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An Oldie But A Goodie, The Big One

The problem is that any novel whose characters are trapped longing for the past is prone to sappy sentimentality. To make matters worse, if the characters went to college in the '60s, the book seems derivative of that 80s movie "The Big Chill." That being said, Tim O'Brien's ninth book "July, July" (Houghton Mifflin, $26) shows that, in the hands of a brilliant storyteller, none of these risks mean anything.

The story is set in July of 2000, and the class of 1969 gathers at Darton Hall College in Minnesota to celebrate its slightly late 30th class reunion. The fact that the organizer of the reunion had a nervous breakdown and had to put it off a year leaves the sense that time has not been kind to the members of the class of 1969. The class has come of age at a time when American ideals began to ring false, and the years have been rough. Everyone in attendance has had a share of heartbreak and sadness, and burns with a yearning for reconnection.

The structure of O'Brien's novel revolves around the weekend reunion but breaks away to tell the individual stories of each of its characters. Each of these stories could stand on it's own, but placed together in the context of the book, show the way the characters relate to one another. In a chapter called "The Streak," Amy Robinson and her husband hit it big in Vegas on their honeymoon, only to realize that their marriage will never work. In "July '69" David Todd hears a DJ tell him his future while he is lying wounded in the jungle of Vietnam. In "Half Gone," Dorothy Stier, while only half-dressed, confronts her husband in their front yard about his lack of affection after her mastectomy. Each of the characters' stories ranges from heart-rending to humorous, while revealing a glimpse of the beauty of life. In turn, the stories show that sentimentality isn't exactly a bad thing.

— Francis Decker

The Big One

First-off, "The Company" (Overlook Press, $28.95) is big. Bearded-Russian-novelist big. If you drop it while reading in bed, you might break your nose or end up eating your burgers frappé-style through wired jaws. And while Robert Littell's epic thriller of the CIA won't impart the kind of omniscient wisdom you might glean from "War and Peace," it will keep you sucked into its world of diplomatic intrigue for each of its nearly 1,000 pages.

Working on a firm, though fictionalized foundation of Cold War spy history, Littell gives us a mixed bag of invented and historical characters who guide the reader from the CIA's creation after World War II to the fall of the USSR. This book has everything you could look for in a spy novel: the cool jargon of dead drops, turned moles and walking back the cat; alcoholic and misanthropic spies with dubious motives; an ongoing connection to "Alice in Wonderland" that gives extra depth to the book; and most importantly, plenty of multiple layers of intrigue — every character could be the dreaded Russian mole, all truth could be malleable. As in John LeCarre's classic spy novels, international events such as the Hungarian revolt of 1956 and the Bay of Pigs result from the (often ill-informed) actions and decisions of individuals. Despite the wide scope, though, "The Company" remains continually engaging due to the ongoing American search for a CIA mole that may be a figment of their collective imagination. Much like LeCarre, Littell is also able to find the human narratives among all the hazy, double-crossing paths of U.S. and Russian spies. He creates characters who are trapped between their personal desires and the commands of the Cold War generals. In short, he's a good writer. So while the action and intrigue keeps you flipping through this tome, the characters will actually allow you to keep your brain switched on, a rarity among suspense novels. — Mathias Svalina

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