Saturday, March 30, 2013

Review: "A Moment in the Sun" by John Sayles

I love reading about the early 20th century on a grand fictional scale. I don’t know what it is about it, but it seems like a very interesting time: things were being invented that would come to define our lives today and radical ideas were coming into fruition. It was a time of great change, as well as great strife, which makes it a perfect subject for an epic 900 page book like John Sayles’ A Moment in the Sun, a sprawling tale detailing a little known conflict that took place between American troops and Filipino revolutionaries that may be the best book that McSweeny’s has published. For a publishing house as offbeat as McSweeny’s, this is probably their most mainstream work, even more so than John Brandon’s mystery novels. This book could easily be a bestseller if it was a given the chance, and it could easily stand alongside Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day in terms of scope, although it is not nearly as readable. Don’t be completely fooled by the offbeat publisher or the sheer size of the book (it is the thickest book I own), it is a challenging read, and asks a lot of the reader in terms of smaller characters that have hundreds of pages between appearances. But all that is something you will get used to if you decide to stick with this book until the end. The main narrative is divided up between four different central characters. We first meet Hod as he is traversing a mountain in the Yukon in search of gold, completely out of his element and just begging to be taken advantage of. We then meet Royal Scott who, along with his brother Junior, are a little to eager to participate in the America’s war with the Spanish, which will eventually lead to the dreaded conflict between America and the Philippines. We go across enemy lines where Diosdado, a spy for the Spanish, prepares for battle and witnesses a brutal execution of a rebel with a device that uses both strangulation and a screw driven in the back of the neck (no one can tell which of these two acts kills the man first). Finally, at about page 150 or so, we meet Harry Manigault, as he, along with his brother, are performing a hilarious yet offensive minstrel show. Over the next 900 pages, we see these four men take quite a journey. From Hod becoming a reluctant boxer and Royal, having to watch helplessly from afar as the life he has built in Wilmington is utterly destroyed by race riots. All the while this conflict with The Philippines is set in motion to bring everyone together to witness the atrocities that occurred in this war, which is the reason it is not talked about very much in history classes. Along the way we meet a few side characters that offer little vignettes like in Dos Passos’ big novel trilogy USA, they serve a higher purpose than just plot trajectory. They exist to give the setting a sense of grandeur it needs to sustain all the ideas in a novel such as this. Although confusing at times (this desperately needed a character list at the beginning), this is one wild ride into the narrow fissures of history I highly recommend you take.
Rating: 5/5

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Review: "Telegraph Avenue" by Michael Chabon

I think I have finally got Michael Chabot pegged as to what he is trying to do with his books. With each novel, he tries to blend a certain kind of modern sensibility toward pop culture with the kind of scholarship you’d expect out of archaic English professors. For all the things I have to say about him, I find this mission very admirable. We need to broaden the types of people and things we deem smart and intellectual, and throw some of this narrow minded crap out the window, and writers like Chabon are trying to do that. But he does so in a rather pretentious way that does little to bridge the gap between high art and pulp subjects. They don’t mix well, and the characters he creates come off as being rather arrogant about their shared knowledge of Sci-Fi and Dickens, and I would go as far to say that they don’t reach out to too many average readers. His new novel, Telegraph Avenue, is like that for about the last 300 or so pages, using silly techniques (like a whole section being one sentence, which, at 15 pages, is quite a drag), and making references that smack of smugness about Jazz music and obscure film. But for the fist hundred pages or so, it is as good as his novel Wonderboys, which is still what I compare all his other books to. This story of Brokeland Records, its two founder, Archy and Nat, and the community they trying to save from Gibson Goode and the Dogpile Record juggernaut, as a very positive message about little businesses and how they are safe havens for collectors when the world gets too rough. But when side characters are introduced, like the two wives, as well as Archy’s long lost son and father, who was a pseudo-Fred Williamson in the 70’s, this book totally derails and crash lands. Hopefully he can repeat the success of Wonderboys in the future, because, whether it is good or not, I feel obligated to read it.
Rating: 3/5

Review: "Cloudsplitter" by Russell Banks

For a book as long and with as many dead spots as Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter, it is a surprisingly easy book to read that has really interesting moments that are memorable, even when a good majority of the novel is not. Banks has always been an author I have had an interest in reading, and I think I may have picked his most inaccessible book, being a 700 page historical novel with a very unreliable narrator telling it too a college professor. So in that sense it is a lot like Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. It brings up questions of truth and sanity as to what is being told to us and if there is even a person on the other end. It is a good thing that this book has a lot more action in it than The white Tiger, because it propels this book to being an okay read despite a lot of my points of disinterest lie in a lack of enthusiasm for the subject matter. The story told is one about John Brown, the famed abolitionist whose failed slave revolt at Harper’s Ferry drew a fine line between doing what is right and being a pure, unadulterated and dangerous zealot. But this is told to us from the perspective of his son Owen, who was his father’s right hand man, up until he deserted him at said revolt and went into hiding in the West. When he is telling the story, he is an old man who might just be reaching for a redemptive hand by telling his story to Miss Mayo, an assistant to a highly regarded professor. And it is a story that is filled with violence (especially a graphic scene near the end that paints these so called heroes in a murderous light), but also one that is very deep in what it says about fathers, religion and the ways in which greatness can leave those we love destitute and alone. If you like historical fiction about the Civil War, this book is a must read.
Rating: 4/5

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Review: "Vampires in the Lemon Grove" by Karen Russell

I think I said this in my review for Karen Russell’s first collection of stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves, and it applies to her new collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, as well”: Russell, who possess an amazing creativity and imagination, has ideas that are simply to big for the short story form. They are very high concept and breathtaking in how inventive they are, but they just leave me wanting to see these ideas pasted on a bigger canvas. With stories like “Reeling for the Empire” about kidnapped women who are turned into silkworms, and “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating”, about boat racing in the Antarctic, just beg to be turned into novels. Not only are they great ideas, but to really grab your attention, we need to exist for a while within these finely constructed rules to fully understand them. The stories Russell writes are merely set-ups to something we’d rather be reading. But having said that, this collection does have some of her best stories to date. Like the title story, about a vampire couple living in an Italian lemon grove who survive on the lemons grown there that is a heartbreaking fable of love winding down. “The Barn at the End of Our Term”, about the souls of presidents being transported to the bodies of farm animals on this particular farm, is actually pretty funny and not as stupid as it sounds. The gem of this collection has to be the final story, “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis”, where a quartet of inner city kids find a doll that resembles a kid they bullied mercilessly. With echoes of the underrated TV movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow, it is harrowing tale of guilt and redemption. Russell is one of our most talented writers, and if when she finds a balance between the short story and the novel, she will be unstoppable.
Rating: 4/5

Review: "The Dinner" by Herman Koch

I loved The Dinner by Herman Koch. I picked it up on a whim based solely on its cool premise and promise of eerie suburban dysfunction, and am glad to say that it totally delivered, being what is probably the most fun and interesting book I have read since sometime last year, maybe even going as far back as a few years ago, with the only book that packs as a much of a narrative punch as this maybe being Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. Each novel deals with similar issues involving kids and the things parents do when their kid goes beyond simple child’s play into truly sociopathic territory, and how in doing what we think is our parental duty, we end up creating a truly horrific and unstoppable monster and unleashing it into an unsuspecting world. Each also has a very unreliable narrator that acts to create different kinds of understanding about the situation as the novel comes to its shocking close. But what sets this book apart from Shriver’s is just how vicious this novel is. In Shriver’s novel, there is at least some levity to the violent proceedings, but in The Dinner, Koch is not interested in any kind of redemption. The narrative unfolds with more and more layers cynicism and misanthropy about the people involved, leading to a shocking finale that left me shaken by its cruelty, yet clear and concise in its painful inevitability. The premise is beyond simple, which only adds to the proceedings. Two couples, the husbands of which are brothers, decide to meet at a local posh restaurant to discuss “important matters”.  One brother, Paul, the narrator of the story, is a retired schoolteacher, while the other, named Serge, is a successful politician. Each of their wives, Claire and Babette, are simply along for the ride that these two estranged brothers are taking. The dinner itself unfolds as any normal dinner would, at least in Europe, with wine being served first, then the appetizer and main course, etc. As the dinner goes on, we find out what really brings these two couples together. Each of their sons has been involved in a horrific crime with staggering implications on each of their parents’ lives. And the question about what to do about will lead to threats against one another and eventual brutality. It all seems very clear-cut, but as we get inside Paul’s head and learn what he really feels about the people around him, and his history of explosive anger, we get a real glimpse at the heel that awaits this family. It is a lot like what Sartre put forth in No Exit, there is no greater punishment for these people than to have to be stuck with each other for the rest of their lives. A surprising book that literally crackles with fire as you read it; there is no need to be scared of this translated book. I don’t think there will more explosive book to come out this year.
Rating: 5/5