Monday, August 10, 2009


Title Amateur Barbarians
Author Robert Cohen
Genre Adult Fiction
Pages 401
Publisher Scribner
Copyright 2009

Synopsis (from web-site)
Teddy Hastings, a middle-aged, middle-school principal in the rural New England town of Carthage, is thrown into a crisis by the death of his younger brother, Philip, and his own cancer scare. Desperately seeking purpose beyond his daily routine, he takes a photography class at a nearby college, only unexpectedly to run afoul of the law and find himself on an enforced sabbatical. Meanwhile, Oren Pierce, the young, acting vice principal at Teddy's middle school, has the opposite problem. A perpetual student who has always flitted around the edge of things, he longs for the settled life of Carthage. Teddy's and Oren's lives overlap as Teddy heads to Africa to rescue his wayward daughter and make a spiritual pilgrimage to the Great Rift Valley, while Oren strikes up a friendship and more with Teddy's wife, Gail. What each finds, ultimately, is a path through his existential dilemma.

Why I read It
Doing my usual scan of the new book shelf the word Barbarian jumped out at me, enough that I pulled it down. From there I was intrigued by the cover image of a lion on a couch so I opened the cover. The first words on the inside flap where from a review by the San Francisco Chronicle and said “A dazzling comic novel…” Good enough for me so I checked it out.

The Good
Parts of these two intersecting stories were fascinating. When Teddy seeks out his wandering daughter in Africa I was enthralled. And just sometimes the writing was almost poetic in its perfection. When Oren describes Don as “a know-it-all, a burnt-out case, a glutton who, having feasted too long on the same limited menu, fancied himself a connoisseur” you can picture that guy exactly. I also found a great Ralph Waldo Emerson quote I had never seen before; “Every ship is a romantic object, except the one we sail on.” That was almost worth the read by itself.

The Bad
The plot was rambling, or maybe just not clear. I never really got the sense of what the author was trying to say. I also didn’t get the sense of any conclusion. Two men on either side of 40 held together by the same job and woman; where are we going with that?

The Ugly (my opinion)
Parts of the book were brilliant. In fact if the story of Teddy and his daughter Danny in Africa had been the whole story instead of just 50 pages I would have loved it. Overall it was just okay and the San Francisco Chronicle and I clearly differ over the definition of a “comic” novel. That said I will try another of Cohen’s books based on the strength of the bits I liked. Most reviewers disagree with me about this book

The Truth? (other reviews)
Publishers Weekly
Pittsburgh Tribune
NewYork Times

Mormon Mentions

Author Biography

Robert Cohen is the author of three novels, The Organ Builder, The Here and Now, and Inspired Sleep. His work has been awarded a Whiting Writers' Award, a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers Award, The Ribalow Prize, and a Pushcart Prize, and has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Harpers, GQ, The Paris Review, The Atlantic Monthly Unbound, and Ploughshares. He teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont.

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