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.
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…
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 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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?
With the author’s name being Yasunari Kawabata, there is no doubt that this is a Japanese novel, but it is a really-Japanese novel. Written in the 1950s, the novel preserves a Japanese culture that likely has been wiped away by the opening of their society. The reader will promptly understand that they don’t understand the Japanese people, but despite the bizarre nature of the discourse, there is strength in the strictures of their traditions.
The main character is 62-year old Ogata Shingo, an executive coming to the end of his run in business and beginning to take stock of his home life. A home life which began so promisingly, provincial boy meets and marries a striking young beauty, but took a bad turn with his young wife’s death. Her family sent him a plain daughter to assist him after the tragedy and he married her, then fathered a son and daughter. The son and daughter are both disappointments, and both involved in deteriorating marriages.
The one ray of sunshine is his live-in daughter-in-law, Kikuko. Shingo watches while she nobly suffers his son’s brazen adultery. Kind, attentive, beautiful, she becomes the muse who replaces his first wife, his second wife being a blunt, unappealing crone.
The book is interesting in the domestic dynamic between the characters, as to what is and is not appropriate in post-war Japan. There is also the people’s relationship to the natural environment, particularly flora, and descriptions of Japanese landmarks. Not an exciting book, but well done.
No matter where you are on the political spectrum, Michel Houellebecq’s provocative book about the possible future of French politics and society is a must read. For the Connecticuter/Nutmegger it provides a better understanding of the (unimaginable) more than two party systems that govern in Europe.
The story is told through the lens of Francois, an innately brilliant professor of French literary figures and movements, principally those concerning J.K. Huysmans. While intellectually strong, Francois’s character is equally weak. His chief interests are sleeping with his students and locating soirees with premium free food and wine. He has no interest in office politics and even less in national politics, that is until French politics get white hot and spill into the street’s. With the impending election of Nationalist Marine Le Pen as France’s President, the far left and center-right parties swing their support to the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood party, who becomes France’s first Muslin president. The Brotherhood then hands over plumb Ministries (e.g., Economy, Defense, Agriculture, Heath, etc…) which it has zero interest in, to its coalition partners, while it takes control of lesser spoils like the Ministries of Education, Justice, Culture.
The immediate effect on Francois is the departure of his Jewish girlfriend to Israel and the closure of the Sorbonne University while it adjusts its catalog to be compliant with Islamic teaching and digests vast amounts of petro-dollars and students that begin to flow into the University from the Gulf States. Ultimately the faculty is told that they must convert to Islam to keep their positions. Their package is generous as retiring faculty go off on full pay, so almost every professor leaves, thereby delivering a black eye to the new Muslim administrators. Now lacking the intellectual firepower they’ve paid for, the Gulf emirs direct Sorbonne administrators to get the top talent back at whatever the cost. Francois is then courted by the new Department head, who is wealthy and under Islamic law has several wives, one of which Francois notices is a teenager wearing Hello Kitty garb under her bhurka. The thought of wealth, status, access to being published and 3 or 4-teenage brides proves too much for Francois, who converts to Islam.
Did we just plot bust? It doesn’t matter. Francois is the imperfect messenger here. The message is that the open borders of today will radically change Western countries in the future. You can debate how, and how much, but that change is coming is a fact. Not a page turner and some unrecognizable French politics, but well worth reading and discussing.
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.