Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Review: "The Free World" by David Bezmozgis

The Free World by David Bezmozgis (who looks a lot like Rick Grimes on The Walking Dead) is a book I am kind of in the middle ground on as it pertains to its quality. The story is not very original and sadly weak in areas, which is disappointing because of how much I was looking forward to reading this book, which seemed to be full of high literary adventure that is full of fun and escapism like a good Chabon or Lethem novel is. But, just like The Amazing Adventures of Kaveiler and Clay (which I do not think is Chabon’s bets work, I would go with Wonder Boys), the characters are so richly drawn out on the page, that you can forget this books flaws for fleeting, brief moments. I would not be surprised if this won a major literary award, nor would I be mad. I can clearly see why this can blow people away, even if I’m not. Its story is a very old one; concerning Soviet Jews who are fleeing Russia must live in Rome to await their secure visas so they can move to America. Alas, things change, people are hurt and truths come out. The characters are what Bezmozgis succeeds at. We have Samuil, the torn patriarch who must leave the country he has lost so much for along with his wife Emma. His eldest son Karl, a volatile personality who is not above taking immoral advantage of his émigré status to get what he wants. Finally, Samuil’s youngest son Alec, a vicious womanizer, must contend with his new wife Polina, whom he married way too quickly back in Russia. This is the most interesting aspect of the novel. It reminds me of Malamud’s short stories, where no matter how cruel the things these two do, especially in the instance of Polina’s ex Maxim, they are treated not as bad, but flawed by their own human frailty. These two are what make the story. The narrative lags, and I only catch glimpses of scenes in which something exciting is going on, but what will make or break this book for you are the characters in it, who shine quite brightly.
Rating: 4/5

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Review: "We Disappear" by Scott Heim

First off, Mysterious Skin may be one of my top ten favorite books. Maybe I read it at the right time or that it was simply me liking that particular kind of book when I read it, I just remember really enjoying my time within its pages, which is very memorable. I am straight, but a lot of the impact and beauty of that book was not lost on me, and felt very moved when I finished. There is a good chance I would hate it if I had read it during my present stage in life, but going by when I read it and I have to be thankful for that time in my life, even if I regret the way I thought and read. But reading We Disappear now at age 23, having read tons of good books since the time when I read it at 18, I am more aware of my progressing maturity. I came into this book wanting to love it, but came out only liking which, which is an even bigger since Scott Heim wrote one of my favorite books. It tells the story of Scott (no points for originality) who works at a publishing house writing kids books. He is also a serious meth addict. One day his mom calls, who is suffering from cancer. Scott remembers her as very eccentric, obsessed with missing kids and needing to find them, which might stem from a mysterious abduction in her childhood. Scott leaves work in New York and goes to Kansas to help her out. There he is confronted by her worsening condition, and the discovery of a young man locked in her basement. It gets pretty weird, and we are left wondering if this is real, or a combination of Scott’s withdrawal and grief over his dying mother. It almost gets too weird, losing me in places and searching for definitive answers. But Heim is good at creating a thick, humane sadness that always offers a chance at redemption, even in horrible circumstances. Not perfect, but with small pockets of beauty that makes it a good read.
Rating: 4/5

Friday, November 25, 2011

Review: "Lost City Radio" by Daniel Alarcon

Daniel Alarcon’s Lost City Radio, is just another entry into the long canon of anti-wart novels, which doesn’t make it a terrible book, but does keep it from being something that makes it stand out from that rather long list of books that show the evil that arises from violent wars and apathetic governments. Alarcon’s story in the 20 Under 40 collection actually impressed me quite a bit. It was light on politics and clichéd anecdotes of the immigrant experience in America, and provided an original and funny story about cultures clashing. While not a big highlight of the book, it did put me on notice to Alarcon’s talents. I looked forward to reading his first novel, and it had a lot of promise, but fell flat in its potential to tell its original story with the frantic action I expected it to contain. The novel is about a DJ in an unnamed country recovering from a civil war. Her radio program, Lost City Radio, helps people find loved ones who have been swallowed up by a corrupt government and a cavernous city. One day, a boy named Victor coming from a village located deep in the jungle, brings a list of names of those in the village that have been lost. She sees her husband’s name Rey, on the list. He was a dissenter who went missing ten years ago; leaving Norma left searching for clues to his whereabouts. The problem is that the book takes too many detours to describe the life of Rey, who is not nearly as fascinating as the people around him. Maybe he is supposed to Alarcon’s embodiment of himself, and I can chock it up to being a fist novel. This is definitely not a perfect novel, but if you check it out, you may like it more than I did.
Rating: 4/5

Review: "The Cider House Rules" by John Irving

Can John Irving write a bad book? I don’t think he can. He is one of the few storytellers alive who I think was born to simply tell stories, and not be hyperbolic, I think he probably does it better than anyone else. I look at what he publishes, and they seem to go over well with critics and fans alike. It is the simplicity in his narratives that allow anyone who can read to enjoy his books, and more importantly appreciate them. Despite his overwhelming popularity, which scholars seem to loathe, he may be one of the best living writers we have, and The Cider House Rules is a winner on all accounts. This is a very meaty novel, more so than The World According to Garp, which I read last year and loved immensely. It is very much like a 19th century Dickens novel, rich in everything that makes a book good, which makes reading it a difficult, yet fun and rewarding task. It is also his most broadly topical, focusing on major issues such as abortion, racism, and inter-racial relationship, as well as the themes of parenthood, anger and dishonesty Irving so gracefully writes about in his books. The main action takes place between the locations of St. Cloud’s Orphanage and Ocean View Apple Orchard, both located in Maine. At St. Cloud’s, the childless, unmarried Dr. Wilbur Larch, delivers orphans from women who do cannot keep their babies. He also performs illegal, yet safe abortions as well, as long as the women know what they are doing. He sees both as The Lord’s Work, and is seen by us as a reluctant hero, willing to buck the law in order to provide a much needed service. One of the orphans, Homer Wells, who never found a foster home that lasted, is being trained to replace Dr. Larch when he is to old to perform his duties. The only problem is that Homer refuses to do abortions, finding them immoral and against his views on the soul. Despite his stubbornness, he is also a sympathetic character, and his misgivings about abortions are valid and noble. Into this conflict come Wally and Candy, a young couple who come to St. Cloud’s for an abortion. Taken by the couple, Homer agrees to work at Wally’s Family’s vast Orchard, Ocean View. Homer jumps at the chance to escape the confines of St. Clouds, but Dr. Larch is concerned that he is not making the right decision, and is worried about the fate of St. Cloud’s as he is aging. This is the set up that drives most of the novel’s action, which includes WWII a vengeful orphan out to get Homer’s love, and Larch’s battle to keep his illegal activities from costing him his job. Like most Irving books, he can make you laugh at tragedy, and cry even harder at the mistakes these fully formed characters make. Every moment of this book shines with beauty and discovery, and makes the small towns they take place in as big and as open as a great plain. Irving is simply a master, and this book is awesome.
Rating: 5/5

Review: "More of This World or Maybe Another" by Barb Johnson

Barb Johnson’s debut collection More of This World or Maybe Another is the kind of collection that acts as apprentice work for a writer. It gets the person’s name out into the public, if you like it, fantastic, but it is nothing more than a sign of bigger things to come from a fresh face with great potential. The name Barb Johnson meant nothing to me a few months back when I was seeking out a new collection of short stories, and had picked this up and read the author blurbs from Donald Ray Pollock (who, if you read my reviews, knows a thing or two about the landscape of rural America) and Robert Olen Butler, who won the Pulitzer for his story collection A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain. With those two thoughtful recommendations, I bought this book, and while it does suffer from plainness and lack of narrative drive I found the story collections I have read this year one story at a time, I am glad Barb Johnson’s name and work is now a part of my memory, for when she really arrives with the great book I know she can write. I wouldn’t describe her fiction as country noir like Pollock, but she uses that same setting to tell a story with more pathos and melancholic nostalgia than violence and aggression. I was very impressed with the first story, which is the title story. It takes place during senior prom in a Louisiana high school during one girls discovery of her love for her female best friend, that reminded me of The Virgin Suicides, even with the bayou setting. These are linked stories, which I thought was the books major problem, it did so well describing high school and youthful hope, that I did not care about the lives these people would end up leading. It made the stories kind of small-minded in its focus on these four people, when I thought the school could be a great character in itself. Not a perfect book, but Barb Johnson is someone to be watched.
Rating: 4/5