Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Review: "Nothing to See Here" by Kevin Wilson

The one thought I could not escape while reading Kevin Wilson’s third novel Nothing to See Here was that of his recent short story collection Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine and the short story within titled “Wildfire Johnny”. It is the best thing Wilson has written and it is just as high concept as this story of flaming children, but it is so, so much better. There is rarely a paragraph in these 254 pages that does not feel derivative or a turn of phrase I have not seen done better somewhere else. Besides the relationship between the two central women in the book, every character feels thinly drawn plot devices and in one case a single dimensional villain, so when it tries for an emotional payoff. It totally does not earn it. I do not think if this were a short story rather than a full-length novel it would change anything, but it would be a start. Taking place in the mid-90s (seems like a pattern in 2019 book) it opens with Lillian receiving a letter from her former friend Madison. Lillian is a woman on the verge of her 30’s who has been beset by a series of external miscalculations stemming from when Madison, a daughter of a wealthy family. Had her take the fall for a stash of drugs while they attended boarding school. Now, Madison, now married to Jasper Roberts, a presidential hopeful, asks for her help in babysitting Jasper’s kids from a previous marriage who just so happen to burst into flames when they have a tantrum. It is never explained, and in a good story it would not have to be so here it feels shoehorned in and takes time away from Lillian and Madison’s story and how much (or little) their relationship has changed. And the eventual actions of Jasper seem predictable and kind of lazy, making for a swift novel that still, somehow, overstays its welcome. 
Rating: 3/5

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Play Review: "Prospect Hill"

If you find yourself around the Mass Ave, area in Indianapolis this coming weekend and you hear the sounds of a hammer smashing into a liquor cabinet, the bounce of an oversized yoga ball or cloying discussion of Joseph Campbell’s 6 part PBS documentary, they are most likely coming from the nearby Basille theater as it will be the second week’s run of local playwright Bruce Walsh’s play Prospect Hill, put on by Fat Turtle Theatre and directed by Aaron Cleveland . Utilizing only three characters and one setting the audience will be taken on a wild journey through addiction, guilt and the precarious balance between faith and desire and overcoming the worst aspects of ourselves. The show opens with Jacob Stichter, played with a frayed intensity by local actor Zachariah Stonerock, sitting in his apartment while his boyfriend, Rex Isaak, played by Craig Kemp, is busy trying to renovate the house, the drill he holds being a shifting motif in the play, a tool for both change and destruction. Jacob is a therapist but a very successful one we sense, and it would not surprise us if Ethan, a troubled Pepsi employee played with skittish aplomb by Evren Wilder Elliot, is his only patient. Throughout the course of the play, events such as Jacob’s pleas for his father’s acceptance through Skype calls, Ethan’s false promise for a better future and Rex’s confidant but scatterbrained advice bounces off the three characters in a series of escalating emotional intensity that feel raw and authentic. Stonerock is a joy to watch in his quest for the courage to change his disappointing life, as is Elliot, who acts as his mirror image of Jacob as a person who is smart enough to talk themselves out of recognizing their own shortcomings. The only real loose piece of this puzzle is Rex’s character. Kemp is having fun with it, whether he is (accidently) dropping his power drill or challenging someone to an arm-wrestling contest, and in doing so, the audience has fun to, with his scenes getting the most laughs in this drama. But on closer inspection, his character is not really well-defined within the plot. For instance, it was really hard for me to figure out who he was until his relationship with Jacob is brought up most of the way through the first act. Maybe it was the uniform he wear while drilling holes in the wall, or my recent Hulu subscription, but I was getting Janitor from Scrubs vibes from him early on, thinking he might be a total figment of Jacob’s imagination. This is really a criticism of the writing and not of acting, as the play came alive during his scenes, as did the audience I saw it with, and provides a bit of levity to contend with the play’s more somber moments. By the end, the problems of three may not be solved, but the complexities of their lives and the possible ways they can fix it are laid bare, with the help of a clever script, Cleveland’s pared-down direction and a trio of delightful performances.  
Rating: 4/5

Friday, November 8, 2019

Review: "Northern Lights" by Raymond Strom

Raymond Strom’s debut novel Northern Lights is the kind of self-assured debut novel we get about once or twice a year. Loaded with skill that is easily seen by anyone who reads it and with the one of the year’s most incredible and memorable leading characters at its center, it is an easy book to like and get behind despite some of its glaring short comings, which I will get too. While reading it and thinking about the things I did not like about this book (which there were very few instances of), I kept reminding myself that it is supposed to take place in the late 90’s, a fact that helps this book in the short term but overall hurts it as well. Thankfully, most of the time those feelings of apprehension are quelled every time we are in the presence of Shane Stephenson, the fraught, sensitive youth at the novel’s center. As the book begins, he is reeling after the death of his father. His grief, and a rather cold goodbye from his uncle, bring him to the town of Holm, Minnesota in search of his mother who abandoned him and his father when Shane was very young. Androgynous, asexual and non-binary long before that term was popular, Shane is not an easy fit for the failing small town, but finds a job at a local breakfast place and a familial bond with the town’s outcast, the main one of which, Jenny, provides him with the love he is seeking after the death of his father. As I said, the time period helps explain some of the clunky interactions, especially with the book’s defacto villain Sven Svenson, as one not and unoriginal as his name. But when I thought of its time period, it made me realize how informed the book is by the here and now and it took me out of the story. It’s last hundred pages, which include Shane’s nightmarish and sad reunion with his mother and the predictable but gut-wrenching finale, make this a rather memorable debut novel. 
Rating: 4/5

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Review: "Machines Like Me" by Ian McEwan

I think I am more familiar with the work of Ian McEwan than with any other author with the exceptions of Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami, although I do not have the love and appreciation for his books as do for the two that I mentioned. With the exception of Enduring Love (his best book, in my opinion) and Atonement, with special mention of his first two novels during his Ian Macabre phase, there is very little he puts out that I find great or even good, so I approach his work out of duty and with great apprehension. Sometimes they are forgettable, like Sweet Tooth, dismal like his most recent novel Nutshell and sometimes they are pretty good like his most recent novel Machines Like Me. This is another strange leap forward after the failure of Nutshell, dealing with an alternate Great Britain where Alan Turing is alive, and robots can purchase for large but reasonable amounts of money. The focus of the story is Charlie Friend, a 30-year-old man whose prime duty in life are wild schemes and even wilder failures. He is in love with Miranda, a student ten years younger than he is and once Charlie comes into a sum of money, he buys Adam, a human like robot with a tight moral compass that comes into conflict with both Charlie and Miranda. The bests parts of this book are the small scenes between two or three characters, whether it is the three central ones where an odd love triangle blossoms, with Mark, a foster child Miranda becomes attached to or Gorringe, a man from Miranda’s past who hold the key to a horrendous secret. The alternate history reads like microwave directions for anyone not familiar with what really happened, but the profound truths McEwan touches on with Adam and a late scene with Turing are among the richest McEwan has achieved. 
Rating: 4/5

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Review: "The Polyglot Lovers" by Lina Wolff

It is the coincidence of the year that the book I read in place of the translation of the new Michel Houellbecq novel so thoroughly eviscerates his character within its pages. I knew nothing of The Polyglot Lovers, the second novel of Swedish writer Lina Wolff to be published in English, but according to my rigid reading standards (which I will relax once the new decade rolls around) it filled the void and I’m really glad it did, because as much as I appreciate Houellbecq and his heterodox views, I’ve never liked his books as much as I liked this one, which is thought-provoking without being preachy, intriguing and funny at the same time and leaves no sacred cow of literature intact. On the back it is described as a “contribution to feminism” and not to sound like a broken record held over my previous review, it was hard for me to identify with any of that within this pages, which does not seem to take a side, even in its extremes cases. Funnily enough, much like the French literary bad boy it eloquently skewers, its ambivalence toward its subject matter, whether that be modern relationships, high art versus low art and lack of responsibility that usually comes with the onset of recognition, it is easy it mistake this book for taking a side. Its 244 pages are divided into three section which we learn only later one are working backwards. In the first section, and the best part of the book, we are introduced to Ellinor, slowly creaking toward middle age and desperately lonely, so desperate, she thinks, that she has sunk so low as to try online dating. On the site she meets Ruben, a meek literary critic who woos the chilly Ellinor with his apparent kindness only to turn into something else during a brutal sex scene that verges on becoming a rape. Unusually though, she begins a courtship with him, even after she finds out about his blind psychic wife Mildred. She finds the manuscript belonging to Max Lamas, a writer Ruben is obsessed with and written extensively on and as a sort of petty revenge, she burns the manuscript, of which there is only one copy of, in the fireplace (not the worst thing that happens to it). We then meet Max himself, a character straight out of a Houellbecq novel: smart enough to justify his overactive libido as something more profound, such as his search for the book’s namesake, which he thinks he finds in a put upon receptionist whose boss feels like the funhouse mirror image of Max. The third section focuses on Lucrezia, whose noble family is slowly crumbling and whom Max finds callous inspiration in. Despite a really cool ending section, told epistolary style, the sections do not fit that well together, but on their own they are still a lightning rod, a brutal takedown of elitism, a certain kind of chauvinism and the lies we tell ourselves when we knowingly pursue wrong. 
Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Review: "The Topeka School" by Ben Lerner

Don’t listen to most reviews of Ben Lerner’s third novel The Topeka School. They will most likely describe it as it pertains to its political merits and make it something it is clearly not. This last-minute addition to my reading year of 2019 had me worried before I even opened it, even though I really enjoyed Lerner’s previous two novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04. It seemed from a distance like the kind of book I have been trying to avoid since you know what happened at the end of 2016, but thankfully it is much more than that. It is by far Lerner’s weakest outing especially from a stylistic standpoint, but I found this book’s approach to its subject matter (multi-faceted and almost politically ambiguous to an aggravating degree) to be refreshing, although I might not suspect that was the intent Lerner had in mind when he wrote it. Taking place at the tail end of the 20th century a time not as simple as we’d like to believe in 2019, we find Adam, the star debater on a Topeka, Kansas high school debate team, at an odd point in his life as he tries to navigate the masculine roles thrust upon him in his proximal male hierarchy. This is complicated as we learn about the past of his mother Jane, a famous feminist author on the hitlist of the nearby Westboro Baptist Church and his father Jonathan, a psychiatrist with long list of infidelities but with a special knack for getting young boys to open up, one of which is Darren, the loner at Adam’s school whom he has brought into his group of friends. It’s many shifts in time period bring about the book’s most memorable scenes, such as an incident Adam had as a toddler with chewing gum, but they create a dense fog over the proceedings of the book, and by its confusing end, I was still left wanting for more concrete resolutions or enough intrigue to nullify them. A book more interesting than it is actually good. 
Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Review: "King of Joy" by Richard Chiem

It is a strange feeling when a book feels both too long and too short, but Richard Chiem’s first official novel, King of Joy, feel exactly like that. With a hypnotic and strange beginning, a thoroughly dull middle and a captivating end, this physically short (at 174 pages) novel never really gains its feet and becomes something more than an off-kilter writing experiment, but there is enough here for a profoundly moving portrait of the whirlpool of grief one can find themselves in after the sudden death of someone close to them. Chiem’s prose feels like it is swimming at times: through events, conversations and even dreams and it’s never quite clear what is what. I can see some people finding this an aggravating part of the book, but I found it quite mesmerizing and not nearly the book’s biggest problem. The book opens with Corvus; the main character in the throes of what we later learn is a deep, deep depression. She is working for Tim, a creepy pornographer with a strange approach to his craft (evidenced by a disturbing scene where he filmed his mom’s death). After a confrontation, she and Amber escape his grasp and find themselves guest at a mansion filled with zoo animals reclaimed from Pablo Escobar’s estate. It is only after a startling reveal that we learn what broke Corvus. She fell in love with a playwright named Perry and something happened to take that away. This and other parts of the book could be argued to be presented as pure fantasy, as Corvus has a habit of disappearing into cinematic delusion. It both works, in the context of Perry not being real as well as the book’s great ending (although it is too quick), but it overstays its welcome and becomes tired and repetitive very quickly. Still, I don’t think you’ll find another book like this in 2019.
Rating: 5/5