Synopsis: Few writers can match journalist Donald Katz’s ability to make an exotic locale familiar or transform an ordinary place into something peculiar if not completely weird. The Valley of the Fallen and Other Places gathers a pastiche of stories from around the world, each of which subtly underlines the relationship between geography and politics. Locations, counties, regions of the world emerge as characters in Katz’s panoramic cast–as fully drawn as the unusual people that occupy them–so that one realizes of each particular account, that this could only happen in a place like this.
The setting for each of these pieces–whether home or abroad–provides a resonant backdrop for Katz’s startling perceptions and cultural acumen. He paints a portrait of Spain in which people are dying of political repression and vividly depicts Italy in the throes of a postwar capitalist hangover. Katz describes Arkansas, its history of racial strife notwithstanding, as an “American cultural ark” where respect for old-fashioned gumption and the tolerance for human eccentricity have fostered a renaissance of spirit. He captures the poignant ruin of political ideals gone amuck in the image of columns of Ethiopian children being herded through the night at gunpoint, undergoing political re-education. Katz’s observations of the Sinai, where “beliefs, convictions, even hunches become howling zeal,” contrast with Santa Fe’s “philosophical cogitating and quality-of-life improvement projects” in a New Age mecca that breeds tamer but equally fervent faiths.
The cumulative effect of reading this eclectic collection is one of wonder about the mysterious and dazzling world in which we live, and the way our lives are shaped by our place in it.
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