American Gods

Storytelling is a gift, and Neil Gaiman is gifted. This one is about how men carry their gods with them. When those people lose their belief or are conquered their gods fade. Thought provoking, sacrilegious, and certainly interesting. In broad strokes, the main character, who has the ridiculous name of Shadow Moon, links up with an incarnation of Odin. We are sure the last time he was worshiped in Minnesota, but he is still going. Odin wants to rally the old gods (e.g., Egyptian, Slovak, Leprechauns, etc…) to confront the new gods. There are many new gods, but for simplicity sake imagine your cell phone as the new gods (it ain’t far off.)

The climax is a battle between the old and new gods at Lookout Mountain in Tennessee. It’s only a book, so don’t worry, you’ll still have you cell phone. God forbid that gets hurt! The reward is looking up the old gods, learning their origins, then thinking about where they went…or if they ever were.

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A Meal in Winter

This is Hubert Mingarelli’s story of three German soldiers who one winter’s day scammed their way into Jew hunting duty. As appalling as that sounds, they did it to get out of Jew shooting duty. An inornate tale in which these soldiers do catch a fish, but also fall in with a nasty Pole out hunting. To the soldiers, the business they are engaged in is just business. An unpleasant one, but they hold no animosity toward their captive. This hunter however, seems like he would relish their inhumane duty. His attitude causes the soldiers to empathize with their captive. There is a big discussion point that comes in the book’s last few pages. This is a book club book. Not a joy to read.

Elmet

Interesting story…maybe because it was a little odd and thereby left plenty of things to ponder. Did author Fiona Mozley plan them all? Who knows, but on the discussion level…the book clicked. Daniel, the son of this off-the-grid me, Daddy and Sis family provides the narration. Daddy, who might be based on Tyson Fury, is such a bare knuckles virtuoso that the matchmaker/fixers have to import a Ukrainian giant (Klitschko?) just to get action on the other side of their bets. At work, Daddy’s knuckles came in handy when he was collecting rents for Mr. Price (i.e., the local Boss Hogg), but now Daddy is squatting on Mr. Price’s land and leading a rent strike.

Meanwhile, Daniel and his sister Cathy learn how to survive off the land in their house in the copse. Cathy turns out to be a chip off the old Daddy block, while Daniel seems to be headed to be the “B” in the English version of NAMBLA. Daddy, a sweetie with his kids, goes from muscle, to community organizer, to (potential) thief. That final profession is with little explanation. And how about wacky home-schooler Vivien? She doesn’t want to get involved no matter what is at stake. That said, there is an intimation that she was the victim of domestic violence in the past which must be leading her to cower. Even the evil Mr. Price may have justification for his actions. Yup, plenty to ponder.

Ultimately , Elmet is not a bad book, but not a great one either.

White Teeth

Zadie Smith is terrific. There is no need to herald how hip and multicultural the writing is. Plenty of insulated white people have already done that. Needless to say, we are from the 203, so we cool, we cool.

Her characters are wonderful, and Smith is reminiscent of Jonathan Franzen in Freedom in her development of the Chalfens. Joyce Chalfen and Patty Berglund together would be something. It would also be interesting to poll readers as to who they believe the lead character(s) is in this multigenerational tale. For us, it was Archie and Samad, dull as they are, but the younger set would likely go for the kids. For the ladies…the female leads were equally appealing. Great balance. Put this book in a prestigious spot on your shelf ASAP.

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.

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.)