Saturday, April 22, 2017

Review: "In Awe" by Scott Heim

Even after more than 10 years have passed since I first read it, Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin remains one of my ten favorite books. While other book I read during my literary gestation period have fallen out of favor with me, that one remains a powerful fictional account about child abuse and ways it can warp people’s lives in monstrous and self destructive ways. It is a book that is so good that I don’t think Heim has surpassed it (although he is working on a new novel, so I’ve heard), and his subsequent books have failed to match the emotive power and gut punch of his fierce debut, instead going a vague dreamlike route that is good in some parts, a head scratcher in others and a downright frustrating during a few brief moments, mostly toward the end. I barely recall his most recent novel, We disappear, but this novel, In Awe, is, I am willing to guess, much better that. It follows the lives of three people of varying ages, set again in Kansas, whose degrees of psychosis draw them to a violent conclusion. There is Boris, 17, an orphan living in a halfway house whose obsession with Rex, one his classmates on school, borders the line between creepy and extremely creepy. His situation is not helped by Sarah, a woman in her thirties who hasn’t quite left her teen years, who fantasizes about being a heroine in one of the slasher films she is obsessed with. Then there is Harriet, in her sixties, mourning the loss of her gay son Marshall (also close friends with Boris and Sarah) to AIDS, who seems to believe that her son is haunting the rooms of her farmhouse. Incidents happen involving a local string of killings, a brutal scene of gay bashing that connects to the book’s jumbled ineffective ending and the broken dreams of all involved. Like Mysterious Skin, there are a few scenes that will stick with me, like a carnival scene where Boris’ obsession with Rex intensifies and one that explains in gross detail what is on the cover. Just on the basis of his first book, whatever Heim is producing is sure to be something I check out, and I hope it is a return to a form that gave his first novel such staying power.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Review: "Soul Mountain" Gao Xingjian

The strangest comparison came to me while I was inching my way through Chinese author Gao Xingjian’s novel Soul Mountain. Reading through it, the episodic nature of its main character’s journey into the deep forests of southwest China reminded me of the writer Pedro Juan Gutierrez who lived thousands of miles away Cuba. While the two books share a similar flow and disregard for more linear literary elements, Gutierrez’s book is different in one major way: it is worlds away more engaging, entertaining and fun to read. Despite some of the book’s more harrowing scenes, which I will get to in a minute, I felt so detached while reading this. It was as if I picked up a book on yoga or transcendental meditation and not something that should be shelved in the fiction section of a library or bookstore. Xingjian has talent as a writer (a bit of an understatement), and I won’t argue with him winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. I just wish he parlayed that talent in a way that was less heavy-handed and more inviting. The basic setup of the book is something that really happened to Xingjian. When he was in his early forties in the 1980’s, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, the same disease that killed his father slowly and was diagnosed by the same doctor that diagnosed Xingjian. But when the diagnosis is proven false, he takes a journey into the mountains, in search of the eponymous mountain this book is named after. It works as kind of a travelogue, with the more boring descriptions clashing with the more brutal aspects, which include legends about the area and some of the flippant sexual encounters, and it never really works. It’s shifting narration between first and second person also doesn’t help things. But for all of those, it is still is readable and its’ 500 pages go by quickly. You might find something in it I didn’t if you decide to check it out.

Rating: 3/5

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Review:"Moonglow" by Michael Chabon

Wonderboys, Michael Chabon’s second novel, is still one of my favorite books and the quintessential campus novel, both funny and enlightening. It is so good in fact that I don’t think he has equaled it since, even as his career has skyrocketed to the top tier of notable American writers. Some of them have been good, such as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (his most famous novel) and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and some of been slogs, like his debut novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and both of his short story collections. And while it still falls short, I’m happy that his most recent novel, last year’s Moonglow is his best since that second novel, and I don’t think it is much of a surprise that, like Wonderboys, it is startling personal with little bits of Chabon’s trademark whimsy peppered throughout. It recounts the maybe true maybe not tale of Chabon’s grandfather, opening dramatically with him assaulting his boss and throwing an intercom out of the window, hitting and wounded Czech delegate. The delegate’s reaction to the incident really describes in a nutshell how tragedy and slapstick intertwine in the life of his grandfather and really all of Chabon’s fiction. One cannot exist without the other: they play off each other, inform one another and somehow create a full life. The tragedies of his grandfather’s life, such as the guilt and anger he feels over his time in WWII, where he failed to apprehend someone he believed to be a war criminal, his perceived failings as a parent and a husband to damaged woman, all have a certain humorous poetry about them, and the character’s will to endure makes these happenings anything but grim. I’m keeping a lot of the plot details a secret, since that is some of the joy of the novel: entering this world fresh, with the steady, skilled hands of a gentle master to guide you. 

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Review: "The Mirror Thief" by Martin Seay

I’m rather surprised a company like Melville House published a book like Martin Seay’s debut novel The Mirror Thief, and that it took such a long time for it to find a home. It’s a flawed work, but for a debut novel, you can’t get any more grand or ambitious. This is a book that I see having a lot of cross over appeal and given the right kind of marketing, it has the chance to be a sleeper hit. It clearly stands in the shadows of someone who is a little bit better at these kind of fractured narratives, with David Mitchell immediately coming to mind. But while each of the three story threads are not equally compelling, each at least has something that pulls the reader in, even if the subject matter goes above your head. And it is rather easy to look at this book as a whole, see what Seay accomplished and respect it for its audacity. Where to begin with a story like this: it starts out in the not so distant past of 2003, where Curtis, newly discharged from the army, is given a job by Damon, a shady acquaintance who manages a recently ripped off casino. The job is to find Stanley, an old friend of his dad who might have been involved with what happened at the casino. He flies to Las Vegas, and, in rather apathetic fashion, finds himself embroiled in a plot that very obviously involves murder. We also flash back to Venice Beach in 1958, where Stanley, then a young grafter, becomes obsessed with a book of poems written by an unknown poet named Adrian Welles, and he, along with a drifter named Claudio, goes in search of Welles. The third part takes place in the 16th century, as the subject of the poem, Crivano, also finds himself involved in a murderous plot, this time dealing with the invention of the mirror and escape from a religiously ruled island. I couldn’t find a connection between any of the three threads, at least directly, but that didn’t ruin the experience. I found the third section the weakest, since it is not the kind of story I’d pick up on its won, but each of the three is carefully researched and written with narrative vigor. This a fun a book, a page-turner with heaps of brains and lots of creativity.

Rating: 4/5

Monday, April 3, 2017

Review: "Ill Will" by Dan Chaon

My real job allows me a lot of down time during work hours, and to fill that down time, I became fascinated by YouTube videos that count down or dissect strange unexplained murders or disappearances. They both draw me in and give me the creeps, offering the kind of folklore that seems rather at home in my Midwestern setting but also a lot of dread as I put myself in the positions of the family members of the some of the victims and the horror of the unknown why of their pain. After reading his new novel, Ill Will, I can’t think of a better writer to fictionalize such feelings, and in doing so, he has produced his best book yet. While he is more known for his short stories (two out of the three failed to make a deep impression on me), I find his novels to be astounding works that carefully, impossibly mix genre elements and new American suburban malaise and emotional decay. They feel like thrillers, with the mysteries at the heart of all three of his novels, You Remind Me of Me, Await Your Reply and this one, being brilliantly laid out with reveals that are guaranteed to take your breath away, but not in the way of action or even violence, even though he doesn’t shy away from those aspect, but instead the reactions he gets come from the emotional decisions of his characters, whether they are revelatory, ones of betrayal or ones of self-deception, which is the corner stone of this book. The main character is Dustin Tillman, a psychologist living in Cleveland Ohio. In a fugue state (something the book brings up) after his wife’s death, two events, one from his past and present, threatened to pollute his mind and destroy the carefully constructed life he is sustaining. When he was thirteen in 1983, his parents were brutally killed in their home in Wyoming. Dustin told the police that his adopted brother, Rusty, was the culprit and he was given a life sentence. Due to DNA testing Rusty is exonerated and released from prison, a fact Dustin keeps from his sons Dennis and Aaron. Also, at around the same time, a patient of his named Aqil draws him into a supposed string of killing that involve the drowning deaths of drunk, white college males (loosely based on the Smiley Face Killer theory). The book shifts perspective often, sometime within the same page so it looks like newsprint, but each story thread is so engaging, the switches are smooth and feel appropriate. We learn about the events leading up to and after the murders from Dustin’s two cousins Kate and Wave, as well as the drug addled spiral that Aaron, Dustin’s youngest son takes after a friend also loses his mother and goes missing himself, leading to this book’s incredible final pages, which, much like Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, will haunt me, and hopefully you, for quite some time after. Filled with a palpable and humane kind of pain, filtered through a stranglehold of narrative threads, this is surely one of the best books of the year, written by one of our best writers. 
Rating: 5/5

Friday, March 31, 2017

Review: "Open City" by Teju Cole

Open City, the debut novel from the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole is the perfect kind of debut novel, something that can share ample shelf space with Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, Tea Obreht and Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds. It mixes a fiercely original voice with classic literary techniques to make something new, fresh and instantly memorable, which is great, because this novel, and its wandering narrator, seem to be obsessed with memory. Sadly, I also see this book as a sort of one and done, and would not be surprised if Cole can never reach the pinnacle that this book so gracefully and effortlessly reached, very similar to how I feel about Powers’ novel (also a book that won the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction), with both finding avenues outside the medium they are more at home with, with Powers’ being a poet and a Cole being a skilled essayist and photographer. It is sad, but we will always have a book like this that turns one’s man shiftless odyssey from one side of New York City to the other into a pastiche of random facts, close encounters and buried grief. I was reminded of quite w few other writers while reading through this book, mostly from Latin America, with echoes of Bolano, Vasquez and Guillermo Rosales at points, and its’ structure has the same hypnotic grace and confidence of something like Javier Marias’ All Souls. A very loose novel, with no driving plot, it is made up of a series of vignettes, all experienced from the perspective of Julius, a Nigerian born doctor slowly making his way through a medical residency. He has a girlfriend who lives in San Francisco and a disparate number of friends, one of which is never named. The walks he takes and the items of trivia he rattles off with a scholar’s knowledge and a nihilistic indifference characterize his isolation and displacement among what seems to be the entirety the NYC population. Speaking of nihilism, the back cover compares this book to Albert Camus’ The Stranger. I don’t see that connection, since this book is much more interesting than that book, and a lot less grim and full of more life. The real treats here are in his interactions, all of which Julius seems to be disconnected from. From the relationship with the elderly Japanese English professor who was interned in a camp during World War II, to a fellow doctor whose journey into the underbelly of history leads to tragic results, and the most shocking revelation of the novel. This book requires a lot of focus, but you will be rewarded for it in the many odd coincidences you will find throughout Julius travels, from the recurrence of bedbugs among three different characters, and two visits to church, one in Belgium where Julius is vacationing and one back in New York following the book’s most violent scene, and the many concerts and art galleries he goes to, with the last one bringing with it what I feel is the book’s most indelible image. It’s easy to see that he is running from something, and the many historical details he indulges us with are his way of looking back to avoid the present. This is an intensely engaging and brilliantly structured novel from a talent I want to see more from, even if it is not in the form of fiction.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Review: "The Diviners" by Rick Moody

It is fitting that just a few weeks ago that I read easily one of the best books I have read in a few years that I read its doppelganger: easily the worst book I’ve read in a similar amount of time. Not once in the 567 of Rick Moody’s The Diviners is there a good sentence or a good idea presented. And not only are the ideas not good, they are unoriginal. I was reminded of the article written almost ten years ago by Dale Peck about rick Moody, where he called him the worst writer of his generation. While I think any title like that is overstated and a victim of it own hyperbole, it does have its basis in fact, and I sympathize with his statement even more so after reading such a book as this, one that has nothing good in it at all, which itself is an accomplishment, albeit an unwarranted one. The book has easily the worst opening scene I have read in a book, at least that I can remember, where Moody goes across the world when the sun is just rising, describing in tepid and tedious detail the lives of people we will not interact with. From there, we are thrust into a derivative story of the entertainment industry and how it whittles down and destroys anything good that enters its hemisphere. From the cabbie with the story idea, to the horn dog lead actor, no one can escape the dull spoon skill of Moody as he strips them of any good literary qualities, leaving any reader constantly reminded of better books that are more interesting and enlightening (such as Infinite Jest and even Gaddis’ The Recognitions) and begging for it to be over. Skip this, avoid it at all costs, there are better books you can spend time with. A book that invariably taints further Moody books, the only good thing about this is that it ended eventually.

Rating: 1/5