Thursday, June 26, 2014

Carnival by Rawi Hage

“Everything ends with a flight, I thought…”
O strange and wondrous story of an ordinary man “conceived on the circus trail by a traveler who owned a camel and a mother who swung from the ropes.” This story of a circus performer-turned-taxi driver is perhaps not as strange as Hage’s last novel which featured a cockroach. Suffice it to say, Hage wants to take us out of our comfort zone so that we really look at what his characters are experiencing, thinking, and saying.

The sympathetic and unnamed narrator, friend of society’s underclasses, both invokes and evokes Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude, as he was gifted a large library which fills his small apartment to overflowing. He spends his free time reorganizing the volumes according to a personal and impressionistic system.
“Dead protagonists take priority over triumphant, happy-ending characters but are surpassed by books with open-endings books that don’t have moral conclusions. Novels with open endings I consider to be of a higher rank; hence they are located before novels with happy endings, which I often call religious or “resurrection” endings…As for historical novels, they are organized based on the name of the winner of the first battle that appears in the book. For instance, War and Peace will be filed in the N section, N in reference to Napolean, of course...and here, if you look above the toilet…all libraries must submit to a certain order…“

Our narrator is called “Fly.” When asked if it refers to the insect or the action, he answers “I’m not sure.” But I think I might know. Once his mother, in a state of mental distress, came in from the circus outside and saw her son shivering and naked, cold and wet from a storm.
“She called me some other name. And she laughed when she saw me naked and stared at me. Flying man, she kept on saying, flying man, let me please you. And she drew me close to her bosom and kissed my neck and her hand swept across my skin and touched me and held my erection and stroked me until I came. There you go she said now you can leave and march towards your desert and your stone.”
Fly is a taxi driver in a city that sounds like New Orleans to me; there is a week-long annual Carnival that involves much of the city. He alternately calls his taxi his boat, his plane, his ride, his car. He “flies” to pick up fares or to get home. Or to escape.
“There are two kinds of taxi drivers: the Spiders and the Flies. Spiders are those drivers who wait at taxi stands for the dispatcher‘s call or for customers to walk off the streets and into their hungry cars….Flies are wanderers, operators who drive alone and around to pick up the wavers and the whistlers on the edges of sidewalks and streets…I am a wanderer.”

Fly masturbates on a carpet that his true father had left him. One suspects it is a prayer rug, but it suits Fly to lie on it and fantasize endlessly, his mind filled with dreams of “gladiators, sailors, or women in need of rescue.” Fly does occasionally share his seed with women, but he prefers to be alone, perhaps to concentrate on his imaginary world rather than working to please another.

Violence has a central role in this narrative. Violence is part of our worlds, though it is visited more upon some than others. Fly himself is violent, though he seems to use it more as a means of communication rather than from psychopathy. Taxi drivers begin to turn up dead, killed in gruesome ways. The litany of the dead recalls Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 in which he lists endlessly the names of Mexican girls killed in the desert over a period of years.

The victims in this novel are male immigrants on the night shift. We are set up to imagine the killers of the taxi drivers to be the work of two feral boys who grew up rough and live under an overpass by a river. Fly knows the boys, and tries to help them but finds his efforts too little too late. One of the boys’ mother is a drug addict, the nominal “father” a pimp. “I don’t judge those who can’t dream…” Fly says.

Other people are murdered: a psychiatrist, an industrialist, a college professor. The boys admit to these murders, though the mystery of the taxi drivers remains unsolved. By the end, nearly everyone close to Fly is dead or disappeared. He flies.

Every review I have looked at picks out different authors or works of literature of which this book is reminiscent: Calvino, Kafka, Wallace, O’Toole are a few, but I suspect there are many more. Hage is aligning his story of a neglected underclass of misfits with the vast body of literature, and placing his group in that hallowed hall. Why shouldn’t it be there? he seems to be asking. Their lives are as interesting and telling as any other. Their lives are our responsibility.

In a remarkably difficult but revealing interview with CBC Radio 1's Q host Jian Ghomeshi, we learn a little about the Lebanese Canadian author Rawi Hage. Hage, born in Lebanon, lived in the United States for a few years before moving to Montreal. He thinks of himself as integrated but he has that “outsider” vision allows him to zero in on cultural touchstones and problems.
“There is a war out there, and believe me, Fly, it was never really between Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Crusaders, and Confucius. The final battle is between those who love, respect, and liberate the body and those who hate it, Fly…”
Thus the masturbation, and the library--feeding the body and the brain. But real food is another story.
“Communists and Muslims are not the enemies to fear in this land, Fly. It is the food consumption that will eventually blow up in everyone’s face.”

Hage is a very interesting man and author. I think he could have helped us out by making his story more user-friendly; I had to work hard to get somewhere with this and I’m still I’m not sure I got all that he meant. I do think Hage is doing something unique…he has his own style and his own subjects. I hope I have the opportunity to see his earlier work.

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

I Am Pilgrim: A Thriller British-born Terry Hayes’ filmography runs to nearly twenty films. Perhaps best known in the U.S. for Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome, he was also script writer and producer of Dead Calm, the horror/thriller that featured a couple alone on a yacht on the Great Barrier Reef when murderers come calling.

Now, Hayes' debut novel is an espionage wunderkind that was originally published in 2013 in England by Bantam and Transworld Press and came out this summer in the U.S. Re-released in hardcover this year by Atria and in audio by Simon & Schuster, it is making a huge splash in the summer reading market.

I just finished two nonfiction spy histories: Ben MacIntyre’s new A Spy Among Friends about spies in Britain and Kai Bird’s The Good Spy about American spies. I thought I was done with spies for awhile, so imagine my surprise to discover Hayes writes about espionage as well. But Hayes’ operative, code-named Pilgrim, is run straight from the White House (!) by The Whisperer, an old White House insider who appears to be dying, maybe from throat cancer. (?)

Hayes luxuriates in the ability to tell detailed backstories about all his characters, for a novel has the potential to have far more of everything than a screenplay. Like many mysteries and thrillers, this novel has the de rigueur two threads: A young white lesbian is killed in New York City and a terrorist gets mujahideen training in Afghanistan. What is absolutely gob-smacking is how the two threads actually come together in Turkey.

The proof that a U.S. billionaire was murdered in Turkey has the most far-fetched daring inter-continental plot solution--even the characters themselves are skeptical. But brazen and ingenious it is, and one has to hand it to Hayes. He brings his understanding of film to the world of fiction.

Perhaps I am a little risqué for some folks, but I would suggest this story is a young adult title. The level of detail of actions and motivations would make it exciting reading for teens. There is some gun violence, but bodily harm is mostly done to Pilgrim himself. Since Pilgrim is describing it, it’s more interesting than fearsome. The good guy Pilgrim does some bad things, but his heart is in the right place. Even the bad guy, undeniably evil, has reasons for what he does. There is one person, however, that is bad through and through. That is the killer of the young woman in New York.

The story solves both crimes, but one killer escapes to kill another day, which must be why this book is called Pilgrim #1 on Goodreads. The first book of a series, it is sure to garner a large and enthusiastic audience. I listened to this on Simon & Schuster audio, read very capably by Christopher Ragland, and was provided with the audiobook by Simon & Schuster in exchange for an honest review.

Thriller readers everywhere are sure to be entranced with this finely constructed mystery and I immediately recommended the title to members of my family who enjoy thrillers.

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Friday, June 20, 2014

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things I loved this huge story. Sometime last month I came across a years-old video interview of Gilbert by the author ZZ Packer. Gilbert’s responses were so natural and open, it reminded me how much I admired her bestselling memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. I remember thinking of that book that I would never have revealed as much of myself as she had, but she is still doing it! She just blurts out what she thinks and instead of liking her less, we like her more. It helps that she has a commodious, first-class mind; I find her absolutely irresistible.

Books about early world-wide plant-seekers have always been a favorite of mine. Gilbert recreates the awesome wonder of the major botanical gardens and gives us the deeply imagined personality of Henry Whittaker, the Englishman who built a plant empire at White Acre in Pennsylvania. We are treated also to his daughter, Alma, who comes to take over the business and become a scientist and businesswoman in her own right.

Along the way, we come across all that life can throw at one: the joy of discovery, the humiliations in love, the pain of communication, the heartbreak of misunderstanding, the excitement of finding purpose and direction. Gilbert held me rapt as she added layer upon layer of gloss to the story until the whole had a three-dimensional depth and distance of a lovingly created terrarium featuring a world long past. I was a child again, and I willingly succumbed to her vision.

The book wasn’t without its moments of humor or depth of purpose. Gilbert raises something that seems to me momentous in our understanding of the world. She points out that struggle is the necessary impetus to change and to growth in the world and for individuals. It is the part of life we often like least but is the most necessary for our survival. Those who turn toward the challenge may often better manage the change that comes than those who deny or fear “the great changes that life brings.”

Once again Gilbert has shown her skill in creating an easily-read story which carries with it great truths. I am delighted she was able to turn her attention to fiction, since despite her work on nonfiction in the past, she claims her interest has always been to write fiction. I can’t wait to see what she will come up with next. By the way, this is the perfect summer read: big, engrossing, fabulous.

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Giveaway - Good Morning, Mr. Mandela by Zelda La Grange

Good Morning, Mr Mandela
I am pleased to be able to offer a giveaway of this title which came out June 19th in South Africa and was embargoed around the world until that date. Zelda La Grange was a twenty-something white Afrikaner who became a typist and close personal assistant to Mr. Mandela. She is the first among Mandela's inner circle to write a memoir.

Very little has been written about this book in advance of its publication, but Zelda La Grange's Facebook page gives you some idea of the kind of reaction people are having to the fact of the memoir. Some press reports are coming out now. The reason I thought this memoir would be an interesting one is because on La Grange's Facebook profile she reprints The Four Agreements. I'd heard of the book by this name, but I'd never looked inside that book to see what the four agreements actually were. I really like them, and it seems like Mandela would have liked them, too. This is a a rare opportunity to get an intimate portrait of the man called Madiba.

The Viking Division of Penguin Random House has offered a copy of this book to a reader of my blog to coincide with the the on-sale date in stores. I have not yet read it, but will be reading it along with you this summer. I will choose from among interested readers on June 24th and will contact the winner by email to ask for you address. Viking Penguin Random House will send the book to you directly.

A winner has been chosen! Thank you everyone. There was great interest in this title. I subsequently reviewed this title along with the winner of this giveaway and you can read our reviews here.
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Monday, June 16, 2014

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames Kai Bird believed Robert Ames exemplified the best of American values: sober, diligent, thoughtful, and fair. Ames was an enthusiastic family man, and despite being occasionally short of funds, he wanted a big family. When stationed in Washington, he often kept regular work hours, leaving at the same time every morning and arriving home in time to listen to music and read a bit before dinner with the family. When someone keeps a regular schedule, it is difficult to imagine what goes on in the hours he or she is gone, and Ames’ children never knew until his death that he was not the Foreign Service officer he purported to be.

Ames’ career as a covert CIA agent spanned the decades from the nineteen fifties to the eighties, when he was killed in the 1983 Beirut Embassy bombing. Outside of his personal life, Robert Ames has always been a device. During his lifetime he was a device for listening to and interpreting activities in the Middle East and a means by which to influence events. Now he is the contextual device by which Kai Bird personalizes and focuses his history of the modern Middle East featuring cameos by important players.

I’m not sure how I convinced myself I needed to read another book about spies. I must have been in the midst of Ben McIntyre’s compulsive read, A Spy Among Friends, when I agreed to take on this true tale of the American spy Robert Ames who was operating about the same time and same location as the infamous British mole Kim Philby. After finishing McIntyre’s book and PBS documentary and doing the attendant research, I admit to exhaustion with the idea of spies. I have a better idea of what they do but I can’t say I am particularly impressed with what they accomplish.

Spies often feel the same way. Bird quotes letters from Ames to his wife in the 1980’s in which he says he feels he has written the same cables over and over during his career and “nothing seems to change.” Of course, he was writing of the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict which even today is no closer to resolution, despite Ames’ help in preparing the ground for the 1993 PLO-Israeli Oslo Accords.

It is tempting for us civilians to imagine the CIA as an agency of super-humans, knowledgeable and capable beyond the capabilities of ordinary folk. But however good they are, these individuals operate in a deadening bureaucracy peopled with outsized egos holding differing opinions, and they may be held hostage by swift changes in policy that come with newly elected officials and administrations. Bird explicates the environment in which Ames navigated, introducing us to Ames’ superiors (Duane “Dewey” Clarridge, among others) and presidents (including Reagan and Bush), and concludes that everyone gets cynical after years in the Agency. Bird reports that some CIA officers are amazed when academics are found to have “incredible understanding” of political scenery overseas despite having no access to confidential information or restricted cables. (!)

Robert Ames was an Arabist. Bird paints him as a serious man, not given to frivolity or drinking and carousing, in contrast to many operatives at the time (the British esprit and bonhomie appeared to revolve around alcohol). Ames had an earnestness about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue that he acted upon by forming a liaison with a close associate of Yassar Arafat, the flamboyant Ali Hassan Salameh, with whom he corresponded throughout his years studying the Middle East. Bird goes to great lengths to cast doubt on Salameh's involvement in the 1973 Munich Massacre at the Olympics. Ames was sympathetic to the Arab position and distrusted the leadership in Israel, and apparently did not believe Salameh would take such an action. Bird, the son of two Foreign Service Arabists, appears to agree with this view. Bird writes that “all the Foreign Service officers who spent any time in the Middle East felt a deep sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians.”

Bird writes in detail about the changing alliance of Arab factions and how one group would morph into another with the death or sidelining of one or another key player. With this background we can chart in hindsight the growth in strength of radicalist factions in the Middle East, and locate particular times when things might have been steered differently (other than eliminating people we disagree with). What remains chilling is how little we know despite our “intelligence,” and how little we affect for good the larger picture.

Perhaps Robert Ames deserved his own book; I thought Bird’s final chapters in which he places Ames’ work in the context of larger happenings in the Middle East more instructive than focus on a bookish Arab specialist bushwhacking the CIA bureaucracy. I am suspicious of people called “fine examples of American values” simply because America has so often proven herself tone deaf and ignorant rather than a courageous and open-minded example of democracy at work. I am not sure, however, that Bird was lauding the man Ames so much as showing us that his type of covert CIA officer, the learned specialist who dignifies with his consideration positions our political leadership claims to oppose, may be a better risk for us as a country to take than to have extrovert, fast-talking non-specialist operatives offering our stated enemies monetary bribes (in English!), thinking they’d “recruited” them. Probably both are necessary, if only to keep one type from thinking they "know it all," though I often wonder about the use of the Agency for intelligence-gathering anyway. Surely a giant bureaucracy is hardly the way to obtain secrets.

In the end, I found I was more interested in the broader context of Ames’ work in the Middle East, and in the final chapters after the Beirut bombing, Bird expands from Ames to give us the larger context. It is in these chapters that all the personal attempts by various individuals acting in their own circles come together to create a drama large enough for the world stage. All the personalities begin to make sense and we see places we might have had a moment for rapproachment. One could argue that Ames died without accomplishing his dream of ending the Arab-Israeli conflict but that Kai Bird’s retrospective of his work in context shows us both the errors and the possibilities for the future.

That this book is written today may be another indication that the tide of public opinion is shifting in America regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. Historians and reporters may write unpopular positions but they usually don’t get recognition unless there is a groundswell of appreciation of their arguments. My guess is that the tide is (finally) shifting to support of the Palestinian cause. With this history we can see the outlines of American policy in the Middle East in the past fifty years. Bird makes no excuses for Israeli intransigence on the issue of a Palestinian state and instead highlights Israel’s role and responsibility for current conditions in the Middle East. There are indications the American public is ready to hear this argument. Our government will come along when we do.

Random House Audio provided me with an audio of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Sunday, June 8, 2014

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel Anthony Doerr's highly praised second novel was published in May 2014, just months before the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in Normandy. The book is a useful link for today's youth to understand events and conditions in Europe during the Second World War, and the lives of individuals on each side of the conflict. A young French girl flees occupied Paris to stay with her father's brother on the French coast, and a young German orphan boy with exceptional aptitude for radios is drafted into the German army. The fact of the D-Day battle becomes their point of overlap.

Doerr’s work has been lauded right from his debut story collection, The Shell Collector: Stories, published in 2002 when he was recognized as a Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers pick. Since that time he has been awarded the Roma Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among other awards. Doerr has published several collections of short stories, and his first novel was called About Grace, published in 2005. This latest offering should probably be classified as a Young Adult or teen title (age 10 and up) and is garnering top marks and much praise.

Doerr has a graceful style and his careful craft in setting the scenes will entrance a younger reader. There is much sympathy generated for both the French girl, Marie Laure, who is blind, and the German boy, Werner. Werner looks on his army service as a chance to get out of the workhouse and an employment future that includes mining. His military training and his officers are presented with a jaundiced eye and ambiguity, while his cohort in the ranks have sympathies that resonate with our own.

I note that many adults often like to read fiction that can be labelled Young Adult (e.g., The Hunger Games, and the Twilight series) and it is becoming common to mesh adult and teen titles in marketing. This is a charming story, if such a thing can be said about war. However, I did not feel it added depth to my understanding of the conflict in Europe. Doerr brought the history of the two protagonists to the present day, which might also help younger readers to place the event in time, and find some grounds with which to relate to the material.

Simon & Schuster was kind to send me an audiobook in exchange for an honest review. Regarding the audio production, Zach Appleman has a pleasant American accent and he did a good job pacing the narration. His pronunciation of French and German words and accents were not authentic though, oddly enough, his pronunciation might make the words more recognizable to younger readers.

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Any Other Name by Craig Johnson

Any Other Name (Walt Longmire, #10) The very first sentence of Johnson’s latest Longmire adventure mentions coal trains. Shortly afterward Lucian Connally, Longmire’s old boss and retired sheriff of Absaroka County, tells a story about ways to die on a coal train. I’m not giving anything away by saying that Longmire uses another of his (how many?) lives to escape a coal shuttle train in the course of his investigations. A little more ragged, a little more scarred, he limps toward the future that includes a very pregnant and emotional daughter Cady, and that irrepressible and foul-mouthed Under Sheriff Vic Morretti.

I don’t think I was aware of coal in Wyoming. “The single largest source of coal in the United States, the Powder River Basin contains one of the largest deposits in the world and has made Wyoming the top coal-producing state since the late eighties.” We hear a lot about coal in West Virginia, but I hadn’t thought about it in Wyoming. This information gave me the impetus I needed to look into the (unsurprising) Wyoming Senator John Barrasso’s position on recent changes to EPA standards on carbon emissions. I wish Walt would weigh in on the logic of his representatives. Something along the lines of “Which do you think is more important: our livelihoods or our lives?"

The timeline in this novel is short…I think all the action takes place in a matter of days. Longmire is not in Absaroka County, but in the neighboring Campbell County, where an old friend of Lucian’s has apparently killed himself. In investigating the death, Longmire uncovers a series of kidnappings of young women that no one in Campbell County seems to consider connected. Lucian describes Walt Longmire as a gun: “Once you point him and pull the trigger, it’s too late to change your mind…you’re going to find out [what the mystery is], one way or the other…I’ve never seen him quit, which is where most of ‘em ain’t up to snuff.” And Longmire doesn’t quit on this one, either, though he’d have plenty of reason to do so.

A white buffalo makes an appearance again in this episode, a symbol considered holy and rare and meaningful. Walt has two dream sequences of this creature, which might mean one’s desires will come to fruition, once at the beginning of the case and one near the end. The case was solved, but not without damage. You may need to refresh your memory about the myth by rereading a portion of the earlier episode, HELL IS EMPTY, in which Walt follows a band of escaped convicts to the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area to search for the grave of a victim called White Buffalo. The whiteout snow conditions featured in that earlier episode are reprised here as well. It sounds deadly.

We meet some new and unforgettable characters, including a young rookie, Corbin Dougherty, and the villain Curtis Hansen, nicknamed “Thor.” But mostly the legend of Walt Long-Arm-of-the-Law Longmire continues to build. Craig Johnson’s Longmire has a compelling view of law enforcement that considers shades of gray and has a dial for “intent.” We like him on our side, at our back, and on our bookshelves.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani

The Secret History of Las Vegas: A Novel The lavishly talented poet, novelist, playwright, and publisher Chris Abani began his writing career in Nigeria at sixteen with a satirical political novel, Masters of the Board, and followed up with political plays meant to be performed on the street. He was jailed in Nigeria three times in the 1980s, then moved to England and onward to the United States. He continues to accumulate awards for his edgy poetry and prose, publishes The Black Goat Poetry Series, an imprint of Akashic Press, and teaches English at Northwestern University. Abani was raised Roman Catholic and while a teen studied in the seminary.

Abani’s latest novel is about betrayal and illusion, and how sometimes they might be the same thing. Humans betray all the time, intentionally or not, and we recognize the guilt or pain the characters confront as they examine large and small betrayals in their own lives. Sunil is a mixed-race South African transplant to Las Vegas where he works in a government lab, the Desert Palms Institute, as a scientist and co-director of a research project.
“Now Sunil thought of Las Vegas as home. That’s the thing about having always been a displaced person; home was not a physical space but rather an internal landscape…[though] Vegas is really an African city…a grandiose tomb to itself…Just like in every major city across Africa, from Cairo to his hometown of Johannesburg, the palatial exteriors of the city architecture barely screen the seething poverty, the homelessness, and the despair that spread in townships and shantytowns as far as the eye could see.”

Sunil knows something about a body dump just outside Vegas city limits near Lake Mead. Soon-to-retire Detective Salazar wants to solve the miserable case of multiple murders that has stretched on for years and, when he comes upon a possibly sociopathic pair of conjoined twins near the site, he calls Sunil for help.

It is here that Abani shows his particular sensitivity and skill in recognizing and representing the lives of outsiders. He parallels Sunil’s story as a Black Indian growing up in South Africa (doubly estranged from powerful White society under apartheid) with the conjoined twins who are part of The Downwinder Nation, a group committed to the eradication of dangerous military research in Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. Many of the Downwinders feel betrayed by their government because they are victims of that research, manifesting mutations as a result of being improperly protected from nuclear testing.

Illusion is another theme that runs through the narrative, and the conjoined twins, as freaks in the sideshow of a circus, understand and exploit this aspect of Las Vegas. Sunil himself has photos on the wall of his office that show zebu, the cattle of his childhood, so uniquely marked with spots that from a distance they look like flocks of birds resting on hillside, a spotted Rubik’s Cube, or a tarot deck. The Desert Palms Institute, supposedly working for the good of mankind, may actually be harming it.

Abani writes a dark story about the underside of glittery Las Vegas but ultimately the story is redemptive. South African Security agent Eskia trails Sunil from Joahnnesburg with a vendetta of his own, and Brewster, Sunil’s boss, rules the Desert Palms Institute lab with an unethical expediency. Neither escape the traps they have set for others.

Sunil has more than one woman in love with him, and he is capable of loving each. Sheila is a woman who works with him, and Asia is a prostitute. Sunil has ambiguous feelings about Asia’s work, but resolves it by explaining to Asia that "'prostitute' comes from the Latin verb prostituere. As a verb, it could mean that one is a prostitute only while having sex for money, rather than all the time, as when the word is used as a noun. Sunil is not granted resolution in the matter of the women so that we wonder at the end if these folks will reappear in a novel yet to come.

Abani’s great skill--what sets his work apart from many others--is rooted in his use of language, and his deep and abiding humanity in view of great inhumanity.

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