Amy Ryce

How must it feel to be absolutely displaced, stripped of your beloved family and culture, in a faraway land? How does identity travel with you, and how is that identity transformed as you change? These questions are at the center of Louisa, a new novel by Simone Zelitch.

Like A Thousand Acres, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Jane Smiley, Louisa offers a modern interpretation of a classic story. While Smiley's novel retells the story of King Lear and his daughters on the rolling green hills of Iowa farmland, Zelitch opts for an Old Testament tale. Louisa draws on the biblical story of Ruth, the Moabite princess who follows her Israelite mother-in-law to her homeland and adopts her religion. Zeltich moves the characters to post-war Europe, where a young German widow named Louisa follows her Hungarian mother-in-law, Nora, to Israel in 1949.

The novel begins with the arrival of two weary women in Israel. As Louisa helps Nora onto an Israeli refugee bus, she is immediately identified and stigmatized as a German by the bundled and traumatized Jewish passengers around her. The relationship between Nora and Louisa, and the struggles they face, become the focus of the novel. Zelitch's motivation for writing came from a strong desire to explore the displacement and destruction of the Jewish people during and after World War II. As a teacher with the Peace Corps in Hungary, she sought answers to her questions about the Holocaust in the sturdy faces of her Hungarian students, in the abandoned and blown-out synagogues she struggled to comprehend, and in the fact that her town had a Jewish cemetery, but no living Jewish residents.

Louisa begins with a situation so open-ended, one wonders how the author will ever bring the ends together. The two women spend much of the novel trying to find Nora's Zionist pioneer cousin Bela, who has founded a kibbutz. The steady voices of the characters hold the novel together, as memory leads through to memory again. Those voices hold the reader through the strange and unlikely tales of this fascinating book.

Amy Ryce writes from Charlottesville, Virginia.

How must it feel to be absolutely displaced, stripped of your beloved family and culture, in a faraway land? How does identity travel with you, and how is that identity transformed as you change? These questions are at the center of Louisa, a new novel by Simone Zelitch. Like A Thousand Acres, the Pulitzer Prize […]

The Lucky Gourd Shop tells a modern, realistic tale of how three Korean siblings come to be adopted into an American family. The narrative voice of Joanna Catherine Scott and the intriguing structure of her novel combine in an irresistible concoction that crosses cultural and generational boundaries. Scott uses her acclaimed poet's eye to enhance the rich imagery of Korea as she deliberately draws the reader into her lilting narrative.

The delicate issues of abandoned children and their birth parents are familiar ground for Scott, who has adopted three Korean children. The Lucky Gourd Shop has a lyrical counterpart in Scott's award-winning collection of poems, Birth Mother. She has written about Southeast Asia as well in her collection of testimonials, Indochina's Refugees: Oral Histories from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Structurally, The Lucky Gourd Shop is a story within a story. It begins in an American kitchen with a disappointing letter from Seoul inquiries about the children's birth family have resulted in only a handful of skewed facts. Scott responds to the disappointment felt by the children and their foster mother by opening up the world of Seoul, Korea, and imagining their birth mother's story. The reader is allowed to glimpse what the children will unfortunately never know about their parents and heritage.

Each adult character in the novel contributes somewhat to the children's destiny, and Scott is careful to paint each parent in a sympathetic, yet realistic light. Mi Sook, their uneducated mother, is torn between her immediate responsibilities to her family and her long-term dream of financial security. Kun Soo, their laborer father, generates familial chaos through his need for sons and self-worth. Ultimately, the reader is forced to wonder how the children would react to the story of their parents if the beauty and sadness of the story could ever translate into forgiveness for being left behind. In The Lucky Gourd Shop, Scott has revealed herself as a compassionate foster-mother as well as a fresh and compelling author.

Amy Ryce writes from Charlottesville, Virginia.

The Lucky Gourd Shop tells a modern, realistic tale of how three Korean siblings come to be adopted into an American family. The narrative voice of Joanna Catherine Scott and the intriguing structure of her novel combine in an irresistible concoction that crosses cultural and generational boundaries. Scott uses her acclaimed poet's eye to enhance […]

Summer is a time for gripping books filled with action and adventure, and Akhil Sharma's novel An Obedient Father is not for the faint of heart. Sharma, a young and well-respected author, has painstakingly crafted an absorbing first novel that recalls the conflict and characters of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.

The story takes place in modern India and revolves around the startling experiences of an unimpressive older man named Ram Karan, who lives in a tiny flat with his widowed daughter and his traumatized granddaughter. His boring job and lackluster personality enhance, rather than dilute, the richness of the plot.

This novel is about crime and the mental battles that precede and follow it. The crimes committed by Sharma's characters range from incest and assassination to a shocking level of government corruption. Is planning a crime worse than knowingly allowing one to happen by accident? Passivity and powerlessness can be crimes as serious as murder, depending on the circumstances. Prepare to be stunned by the power of guilt, which can easily destroy or redeem.

Along with arresting psychological exertion, look forward to informative descriptions of Indian city life, historic religious power struggles, and government structure. Sharma explains the characters' surroundings simply, making it easy for those who have never been to India to imagine how the crowded Delhi streets teem with life, or how the rooftops of the city seem to recede into the sunset from the windows of Karan's flat.

Sharma describes the waves of tension that sweep through the city after the Sikhs assassinate Rajiv Gandhi. The development of the government's upheaval following Gandhi's assassination, along with Karan's frightening experience of it, yields a solid understanding of how the government is meant to function, and how weakness can destabilize it.

The author creates an interesting and exotic world, giving life to realistic characters of ambiguous morality. Instead of populating his steamy novel with good guys and bad guys, Sharma fills An Obedient Father with evil victims and pitiable villains. An interesting literary dimension awaits the reader at every turn in this fine debut novel.

Amy Ryce writes from Charlottesville, Virginia.

Summer is a time for gripping books filled with action and adventure, and Akhil Sharma's novel An Obedient Father is not for the faint of heart. Sharma, a young and well-respected author, has painstakingly crafted an absorbing first novel that recalls the conflict and characters of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. The story takes place in […]

Dalai Lama, My Son: A Mother's Story is the autobiography of Diki Tsering, mother of the 14th Dalai Lama. She recently died in Darjeeling, India, where she had lived in exile with her family and the Dalai Lama. Being published at the same time is Transforming the Mind, by the Dalai Lama himself, (Thorsons, $20, 0722540302) which attempts to demonstrate ways of transforming difficult life situations into opportunities for spiritual growth. The two books use different methods to demonstrate the same theme: refinement through perseverance.

Dalai Lama, My Son tells how Diki Tsering lived through the drastic transformation from a hard-working farm girl on the high Tibetan plains to an esteemed political figure at the center of an international debate. She reveals life at the heart of Tibet's difficult relationship with communist China, the persecution of the Tibetan people, and her family's sorrowful flight to India in 1959. Diki Tsering explains her difficult transitions not as trials to overcome, but as inevitable and cleansing paths to follow.

I was named Sonam Tsomo. My birth name belongs to another life. Most people know me as Diki Tsering.

Ever since I went to live in Lhasa, I tried to become Diki Tsering, with all the social forms and graces that go with that name. Adventure lurks at every turn. Even in the calmly relayed chapters that describe everyday farm life, the reader will learn how women give birth in the stable, alone, and how terrifying superstitions about ghosts explain deaths from disease or malnutrition. The story transforms in the second half of the book from cultural history lesson to exciting fairy tale adventure. Diki Tsering's son, known from birth as Lhomo Dhondup, undergoes strange trials leading to his new identity as a reincarnation of the Buddha. The family travels on a dangerous three-month journey from their farm to Lhasa, where Lhomo Dhondup will be received as Tibet's revered leader, the Dalai Lama. Communist Chinese lurk everywhere, and disguise is the only hope of the persecuted. Unfortunately, this exotic fairy tale is reality, and the Dalai Lama continues to teach about compassion as an exiled man.

Amy Ryce is a writer in Nashville.

Dalai Lama, My Son: A Mother's Story is the autobiography of Diki Tsering, mother of the 14th Dalai Lama. She recently died in Darjeeling, India, where she had lived in exile with her family and the Dalai Lama. Being published at the same time is Transforming the Mind, by the Dalai Lama himself, (Thorsons, $20, […]

The conflict between fundamentalism and mainstream society is familiar across cultures and centuries. We've seen it emerge within religious faith, between faiths, and even wearing the mask of politics and human rights. Will the people that violate my beliefs ever give up? I can't stand it anymore! It can make a person mad enough to be an extremist! Or an anti-extremist! In The Battle for God, Karen Armstrong gives satisfying attention to this ever-frustrating, ever-enduring issue. She shows the tense relationship between mainstream society and fundamentalists to be the result of resistance to an aggressive move towards modernization. As a former Catholic nun turned Oxford scholar, Armstrong's credibility is reinforced by her current position as professor of comparative religion at the Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism. She practices what she teaches: compassion and understanding between disagreeing traditions.

Western civilization has changed the world. Nothing including religion can ever be the same again. All over the world, people have been struggling with these new conditions and have been forced to reassess their religious traditions, which were designed for an entirely different type of society. Armstrong develops an enlightening historical comparison between fundamentalist movements in the major monotheistic faiths: Sunni and Shii Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. By isolating the development of each in a clearly written historical context, she shows how vastly different religious traditions, often at odds with one another, actually share a crucial characteristic. Armstrong takes the reader back to 15th century Spain to make her point, which is that each embattled movement has sprung from a total dread of modernity. By showing how modernism and fundamentalism are fed and strengthened by each other in a symbiotic relationship, Armstrong encourages understanding between opposing sides instead of continually intensifying resistance. In fact, while Armstrong recognizes fundamentalism as truly modern, she notes that extremism can distort and thereby defeat the original beliefs it hopes to preserve, and that mainstream society's suppression of fundamentalism avoids a core issue of cultural preservation. Amy Ryce is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.

The conflict between fundamentalism and mainstream society is familiar across cultures and centuries. We've seen it emerge within religious faith, between faiths, and even wearing the mask of politics and human rights. Will the people that violate my beliefs ever give up? I can't stand it anymore! It can make a person mad enough to […]

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