A Dangerous Fortune

There aren’t many writers whose careers have been as prolific and profitable as Ken Follett. He has sold many millions of books and his wallet is likely much thicker than the most profuse of those books. Our host for this meeting selected Follett’s A Dangerous Fortune for examination. He had enjoyed the book many years ago. While familiar with the name Ken Follett, of our assemblage, only this humble scribe was unfamiliar with the writings of Ken Follett. Time for enlightenment.

Due to a last minute conflict, I missed most of the scheduled discussion and upon arrival was hit with a “What did you think?” Well, to be honest, the writing was terrible. Simplistic and tediously repetitive. Tonio is intimidated by Mickey Miranda…I know Ken, you told me ten times. Augusta knows nothing of banking…I KNOW ALREADY!!! And the plots and schemes of the story’s antagonists? They go off without a hitch and even more quickly and effectively than even the plotters could have dreamed. Am I being harsh on Ken? Ken, who had the audacity to remark about J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, a Man Booker prize winner & my last book pick, that the book was “very poor … terrible.” Incredible. Shameless. The world turned upside down.

That said, I, like everyone else, enjoyed A Dangerous Fortune. Despite the writing, it was as riveting and a 1980s episode of Dynasty or Dallas. Devious villains pulling the strings of sympathetic characters. Ken Follett is McDonalds. We all eat at McDonalds sometimes.

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The Tartar Steppe

Number 29 on Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century. Dino Buzzati’s short novel unquestionably provides food for thought. Giovanni Drogo’s tour of duty at Fort Bastiani is an apt metaphor for the American Dream of go to work, send your kids to college, pay off your mortgage, then upon entering your sunset years…you get the cancer diagnosis.

The story is set at the aforementioned fortress, which guards the northern pass against a potential barbarian invasion. The young Lieutenant Drogo arrives and quickly surmises that this posting is a dead end for his military career and all the exertions of the fort’s inhabitants are pointless, as a barbarian has not been seen in these parts for generations. Expertly talked out of requesting an immediate transfer, Drogo falls in step with the fort’s rhythms, and the days, then soon the decades start to slip by.

You might be bored with the book, but you will be impressed by Buzzati’s impressions on life slipping through one’s fingers. If you care at all, go to the library and request the book, then read the last seven paragraphs of the book’s 6th Chapter. Got it? Then read the final chapter where you will hear again about the grey, monotonous sea that has been there since time immemorial. Carpe Diem…or else.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

You may have to make room for one more on your list of favorite authors. David Mitchell is a spellbinding writer. He manages a large cast of double-dealing characters, obscure Nippo-Dutch historical facts, entwined stories, brilliant plot twisting strokes and still leaves himself room to show off. There will be two or three spots where a reader will think “Wow…that’s different.” Neglecting to underline in this book (big mistake), all I can recall at the moment is the Captain’s earthly thoughts during the Chaplin’s numinous reading, but there are several passages where you have to say Mitchell’s writing is something else.

The story takes place on Dejima, an artificial island a few steps off shore of Nagasaki. Dejima is the Shogun’s inventive work-around to ensure that no barbarian (particularly Portuguese Jesuits) step foot on Japan, while keeping trade with the outside world flowing. After the Portuguese get their walking papers, the Dutch set up shop on Dejima. They work under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company (the VOC), the power of which makes Google, Facebook and Halliburton look like pikers. As the VOC unravels, ordinary employee corruption became epic corruption. To drain the swamp, the new Chief Resident of the Dejima Station brings with him an industrious, honest clerk named Jacob de Zoet. De Zoet has signed on for a stint with the VOC in order to make his fortune, thereby allowing him to marry slightly up in society upon his return to his hometown of Domburg.

There are some entertaining characters in the cast…Jacob, of course, the evil abbot and a particular favorite, Dr. Marinus. While vastly differing in content, the pregnant dialogue between Jacob and Dr. Marinus reminds one of that between Lord Varys and Tyrion in HBO’s Game of Thrones. Conleth Hill must play Marinus in the movie, but alas there won’t be one. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was 3-hours long and panned as being too ambitious and rife with yellow-facing. But all of this is beside the point, which is that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is an engrossing read…and always keep David Mitchell on your radar.

Disgrace

The Iluminado have varied their approach to selecting books over the years. Sometimes we do it systematically via weighted multi-voting. Sometimes folks just make suggestions at the end of the meeting and a consensus is swiftly reached. At present, we are in the midst of a once-though rotation where the host selects the book. This provides an opportunity for every Brother to take us somewhere interesting without having to hard sell the book to the group. It fell to this humble scribe to pick the current book. Playing it safe, I picked a blue chip…Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee. A Booker Prize winner by a Nobel prize winner. What could possibly go wrong…right? Well…apparently I am surrounded by ignoramuses.

Right out of the box it was “Oh, I hated everyone!” “Too much raping!” & “It wasn’t a fun story!” As this book was as about as close to perfection as I’d ever encountered, I was stunned. One Brother was able to throw me lifeline by recounting a conversation about the book with his South African neighbor, which opened the door to a “you Americans just won’t understand” dismissal of the book. My choice and book-picker reputation were on the ropes…I had a hand in The Dwarf, which went over like a lead balloon and Blindness, which had a good discussion, but only a few gents read the book.

In spite of the high level dislike, we began chewing over the scenes and themes. And a funny thing happened, a long and interesting discussion arose. It helps that almost every event or inner observation in the book is worthy of analysis.

Did Melanie say no? Did David approach his inquest properly? Was Lucy’s making up for the past just foolishness? What did you think of Petrus? What about Ettinger? Poor Bev Shaw? Why does David visit Melanie’s parents? What do you think of the Servant of Eros defense? What is to be expected when a single, aging Lothario hits the wall? Why were Lucy and David disgraced when they were on opposite sides of unwanted encounters? Was everyone too blasé about teachers hooking-up with students? Are we cruel to God’s creatures with our human privilege? Will Byron in Italy ever be written and why is it included in the story? Why won’t Lucy leave the farm? Does racism breed the deepest hatred? There are so many topics to discuss.

Clearly, based on our experience we can’t predict if you will like the book, but if you read it and discuss it…to steal a phrase from David Lurie – you will be enriched by the experience.

The Hunting Gun

This story was written in 1949 by the burgeoning poet Yasushi Inoue as a serial for his high school buddy, who happened to be the editor of Japanese equivalent of Field & Stream. The hunting hook is Churchill shotgun that is lovingly polished and aimed at a lead character behind her back. That doesn’t sound like much, but a young writer has to get published by any means necessary.

The main narrative is wrapped in a gimmick that isn’t impactful, but the emotions of these players are. The narrative itself is composed of three letters, written by three women, to one Mr. Josuke Misugi. The first is from a young woman who is the daughter of a family friend, a pseudo-niece. The second is from Misugi’s wife. And the third is from the dying woman Misugi has been in long-term affair with. Plot buster – he didn’t get away with it.

The niece’s letter is blah. Misugi’s wife’s is thought-provoking as she reflects on why she didn’t confront the cheaters when she, by chance, spotted them. She reflects on the biggest fork in her life’s road. Perhaps she couldn’t confront them, because The Other Woman was her closest, most respected friend. The one she called Elder Sister…superior to her in every way. She was likely afraid that Musagi would be forced to choose between them and she didn’t like her odds. Ultimately (i.e., 13-years later,) she confronts the dying woman. In the book’s final letter, the one from the dying woman, the dissimilar interpretations of the encounter between the wife and the cheat are also of note.

The final letter is the most powerful and you can read it if you come across this slim booklet. What you will probably remember is the school girl story of whether you would rather love or be loved. Everyone’s swift answer is the latter…but really? Think about it.

Fahrenheit 451

Currently making a comeback are the state paranoia books “1984,” “It Can’t Happen Here” and “Fahrenheit 451.” The Iluminado choose 451F as the book to examine in February. It’s been a while since we met and advanced literary criticism and demolished a few pulled pork & kimchi pizzas at Brewport in Bridgeport, CT, so this memorialization of that discussion will be brief…because I forgot a lot of it.

That said, some semi-eternal impressions…Captain Beatty’s explanation of how things came to pass was riveting, Mildred love of creating roadkill and kicking local dogs – endearing, the Hound – terrifying, everything being boiled down to a snap ending – condensing, and adding a fourth wall in the living room hit a little too close to home, but let’s say it is promising!

We discussed the usual stuff, e.g., all the hands references, but obviously the poignant discussion surrounded this seeming 1953 anticipation of our current culture. Did this book predict the rise of the low information voter? President Noble wins a lot of votes being the nicest looking man running for president, while the hopeless Outs keep running homely guys who don’t brush their hair. Maybe President Noble is orange? There is also a lot of distraction in their world, after all, who wouldn’t want to see men in tuxedos pull 100-lb rabbits from hats, then again we have the Real Housewives of Wherever and an overdue pregnant giraffe. Before we think too badly of ourselves, was 1953 any better than today? Yes, we all like Ike, but even he warned us that beyond the white picket fences were powers that were interested in maintaining our continued disinterest. While Eisenhower waited until his term was up to spill the beans on the military-industrial complex…yes he needed campaign cash too…1953 probably wasn’t a rose garden we might imagine it to be. The big ray of hope was Khrushev replacing Stalin.

As there are at least two ways to look at anything, some editions of the book have a Coda written by Bradbury in response to a young Vassar lady, a progenitor to the current SJW, advising him to rewrite the book with stronger female roles and persons of color. Ray was having none of that PC crap and advised the young lady to write her own book. Maybe his old white ghost’s vote wasn’t in the bag for the divisive politics of the Democrats. It’s nice to see a work that can be politically appropriated by both sides.

An interesting question between burps was, if we are all as blind as Mildred and her two marvelous, White Clown-watching friends, then who is today’s Guy Montag? An anarchist? A hermit? A conspiracy theorist? We couldn’t settle that one. Please comment if you have the answer.

Some of the material in the book doesn’t fly, e.g., bums as libraries, and some things don’t come to pass, e.g., Beatty vs. Faber, but there are many amazing thoughts captured in its ~173-pages. Well worth the effort. Go read it. It has pores.

Comic Books (a.k.a., Graphic Novels)

In the anteroom of the Illuminado’s Athenaeum & Natatorium (the Old A&N,) sits a copy of Patrick Ness’s “A Monster Calls.” The story was made into a $43M motion picture, which was a financial flop, but a critical success, which generally means it was probably a good flick. In order to investigate the graphic novel space, a couple of these comic books were examined.

The first was Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli. Asterios is a 50-year old effete, paper architect whose NYC apartment burns down as a result of a lightning strike. Possibly uninsured and/or unmoored, Asterios uses his remaining funds to buy a bus ticket out of his bases of operation in NYC and an unnamed Ithaca NY college, to travel deep into Trumplandia. Seeing a Help Wanted sign and a nearby library, a rock-bottom Asterios steps off the bus in the inaptly named town of Apogee. A quick study of a few car repair books and he is hired-on and rented a cheap room by local mechanic and all around good guy Stiffly.

As Asterios adjusts to his new life and friends, he takes heed of the saying the unexamined life is not worth living and reflects on his professional career and collapsed marriage. These reflections introduce a fascinating character in his wife Hana. Equally brilliant in her field of art and, like Asterios, a professor in Ithaca, Hana lacks Asterios’s self-assurance and toggles between strength and fragility during the recollections. To the reader it is a believable and absorbing relationship, which Mazzucchelli’s artwork enhances gorgeously. The use of the blues for Asterios and reds for Hana and their intensity and interchanging is worth noting and reading into throughout. Contrastingly, the action in Stiffly’s red state is yellow, as are Asterious’s dreamlike conversations with his stillborn twin brother Ignazio, who also serves as the book’s narrator.

Though the size of a chemistry textbook, this book is a quick, worthwhile read, but be warned…these graphic novels are more expensive than those with black type on a pale page, so try your library or getting a used copy somewhere. Yes, that’s not nice for the author or publisher, but a new copy is $29.95.

While in the local library, Blankets by Craig Thompson stood out as a thick well drawn graphic novel. 600-pages later, same result. Powerfully personal story with picture-perfect artwork. The graphic novel space has a lot more than Bone or the X-Men…not that we are knocking either those yarns. Check these books out.

Ghosts

In Ghosts, Argentinian writer Cesar Aira describes events that take place on New Year’s Eve at a luxury Buenos Aires high rise construction site. The building is near completion and has been built by poor Chileans for wealthy Argentines. The Argentines are portrayed as superficial whereas the Chileans workers are “real” with the one unreal exception…these real Chileans can see that the building is infested with ghosts. The workers pay the ghosts no notice, except to occasionally tug on the ghosts’ penises as a gag while working. The ghosts just happen to all be nude males. There are no phantom-homoerotic undertones, nor are the Ghostbusters needed to deal with ghost malevolence.

There is little action in the book. In the morning the future Argentine owners inspect the site with their interior designers, a nephew of the main worker is sent to the store for food, the children of the one workers who lives at the site run wild, the workers get drunk at noon and take a siesta, everyone prepares for the New Year’s Eve party on the roof deck and occasionally ghosts float by. There are a lot of clever observations, comparisons and internal dialogue. In fairness, there also a lot of nonsense.

Cesar Aira is considered a plus writer. In one of the book’s main themes, he often alludes to the uniqueness of being Chilean. It’s probably something all fellow South Americans get, but North Americans can only speculate on, so something appreciable is lost in translation there. Otherwise the book is spotty, with equal tracts of dullness and interest. There is a big decision that is to be made at the end which makes that last 10-pages quite compelling.

Tree of Smoke

boring Tree of Smoke is by an acclaimed writer and was the 2007 National Book Award Winner for Fiction. That said only 3-Illuminado Brothers were able to finish the book. The book may be great, but your humble blogger was in the majority who were bored to death between 200-300 pages in and didn’t complete the mission. Undeniably a poor book club pick. If this book is on your group’s to do list, get ironclad assurances that folks will read the book to its 720-page conclusion. Tree of Smoke beat Jim Shepard’s “Like You’d Understand, Anyway” for the 2007 Award. Rigged!

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: