The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is a rich tale masquerading as an easy read. Set in Britain soon after the reign of King Arthur, the title of could be interpreted as a metaphor for the hatred stowed in men’s hearts. This hatred, be it ethnic, historic, specific, whatever…is obscured by the business of life. However, once the fog of life dissipates, that hatred must be met and overcome. An allegory wrapped in myth, with numerous vignettes where one can try to unlock a fuller meaning…what a good book. There are some slow tracts and the dialogue takes some getting used to, but 2019 is off to a nice start with The Buried Giant.

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Best Books of 2018

As always, we must clarify that these are the most appreciated books mentioned in this blog during 2018. The books themselves weren’t published in 2018, because then they would be expensive and not on Thriftbooks. The happy news is unlike 2017, which was a minefield of clunkers, 2018 held some absolute gems. Not that we would have known it as Fortuna, that capricious sprite, started us off with the Scooby Doo book Meddling Kids, which was fun, but was no harbinger of the fine literature to come. Brass tacks? Here they are:

Gold: Crossing to Safety (Wallace Stenger) – If there is better writing out there anywhere, contact us immediately. As Stegner says, how can you create a story from such ordinary lives? By being a writer, whose characters are almost corporal, that’s how. Writing, writing, writing. Not a pile of coke on a black desk.

Silver: Brodeck (Philippe Claudel) – The best discussion book of all time…unless we are forgetting another. Hopefully, high schools rotate out some of their ineffective reading list in favor of Brodeck. The danger of the forming mob, being or targeting the outsider, that is how trouble starts, and its very scalable. Powerful novel. It took a miracle to keep it from taking the gold.

Bronze: Submission (Michel Houellebecq) – Furious battle for the Bronze. This one is not about the writing, because there were better. If you are certain that “Build the Wall” is the dog whistle of MAGA wearing goat effers, then validate your odium with a story involving a probable forecast of France’s future. LBJ swore the Immigration Act of 1965 would not affect the culture or composition of the U.S. but look at us now. What do you think about Houellebecq’s projection?

As our 2017 picks blew birds, our 2018 picks were mostly on target. Big upps for Wonder Boys, Lincoln in the Bardo, The Killer Inside Me, The Painted Veil and Brooklyn. All remarkable reads. Let’s hope we don’t roll a crap 7 in 2019. May St. Francis de Sales, the patron Saint of writers keep smiling.

If you want to read slightly more detailed reviews, click on the word “Home” & scroll down. Happy Festivus.

I Am the Messenger

Hoping to tap into some of that George Bailey Christmas magic, the Illuminado read Markus Zusak’s award winning I Am the Messenger as our group finale for 2018. What we didn’t realize was that this book falls into the Young Adult genre, so consequently there was more death, rape, alcoholism, adultery and general violence than we are used to. Fortunately per another YA staple, it read quickly.

To sum, some did not like the book, but it did win a majority split decision and however you felt about it, there were topics to discuss. The biggest gripes from the book snobs were the lack of character development, the discard of characters with potential, and ease of some (all) of the messages. There also was a problem with suspending disbelief. The person pulling the protagonist, Ed Kennedy’s, strings had information about Ed’s life that Ed himself didn’t have. Also from the world of the unbelievable, no guy who has been friend-zoned ever busts out, but behold…Ed gets the girl! Complete nonsense.

The book is famous for its ending, which we debated to no conclusion. Barring aliens, a Truman Show return of his father or an “it was all a dream” scene, there was no other way to wrap this puppy up. Will the author’s message spurn the reader to act(s) of kindness? Only you know. For us, it’s a probably not. Probably more like a no. It’s a no. Yes. A No.

Wonder Boys

Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys is a wonder alright. Wonderfully imaginative writing that paints a cynical picture of writers, particularly those posing as college professors. The bulk of the story takes place over a fictional Pittsburgh college’s WordFest weekend. Our hero, Grady Tripp, has just had his 3rd wife walk out on him and his married mistress, the college’s Chancellor, inform him that she is about to be his baby mama. This particular catastrophe is the most conventional thing that is happening to him at the moment.

He just found out the car he won gambling is stolen and its owner, an ex-boxer wants it back. His new writing protégé shot his mistress’s dog and stole her husband’s prize possession, the dress Marilyn Monroe wore to wed Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio. He has a shot with a hot Mormon coed. His father-in-law wants him at Passover dinner regardless of the pending divorce. His chief enabler, who is also his editor and a fellow drug abuser, is attending WordFest and crashing at his place. And he just can’t figure out how to finish his 2,000+ page novel Wonder Boys, despite its seven years in development. He has a lot on his cannabis-soaked mind.

So, what’s to admire amid the slapstick chaos Tripp triggers? An interesting observation of the separation of the writer from the human collective. The importance of family as Tripp, who only knew his grandmother, heads out to a Seder with his soon to be ex-father-in-law and his hodge-podge brood. Chabon’s character development, even the quick hitters that Tripp describes in a sentence or two that have the reader saying “Yup, I know the type.” The humor. Q’s Doppelganger. The obscure and memory jolting references.

The downside? You could say this is just the story of a pothead making poor choices. There are spots where you may feel that Chabon is trying too hard. He could push the story forward with a simple paragraph sans the extraneous detail. It’s like…Dude, you banked a lot of credit throughout the book, use it and give us a breather.

Wonder Boys was very well received by our group, and it was little wonder because the book is intellectual, trendy (i.e., from a fashionable author) and funny. Of course, finding an impromptu back-up Diner (Frankie’s) in Bridgeport at 7AM on a Sunday morning after the Famous 50’s Diner was found to be closed on Sunday…despite the sign by the door and the internet which say OPEN, may have added to the euphoria. Thumbs up.

The Killer Inside Me

Jim Thompson…he ain’t squeamish. Like the protagonist of Thompson’s Pop. 1280, Sheriff Nick Corey, The Killer Inside Me’s Deputy Lou Ford isn’t the affable lawman he appears to be. Unlike Nick Corey, Lou Ford’s dark side is driven by a sexual sadism and reoccurring bouts with the sickness. The last time the sickness brimmed up in Lou, something bad happened to that poor little girl. Now it’s back, and the environment is target rich.

This is an intense book. Written from the POV of a two-faced psychopath and the reader will believe that they are communing with a real-life madman. Lou Ford’s inner voice is so genuine, it has likely been lifted, copied, echoed, etc…in innumerable media. We wouldn’t say plagiarized or ripped-off, because The Killer Inside Me was written in 1952. Any resemblance is likely a fourth-generation derivative.

The book has some hardcore violence against women that most readers will justifiably be revolted at. Therefore, we recommend reading the comparatively amiable Pop. 1280 first to gauge how much of a Thompson fan you are. See our 12/23/2015 review of that book below…
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The Talisman

Breaking things up a bit, for Halloween the group decided to try the horror genre via Stephen King and Peter Straub’s The Talisman, however it seemed more a fantasy than horror. Like a Mark Twain coming of age story, 12-year old Jack Sawyer sets off on a cross country quest to save his stricken mother. His trek simultaneously includes a parallel plane called the Territories where his mother’s “twinner” is the beloved Queen and is likewise at death’s door. There is a bad guy, evil minions and allies throughout, which raises the question of who is this book written for? We were hoping to get a little fearful while sipping on our Woodford Reserve Pumpkin Spice, but it wasn’t even close. This 944-page book could have been chopped-up and massaged into a Harry Potter or Percy Jackson type juggernaut decades prior to their ascendancy, but from a horror perspective…it seems a case of two positives (King, Straub), made a negative (The Talisman.)

The Painted Veil

Written by an esteemed British novelist/playwright of yesteryear, you might expect The Painted Veil to be a bit stodgy. However, in today’s parlance, W. Somerset Maugham keeps it real in this story of betrayal and quest for redemption or revenge or self-realization. You can’t be sure what the characters are after.

The story begins with the beautiful, but shallow Kitty cuckolding her all to serious husband, Walter, with the life of the ex-pat party in Hong Kong, Charles, the Assistant Colonial Secretary. Walter, knowing that Charles was just looking to pull the pump and dump on Kitty, agrees to let Kitty go amicably if Charles divorces his wife. If not, she must accompany him, a bacteriologist by training, inland to battle cholera in the stricken Chinese city of Mei-tan-fu. Ecstatic, Kitty runs to Charles with her offer of perpetual happiness only to learn that she is a fool.

Despondent, she now must travel inland with Walter on the apparent suicide mission. During her days in the dying city, Kitty realizes that her life to date has been self-centered and indolent. In the city, she meets self-sacrificing French nuns and a quirky confidant, the alcoholic Customs-man Waddington. She also watches the city’s knight in shining armor, Walter, save thousands of lives, to the adoration of tens of thousands. You might think you know where this is headed, but a broken heart can’t be mended, nor the fires of passion reignited where they never once were. Somerset Maugham deserves credit for not attempting to tie a bow on anything here. Mistakes made aren’t always learned from or pardoned. That’s life. One heck of a good book…and racist as all eff.

Imperium

Via Christian Kracht’s Imperium we head back to the South Seas to revisit the nudist vegetarians of Kabakon Island. Rather than playing around with a fictitious murder mystery amongst the sparse facts of the Cocovores as Adrian McKinty did in The Son is God, Kracht focuses on their leader, August Engelhardt, and generating tracts of clever writing. The clever writing is quite clever, but occasionally, it is a bit much.

The story is of Engelhardt’s path to Kabakon, followed by his time and demise there. Sprinkled in are some possibilities and/or improbabilities used to enhance the story of guy who ate coconuts and sun bathed all day. Living the dream, but not much action for a writer to work with.

So, Kracht or McKinty? Imperium is certainly better written and would appeal more to a book snob, but the pages in McKinty’s tale do get turned mighty quickly. It’s a draw. Either one will provide a history and geography lesson.

The Sun is God

Adrian McKinty injects a little fiction into the stranger than fiction story of the Cocovores of the Bismarck Archipelago. In the early 1900s, German crackpot August Engelhadt decided that worshipping the sun via nude sunbathing and eating the fruit that grows closest to the sun, the coconut, would beget immortality. He’s dead, but McKinty uses an invented English Boer War MP escaping his past in Imperial backwater of Herbertshohe to turn a death among these Moonies into an interesting whodunit. A short book that will shed some light on a part of the globe and German history you likely know little about. There is a wonderful POV switch in the book’s penultimate chapter, which alone makes it worth the investment of a few hours, but don’t bump it up your queue too much.

Brooklyn

Like the movie, the book recreates a picture-perfect atmosphere of 1950s small town Ireland and bustling Brooklyn. The story is about some big decisions made by a smart cookie, one Ms. Eilis Lacey. Eilis’s choices aren’t life or death, as she likely land on her feet either way, but you will be pulling for her to realize her dreams in a time when opportunities were scarce for young ladies.

This one those rare instances were the movie is better as it features the uber-talented Saorise Ronan playing Eilis, and nice work by Domhnall Gleeson. Still, Brooklyn is a pretty good book. A little soft for a Men’s Book Club, but hey, why not?