All That Man Is

Warning: If you are a woman who lives with a cat, do not read this book. Your poor opinion of men (excluding your fine father and moronic, but sometimes decent brother(s)) will just be further cemented. The protagonist in each piece is flawed and this slice of their life is one where those flaws are rather acute.

If you do read these short stories by David Szalay, remember that it’s not so much about the stories or the likability of the characters. It’s about the ever-present craft of the writing and the occasional spot-on insight. The progression is scared kid who can get with older woman, disappointed slacker who takes what he can get, unrequited love, unappreciated love, guy who would watch the world burn for career advancement, guy running out of time to make a big career score, fool who thinks he is a big man finally realizes he is a fool, self-made man faces a demise of his own making, and man dealing with his loss of vitality. You will recognize more than a few of the characters and the extracts of their self-examination.

Not a book you are likely to recommend or fall in love with, but one you will respect.

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Lincoln in the Bardo

Smart, and funny as hell, George Saunders earned his cult leader status as an unconventional and revered short story teller. And now for something completely different…a Saunders novel. If you reduced the white space and compressed a few chapters, is Lincoln in the Bardo really that much longer that Pastoralia? (The story, not the collection.) Not really. Surely not many, if any, multiples on the work count. Bardo is smart and its funny and its longer, but it is through its unique structure that it levels up on some of Saunders’ prior work. Whether it meets the bright-line of a Booker Prize winner, that is debatable, but also decided.

The story is of the loss of Abraham Lincoln’s young son Willie to typhoid fever in 1862. Willie was all boy and only 11-years old. His death was a crushing blow to his family. Lincoln, already hardened via early Civil War casualty lists, was periodically incapacitated with grief. Mary Lincoln almost went mad. Amidst this background reports circulated about Lincoln making late night visits to Willie’s tomb in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery. Contemporaries even speculated that during these visits, Lincoln entered the vault and pulled Willie out of his coffin to hold him. That is the backbone of Saunders tale. From there he introduces a cacophony of ghosts and even deader references. The book is busy and its ingenious.

Will Honest Abe’s love keep Willie’s spirit in that boneyard, or will its more heroic denizens be able to move Willie on. You already know the answer, but Lincoln in the Bardo worth the experience

Replay

r2Living your life over again is a popular book under many titles. It sells, as it stokes the fires of self-examination, which prompts a good review or a recommendation. While there are many variants on this theme, one that is held up as a masterstroke is Ken Grimwood’s 1986 novel Replay.

The protagonist, 43-year old Jeff Winston, exits a strained marriage and disappointing media career via a fatal heart attack. He immediately revives as his 18-year old college self at Emory University. Knowing a few Kentucky Derby, World Series and stock market winners allows Jeff to live a wildly successful 2nd life until that set-in-stone 1988 heart attack. He wakes up again a smidge older and embarks on another replay of his life. Each time he takes a different angle, e.g., hedonism, altruism, isolationism, etc…, and each time is replay get a little shorter.

Love, which died in the first go around with his wife is a principal pursuit in the replays. While most of us would look up Farrah Fawcett or…Hillary Rodham (no comment), Jeff seeks fulfillment with his college sweetheart, a Las Vegas floozy and even a 2nd go around with his wife. Aside from his children, who we Illumiado spent time debating whether they survive in the multi-verse after Jeff’s death, his soulmate turns out to be another repeater, Pamela. Jointly they try to manage the oncoming repeats, but are handed several curveballs.

Literature, this is not. Though provoking, it is. More of a book club book, than an individual read.

Brodeck

If you are seeking a novel that will pump life into your flagging book club, Brodeck by Philippe Claudel, is a gargantuan needle of adrenaline to the heart. It is a powerful allegorical tale with a thousand points of discussion.

In broad strokes, little orphaned Bodeck is brought to an out-of-the-way border town by the forever old gypsy Fedorine. He grows up seemingly accepted in this town of kindly villagers. Recognizing his smarts, they even elect him to be the one young man to get an education and return to serve the town that sponsored him. However, when Brodeck returns, it is on the winds of war and soon the town is occupied by enemy troops. The enemy is generous at first, but when the enemy commander insists that the locals cleanse their village, Brodeck is remembered as an outsider. An Other. Thus, he is shipped to a concentration camp and, sacrificing his dignity for his life, he becomes a Brodeck the Dog.

After the war, the villagers are stunned when Brodeck returns. Though he is a reminder of their past weakness, they allow him to remain among them. After things settle, enter the Anderer. The Other. A flamboyantly dressed imp that, unlike any other visitor, came specifically to their isolated locale. But why they all ask? Different in every way, he quietly paints their portraits and local landscapes. These pictures, like holograms, look very differently at different angles. A benevolently smiling fellow seen from the left is a malevolently sneering fellow from the right. Like windows to the soul, these portraits incite their subjects to murder The Anderer. Brodeck is one of the few villagers whose knife doesn’t stick the Anderer, and seemingly since he is the only educated villager, he is charged to write a report whitewashing the crime.

There is no point summarizing the plot any further. Just know that the book is replete with thought-provoking themes, observations and vignettes. Honestly, some Illuminado would not let the meeting break-up and then would not leave after it did. The book is required reading. Nuff said.

To the Back of Beyond

Astrid goes inside to check on the kids and her husband, Thomas, puts down his wine glass and walks out the backyard gate. No note, no obvious reason. Days roll by. No contact, no information. It turns out that Thomas has gone on a Swiss walkabout. Author Peter Stamm leaves a lot for interpretation, but not when it comes to the description the alpine outdoors and the little unseen trails between inhabited places. You will start to notice, and wonder what is in the open space near you. As for Stamm’s actual intent, he likely wants you to wonder about what it would take to make you truly free and/or happy. If the reader uses this book as a jumping off to life altering self-discovery, then the author will be sated. If the reader finds the book monotonous, implausible and owning a wholly unsatisfying ending, then the author will have to be content with the reader’s money.

The North Water

The North Water is Ian McGuire’s tale about a whaling expedition beginning in Hull and heading up to Jan Mayen Island (think way above Iceland), then around Greenland and into Canada’s Lancaster Sound. Aside from the yucky whaling, it sounds like a picturesque and educational voyage, but with a serial killer for a shipmate and a clandestine insurance fraud scheme in play, this trip into the north waters is anything but a pleasure cruise. Sadly, Hollywood and the media have done such a job on our senses, that the book’s revulsive aspect loses some of its impact because we are inundated with so many killers on TV, in movies and in the news. If Anthony Hopkins had played Drax before Lecter, what a sensation this book would have been.

Although on the Booker Long List, The North Water is more a good yarn, than literature. There’s nothing wrong with that, it was just a bit surprising. The writing is skilled, but is there any reason to analyze Drax or Sumner? Will you feel compelled to contrast Sumner to Drax? Does the author have a message for the reader? Without really chasing it, the answer could be no. You will have to decide…and quickly, it’s a page-turner.

Crossing to Safety

Stunning. A quiet book that reminds you that you’re sh1t. You couldn’t form a thought or a sentence that would be good enough to be page-filler here. Wallace Stegner is Ty Cobb, and almost all the other writers you’re reading now are Little Leaguers…How???

The story is about the friendship struck by two young couples while the husbands taught as Assistant Professors of Literature at the University of Wisconsin. While he has you wrapped in his web, Stegner asks “How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect?” Where are the sex, drugs and rock ’n roll needed to keep people’s attention? Does he ask that question in the secure confidence of his genius, or as an archetypal writer wondering if his cogitations will find an audience. Only he knows.

There are several simple set-ups in this modest story that will have readers arguing over the obvious questions. But those arguments can will be rich, and the writing is rich and the experience, for a serious reader is a clear must have. You’ll likely never see the Vermont detailed in Crossing to Safety, even if you live in Vermont. You’ll likely never meet a full-blast Charity Lang, but one wishes we all could. You probably will never possess the wisdom to look back on the beginning of your family, career and friendships as is done here, but take some time to do it. Without that, the wisdom you lay on the nieces, nephews, sons and daughters of the next generation is hooey.

“There is nothing like a doorbell to precipitate the potential into the kinetic. When you stand outside a door and push the button, something has to happen. Someone must respond; whatever is inside must be revealed. Questions will be answered…” Reading this book is a doorbell. Push it.

Ray

Ray is a Tuscaloosa-based ex-Vietnam fighter pilot turned alcoholic doctor of Barry Hannah’s creation. Hannah’s writing is so creative that in the early pages of this short novel you will wonder if you are wasting your time. I’s a legit question, but if you choose to stick it out, you do become accustomed to Hannah’s rhythms and Ray’s nuggets of wisdom. Little snippets of an uneven home life, his well detailed foot fetish, Civil War flashbacks, vigilantism, womanizing and the envy of a redneck neighbor’s gift of poetry. The story bounces, but has its rewards.

For example, after losing the love of his life, and amidst the deterioration of his current relationship, Ray takes a moment to think back about the picture perfect life early on with his first wife…his perfect children and friendly neighbors and thinks “What a release, to look into the past that way I just tried. A petrified log just rolled off my heart.” There are better ones to quote, but again, I neglected to underline.

As there is an equal chance you will hate Ray, this isn’t a pound the table buy. Accumulate.

Rebranding

An informal survey of thousands has uncovered that while people from Connecticut are still called Nutmeggers, Connecticut’s moniker as the Nutmeg State has fallen into disuse. The “Constitution State” entry on the bottom of vehicle license plates has drown out the Nutmeg, so we are jettisoning the Nutmeg as well. Since the preponderance of our brotherhood live close the shores of the mighty Pequonnock River, we are choosing the Pequonnock Iluminado. Pequonnock being the local Native American term for place of slaughter or place of destruction. Manly and apt.

Change is hard, but it can be good. In 1738, our forbearers, the then Hooker Iluminado, named after Colony of Connecticut founder, the Puritan Reverend Thomas Hooker, and not the after the pliers of the world’s oldest profession, booted out an Iluminado slacker who later founded Yale’s Crotonia society. That worked out well for both him and for Yale. Semper Anticus!

Penance

This is a well-crafted murder mystery written by Kanae Minato. A middle school girl is plucked out of a circle of friends and becomes the victim of a deadly sexual assault. The surviving schoolgirls blame themselves for losing track of their new posh friend. Their perceived failure, opens the door to their guilt getting amped-up by the victim’s mother, who demands results from the girls in catching the perp or a penance from each of them for allowing the murder to transpire.

As the girls grow up, they continually imagine their dead friend’s tiger mom judging them, until each girl finally snaps. Hearing of those snaps, the condemning momacita has to confront her complicity in the original crime and lift the curse before more sin adheres to her own conscience.

Whilst it ebbs and wanes, the impact of original sin, the transfer of guilt and the power of unintended consequences make this a good novel. The common paperback is 227-pages and worth reading.