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.
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 than 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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
Absurdistan is the story of Misha Boisovich Vainberg, a.k.a., Snack Daddy, the son of the 1.238th richest man in Russia, his Khui (pecker) and his odyssey to reclaim his cuero, Rouenna, in the Bronx. The problem is, that although Misha is an avowed Amero-phile with a degree in Multi-Cultural Studies from the Midwest’s Accidental College, the gangster-like activities of Beloved Papa have convinced the wise generals of the INS to bar Misha’s reentry into the United States. But now that rival gangsters have tossed a landmine into beloved Papa’s SUV on St. Petersburg’s Palace Bridge, thereby making Misha an only child orphan, the time to get out of Russia is now. Dubious official connections set his journey in motion by directing him to the former Caspian soviet of Absurdistan in pursuit of a forged Belgian passport.
Throwing off its Russian yoke, arrival in Absurdistan allows the book’s comic absurdities to level up. Ridiculous ethnic tensions, natural resource-swindling multinational corporations and a scripted civil war starved for CNN’s attention provide an entertaining backdrop for Misha’s escape. Turns out that Beloved Papa is a legend in Absurdistan for selling an 800-kilogram screw to Halliburton subsidiary, KBR, and is the longtime benefactor of Absurdistan’s Mountain Jews. Consequently, Misha is appointed Commissar of Multicultural Affairs and asked to speak to Israel about getting some better news coverage and post-war development funds. Though naturally indolent, e.g., his hero is Goncherov’s Oblomov, Misha springs into action by drafting a grant proposal for the Institute for Caspian Holocaust Studies. A 5-page crescendo of the absurd.
Does Misha make it to NYC? Who cares, the book is a roll. Gary Shteyngart really channels John Kennedy Toole in this one. It’s a slow starter, but gets real funny about a third of the way through.
The set-up is intriguing. Sheldon Horowitz, an 82-year old former Korean War sniper has relocated from NYC to Oslo, to be near his only living relative, granddaughter Rhea. Sheldon audibly witnesses a mother pitilessly murdered in Rhea’s apartment, whilst hiding in the closet with the woman’s 9-year old son. The killer is an experienced brute from the Balkan’s ethnic wars and the 9-year old is his son. Unsurprisingly, the killer wants the boy back. Sheldon is short on the operative details, but his street smarts tell him he needs to keep this boy hidden until the gentle Norwegian police can catch-up with the urgent implications of this case. Thus, octogenarian and 2nd grader go on the lam. Sounds good…but the book doesn’t deliver.
The only character that is developed is Sheldon. The police chief, the boy, the killer, others…could have been interesting, but they aren’t. The thrills in this thriller are as docile and the author, Derek B. Miller’s, description of the average Norwegian’s outlook. You will likely need to read a classic Scandinavian Noir novel to restore your faith in the genre after this one.
That said, book does have its merits. Sheldon’s character is expertly drawn, particularly via recalled discussions with his son Saul, a Vietnam casualty, and current dialogue with his long dead NYC pal Bill. Sheldon does not go out of his way to endear himself. He is cantankerous and summarily dismisses any notion he has no use for, regardless of its origin. Mr. Miller does a good job emphasizing Sheldon’s Jewishness. If you are, or know lots of Jews, you will recognize Sheldon as the type of Jew that is becoming more scarce. Fully Jewish, but in no way insular, i.e., confined in an ethnic neighborhood. It may not be intended, but in this way the book does ever so lightly touch on the works of the all-pervading, great assimilator. Sheldon, a red-blooded American Jew, joins the Marine Corps, packed with its southern Christians, serves and returns home as the same red-blooded American Jew. Then, little Norway, always accepting the migrant du joir…Albanian, Somali, Iraqi, Syrian, etc…and ever confident that it will remain Norwegian.
If you enjoy Monty Python and the massively understated, silly British humor of the 1970s, then you have an obligation to yourself to read this book. If that is not your thing, this is not your thing. It will still, at times, be funny, clever and wildly capricious, but if you can’t deal with the meaning of life, the universe and all things being 42, you won’t be able to deal with The Guide. Reader, know thyself.