Friday, January 27, 2012

Review: "American Tabloid" by James Ellroy

This is my first foray into the seedy, gross, and morally aberrant world that James Ellroy presents in his novels, and, despite a few road bumps on the way, I will definitely be taking that journey again someday. Ellroy is an interesting figure in the world of modern writing. He is a much more complex and sophisticated version of the average hard-boiled detective fiction, but he manages, in interviews and such, to be down right bat shit crazy, which I honestly think is an act he puts on for the camera. He writes like a wounded wolf, determined to tell his brutal side of the story before he succumbs to the injuries this world perpetrates on him. But there is a great beauty to his prose, which fires off from the page like a tommy gun. It has rhythmic jazz-like quality to it that fills his stories of pimps, trannies, murderers, rapist and other kinds of degenerate monsters with a kind of angelic quality that elevates his stories to mythic proportions. I wanted to start with American Tabloid because of it being Time Magazine’s best fiction book of 1995, and the premise interested me: three guys, Ward, an underdog lawyer wanting to do right, Kemper, a suave slimy FBI employee, and Pete, a brutal hit man/bodyguard for Howard Hughes, as Ellroy uses them to rewrite history from ’58 to ’63 in his unique way. But I found it easy to get lost in historical data that had me chasing the plot and losing it many times, although it is interesting to see figures like JFK, J Edgar Hoover, and especially Howard Hughes in such a negative like. And that is where this book shines and made me want to finish it. The people Ellroy walks out onto his stage are so interesting, finely drawn, and sometimes too morally repellant not to want to follow them through five hundred pages and two longer books. Despite the hefty focus on historical data, American Tabloid is worth the time spent in Ellroy’s underworld of American history.
Rating: 4/5

Friday, January 20, 2012

Review: "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" by Karen Russell

Despite this not being as good as Swamplandia!,  it still is a great collection that showcases Russell’s fierce originality and vision, and in no way makes me think any less of this enormously talented writer. I take this book as being kind of an experiment in combing George Saunders’ wackiness with the kind of fantasy stories girls would read when they are children. They take fairy tale ideals, put them in a familiar setting, and throws very real and threatening adult dangers at its off the wall inhabitants. I think that is also why it kind of fell flat for me in some cases. It relies to heavily on its offbeat nature, and it is easy for someone who is not used to reading fantasy to lose details in reading, and even lose interest in the midst of one of the stories. All the stories have long titles, as if they are the names of attractions in a gimmicky and cheap amusement park. A few of my favorites include “Z. Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers” which has twins who share the same sleep problems in a camp investigating g the murder of a pet in a camp with many “disordered dreamer” such as bed-wetters, self mutilators, and those who think a demon is raping them. My favorite would have to be “The Star Gazer’s Log of Summer-Time Crime” which has a geeky kid falling into the wrong crowd, who plan on stealing turtle eggs. It has a weak ending, but is the closets out of all of these stories to connecting emotionally with the reader on a level of reality. That was the main problem with these stories; they lack emotional impact and try to make up for it in wacky creatures and magical realities. Luckily, Russell solved this with her brilliant first novel, and this is a must for fans of an extremely talented new writer.
Rating: 4/5

Review: "2666" by Roberto Bolano

This is the reason I don’t like reading dead authors that much. The amount of books published by them that you are able to get your hands, while may be great, is always going to be limited. The argument can be made that what we have is great enough, but I may be a little greedy in wanting more. Having said that, it is a shame that 2666 and another big novel, The Savage Detectives, are the only two major works by the great Roberto Bolano that we have on Earth. I really loved this book, for its readable, yet exhausting qualities, and the way it crafts an almost living nightmare out of the squalor of the border city Santa Teresa. This is by no means a brisk read that goes by quickly. It is probably the most arduous read I have undertaken since I started seriously reading. It really is a book meant for breaks and vacations. Reading it when you have things to do is a big mistake. It starts to swallow you whole in a way, and you start thinking about it at odd hours, the book itself haunting your everyday activities like the guilt of a crime. And it is absolutely brilliant, despite its excessive nature. The meandering plot involves two seemingly separate ideas: one focuses on the reclusive German writer Benno von Archimboldi, who no one has seen in years and is a sort of fetish object for the literary elite, the other one concerns the almost preposterous number of female homicides in Santa Teresa. We see these two ideas threaded through three different stories that involve three academics searching for the writer in said border town, a philosophy professor slowly going insane with paranoia in the same town, and a black journalist covering a boxing match in the same town who gets involved with the crimes investigation. It isn’t until the last two, very long parts do we go almost too in depth to the main two ideas of the novel, and when we find out how each one is related, the reader will be in awe of Bolano’s mastery of extraneous details and the way he hides important facts in seemingly useless narrative tidbits. From what I can gather from reading it, I see a couple of themes Bolano might have been writing about. Santa Teresa is a city that is being destroyed from within, like a cancer no one seems to care enough to find it and cut it out. The town itself reminded me a lot of Derry, Maine, the town Stephen King’s It takes place in. Santa Teresa might as well have a killer clown committing these horrific crimes; it makes more sense then the reality. I also say themes of the uselessness of academic elitism, and how it really has no affect on the person’s goodness or character, and a smart English professor can be just as cowardly as any individual. But really, a lot of this books magic comes from its inherent mystery and puzzle like structure that confuses and entices the reader all at once. It might seem appropriate for Bolano to die prematurely, because he may have left us the books biggest mystery. The book can’t really be put into words, just read it, in all its maddening glory.
Rating: 5/5

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Review: "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" by Jonathan Safran Foer

Simply put, this is one of the worst books I have ever read, which is a list that includes five books, including this one. I don’t want this to be a forum of negativity, and reading a really bad book for me is very rare, but this one is truly awful. It is just the right mixture of pretentious, thinly veiled self-service and syntax over talent to make it very unpleasant. I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy this book very much, and read it simply to get it out of the way so I can be qualified to criticize Foer, but I had no idea it was going to be like this. The story concerns Oskar (a representation of Foer himself that is so flimsy, he might as well have named him after himself to save me from typing this) as he searches for the lock to the key he found in his dad’s things, who died in 9/11. Wackiness ensues, along with many pictures, silly topography (it makes the reading go by quicker) and some of the worst dives into arrogant self-appraisal you will come across. Nothing here rings true. We are supposed to believe that Oskar is smart enough to have read A Brief History of Time, but not know what a blowjob is? It forced quirks like this that try to force the reader to put Oskar, and Foer himself, up on a pedestal of purity. It makes for an annoying, and sometime loathsome read that was quick, but not quick enough. I think Foer’s success lies in his ability to make certain arrogant literary types treat their social problems, such as narcissism and just plain old douchebaggery as a quirk, instead of the personality problems they are. He is easily the most overrated writer alive today. I hate being so negative, but this was really that bad, and in no way could I recommend this book.
Rating: 1/5