"Fallen Leaves" by Shirani Rajapakse

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In Shirani Rajapakse, the small and long-suffering island of Sri Lanka has its voice of reason, its staunch advocate for the local people shredded in the maw of bloody insurrection. Rajapakse, award-winning poet and writer, casts her tired eye and her energetic pen to the multiple civil wars - only concluding in 2009 - waged on her island. Fear and greed and loss and genocidal mania emerge as the main themes in these poems, and the reader is never relieved of them. This steady load of sorrow mirrors exactly Sri Lanka’s unending grief, and lends this collection its magisterial weight.

Ms Rajapakse sings of displaced peoples, of the haunted look in a grieving mother’s eye, of baked and ruined earth, of greed, hypocrisy, and the murderous folly of the powerful. The poet explores multifarious points of view to record the destruction: the bereaved mother, the wife for whom hope is fading, the child soldier dressed in belts of bullets, barely able to carry his weapon. Dogs and cattle too witness the destruction, and smell the arresting odor of blood soaking the dusty ground.

Striking also, is the thought-provoking measurement of distances: from the living to the remembered dead; from the place of death to where the bodies are discovered; from the midnight knock on the door to the first, exhausted glimmering of hope; how far refugees must walk to find safety; from reason to ghastly reality. These gulfs yawned for far too long for poor Sri Lanka; Ms Rajapakse attends to the work of bridging them.

The title “Fallen Leaves” refers chiefly to the dead: soldiers and civilians alike. In “Anuradhapura, the Sacred City,” after two elderly Buddhist monks are murdered by terrorists: “Bodhi leaves whispered / your last rites as the breeze / gently bore it down to you lying there / where once sat a man / a woman, a human on earth …” Falling leaves are introduced by this elegy, and the very next poem, “The Lonely Watch,” focuses on a lone soldier on guard, listening for footsteps in the leaf litter, and then: “Fallen leaves, fallen heroes / there was something poignant about it all / he mused as he cocked his gun at the sound of the wind / nudging the old leaf next to him …”

Such stark realities populate this series: baked by an angry sun, sorrowful, regretful at the folly of humanity. This moving collection will remain a scathing indictment of the Sri Lankan factions at the root of the chaos, and a bright highlight of Ms. Rajapakse’s career.

"A Vist from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan

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Author Jennifer Egan puts into her characters’ consciousness a purported saying that time is a goon, and the rough treatment these denizens have at the hands of time makes up the plot of this novel. This story represents, in fact, one long, indiscriminate, and mostly rude visit from the goon which is time. We witness youngsters in the ‘80s punk world: they wear their partisanship like a safety pin piercing, swearing fealty to this band, that singer, the true-to-the-cause club they all go to. We encounter a varied cast, but at the center are Bennie and Sasha, the impresario/record producer and his assistant.

Egan presents her diverting cast as it careens from one crisis to the next - I try to part the thicket, and succeed only partially. Bennie and Sasha occupy central roles, as I said, and we get Bennie’s wife Stephanie and his unending series of mostly unidentified  paramours; Stephanie works for a PR executive who goes by the moniker La Doll, until an unmitigated disaster at a gala event forces her to change her name and join the soft underbelly of the publicist’s ilk. She even has her nine year-old daughter Lulu along when they witnesses a Latin American dictator fly into a rage and arrest an American film actress, who seems doomed to find an ignominious end.

The moral assumptions these characters make strike one with their callousness and calculation, although some characters swing well to the other end of the spectrum, a dizzying and unpredictable spectacle. Don’t look for a unified plot here. Look instead for sweep of time, for characters in the midst of crisis and resolution, and especially find dark humor and sharp observation of sketchy morals at work.

We bounce around in time, a little, but mostly time is the inexorable force mutating people’s appearance and approach to life, the insensate goon who pays everyone a visit everywhere. It’s hard to know whether to recommend this vivid but disjointed work. By all means pick it up if the ‘80s punk scene fascinates you; if outrageous and life-threatening scenes get your heart a-pumping; if watching the ravages and regrets from time’s irresistible march speaks deeply to you, this is the place to go. Otherwise, pass.