Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Review: "The Shape of the Ruins" by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

Even after finishing it almost six years ago, the power of Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s breakthrough novel The Sound of Things Falling is still eerily present to me. Reading like Bolano by way of Auster, it plums the dark heart of a country that has always seemed to been in some kind of turmoil, always on the verge of an upheaval that threatens to uproot the nation and its values and swallow its citizens whole. It is a terrifying prospect and in the hands of Vasquez (and his brilliant translator Anne McLean) the terrible reality is laid bare at our feet with eloquence and grandeur. Even though his two novels before, The Informers and The Secret History of Costaguana and one after, the slim Reputations failed to live up to his breakthrough’s lofty expectations (his short story collection, Lover’s on All Saints’ Day came close), he remains one of my favorite international writers. His most recent translation, The Shape of the Ruins, was a welcome surprise early in 2019, and while I’m hesitant to say it is better than The Sound of Things Falling, it comes pretty close. At his 509 pages, it is his longest to date and with its length it feels like a bit of a summation of certain themes Vasquez has wrestled with throughout his books, such as the unbearable weight history exudes on its victims, the helplessness in the face of a brutal, sometimes omnipresent oppressive power and the hidden mechanisms behind history’s more violent episodes. At the center of the novel is a fictionalized (maybe) version of Vasquez himself, a device I usually find irritating, but here, his presence is never cloying and adds to the creeping dread of the story. It begins with news story of a seemingly innocuous crime; a man has broken into a museum and used a pair of brass knuckles to break the display of a suit that was worn by famous Columbian politician Jorge Eliecer Gaitan when he was assassinated. But the man is Carlos Carbello, and how Vasquez knows the man is at the book’s dark heart. Vasquez first met him at a party thrown by one of his doctor friends in the midst of dealing with his twin daughter’s premature birth, a meeting that ends with Vasquez breaking Carlos’s nose. But somehow, over the next ten years, through a strange set of coincidences involving a historical artifact related to the assassination of Gaitan, a late night conspiracy radio show and the tragic details of Carlo’s own life, Vasquez finds himself entranced by the unwritten, hidden details of two Columbian assassinations in the 20th century. The details of the second assassination, that of General Uribe in 1914 takes up a bulk of the book’s tail end, and it is easy to find parallels between the young Azula, whose doomed quest to uncover the truth of the General assassination and that of Carlos, whose connection to the assassination of Gaitain in 1948 seemingly dooms him to be obsessed with it. Like the crimes at its center, the book has no real resolution, leaving the reader intrigued and disquieted by mystery’s destined to never be solved and those destined to search for impossible answers. 

Rating: 5/5

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Review: "Berlin Alexanderplatz" by Alfred Doblin

My reading goal for 2019 is still a bit vague, but I knew for sure that the first book I was going to read was Alfred Doblin’s modernist classic, Berlin Alexanderplatz. With this brand new translation being put out last year and after the poorly received first one back in 1931 and the series based on the novel directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder being re-released on Criterion, this seemed like the right time to check it out. It is not an easy read: it tells its story indirectly, using multiple viewpoints in the form of character’s deities and even disembodied voices, characterized by a playful yet cynical narrator who pops in every now in then and at some points, disregards Franz’s story entirely to show Berlin’s gay underworld, or a virtuoso extended sequence in a slaughterhouse. It comes off as a book that demands to be read twice, filled with puzzles told in it sown distinct language and syntax, but even reading it once is enough to feel the full force of it’s brutal power. At the center of the story is the hulking and malleable Franz Biberkopf who is being released from prison for the accidental killing of his girlfriend and finds life on the outside in Weimar-era Germany wearing on his sanity. One interaction with a pair of Jews that provide a bit of solace and a lot of tall tales provides a good example of this book’s scattered, energized structure (as well as historical context not yet fully realized at the time of this book’s publication in 1929). The theme of the book is Franz’s attempts to lead a good life despite always being screwed over by those he trusts. It isn’t until the disturbingly rendered Reinhold enters Franz’s life that the true horror begins: first he loses a limb and then he loses much more. The last 100 pages of this book is a it’s true dark heart, where the lines between Franz’s reality and imagination bleed away, his past, present and doubtful future co-mingle and Doblin’s cinematic, snapshot approach to the story reaches it’s apex. Terrifying yet profound, this book that can now be easily read and admired in the U. S. 
Rating: 4/5

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Top Ten Movies of 2018

As with books, movies made up a big part of my 2018 and I was able to see at least five a month between January and December. Here are my 10 favorites. But first a few honorable mentions: 

*Loveless, dir. Andrey ZvyagintsevA movie technically released in 2017, but not seen by me until this year, this bleak Russian tale is an unsparing look at a crumbling marriage in crumbling society, and the innocent kid in the eye of the storm. 
*Searching, dir. Aneesh Chaganty: A taut thriller that not only makes its gimmick work but uses it to its advantage to show a tense few days in the life of a grieving father, this was one of 2018’s unexpected hidden gems
*Avengers: Infinity War, dir. Russo Brothers: While too soon to say this was a panacea for super hero fatigue, this character piece disguised as an ensemble juggernaut renewed a sorely lacking sense of urgency in these movies and made me excited for its culmination next year 

10. Burning, dir. Lee Chang-dong: A daunting work at 150 deliberate minutes, this South Korean film based on a Murakami story is a haunting, elegiac experience centered on loss of control, dreams deferred and the creeping horror that can overtake our lives at any moment, embodied by a creepy Steven Yeun. Despite its pacing I found myself riveted. 
9. The Old Man and the Gun, dir. David Lowery: The director of last year’s best movie offers up something different but no less enjoyable with this lighthearted, easy going tale of an aging bank robber. And much like last year’s Lucky, the sense of melancholic acceptance in what is supposedly Redford’s final performance packs a serious punch. 
8. Eighth Grade, dir. Bo Burnham: While it would be easy to shoehorn a boatload of social commentary into this movie about one shy girl’s last few days of junior high, Burnham does not do that and instead crafts a painfully relatable movie filled with awkward encounters, parental miscommunications and brushes with very adult themes. Very funny, with a central performance by Elsie Fisher being one of the best of the year. 
7. Revenge, dir. Coralie Fargeat: A much needed fresh take on a subgenre that has offered very few “good” movies, this story of one woman’s journey from victim to hero expertly subverts expectations, from its violent switch halfway through, to its final fight and to its overall hopeful tone. That, along with the two central performances of Matilda Lutz and Kevin Janssens, this movie brings some much needed talent and skill to the rape revenge subgenre. 
6. Mandy, dir. Panos Cosmatos: Nicolas Cage is full of surprises. For every DTV schlock fest you get something like this that plays right into crazed hands, offering up a schizoid journey of revenge filled with purple hazed acid trips, deformed biker gangs and a chainsaw fight. It helps that its direction is impeccable and has what is easily the best movie score of 2018. A lot of people did not like its slow first half, but I found it effortlessly eased the viewer into its warped world. 
5. You Were Never Really Here, dir. Lynne Ramsey: This, along with We Need to Talk About Kevin, firmly establishes Ramsey as one of world cinema’s foremost auteur directors. This story of one broken man’s journey to save a victimized young girl presents startling visuals and a strange nonlinear structure that makes everything that happen feel like a nightmare composed of a troubled past and an uncertain future. And Joaquin Phoenix gives his best performance and one of the two best of the year. 
4. First Reformed, dir. Paul Schrader: Speaking of that other best performance of 2018, it is here, with Ethan Hawke’s troubled and helpless priest whose mortality and loss of faith have crippled him emotionally and spiritually. The film as a whole feels like an artifact from a half century ago, echoing the films of Bresson and Bergman as well as Schrader’s own filmography, and has the air of a late masterpiece from one of cinema’s forgotten giants. 
3. Blindspotting, dir. Carlos Lopez Estrada: In a year where many similar themed movies were released and praised, this one easily stood out the most. It has an energy I felt others like it lacked, as well as an overall upbeat tone that many movies that share similar subject matter rarely have the courage have. In its seamless mixture of heavy themes coexisting with some of the funniest scenes of the year reminded me of Do the Right Thing. High praise, sure, but this movie really earned it. And Rafael Casal gives the best supporting male performance as the volatile Miles, whose quick wit and aggressive demeanor has faint echoes of Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas. 
2. Suspiria, dir. Luca Guadagnino: A remake of Suspira had no business being even remotely good, let alone great, but this reimagining of a horror classic just might be the best horror remake since John Carpenter’s The Thing. Using the story from the original as a jumping off point, this extended fever dream is filled with historical allusions, a trio of immersive performances by Tilda Swinton and set piece after set piece of violent, grotesque beauty. It leaves a haunting, profound mark, something I never thought I would say about a horror remake. 
1. Hereditary, dir. Ari Aster: These past few years have brought a minimum of one horror movie a year that promises to change the game. Some are better than others, but this one is undeniably the real deal, the kind of horror film filled with original, iconic moments that I predict will stand the test of time. With its pitch perfect direction, a quartet of frenzied performances headlined by the great Toni Collette and bloodcurdling visuals and events underscored by a perverse sense of humor (something I only noticed on a second viewing), this movie makes a case that the great American horror films should be viewed as simply great American films. Hereditary surely is one. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Top Ten Books of 2018

Top Ten Books of 2018 Another year is almost done, and with that comes my annual compiling of the movies and books I’ve seen in the past 52 weeks into a concise and tidy list. Since I met my 1,001 goal this year I scaled back what I read, reading only 50 this year instead of the usual 100 +, so I scaled down my list too, with only one consisting of 10. Here they are:

 10. I Hear Your Voice by Young Ha-Kim: This crazed, energetic look at youth on the fringes of modern South Korea has qualities that echo talents as various as Auster, Ryu Murakami and Bret Easton Ellis. It can be gross, heartbreaking, but wholly unforgettable, and easily found its way onto my top ten lost.
 9. King Zeno by Nathanial Rich: The first book after I read after meeting my goal (and the first new book of 2018 I read) is a brilliant, alternate history period peace that tackles police violence, racism and the birth of the modern world with intrigue and ambition. Like the music at its heart, it whips you into a frenzied state and never lets you go until it wants to.
 8. A Shout in the Ruins by Kevin Powers: After being blown away by The Yellow Birds, I did not think Kevin Powers would publish his second novel so soon: that tiny book felt like a summation. I was wrong and I am glad, because his sophomore effort, while covering very different ground is no less enthralling or affecting. It is a complex yet inviting tale of the long claws of our brutal history.
 7. Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine by Kevin Wilson: The best short story collection of the year and one of 2018’s biggest surprises. What Wilson lacks in the long form he makes up for in fragments, with many in this collection, like the innovative “Wildfire Johnny” and the quietly devastating title story being mini masterpieces of what is quickly becoming my favorite storytelling art form
6. The Labyrinth of Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafon: This massive 800 page book was 2018’s purest delight: an enveloping, exciting and sometimes scary story that kept me on my toes to its last page. It’s a rollicking page turner, but also a heartfelt love letter to reading, love and the power of the human mind.
 5. McTeague by Frank Norris: One of my promises I made to myself once I reached my goal earlier this year was to read more books published by authors born pre-1900, and of the two I read, this one stuck with me the most. For a book 120 years old it feels rather fresh and immediate and no less disturbing than it was when it was first published, with reprehensible characters, an intriguing plot line and a famously downbeat ending
4. Encircling 2: Origins by Carl Frode Tiller: With this second installment of a not yet translated trilogy, Tiller wrote what is easily my favorite international book series. Like the first one, the story focuses on the unseen David as three more people enter the picture to give their opinion of David, whether it is true or not. Interesting and thought-provoking with a keen twist at the very end, I am eagerly awaiting the third and final book.
 3. There There by Tommy Orange: A debut novel that not only announces a stunning new literary voice but a book that attempts to rewrite our preconceived notions about a certain type of writing. Orange’s novel offers a new kind of Native American experience through his use of multiple narrators: one informed by folklore and marginalization and in a tug of war between tradition and modernity, climaxing powerfully ambiguous climax.
 2. Throat Sprockets by Tim Lucas: One of the strangest books I have read is also one of the most pure horror stories I’ve encountered. Anybody with a strange obsession that unwilling separates themselves from acceptable society, whether that is pop culture or something much more private will find their reflection in this strangely hypnotic and undeniably erotic tale of when said obsession comes to light.
 1. Some Hell by Patrick Nathan: The most self-assured debut of 2018. We have had a handful of gay-themed books come out in the past few years, but none, I think, possess this book’s immense power to disturb and move on the same level as Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin. With weighty yet savory prose, a few disquieting scenes and an impending sense of doom made painfully real in the book’s perfect ending, this was easily my favorite time reading in 2018.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Review: "Lake Success" by Gary Shteyngart

American author Gary Shteyngart is someone who rarely made a blip on my radar, a kind of lesser well-known writer in the vain of a Michael Chabon or Jonathan Lethem and his second novel, Absurdistan, the only book of his I have read has easily slipped from my memory since I read at the tail end of 2010. And now, 8 years later, his fourth novel Lake Success offered in little in the way of expectation for me, but after finishing, it left me surprised, entertained and unexpectedly moved in some scenes. It’s imperfections are glaring and impossible to ignore or talk about, so while as a whole it peters out, fizzles and comes back to life in rapid successions, it’s high points, little scenes that try and mostly succeed to offer a fictionalized account of our country’s current moment, the book has the potential to be mesmerizing. At the center of this novel is Barry Cohen, a self-involved egomaniac who manages nearly a billion dollars worth of hedge funds. With his failing marriage to his much younger wife Seema, the recent autism diagnosis in his son Shiva and the threat of being indicted after a few shady financial dealing, Barry is on the verge of a total meltdown, which boils over after knock down drag out fight with Seema, where Barry, along with his collection of priceless watches, hits the road by bus to reconnect with his college sweetheart. I was afraid early on Shteyngart was going to make Barry easy to hate, but thankfully he doesn’t. His bubble of wealth taints his inner monologues, which come out hopelessly sappy, misguided and foolish, but we never forget that he means well and that his pain is valid, like his flashbacks to his home and school life and one particularly great chapter where Barry reconnects with a fried employee. As I said, the chunks where it doesn’t work tend to be laughable, like the book’s longest chapter that ends in a ridiculous and tawdry manner that reads like a character betrayal and needless rock bottom for an already battered Barry. But the book redeems itself with a beautiful ending, where Barry finally learns something useful. This is a funny, sometimes heartbreaking novel about finding hope in troubled times. 
Rating: 4/5

Friday, December 14, 2018

Review: "Impossible Owls" by Brian Phillips

Impossible Owls, the first book by American essayist Brian Phillips is a wonderfully strange and brutally brilliant book that tries and mostly succeeds in filtering our modern American consciousness down to it’s finest and purest distillation. I knew little about Phillips before I picked this book up, but FSG Originals has a pretty good track record, more so with its nonfiction than with its fiction, and with this book, it does not disappoint. Covering a wide variety of topics and subject matters, from people to places, contained within these playful and heavily researched essays is a snapshot of desires, hopes and despairs that are familiar and somewhat alien, painfully honest and finally, transformative. Much like I would do with any short story collection I read and review, I will be picking out my favorite pieces from this collection, and while I like some more than others, there was not a weak link in this book, which is a good because all of these range in length from 30 to over 60 pages. It’s starts off amazingly with “Out in the Great Alone” where Phillips flies to Alaska to cover the 2013 Iditarod Dog Sled Race. When Alaska comes to mind, I, like most people, think of the stories of Jack London and how cut off the state is from the what is seemingly the rest of civilization (Phillips talks about it’s paltry population density, which plays right into our preconceived notions), but in following the “mushers” by plane with his guide and two eccentric Frenchman, he expounds on the importance of the race to a nearly abandoned village, what mushers hallucinate while on the trail and the types of people who end up winning. Throughout this and other essays in this collection, like “Sea of Crises”, which links sumo wrestling with the suicide of Yukio Mishima and “The Little Gray Wolf Will Come” about Russian animator Yuri Norstein, whose volatile career is defined by an unfinished cartoon based on Gogol’s “The Overcoat”, I was reminded of the nonfiction (and fiction) films of Werner Herzog, who is mostly interested in people with odd obsessions who go beyond what is humanly possible to excel at something very few people are even familiar with, let alone are good at. Phillips also attempts in roundabout way to pontificate on our current time, with both “Lost Highway” about Route 66 and the Roswell incident and “Man-Eaters” about his trip to India to visit a tiger preserve having references to Trump’s election (thankfully, these feelings don’t override the narrative of each essay). But where Phillips really shines for me is in his personal recollections, like “In the Dark: Science Fiction and Small Towns”, where a trip to see Wraith of the Titans, his love affair with Star Trek Enterprise and his troubled love of The X-Files are ways, both cynical and optimistic, to reflect on who technology has changed all of us and “But Not Like Your Typical Love Story” the star of the collection, where the Phillips recounts the life of his childhood home’s most famous resident and connects it with his own mixed feelings about living there, and living in general. These are pitch perfect essays, both fascinating and full of life, wit and tons of heart. 
Rating: 5/5

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Review: "Foe" by Iain Reid

Even more than a year after reading it, Iain Reid’s first novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things still haunts me. It’s quiet power, and it’s subtle dread are like guideposts to my most worried and fevered nightmares that both scare me and draw me in and make me look a little more deeply at my personal fears. And with his second novel Foe, Reid seems to be at the helm of this new kind of horror, one not built on monsters in closets or maniacs with sharp objects and instead built around some of our most fundamental and terrifying questions like: what is my place in the world? What am I to those around me, to the ones that I love? And most of all: is life and everything in it worth anything more than what we prescribe to it. These are questions I think all of us ask ourselves when we are alone in the middle of night and they are questions we really do not have any answers for, at least ones that are intrinsic. And Reid confronts these questions in weirdly wonderful ways that are both scary but also undeniably heartfelt. This second novel is a change of pace from his last one with a more tangible plot and it’s events a little less shrouded in ambiguity, but still cloaked in a web of terrifying mystery. It focuses on a couple, Junior and Henrietta, a couple in the near future who live an isolated life on a farm. One night, they are visited by mysterious man named Terrance, who says he works for a company that is exploring the possibilities of space travel. He says that Junior has been selected from a lottery he was not made aware of to be shipped into space and stay there for years at a time. But in his place, Terrance says, will be a replicant of Junior, whom Terrance promise will be exactly like him. The majority of the novel deals with the implications of such circumstances. Henrietta becomes distant and morose, a state heightened once Terrance comes to live with the couple once Junior has been selected. Terrance is the closest thing this book has to a boogeyman. His motives are never made clear. He is oddly polite but bureaucratic in his duty to his company, and every word he speaks makes your skin crawl. Reid’s dialogue is effortless and real, making us care for the strange plight of these two individuals and giving the weight of what is going on a horrifying absoluteness. Reading through this, this felt more like a speculative fiction story than a horror story like Reid’s first novel, and that is a good thing. Instead of thinking of Ramsey Campbell I was thinking of the late Harlan Ellison and stories like “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” where realty is skewed in brutal yet unnoticeable ways. It’s ending is not as impactful as his first, but the lingering sense of unease it will illicit out of some after reading the last few pages is one they, and certainly I, won’t forget so soon. 
Rating: 5/5