The Plague by Albert Camus

plagueComposed in 1948, Albert Camus’ The Plague (Vintage International, 308 pages) is a study of human habit and frailty in a time of widespread destruction and crisis. A plague appears in a modern city called Oran in Algeria, afflicting the community for most of a year, then as abruptly lifts. Residents celebrate, much in the way of celebrations for the ending of world wars, with renewed energy for humanity’s “humble yet formidable love” (301). It is this love, an adult’s understanding of love in the view of protagonist Dr. Rieux, that Camus highlights toward the ending of the novel—that is, love as desire to join with another, whether adult son with mother, father with child, doctor with patients, wife with husband, or “true healers” who seek peace (254). Continue reading

The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak

There will, unfortunately, always be a need for books about war, and this need takes many forms. In The Sojourn (Bellevue Literary Press, 191 pages), Andrew Krivak successfully defends the parish of the novel. Although the harsh imperatives of history require much sifting of facts, places and victims—synthesis and hindsight are essential, as part of our troubled species’ perverse CV—the novel, with its relentless subjectivity and its bloody-minded insistence on the plight of individuals, brings its own kind of necessary testimony. Continue reading

Dr. Jesus and Mr. Dead by Cooper Renner

Spanish poetry translator, publisher of elimae press, and celebrated indie writer, Cooper Renner has written a debut novel Dr. Jesus and Mr. Dead (Ggantijia, 215 pages). The work is an amalgamation of historical fiction, and ebbs and flows across hundreds of years and multiple psyches. Disturbing, entirely entertaining, and expertly written prose which drawls in slow, southern sweeps, Dr. Jesus and Mr. Dead is dripping with beautiful language, harsh imagery and heady inquiry. Continue reading

Mefisto by John Banville

mefistoGabriel Swan is the Faustian hero of Mefisto (Godine Press, pages 233). He is a savant mathematician, with talents that will make him out-of-place among uneducated poor Irish. With a desire to understand the truth of the universe, he believes that numbers will help him sense some “larger” pattern tying everything together.  But as in Faust, what Swan does with his opportunities is disappointing. He hooks up with scam artists and junkies and, tragically, ends up being instrumental in his mentor’s efforts to prove there are no larger patterns. Continue reading

Ravelstein by Saul Bellow

Ravelstein (Penguin 233 pages) is based on intellectual and historian of ideas Allan Bloom, whose Closing of the American Mind stands as the meat to this ultimately gossipy, but not unrevealing, portrait of the man (closet gay, incorrigibly sloppy, resolutely positive, a big cigarette-smoking pizza-eating exquisite furniture-buying Saint Bernard of a man who plays Platonic soulmate matchmaker for his students, and gives his Chinese helpmate a car when he finally makes it big). Bellow apparently urged Bloom to write the book (which despite its reputation as a narrow conservative tract is actually a brilliant example of applied Platonism) which became a huge best seller, and for which the novelist wrote the introduction. Continue reading

Black Dogs by Ian McEwan

Rarely does it seem that a great writer is recognized in his time, but Ian McEwan is an exception. Using the trope of two black mastiffs left behind by the Gestapo but still menacing the beautiful French countryside, in Black Dogs (Nan A. Talese, 149 pages) McEwan tells the tale of an older couple June and Bernard Tremaine, living in different countries but still in love. The clever narrator, their son-in-law whose own parents died when he was eight, pieces together the interlacing of the private lives and world events of his adoptive parents from deathbed interviews with once-stunningly beautiful June and her big-chinned rational Marxist politician husband. The action toggles in space and Continue reading

The Proud Beggars by Albert Cossery. Translated by Thomas W. Cushing.

I often wonder about sentences – about their impact, their purity, their necessity of being. I wonder about wasted words, wasted pages, and wasted stories. I wonder every time I read.

Yet, whenever I reach for The Proud Beggars (Black Sparrow Press, 190 pages), I find myself in awe, mesmerized, a captive to Cossery’s mastery of language, his scenes, his characters, and his ideology. If there ever was the perfect literary book, for me, it is this one. Continue reading

The Names by Don DeLillo

DeLillo surely kept a journal while living in Athens and visiting various places in the Middle East and India. He noted scenes, described the climate and vegetation, philosophized on the locals then published his journal as the novel, The Names (Vintage, 352 pages), after he added a “plot” about a cult that murderers people for the completely uninteresting reason that their initials match the initials of the place name in which they are murdered. DeLillo also added the equally uninteresting denouement in which it isdiscovered that the narrator, who has been described as a Continue reading

Black Dogs, by Ian McEwan

Black Dogs: A Novel (Nan A. Talese, 149 pages) is a skillfully written novel on an interesting and profound topic. McEwan does a wonderful job describing June, an eccentric old woman, the narrator’s mother-in-law. He also handles what could be a very artificial story device in a reasonably natural way. The idea of the book is to explore the conflicts between mystical thinking and rationality, and the narrator is interviewing and writing a memoir on his mother-in-law and father-in-law who represent those views respectively. This passage exemplifies well McEwan’s sensitivity and talent as a writer; Continue reading

The House of Meetings by Martin Amis

House of Meetings (Vintage International)House of Meetings (Vintage International)The House of Meetings (Knopf, 256 pages) is a narrative delivered as a long letter from an unnamed narrator, an 86-year-old Russian man, to his step-daughter Venus, living in Chicago. He is in the midst of traveling back home after many years in the U.S. The point of his journey is to revisit a work camp in the Artic where he had been held prisoner and slave laborer in the 40s and 50s. Particularly, he wants to visit the “house of meetings,” where, late in the labor camp era, the Soviets had begun allowing some prisoners to meet briefly with their wives. The narrator’s brother, Lev, Continue reading