Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Review: War by Candlelight

From the author’s website:
Something is happening around the globe: mass movements of peoples, dislocations of language and culture in the wake of war and economic crises —simply put, our world is changing.

As I previously mentioned, a neighbor of mine suggested that I read War by Candlelight, a book of short stories by Daniel Alarcón*. Actually, she suggested I read it about a year ago and lent me her copy. It fell to the bottom of my “to be read” pile and stayed there. I know it doesn’t really make sense, but I am always so apprehensive about reading a book that is recommended by a friend. And this was a book of short stories. I never read short stories.

The neighbor came over for dinner recently and I tried to give this book back to her, as I felt bad for keeping it for so long. When I told her that I had never gotten around to reading it, she grabbed the book out my hands and opened it to page 17, the first page of the story “city of clowns.” Read it tonight, she told me, you don’t even have to read the rest of the book, just read this story. Feeling chastised, after she left I sat down and read the story. Long story short, as you can guess, I loved the story. I finished it, and then flipped back to the first page of the book to read the rest of this collection.

As the quote at the top of this post alluded, and the title of the book more directly references, the overarching theme of this book is conflict. Much of it is real war, bloody and fought in jungles and streets. The rest is the quieter kind of crisis that takes place in our lives. I liked these stories more, to be honest. “City of clowns” is probably my favorite story in the book, though “third avenue suicide” and “a science for being alone” were also excellent, and quite moving. It’s the personal relationships that give these stories weight.

Globalization, movement and place are strings of themes that echo through these stories. It’s hard not to reference the author’s real life in light of this. As the biography and Q&A at the back of the book explain, Alarcón was born in Lima, Peru, raised in Birmingham, Alabama, educated many places, including Iowa, and now lives in Oakland, California. This is a man who knows what it is like to be new in town and to revisit a familiar town, only to find out it is no longer familiar.

Several of the stories suffered from what is a common complaint I have about short stories: too short! With such little space to write, these pieces felt like interesting sketches about a character or a place; they are evocative of mood but not much more. It will be interesting to read a longer work by the same author. Fortunately, Alarcón’s novel Lost City Radio was published in 2007, so we won’t have to wait.

Buy War By Candlelight on Amazon.

* In the interest of full disclosure, I need to share that I know Daniel Alarcón, albeit just in passing. He is also a neighbor of mine, though not one I have over for dinner. We’re more at the “say hello when we bump into each in the parking lot” level. But this review wasn’t spurred because of that. I didn’t have to review (or even finish) this book; I honestly liked it and wanted to share.

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