The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

In Julian Barnes’ novel, The Sense of an Ending (Penguin Random House, 2011), we meet a narrator in the long tradition of the sad-sack loser telling his story. Anthony (Tony) Webster, resident of London, now in his sixties, looks back on his life from present time. The novel begins as Tony recalls his days as a student, a time when his life appeared to have a good deal of promise. We meet him as a teenage schoolboy in a public boys school—“public” being the British for “private”—pondering, along with his best friends Alex and Colin, certain grand philosophical issues, such as What is history?
Continue reading

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

I listened to the audiobook of Purity (FSG, 576 pages) as I was held captive on a thirty-five hour road trip. Although the first fifty pages or so had some wit and interesting characters, such as Andreas Wolf, a Julian Assange persona, Purity soon devolved into stylistically bland chicklit. Jenna Lamia narrates the part of the twenty-something title character, with, appropriately for the writing style, that special millennial lilt that seems to run out of energy at the end of every sentence. The remaining 526 pages were concerned with relationship negotiations between men and women, children and parents. People complain, worry about their self-image, elaborate the details of “he said, she said” and, instead of having interests in the world, all the characters try to control and manage how other people feel about them. The characters are pure self-interest without any self-reflection. Worse yet, the plot is straight about of a women’s drug store novel: Purity’s love relationships fail as she seeks a father figure, having grown up without one. Confronting hard economic times and suffering through dead-end jobs, she finally stumbles upon her father and discovers that she is an heiress.

Seriously. An heiress. Continue reading

Far Bright Star by Robert Olmstead

Readers unfamiliar with Robert Olmstead’s lyrical style will be delighted to discover this prolific and productive midwesterner’s work. In Far Bright Star (Thorndike Press, 279 pages ) the newest tale of the West, Olmstead weaves a minimalistic account of one man’s confrontation with his mortality and the deeper reaches of the human psyche.

Napoleon Childs is a noncommissioned officer in the U. S. Expeditionary Force sent into Mexico to get the sometimes bandit, sometimes revolutionary Pancho Villa. Detailed to scout for signs of the elusive Villistas, Napoleon leads a squad of green recruits and seasoned soldiers into the trackless Sonoran desert, where they are ambushed by a strange and savage band of independent outlaws. Led by a mysterious woman, the renegades are principally interested in Palmer, a trooper who has maimed a prostitute in the village where the army is bivouacked.
Napoleon, captured and tortured, is the lone survivor of the attack, left to make his way back to tell his story. Continue reading

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

“All were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be.” (Roger Bevins III, p. 304)

Okay, so what happens when we die? Writers of fiction have been peering across into that unfathomable abyss from time out of mind. You might even say that this is what great fiction writers do: they look at the grand questions, and especially at immortality, or the lack thereof.

George Saunders’ rather ironic take on the afterlife (Lincoln in the Bardo, Random House, 343 pages) goes roughly like this: after death some of us get caught up in the fulgurant thing called “the bone-chilling firesound” of the “matterlightblooming phenomenon.” Amidst lots of explosions and smashing to smithereens—imagine something like the shoot-em-up-blow-em-up special effects of Hollywood—this phenomenon transports us off to . . . well, the author never tells us exactly where. Is it a nice place? That’s a good question. At times there are suggestions that it might be fine, but only for the better-behaved of human beings in their fleshy existence, and not even for all of them. Continue reading

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

The Idiot (Penguin Press, 423 pages) is a debut novel by a young writer who promises to do big things in the future. Apparently the title, borrowed from Dostoevsky, refers to the main character and narrator of the story, Selin Karadag (the g is silent), who is a young woman from New Jersey of Turkish background (like the author herself). Far from being an idiot, Selin—in this novel prominently featuring words and languages—is highly intelligent. At age eighteen, as she enters Harvard University, she already speaks English and Turkish fluently, has a passable knowledge of Spanish. Over the course of the book she studies, as well, Russian and Hungarian. Her quest for new words is insatiable. Continue reading

Worthy of This Great City by Mike Miller

This tale of the inner workings of city politics in Philadelphia, Worthy of This Great City (Jam Publishing, 249 pages), is what you might term an impressionistic novel. Meaning that it consists of a plethora of descriptions of people and scenes with very little progression of plot. The reader steps back from the many colored dots and contemplates the thing as a whole, and that’s when it begins to come into focus.

Teeming with characters who play minor roles, the book has essentially only two main characters. The first of these is Constantine Manos, an investigative journalist, who is doing a feature article on the second, Ruth Askew, a radio personality on a local station and the wife of Councilman Thom Askew. Continue reading

The Tale of the Bastard Feverfew: One Man’s Journey into the Land of the Dead by U.R. Bowie

I like a book that’s unafraid of big themes, and this one has a beauty: mortality itself, the reality waiting behind our illusions of security. It’s a mythic idea, Orpheus’ descent into the underworld, and Bowie clearly intends us to understand it in terms of the universal as well as the particular.

The Tale of the Bastard Feverfew
(Ogee Zakamora, 342 pages) begins rather slowly and at too much length, but pacing is less of an issue once the Palm Sunday riot at the Southwest Ohio Correctional Facility is fully underway and the initial explosion of violence settles into unmitigated tension. Length works then, mimicking the ongoing, endless strain. Personalities emerge, and we begin to hold our breath. Continue reading