Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Review: "The Blind Assassin" by Margaret Atwood

With two of her books that were not The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood is, for me, becoming a writer I must revisit each year. First, it was her brilliant novel about deception, scorned lovers and futile revenge, The Robber’s Bride, and now, The Blind Assassin, which may be her most acclaimed novel, also might be he best one of her books I have read so far. Through playfulness, dry humor and a fantastic ear for dialogue, Atwood is able to tell a complex, intricate story without the reader once being out of breath or confused in their effort to try and follow it. Its deep meaning only reveals itself in short digestible bursts that are immediately apparent and stick with the reader throughout the book’s length, with both this and The Robber’s Bride (at least the paperback version) a hair’s length over 500 pages. They are inviting and warm stories with people that are easy to follow along, even if the stories they tell are not always truthful. And much like The Robber’s Bride, this book has a fantastic ending that, while not tying up all the loose ends, at least gives the reader a satisfactory look into the concepts Atwood is trying to convey with a story and structure as unique as the one she is presenting. At the beginning of the book over three chapters, we are introduced to the three ways in which this story will be told. We first meet Iris Chase Griffin being told the news of her sister Laura’s death. The next chapter is a newspaper clipping of the death in question and the issues surrounding it. But the third section is totally different as it tells the story of two unnamed lovers who meet in secret, where the man tells the woman a story of alien colonies, abused children and the eponymous assassin who seeks to destroy it all. Even as I write this, I am wrapping my head around how all three of the stories threads intertwine and connect across their fictional divides: the real world of Iris inhabits, where, as an old woman cared for by a lovely middle aged couple, she reflects on her opportunistic marriage with Richard Griffin who might have destroyed her father’s company, his sister Winifred, who is easily the most contemptible character in the novel, the fictional world in the novel, which is itself a novel written by Laura and published posthumously, and the story told within that novel. Trust me, it is not as confusing or convoluted as it sounds. The great joy of this book is watching the layers being pulled back, watching people’s intentions becoming clear and how that might completely change the viewpoint given for a previous interaction earlier in the novel. And once the ideas reveal them and Atwood has shown what was really going on and what connects these three very different stories or what is not entirely true or what is a total falsehood. , It is something beautiful and profound. It’s taken me a bit too long to acknowledge Atwood’s greatness, but I’m glad I finally have.

Rating: 5/5

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Review: "Carousel Court" by Joe McGinniss Jr.

Even with the narrative cut up between 97 short chapters, which feel like snapshots instead of plot points, Joe McGinniss Jr. second novel Carousel Court is still quite a chore to read. It is filled with people making odd and sometimes questionable decisions in a reality that is a little too heightened and extreme to be taken seriously, let alone link back to the real world in any meaningful way. Which is disappointing because I was really excited about this book: it looked interesting, and the blurb on the back were promising, but besides a few key scenes, which are memorable solely for their aesthetic and not for any emotional depth, this book dragged ass for all of its 351 pages, rarely being coherent or resonant ton the time period it is discussing. It focuses on the lives of the Maguire family, made up of the attractive couple Nick and Phoebe and their young son Jackson on the very edge of the 2008 recession. After an accident that nearly killed Jackson and a move across the country from Boston worked out horribly, they find themselves living in a Los Angeles neighborhood beset by foreclosures, roaming packs of coyotes and neighbors who don’t totally trust one another. Nick cleans out abandoned upscale houses and Phoebe hocks pharmaceuticals to local doctors. Each has a plan of escape, but each is destructive in nature and leads both of them to a spiritual reckoning. The comparison made on the back flap is apt: it reads like Revolutionary Road through the lens of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, a book I like and a book I really don’t. It takes what should have been a knockout and lets it loose in an emotional vacuum. Some key scenes, like a shocking suicide early on and the grim arc of an abandoned dog stick with me, but not for the reasons this sloppy book had intended. 
Rating: 3/5

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Review: "Men Without Women" by Haruki Murakami

It’s almost too predictable for me to give a positive review to a new translated book from Japanese sensation Haruki Murakami, but his new book of short stories, Men Without Women is just as good as the hype that will be surrounding it once people, en masse, get their hands on a copy. It is a smaller work, dwarfed by 1Q84 and even his most recent novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage. Not just because they are short stories (although most are over 30 pages), but theme wise you won’t see two moons in the sky, talking cats or people being skinned alive. Nope, these are quieter, more somber stories about people, all men, whose disconnect from love takes shape in various ways, some with possible metaphysical causes, although in Murakami’s world, nothing is concrete and the mystery itself is more rich and rewarding than it would be if it was solved. As always, certain motifs recur throughout, such as the powerful connection between music and emotions, music and memory, the almost mythical powers of animals such as cats and snakes and odd coincidences that may or may not be clues to a deeper, more profound cosmic truth. This collection has a lot more in common with his previous short story collection After the Quake: a set of stories that thematically tie together and should be read as a single unifying work, and with the exception of one story, which I will get to soon, all are fantastic in their own way, and since there are only seven here, I will try to talk about each one. “Drive My Car”, the opening story follows a semi-successful actor who is forced to rely on a driver after a minor scrap with the law. The driver, a homely yet intriguing female, drives him to and from rehearsal, where the man discusses his wife, who had a slew of affairs with other men until her death from uterine cancer. Infidelity plays a big part in most of these stories, with characters being both victims of and co-conspirators of cheating spouses. “Yesterday”, taken from The Beatles song, follows a young adult male whose friend refuses to study for his entrance exams and is soon separated from his lovely girlfriend. The friend is obsessive about other things in life, like his perfect imitation of a certain dialect, but on a date organized by said friend, the narrator and his friend’s girlfriend wax woefully about his dwindling prospects, leading to an odd time jump at the end. “An Independent Organ” is a haunting tale of an aging Lothario who falls victim to a love that will kill him. This story is doused in regret and sadness. “Scheherazade” the most fun, sees a man start a fair with a women whose story of youthful robbery and obsession is more fascinating than the lovemaking. “Kino”, the most menacing story, sees the title character open a bar after his marital collapse only to fall victim to mysterious magical forces. “Samsa in Love”, about Gregor Samsa transforming back into a beetle, is the worst one here. It’s derivative and unoriginal and has no place in this collection. The title story is a nice little quota that is more meditative than anything else and ends the story on a thoughtful note. If you’re a fan of his, there is no reason not to rush out and pick this up.

Rating: 5/5

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Review: "The Turner House" by Angela Flournoy

The Turner House, the first novel by Angela Flournoy, is the kind of debut novel I hope and pray: something confident in its setup and its scope but still maintains its intimate and audience friendly demeanor, which makes for an enriching and memorable reading experience, so it is the exact opposite of Will Chancellor’s A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall. In telling the story of a large family living in Detroit the problems they face from both external and internal forces, Flournoy has written a fantastic family drama, among the best I have read recently, mixing all sorts of elements, political, social and emotional in a way that many writers only master over the course of a career, but she has done it with one single book and that is a feat that should be applauded. None of the aforementioned elements really dominate the story, which, at a slim 338 pages (well, slim for a book like this) is not only impressive but a damn near miracle that it all fits nicely in a novel of this size. Reading it, I never got the feeling that any of the information or plot details overflowed its boundaries. Every important part gets its proper due. The novel focuses on the aforementioned family in the book’s title. Headed by Francis and Viola along with their thirteen children, they lived on a house in Farrow Street in the heart of Detroit. In the present time (2008), the house sits empty in a neighborhood that is now riddled with crime and drug addiction. Viola is alive but is cared for by her oldest son Charles, who goes by Cha-Cha and his wife Tina, Francis has been dead since 1990. With a novel of this size, I knew it was impossible for every one of the thirteen Turner children to be fully developed, but the lives of the few children the book offers glimpses into are fascinating and morally complex. The book opens with an experience Cha-Cha had has kid in the house on Yarrow Street where a haint, a ghost of Southern folklore, picked him up in his room and attempted to strangle him. He sees this same blue ghost right before he crashes a semi truck he was driving, an accident that crippled him. Cha- Cha, since he is the oldest of the siblings, acted as a surrogate father to most of them and is the real, somewhat tragic heart of this book. On the other side of the bloodline is Tina, the second most important character, who’s also the youngest. Her gambling addiction has led to her suspension from her job and an overall distrust that brewed among most of the family. The stories of the families converge and collide (along with a few brilliant sections taking place at the beginning of the Turner legacy), tears are shed, punches are thrown and people make drastically horrible mistakes, but you can tell, deep down, that everyone wants to do right by the family they desperately need. Pitch perfect dialogue, a backdrop that offers a glimpse into the societal problems plaguing a once great city and ways our blood connections can fray, sever and heal even stronger than before. This is a grand book that packs a lot of heart and hope into a relatively small package.

Rating: 5/5

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Review: "Northline" by Willy Vlautin

It must be hard to transition from one art form after being hugely successful and notable in a very different one for so long, but out of the authors I have encountered who have made such a switch, Willy Vlautin has got to be among the best. Mainly known for being the lead singer and songwriter for the band Richmond Fontaine (never listened to their music, it’s not really my thing), to date he has written four novels that have been met with wide acclaim and it is easy to see why. He knows what he is talking about: the characters, the settings, the mood, the discontent, it all comes across as deeply realistic and nary is a false note hit in either of the two novels of his I have read, The Free and The Motel Life. But this book, Northline, his second, seems to only highlight his weaknesses, mainly the limits of his narrative prowess and the repetitive and identical nature of his talents. It begins as Alison Johnson’s life begins to crumble around her. Referred to as the girl throughout most of the book’s 192 pages, she drinks too much, doesn’t have a job, and her boyfriend, Jimmy, says he cares about her but punishes her severely for her screw-ups, locking her in the trunk of his car and handcuffing her to the bed when he is unhappy. One night she flees Vegas and moves to Reno, where she begins to piece her life together, with the help of Paul Newman and the characters he played. Scene by scene Vlautin is a lovely storyteller and the people that populate Allison’s world, from an old man hiding from a family tragedy to her overweight co-worker who ends up caring deeply for her, are rendered beautifully. But I couldn’t help but linger over the book’s repetitive nature, like how I’ve seen this story told many times, even by Vlautin. And the scenes with Paul Newman come off as corny where a more versatile writer could make it interesting. Even though I didn’t really enjoy this book, it’s hard to come across a better musician turned author than Vlautin. 
Rating: 3/5

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Review: "The Girls" by Emma Cline

It is very clear early on in Emma Cline’s debut novel The Girls that the story is drenched in a nostalgic sadness that covers ever page like morning dew. Loosely based on the Manson killings, it presents a complex female narrator looking back from middle age on her time with a hippie like cult that slowly and inevitably became murderous. It is a smart first novel, mining territory that is fresh and imbued with the feelings of the time period but also universal themes as well: the sense of promise that comes with the onset of adolescence, the joy in someone you admire showering you with attention and the disappointment that comes from figuring out the harsh realities of the world and the nefarious beings who exploit such malleability, and I feel it is the perfect predecessor to something like Jeffery Eugendies The Virgin Suicides. The story is told from the perspective of Evie Boyd, who, at the beginning of the novel, has wandered ineloquently into middle age and is spending some time a at friends house, but the bulk of the book takes place in the summer 1969 where she is a budding 14 year old, dealing with her parents divorce and the impending stint at a boarding school. At a local park she spots the girls, one of which, Suzanne, leads her into the world of Russell, a Manson-like cult leader and wannabe musician living out in the desert. It is a predictable narrative with rather weak characterization, with all the male characters being poorly rendered, especially Russell. But where this book succeeds is in it intense and moody atmosphere, steeped in a regret that only becomes perverse in its sad and expertly executed final pages, where we see how Evie sees herself in the scope of her life and the crimes committed. It’s a rather beautiful book that does a good job at conveying the sadness of missed opportunities, even when they are menacing and disturbing.

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Review: "Love is Power, Or Something Like That " by A. Igoni Barrett

The world Nigerian author A. Igoni Barrett crafts with his brilliant and fierce short story collection Love is Power, Or Something Like That is one fraught with political turmoil, shaky moral compasses and people caught between worlds of extreme poverty and ambiguous wealth. Its landscape is unique, being that of the city of Lagos, Nigeria, but its greatness lies somewhat in how familiar it feels as well. You can see hints of the greatness that made other short story collections great in these wholly original stories. I was able to recall, with great joy, the feelings I had reading something like Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff, Alan Heathcock’s Volt and even Frank Bill’s Crimes in Southern Indiana, stories with settings worlds away from this one, but imbued with the same sense of wonder, the same keen sense of place and the ideas that danger and joy can be right around the corner. I was a huge fan of Barrett’s debut novel, Blackass, which I read last year, and while these stories don’t edge into the kind of bizarre satire that book does, it still has that book’s brutal ear for dialogue, it’s apprehension of a perfect world and the rewards it can sometimes give out and the ways interactions with people can be entirely unpredictable. I can’t think of a week story in this collection, although I prefer the shorter ones to the longer pieces, two of which go on for more than 20 pages. The book starts off strong with “The Worst Thing That Can Happen” about an old woman seeking a ride to the hospital where she will have eye surgery, a procedure which she has had multiple times. Barrett is a big fan of delving into the main characters psyche and past history. We know early on how many kids she has (one of whom moved to America and hasn’t been heard from in decades), how many grandkids she has and who she doesn’t like in the neighborhood, which makes the eventual denial of a ride from her nearest child that much more painful, and who she eventually gets a ride from that much more poignant. In the bitterly hilarious “Dream Chaser”, a teenage boy plays hooky from school and spends his time in an Internet cafĂ© catfishing a lonely old man. In the title story, a low ranking policeman deals with the daily grind of working in a corrupt legal system by soaking up the little moments at home with his wife and son. This story might be the most memorable because it has tow two strongest and most disquieting scenes in the book back to back. Finally the longest story, “Godspeed and Perpetua” charts the relationship of a couple that marries into good fortune but can’t escape the slow erosion of their passion. It’s almost like a novella as it follows the couple from a happy marriage, to parenthood, to the ways religion helps to destroy their love, to an ending that sits of the precipice of shattering violence. There is something hypnotic in these gritty stories, just as there was in Blackass. It sticks with you and lingers in way only the best fiction can.

Rating: 5/5