The Lighthouse

The cover of Alison Moore’s book The Lighthouse says “Longlisted for The Man Booker Prize 2012.” Astonishing. The book stinks, and we are not referring to book’s repeated use of olfactory imagery. The main character, Futh, who may/must be retarded to some extent, could really use a spell of no luck at all. One awkward, bad luck scene after the next. In real life, rather than reach 40, he would have hung himself or shot up his high school. The profile of a satisfied reader of this book would be one who enjoys a damp, grey day at the shore. One where a seagull dropping lands on their sandwich just as they take a bite. A mildly engaging, but wholly unsatisfying read. Pass.

The Driftless Area

Magical Realism. It can have little magic. Exhibit A: Tom Drury’s The Driftless Area. The dreary tale of a Midwestern simpleton, Pierre Hunter. Not a bad guy. Tries to do the right thing, but he’s an idiot.

The reader gets the impression that the author thought long and hard on the characters’ full names, names of towns (which Saint Ivo is your town named after???) and the name of the bar that Pierre works at. Those bland details may move someone disconnected from reality, e.g., an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, but it falls flat for someone not currently on drugs. Even if these clever details resonate, they do little for the story.

If you are looking for another strike, there is some pretention here too. The publisher includes Questions for Discussion on the final 3-pages of the book. While that ink is always appreciated, the publisher frames the questions as if this book is an acknowledged seminal work. Linking the it to the Coen Brother, Jonathan Franzen, Charlie Chaplin, Hemingway, Odysseus…Thelma & Louise for Chistsakes!!! Out of context, but question 4 is How do we begin to realize we are in a fabulous tale… Tom Drury is an acclaimed writer, so he isn’t written off yet.

Absurdistan

Absurdistan is the story of Misha Boisovich Vainberg, a.k.a., Snack Daddy, the son of the 1.238th richest man in Russia, his Khui (pecker) and his odyssey to reclaim his cuero, Rouenna, in the Bronx. The problem is, that although Misha is an avowed Amero-phile with a degree in Multi-Cultural Studies from the Midwest’s Accidental College, the gangster-like activities of Beloved Papa have convinced the wise generals of the INS to bar Misha’s reentry into the United States. But now that rival gangsters have tossed a landmine into beloved Papa’s SUV on St. Petersburg’s Palace Bridge, thereby making Misha an only child orphan, the time to get out of Russia is now. Dubious official connections set his journey in motion by directing him to the former Caspian soviet of Absurdistan in pursuit of a forged Belgian passport.

Throwing off its Russian yoke, arrival in Absurdistan allows the book’s comic absurdities to level up. Ridiculous ethnic tensions, natural resource-swindling multinational corporations and a scripted civil war starved for CNN’s attention provide an entertaining backdrop for Misha’s escape. Turns out that Beloved Papa is a legend in Absurdistan for selling an 800-kilogram screw to Halliburton subsidiary, KBR, and is the longtime benefactor of Absurdistan’s Mountain Jews. Consequently, Misha is appointed Commissar of Multicultural Affairs and asked to speak to Israel about getting some better news coverage and post-war development funds. Though naturally indolent, e.g., his hero is Goncherov’s Oblomov, Misha springs into action by drafting a grant proposal for the Institute for Caspian Holocaust Studies. A 5-page crescendo of the absurd.

Does Misha make it to NYC? Who cares, the book is a roll. Gary Shteyngart really channels John Kennedy Toole in this one. It’s a slow starter, but gets real funny about a third of the way through.

Norwegian by Night

The set-up is intriguing. Sheldon Horowitz, an 82-year old former Korean War sniper has relocated from NYC to Oslo, to be near his only living relative, granddaughter Rhea. Sheldon audibly witnesses a mother pitilessly murdered in Rhea’s apartment, whilst hiding in the closet with the woman’s 9-year old son. The killer is an experienced brute from the Balkan’s ethnic wars and the 9-year old is his son. Unsurprisingly, the killer wants the boy back. Sheldon is short on the operative details, but his street smarts tell him he needs to keep this boy hidden until the gentle Norwegian police can catch-up with the urgent implications of this case. Thus, octogenarian and 2nd grader go on the lam. Sounds good…but the book doesn’t deliver.

The only character that is developed is Sheldon. The police chief, the boy, the killer, others…could have been interesting, but they aren’t. The thrills in this thriller are as docile and the author, Derek B. Miller’s, description of the average Norwegian’s outlook. You will likely need to read a classic Scandinavian Noir novel to restore your faith in the genre after this one.

That said, book does have its merits. Sheldon’s character is expertly drawn, particularly via recalled discussions with his son Saul, a Vietnam casualty, and current dialogue with his long dead NYC pal Bill. Sheldon does not go out of his way to endear himself. He is cantankerous and summarily dismisses any notion he has no use for, regardless of its origin. Mr. Miller does a good job emphasizing Sheldon’s Jewishness. If you are, or know lots of Jews, you will recognize Sheldon as the type of Jew that is becoming more scarce. Fully Jewish, but in no way insular, i.e., confined in an ethnic neighborhood. It may not be intended, but in this way the book does ever so lightly touch on the works of the all-pervading, great assimilator. Sheldon, a red-blooded American Jew, joins the Marine Corps, packed with its southern Christians, serves and returns home as the same red-blooded American Jew. Then, little Norway, always accepting the migrant du joir…Albanian, Somali, Iraqi, Syrian, etc…and ever confident that it will remain Norwegian.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

If you enjoy Monty Python and the massively understated, silly British humor of the 1970s, you have an obligation to yourself to read this book. If that is not your thing, this is not your thing. It will still, at times, be funny, clever and wildly capricious, but if you can’t deal with the meaning of life, the universe and all things being 42, you won’t be able to deal with The Guide. Reader, know thyself.

Post Office

Charles Bukowski is the great author of the working man. In Post Office, his semi-autobiographical protagonist, Hank Chinaski, illustrates that outside the office you never know what your coworkers are into. In Hank’s case, while he is an insubordinate subordinate down at the at the Post Office, he can stick mail with the best of them. Outside the office though he is a major alcie, drunk almost all the time. His life’s striving is to hit a few horses at the track, so he can buy a big steak and keep drinking. The book is amusing when Hank offers his cynical take on the people and events in his life. Many readers don’t like the book, because Hank is a jerk, but is he anymore of a jerk than the book’s other characters? No, he’s actually a lot less callous.

Even though Post Office is dated, it is different and it will have you imagining what your own life would be like if you partied all the time. Beyond that, it’s not very interesting.

A Dangerous Fortune

There aren’t many writers whose careers have been as prolific and profitable as Ken Follett. He has sold many millions of books and his wallet is likely much thicker than the most profuse of those books. Our host for this meeting selected Follett’s A Dangerous Fortune for examination. He had enjoyed the book many years ago. While familiar with the name Ken Follett, of our assemblage, only this humble scribe was unfamiliar with the writings of Ken Follett. Time for enlightenment.

Due to a last minute conflict, I missed most of the scheduled discussion and upon arrival was hit with a “What did you think?” Well, to be honest, the writing was terrible. Simplistic and tediously repetitive. Tonio is intimidated by Mickey Miranda…I know Ken, you told me ten times. Augusta knows nothing of banking…I KNOW ALREADY!!! And the plots and schemes of the story’s antagonists? They go off without a hitch and even more quickly and effectively than even the plotters could have dreamed. Am I being harsh on Ken? Ken, who had the audacity to remark about J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, a Man Booker prize winner & my last book pick, that the book was “very poor … terrible.” Incredible. Shameless. The world turned upside down.

That said, I, like everyone else, enjoyed A Dangerous Fortune. Despite the writing, it was as riveting and a 1980s episode of Dynasty or Dallas. Devious villains pulling the strings of sympathetic characters. Ken Follett is McDonalds. We all eat at McDonalds sometimes.

The Tartar Steppe

Number 29 on Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century. Dino Buzzati’s short novel unquestionably provides food for thought. Giovanni Drogo’s tour of duty at Fort Bastiani is an apt metaphor for the American Dream of go to work, send your kids to college, pay off your mortgage, then upon entering your sunset years…you get the cancer diagnosis.

The story is set at the aforementioned fortress, which guards the northern pass against a potential barbarian invasion. The young Lieutenant Drogo arrives and quickly surmises that this posting is a dead end for his military career and all the exertions of the fort’s inhabitants are pointless, as a barbarian has not been seen in these parts for generations. Expertly talked out of requesting an immediate transfer, Drogo falls in step with the fort’s rhythms, and the days, then soon the decades start to slip by.

You might be bored with the book, but you will be impressed by Buzzati’s impressions on life slipping through one’s fingers. If you care at all, go to the library and request the book, then read the last seven paragraphs of the book’s 6th Chapter. Got it? Then read the final chapter where you will hear again about the grey, monotonous sea that has been there since time immemorial. Carpe Diem…or else.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

You may have to make room for one more on your list of favorite authors. David Mitchell is a spellbinding writer. He manages a large cast of double-dealing characters, obscure Nippo-Dutch historical facts, entwined stories, brilliant plot twisting strokes and still leaves himself room to show off. There will be two or three spots where a reader will think “Wow…that’s different.” Neglecting to underline in this book (big mistake), all I can recall at the moment is the Captain’s earthly thoughts during the Chaplin’s numinous reading, but there are several passages where you have to say Mitchell’s writing is something else.

The story takes place on Dejima, an artificial island a few steps off shore of Nagasaki. Dejima is the Shogun’s inventive work-around to ensure that no barbarian (particularly Portuguese Jesuits) step foot on Japan, while keeping trade with the outside world flowing. After the Portuguese get their walking papers, the Dutch set up shop on Dejima. They work under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company (the VOC), the power of which makes Google, Facebook and Halliburton look like pikers. As the VOC unravels, ordinary employee corruption became epic corruption. To drain the swamp, the new Chief Resident of the Dejima Station brings with him an industrious, honest clerk named Jacob de Zoet. De Zoet has signed on for a stint with the VOC in order to make his fortune, thereby allowing him to marry slightly up in society upon his return to his hometown of Domburg.

There are some entertaining characters in the cast…Jacob, of course, the evil abbot and a particular favorite, Dr. Marinus. While vastly differing in content, the pregnant dialogue between Jacob and Dr. Marinus reminds one of that between Lord Varys and Tyrion in HBO’s Game of Thrones. Conleth Hill must play Marinus in the movie, but alas there won’t be one. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was 3-hours long and panned as being too ambitious and rife with yellow-facing. But all of this is beside the point, which is that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is an engrossing read…and always keep David Mitchell on your radar.

Disgrace

The Iluminado have varied their approach to selecting books over the years. Sometimes we do it systematically via weighted multi-voting. Sometimes folks just make suggestions at the end of the meeting and a consensus is swiftly reached. At present, we are in the midst of a once-though rotation where the host selects the book. This provides an opportunity for every Brother to take us somewhere interesting without having to hard sell the book to the group. It fell to this humble scribe to pick the current book. Playing it safe, I picked a blue chip…Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee. A Booker Prize winner by a Nobel prize winner. What could possibly go wrong…right? Well…apparently I am surrounded by ignoramuses.

Right out of the box it was “Oh, I hated everyone!” “Too much raping!” & “It wasn’t a fun story!” As this book was as about as close to perfection as I’d ever encountered, I was stunned. One Brother was able to throw me lifeline by recounting a conversation about the book with his South African neighbor, which opened the door to a “you Americans just won’t understand” dismissal of the book. My choice and book-picker reputation were on the ropes…I had a hand in The Dwarf, which went over like a lead balloon and Blindness, which had a good discussion, but only a few gents read the book.

In spite of the high level dislike, we began chewing over the scenes and themes. And a funny thing happened, a long and interesting discussion arose. It helps that almost every event or inner observation in the book is worthy of analysis.

Did Melanie say no? Did David approach his inquest properly? Was Lucy’s making up for the past just foolishness? What did you think of Petrus? What about Ettinger? Poor Bev Shaw? Why does David visit Melanie’s parents? What do you think of the Servant of Eros defense? What is to be expected when a single, aging Lothario hits the wall? Why were Lucy and David disgraced when they were on opposite sides of unwanted encounters? Was everyone too blasé about teachers hooking-up with students? Are we cruel to God’s creatures with our human privilege? Will Byron in Italy ever be written and why is it included in the story? Why won’t Lucy leave the farm? Does racism breed the deepest hatred? There are so many topics to discuss.

Clearly, based on our experience we can’t predict if you will like the book, but if you read it and discuss it…to steal a phrase from David Lurie – you will be enriched by the experience.