Friday, February 24, 2012

Review: "Wild Thing" by Josh Bazell

After a rough few days this week, it was very nice to once again enter the violent, inquisitive, yet absurdly madcap world of Dr. Peter Brown a.k.a. Pietro Brwna, former hit man turned doctor, as he runs from those who betrayed him, kicking ass (and describing the science of it as he cracks bones and rips flesh) all the while. It is absurd how fun Beat the Reaper, and this new book, wild Thing, are to read. Some may call them fluff or poorly written, but they probably can’t imagine the idea of actually having fun reading a book. While they suffer sentence by sentence over Henry James and Edith Wharton for the umpteenth millionth time, I am enjoying the simple act of reading alone, which is really what reading is supposed to do, create an insular world for yourself in an increasingly busy society, and no book does that better than this kind of insanely funny, inventive and entertaining novel. When we meet up with Dr. Brown (now Lionel Azimuth), he is working on a cruise ship, pulling teeth and fixing whatever aliment afflicts the ship’s crew (side note: a little disappointed in not getting a follow-up to Dr. Brown’s extremely graphic leg injury that took place at the end of Beat the Reaper. Not going to spoil it, but it was the part of the book that totally sold me). He gets a call from his WITSEC contact, who has a job offer for him. It entails meeting with a reclusive billionaire (shortened to Rec Bill in the novel), who wants him to help out his ultra sexy paleontologist, Violet Hurst, to the woods of Minnesota, where a lake monster might or might not be killing people. It is safe to say violence, sex, and a few notable faces (like a certain governor of Alaska) are bound to show up and ruin Dr. Brown’s day. I really cannot praise this book enough, despite not having nearly as much hand-to-hand combat as Beat the Reaper. Josh Bazell, Columbia MD turned crime writer, truly has an eye for storytelling, as well as how to get a reaction from the readers, whether through an interesting medical or historical tidbits, or simply going for the gut and offing someone, and taking great pleasure in describing the gory details. It is a feast for emotions, and you may find yourself turned back into a little kid at some points, sneaking out late at night to watch an action movie you shouldn’t be. At least that is how I felt Whether you are on vacation, or need something read to escape boredom or a hard day (like I did), this book is the best kind of literary medicine, even if some of these characters need medical help by the last page. When Elmore Leonard passes on into the great beyond (which may be soon, because he is getting pretty old), I think Josh Bazell is worthy and talented enough to fill those big shoes.
Rating: 5/5

Review: "A Feast of Snakes" by Harry Crews

This book astounding me, not in how good it is, but in how audacious it is in its structure. Never have I come across a book like A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews, which is both a compliment and an insult to Crews himself. It is just to weird to be something I whole-heartedly liked, but I got to give it some credit for what it does story-wise. The thing I am talking about lies in the ending, which maybe the best twist I have come across in all my reading. I am not kidding here, but the whole narrative of this novel, which about 177 pages long, is leading up to the last page and a half. It is a feat of literary mastery that had me speechless by the end. The book itself may not be something I loved, but I praise it for the same reason I praise Chris Adrian: you could look high and low for years and not find anything else like this book, despite its flaws. The plot of this slim, yet memorable novel involves the town of Mystic, Georgia, where every year more and more people are coming to the celebrate their annual snake festival. But one resident, Joe Lon, has other plans, plans that come to a head at the aforementioned last couple pages. The absurdity on those pages alone could be another short novel in itself, which is something I must say about this book. It would do much better as a short story, and at 177 pages, it is a little too long. If it were over 200, I would not be being so kind to it. I’d say read it if you can find a copy (I think it may be out of print), but get ready for a long set-up to an insane payoff.
Rating: 4/5

Review: "The Little Friend" by Donna Tartt

This is a pretty big let down for me. I really enjoyed The Secret History last year. I found it compelling without too much melodrama, and in the end, its messaged resonated beyond the elite school setting it fictionalized, and made me connect with it. It elevated the campus novel into an allegory on the dangers of elitism and intellectual arrogance. This book, The Little Friend, is very different, which comes with its own merits and flaws. To be fair, it would be too easy for Tartt go back to the same territory for her follow up tom her almost universal best seller, especially when there is a decade gap between one book and the next. It is truly admirable of Tartt, and showcases not only her inventiveness and willingness to try new things; it shows she is writer who will not be tied down by her bestseller status, and will go where her mind and heart takes her, and not what genre is popular. I have said some nice things, but it only makes me feel even more disappointed than I am in this plain, overlong book. The story concerns one Harriet Dufresnes, a ten-year-old girl, wise beyond her years, searching for her brothers killer twelve years after he was murdered in the small, racially tense town of Alexandria, Mississippi. As she treks across this town with her submissive friend Hely, she encounters dangers she couldn’t imagine as her family is still reeling from the murders. While there is some suspense, and Harriet isn’t too Juno-like annoying, the book is just boring overall, with it being 600 pages, that basically killed it for me. I never thought meth labs and traps made of live snakes could put me to sleep so quickly. It passes in my book, but definitely not by much.
Rating: 3/5

Friday, February 17, 2012

Review: "The Art of Fielding" by Chad Harbach

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach was a real pleasant surprise for me, not being a fan of baseball. It is the reading equivalent of a brisk walk in the perfect kind of weather, it is simple, but is something to be savored. There may be a few spots where things get slow, but I never once felt I would rather being doing something else more useful. It has that kind of magic great longer books have that shorter ones don’t, such as The Secret History by donna Tartt and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. The page length allows the reader to not only see the world in full color, but also live inside it, at least for a brief little while. It is written without a sense of irony or arrogance, and simply tells a story that has many layers about seemingly real people facing problems that all adults have to face. The world in question is the fictional Westish College, a prep school not really known for athletics or anything for that matter, except a brief visit from Herman Melville in the 1800’s. Into this fold come five people: the main character, Henry, is an amazingly good baseball shortstop with a perfect record, who goes to Westish with nothing resembling a life goal, just an overwhelming need to play baseball. There he meets his roommate Owen, who becomes his bookish gay teammate. He also meets the man who will become his mentor Mike, whose selfless acts hide subconscious jealousy. Finally, there is President Affenlight, who was the one who discovered Melville’s visit and became president of Westish after the birth of his daughter Pella, who has come back to Westish to start a new life after a disastrous marriage. All became connected when an accident caused by Henry injures someone. The repercussions of which reverberate in the lives of these five damaged people. Henry loses is confidence, Mike sinks deep into depression, and Owen begins a dangerous affair with Affenlight. All linked together by the game we call our national past time, but all alone in their misery, despite being close to one another. But this is not a depressing read, but quite the life affirming one. It doesn’t really introduce anything new into the baseball or campus literary genre (think a Separate Peace and The Natural, minus the pessimism, and this book would look a lot like that), but it does it so well, you can’t help but feel you are watching a master craftsman rework something we have seen before into a great and incredible work of storytelling that taps into every good emotion you can think of. It is not perfect, but the feelings I had while finishing it and reading it were definitely completely something I could not ignore. I hope Harbach has more up his sleeve in terms of pure, straight forward storytelling without tricks or pyro, cause, to use a horrible cliché, this book really is a homerun.
Rating: 5/5

Friday, February 10, 2012

Review: "The Children's Hospital" by Chris Adrian

The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian may be one of the most surreal books I have read, and rivals 2666 as one of the hardest books I have read. It proves again that Adrian is someone to watch. He doesn’t really follow any trends, and creates these weird tales with a since of child-like imagination one would not expect from someone whose a pediatrician/ divinity student and a world class writer (not too mention that he seems like a humble guy from the few interviews I have seen of him). This mammoth novel will challenge your notions of story and maybe your patience as well. The plot is kind of like a more sophisticated and thoughtful version of Stephen King’s Under the Dome. A hospital is kept afloat when the whole of the earth is flooded underneath seven miles of water. But not to fret, there are four different angels aboard this large vessel, all with different powers, like creating replicators that can turn shoes into anything, and feces into shoes. The main character, Jemma, is a medical student with a tragic past that keeps her from loving anyone, is put in a place of leadership, and onto a dark destiny that may or may not save the world (still not sure). I love some of the weird things but not all. Toward the end two things happen that really grabbed me, one involving another ship they find, and another involving a disease that turns those affected into ash. These two parts are welcomed after about 400 pages of intriguing yet demanding and exhausting prose that loses some of its narrative power. I do recommend this book, despite how difficult and long-winded it is over all of its 600 pages. There are rewards in it, not the least of which is Adrian’s talents as one of the most original writers working today.
Rating: 4/5