Thursday, May 24, 2018

Review: "The Lights of Pointe-Noire" by Alain Mabanckou

Black Moses was one of my favorite books last year, so when I shuffled up my reading lost last minute a few weeks ago, I knew Alain Mabanckou’s non-fiction breakthrough The Lights of Pointe-Noire was an easy choice for me to pick. While I don’t like it nearly as much as I like his novel, it has the same passion, insight and intrigue of his fictional novel. It might not be a fair comparison because while the books have similar themes and share an identical locale, they are quite different in tone. While the book performs a seamless balancing act between slapstick and quiet tragedy, this is a more somber piece that acts as both an exorcism of a displaced writer’s conflicting past as well as a kind of triptych for a city that has one foot in the past and another in the present, with no plans for either to move forward or backward. It begins with Mabanckou receiving news of his mother’s passing, news he processes in such a detached way he does not tell his friends about it. This news forces him to travel back to Pointe-Noire, Congo after having been gone for more than two decades. What follows is a mish-mash of Mabanckou's past and present, which shows the duality at the heart of the city, where children are still taught to fear mythical beings while being enamored with spaghetti westerns and martial arts film at the local multiplex. What fascinated me most were the sections focusing on Mabanckou extended family, especially the men he calls his “uncles” all of which are fascinating people who somehow never were able to escape the city like Mabanckou was able to and find international success, an idea brilliantly put forth near the end. Sometimes it is rather dry read, but it was nice to read a book about someone’s home town that’s not hopelessly cynical, and I’m grateful it came from an a writer with the immense talent of Mabanckou. 
Rating: 4/5

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Review: "Bleak House" by Charles Dickens

One of the resolutions I had for myself once I turned 30 was to read more books written and published before 1900. For reasons that are purely arbitrary, I was only interested in modern books and by entering a new decade of life, I felt like I needed a change. One book that was on top of that list of books written in a different century than when I was born was Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. After hearing it referenced in a few novels and short stories I liked, and it not being one of Dickens’ widely read novels (especially when compared to novels like A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations), it was a book I was dying to read once I turned 30. The experience was very much what I expected. Sometimes I was confused and had to look things up, others times I was riveted and a little too proud once I finally understood something. I won’t get too deep into this plot because of its status in world literature, with many of its more broad pints recognizable to hardcore bibliophiles, so I will focus more on what I liked and did not like. Even though it is 165 years old, the overall structure and the meaning behind it is relevant and true. Dickens presents society as a machine with many working parts of varying degrees of importance and status that somehow rely on one another to keep society moving forward. But that does not mean some of these parts can’t go forgotten, like the doomed young boy Jo, or become nefarious in their intentions, like Mr. Tulkinghorn and Mr. Vholes, both manipulative lawyers. Towards the end a lot of plotlines are wrapped up a little too quickly, and some of those within the orbit of Esther Summerson not getting what they deserve, but through that we really get a sense of Dickens’ ambivalence toward society’s infallibility, where good and bad things happen to good and bad people indiscriminately. It ends on a powerful image of young children with full lives ahead of them, filled with hope despite going forth in an indifferent world. While I feel I did not grasp a large portion of this 989-page book, I’m glad I picked it up and was at least partially enriched by it. 
Rating: 4/5

Friday, April 27, 2018

Review: "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell

Even when I read it nearly a decade ago a few years into my soon-to-be gone 20’s, Cloud Atlas, English author David Mitchell’s most famous novel, felt like a glorious, expansive mansion that was built without plumbing. It is a sight to see and inspires awe and wonder, but once you look a little more closely, it is not a place you want to spend anymore more time then you need within. It is not his worst novel (that distinction goes to his tepid debut Ghostwritten), but viewing what came after (and before with numer9dream), one sees this massive, complex novel as an artist’s attempt at something bold and brand new and succeeding in what might be a hollow and shallow endeavor. It has a handful of striking moments within certain sections, and its themes weaved throughout each of the six nested narrative is staggering feat, but in the end it results in little more than shock and awe. I won’t talk too much about the plot, since I am assuming if you are reading this review than you know more than an enough from reading it or seeing the movie to skip past the introduction, so I will stick to a few points I re-discovered and a few I discovered for the first time. With a book like this, it is bound to be uneven, with some sections being stringer than others, with the first Luisa Rey section being my favorite and the middle section, which feels like a sloppy mixture of the other five, being my least favorite and still nearly unintelligible. During the modern section that focuses on Timothy Cavendish’s ghastly ordeal, there are a few scary moments I noticed this time that offer glimpses into Mitchell’s scarier side, which he would show off in The Bone Clocks (to date, his masterpiece) and Slade House especially. My rating from 2010 has not changed, and despite finding new wrinkles in this book to appreciate, my feelings have not changed either. 
Rating: 4/5

Friday, April 20, 2018

Review: "Some Hell" by Patrick Nathan

While I think it is doomed to become a rallying cry for future works of gay fiction, Patrick Nathan’s debut novel Some Hell feels like much more than that and speaks directly to the heart of anyone who hides their true selves, who are ashamed of their desires, whatever they might be, so, in short, pretty much everyone. Through fanciful prose that switches effortlessly and sometimes seamlessly from dream like to harshly real, Nathan crafts a brutal, heart-wrenching and thought-provoking look at one family, more specifically two members (a mother and her youngest son) who are torn asunder by a not so sudden tragedy and cope in different yet equally toxic manners. But at the center is one young man on the cusp of adolescence, deeply troubled by his aberrant desires and his realization of his sexuality and through his interactions with a select group of people sets himself on a collision course with who might be and what he wants to be. The book can be heavy handed at times and it took me a bit longer to read it in sittings, but it was time well spent, and in due time its greatness will only grow in stature. The novel begins with the three siblings of a Minnesota family hanging out at home after school. The oldest, Heather, tells the youngest, Colin, that he will be dead by the time he is sixteen. In this same section, really a prologue to the rest of the book, we also clear-cut signs that Alan; the father of the family will kill himself. It is rendered in a beautifully terrifying manner and reminded me of the death of Gage Creed in Pet Semetary. From there, the book follows mainly Colin and his mother Diane. Colin is aware that he is homosexual and his crush on his sex obsessed homophobic best friend Andy causes him more pain than joy. Diane, who handles her grief by developing a chain-smoking habit, goes to Tim her therapist and latches onto Colin like an anchor sinking to the bottom of an ocean (characterized brilliantly by the way he lights her cigarettes). While both perspectives are rendered separately, giving their interactions with others and each other a detached, emotionally vacant quality, both are drawn secretly to the notebook’s Alan left behind, filled with strange, doom laden facts about all kinds of subjects from Phineas Gage to parasites. This is a book filled with memorable scenes, like the culmination of Colin’s crush on Andy at a sleepover, which is chilling and disturbing, to the fleeting presence of Heather, whose life, while imperfect, seems better because of her distance away from everyone else and Paul, their severely autistic brother. The book climaxes with a misbegotten road trip around the West, where the lines between fantasy and reality fray into a waking nightmare reminiscent of Bolano at his most frightening, culminating in an ending that echoes Newton Thornburg’s Cutter and Bone, another fatalistic novel that ends in a grimly ironic fashion. This is an unforgettable work about grief, disappointment, unchecked desires and how we sometimes, if by chance, on purpose or subconsciously, hurt the ones we love most. 
Rating: 5/5

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Review: "Encircling 2: Origins" by Carl Frode Tiller

It is safe to say that after reading two books of his proposed Encircling Trilogy, Norwegian writer Carl Frode Tiller has crafted something special: a dichotomous and eye opening look into the dramatic outfalls of our relationship with those around us. Though the eyes of David (someone I am still not quite sure is real or not) and those from his past, Tiller presents the strange, uncovered world that is easy to relate to on this side of the pond, despite the book being so interlinked with the author’s homeland. I’m still amazed at what he is done here with his first book and this one, titled Encircling 2: Origins. He has created a character that contains multitudes but is also an almost pure blank slate. We enter his past through a wide variety of paths but the mystery at the heart of his identity seems to eclipse all of that. He is both his own person with his own history and personality, but he is also us, and acts as a mirror to the way we interact with those around us. Tiller weaves a complex narrative structure out of this seemingly contradictory setup, but he does so by making it as engaging as possible, that forces the reader to linger over passages, to store minor characters away so they can be recalled in an instance once a detail triggers the need. It is an involving read and a draining one, but I felt refreshed and revitalized when I was done, as all good fiction should do. This book is a little different than the first one, which dealt with David’s life as a new adult. This book, longer by about 100 pages, concerns his early life from adolescent to his middle teen years in the mid-80s. Like the first one, it is divided into three sections, composed of first person narration over a few days in July 2006 and an emailed letters responding to David’s add in the paper sent a few days after the corresponding section. The first section belongs to Ole, a struggling farmer living in Otteroya trying to balance life with his younger wife Helen who has just given birth to his first son Daniel, his attempts to connect with Jorgen, Helen’s son from a previous marriage and the relationship with his ailing parents. In the epistolary sections we get a look at David’s life from Ole’s perspective, where we see how deluded Ole was from an early age and how a local tragedy affected the young boys. The second section belongs to Tom Roger, a friend from Namsos, whose inner ramblings give the book a creepy feeling as his relationship to his girlfriend Mona is deteriorating over the course of an awkward family gathering.  In the letters we see a confused Tom who slides effortlessly into delinquency thanks to a careless home life and he speaks of David with the cadence of not-so-hidden jealousy. In the final and shortest section, we see Paula, who is the mother of a minor character in Tom’s section, rotting away in a nursing home, and whose letters harbor a dangerous, disturbing secret. Each section in this book contain certain recurring themes, such as the damage parents inflict on children, past sins coming back to haunt future generations, and the contradictory need of people to both long for company and push said company away. Watching Tiller weave in and out of such ideas and never betraying a misstep is as close to literary bliss as you can get. If you have not checked out these two fantastic books, you are missing out. And it makes me sick with happiness that there is one more book to go. 
Rating: 5/5

Monday, April 9, 2018

Review: "I Hear Your Voice" by Young Ha-Kim

Almost no terrible things come from South Korea. From amazing movies and now books like Young Ha-Kim’s I hear Your Voice, the storytelling coming out of that country is always top notch, engaging and thought provoking. Last year, I read my first book from that county, Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale, and while it was a little oblique, it was fascinating and unique enough for me to remember it strongly nearly a year later. This book is a different kind of beats: easier to digest, but different enough and daring enough to offer a layered retroactive viewing of its plot, themes and ideas it brings up; I will be thinking about this one for a long while as well. It’s story about a motorcycle gang headed up by a Buddha like figure is reminiscent of many of my favorite authors. It’s setting and dreamlike quality reminded me of both Murakamis (Haruki and Ryu) and the way it switches perspectives late in the book (some might say too late) could not help me think of Paul Auster’s best work like The Book of Illusions and Invisible. But while two out of those three authors I mentioned, while endlessly brilliant, they cannot match the energy of this narrative, nor the dark, gritty areas Kim seems rather comfortable. You know what kind of story it is going to be from the first few pages where Jae is born in a public restroom and stolen by a woman at the scene. It is a bloody scene, but executed with style and grace so it is never gratuitous. The woman who raised him, Mama Pig (it is never clear why she is called this), moves into an apartment above the family of Donggyu. These two boys become inextricably linked: Donngyu is fascinated by the way Jae can read his mind, and in Donggyu, Jae comes to terms with his ability to empathize on a metaphysical level with all sorts of animate and inanimate objects. In the next section, a series of tragic events severs the boy’s relationship: Donngyu becomes introverted and mute for a time being, and Jae, after he loses Mama Pig to drug addiction, spends his time in an orphanage, only too escape and face a series of terrible realties filled with human suffering and selfishness (that’s putting it lightly). Soon, the two boys reunite, with Donnggyu following Jae; as he becomes the religious figure he felt destined to become, with the road as church and a motorcycle as his alter. I won’t spoil what happens, or what the big grand event is that changes everything, but I will say that some of the developments bothered me at first, but in the last and most surprising section, they made perfect and brilliant sense. I think it will take a while for this book’s true heart to be revealed to me. It never feels preachy about its beating heart but it is there if you take the time to look for it. Check it out and see for yourself. 
Rating: 5/5

Friday, April 6, 2018

Review: "The Price of the Haircut" by Brock Clarke

Despite having already read one of his books (it was another short story collection), it has been years so I approached Brock Clarke’s new book, The Price of the Haircut, with a bit of mystery. I recall literally nothing from the last book of his I read, and usually that is not a good sign. Thankfully, there are a few flashes of genius in this relatively short (and quick book), with Clarke mining the intricacies of daily life to speak about issues current to our time as well as those that are timeless. A few times I was taken aback by what he had done, much like a stuntman I assumed was doomed to fall flat on his face making a clean and safe landing. Some of these stories are not perfect and some are not even that good, but in most I was able to find a profound theme that made me think, and even if I did not find that, I was at least entertained throughout. The title story, which opens the collection, is one such brilliant piece of writing. On the surface, it is a rather goofy story of a group of middle aged, progressive men who visit a barber who charges $8 for a haircut and also, through his supposed racism, is responsible for a series of local riots (and not the police shooting of an unarmed black man). It is hilarious until you think about, and it is a good mirror into the selfish motivations of people who seek social justice. That plays out again in “The Misunderstandings”, about a marriage in shambles after an infidelity that finds their pain and outbursts in local restaurants becoming a sideshow attraction and a tool for social justice. Clarke is really good at viewing people’s problems through a carnival-esque lens of modern life, where people pretend to care but really don’t. Some stories drag on, like a lot of the longer ones, but this is a solid collection with a few hidden and enlightening gems.

Rating: 4/5