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What We're Reading, Feb. 9 - 15, 2010

Three novels of past and present: Lynn Neary reviews the "perfect" novel for our down economy — written before the banks failed. Steve Inskeep reads a tale of political infighting resonant of today, but that follows events in Cicero's Rome. And Alan Cheuse celebrates The Lost Books of the Odyssey, a novel both timeless and very modern.

'Union Atlantic' book cover

Union Atlantic

By Adam Haslett

The fictional events in Union Atlantic dovetail almost perfectly with reality. Doug Fanning, an arrogant, ambitious veteran turned banker, plays fast and loose with his bank's money, driving the venerable institution, Union Atlantic, to the brink of collapse. Called upon to save the bank is good, gray Henry Graves, president of the New York Federal Reserve. His sister Charlotte, a retired history teacher who lives in the family home, which is falling down around her, has her own gripe against Fanning. He has built a huge, ugly, almost empty mansion next door, in the process destroying woods that used to belong to her family. As Henry works to salvage the damage Fanning has done to the financial system, Charlotte takes Fanning to court, their respective houses standing in as apt symbols for the clashing values of our culture.

Union Atlantic seems the perfect book for our times. The fact that Adam Haslett finished it before the full brunt of the economic crisis hit is remarkable, since some of the scenes in the novel sound as if they were written by someone listening in on the private conversations that led to the real bank bailout. But perhaps even more significantly, Haslett has created memorable characters whose dysfunctional lives seem to embody the frenetic craziness and moral confusion of the era. Haslett's portrayal of contemporary America is funny and insightful. At times it also breaks your heart, because the people who live in this fictional world are so real and so stubbornly human." — Lynn Neary, NPR books and publishing correspondent

'Conspirata' book cover

Hardcover; 320 pages; Nan A. Talese; list price: $26, publication date: Feb. 9


A Novel Of Ancient Rome

By Robert Harris

'Lost Books of the Odyssey' book cover

Robert Harris, a British political journalist turned novelist, has turned his talents on the life of the ancient Roman politician Cicero. Taking the well-documented life of the great orator as his starting point, Harris tells an old story in a way that easily resonates with our modern political debates. An earlier novel, Imperium, traced Cicero's rise to power in the Roman republic. The real-life events of the era included an attack by pirates on the port of Rome; as the outraged Romans abridge their own liberties and send out an avenging army, the reader is invited to make comparisons to Sept. 11. Conspirata tells the story of Cicero's tumultuous year as the Roman chief executive. In an NPR interview, the author cheerfully compares it to President Obama's term.

Harris does a wonderful job bringing Cicero to life, not as a white marble bust but as a very human politician making choices — some of them inspired, some of them mistaken, most of them a little of both. As Cicero struggles to realize his great ambition while preserving as much as he can of his principles, he tacks left and right like a ship sailing against the wind. The delight of Harris' plotting is the way that whenever Cicero takes a political shortcut, it comes back to bite him later. — Steve Inskeep, co-host of 'Morning Edition'

Hardcover; 352 pages; Simon and Schuster; list price: $26, publication date: Feb. 2

The Lost Books Of The Odyssey

A Novel

By Zachary Mason

Nostalgia — literally the desire to return home — drives the great aristocratic warrior-hero of the Odyssey. Even if you haven't read Homer (yet), you'll get caught up in that powerful action when you turn the pages of Zachary Mason's delightful first novel, The Lost Books of the Odyssey. In chapter after chapter, our hero travels from one Mediterranean island to another, and again and again arrives home in Ithaca, sometimes finding chaos, sometimes discovering that all is lost in this antique world of multiple possibilities, sometimes even experiencing a peaceful homecoming. In one of these many sequences he arrives alone on an island in the middle of winter, and in a deserted cabin discovers a book that happens to tell "the story of Odysseus, soldier and diplomat, a man of versatile intelligence who connived to destroy a sacred city in the east, and made the long trip home over many trying years." This encounter, as all of this inventive novel, is Homer filtered through Borges, Calvino and John Gardner.

I felt, as I was reading, that I was having one of those mythical 'dinners of desserts.' Everything in the novel begins with Homer's epic, but the tone, which ranges from the insouciant to the wise to the elegiac, is thoroughly modern. Mason gives us not so much an homage as a web of anecdotes and imaginings and dreams and speculations on the character of one of the great characters in Western literature. This Odysseus is not just wily, bold and brave; he's sometimes tender and attentive, a soldier, a sailor, a poet, a king, a father, a husband — and a lost figure even as he arrives at the home he's been striving to return to all these years. Time contracts, time expands, and through it all Mason, a wonderful narrator, never loses sight of the knowledge that good fiction lives in its details. As when Athena gathers our hero close to her and he feels that 'her skin was very hot' and that 'she smelled like metal and summer.' Mason works with the tradition, and yet gives us a book unlike most any other we've read. And it smells like metal and summer. — Alan Cheuse, reviewer, 'All Things Considered'

Hardcover; 240 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; list price: $24, publication date: Feb. 2

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