Saturday, December 28, 2013

Review: "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" by Haruki Murakami (2013 Re-Review)

This idea of re-reading a book at least once a year really paid off, and I plan to do it again with another book I felt needed a second look. This first time I have ever re-read anything, choosing Haruki Murakami’s second longest novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; it brought out new ideas and thoughts that didn’t really click with me when I read it back in 2010. I recall I breezed through it, not affording it the time it deserved and needed to be full digested. Now, without the burden of school, I put a lot more focus and energy into taking my time with it. And I’m glad to say that is one of the three pillars that hold up his reputation, the other two being Kafka on the Shore, and his masterpiece, 1Q84. Granted, this is a little more political than I am really comfortable with any writer getting, but no other book Murakami has written so creatively and eloquently addresses the ideas of loneliness, books like South of the Border, West of the Sun and Sputnik Sweetheart have similar themes, but here they are fully formed over the course of 600 pages. And I don’t know why nor can I explain it, but I found the structure this time around, the letters, computer text and newspaper articles, to offer a lot more than just mere fancy wallpaper. At best, they offer some of the books most memorable scenes (more on that), and at worst, they are harmless diversions that don’t cause too much of a headache. The story concerns Toru Okada, who has recently lost his job, as well as his wife’s beloved cat. His complacency is interrupted by the discovery of a well in the alleyway behind his house, and the sudden disappearance of his wife, leaving him alone to traverse a series of odd, sometimes violent occurrence that may not add up, but still act as important guideposts to the answers Toru wants. While it is frustrating at times, leaving these loose threads dangling out in the open even as the ending closes in, in a way he is showing us what is really important; not trying to solve life’s grand mysteries, but instead dwelling on said mysteries which offers up time and energy to make yourself the best kind of person you can be. To give up a certain amount of control and let things be. The same thing can be said about his other two great books, each filled with cool scenes where it doesn’t seem to matter that they don’t link up nicely, because that isn’t what is important. And in re-reading it, I had forgotten some of the things that happened, like the lounge singer whose obsessed with pain, the story of the Japanese Army trying to kill all the animals in the zoo, and the disquieting specter of Noboru Wataya, Toru’s wife’s brother, whose banal evil seems almost supernatural (because it is). But nothing compares to Boris and the scene where he skins a man alive, easily the most violent scene I have ever read. After a closer inspection as an older, wiser reader, I appreciate this novel a lot more, and will hold it more dearly to my heart from now on.
Rating: 5/5

Monday, December 16, 2013

Review: "The Man Who Cried I Am" by John A. Williams

This book, The Man Who Cried I Am, is probably one of the more obscure books I am ever going to review here, and I think that is saying something. I only found out about it through a DVD extra on the documentary Stone Reader, itself a forgotten documentary on lost books. It was always a curiosity to me, having had it in my collection, and after finally reading it I can’t help be a little disappointed in what I have read. The DVD extra had built it up as this great-unsung masterpiece of African-American literature that could stand alongside Native Son and Invisible Man, but it is more like a novel of the 60’s, and not a very good one at that. The ideas it presents are seem so trivial and unimportant that they simply cannot hold a candle to the dark, cynical spirit in Richard Wright’s Native Son. It comes off as more of a Beat Generation book, which isn’t a compliment. The novel follows Max Reddick, a writer who has found himself sitting in a cafĂ© in Amsterdam waiting for someone. He is desolate and desperate, and we find out why he is such through his dealings with the kind of hardships that a black person has to deal with in a world run by white men. This is where the book succeeds, and, I have to admit, gives it a timeless quality. The racism here isn’t the snarling teeth behind a Klansman hood. It is a much more subtle kind that has seeped into the fabric of modern America, and it is a little harder to get out. But nothing really happens in this book, even when Max must go to Vietnam. I’m not asking for him to kill and cook a white girl, but I wanted to feel a sense of urgency that the book simply didn’t have. You may find something in this book I didn’t. That is, if you ever find yourself reading it.
Rating: 3/5

Review: "Blood Meridian" by Cormac McCarthy

Many times I have said that Cormac McCarthy is one of the most overrated writers in America, and after reading his book Blood Meridian, what many critics say is his best book and best example of his talent, I still stand by that conviction. If anything, this novel proves it. What should have been a simple yet effective story about violence as kind of baptismal sacrament gets overstuffed to the gills with so many archaic words and dry descriptions that it is no wonder that Harold Bloom loves this book so much. It practically reveals in its ancient quality and that it sometimes reads like the worst chapters in the bible. The only really good thing that I can take away from this book is its descriptions of violence, which are quite poetic as described by McCarthy’s prose. It just makes me wish the narrative wasn’t as silly as it. The narrative is very loose, dealing with a young man, referred to only as “the kid” as he runs away from his home life and joins a group of violent outlaws marauding through the Texas-Mexico boarder, with the dangerous and terrifying “judge” a few steps behind them. What the book reminded me most of was Daniel Woodrell’s Civil War novel, Woe to Live On, which contained a similar approach to violence, treating it as a way of life, as something that can happen in an instant and be over with even quicker, leaving no time to mourn. But while the prose in that novel is always delightful and unpretentious, this book feels like you are chewing on sand, using words no one would has heard in centuries to describe a landscape, making the unfortunate gap between dialogue and prose painfully noticeable. Some people, even friends I respect, like him. I simply do not.
Rating: 3/5

Monday, December 9, 2013

Review: "Fall on Your Knees" by Ann-Marie MacDonald

Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie Macdonald was a real wild card for me, and it didn’t really pay off. While it does move quickly despite its heft, it handles its heavier themes, such as incest, rape and family secrets in a rather boring way by not focusing all its energy on the narrative. It tries too hard to be fancy with its wording, and Macdonald is just not the writer for this kind heavy-handed themes, which makes me think twice about reading her next book, which is much longer at 800 pages. It really is when Macdonald takes the story outside of the confines of the family structure she has laid out for us that the book becomes rather plodding and tacked on. The characters that seem rather superfluous take on roles that are way to important in moving things along, and their lack of fascination simply can’t keep up with the reader’s attention span. The story focuses on the Piper family, beginning with the love affair of a Lebanese woman and a Canadian man, whose love for each other is violently opposed by the woman’s family, really setting the stage for the kinds of violence and debauchery that will become the legacy of the Piper family through their four daughters; Kathleen, the unloved one, Mercedes, the family martyr, Frances, the self-proclaimed “bad girl”, and Lily, the focus of everyone’s attention who also is the consequence of the darkest secret in the family. Anything involving the family is at least good, even great in the beginning when we see the rift between the mother and family, and the violent act that nearly cripples the father. But once we start getting into other families and the lovers the sisters take, the book completely lost me in how little control it had over the big cast of characters. I might like this book if it was shorter, but the 500 pages made this hard to get through.
Rating: 3/5

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Review: "The Untouchable" by John Banville

I have always had a mixed reaction to the books of John Banville. I think he is a great writer, one of the best around easily, but sometimes, even in the books of his I have liked, I have found him, dry, overly literate and just plain boring at times. All of his books are narrated by a single person, usually male, who is not always reliable and obsessed with the past and their memory. This technique works well when the conflict that goes along with it is at least interesting, like his best book, The Sea, and The Book of Evidence, which is a book that I have changed my views on since reading it. But if it isn’t, the books falls to pieces and becomes needlessly difficult, such as Shroud, and the one I recently just read, The Untouchable, what I can easily say is the worst book I have read by Banville. The story concerning the ousting of Victor Maskell, and art critic and intelligence agent, as a spy for the Russians, is completely forgettable, and it is hard for me to conjure any scenes that I liked in it even though I just finished it yesterday. The writing is good as always, and I like how he makes the connection between Victor’s outing as a spy, to his outing as homosexual, making both his true professional and personal self two aspects of life that he can never reveal and indulge in. but as a whole through its 368 long pages, this book was a chore I couldn’t wait to get finished. I will allow an author I enjoy reading a few slip-ups, and this is Banville’s first. If you haven’t read any of his books yet, I highly suggest you do, but I cannot recommend this one.
Rating: 2/5