Sunday, December 10, 2017

Review: "Ghosts of the Tsunami" by Richard Lloyd Parry

Richard Lloyd Parry is like the Roberto Bolano of nonfiction, but swap out Chile with modern Japan and the fictional stories with ones that are painfully, scarily true. And while his new book, Ghosts of the Tsunami, lacks the cataclysmic gut punch of his previous book, People Who Eat Darkness, this catalog of victims of a natural disaster is just as haunting. Parry is really good at exposing how human folly and ignorance can lead effortlessly toward an unimaginable tragedy. He did that with the murder of Lucie Blackman in his previous book, and he does that here with the 2011 Tsunami in Japan, and more specifically one village that experienced loss that is well beyond comprehension. It begins with an account of Parry’s experience with the first minutes of the earthquake that caused the Tsunami. His relative safety contrasted with the devastation he will catalog throughout the rest of the books is glaring and obvious. The village in question is the Kamaya Village on the Sanriku coast of Japan. What happened there during the tsunami is the stuff of nightmares: one school, Okawa Elementary, due to circumstances that will always be a little murky, lost 74 students to the disaster. Parry, with grace and dignity, chronicles the aftermath of such an amazing loss of life as well as the trial that followed once a few pertinent details emerged about why there was such a loss of young life in this one school and no others. My one complaint with this book is that it is actually too short for the kind of story Parry is telling. You get glimpses of the horror experienced by the grieving families, such as that of Miho, whose loss rings harshest by book’s end, but I felt most of it was kept at arm’s length, while his previous book made me think the horror was in the next room. But still, this is a powerful and passionate account of a world upended and torn apart and the dignity a community somehow kept when they were trying to put it back together.

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Review: "The Stranger in the Woods" by Michael Finkel

The story Michael Finkel tells in his new nonfiction book The Stranger in the Woods is, as someone in the book says, a true once in a lifetime story to tell. On one hand the story is simply about Christopher Knight, a Maine resident who, in 1985 when he was just 20 years old walked into the woods near North Pond and stayed there, pretty much undisturbed until 2013. But delving deeper than that, it is about our relationship to the world around us, the push-pull dynamic of society and social interaction and what happens to those unfortunate few who don’t fit in to society at large. It is at times an exciting book a fascinating one and ultimately, I believe a sad one. It is both an account of an anomalous person who did something that most of wish we could do but are too afraid to attempt, but it also acts a strange funhouse mirror of the public at large or anyone who picks up the book. It is very easy to put ourselves in Knight’s shoes, and some people, me included, will come away from the book envious of his position and what he is capable of, but after a while the cost of us making the same decision as Knight did makes it an impossible one to make. The book begins with a few chapters detailing Knight’s capture and arrest in 2013. The people who catch him find his story hard to believe initially, but they are soon convinced that what Knight said is true. In 1985, he drove to North Pond from his home in Massachusetts, parked his car, through his keys on the driver’s seat and walked into the woods with only what he had on him. For almost 30 years, with the exception of one brief exchange with random hiker, Knight did not speak a word or interact with another human being. He survived by breaking into summer houses on the weekends, stealing unopened food, the right clothing and whatever books he could find. He had a makeshift campsite only a few hundred feet from where he could here other people. This story fascinated Finkel, a journalist living in Montana, who becomes determined to tell Knight’s story, even though his reluctance, which walks a fine line between plain rudeness and hostility (both unintentional on Knight’s part), makes it a challenge for Finkel. The book tells briefly of Knight’s home life, which was solid but eccentric and seemingly fostered his need to leave society behind. When Finkel isn’t dictating Knight’s story, he explores the idea of hermits through other pieces of literature, such as the Tao Te Ching and Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. I won’t spoil what happens to Knight after he gets arrested, but I will say it doesn’t leave much hope for his future. While not a total indictment of modern society, Finkel does pontificate on what kind of place people like Knight have in this world. Unfortunately, he doesn’t come up with a solid answer. This is an amazing book on a truly fascinating subject, one that should be talked about, discussed, dissected and ultimately understood. 
Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Review: "South and West" by Joan Didion

I will try not to judge Joan Didion’s nonfiction so harshly after reading her new book, South and West. My instinct is that her longer books, such as Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the book which she is most known for and her most recent memoir Blue Nights are better and a better look into her writing than this book, which reads like a notebook full of ironic musings with little need or want for coherence. My only other experience with Didion is not through her nonfiction but through her fiction, having read her most famous novel and second most famous book Play It as It Lays. That book’s style is very similar to this one, although (most) of the setting is different. I didn’t really like it then, with its brief chapters making for easy reading but little in the way of emotional attachment, and I can’t say it has aged will in this even smaller and even quicker 126-page read. The book is really two essays, the first one being the longer and the better of the two, “Notes on the South”, cataloging the trip Didion and her late husband John Gregory Dunne took in 1970 across the Southern states with little in the way of direction. The essay is amusing at times in the descriptions of vibrant Southern life through a rather fatalistic eye. A cool motif throughout is how wherever small town they are visiting, the movie The Losers always seems to playing on a double bill at the local theater. The second essay, “California Notes” seems like a hopeless add on that should have been published somewhere else, with the details of the Patty Hearst case being excised for more less charming musings. What gets me about this book is its utter detachment from the events, which can be done well in the hands of a funny writer, but here I struggled to figure out if Didion cared at all. Again, I won’t write her off quite yet, and hope her big books live up to the hype. 
Rating: 3/5

Monday, December 4, 2017

Review: "The Unholy Trinity" by Matt Walsh

After reading noted conservative pundit Matt Walsh’s first book, The Unholy Trinity, I think I am done with books on politics for a while, if not forever. And that is not because I identify as a liberal and Walsh is a Christian conservative. Walsh, for all we disagree on, comes off as a principled person with strong beliefs that are above all else consistent, as noted by his podcast episode on the death penalty, which is what made me interested in him in the first place. I think my general malaise comes from my inexperience in the realm of politics, which I only got into a few years ago, which is now akin to becoming a passenger on a sinking ship. The book is not terrible: Walsh is a very smart well-read person who doesn’t slip into evangelical preaching as much as some might think. But that doesn’t mean the experience wasn’t a draining one. The book is split up evenly, with Walsh discussing a wide variety of topics based around the ideas of life, marriage and gender, as the books subheading suggests. It seems unavoidable, but I will try not to give my full opinion on the topics in questions: this is not hat kind of review blog and I am simply not that kind of person (I’d rather espouse on them in person then to write about them online). Where Walsh shines brightest are in his chapters on abortion and the gay cake controversy, the former topic being where Walsh is at his absolute best and where he offers up on of the two best secular pro-life arguments I have seen put forth, the other belonging to Ben Shapiro. I did come away disagreeing with Walsh more than I thought, especially on more broad topics like self esteem and suicide, with him coming off as someone who hasn’t experienced the kind of feelings he is being critical of, and so his arguments ring a bit hollow. This was a good book, written by an intelligent, well-intentioned person whose views I might disagree with but who still makes me think. That doesn’t mean I want to make reading books like this a habit.

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Review: "Between Them" by Richard Ford

This is the second time this year that I have read a nonfiction book by an author whose extensive collection of novels and short stories that have always failed to impress me despite their critical appreciation. First, it was Benjamin Percy’s excellent Thrill Me, a collection of essays on the craft of writing, and now it is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Ford’s first foray into nonfiction with his new book, the memoir Between Them. Of the three books I have read by Ford, the first two novels in the Frank Bascombe, The Sportswriter and Independence Day which won him the aforementioned award and his latest novel Canada, noon of them have been what I would call homeruns (although Independence Day has probably my favorite book blurb which uses the baseball metaphor), and I particularly didn’t care for Canada, so I picked this book up with a little trepidation, but with my experience earlier this with Percy’s nonfiction book cozily stored in my mind. And I am glad to say that my sense were correct because this little 175 page book is utterly fantastic and the one of my favorite memoirs to date. In chronicling the lives of his parents, separate from him, Ford has crafted an elegiac and meditative ode to the ephemeral nature of life and what is left when we are gone. Broken up into two sections, which ford states in the afterword were written over 30 years apart, each section chronicles, or tries to chronicle the lives of the two people who created Ford. It is a very unsentimental and humble look at the lives of two people he loved dearly and who parted from this world, to quote him, before they were ready. There are no grand gestures in this book: no revelations, no real heroics from either parent, each of whom had flaws and qualities that Ford ruminates on in delightful, dreamlike prose that somehow worked here in this small book but not his others. We learn about his father, Parker Ford, about his own father who committed suicide when he lost the family farm, about his courtship of Ford’s mother, his employment at a starch company, the birth of Richard, their only son and his eventual death in 1960 when ford was only 20 years old. The next section, the longer of the two gives us details of Ford’s mother. Edna Akin, six years younger than Parker. We learn of her strange upbringing with her mother and stepfather, who included a forceful stay at a convent, her life with Parker and her life without Parker and her eventual death from cancer in 1981. Each section leaves you feeling gutted, especially the first one, as someone whose own father died before I turned 20. It stares fearlessly into life’s darker corners and handles harsh truths with delicate hand: death, grief and longing are inescapable and part of life, and even at 73 years old, older than both his parents were when they died, Ford still thinks about them. This is a very sad book, but it’s greatness, its ease and its heartfelt wisdom make it worth your while to check out.

Rating: 5/5

Friday, December 1, 2017

Review: "Followers" by Adam Fleming Petty

Followers, the debut novella from Indianapolis based writer Adam Fleming Petty has an infectiously archaic quality even though it is a story set in modern times and deals extensively with modern technology. This is an old world kind of story that I would expect from a Southern Gothic writer (full disclosure, I had a chat with the author at a local event before I decided to buy his book and he told me that he had Flannery O’Conner in mind when he was writing it). It never feels like an artifact of this moment despite its time period. It exists in a world filled with a strange sense of wonder, danger and malevolence that is pretty hard to find in the modern era. It stumbles a bit at times, with a few too many framed stories to my liking, but this is a brisk enjoyable 67 page story that offers up quite a few chills and a nice twist. It begins with Hannah Gustafson waiting in the airport. She is waiting to pick up Carolina Diaz, a writer of listicles who has been summoned to Colorado to do a story on Karen Kerry, a quadriplegic religious leader with a significant following. Petty is scarce with details early on, but it unfolds smoothly and when things start getting crazy with one of Karen’s supposedly paralyzed feet, he is able to create a sense of tension and danger with great ease. As I said, some of the back-story that is given is presented as flashbacks and as stories told by the characters themselves. It doesn’t derail the book too much, but it tended to take me out of the story sometimes and could have been put forth in a more covert fashion. I don’t read too many local books, but after reading something like this, I feel I need to immerse myself a little bit more in a community that is not too far from my doorstep.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Review: "Forest Dark" by Nicole Krauss

Nicole Krauss is a talented writer with lots of skill, a fact that is evident while reading her new novel Forest Dark. It has some really interesting and vivid scenes sprinkled throughout it that are engaging at worst and mesmerizing at best. I only wish she would put those talent to use in more interesting ways. This book and Great House, the only other book of hers that I have read, read less like fictional stories and more like academic essays with a flair for the dramatic and a desperate need to show off. They are dense in all the wrong ways and I can say with this book that I felt all of its 290 pages. It was a quick read but rarely a fun one besides a few sections that I thought Krauss exceled at her intended goal. The novel tells two stories that are thematic and stylistic twins, but the stories do not converge in any earthly ways besides location. Told in alternating characters, the first story introduces the reader to Jules Epstein, a contentious and vivacious layer who, at the age of 68 and grief-stricken after the death of his parents, he undergoes a change in personality. He leaves his job and travels to Tel Aviv where a mysterious man claims he is a direct descendent of the biblical David. In another story, an unnamed novelist suffering from writer’s block also travels to Tel Aviv and also meets a mysterious figure with an odd proposition, this one dealing with undiscovered details of the life of Franz Kafka. The Epstein section reads like Philip Roth, with the setting and storyline feeling like a pretty good imitation of Operation Shylock. The first person section feels a little too confessional for my tastes, with Krauss’ former marriage to Jonathan Safran Foer adding a lot of messy context to the storyline. Eventually, each finds themselves on a strange movie set, but the book doesn’t go anywhere, but despite the shiftlessness, some scenes really shine, like Epstein’s backstory, and a really strong and haunting final image. While there might be a lot to slog through here, this is far from a failure.

Rating: 4/5