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Book Report: Memories: Looking back on what was, wasn't and the many paths not taken

When you are in your twenties, even if you're confused and uncertain about your aims and purposes, you have a strong sense of what life itself is, and of what you in life are, and might become.

Later there is more uncertainty, more overlapping, more backtracking, more false memories. Back then, you can remember your short life in its entirety.

Later still, the memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches. It's a bit like the black box airplanes carry to record what happens if a crash. If nothing goes wrong, the tape erases itself.

So if you do crash, it's obvious why you did -- if you don't, then the whole log of your journey is much less clear.

That's just one of the many insights readers are treated to by Julian Barnes in his 17th novel, "The Sense of an Ending," by Julian Barnes (Knopf, $23.95), which won Britain's prestigious Booker Prize last year.

It arrived in the U.S. recently and gathered much praise, to which I heartily concur.

Briefly, it's the story of Tony Webster, middle aged and balding. He's amicably divorced from wife Margaret and is shocked to discover that his old friend and college classmate Adrian has committed suicide.

When they were young Tony dated the beauteous and enigmatic Veronica, who was of a higher social class. In the present he remembers the painful visit he made to her family, who looked down on him with stereotypical British prissiness.

Turns out that his buddy Adrian woos and wins Veronica while Tony goes on to a rather humdrum life of getting and spending and laying waste any powers he has, which aren't much.

The next shock comes when Tony discovers that Veronica's mother has left him 500 pounds sterling and Adrian's diary. The money is on its way, but Veronica has made off with her late husband's diary.

The big question is WHY?

Author Barnes and Tony weave in and out of this plot dropping insights galore about aging, about loss, about roads not taken. And his characterization of the hapless Tony is painful, but enthralling at the same time.

For Tony is a descendent of characters like Ann Tyler's "The Accidental Tourist," whose protagonist makes a living writing travel books for people who don't like to travel. In fact William Hurt, who played that character, would make a perfect Tony if he could muster up a British accent.

Lerner Publications' imprint for the very hot genre of graphic novel is "Graphic Universe."

Naysayers will think twice in condemning these books as "comic strips" when they read Lerner's latest offering, "A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return" ($9.95) by Zeina Abirached.

I once thought graphic novels were kid stuff until I read Art Spiegelman's "Maus," the dramatic illustrated story of the Holocaust and its aftermath, in which Jews were portrayed as mice, Poles as pigs and Nazis as cats.

Reading "A Game for Swallows" reminded me of the Spiegelman book. Abirached was born in Lebanon and as a kid experienced the Civil War from her apartment building in East Beirut, where Christian Lebanese were segregated. Abirached attended the National School for Decorative Arts in Paris and her striking illustrations show us that she learned a good deal.

Originally published in France in 2004, the Lerner English edition was just now published in Minneapolis. There's a French sequel, "Je Me Souviens Beyrouth" (I Remember Beirut) was published in 2008. Let's hope Lerner latches onto it, as well.

Also on the regional front there's "When Pigs Could Fly and Bears Could Dance," by Miriam Neirich (University of Wisconsin Press, $29.95 paper), a fascinating history of the Soviet Union Circus, which was begun after the Russian revolution and continued its popularity for 70 years.

How did it avoid censorship when it poked fun at authority? That's the question historian Neirich attempts to answer in a carefully documented and richly illustrated study.