The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn

dead-mountaineer The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn is a whodunit in the genre of Clue or any other nobody leaves until the Inspector shouts “Twas the Butler!” The book, by brothers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, stars a vacationing Inspector Peter Glebsky in the Hercule Poirot role amidst a collection of wacky guests and Inn staff. What starts with a missing gold watch and various pranks and bumps in the night leads up to a murder at the Inn. With everyone trapped due to an avalanche, Inspector Glebsky must make like a homicide detective (his actual specialty is catching counterfeiters) and find the murderer.

To give any more of the plot away would be a disservice. The authors are Russian Science-Fiction writers, so this tale eventually goes off the rails, but it enhances the story. A quick, fun read that will have you thinking about reading more mysteries and visiting a Mountain Inn.

There is a 1979 movie based on this book, but it’s in Estonian, so good luck finding it. Actually it wasn’t too hard:

Best Books of 2016

Bruce-Jenner-Olympic-Gold-Medals These are the most appreciated books mentioned on this blog during 2016. They weren’t published in 2016, because then they would be real expensive to buy. If you want to read the reviews, scroll down from here.

Gold: Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World. Donald Antrim is a genius. That’s all…nuff said.

Silver: White Noise. Don Delillo is pretty good too. Maybe it’s the name…Don. It has been the year of The Donald. Another pattern is like Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, the book is hilarious. We’d love for Pete Robinson and Murray Jay Suskind to sit down and talk. Important hair…we never thought of that.

Bronze: All the Light We Cannot See. A pure pleasure to read, while asking the players the gritty question of when you are confronted by evil…what are you going to do about it?

Proper shout-out for East of Eden, Palace Thief Stories, The Dog Stars, A Visit from the Goon Squad and Blindness, all of which stand out from the other fine books we read this year.

Blindness

blindness This is not a cheery book, but it is an excellent one for discussion. For instance, how long does it take for human beings to go feral? Jose Saramago doesn’t think it will take long. Let’s hope none of us ever find out.

In an unnamed city, unnamed people go blind for an unknown reason. It starts with “the first blind man” and rapidly engulfs everyone, except “the doctor’s wife.” She is the witness to the collapse of society, as more and more victims enter a resplendent, milky-white blindness, rather than ordinary darkness. The government effects an ineffective quarantine that lands a pod of patients from the doctor’s waiting room in a ward of a previously abandoned mental hospital. 15-commandments are repeated from loudspeakers every day, the fifth of which, the only one that is a recommendation and not an order, turns out to be critical – internees should organize themselves. That never effectively happens and a might-makes-right organization takes over, leading to dreadful consequences for the interred blind, particularly the women.

As the internees make their way into larger blinded society, the reader is shown how society is reliant on the individual performing their specialized role. Each of us can’t do it all, especially with our eyes closed.

There many details worth analyzing, e.g., can society reorganize, were the doctor’s wife’s decisions the correct ones, the dignity of the women vs. the men, the old man with the eye patch’s monstrous wish, the blindfolded saints, why did the doctor and the girl with the dark glasses get busy, the use of old adages, etc…, but the writer saves the big question for the last page – are we all blind people who can see? Very good discussion book.

East of Eden

east-of-eden If you went to high school before the standards dropped, ahhh…the 90s, then you probably read either Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath. They are OK are far as high school reading goes, i.e., a lot better than Billy Budd, Ethan Frome, and that awful Catcher in the Rye. So you left school with the feeling that Steinbeck is OK. There are worse.

John Steinbeck referred to East of Eden as his “big book” or masterpiece…and deservedly so. It is big, and it is packed with powerful description, history, character development and biblical parallels. This epic chronicles three generations of Steinbeck’s maternal ancestors, the Hamiltons, and the fictional Trasks (from our own little Nutmeg State, Connecticut….well not really.) And don’t forget, the unforgettable Lee, a West Coast, Chinese-American Mr. Carson jam-packed with philosophy.

The first question out of the box was why two stories in one book? Why not a straight Trask fiction and a separate book about his family, plus some artistic license sprinkled about. The answer is, the Hamiltions, with the exception Samuel, just don’t merit a stand-alone, historical non-fiction, and, with respect to our great state, the Trasks need the Hamilton’s Eden/Gomorrah-like Salinas Valley as a backdrop.

Cain and Abel, Cain is able…C & A. Charles and Adam. Caleb and Aron. Maybe Cyrus had a brother named Aloysius as well, undoubtedly East of Eden is chiefly known for its parallels to the story of Cain and Abel. Charles and Caleb are Cain…and in some fashion so is Cathy, who is Caleb’s mother…probably via Charles, thereby making Caleb a Mega-Cain, but for Timshel. Both parents, who bear the mark of Cain on their foreheads, also produce a mini-Adam via their recessive genes in person of Aron. There are other parallels for the readers’ entertainment, e.g., who works the field, who is Dad’s favorite, etc…

During our discussion, the Brothers spent some time on Original Sin and the consequence of ill-begotten wealth. Subsequently discussed events that caused characters to just jump completely out of character, e.g., the two female suicides. Entertained a conspiracy theory that Liza was pregnant with George, forcing Samuel to make an honest woman of her and them both to flee an intensely Catholic Ireland. We imagined the warmth of a few whiskeys around the anvil, the taste of ng-ka-py and a room full of ancient Chinese guys studying 16-Hebrew verses in heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown. One Brother even jettisoned Pamela Anderson and W.C. Fields off their list of The Three People You Would Like To Have Dinner With, and put Samuel Hamilton and Lee at the table with Hulk Hogan. Powerful stuff.

Thou mayeth read other books. Thou mayeth read other Steinbeck books. Thou mayeth be an idiot if thou musteth and pass on East of Eden. It won’t care. It’s amazing and very secure in that fact.

FYI…Google can be great. Tooling around for images of the area returned this travelogue of a trip to the Hamilton Farm. The photo here was lifted from this post. You should look this as well…tough farming.

http://epiphanyinbmore.blogspot.com/2013/07/steinbeck-scholars-tour-hamilton-ranch.html#!/2013/07/steinbeck-scholars-tour-hamilton-ranch.html

A Sport and a Pastime

delage James Salter is sort of an amalgamation of Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller and Penthouse Forum. His description of American ex-pats in post-war Europe is very Hemingway. His idolization of vapid, lay-abouts is very Miller. His authoring a book largely about anal sex is very Guccione.

The milquetoast narrator meets fellow American Phillip Dean at a Paris party and inspires Dean to move his underfunded French sightseeing tour from the City of Light to provincial Autun. Having arrived in Autun, Dean hooks-up with a peasant waitress, which sends the narrator into a full-on vicarious description of what their life must be like. Driving to a new small town every day, eating in a hotel or café, walking at about at night and screwing. An annoying amount of screwing. That the book was written in 1967 and goes from standard sex, to oral, to anal, to essentially Ann-Marie just assuming the position, working the lube and reading a magazine is stunning. That year the moral majority were trying to ban S.E. Hilton’s The Outsiders. Talk about preoccupied…they really missed a doozy by Salter.

The book does have some fine writing, but also has some kvetch worthy writing as well. Just like free-association, scattered jazz music makes no sense, Salter peppers the book with non-linear absurdities. Without bothering to look one up, an example might be that the lighting of a room or some cool air makes Dean temporarily terrified. WTF?

Besides inducing a mild erection, a reason to own the book is that it makes a fine travel guide. With Paris currently flooded by those splendid migrants, visits to Nancy, Dijon, Beaune, La Baule, Sens, Les Settons, Montsauche, Dole, Bagnoles, Angers, Perros-Guirec, etc…might still be like visiting France.

The Dog Stars

dogstars_af Welp, there’s been another apocalypse. A military plane carrying a shipment of Africanized bird flu crashed in Brampton, England starting a pandemic that wipes out the world’s population. There are only a few survivors. No zombies, so there is some good news.

Holed-up for 9-years at the Erie, Colorado Airport are Hig, his dog Jasper and a gun nut named Bangley. Brotherly love has long since evaporated, so any survivors who cross their perimeter get waxed, then converted into dried jerky for Jasper. Hig and Bangley are an unlikely team, as Hig is pensive outdoorsman/carpenter and Bangley is Wayne LaPierre. It’s clear that Bangley could shrink the airport’s headcount whenever he wants, but although Hig is a comparative softie, he does have his uses. Hig and Jasper sleep outside in furrow near a porchlight the team leaves on all night. Jasper senses approaching intruders, then Hig keys his walkie-talkie a few times, then he and Bangley neutralize the threat. Hig is also a very rare bird in a depopulated world…Hig is a pilot. He flies his Cessna to reconnoiter their perimeter, get supplies, and to help a group of nearby Mennonites who have been stricken with the blood sickness. Bangley is dumbstruck over why Hig engages in the latter, but he has learned that Hig needs his projects.

Hig has been coming a little undone after finishing off a group of five intruders that included one kid. He then flies out to a Coca Cola truck to get some treats for Bangley and the Mennonites and wouldn’t you know it, he has to fight-off two survivors there. Needing some R&R, he grabs his rod and he and Jasper hike into the mountains to fish. Jasper, who is an old dog, passes away peacefully one night and Hig absorbs another gut shot. He hikes down and is unknowingly being tracked by a large group of hostiles. Enter Bangley.

Hig is shot (figuratively.) He needs a change, because what they are doing isn’t living. While on patrol 3-years prior, he received a signal from Grand Junction Airport. Its past his Cessna’s point of no return, but now that doesn’t matter. He’s going. So should you. This is a good book. It’s by Peter Heller. The book cover is an understated masterpiece.

Life & Times of Michael K

michael-k If Michael K had any luck, he’d have no luck at all. Born with a hare lip deformity, he is ditched by his unmarried mother and grows up somewhat abused in a government institution. When his mother becomes ill, she contacts Michael and they try to return to the town of her birth, where as a young girl she had known happiness. The country is in a state of quasi-martial law, so getting papers for a trip for two paupers from Cape Town to the interior turns out to be impossible. So they walk. Rather, K walks and pulls a cart that his afflicted mother rides in. Of course they are harassed all the way and the mother cashes in her chips before they get there, but K pushes on with her ashes until he reaches an abandoned farm that is his best guess as to where she grew up.

From this point on in the book, K makes an assault on the maxim that no man is an island. He lives in a hole in the ground in the middle of nowhere, sleeps for days at a time and begins to live on the brink of starvation. Coetzee really goes deep on describing how little K is subsisting on. Despite endless bad luck, people do try to reach out to K, but he maintains an internal independence, even in a forced labor camp or among a band of nomad bums.

Readers compare this book to Kafka or The Bible, but Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning may come to mind as well. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” K is living that way.

Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians was the best book we read in 2015. Regrettably, the Life & Times of Michael K is not in that category. You may feel that you are wasting away while you are reading it. In sum, a solid book, but slow and featuring a protagonist that you may not care much about.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe

songs-dead-dreamer-ligotti-650-1 What the heck, it was just Halloween. If you have ever read reviews of Thomas Ligotti’s work; you’d almost be too afraid to read anything by him. He is deep in a niche that is window dressed by nice guys like Steven King, Dean Koontz and other scaremongers. Ligotti’s books are unlikely to be on a library or book store shelf, but that may change. Penguin Classics released a compilation of short stories from two collections that were released six years apart, hence the disjointed title. Penguin probably didn’t do themselves any favors by putting a creepy cover on a volume celebrated for its disturbing content.

The book starts with a story called The Frolic, a story about some after-work decompression between a newly minted prison psychologist and his wife. The story is really well written and moves at a sound, anxiety-building pace. Its ending is predictable, but is a perfect landing none the less. There are 30+ more stories in this book, so it’s going to be a nice ride, or frolic if you will.

You read the next one….screech!!! That sucked. Oh well, next one….effing dreadful. Next one…pointless. Next one…ugh! Next one…better, but that was really bizarre. Hmm, do I really want that stuff in my memory banks? Next one…groan. Now you are at the “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story” chapter. No thanks. The book has now become an exercise in finding stories that you can connect with.

Comes a point where you have to bail on the Dead Dreamer stories and jump to the Grimscribe stories to take their temperature. However, at this time, we just can’t. You broke us. Anyone who can power through these stories really needs a psych evaluation and their backyard excavated and searched for the remains of local paperboys. See you next Halloween Grimscribe. Unless we forget.

The Things They Carried

lemon_of_troy_72 They carried a lot. An M-16, ammo, body armor, water, rain poncho, packets of Kool-Aid, toilet paper, a machete, a lighter, but they also carried things that weighed nothing, but meant a lot. The respect of family and friends, their patriotism, their rage, their dignity, their life. Thank you for your service.

As for the book, most of the Brothers were frustrated with narrator grunt Tim O’Brien. Was there really a skinny Viet Cong with a star shaped hole for an eye? If so, why all the angst over that hole? Why was Lieutenant Jimmy Cross wracked with guilt over Ted Lavender’s potluck death, but able to carry on after his selection of a base camp mistake that doomed Kiowa. Was there really a boy who turned on a flashlight in the sh1t field that night triggering the bombardment? Was that boy Tom O’Brien? Was burning Than Khe a reaction to Kiowa’s death or under orders? Bobby Jorgenson was on guard duty with an automatic weapon, who would mess with him under those circumstances? What’s true and what’s malarkey in a book that attempts to pass off “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” as a true story?

Obviously, you had to be there to truly appreciate the intricacies of these war stories, with the notable exception of “On the Rainy River.” Though no active Iluminado were old enough to be drafted for Nam, the core question of whether you would have reported for duty or fled to Canada was with American males up until the Reagan Administration. We received Selective Service notices and had to go to the Post Office to register or face the potential consequences…and there were many rumors back then of the consequences. Having that notice in hand prompted the big-boy conversation of what would you do if called up. 99% of us answered in public that we would go, but had we sat down and wrote about our true feelings, it might look a lot like tracts of “On the Rainy River.” And yes there ought to be a law, and a big plaque in the chambers of all the world’s governing bodies that states if you want to start a war, it’s your precious fluids (i.e., your blood, your sons, daughters, nephews, grandsons, etc…) that will be the first to go to into the meat grinder. No Air National Guard, no college deferment, no exemption, no conscientious status…your family members are 1A, available for unrestricted military service, and sent straight to the front lines. That would be a more robust peace keeper than a nuclear deterrent.

This book has moments like that, but also carries stuff it doesn’t need, like the baby water buffalo, the dancing girl, and Curt Lemon’s dentist appointment. One Brother simultaneously read Karl Marlantes’ book Matterhorn and enjoyed it much more. Those Marines got on with it and had some serious war stories, whereas O’Brien’s Vietnam was a bit of a cluster.

Daughter of Time

richard Even more eviler then Lord Farquar? Mystery writer Josephine Tey tackles the case against England’s monster, Richard the Third, by means of her fictional Scotland Yard detective Alan Grant. Grant has the time for this cold cased because he is laid up in hospital with a broken leg. (English people are “in hospital” or “at university” they do not use a “the” in those circumstances. Absolutely no reason for this, but that’s how they roll.) An actress lady friend brings Grant photos of interesting historical celebrities who have been involved in mischief. Grant is intrigued by Richard’s portrait. Can an enlightened looking fellow like this be guilty of murdering his brother’s pre-teen sons? He and his partner, Sargeant somebody, know a killer when they see one, and Richard ain’t one.

If you are unfamiliar with the case for and against Richard III, you will find this book fascinating. The theory that the Tudor Public Relations Department, pinned the murders on their Plantagenet subsidiary (there was a hostile takeover in 1485) seems plausible and Shakespeare’s nothing but a useful idiot spewing his Tonypandy against Richard. (We leave to you to look that reference up…1910, riots.)

It is also a bit confusing. There are a lot of people in England named Edward, George, Henry and Richard. There also a lot of “of” people, e.g., of Buckingham, of Norfolk, of York, of Ely, of Warwick, etc… You may need to make an org chart.

Very stuffy English writing…even some pot shots at the Welsh, Scots and Irish, but in truth, if you know the story, the book isn’t that compelling. You’d be better off Wikipediaing the players, then watching the documentary Richard III: The King in the Car Park. That show gives you the pro-Richard account via a driven Richard advocate named Philippa, a goofball narrator and a fine-looking CSI girl in a lab coat. Their accomplishment of finding Richard’s actual body 500+ years after he was tossed in a grave is one for the ages.