Monday, June 24, 2013

Review: "A Suitable Boy" by Vikram Seth

A book that is 1474 pages is everything that you think that it is; it is sometimes a chore to read, takes up a lot of your time, and by the end you question whether you can read another book afterwards, or if there is such a thing as reading, since what you have been doing for the past two weeks has become second nature. But a few, unexpected things that Vikram Seth’s colossal novel A Suitable Boy brings to mind are nuance and intricacy. This is not a long novel in the way of The Stand or War and Peace, in that there is not a lot of real action, and scenes do not go on longer than they need to be. Despite it’s length, which is a selling point of the novel, Seth keeps things very restrained and doesn’t add anything unnecessary, and although a big portion of this novel is quite boring, you become invested in the story pretty quickly, and over the long page count, the characters do become alive. It is a simple story, with its core being Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s search for a suitable mate for her daughter Lata. From that thread, Seth weaves a tale of the trials and tribulations of four extended families dealing with India’s newfound independence over a year in the early 1950’s. The book has many memorable scenes, such as a lion hunt, a bloody riot, two grand weddings that bookend, and enough tension about who Lata is going to marry that, towards the end makes you wish there were at least 100 more pages to go through (because I thought she didn’t choose right). The one area I have issue with is how much time is spent on Indian land reform. It is too complicated, especially with all the minor characters involved, and it just made me more interested in skipping ahead to see what Lata, Maan, or Haresh might be doing. But with a book this long, you have to let some stuff slide. I won’t let too much of the plot slip out, because it’s effects work better as a surprise. This is a really rich, enjoyable book that rewards the reader for sticking with it, despite its arguably obscene page count.

Rating: 4/5

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Review: "Dusklands" by J. M. Coetzee

There is a scene early in Dusklands, J. M. Coetzee’s first and, next to The Master of Petersburg, his weakest novel, where a sex scene is described in such a detached and clinical way, that you might as well be reading a medical textbook in a Human Sexuality class. It is actually pretty funny, and if you read it out loud, it would probably be even funnier. But it is indicative of the problems with this first, rather short novel, which are really two spate novellas. It is as overwritten and tedious as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, making a sparse 125 book seem like it is three or four times that long. What kept me going, not including the length, was the moments Coetzee emerges within this novel, showing the talent that would make him a very deserving recipient of the Nobel Prize in 2003. The first section takes place in 1970, where a man is researching the effects of psychological warfare on the Vietcong. Of course, he becomes strangely affected by his research and starts showing signs of aggression toward his family, culminating in a horrific set of circumstances involving his young son. This would have been shocking if the prose wasn’t so dry. It takes a lot of the emotional impact out of what is happening to this man, especially in the last few pages, which should have a monumental effect on the reader. Luckily, the second section is a little better, although the problems still arise. A man exploring the South African wilderness becomes sick and is nursed back to health by a bushman village, but when he is cast out, he seeks radically cruel vengeance on those he feels wronged by. Still overwritten, but the ending seen of violence and torture will most likely stick with you. Overall, a book you can skip unless you really like Coetzee, since it is dwarfed by his later, more accessible, and, simply put, better novels.
Rating: 3/5

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Review: "The Old Gringo" by Carlos Fuentes

The Old Gringo by Carlos Fuentes is a cool little novel for anyone interested in this recently deceased giant of Latin American literature. It has a cool premise dealing with a literary mystery that has captivated audiences and the American psyche for a century, and the writing is top notch, so much so that I am surprised Fuentes did not win the Nobel during his lifetime. This book still has a few issues though. The way it sets up its timeline is very confusing, leaving little direction or clues as to when events are taking place, and whether they are out of order or actually in order and it is just being vague about it. Some may like it enough to go with the flow, but when dealing with separate time lines and things of that nature, I would like a little direction, especially with a premise that I am all but eager to give myself over to completely. The novel focuses on the journey of the unnamed “old gringo” of the title, who is modeled after the writer Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared without a trace as to what happened to him. In this fictional account he does actually join the Mexican Revolution and join the ranks of Pancho Villa’s army, lead by General Arroyo, a cocky man who has a thirst for blood. With the General, the gringo overtake a homestead, forcing everyone out except the school teacher, Harriet Winslow (really her name, don’t laugh), who begins a relationship with these two different men, with tragic results. Like I said before, the writing here is really good, getting to the heart of the story’s hidden meanings about death’s inevitability and the ways good intentions can be squandered by jealousy. I just wish that it was a little more clear at points, with the appearance of the actual Pancho Villa being the books narrative highlight, when I wanted much more. Still, this is a book you should check out. It’s relatively short and filled with many rich paragraphs.
Rating: 4/5

Friday, June 7, 2013

Review: "Sweet Tooth" by Ian McEwan

I feel, with what I have read of Ian McEwan, that he is a writer I simply read out of a mysterious compulsion, much like I do Chabon or Lethem. Any new book that comes out I feel the need to check out, and most of the book I have read of his are either very boring or very tedious, but most of the time both. Really, with the exception of his novels Enduring Love (my favorite) and Atonement, I have not really liked them very much. They each have a charm, with even his lesser books like The Child in Time and Black Dogs being worthy enough to finish. And, in retrospect, his earlier novels The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers, each of which are very dark in comparison to his more modern works, seem a lot cooler than they were when I first read them. But his latest novel Sweet Tooth is one of his weakest books. I’d compared it to The Innocent, which also had a boring plot about British spies. The main character is Serena Frome, a book-smart girl who, after an affair with a professor, is brought in to a spy ring to keep track of a young writer, named Tom Hanley, whom she likes at first for his works, then falls in love with the man, with far-reaching consequences for her risky job. The little joy that this book provides comes from the long explanations of Tom’s stories that recall McEwan’s earlier days, like the one about a man who falls in love with a store mannequin or the husband whose life and marriage are falling apart, and the revelation of its cause and aftermath. It really makes you want to be reading those books instead of this one. While I am not a spy novel kind of guy, I know enough to tell that this is not a good one. Especially from someone who I still feel is very gifted.
Rating: 3/5

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Review: "Silence" by Shusaku Endo

Silence by Shusaku Endo is a better than average novel on Christianity from a very unlikely source that deals with a time in history I was not even aware of. Not to be offensive, but I did not know there was a large population of Japanese Christians that existed, let alone enough to warrant the horrific events described in this novel to be perpetrated on them. For that, Endo is a very unique novelist, bringing Western ideals to the fiction about the Far East, much like his fellow countryman Haruki Murakami, but unlike Murakami, Endo prose style and focus is purely Japanese, and at times it makes this novel a little dense and hard to follow, especially once the story reaches its climax in a prison. But luckily this is a short book, only a shade under 200 pages that packs quite a punch, whether you are religious or not. The story follows a Portuguese priest, Father Rodrigues, who is sent on a mission to a remote Japanese island to spread the gospel, as well as find out the truth about fellow priest, his mentor Father Ferreia, who has supposedly committed apostasy. Once there, his two companions soon die and he is tricked by a Judas-like character named Kichijiro, and is thrown in jail. Facing torture, he must also commit apostasy by stepping on a fumie, a primitive religious painting, in order to survive. This book acts as a great argument for the qualities of faith when faced with insurmountable odds when you are entirely alone. This is evidenced by the ending, which I thought at first came off as too bleak and downbeat, but showed the power of faith in a world that is entirely too pragmatic. If you can get past the dense, sometimes overwritten prose, this novel is a real eye-opener.
Rating: 5/5

Monday, June 3, 2013

Review: "The Son" by Philipp Meyer

I hate to be predictable, but the sophomore effort by the extremely talented Philipp Meyer, The Son, is not just as good as I thought it was going to be, but it has even shattered those expectations. This book is simply astounding. Every chapter, every event and every action in this novel shows proof of Meyer’s mastery over the narrative form, and, before long, it will be talked about along side books like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury as being a modern classic. As much as I love American Rust, which is one of my favorite books, The Son, I am glad to say, is so much better than its predecessor. In scope, meaning, and urgency, this book dwarves American Rust. If that book announced the arrival of a new talent, this book cements that arrival, with a story that is grand, bloody and overwhelmingly compelling about the birth of a new kind of nation seen through three generations of a powerful Texas family. The Son tells the story of the rise and fall of the McCullough family, a rich dynasty built of oil, and, as we learn, the blood of anyone who stands in the way of their progress. Be warned, this is a violent book, probably the most viscerally violent book I have read in a long time, with graphic scenes of torture and mutilation of fellow humans being described in graphic detail, that is never meant to shock, but to show the different values the competing cultures of Indians and early Americans had. Told in alternating chapters with three different generations of McCulloughs, we first meet Eli, the patriarch of this family, who will have a role in the two other storylines. He is the first child born in the New Republic of Texas, and we see the journey he takes in order to become the presence he becomes throughout the book. We see his family raped and killed by the Comanche Indians, who kidnap him and make him into one of their own, teaching him self-reliance and confidence, as well as the futility of compassion for human life. We then meet his son Peter, who is a victim of this lack of compassion when he sees the brutal slaughter of a Mexican family at the hands of his father and cohorts in order to get more land. Finally, we meet his great-granddaughter, Jeanie, who narrates her life story while she is lying paralyzed in the parlor of her family home. Through three separate eyes, we find out the cost of success and what it does to someone’s soul. We see Eli become a victim, victimizer, and folk hero through three different chapters, but the fact remains that he has killed people to get what he has in life, with little or no remorse. Peter’s impotence and cowardice to confront his father and do what is right causes him to make a decision that ruins his legacy. And Jeanie, caught between being a ruthless businesswoman in a world of men and having desires to be loved by a husband causes her a fair share of tragedy as well. This is also a compelling mystery, as we are intrigued by what Eli, Peter and Jeanie did to become what they are, and the reveal is tremendous as well as being a cathartic dose of karmic justice, with an ending paragraph that just might be my new favorite. The Son’s quality, grandeur and possible importance are simply staggering, and I don’t think I will read anything like this in a long time.
Rating: 5/5