also “worships” Bruce Lee, considered the King of Kung Fu.  Not only did Lee create an entirely new fighting system and philosophical world view, but he was proof that “Not all Asian men were doomed to a life of being Generic.”  For Willis and many others, Lee was “Not a man so much as a personification, not a mortal so much as a deity on loan to you and your kind for a fixed period of time. A flame that burned for all yellow to understand, however briefly, what perfection was like.”  Willis’s older brother was also “an A-plus-plus” in Kung Fu, could “grab the rim” in basketball, excelled at karaoke, spoke Korean, and, best of all, was a National Merit Scholar with a 1570 on the SAT.  He was “the ideal mix of assimilated and authentic.”  And then, suddenly, it was over.  “The dream had ended,” and Older Brother disappeared from his life.  Before long, Willis himself has died in one of the episodes in which he has been acting, and that automatically requires him to stay out of film for 45 days of unpaid leave, a difficulty for him on all fronts.

Author Charles Yu

Author Charles Yu, celebrated for his novels and winner of the National Book Award for this one.

When Willis finally returns to acting, he meets Karen Lee, a young woman with one quarter Taiwanese heritage, with whom he falls in love. Eventually, however, Karen gets her own show and leaves Chinatown for the suburbs.  Willis is close to being Kung Fu Guy, and stays behind hoping to achieve success so that he can then join Karen.  Eventually, Willis sees how limited his outlook has been, and in a long-delayed epiphany, he heads to the suburbs to touch base again with Karen.  In the process he commits a crime for which he will face serious consequences.  The trial is a classic comedy sketch, built around the fact that his lawyer’s defense is based, in part, on the fact that the Chinese are “legally” Indians because both groups were descended from the same Asiatic ancestors, a case litigated in 1850.  Long-standing issues of race in America come to the fore, as Willis and others recognize that even if someone is Kung Fu Guy, he is still guilty of playing the role of a Generic Asian Man, someone who has not assimilated. The conclusion contains an unexpected twist.

A book by Margaret Sands Orchowski regarding the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

A book by Margaret Sands Orchowski regarding the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

A book that is in many ways unique, Interior Chinatown makes a clear case regarding inequality and the ways that members of minority groups may sometimes encourage it unwittingly – as in becoming a “generic” character.  These conclusions, however, are developed within a novel which has great humor, irony, and a sense of understanding for the victims and the lives they sometimes choose to live.  Reality here is multi-leveled – the “novel” is actually a fictional screenplay, the characters are often playing generic roles, “dead” people can sometimes return to life, and big change is not only possible but even encouraged.  At the end of the book, Willis encapsulates a new philosophy:  “You are not Kung Fu Guy….Take what you can get.  Try to build a life.  Sometimes, things happen.  Mostly they don’t.  Sometimes you get to talk.  Mostly you don’t.  Life at the margins, made from bit pieces.”

Photos.  Many Chinese immigrants worked and participated in the making of films at a restaurant called the Golden Palace, which may have resembled this one.  https://www.weekendnotes.com

The pictured biography of Bruce Lee gives his philosophy of life and the importance of Kung-Fu.  Willis Wu worshipped him and his achievements.  https://www.abebooks.com

The author photo is from https://www.nytimes.com

THE LAW THAT CHANGED THE FACE OF AMERICA, about the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 is written by Margaret Sands Orcowski.  https://www.amazon.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Coming-of-age, Experimental, Historical, Humor, Satire, Literary
Written by: Charles Yu
Published by: Vintage
Date Published: 11/17/2020
ISBN: 978-0307948472
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

cover-past-the-shallows3Note: Each year I enjoy looking at the statistics for this website to see which reviews here have garnered the most interest.  Reviews which have been on the site for several years have the advantage of popular recognition which newer books have yet to receive.  This year, in a big surprise, the first twenty books, in terms of reader interest, are evenly divided.  Ten books reviewed here are new to the site within the past five years, and ten books have had reviews on the site for six to ten years.  Here are the oldies-but-goodies that are still in the Top Twenty Reviews after six to ten years.  The Top Ten most popular new books have been posted separately.

cover-kartography1 Favel  Parrett Past the Shallows.  Posted August 1, 2014.  (Tasmania, Australia)  A special  note:  The review for this book is, and has been for several years, the most visited review on this site, with 50% more hits than any other review on the entire website.  (I don’t know why.)

2.  Donal Ryan–The Spinning Heart.   Posted Feb. 27, 2014.  (Ireland)

3.  Kamila Shamsie–Kartography.  Posted Jan. 15, 2011.   (Pakistan)

4.  Jo Nesbo–The Redeemer.  Posted Feb. 28, 2011.  (Norway)

cover-ru-197x3005.  Irmgard Keun–The Artificial Silk Girl.  Posted June 28, 2015.  (Germany, pre-Nazi)

6.  Kim Thuy–Ru.  Posted Nov. 19, 2012.  (Vietnam, Canada)

7.  Kate Atkinson–Started Early, Took My Dog.  Posted Mar. 26, 2011.  (England)

8.  Muriel Spark–Not to Disturb.  Posted Jan. 20, 2011.  (Scotland, Switzerland)

9. Roberto Bolano–The Insufferable Gaucho.  Posted January 23. 2011. (Chile)

10. Muriel Barbery–Gourmet Rhapsody.  Posted June 19, 2011.  (France)

cover-redhead-side-roadNote:  Each year I enjoy looking at the statistics for this website to see which reviews have garnered the most interest.  Reviews which have been on the site for several years have the advantage of popular recognition which newer books have yet to receive.  This year, in a big surprise, the first twenty books, in terms of reader interest, are evenly divided.  Ten books reviewed here are new to the site within the past five years, and ten books have had reviews on the site for six to ten years.

Here are the newer reviews, with links.  The older reviews will be posted in a separate list:

1.  Michael Cunningham – A Wild Swan and Other Tales.  Posted Dec. 28,/2016.  (United States)cover-secrets-kept1

2.  Anne Tyler – Redhead by the Side of the Road.  Posted April 6, 2020. (United States)

3.  Richard Wagamese – Starlight.  Posted Sept. 6, 2018.   (Canada, Aboriginal Nations)

4.  Lara Prescott – The Secrets We Kept. Posted Sept. 23, 2019.  (Russia, US)

5.  Maryse Condé – The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana. Posted July 5, 2020. (Guadeloupe, Mali, France)

cover-night-boat-tangier6.  Ian McEwan – The Cockroach.   Posted October 14, 2019.  (England)

7.  William Boyd – Love is Blind.  Posted Oct. 24, 2018.  (England, Scotland, France, Russia)

8.  Valeria Luiselli – Lost Children Archive.  Posted Jan. 9. 2020.  (Mexico, US)

9.  Daniel Hornsby – Via Negativa.  Posted Aug. 15, 2020. (United States)

10. Kevin Barry – Night Boat to Tangier.  Posted Sept. 17, 2019. (Ireland, Spain)

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