Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Review: "Pigeon English" by Stephen Kelman

I think I am just too old and mature to enjoy a book like Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English. It comes off as too cutesy and a little saccharine for me, probably because I have matured as a reader in a rather short amount of time. I remember a time when a book like this could get me going and I could find myself totally enveloped in story of a youngster trying to understand a world that will never understand them. I think everyone who is actually intelligent will find some solace in books like these in there younger years, which would explain why some people still swear by, quite erroneously, in my opinion, by J. D. Salinger. I even remember the time I read Mark Haddon’s The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time in a single sitting with great joy. But now I find these kinds of books just leave me wanting more. Pigeon English begins with a murder and follows one boy’s quest to solve it. The boy in question, Harri, a recent immigrant from Ghana living in the London projects, begins to investigate, leading down dark paths into the immigrant underworld that might lead to his demise. I can at least appreciate the upbeat tone of this novel, which shows scary situations and teen violence through the lens of an innocent, na├»ve ten year old. It really is a breath of fresh air. But for all that I found the book rudimentary in what it was talking about, and some of the slang the kid uses, like bo-style to denote awesome, being very cheesy. It is hard to believe that this book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, although I have my issues with that board, so maybe it’s not hard to believe. Blame it on reading The Savage Detectives beforehand, but this book is a harmless dud.
Rating: 2/5

Monday, April 15, 2013

Review: "The Savage Detectives" by Roberto Bolano

Reading a Bolano book is quite the experience, and I stress the need for everyone who loves to read to pick up one of his books. It may be cheap sentiment, since the weight of literary importance kind of rest on two books, 2666, and the one that I am reviewing today, The Savage Detectives, but you cannot have two better cornerstones to your legacy than what Bolano produced before his untimely death from liver failure in 2003. It also greatly saddens me that while these two novels are untouchable in terms of immortality (I hope), the process of reading them is very short, even if the books are long, being 900 and 650 pages respectively. They are finite experiences, and painfully so. Even with a few odd novellas and short story collections, as well as a large collection of his poetry (being released this year) existing in translation, I am very doubtful they have the power of these two monolithic achievements in modern literature. In looking at these two books together, they present a very similar view of the world, but tell very different stories. While 2666 is almost apocalyptic in its narrative, if you can call it that, The Savage Detectives is a much more fun and upbeat book, but even that seems very rudimentary for a book that inspires this kind of feeling. It really is a book about hunger and lust for life, while 2666 is about impending death and finding whatever kind of hope you can in a harsh world. The loose plot of this novel can be divided into three parts. The first one concerns a young student poet named Garcia Madero as he falls into a group of vagabond poets calling themselves the “visceral realists” and their experiences leading up to a violent encounter. The middle, and real meat of the novel, talks about the events after, where the two founding members of the movement, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima (two thinly veiled homages to Bolano himself and his friend Mario Santiago Papasquiaro, who formed the infrarealist poetry movement in the 1970’s) travel the world, and their experiences documented by a wide array of weird people, who all seem a bit bitter about being in their presence. The third and final sections picks up after the events of the first section, as Madero along with Lima and Belano, flee into the desert to search for the founder of their literary movement, pursued by a pimp and a corrupt policeman who want to kill Lupe, a prostitute who is with them. A lot of this book has to be experienced to get fully what the book is about. You will encounter stories that seem to have little to do with each other, until Arturo or Ulises pops in. But that doesn’t really matter when you have stories involving a gross blow job contest, an absurd sword fight between critic and writer, as well as a creepy story involving a boy falling down a well that may be inhabited by Satan. And in the end, when the visceral realists find themselves in that hell on Earth Santa Teresa from 2666, it can be downright creepy. Whether you read this first or 2666, both of which add new plateaus to one another, I can’t recommend enough that you read these two books. They are one of the literary zeitgeists of our times, and you will be viewing the world in a new light after doing so.
Rating: 5/5

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Review: "A Sport and A Pastime" by James Salter

Who would have thought that a book that fills almost half of its slim, 190 pages with graphic sex could be so boring. I really get what the book was trying to do, but A Sport and A Pastime by James Salter was the wrong book to read a few days before my vacation. I’ll admit I get distracted sometimes, but as I have said before, a book that is good enough will eliminate that distraction and leave me enthralled for however long it takes me to read it. The style of this book resembles Hemingway’s pared-down style, which, even when I tried to like him in high school, never seemed to click with me. I always seemed to be lost on what character was speaking. But I get the appeal of that kind of writing, and it fits this story for the most part. Told from the perspective of an unnamed and unreliable narrator, the love affair between a college dropout named Phillip Dean and a young French girl named Anne-Marie is recalled in explicit detail. A lot of the appeal of this book, at least for me, is in the relationship between the narrator and the facts. We really do not know if what is going on between Philip and Anne-Marie really happened and is being told to the narrator by Phillip, or if the narrator is simply making it up, using his desires and lust for a romantic relationship as a guide to the story he is telling us. That real mystery truly elevates this book from a mere erotic fiction to something more truthful to the human mind. But that does not make it or the story it is trying to tell outside the bedroom any less boring; with this idea of truth and fiction within the novel being the only reason I’d recommend this book.
Rating: 3/5

Review: "Donnybrook" by Frank Bill

While many books will come out in 2013, I can bet you real money that none of them will be as fun to read (or have as good of a cover) than Donnybrook, the first novel by Indiana’s own Frank Bill. It is filled with enough gore, violence and attitude the book should be read with some Thom Jones’ inspired boxing headgear. Each page packs quite a wallop, with characters dying within paragraphs of each other, leaving little chance for the reader to catch their breath. This is the book that fulfills the promise that Bill brought forth in his debut collection Crimes in Southern Indiana. Much like the trajectory of fellow mid-western noir author Donald Ray Pollack and his first two books, the novel builds off the short story collection in crazy, often times disturbing leaps. For Pollack, he introduced a unique setting with a keen sense of place in his first book Knockemstiff, and from that he wrote The Devil All the Time, which upped the oddball-intensity and graphic violence to tell a story you won’t soon forget. The same thing can said of Donnybrook, with this tale of a backwoods bare knuckle-boxing tournament being the violent older brother of Crimes in Southern Indiana. And everyone who reads it should be thankful for that. There are really three central storylines whose paths all lead to the dark, carnival-esque Donnybrook tournament. Jarhead, a man who is desperate to provide for his family, robs a gun store to get the funds he needs in order to enter the tournament. He is violent person, but he becomes the moral center and redemptive soul of this intensely bleak world. The same cannot be said about Chainsaw Angus, and his slutty sister Liz, who, after a failed attempt at making meth leaves two brothers dead, decide to make one last attempt at being successful drug dealers by selling some stolen pharmaceuticals at the big event. We then learn the deep-seeded hatred Liz has for Angus, who has effectively ruined her life, as well as the fame Angus has accumulated by participating in Donnybrook, becoming probably the best fighter to have ever entered the tournament. The real wild card of the novel is the character of Fu, an Anton Chigurh-like character who works for a local owner of a Chinese restaurant who must collected a debt that Angus has inherited using any means possible, which includes an encyclopedic knowledge of acupuncture that provide some of the most disturbing, and squirm-inducing scenes in the book. Once everything and everyone is at Donnybrook, everyone’s darkest desires compete with one another, and the results are bloody. But despite all the violence in the book, which may be the most I have seen in a long time. There is a real sense of affection Bill imbues in each of these desperate people. Hope always seems tangible to these people, even if it takes a balled-up fist to obtain it. There is nothing else out there like this book. It is a truly great reading experience.
Rating: 5/5