Author du Jour: Kathleen Hill

She-Read-to-Us-cover-smallShe Read to Us in the Late Afternoons: A Life in Novels,” by Kathleen Hill

(Delphinium Books, pp 224, $24.00)

Here is a book that could easily be missed out. So delicate in tone and style that it reads like a minuet. It is precisely the finely chiseled and graceful sentences that make this sonorous book all the more moving. Its topic, on the other hand, reads more like a symphony. A multi-layered memoir, which deals with the life of books and their influence on our lives, but without ever becoming cacophonous. Its impact, however, could not be louder, so much the ideas tackled are gigantic. You would have to be tone-deaf to miss the point Hill is driving home.

She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons” is about the rendition of a courageous young American idealist taking a teaching job in Nigeria in 1963, and who thinks she is going to remake the world. If her memoir could be a grain of sand, each chapter describes a unique universe of self-questioning, which echoes with so much truism that you will catch yourself nodding as her journey progresses, with universal truth. Big frictions are raised. The validity of a western education, which displace traditional values and cultures, in the name of economic development. It is not just the horror of the ivory trade, as in “Heart of Darkness,” or the indoctrination of charmed African workers laboring merrily in coffee plantations as in “Out of Africa,” but also the disruptive voice of “When Things Fall Apart” which departs from the accepted discourse of obvious legacy of the white man’s burden.  And Hill does not fall in the trap of explaining all the whys.

What makes this memoir so captivating is that the journey is undertaken through fiction novels. Hill excels at navigating through the labyrinth of her trajectory back to the source of the long river of colonialism, starting back at Badagry. What is it like to read “Portrait of a Lady” thousand miles away from home, in the darkest jungle? Can books really teach us anything if they taint our reality with fiction from other worlds? Of course, there is a chapter on “Madame Bovary,” who epitomizes de facto the issue of self-deception. Chances are we have all been infected with Bovarism somewhere in our life. Though a work of non-fiction, “She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons” come in a world increasingly globalized to make us ponder over our decisions and lives. Is anyone immune at all? Are you living your life or the one expected from you? “She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons” will keep you pondering.

Author du Jour: Elliot Ackerman

DarkatCrossing-smallDark At the Crossing,” by Elliot Ackerman

(Alfred A. Knopf, pp 256, $ 25.95)

Here is an author whose fiction cannot be separated from his life, or, if you indulge me, whose novels are based on his life. Once a marine, with an impressive five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ackerman is now a journalist based in Istanbul, from where he has been covering the Syrian Civil War since 2013. “Dark at the CrossingAckerman’s sophomore novel, after his much-heralded debut novel, “Green on Blue,” like its predecessor, deals with characters trapped in the middle of a brutal conflict. The conflict here is not just the obvious Syrian debacle, but also the one of a failed marriage. Ackerman comments on the genesis of the novel as an insight he had while meeting a revolutionary friend turned refugee. The man was having a conversation with his wife on the phone, and after he put the phone down he stated: “I was unfaithful and she’s never forgiven me.”

The unfaithfulness here is the revolution, the belief, the inspiration, and hopes it breeds while commanding enormous sacrifices. For Ackerman a revolution is a like a marriage: two souls come together and unite to form a new ideal. When a marriage fails, parties have to reenter or recreate a new reality, often with extreme suffering. This insight lies at the core of “Dark at the Crossing.” It is a novel of fragmentation and dissolution, where sacrifices can only meet grief, insanity for the fight of lost causes. Add the loss of a child to the mix and you get a gut-squirming novel, written with the spare prose of an unforgiving Hemingway. There’s darkness all around, and perhaps a different kind of redemption. But don’t expect Hollywood, with its compulsory tendency to romanticize all situations, where a couple would develop the ultimate love, to rescue you. Wars, no matter how we look at them, are no favorable breeding grounds for love. Life, however, still pulses below, and this is where you will find the best of humanity, that the novel succeeds in capturing.

Author du Jour: Andrew Gross

One-Man-Gross-smallThe One Man” by Andrew Gross

(Minotaur Books, pp 418, $26.99)

The One Man” marks a radical departure for Andrew Gross. His past novels (nine and counting) were all in the pure thriller genre, a craft he learned straight from the Lord himself, James Patterson, with whom he co-authored several novels. “The One Man” however is a war novel, set in WWII, with a thriller plot. A daring move for an author of this caliber with a large following. But audacity combined with skills and originality can only translate in superior work, which is what “The One Man” bears witness. The characters have gained depth. Descriptions are layered, breathing life, while the plot is more organic and humanly warmer, an anachronism despite being set in a death camp.

In this finely chiseled engaging novel, a Polish-descent polyglot intelligence officer, Nathan Blum, is offered the mission of a lifetime: enter Auschwitz and escape with one of the prisoner, a professor named Alfred Mendl, who is believed to hold crucial secret that could put an end to the folly of the Third Reich. The ending will not be disclosed here . . . but the novel questions the nature of meaning and devotion to a cause, especially when the involvement calls for huge personal sacrifices for the good of all.