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"rovingreader" (Little Compton, RI USA)

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Sepharad
Sepharad
by Antonio Muñoz Molina
Edition: Hardcover
11 used & new from CDN$ 3.64

4.0 out of 5 stars Love, Suffering and Loss, Feb. 18 2004
This review is from: Sepharad (Hardcover)
In this novel Munoz Molina sets out to do the impossible, to remember those who have perished in the great disasters of our century and before. As he says, "Love, suffering, even some of the greatest hells on Earth are erased after one or two generations, and a day comes when there is not one living witness who can remember."
The narrator begins with his own story, but soon he is encompassing the lives and memories of both historical and fictional characters. Primo Levy makes an appearance, as does Franz Kafka. What they all have in common is having endured suffering and loss.
Sometimes the narrator addresses himself, sometimes he takes on another's identity to see better through his or her eyes. "YOU ARE," he says late in the novel, "ANYONE AND NO ONE, the person you invent or remember and the person others invent or remember."
Fiction, history and memoir thus blend together over time and space. The novel is structured in a series of chapters, each of which deals with either the narrator or another character. The Holocaust is a major theme, as are the Stalinist purges and the Separdic diaspora, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella.
At times, especially in the beginning, it's hard to keep track of the different speakers, but gradually the methodology becomes clear and the different narratives come together in the narrator's voice to form an effective and very moving whole. Ultimately, then, this is a lyrical, questioning, anguished novel that suggests that any attempt to pay homage to the suffering of the dead is only temporarily successful.

Great Fire
Great Fire
by Shirley Hazzard
Edition: Hardcover
49 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

3.0 out of 5 stars The Naked Emperor, Feb. 9 2004
This review is from: Great Fire (Hardcover)
The illustation on the jacket of the novel reproduces J.M. Turner's famous painting, "The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons," a conflagration that threatened a civilization based on law. Its counterpart in the novel is World War II and the fiery destruction of Hiroshima. This straightforward comparison is the only obvious thing about this novel, which makes for a difficult read. There are certain books that however beautifully written, do not amount to the sum of their parts. Hazzard gives us a gorgeously robed empoeror, or so it seems, but the question is if his robes are what they seem, or if they are made of air.
The novel opens with the arrival in Japan of Aldred Leith, a hero with a background the details of which we learn only in time, and even then indirectly, through what other characters say and how they react to him. Divorced, traumatized by the war, he is in Japan to study the impact on the survivors of Hiroshima. Right away, he meets Benedict and Helen Driscoll, the brilliant, young--twenty and seventeen--son and daughter of an impossible Austalian couple with whom Leith is billeted. Benedict is dying of a degenerative disease and soon Helen will be left alone, loveless, and at the mercy of her awful parents.
Helen and Leith fall in love, and the novel is the story of their overcoming of the odds that confront them in the shape of their age difference, the antagonism of Helen's parents, and a world in despair, still devastated by war. Few of the characters know what they want or how they will get it when they do know; everyone is passive, suspended, demoralized by the effects of the great fire, the war. Leith returns to England, Helen is taken to Australia by her parents, Benedict is dying alone in California. When the lovers finally take the initiative and come together, Leith having traveled to Australia to rescue Helen from exile, Helen having rebelled against her parents, he thinks to himself, "Many have died. But not she, not he; not yet."
This is, in fact, the last line of the novel, and it is the most direct statement of what Hazzard is up to in a narrative that works almost entirely by understatement and indirection. Beautifully written, it is nonetheless a frustrating book to read, perhaps because the portentousness and weightiness of the prose lead the reader to expect more than Hazzard gives. At the heart of the difficulty is the central love affair. The attraction between Leith and Helen is first sparked by their mutual love of literature and Helen's appreciation of Leith's kindness to her dying brother. She falls in love with his love for Benedict--almost, at least according to Othello, Desdemona loves him first for "the dangers I had pass'd / And I lov'd her that she did pity them." Indeed, there is a Shakespearean quality to Helen, who sometimes resembles the youthful heroines of the comedies, Rosalind in As You Like It, for instance, or Viola in Twelfth Night.
But ultimately, as with any fictional relationship, the reader has to accept this unlikely pair, and therein lies the rub for those who cannot, of which I am one. In the end then, although I found myself constantly rereading paragraphs simply to savor the beauty of Hazzard's prose, I decided the emperor was naked.

The Last Secrets of the Silk Road: In the Footsteps of Marco Polo by Horse and Camel
The Last Secrets of the Silk Road: In the Footsteps of Marco Polo by Horse and Camel
by Countess Alexandra Tolstoy
Edition: Hardcover
14 used & new from CDN$ 17.21

2.0 out of 5 stars Day by Day on the Silk Road, Feb. 8 2004
I have to admire the spirit and determination that motivated four young women to travel the Silk Road on camel- and horseback; also, author Alexandra Tolstoy is clearly an able and talented person. That said, however, I have to admit that I found this a boring book about a fascinating part of the world. The narrative is rigidly chronological: it starts at the beginning and ends at the end, with little deviation from the set path. Surely that's one way of writing about a journey, but it isn't always the most interesting.
Tolstoy's voice lacks the authority and/or theoriginality essential to good travel literature. I think, for example, of Paul Theroux's many travel books, or, more specifically, Tom Bissell's recent "Chasing the Sea," in which Uzbekistan comes alive. While readers may take exception to many of his opinions, at least he has them, and one sees the world through his eyes. Tolstoy may well go on to write a better book, but this one sounds more like a catalogue than a shaped narrative. If you're planning the same kind of trip, it would be helpful, but if not, look elsewhere.

Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia
Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia
by Tom Bissell
Edition: Hardcover
25 used & new from CDN$ 2.12

4.0 out of 5 stars How to Eat a Sheep's Head, Feb. 5 2004
Or how not to;one of the most vivid scenes in this vivid book centers on Bissell's confronting a sheep's head that, for politeness's sake, he must sample.
The book is the story of Bissell's travels in Uzbekistan in 2001, when he returned to the scene of his truncated stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in the mid 1990s--illness cut short his service at that time--illness, and a certain lack of commitment to the cause. One of the funnier things in the book is his riff on the Peace Corps.
His mission this time is to write an article about the vanishing Aral Sea, but it takes Bissell a long time to get there in the company of a a young Uzbek called Rustam, who plays Sancho Panza to Bissell's Don Quixote. Readers thus learn more about the country's past and present than about the ecological disaster that is the Aral Sea, although it too gets its chance at the end of the book.
For me, the considerable charm of the story was the unique quality of Bissell's voice. He comes across as funny, smart, compassionate and serious. Although some readers may be put off by the meandering quality of the narrative, it seems to reflect the author's openness to experience, and to the people he meets along the way. Bissell has views on everything, and he is not afraid to state them.
This book may not persuade you to visit Uzbekistan, but it will tell you what this Central Asian country is and was like and it will introduce you to the people who live there. Bissell also works a lot of history in and around the story of his adventures, and does so in a very palatable way.
In conclusion, if you like good travel writing, you will like this book; if you like opinionated travel writing, you will like it even better.

Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx
by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Edition: Hardcover
39 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars the Complexity of Poverty, Feb. 4 2004
The title says it all; love, drugs, trouble, and coming of age in the Bronx is what this compelling book is all about. At the heart of the book is the story of two women, Jessica and Coco, whom LeBlanc follows from their teen-age years into their thirties. The reader becomes familiar with their complex, extended families and in time, their men and their children. LeBlanc, a journalist with a background in law and sociology, leaves no stone unturned in portraying inner-city life. The amount of detail may seem overwhelming, but in time it all fits into place and serves to enrich the story. Jessica's long-term relationship with Boy George, a successful heroin dealer who ends up in jail, and Coco's with Cesar, Jessica's younger brother, who also is incarcerated, are the keystones on which the narrative rests. LeBlanc never oversimplifies or talks down to the reader, nor does she resort to platitudes about poverty, welfare, and the failings of the underclass. The reader gets to know these women intimately, and to feel both frustration at their failures and admiration for their temporary victories over themselves and their circumstances. As I read, I wanted them desperately to succeed, and yet when they didn't, I understood.
In the end, then, this is a heartbreaking book because there seem no easy solutions in sight, only victims. It's pretty obvious that Coco and Jessica's many children are only going to suffer the same fate as their mothers, that they too will struggle endlessly against their lot in life.

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