Friday, March 30, 2012

Review: "Waiting for the Barbarians" by J. M. Coetzee

I do not know what it is, but every book I have read by J. M. Coetzee has been really good. He is writer I seemed destined to be uninterested by. One with too many critics and scholars supporting him, and having won the Nobel Prize in a time where the award is given more for social and political work instead of fictional prowess, he has all the markings of someone whose books are meant for college English classes and not for fun yet challenging books. I am glad to not only say that I am a fan of this great writer having read three books that are downright fantastic, but that all the awards and recognition Mr. Coetzee gets are well deserved, because, as I said in my review of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, he is one of (in my very, very humble opinion) the two best writers of fiction still alive. It pains me to say that, because nothing grinds my gears than insincere, annoying as hell literary hyperbole (which as an English major in English classes with other English majors, I hear too damn much of) I really believe it to be true. No other two writers can bring together literary snobs and your everyday lover of fiction to like the same book. And I have to give a little bit more credit to Coetzee, because he is working within narrative frameworks that aren’t have as interesting as Murakmai’s. There are no talking sheep, no man skinners and for sure no nefarious beings posing as Johnny Walker or Colonel Sanders. It is just brutal harsh realism in Coetzee’s novels, and he has found a way to turn these realistic events that we have seen depicted the same way over and over again, and turn them into thrilling set pieces filled to the brim with humanity. In this novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, we meet the Magistrate of a small frontier settlement, that is being besieged upon by the implied threat of the savage tribes around the land, as well as the real threat of the large and invasive empire, represented by the chilling Colonel Joll (whose described first by his sunglasses, in perhaps Coetzee’s best sentence). Eventually, the Magistrate falls for a savage girl, and in an attempt to save her, becomes and enemy to the empire, and loses his dignity in the process. It is a story we have heard before, but with Coetzee’s ability to turn his eloquent prose into something that keeps me turning the page, it becomes some thing of a new experience, with his many nuanced descriptions of people speaking louder than dialogue. I am all for story over prose, but sometimes it is just too good to not fall in love with. His abilities at telling a story seem to be overshadowed by his subject matter (even Coetzee himself might frown on the idea), but it is there, and it is kept me reading through three memorable books, and I hope to keep going forward with this true living master.
Rating: 5/5

Review: "In This Way I Was Saved" by Brian Deeleuw

Although it is early in the year, I think that I may have found the book that was the biggest let down for me, In This Way I Was Save by Brian Deeleuw. It is a book where the distance between what I thought it was going to be and what it actually was too great to ignore. Now I could include the terrible Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close on that list, but really, I walked into that book with really low expectations, and they were shattered. This is not that serious of a case, but it still depresses me that this book is not very good, because I wanted it to be. At least in Foer’s self-indulgence I could find some laughs, here, I was just bored, and that just makes the experience more disappointing. The novel sets itself up like a horror story, we meet these two kids, Daniel and Phil, who meet on a playground, and it is readily apparent that one of them is an imaginary friend to the other. We are introduced into one of the kid’s home lives, where his mother is an eccentric publisher, and we follow these two through their years of adolescence, and toward more glaring acts of depravity. I hope I have not made it sound to exciting, because the action is explained in prose that is laid on too thick that is also not very original. I like the premise, which is a lot like Thomas Tryon’s The Other, and thought it would be a little like Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, which was a literary zombie novel that blended well, here it does not, which makes me sad, because it a cool idea that is not done enough as many other horror tropes
Rating: 2/5

Friday, March 23, 2012

Review: "Stay Awake" by Dan Chaon

Another writer I really love, Dan Chaon’s new story collection that came out this year, was very high on my to-read list. His stories of supernatural sadness and loneliness really struck a chord with me, and one day hope he becomes as famous as Chabon or Franzen. He is a true original, and at the beginning of this collection, he shows that and then some, but sadly stumbles for a good portion of the time after that as he tries to paly with time and events, mixing them up like a poor man’s Tarantino. First, the goods; the first tow stories in this collection, may be some of the finest work Chaon has produced, and offer a great intro into the kind of stories he writes, featuring ghost of the past and the future haunting people, like Shirley Jackson rewriting Richard Yates. First, we get “The Bees”, a harrowing story of one man’s past cowardice coming back to haunt him and his new family in the form of his young son’s nigh terrors. It is creepy and sad, and has what may be Chaon’s most downbeat ending. I don’t always agree with that, but here, it actually works quite well, and leaves the reader pondering long after they finish. The next story, “Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted”, follows a young man drifting through life, unable to move from the spot he is in, paralyzed from the suicide of his parents. Then, he thinks that something malevolent is lurking in his house, greats suspense, and truly scary to a confused college student (like me). After that, the quality falls quite far. Chaon begins telling stories with events out of order, not giving us clear answers, adding chapter stops for some reason, and really leaving me unsatisfied. A mixed bag of stories from a real, true original, but the two stories mentioned are definitely worth looking past the missteps.
Rating: 4/5

Review: "Almost Transparent Blue" by Ryu Murakami

This spring break, I decided to make it kind of Murakami inspired by reading to books by two different authors, both named Murakmai. Of course, I spent most of my time with Haruki’s 1Q84, and I loved every long minute of it. Next, I read the short novel Almost Transparent Blue by Ryu. Sadly, I did not like it nearly as much as the previous book. It is the kind of book I would have liked in high school. It is kind of like if the French writer Georges Bataille had written A Clockwork Orange. It is written like an early 20th Century piece of erotica, but the things it eroticizes are in no way erotic to any normal human being. Acts such as oral sex and the puncturing of the arm to shoot heroin are described as if they were acts of a warm and caring nature, instead of the gross and debasing things that they are. The story, which is as plotless as Trainspotting, follows a group of Japanese youths living near an American Army base, as they experiment with drugs and sex as they try to find meaning in life. The problem here is that the book is in no way shocking in today’s culture, and we see things like this in too many books to count. In fact, it gets kind of repetitive as it goes on, and quite annoying by the end, despite how good of a writer Ryu is, which is one of the book’s saving graces. As much as I don’t like it, eroticizing disgusting things like he does is quite hard (although he is no Clive Barker). It’s size helps to, being a slim 127 pages, if it went over 200, it would be unbearable. Not bad, but not really something I would read again, and am not really curious to find out more about Ryu, despite my love for the movie Audition.
Rating: 3/5

Review: "1Q84" by Haruki Murakami

Not to use egregious hyperbole, but I feel that Haruki Murakmi is one of the two greatest living writers of fiction (along with South African novelist J. M. Coetzee). Not because he is one of my favorite authors, but simply because the way in which he views the world and the way his stories can touch people on many different levels, makes his talent as a writer of very long and weird novel indispensable. He is a rare breed of modern writer, one who has the many literary scholars with sticks firmly planted in their asses praising the postmodern sensibilities and magical realists techniques he uses in his stories (he has twice been in third to win the Nobel Prize, and think he will win it one day), but the stories have a narrative drive that surpasses any kind of alienating weirdness, and you cannot help but get caught up in wherever his characters are going, which makes his books perfect for vacation, beach, or airplane reading. They wholly envelope the reader in a world that transcends a mere fictional landscape or even another world: they actually become the dreams of the reader. For this reason, Murakami is a writer of our times, able to accurately portray the courage and challenge of reaching out to the world and being honest about your feelings and emotions while also capturing the reader’s imagination with breathtaking feats of storytelling magic. His new book, 1Q84, I really don’t want to call a masterpiece (I still think he has great works ahead of him) but it just may be. Judging by the length, both of the physical book and the size of the story, it is a culmination of themes Murakami has been known for; the idea of fate in a modern world, the little connections we make and the giant ripples they can create, and how love can go beyond important aspects of relationships and simply be destined, or how we want it to be. We meet the first main character, Aomame, as she gest out of a cab during a traffic jam on the highway in order to complete her job of killing a man. On the advice of the cab driver, she descends the stairs leading out of the expressway, and discovers, through observation, that she is in a new 1984, one slightly different from the one she was in. meanwhile, Tengo, an aspiring writer, takes a ghostwriting gig to rewrite the novel of a strange 17-year old. Over 900 pages, and these stories converge; we meet a weird cast of characters, odd events (such as a sky with two moons), and learn how both Tengo and Aomame had to end up in 1Q84. Really this is a book where a synopsis is pointless. You just have to read this book, and try to figure it out. You may not in fact, because with Murakmai, the mystery is the mystery, and the journey you take with this giant novel is filled with great truths and stunning leaps in the imagination. Cannot recommend enough.
Rating: 5/5