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Books of Atonement

I was recently called on the carpet by a Bel Air cantor when I told him that, despite my atheism, I still fasted on Yom Kippur. He asked why and, after some hemming and hawing that had to do with the memory of my deceased relatives, he said, "So you do it to feel good about yourself." The lesson being, for me, at least, that when it comes to atoning, motives count. I suspect I won't fast this year, but I might spend the day in the company of some more deeply felt literary atoners.

Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee (1999) – Coetzee's masterpiece, which won him his second Booker Prize, concerns itself with Professor David Lurie's fall from grace following an affair with a student. But the heart of the book is its meditation on responsibility and redress for the years of brutal apartheid rule. When his daughter Lucy is raped by black attackers, she comes to view the attack as "the price for staying on," and opts to have the baby and give up her farm. An unrelenting, unforgettable novel.

The Book of Evidence, John Banville (1989) – The Book of Evidence inaugurates Banville's celebrated "Frames" trilogy, throughout which the narrator struggles to come to grips with his murder of a maid, committed during the theft of a valuable painting. The book takes the form of Freddie Montgomery's confession to the judge and contains one of the most vivid and brutal murders in literature. But its most heartrending moment comes when Montgomery admits "the worst, the essential sin … that I never imagined her vividly enough." Simply put, he killed her because he could, "because for me she was not alive. And now my task is to bring her back to life."

The Confessions of Max Tivoli, Andrew Sean Greer (2004) – "We are each the love of someone's life." Thus begins Greer's lovely, moving second novel, which tells the improbably tender story of Max Tivoli, born with the outward physical appearance of an old man, and aging in reverse until his death as a seeming child. Throughout his life, his one constant has been his great love for Alice, and their paths converge three times during his sixty-odd years. Max plans to leave his written confessions behind for Alice after his death, so she might know the truth of their lives, assuring her in its closing pages "Remember this always: there was no moment in my life I didn't love you."

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