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

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

The Free World by David Bezmozgis

bezmozgis-cover-the-free-worldAs a child on his way to a new home in Canada, David Bezmozgis himself went the way of the fictitious characters in this novel, The Free World (FSG, 356 pages). The book is set in 1978, and mention is frequently made of what is going on in the world at the time of the action. For example, “in Beirut, the Syrians were shelling the Christians, and Israel was massing troops on its northern border.” Meanwhile, “Begin was in America meeting with Carter and the Egyptian Sadat.” Continue reading

The Conductor by Sarah Quigley

ConductorIt is easy to understand how The Conductor (Vintage, 303 pages) stayed on the best seller list for weeks and weeks in New Zealand. The story is compelling, and Sarah Quigley knows how to tell it. Against the background of the siege of Leningrad during the Second World War Dmitry Shostakovich is writing his Seventh Symphony, struggling to finish it while German bombs are falling all around him. Meanwhile, the main character, Karl Il’ich Eliasberg (1907-1978), the second-rate conductor of a second-rate orchestra, goes about his life of quiet desperation, unaware that circumstances are coming together so as to place him at the center of history. Continue reading

The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis

betrayersThe Betrayers (Little, Brown & Co, 267 pages) begins with a Russian expression on a young woman’s face. A pretty blonde woman working as hotel clerk in Yalta is berated by a young woman from Israel, who insists she be given a room. The clerk “endured the assault with a stiff, mulish expression. A particularly Russian sort of expression, Kotler thought. The morose, disdainful expression with which the Russians had greeted their various invaders. An expression that denoted an irrational, mortal refusal to capitulate—the pride and bane of the Russian people.”

Continue reading

Wanderer Springs by Robert Flynn

wandererUp in that part of state just east of the Cap Rock, south of the Red River and west and north of Wichita Falls is a region of the country the residents continue to call “East Texas,” although, even at 70 mph it is hours from Amarillo, Lubbock or Spur, a half-day from San Angelo and Odessa, and a long, hard, hot day from Ozona or El Paso.

It is a part of the country that rhetorician Jim Cordon once called “terra incognito,” forgotten by most of Texas, ignored by everyone else. It is a hard land, filled with rattlesnakes, mesquite, winters that freeze livestock and people, summers that dry the ground so hard it cracks. Continue reading

The Contractor by Charles Holdefer

THECONTRACTOR

As the twenty-fist century accelerates toward a new low point in modern political history, eighty-five people possess about forty percent of the world’s wealth (that’s not a typo),* second- and third-generation war-terrorized children are born to benumbed, dehumanized parents, and most news reports would probably seem horribly unreal to even Bradbury and Orwell.

One may ask, What does twenty-first century art have to say about all this?  We’ve heard from activists, a few courageous whistle-blowers; we’ve seen Hollywood thrillers with at least one Cheney-like character snarling with glee as he slaughters the hopes of yet another welfare mom. But where is the nuanced rendering of this story about the death of democracy?

Continue reading