Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Back Reviews Reel: March 2013

March 2013 has been a very productive blogging month. Among other posts I published altogether five reviews, three of contemporary novels and two of well-remembered classics. Two of the books are from the pen of women writers, namely an early novel by the French writer Simone de Beauvoir and an Italian bestseller by Susanna Tamaro. The others were written by men and comprise a much acclaimed collection of short stories by James Joyce and two fictionalised double biographies by Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, and by German-Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann respectively.

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In his fictionalised double biography The Way to Paradise Peruvian writer and Nobel Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa interweaves the life stories of French trade unionist and early women’s rights activist Flora Tristán (7 April 1803 – 14 November 1844) and of her famous grand-son, the post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin (7 June 1848 – 8 May 1903). Using flashbacks and stream of consciousness, he shows them as a woman and a man who are kin, but never met and yet share certain rebellious character traits driving them on in their eternal, though vain struggle for the ideal life free of the limitations that social conventions imposed on them. Theirs is a world of constant fight, hardship and increasingly failing health that prevents them from reaching their goals.

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Under the simple and yet expressive title The Blood of Others the young and still unknown Simone de Beauvoir brought out an impressive story of war and resistance in German-occupied Paris, France, that is at the same time a coming-of-age novel. The female protagonist Hélène is young and naïve, but she soon learns what it means to be truely committed to a cause... and to a man. Life in the French Résistance requires difficult choices that sometimes imply horrible consequences. She realises that getting involved in actions against the Nazis means sullying her hands with the blood of others, something that her friend Jean only realises faced with her death. Nonetheless, both are convinced that freedom is such an important value that it justifies all sacrifices.

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The early collection of fifteen unrelated short stories that James Joyce titled Dubliners chronicles all important stages of middle class life in Dublin around 1900 making the bow from childhood over adolescence to adulthood and eventually death. Its protagonists are more or less passive sufferers who lack the courage to break free from tradition and fear of God or simply of change. They have long resigned to their fates, to hopelessness and to their conviction of being worthless, so not one of them seizes the opportunity to make a decisive step towards the better when it presents itself. They prefer the accustomed and apparently predestined which makes them sad, but also remarkably authentic types peopling Dublin.

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The bestselling epistolary novel Follow Your Heart by Italian writer Susanna Tamaro gives account of over eighty years in the life of Olga. After a heart-attack the old woman who lives alone in her house in Trieste in Northern Italy feels the need to re-evaluate her past and to set things right with her nameless granddaughter in America before it’s too late. She writes a series of twelve letters to the young woman whom she raised and who left unhappy, angry and confused because too much had remained unsaid between them. At last, as a kind of late confession and spiritual legacy, Olga breaks her silence and reveals to her granddaughter not just her entire life with its many ups and downs but also her scarred soul encouraging the young woman to always follow her heart – unlike herself.

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In Measuring the World Daniel Kehlmann recounts the lives as well as characters of naturalist-geographer Alexander von Humboldt and mathematician-physicist Carl Friedrich Gauß. The first was born into a rich family of minor nobility in Berlin, Prussia, in September 1769 and wished to catch the essence of life measuring everything as a travelling explorer. The other, the son of a man who scarcely managed to make ends meet, was born in April 1777 in Braunschweig in the duchy of the same name and stayed in the region (more precisely in Göttingen) during most of his life to explore the mathematical patterns governing life. Their lives could hardly have been more different, but as old man both have to accept that life escapes them in a double sense. 

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