Saturday, October 27, 2012

Review: "Underground" by Haruki Murakami

I have to be honest: if Haruki Murakami did not write Underground, I would probably never even pick it up. He is my favorite writer, as most people who read these reviews know, and he is my pick for the greatest living writer of fiction, in my very humble opinion. If I didn’t get around to reading this book in my lifetime, I would have hated myself. It is also the first nonfiction book I have read for simple pleasure and not for school, so my opinion is influenced by those two factors. It is one of only two Murakami books I have not read, the other being his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (which I will be reading and reviewing before the end of the year), and I am a staunch completest when it comes to authors and other creators, especially since Murakami is my favorite author. But at the end of the day, this book is simply a book that was not meant for me. I am an American who did not really know much about the sarin gas attacks in Japan by the Aum Shinrikyo cult, and this is a book meant to explore the cultural impact of such an event on the psyche of Japan. It may interest some, but not me. What drew me to Murakami were the universal qualities he wrote so eloquently and simply about, and this book doesn’t really have that appeal. Through interviews with survivors and members of Aum, Murakami brings a face to national tragedy that the news media failed to do in its voracious need for story and juicy details. It is a noble thought, but one that flew over my head. It is at times repetitive and boring, and the only interesting part is how smart the members of this cult were. They were not sheep, just lost souls tired of being marginalized by Japanese society. It is a profound statement; I just wish it was in one of his awesome novels.
Rating: 3/5

Review: "The Fifty Year Sword" by Mark Z. Danielewski

I only found out after reading this book that it was never meant to be a novel to be read. Much like Finnegan’s Wake, the true power of Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Fifty Year Sword comes from a live reading of the story, which is to be performed as a puppet and shadow show performed by five people (denoted in the book using different color parenthesis). I don’t think reading it alone as you would a normal book gives the story an honest feel, but with anything coming from the endlessly innovative mind of Mark Z Danielewski, normal is a four letter word worthy of a swear jar payment. I cannot begin to tell you how amazing House of Leaves is. It is a book that looks daunting, but do not let the books odd line structure and color scheme fool you; it might be the most fun you have reading postmodern fiction ever. It’s a ghost story, an adventure story, a drug story, and a love story rolled into a big pile of grand ideas and a need to destroy whatever notions we have about what a novel can do. Simply put: I love it. And while Danielewski brings his same kind of bravado and talent to The Fifty Year Sword, its full effect is never truly felt. It tells the story of a group of orphans being watched on Halloween night by Chintana, when a mysterious man comes out of the darkness to tell the kids a story about where he got his sword, and what is in the box with five latches that sits in front of the kids. It is a cool story, especially when this man begins to explain what he went through to get the sword and from whom, but it really is a performance piece not meant to be read alone. I hope to see the performance one day, and hope Mark Z. Danielewski keeps ripping to shreds any and all literary familiarity.
Rating: 4/5

Review: "Little Children" by Tom Perrotta

Once again with Little Children, writer Tom Perrotta shows us that he is the great American suburbanite humanist. He delves deep into the psyche of people who seemingly have everything, but are missing the most important thing that makes us human: a basic connection to the world and people around you. Little Children could be seen as an adaption of a late 18th century Victorian romance novel set within the confines of well groomed cul-de-sacs and PTA meetings, with the slight twist that everything that happens in this book comes with real life problems; people who cheat feel massive amounts of guilt, and their actions have far reaching consequences for the people around them. They have feelings that are strong and we never question whether our not they are real or fake, but they go about these feelings with a very childlike disregard for anyone or anything. They are like little children playing with adult possibilities; unaware that the people around them are just as vulnerable as they are. And, like with most every Tom Perrotta book I have read (I found Election to be too short and under cooked, especially compared to something like this book), it is damn intriguing and perfect for any vacation down time. The story begins with Sarah, a reluctant stay at home mom who, while at the playground one day with a group of gossipy mothers, begins to chat with Todd, dubbed “The Prom King” (just go with it) by this rather sad group of ladies led by an iron fist by the cerebrally cruel Mary Ann. This conversation ends with an innocent peck on the lips between the two, which leads these two weary souls down a road of unrequited passion that has a dangerously short shelf life. Both of them are desperate for something more; Sarah was once destined to for a career being a strong willed feminist English professor, who now joins in on the behavior she rallied against while her husband harbors a porn addiction. Todd, always the cute and socially successful guy in college, finds himself weary of failing yet again at the bar exam and stays home with his son while his wife works as a documentary filmmaker. These two lost and completely unalike people begin a Bovary-esque romance that has real life kickback. Into this small town that houses this romance comes Ronnie and his mother. Ronnie is just an ex-con and registered sex offender whose move back to town has caused quite an uproar, especially for Larry, and ex-cop and friend to Todd, whose harassment of Ronnie becomes solace for him and a failing marriage. All these people need something, but it sometimes comes at the cost of the happiness of those we love and those who might not deserve to be hurt. It all comes to head in the same park at the beginning, which is a completely different ending than what was in the movie. I see why they chose to change it, since the book’s ending would have been anti-climactic. Anyway, this is another awesome book by a guy I am truly a fan of at this point. I cannot recommend it enough.
Rating: 5/5

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Review: "Me and Kaminski" by Daniel Kehlmann

Of all the new writers I have read this year, the one that sticks out the most is Daniel Kehlmann. His novel Fame reminded me a lot of an early Auster book, like The New York Trilogy or Moon Palace. It had that same kind of intellectual mystery at the heart of its story that you may or may not have gotten an answer to by the end of the book. It was a very cool read and I put Kehlmann high on my list when I rearranged what I was going to be reading this year. So, going in reverse, his second novel to be published in English, Me and Kaminski, for the most part very good and much in the same category of Fame, with less metaphysical implications. The narrator, Sebastian Zollner, a failed art crtici looking to make a quick buck by writing a biography of obscure artist Manuel Kaminski right at the time he is supposed to die, comes to represent the worst kind intellectual: one who decries cheating, stealing, and producing what they see as terrible work, but never applies that same rule to himself in both his professional and personal life. He is quite the scoundrel, and when he finally sets foot in the life and family of Kaminski, we are definitely not on his side. But Kaminski himself has other plans, and he turns out to be very sneaky in teaching Zollner a much-needed lesson. The last half of the book is kind of like a road novel with a few slip-ups, such as a trip to one art gallery that I was not interested in, but it ends quite swell with a knife like twist in the life of Zollner that adds a bit of clarity to his situation. A little dry for an art novice like myself, but a pleasure to read nonetheless.
Rating: 4/5

Review: "Coronado" by Dennis Lehane

It is funny since I just got finished saying that crime writers do not write good short story collections, because Dennis Lehane’s slim collection Coronado, is a truly great collection of stories. Having also just written a glowing review of Shutter Island, I find it a little hard to repeat myself as to why this guy is so great, so I will just stick to the stories and why I find them to be among the best I have read all year. They take place in many different places, amongst many different kinds of people, and take on the air of a more gritty and dirty Flannery O’ Conner. They speak about real people we can easily picture amongst our communities and puts them in scary, sometimes immoral situations that will forever change them, for good and bad. I am glad to say that out of the five of these stories, only one was just good. Each of the other four brings Lehane’s astounding talent to the forefront. The first story, and my favorite, “Running Out of Dog”, shows a small community of people who have grown up together, easily falling into both appealing and unappealing roles. One character is sleeping with the girl his awkward, disturbed best friend has loved his whole life. But we all know he is never going to have her as his own, even though the girl’s husband beats her. As our narrator says, he is to soft for such a cruel world, and ends up reacting in a way that ruins every good persons life. “Going Down to Corpus” deals with a group of recent high school graduates, who go to trash a teammates house, because he lost the game for them, and he is going to college and they are not. They end up meeting the guys older, troubled sister, and the main character forms an odd bond with her as they swap stories and break into, but not rash, an even bigger house of one her former friends. “Mushrooms”, the shortest story in this collection, is a simple story of revenge being taken, and how the uselessness and brutality of it does nothing but cause more misery to those who perpetrated it. Finally, the last story, and the story this collection was built around, “Until Gwen”, shows the power of memory and promises. After a guy gets out of prison, he and his morally bankrupt father, go about finding a stash of money he stored after the robbery he was arrested for. He misses his girlfriend, Gwen, dearly and it is her thoughts that keep him going, even when the truth is revealed about what kind of man his father is, leading to an ending that is sad, but conclusive. This is just an awesome collection of short stories by a writer who I have yet to read a book from that was less than outstanding. If you are looking for a gateway into the work of Dennis Lehane, this is a perfect way to start.
Rating: 5/5