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.

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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.

Meddling Kids

Last night it was back to Brewport to discuss Edgar Cantero’s Scooby Doo/Lovecraft mash Meddling Kids. Those Brewport pulled pork and kimchi pizzas…dang they are good. Great beer list as well, so whatever the verdict, we were happy campers. Mr. Forman, has the jury reached a verdict? Yes, your honor, we have. How do you find the defendant? Not Guilty of being literary fiction, by reason of being a fun book.

In a nutshell, Meddling Kids mirrors the Hanna-Barbera classic with four young protagonists, a dog and a Chevy Vega standing in for the Mystery Machine. The story goes well beyond the bounds of a typical Scooby adventure, getting into the serious occult before flat out horror fiction. There’s no doubt Cantero is a clever writer, using the full bag of tricks and plenty of humor in what is either his second or third language, but he is trying a little too hard. One of our Brothers summed it up best when he said, I feel like the writer just came from a class where they all learned about similes. Like this, like that…crafty ones, but way too many or not properly spaced. They overshadow much of the writing.

That said, there were positives. Treating the Daphne character’s hair as an entity of its own, the state of the Peter character, the lesbian angle and the nods to the original series. A fun read, that doesn’t generate much discussion beyond whether as kids anyone was attracted to the brainy Thelma.

Brother Jason, who picked the book ended the meeting with “And I would have picked a better book, if it hadn’t been for a Good Samaritan and their meddling book recommendation!”

Best Books of 2017

These are the most appreciated books mentioned in this blog during 2017. The books weren’t published in 2017, because then they would be expensive and not on Thriftbooks.

Gold: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee. Perfect writing. We’d like to imagine it was pounded out on a typewriter that has no corrective tape in one masterful sitting. When Penguin plans to release a 50th Anniversary Edition, if any in-house “genius” offers edit it, the blockhead should be sent to Abu Ghraib for re-education. Not one word can be altered.

Silver: The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. Too long…yes, but enlightening via illustration. Read it. It will change your perspective on everyone, including you.

Bronze: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. Some strands of the story aren’t as riveting as others, but at the end you’ll sound like a Saturday morning English Premiere League commentator after a wonder goal struck on the half-volley “Brilliant! Juuuust Brilliant!!!”

Unfortunately, there were a lot of clunkers this year, but a proper shout-out for Absurdistan, Fahrenheit 451, An Actor Prepares (Short Story) and The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, each of which stand out from the mostly bombs we read this year. If you want to read more detailed reviews, click on the word “Home” & scroll down. Happy Festivus.

Stoner

John Williams goes deep in his tale of farm boy turned English professor, William Stoner. As a professor himself, Williams may be mixing in quite a bit of non-fiction to achieve a reality literary fiction experience. He may also be thinking the life (his) worth living thoughts.

In the book’s beginning has a summation of Stoner’s life that describes him as a nobody. An Aggie turned middling professor that nobody would bother to remember. That description does haunt you throughout the book, as Stoner is actually a zealot about his craft. He goes so far as to intellectually assassinate a Ph.D candidate who is the pet of the new Department chairman. His integrity sentences him to the loss of cherished upperclassman studies and a decades long condemnation into sophomoric general studies. He does a fine job with standard text among the indifferent, but eventually realizes he must soar. He pulls a Dead Poet’s Society move and chucks the syllabus text book in favor of more breathtaking alternatives. There is outrage, but his student’s flourish measurably.

This is a surprisingly passionate read. Except for an extramarital affair, it’s a pretty quiet…almost. Big Ups to John Williams. He does accomplish something that many writers cannot. He is able to change the mood of the reader. When Stoner is up against his antagonists, if you put the book down at the wrong time, you may be going to Happy Hour fuming. Williams also leaves you wanting more of the late Dave Masters insight. You’ll like the book. Not overtly philosophical, but thoughtful.

The Incarnations

The Incarnations is Susan Barker’s tale about two spirits that continue to find and love/hate each other from the Tang Dynasty (632 AD) up through the Beijing Summer Olympics (2008.) Well written, although some of the past encounters are more appealing than others, so the urge to pick-up the book will oscillate a bit. As a user of the earth’s most effective tongue, Dear Reader, whom the Chinese affectionately refer to as barbarian, foreign devil, gwai lo, etc…you will appreciate the insight into Chinese culture because besides a menu, you have none. Now mind, some of this may not be accurate, as you find out when you Google the Emperor Jiajing expecting a hyper-sadist biography, but it’s still more 411 on China that you came to the book with. A word of warning, if you are imagining a bunch of Romeo & Juliet iterations, consider that while a boundary condition of the reincarnation here is that you don’t come back as the main ingredient in General Tso’s Chicken and your soulmate as fodder for roast pork on rice, your gender isn’t a constant. Boy-girl, two boys, two girls…buckle-up Dear Reader. Also, don’t despair over the main contemporary character, Wang Jun’s, aim for a mundane existence as a cabbie, the people around him are interesting throughout.

Not raving about it…the first 5-pages of the book are critics, papers and authors doing that…but this is certainly a well done book. If you read it, keep a scrap of paper handy and try to map the spirits through time (and watch for other spirits.)

The Fountainhead

After a clunker, Brother Nick decided to take matters in his own hands with moose move, jumping the line to pick our next book, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. The novel has a reputation for being a vehicle for Rand’s individualist philosophy, but whether it was to be a good discussion book was certainly up for discussion. The meeting was held in an upscale restaurant, and us being men of power and abreast of current events, that we would sexually harass the wait staff was quickly settled. As fate would have it, we wound up being assigned an imperturbable African-American gentleman, so there will be no expose of the Illuminado on Gawker. Just kidding…of course. Harvey Weinstein…who knew!

The Fountainhead is comprised of four studies of main characters, Peter Keating, Ellsworth M. Toohy, Gail Wynand and Howard Roark. These four can easily be paired off as sets of foils. Keating vs. Roark and Toohy vs. Wynand, but they, and the other characters eventually all need to be compared to Roark, who is Rand’s ubermensch here. Keating is a second-hander who measures success by how others view him, while Roark is more like Cyrano de Bergerac and rewards himself internally for meaningful accomplishments. Toohy and Wynand both have the capacity to identify individual greatness, but both extinguish it for their own reasons. Toohy to advance the mediocrity of collectivism, and Wynand, to ensure that he always runs the mob via his vulgar New York Banner newspaper. Wynand turned out to be the most discussed character at our gathering. He is the one that evolves the most during the story, although Peter Keating devolves to such an extent that it become necessary to suspend disbelief in his case.

The book generated an excellent discussion regarding these and other brilliantly drawn characters, as well as the book’s philosophical angles, such as the needed balance between Collectivism and Individualism and the use of altruism to control the masses. Perhaps the book’s most controversial topic is the relationship between Dominique Francon and Howard Roark. The willful submission of a strong-willed woman to a strong-willed man and that Rand chose to explicitly name their first encounter as a rape. That has triggered many a feminist through the years. Like everything Rand, it is bold. She doesn’t go in for bromide.

Picking knits, this book could have used a 250-page haircut. The soapbox was wore out after 700-pages. In sum, and in the tradition of Lois Clark’s, The Gallant Gallstone, this is a brilliant book by a superb writer. Get your book club on it.

Slade House

Very excited about reading a creepy book from an excellent writer around Halloween. David Mitchell’s Slade House turned out to be a Trick rather than a Treat. It’s well written, but nowhere near the quality of the masterful The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Possibly inadvisably, this humble scribe also purchased for $1 the Cloud Atlas audiobook from a local library housecleaning. Not since Peter Minut paid $24 for Manhattan has there been such a deal. Cloud Atlas is a monumental achievement…but unfortunately we are talking now about Slade House. It’s sort of like Peyton and Eli Manning’s other brother, an excellent chap no doubt, but he didn’t win two Super Bowls. That’s not meant to be cruel, just an illustration. Like Jamie-Lynn and Britney Spears’s brother what’s his name. Some of the Baldwin brothers. Fredo Corleone. Pass on Slade House.