Review: The History of Light by Alvaro Cardona-Hine Print E-mail

light(Bloomsbury Review July/August 1998 Volume 18, Issue 4)

A Micro-Memoir

In an age of the overblown life story—the thousand-page literary biography, the five-hundred-page family saga, the three-hundred-page celebrity confession—at last we have something manageable: Alvaro Cardona-Hine’s micro-memoir, The History of Light. In fifty-six half-page or less prose vignettes, he gives us the story of his childhood’s first love, precious in its brevity, precocious in its romance.

Costa Rican-born and raised, Cardona-Hine recalls his infatuation for a blond German girl whom he knew briefly before the Second World War. The unnamed she is everything to his blooming heart—sensitivity trainer, blushing accomplice, wild enticer. Most of all she is muse, the source on which he projects his metaphoric awakening. This German girl, an exotic in the Latin/African mix of Caribbean Costa Rica, beguiles him constantly.

Review: When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography by Jill Ker Conway Print E-mail

when_memory_speaks(San Diego Union-Tribune March 22, 1998)

A Mostly Male Form

Jill Ker Conway, feminist historian of memoir, knows the form firsthand. Her best-selling The Road From Coorain (1989) captured her indomitable family and hard-knocks girlhood in the Australian outback as well as her self-sufficiency when that family was plagued by loss.

True North (1994) showed her immigrating to the United States to study history at Harvard and later to teach at the University of Toronto, where she specialized in women's issues. Now, with When Memory Speaks, Conway charts the slow, at times ossified, growth of memoir over the last 200 years.

Review: Grace and Favor by Thomas Caplan Print E-mail

grace_and_favor(San Diego Union-Tribune January 4, 1998)

Because They're Entitled Is Why

Call Thomas Caplan's novel Grace and Favor a romance of multinational capitalism, with corporate takeovers and insider trading at the heart of its pithy intrigue.

Call it also a classic tale of self-conceit, in which England's landed gentry (a notch below royalty) show that entitlement must endure, at any cost. The moral value to which this class is born is clear: Hold on to an estate, to wealth, to family honor.

And yet, according to Caplan, the gentry's most prized possession is its ability to rub out any threat against its mossy primogeniture. Caplan, an American, sets his story in England, where an American, John Brook, has married the very beautiful Julia Midleton-Lygham.

Review: Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty Print E-mail

gracenotes(San Diego Union-Tribune September 14, 1997)

Song of Ireland

What is it with Ireland and its writers?

Why do so many leave—Joyce, Beckett, Frank O'Connor, Frank McCourt—and then, in one guise or the other, write the story of their exile?

Must every tale mix unforgiving parents, oafish young men and an inhospitable Catholicism that dislocates the artist's bones and resets them, stronger at the broken places, in another country? Such questions shadow Bernard MacLaverty's fine Grace Notes. Composer-protagonist Catherine McKenna is like the author: AWOL from the armed camp of Northern Ireland.

Review: The Saskiad by Brian Hall Print E-mail

saskiad(San Diego Union-Tribune February 9, 1997)

An Epic for Our Times

What captured my eye no doubt captured yours: That ancient-sounding title with the "-d" suffix, -d for epic. Indeed, the gall of Brian Hall to claim epic status for his novel, a self-promotion few writers would dare. Yet it is not long into this absorbing, protean contemporary story of a 12-year-old girl’s search for her mysteriously absent father, before we realize the claim is justified. Few novels published in a given year have Hall’s magnificent compassion and intellectual daring. Why not say it: This is a masterwork of fiction.

Not only are there reverberations to Homer’s The Odyssey and Melville’s Moby Dick, both sea-faring journeys away from and back to home which Hall evokes geographically and psychologically. But the author also parallels those books for themes of alienation and the importance of home. Much mischief cometh from one little "-d."

Review: The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion Print E-mail

didion(San Diego Union-Tribune September 19, 1996)

A Postmodern Disaster

What's a reader to do when one-bewildered-third of his way through Joan Didion's The Last Thing He Wanted, a novel ostensibly about arms-smuggling to the Contras in 1984, the story's mercurial narrator announces she has "lost patience . . . with the conventions of the craft (i.e., novel writing), with exposition, with transitions, with the development and revelation of `character' "? A reader can a) persevere, b) marvel at the artistic feat of salvaging some intrigue from the wreck of obscurity, or c) lose sympathy with Didion's characters, who appear to be no more than sacrificial pork penned in the cold-war sty of Ronald Reagan-led misadventure in Central America. Can-do kinds of readers can do all three: persevere, marvel and lose touch. Persevering, we meet Elena McMahon, a reporter for The Washington Post and a well-to-do divorced mother of a disconsolate grown daughter.

Review: Jigs and Reels by Michael Stephens Print E-mail

Jigs and Reels(Furious Fictions #3 October 1993)

Lucky you! Lucky me! Michael Stephens' prose offers us a choice. We can listen purely for pleasure to the sonorous wording and deft rhythms of these imaginative pieces, captivated by such marvels as "Sparrows,` which begins: "Dull tan, homeless, bleached brown, some even brindled, there is perpetual vagrancy to them, as though their only purpose were to cadge quarters from passersby, or ask for a cup of coffee."

Or we can receive careful instruction in the craft of prose compositions--the running sentences, the lack of connectives, the tonal registers, the stylistic illusions--in works like "The Runaway," in which clauses flow with rowboat regularity, gliding across the surface without once going under, to explain why the boy returned home.

The rest of the review is available here (opens a PDF).

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