This is a review I recently submitted to Library Journal. One advantage of listening to books is to hear the author’s name pronounced. It’s Michael SH...moreThis is a review I recently submitted to Library Journal. One advantage of listening to books is to hear the author’s name pronounced. It’s Michael SHA-bn, not Michael Cha-BONE, as I’d mistakenly guessed.
Things are falling apart for Meyer Landsman, a drunken cop in the imaginary noir Jewish settlement of Sitka, Alaska. The wife who recently divorced him has just become his boss. An addict chess prodigy from his hotel has been found murdered, and Landsman’s been told to forget about investigating it. His jurisdiction ends, soon, anyway, as the control of Sitka is about to revert to the state, leaving the Jews there (‘the frozen Chosen") homeless again, and mostly unwelcome.
Michael Chabon’s insanely ambitious story takes off from there, incorporating Orthodox gangsters, chess problems, and a possible Messiah, punctuated by the litany, "It’s a strange time to be a Jew." Peter Riegert’s world-weary reading perfectly captures Chabon’s Chandleresque characters. Chabon can dazzle you with his dialogue, his characters, his prose, or the details of his world-building. An engaging and enlightening interview with the author follows the novel. This is an easy call–an excellent performance of a good (maybe great) writer at the top of his game. Get it. --John
We’ve all had journeys gone bad–missed connections, bad hosts, getting lost, running out of gas. Odysseus can probably top your best story, or mine. H...moreWe’ve all had journeys gone bad–missed connections, bad hosts, getting lost, running out of gas. Odysseus can probably top your best story, or mine. He was at war for ten years before being captured by a cannibalistic cyclops, was sabotaged by his own crew, runs into more cannibal giants, held captive by a witch, then a goddess (for licentious purposes), escapes a giant whirlpool, then a tentacled monster (who, yes, eats men). Oh, and he visits hell to get advice on how to get back home. Nor do his troubles end there, as he has to restore order to his household, which has been taken over by suitors for his faithful Penelope.
The story’s well known, having been around for about 28 centuries. I’m here to praise Robert Fitzgerald’s translation, which makes this the ratttling tale it should be, and an attached essay by D. S. Carne-Ross, “The Poem of Odysseus,” which clarifies much of the weird stuff that happens here. The Greek gods, for instance, were very likely to lead you into temptation, rather an odd thought for modern readers. Carne-Ross also points out the role of women (who were kind of an afterthought in the Iliad) and instances of doubling, where events echo other events.
While this would make a great movie (paging Peter Jackson), you won’t find many travel tips. Offer your hecatombs and don’t piss off any deities. --John(less)
I can’t remember what translation of The Iliad I read forty-some years ago, but it was pretty boring, little more than a catalog of who hit whom and w...moreI can’t remember what translation of The Iliad I read forty-some years ago, but it was pretty boring, little more than a catalog of who hit whom and where and how. Robert Fitzgerald’s 2004 translation, with its shorter lines, still has a few too many names, and maybe a few too many similes about lions descending on flocks, but it mostly restores the excitement to the West’s archetypal epic.
The action takes place on two planes, of course, the men fighting to defend their city or their leaders’ honor, and the gods of Olympos. A spectacularly dysfunctional family, incestuous, proud and scheming, the gods are basically superheroes, and they help their favorites in the fight.
A few things surprised me, as I remembered them wrong. The action begins near the end of the ten year long siege, and there’s no sign of a wooden horse, which is described in The Aeneid. Anyway, this version was kinda fun, and I’m looking forward to the sequels. --John
Ignatius J. Reilly, the "hero" of this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, is one of the singular characters in modern fiction. An unfortunate series of eve...moreIgnatius J. Reilly, the "hero" of this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, is one of the singular characters in modern fiction. An unfortunate series of events leads Ignatius, a medieval scholar who lives with his befuddled mother in New Orleans, to seek gainful employment. What follows is both comic and tragic, as he tries to navigate the world outside his head. This is the funniest, and one of the most touching, books I've ever read. --Ardis(less)
Curiously, two novels titled The Cloud Atlas were published within a few months in 2005. While I recommend both, I really, really liked the one by Dav...moreCuriously, two novels titled The Cloud Atlas were published within a few months in 2005. While I recommend both, I really, really liked the one by David Mitchell.
Cloud Atlas consists of eleven stories, the eleventh being the second half of the first, the tenth being the second half of the second, and so on. Each of the first six stories takes place in a different era, moving forward in time from the 19th century to the far future. Each is written in a different style, and each incorporates elements from the preceeding stories. The stories themselves are mind-benders, as well.
A sucker for this kind of structural razzle-dazzle myself, I know it leaves many people cold, especially when it comes at the expense of characterization, which, to be fair, it often does. For those folks, let me recommend Mitchell’s next novel, Black Swan Green, which goes deep into its narrator’s character, a teen growing up in Thatcher’s England. --John