The Sense of an Ending (Barnes)

Now that I read it, I have little to say that is not already expressed by the reviews on the back of this book. As a big fan of The Remains of the Day, I saw that comparison right away. What must it be like to look back on your life and be filled with remorse? What is the difference between memory and truth, and how does an author writing in the first person convey them both and the discrepancy between them?

When a novel is as short as this one is (163 pages), it is tempting to call it a jewel (as the LA Times does). But I can think of no better word. Just as in the Ishiguro, there is not a single note out of place. Some samples –

“It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age; when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others” (88).

“Though why should we expect age to mellow us? If it isn’t life’s business to reward merit, why should it be life’s business to give us warm, comfortable feelings towards its end? What possible evolutionary purpose could nostalgia serve?” (90).

“But time. . . how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible when we were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time. . . give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical” (102).

“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves” (104).

“Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be” (115).

“Who was it said that the longer we live, the less we understand?” (143).

Winner of the Man Booker Prize, this novel is well worth reading. And re-reading.

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Brief Encounters with Che Guevera (Fountain)

Winner of the Pen / Hemingway Award, this collection, or at least 3/4 stories, are centered on moral ambiguities that arise from white privilege. There are white people who go voluntarily to the “hardest places” (Haiti, Sierra Leone, etc.) and are faced with choices about themselves and the worlds they now occupy. Fountain’s protagonists struggle with conflicts, both internal and otherwise, about how to survive in the places where they now find themselves. What do they have to compromise? These are people generally trying to be good, or at least get by, in very complicated worlds. Do we really begrudge the divorced father trying to make it as a golf pro in Myanmar?

The star of the collection is “The Lion’s Mouth.” Jill agrees to do one errand in exchange for the funds that will allow her to support something she’s created, a kind of co-op. If she can provide these funds to this co-op, she will, in her mind, “allowed to leave” (172). But during this extremely dangerous errand, she is confronted with another choice and sacrifices her funds to do what she thinks, at that moment, is the right thing. She seems heroic, but then Fountain punctuates the story in such a startling way that brings home the notion that in some places, the right thing is not as simple as it might seem.

Great collection.

The Odds: A Love Story (O’Nan)

What a remarkable little book. Near the end of their marriage and their resources, a couple returns to the site of their honeymoon, Niagara Falls, each with a different agenda – her, to give him one last weekend before the marriage is over, and him, to rekindle their marriage and rescue themselves from bankruptcy.

O’Nan is able to get inside the heads of both characters and see how so many small choices and seemingly innocuous words have led them to this particular weekend. There were dozens of moments that made me both laugh and wince in recognition.

When I turned the last page, I was surprised it was over. I didn’t want it to be over. But O’Nan was right to keep it short. That this novel seems so simple is a testament to its brilliance.

The Dovekeepers (Hoffman)

I was really intrigued by the premise of this novel – a well-researched, albeit fictional account of 4 of the female survivors of the Roman assault on Masada. I’ve not read Hoffman before, so I was certainly aware of her reputation. Then I got into it. The pace is achingly slow and the research (in places) so glaringly obvious that I couldn’t believe that the whole book would be like this. I thought Hoffman was adopting a kind of detached tone for the ‘before’ picture and that the energy of the book would change at some point. Then I noticed that the narrators would switch, so I hoped that my objection was just going to be to the first narrator. In fact, there’s little to distinguish the first two or any of the four narrators.

I trust Hoffman’s research and I learned a lot, but that’s not why I read this book. The underlying theme of women finding strength during difficult times in a male-dominated society was deftly handled; the story, however, was not.

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (Caro)

In literature, tragic stories move quickly. That which raises the hero up generally brings an even speedier downfall. And that’s what Caro’s epic reads like – a tragedy. Except there is nothing speedy about Moses’ descent. It is absolutely remarkable how he created such an intricate web of power for himself and protected it for so long. This from a man who had once seemed so idealistic, a true reformer. When his idealism got him nowhere, he became increasingly corrupt, protected both by his numerous and wide-ranging supporters and his ability to (and the capital letters are Caro’s) Get Things Done.

If Caro’s prose occasionally turns purple and his habit of cataloguing grows tiresome, this is still a remarkable, energizing book – a lesson in city government in one of the greatest cities in the world. I don’t know enough about New York geography or politics to know how Moses and his accomplishments are viewed now, but the man certainly made his mark. Despite Moses’ astonishing arrogance and persistent racism, Caro finds the humanity in the man to such an extent that when he is finally shelved by Nelson Rockefeller, it is hard not to feel sorry for him.

There’s an interesting thread here about the inverse relationship between democracy and public works. I’d be interested to learn whether someone has examined this thesis in a more methodical way.

Something must be said about the length of this book. At 1,162 pages, it is definitively a doorstop. There will be no other Moses biographies. Was that Caro’s goal? Is that why he made it so long? (And I wanted more maps.) Still, as odd as it may sound, Caro makes the narrative move, rarely getting bogged down in budgets or construction lingo.

The story of East Tremont is well-told and memorable, though Caro’s sweeping generalizations about the impact of blacks moving into the neighborhood bordered on the troubling.

Moses, never a driver himself (a characterization that literature would never allow – too obvious), worshipped the car. He said, in words that take on an interesting tone given the recent news in Detroit, that “[t]hese railroads have got to be more ingenious. . .bailing out busted, lazy and backward private enterprises is [not] the business of government” (934).

So, should you read it? If you are interested in city planning, New York, or just an astonishingly detailed story of someone whose name you may not know, read it. To me, it’s what biography should be.

Flight Behavior (Kingsolver)

I am a huge fan of Kingsolver’s. When I read The Bean Trees, I had to stop periodically to read some sentences out loud because they were so wonderful. I was disappointed in The Lacuna – an overreach, I though. And Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, though inspiring, was a bit of a slog at times. Still, she remained on my hardback list, and I am pleased to say that with Flight Behavior, she’s back!

One of the remarkable parts about The Bean Trees is its opening, and Kingsolver outdoes herself here. She plays out the opening moments for a stunning 16 pages; I don’t think I took a breath until I got to the first white space. And upon reflection, the opening does an amazing job of setting the frame for the entire novel.

In Animal Dreams, Kingsolver’s balanced approach to a controversial adoption serves her well. Her balancing act is less successful here. Perhaps it’s the topic and what seems like excessive exposition. But there is some nice tension around those who can afford (literally) to concern themselves with global warming, and those who are just trying to make it through the day.

For me, the intimate moments succeed best here – the insights into marriage, parenting, family, and life that hasn’t turned out the way it was planned. And, as with The Bean Trees, Kingsolver’s sentences are a joy to encounter.