Friday, May 25, 2012

Review: "Being Dead" by Jim Crace

After reading six books that failed to make me giddy with praise, a little book comes along and changes that. I had no idea I was going to like Being Dead by Jim Crace this much. I am not familiar with Crace all that much despite owning a few of his books, but he is really quite something, and definitely a hidden gem among writers from Britain if his other books are this good. It is, just like The Night Watch, a book that does not really do anything special or unique. But the message of this book is something that is truly noteworthy. It manages to take a dark plot, where the two main characters are lying dead in a British sand dune, and proceed to tell a story full of meaning that is both comforting and uplifting, despite the horrific beginnings. It is never saccharine about the subject of death and does not try to bring in religion to explain what happens after the bodies have lost their lives. It takes a very scientific and naturalistic approach to the proceeding events after said death, and in the hands of an unskilled writer, it would have been a brutal examination of the worthlessness of life, and thankfully, it is the exact opposite. As I said before, at the beginning, Joseph and Cecile, both zoologist and married for thirty years, lie murdered in a sand dune. Their murder is graphically described and senseless in it execution and brutality. From there, we are given three separate storylines that center on this murder. We go back in time to see the beginnings of Joseph and Cecile’s relationship, which begin at a cottage nearby the murder site, and a story that is also plagued with the finality and suddenness of death. The present storylines chart the actions of the couple’s daughter, who is somewhat spiteful toward her parents, who we knowingly see headed for a collision course with grief and regret. Finally, the real meat of this novel follows what happens the bodies that lie undiscovered in the dunes, and how nature indifferently takes things over. We see the semi nude bodies of Joseph and Cecile, as they become victims to the elements, from winds that partially bury their bodies to the bugs that feast on their excretions. It is something gross that is somehow described beautifully. And for all these heinous topics being talked about here, I rarely felt bummed out, and felt this book was quite life affirming at the end without being mystical. While the lives of Joseph and Cecile ended violently, as our lives might end as well, it does not make the things we do and the people we love useless and not worth anything. It is actually the fragility and briefness of life that makes things important and relevant, like the bug with a twenty-four hour lifespan that Joseph so lovingly muses on. I am glad I read such a book, and hope it makes you look at the end of life possibly being the actual end with a little less cynicism.
Rating: 5/5

Review: "The Night Watch" by Sarah Waters

I cannot think of any other writer today who is able to collect such accolades and awards for simply telling a simple story with very little social context than Sarah Waters, whose novel The Night Watch, is a great example of bridging the gap between writing talent and narrative gifts. While she writes stories and books that are not my thing most of the time, I totally see why she is so widely read. None of them really tries to do anything special besides whisking the reader off on a Victorian adventure, but she does a damn good job of it, and despite her books being perfect under a hot sun surrounded by sand, she is collecting award nominations like crazy, and it is just a matter of time before she wins something big like The Orange Prize, or, eventually The Booker Prize, which her last three novels were nominated for. The Night Watch focus on four different characters, three women and one man, whose lives are recounted in reverse, from the end of the 1940’s to the beginning of the decade in the heart of WWII. They struggle with kept secrets that are the key to their truer, hidden selves. Like most Waters’ novels, the theme of homosexuality is brought up, mainly in the case of the male character Duncan, and the relationship between two of the women, Kay and Helen. The key to their secrets are held by one another, and their brief connections made during that tumultuous time during the war. It is the real treat how Waters’ makes these connections, even though it was hard for me to follow the storyline that is based in classical archetypes. Still, I cannot say I didn’t enjoy this book most of the time. And if you like old English fair such as this, you won’t be able to stop reading this one.
Rating: 4/5

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Review: "Hemlock Grove" by Brian McGreevy

I must say, these last few weeks of reading have been depressingly underwhelming. I have not read any books that have been bad, but none have really shook me and made me glad it was summer and I have nothing but time on my hands. Maybe it might be because I am in an awesome English class this summer where we get to read comic books and I cannot focus enough on novels, or I have had really bad luck picking what books to read, but either way, it has been kind of rough. This one in particular, Hemlock Grove by Brian McGreevy, is another book that I just liked, even though I thought I was going to love it. It seemed really cool, it comes from an imprint I like quite a bit, and had two very different blurbs on the back from Eli Roth and Philipp Meyer, and for the most part, the book is breathtakingly original. It takes tropes like Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolfman, and puts them in the modern gothic setting of a small Pennsylvania town. The premise, which deals with the murders of young girls being investigated by two very different personalities with really messed up back-stories, has endless possibilities. But it should not be this hard to read. The stream of consciousness narratives really are a stumbling block in moving things along, and getting to the good stuff. Not to sound unintellectual, but if a book promises these kinds of things, I expect a little less showboating than this. But the story is quite interesting once you get used to it and it is awesome when you find out each connection to classic horror. Despite its flaws, I really dug what this book was, and cannot wait for the series to hit Netflix.
Rating: 4/5

Review: "The Lazarus Project" by Aleksandar Hemon

One of the better writers in the field of American immigrant fiction, which is a term I have made which includes any writer who writes about the experience of moving to America from another country, would be Aleksandra Hemon, and his second novel, The Lazarus Project, is a good example of why he is a step above many other writers in this field. I have said in the past that these kinds of stories are really more hit than miss for me most of the time because it has, as its focus, something that has been done so many times before, and it is so difficult to make it work and be fresh and new. Luckily, Hemon is able to do that most of the time with this novel, even if you get lost in details and obscure history. This is quite the departure from his first novel Nowhere Man, which really acted as his introduction to the fiction world. The Lazarus Project is a more straight-forward novel compared to Nowhere Man. Gone are the funny ways he used his newly found grasp of English to overcompensate for his lack of experience, but he does have two different stories being told at once, that overlap quite intricately. The first one deals with a young immigrant named Lazarus who is shot outside the chief of police’s house in Chicago and is labeled an anarchist assassin, and how this event affects the life of his sister. The modern day story deals with a writer named Brik, travels with a friend to Bosnia to research Lazarus life for a book. Both storylines are quite interesting, with enough action to counteract some of the confusing historical details and blatant symbolism (one character is literally named Bruno Schulz, which made me laugh). You could read worse, and for the most part I’d suggest you read it.
Rating: 4/5

Review: "The Ask" by Sam Lipsyte

If Celine were alive today, he still would not be someone you would want to spend too much time with, but if he had a slight sense of humor to go along with his pessimistic vision than he would probably write something like Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, a novel that makes up for a lack of originality with maybe the funniest writing you are likely to come across in the modern literature. Lipsyte, or, I hope, Lipsyte’s characters share a very strange view of the world, one that might have a lot in common with Schopenhauer, where life really has no meaning, but we still must go on (a truncated, bastardized version of his philosophy, for sure, but he was the first guy I thought of when reading this). This is a very bleak view of the world, one that offers no comfort or way out, and I shudder to think of people actually thinking this way, but at least it goes about it in a humorous way. The loose plot of the novel deals with Milo Burke, who after getting fired from his job as a developmental officer at a crappy university, is called back with an opportunity to regain his job if he can convince an old friend who became wealthy after college to donate a large sum of money to the school. From there, it is kind of a mish-mash of characters who have no real place in the novel than to provide funny quips and turns of phrases, which, although are quite funny, really drag the novel down. Every character has a cardboard personality so they can look stupid in the mind of Milo, and ultimately the reader. But it is quite funny, and it will make this novel better for a majority of its readers.
Rating: 4/5