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.

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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.

Pillars of The Earth

There is a first time for everything, so who might the first repeat author assigned to all the Illuminado be? Hemmingway? Vonnegut? McCarthy? Steinbeck? Turns out its Ken Follett with Pillars of the Earth.

On the bright side, it was better written that A Dangerous Fortune. On the puzzling side, it was written 4-years before a Dangerous Fortune…so is Ken getting worse? I’d say a different ghost writer, but all the Follett hallmarks are there. The repetitiveness, nair do well plotters pulling the strings of the virtuous, two sentence major plot twists amidst large tracts of tedium and silly names for the caricatures…I mean characters. Once again, Ken, who could easily get a gig as a writer on Days of Our Lives or General Hospital, never lets anyone get too high for too long without raping or mutilating them. After two books, its also pretty clear that Mrs. Ken isn’t getting away with any Missionary horsesh1t. The dude is pervy.

As predictable and trite as this book is, it goes very quickly. Enjoy.

Little Apple

You can never tell where a thought-provoking book is going to come from. Not too many come from 1928 Germany anymore, but Arcade Publishing keeps Leo Perutz’s Little Apple in circulation and that is a good thing.

Little Apple is the story of WWI Austrian POW Georg Vittorin’s Ahab-like pursuit of his white whale…the Chernavyensk prison camp Commanding Officer, Staff Captain Mikhail Mikhailovich Selyukov. Whilst in prison, Vittorin and a few of his comrades swear a pact to even the score with the cruel Selyukov after the war. However, upon their release the POWs all fall back into their pre-war routines in comfortable Vienna. Only Vittorin, who dwells on a specific personal, though somewhat minor, humiliation at Selyukov’s hands, still burns with vengeance.

Abandoning his duty to his family, his presumed fiancé and good career opportunities, he plunges into the heart of the Russian Civil War on a fanatical hunt for his enemy. The undertaking brings him to the brink of starvation, again to prison, spells of criminality, into the arms of a beautiful starlet, to great cities and peasant’s hovels and most often to death’s doorstep, but through it all, he remains insulated to his environs by his fixation on Selyukov. After 2-years of travel throughout Europe, he learns that Selyukov has settled in, of all places, Vienna. It is there that Vittorin encounters the collateral damage of embarking on his selfish quest. It is also there that he faces the arrogant Russian Captain, that to him, over time, has come to personify all of the evil in the world. To be continued…by you reading the book.

A Voice from Old New York

We enjoyed Keysean Johnson’s Just Give Me The Damn Ball so much, it was time for another biography. This one of the auto- nature. The voice here is that of Louis Auchincloss, a member of Manhattan’s recognized “Society,” who grew up directly with the descendants of Gilded Age barons. Auchincloss went on to carve out a successful duel career as an estate attorney and writer. As always, whether this is a fascinating or dull read depends on the reader.

The more thoughtful will be pleased with the insights into long elapsed manners, class-driven interpersonal relations, views on wealth, even a few unique WWII stories. Does the name dropping of the no longer important (or living) persons get a bit droll? Sure. Can there be too much dry wit? Maybe. Either way, this is a valuable peak into the lives of the New York set of the 1930s. It is worth noting that Louis Auchincloss wrote this book when he was in his nineties. That these tracts still remain in his aged memory is astonishing, and his command of the written word is even better. We will have to read one of his dry novels one day.

The Emerald Light in the Air

It was time to revisit Donald Antrim, author of our 2016 Book of the Year Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World. The venue, a collection of seven short stories, in a volume called The Emerald Light in the Air. The stories are replete with characters of quirky action, thought and/or past, but only one of the stories captures the magic of Mr. Robinson, An Actor Prepares. Please read it and get turned on to Donald Antrim…

http://www.condenet.com/mags/newyorker/asme/categories/artwork/pdf/06_21_Antrim_Actor.pdf

The Lighthouse

The cover of Alison Moore’s book The Lighthouse says “Longlisted for The Man Booker Prize 2012.” Astonishing. The book stinks, and we are not referring to book’s repeated use of olfactory imagery. The main character, Futh, who may/must be retarded to some extent, could really use a spell of no luck at all. One awkward, bad luck scene after the next. In real life, rather than reach 40, he would have hung himself or shot up his high school. The profile of a satisfied reader of this book would be one who enjoys a damp, grey day at the shore. One where a seagull dropping lands on their sandwich just as they take a bite. A mildly engaging, but wholly unsatisfying read. Pass.

The Driftless Area

Magical Realism. It can have little magic. Exhibit A: Tom Drury’s The Driftless Area. The dreary tale of a Midwestern simpleton, Pierre Hunter. Not a bad guy. Tries to do the right thing, but he’s an idiot.

The reader gets the impression that the author thought long and hard on the characters’ full names, names of towns (which Saint Ivo is your town named after???) and the name of the bar that Pierre works at. Those bland details may move someone disconnected from reality, e.g., an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, but it falls flat for someone not currently on drugs. Even if these clever details resonate, they do little for the story.

If you are looking for another strike, there is some pretention here too. The publisher includes Questions for Discussion on the final 3-pages of the book. While that ink is always appreciated, the publisher frames the questions as if this book is an acknowledged seminal work. Linking the it to the Coen Brother, Jonathan Franzen, Charlie Chaplin, Hemingway, Odysseus…Thelma & Louise for Chistsakes!!! Out of context, but question 4 is How do we begin to realize we are in a fabulous tale… Tom Drury is an acclaimed writer, so he isn’t written off yet.