Thursday, November 29, 2012

Review: "The Given Day" by Dennis Lehane

Finally I read a book that I not only love, but that also helped me on the road to digging myself out of the emotional slump I’ve been in as of late. The Given Day by Dennis Lehane is a big-hearted historical novel by a writer whose staggering talents are only out-matched by how big his heart is. He brings the same level of characterization and grit to the early years of the 20th Century that he does to the threatening streets of modern day Boston, only this time he ups his literary game to a masterly level, possibly producing his magnum opus. This novel, much like The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer, takes a historical event, in the case of The Given Day, that event being the 1919 Boston police strike, and crafts an elegant narrative that weaves through the lives of the haves and have-nots with the grace of an artist at the top of his level of talent, and Lehane rarely stumbles in this book, since I cannot recall a time when I was reading that I would rather be doing something else. You can be thankful it is that kind of book makes you forget about all your problems in life, and, to quote Stephen King, to be “swept up in the wings of story.” This sprawling narrative begins when a train breaks carrying the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox to the 1918 World Series. Lehane’s lens focuses on The Great Bambino himself, Babe Ruth, as he gets drunk and wanders away from the train to find a group of black men playing baseball, one of the men being Luther Laurence, one of the two central characters in the novel. Eventually, other team members come by and challenge them to a pick-up game. The game is played, in a scene that rivals the opening baseball sequence in DeLillo’s Underworld, and the pros win only through dishonest means, a commentary on race relations that haunts the Babe as we sporadically meet him a few times over the books 702 pages. Luther, after this incident, is fired from his job at a munitions plant and forced to move back to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he has a wife and gets a questionable job of running numbers for a violent gangster. When things get a very brutal for Luther, he must go on the run, eventually coming to find himself in Boston in the middle of a tumultuous time. We then meet Officer Danny Coughlin of the Boston Police Department, prodigal son of Captain Thomas Coughlin, whose refusal to bend to the wills of any man (including his father) leads him on a violent, yet redemptive journey toward becoming a leader for the cause that leads to an apocalyptic few days that leaves Boston in ruins.  This is just a short, basic synopsis that does not do this juicy book justice. There are great heroes, great villains, and countless real life historical figures brought to vivid life by Lehane’s talented skills. This is truly a great book for anyone who likes getting lost within the pages of a story that allows the volume of the outside world to be turned down completely. This was a much needed, and truly awe-inspiring reading experience.
Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Review: "Measuring the World" by Daniel Kehlmann

While I was confused a lot of the time while reading it, I still feel Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann is still worth your time, especially if you are into books about explorers that are a little but different. And so far, I really like Daniel Kehlmann. If Paul Auster decides to stop writing, Kehlmann could take his place as the preeminent author writing about identity and truth in the most bizarre and fascinating ways. While I found spots in this novel to be somewhat overlong and droll, I have to give Kehlmann credit for doing something different with this book. This book is not supposed to be Fame, and even though I really liked that book, I didn’t want this book to be that. It is a slow burn of a novel that meant to add urgency to the proceedings it recalls. Two explorers: Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Freidrich Gauss meet in order to share information on the exact measurements of the world’s land masses. Humboldt is the great explorer of Earth, traveling to the new world, risking death and disease to discover new plants and animals. Gauss is a mathematical genius that can prove certain ideas and theories astoundingly quick from the comforts of his office. When both meet, their personal and professional lives are thrown into utter turmoil. If I have one bad thing to say about this book, it is that one section is so much better than the other. I was much more interested in the separate lives of these two giants of exploration than I was in the details of their first meeting. It was interesting to see how different these two were, and the build up to when they must join forces. Humboldt, although big on exploration and adventure, has little knowledge of relationships, and rarely forms any meaningful attachments in his life. Gauss is able to, but is simply to weird to maintain any likability within them. It is the heart of the book, and it is sad when the other section does not live up. But this book is still worth your time, and Kehlmann is truly a German to watch.
Rating: 4/5

Review: "Mother's Milk" by Edward St. Aubyn

It was good to finally read a really good book after a few duds, but I never expected it to be Edward St. Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk, the sequel to the amazing trilogy of novels I read earlier this year, Some Hope. I was apprehensive about reading this book, even after really liking Some Hope, mainly because I have never been one to read a book simply because the assemblage of words is pretty and sounds cool. Technique will never replace the power of storytelling ability, at least for me, but I guess that St. Aubyn proved something to me: that if you use the prose in the right way, it can actually help tell the story. As far reaching as this example is, the way St. Aubyn uses prose is the way Elmore Leonard uses dialogue. It not only just sounds cool, but it moves the story along and lets the reader create the pictures of the action and people within there minds without resorting to force feeding them exposition. A talent like that is really quite rare, and shows that the person respects both syntax and the quality of narrative. And we should all be lucky that St. Aubyn is one of those writers, because he brings a certain knowledge and thoughtfulness to the area of society that he writes about that makes for great entertainment, even if it is the kind that derives most of its pleasure by the shortcomings and adversity of others. The story, just like Some Hope, follows the trials and tribulations of the Melrose family, specifically the family of Patrick, the young boy who was sexually abused at the beginning of Some Hope. He now has his own family and his own problems. His oldest son, Robert, who can somehow recall his time in his mother’s womb as well as his birth (just go with it, it’s okay), narrates the first section, where he develops into something of outsider in his family with very little contact with anyone at his school, expect his fat friend Josh, only to come out of his shell when he begins to share in his father’s disdain for Robert’s grandma, who is slowly dying, yet not quick enough in the eyes of Patrick. Patrick, ever the kind of person to cut you more deeply with words than fists, is bombarded with a slew of problems, including the reintroduction of a lost love and his mother donating the house they live in now to the charity of the shady, yet cordial Seamus. All the while his wife, Mary, is consumed, almost incestually, with the idea of motherhood. We follow these three, along with the infant Thomas, as they go to America and back, all the while cursing everything they come in contact with in some of the funniest literary zingers you are likely to hear. Never had I read prose that accomplished so much that I was all too eager to savor this book as long as I could.
Rating: 5/5

Review: "Dark Harvest" by Norman Partridge

There is not much I can say about Norman Partridge’s Dark Harvest. At its worst, it is forgettable fun horror fair; at its best, it is fairly decent horror fair. Even after only finishing it a little over a week ago, some of the details are slipping my mind. Maybe if I had read it during Halloween as I originally planned it might have been a more memorable experience. It does not reach the level of effectiveness Slippin Into Darkness had, which was felt like a darker, more assaulting version of The Virgin Suicides, but it doesn’t need to be. All the aspects of this book never reach deplorable status; this is simply a book that you may read once, have a good time, and let it slip into the back of your memory, where it will only show its face when you are scanning your bookshelves out of boredom or whatnot. The plot is a rather over the top one involving an unnamed town in the early 60’s, where every year, the towns youthful boys hunt and kill the October Boy, a mythical creature that is birthed in the woods and has a carved pumpkin for a head. With a description that outlandish, you wouldn’t expect this book to be too serious, and it isn’t for the most part. Pete McCormick, the main character, is going to use this opportunity to kill the October Boy as a way to leave his alcoholic father and the suffocating town he lives in. but he is about to find out the true nature of the October Boy, and what he must do to stop it. If this were made into a movie, it would be really good, I hope. But as a book, it is forgettable, yet briefly fun seasonal horror fiction.
Rating: 4/5

Review: "Give Us A Kiss" by Daniel Woodrell

This is a little bit better for Woodrell. Not great, but Give Us A Kiss near the level that The Death of Sweet Mister was at, which may be in my Top 5 list by the end of the year. It may be that the moment climbed by that book was so great and so tough to follow, that everything else I have read of his just stumbles mercilessly on the steps of mediocrity. It is a silly thing to fall victim to as an experienced reader, but it was bound to happen. I can imagine myself reading Tomato Red or Winter’s Bone before The Death of Sweet Mister, and liking it more than I actually did, but having said that, this novel is not bad by any means. It is actually more suspenseful than any book I have read of his so far (including Sweet Mister), and it is also his funniest book for me, filled with witty. Offbeat characters and Woodrell’s undeniable gift of phrase being put to really good use here. The main character, Doyle Redmond, is on the road to being a failed writer when he leaves his wife and cozy academic life to go back West Table, Missouri (in his wife’s stolen Volvo) to reconnect with his outlaw brother Smoke who, along with two female friends (one being an aspiring actress with terrible delusions) develop quite a profitable business of growing marijuana. Soon, as in most of Woodrell’s books, someone is dead, and that person’s equally crazy family comes gunning for the Redmond clan. A noir tale that really shows the depths of family bonds, it may not be the best thing Woodrell has done, but it is still a really fun and, unless you factor in the many scenes of violence, harmless book to read.
Rating: 4/5