Sunday, August 20, 2017

Review: "Pages from a Cold Island" by Frederick Exley

I wouldn’t be surprised if I (with the exception of one person, more on that) was the only person within a 50-mile radius to read Frederick Exley’s Pages From a Cold Island, a widely unread sequel to book that still very few people have read. It is an odd feeling. It’s like you are reading something just for you. It’s a good book, one that I don’t think surpasses its predecessor A Fan’s Notes one of the great unheralded works of 20th century literature, which I read back in 2009, and the reading of this makes me curious to revisit it. Exley is skilled at these self eviscerating swaths of prose that both impress you and fill you with pity for a person who seemingly had mountains of talents but for some reason, both personal and impersonal, seems destined to remain on the fringes of literary history, a writer whose constantly being discovered, the quintessential writer’s writer, something the title of his first book quietly implies. The plot is meandering and a bit hard to follow on the surface, but it does take place after the publication of A Fan’s Notes. Exley has found himself mourning the death of writer and mentor Edmund Wilson, and takes to drinking to stave off the grief and other demons introduced in A Fan’s Notes. During the course of the book, he obsesses over a meeting with Gloria Steinem, infiltrates Wilson’s family, badmouths Norman Mailer and begins having affairs with students he teaches at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. There is a harsh truth to these vignettes; they use the real names of people (one being Dan Wakefield, a writer from Indiana who taught at my college) and don’t always say the nicest things. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that a lot of Exley’s obscurity is self-imposed. At times charming, at times annoying and at times sad, this forgotten book by a forgotten author isn’t quite the hidden gem as some others are, but it’s worth checking out if you come across it.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: "Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash" by Eka Kurniawan

Equal parts, crude, sad and deranged, Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, the third book to be translated into English by Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan is really the perfect book to be reading while in the daze of the headiest of head colds. It is a strange swift journey severed into small, digestible tidbits that switch perspectives and time periods, its themes are hard to put a finger on (pun intended), but boy is it a fun book to read. This novel is many things: an assault on good taste, the idea of love and the quest for manhood, but above all else, it is entertaining, and even though these past few days, with sleep in the single digits, finishing this book as quickly as I did was not as hard as I thought it was going to be. The sad sack loser at the center of this novel is Ajo Kawir, who had the starts of the book is like most young boys living in the slums West Java. He craves sex and along with his friend Gecko, seeks it out whenever he can. It is only after he is witness to a gang rape of the town’s female unto does he become impotent, and with that comes a bubbling rage and a need to fight. Just as he is finding something resembling happiness in the form of Iteung, a female bodyguard, he comes into the crosshairs of feared gangster Tiger, the payoff of which is totally unexpected and leads to the events ten years later where Ajo, now a truck driver, talks to his impotent member (called “Bird”) and coaches a younger driver as he fights his own battle with a man named after an animal. It is a fast-paced fun story that reminded me of the gutter poetry Pedro Juan Gutierrez and the brutal cynicism of Leonardo Sciascia, right down to the downbeat, yet funny ending. This is a wild ride, one others might deem shallow, but will be hard pressed to deny its audacious nature.

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Review: "Mrs. Fletcher" by Tom Perrotta

It has been a few years since Tom Perrotta has put out a novel, and like all good writers, absences makes the heart grow fonder and his new novel, Mrs. Fletcher can fit comfortably next to his best books, like The Abstinence Teacher and Little Children. Perrotta has long been the master of suburban malaise. His characters are instantly recognizable, as there hidden desires and unmet potential. Like most people in the real world, they float, sometimes with ease and sometimes without. And the determining factor for their ejection from their homeostasis is always interesting and compelling in the hands of someone like Perrotta, who renders his characters with heaps of staggering empathy that make even their most mundane accomplishments glow majestically. Another really cool aspect of his novels and his short stories are how well they are tied to the events of today and how they reflect a current social conflict. I am not aware of his politics, but I am glad a book like this, which mirrors the world around probably better than any of his previous novels, takes time with both sets of ideas and the people who hold them, creating multi-dimensional characters with clear and understandable motives. It makes for a story that lacks easy answers and identifiable villains, but also one that is complex and hopelessly fun to read. While the novel shifts focus quite a few times during the book’s 307 pages, but the main focus is on Eve Fletcher, the Mrs. of the title. Recently divorced and dreading the thought of an empty house once her son Brendan leaves for college, Eve finds herself drawn to pornography after and anonymous text she received described her as a MILF. She navigates the lonely world she finds herself in with the help of Amanda; a co-worker of hers at the Senior Center Eve manages. Amanda is much younger than her, has tattoos and carries with her a different set of regrets. Meanwhile, at college (and written in first instead of third person), we get a POV of Brendan’s first year at college as he tries to grow from jock adolescent into thoughtful adult and the mess he makes for himself as it pertains to campus sexual politics. While I won’t get too much into it here, Perrotta’s rendering of this is rather spot on and brave, presenting a person who would fit easily into the “victim” category and shining a light on some of their not so savory qualities. It might be my own biases seeping into this review, but I found it refreshing. Both what is going on at home and at college reflect other Perrotta books, with the college scenes improving on Perrotta’s third novel Joe College and a scene near the end echoing a scene from Election with the genders swapped. Add to that one of the most respectful depictions of a transgender character I have come across, a farfetched but funny climatic sex scene and a well-earned sweet ending, this is another knockout from one of America’s most humane and popular writers. 
Rating: 5/5

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Review: "The Impossible Fairy Tale" by Han Yujoo

The Impossible Fairy Tale, the English language debut and first novel from South Korean writer Han Yujoo is, for both good reasons and bad reasons, one of the most confusing books I have come across in quite some time. It is a style that at first hypnotizes you, then frustrates you and finally, clubs you into submission. It is a very hard novel to pin down theme wise, but it’s unsolvable mysteries are entertaining and engaging in and of themselves: some readers will get lost in them and never find their way out, others will scoff at them and won’t make it past page 100 in this 211 page book. It is no surprise that Yujoo is mainly known in her home country as a short story writer. This strange, detached style she has no doubt mastered works better over the course of a few pages, or 20 or 30 at the most. In novel form, it is a long strange journey that some will finish successfully, but not all, and even those who do will have little understanding of what they just bared witness to. I will try my best to summarize and offer my opinion on such a strange book. Without trying to spoil anything, it is obvious early on that things might not be as real as they seem. The sentences are almost declarative, which reminded me of David Peace’s Red or Dead. Ideas, such as fancy colored pencils, school journals, kittens, puppies and bricks, take on more importance than they should, even something of a sinister quality. And when the book switches gears a little over halfway through, it’s motives become apparent, but we are never any closer to the heart of this book. Is it about the social privileges of those who are popular and those who are not? Is it about the perils of turning life into art? Or is it about a person’s need to fix a past mistake through fiction? There is a lot to chew on in this book, some savory and others a little bland, but it is a very filling read for something so short.

Rating: 4/5

Friday, August 11, 2017

Review: "Little Star" by John Ajvide Linqvist

It has been awhile since I have thought about the sad and scary worlds crafted by Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist, let alone picked up one of his books to read. In that time, I had forgotten how powerful his stories are, and, among the wider public since Let the Right One In has come and gone, I am not alone in this sentiment. That is a shame, because through four novels and a collection of short stories (which I must admit I have not read), he has crafted a world filled with equal amounts of dread and melancholy, with horror arising from sadness and disappointment and not some long hidden ancient evil or something otherworldly. The monsters in his books, whether they are vampires, the undead, or in the case of Little Star, his longest book which I just finished today, werewolves, are products of pain and loneliness, and the horror and violence they inflict stems from this very human feeling, making his stories very emotionally impactful while also being scary. But in the end this novel and those that he published before it, are somber tales of the dispossessed, those who struggle to find a place in the world, a place that might not exist unless, sadly, blood is spilt. This is not only his longest book, but also quite possibly his darkest, with the downbeat mood being applicable to something like Stephen King’s Pet Semetary. It begins in a quasi-cemetery setting, where Lennart, an ageing failed musician, stumbles upon an abandoned baby in the woods while out hunting for mushrooms. He takes the baby back to his house where Laila, his crippled life, ekes out an existence with her husband. But this is not an ordinary foundling. This baby seems almost sentient, aware of her surroundings, and its malevolence is immediately made clear to the reader, but both Lennart and Laila are too deep under its spell. While I use the word werewolf, a term that is not used in the book but implied in a deeply metaphorical sense later one near the end of the book, I couldn’t help but think of the 2014 Dutch film Borgman, where an obviously evil figure holds sway over a group of easily enticed people. Here, the baby, whom they name Theres, takes a liking to music and sings pop hits like “Nothing Compares to You”. The years go by, and after a shocking scene of violence, the couple’s son Jerry whisks her away, only for her talents to be discovered on a Swedish version of American Idol, where another girl named Teresa sees her and finds a disturbing purpose to her disappointing life. The plot can be silly sometimes and the violent scenes, all involving disquieting use of hammers come out of nowhere, but this is a story that builds toward the central characters’ dark destinies, which are hinted at right from the beginning. I was oddly moved by this story, much like I was by Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things: it is a dark story, but one with a beating black heart and awareness of the cruelty and beauty of the world. I hope more translations from this Swedish master of horror find themselves across the pond.  It would be much appreciated.

Rating: 5/5

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Review: "The Answers" by Catherine Lacey

The most striking thing about Catherine Lacey’s sophomore novel The Answers is its prose style. In lieu of using ellipses, she denotes the dialogue with italics. While it may seem like a minor switch, one that lets the books aesthetics stand out a bit more, I also feel it gives the book a dreamlike quality: we never really know what is being said, what people wished they had said and what other people are saying filtered through someone else’s psyche. It makes for a strange read. But that is also something that harms the book slightly. This is a not a novel with very strong characterization. I never felt for those at the center of this novel, whether that is Mary, Kurt or Matheson. They are ciphers for themes that by the end I am still a little confused about and wish were presented with a bit more stylistic clarity. The book centers around Mary Parson, who is in a situation we can all relate to: she is broke and in constant physical pain, of which is never made clear what really hurts, but it manifests itself in her back. She discovers a treatment known as PAKing, which is again vaguely described and might have something to do with chiropractic medicine. These cost a lot, and she is forced to take a second job. This job has her becoming part of a social experiment/art piece created by famous actor Kurt Sky. She must be his emotional girlfriend, the terms of which are among the best parts of the book. As I said, I struggled to find what the book was really about: was it about a woman’s journey toward independence? Or was it about the hardships of forming romantic bonds in a society that rewards self-serving behavior? It is never made clear and by the strange ending, it still baffles me. But for some reason I kind of enjoyed this book. It has a charm about it that made me quite curious about its mysteries.

Rating: 4/5