Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Review: "The Kindly Ones" by Jonathan Littell

The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell is easily one of the hardest books I have ever had to read and that isn’t such a good thing. It takes up quite a lot of time and is filled to the brim with esoteric details about German army, historical facts and the mechanisms about World War II. By the end you are drained, by the intense details the reader can get bogged down in, as well as the appalling acts our narrator commits throughout it’s 975 pages. For while this book is a chore to read for far too many pages, within them lie scenes that are shocking and gruesome, and are destined to leave a mark long after reading them. It also does the amazing thing of asking certain questions about morality and culpability about a dark time in history that many people won’t ask, or are afraid to. Our narrator, a Dr. Max Aue, is, at the beginning of the novel, living a life as a French factory owner with a loving family. He soon tells us this is in fact a fa├žade he has intricately fabricated for himself after the things he did for the Nazi’s during the war. We learn he is very smart man, knowing a lot about books, history and philosophy. We also learn, through his many heinous acts, that he is a brutal, yet rather empty psychopath whose tendencies were brought forth out of him by the kinds of atrocities that the Nazi’s perpetrated. The main problem with this book is how long it is. Littell rarely leaves any details out, and the narrative gets lost in the long shuffle through many unindented lines of prose. But the real treats in the novel deal with the little scenes of cruelty we witness, from the sad death of a boy piano prodigy, to the disgusting thing he does with a sausage in a refrigerator in one of his flashbacks. And it asks questions about what kind of punishment he should have received. Was he psychopath, or did this world without conscious or love simply make him a harmful monster instead of a harmless one? If you can get through (some won’t), this is a very thought-provoking novel.
Rating: 4/5

Friday, August 16, 2013

Review: "The Risk Pool" by Richard Russo

Reading a Richard Russo novel, especially one of his first three, is kind of like being wrapped in a warm blanket during a cold fall or winter evening, even if the things he writes about are far from being warm or comforting. He writes about such devastating topics as loneliness, isolation and the marginalization of an individual in a small town, but he does so in a way that is completely optimistic and loving, that you just can’t help being entranced by the stories he weaves and the people he crafts, even in a novel like The Risk Pool, which isn’t as good as his other two novels in his first three published, Mohawk and Nobody’s Fool. Russo, while a great storyteller second to none, he is not without his weaknesses, which show a little to often in this novel, with them being his tendency to throw around exposition a little too freely. The title of the book is very misleading, with the story focusing mainly on the life of Ned Hall, whose adolescence is stuck between to parental figures who are anything but shining examples of stability. His mother, a manic-depressive, is pushed to the breaking point by a love life that is constantly in a state of flux. His father is even worse, coming off like Sully from Nobody’s Fool with zero sympathy. He gambles, beats up his wife’s lawyer, and refuses to divorce is ailing wife, driving her to be committed to an insane asylum, with little remorse that is kind of forgiven through his self-awareness, but not really. Like all of Russo’s fiction, it is very light-hearted even if it shouldn’t be, and it is impossible not to fall in love with it somehow. But he can be a bit long-winded with his explanations of events. It was okay in Nobody’s Fool, but here, it gets really old and tarnishes the books. Still, this is a very fun and loving book by a writer who is never afraid to face the harshness of the world with a loud smile.
Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Review: "The Age of Wire and String" by Ben Marcus

I guess this is the year of changes and firsts. I usually have the luck of reading only one bad book a year, but after finishing Ben Marcus’ The Age of Wire and String, you can add another really bad reading experience to that list. It isn’t as bad as Noughties by Ben Masters, a writer with a similar name, but it is really, really bad. After finishing it mere minutes ago, I can hardly consider it a book or a short story collection. It really is just a collection of failed ironic musings that fit together as well as damp puzzle pieces. It actually retroactively makes his novels seem worse. I gave four-star ratings to each. My opinions have changed since then even before reading this, especially when it concerns Notable American Women, which I don’t think I’d give a passing grade to now (The Flame Alphabet at least has a cool premise amid the mindless meandering). I hesitate to call him and overrated writer in the vein of Jonathan Safran Foer, since he is not as popular among large groups of readership, but among other writers who are his fans, I would totally say that, especially when you really look at what he writes. It is overwritten, obtuse for the sake of being obtuse, and just plain not fun. I’d give you a plot synopsis or favorite stories, but there really isn’t. Nothing makes sense, and the only real world that you inhabit in its pages is Marcus’, and you don’t want to be there, unless you want to be bored to tears. I feel bad saying this, but I would question the validity of any one’s opinion if they actually liked this book, or called Marcus a genius. To end, just don’t read this book, anything else will be a better way to spend your time. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Review: "NW" by Zadie Smith

I don’t know what it is about British writers attempting post-modern novels and always failing, but they really do not have the technique down very well. I am not a very big fan of the genre itself for the most part, with House of Leaves and Infinite Jest being the two high points for me, but even with the most vague form of an idea in an American post-modern novel is at least cohesive or have a noticeable trajectory. But with books by Ali Smith and this one, NW by Zadie Smith, there seems to be only random thoughts and ideas put down on the page without any kind of path to follow. But while Ali Smith’s Hotel World was not very fun to read, NW is at least that. Granted I find it rather pretentious in its subject matter, something Hotel World admirably wasn’t, this is a quick read, despite the 400-page length, even if it doesn’t have much of a story. What little story concerns a day in the life of Leah, a white woman married to an African hairdresser, who allows a woman into her house who cheats her out of her money. Her husband scolds her for not being more vigilant, since she is very much a person who sees time more slowly. The later sections deal with other people who inhabit this upscale loft in London, from the past Leah shares with another character Natalie, as well as a guy named Felix, who is concerned about his race. It is hard to grasp hard details of this book because it is written in that awful style that seems like second rate Martin Amis, who is, I would argue, already second rate. But like I said, despite that giant flaw, it is sometimes fun, even though you may not know what is really going on. But it is a quick read that some could finish in a day, if you really, really like it.
Rating: 3/5

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Review: "Home Land" by Sam Lipsyte

Sam Lipsyte is a very funny writer, maybe the funniest if he ever turns to writing pure comedy, which I think he is doing. This is very evident in his novels The Ask, his breakthrough hit, and this one, Home Land. He has a scathing satirical voice that brutally critiques modern life, but does so while critiquing the critiquer. It is refreshing in its themes and ideas, but the execution can be a bit clunky sometimes, due solely his strong sense of control over the story. By that I mean he never really lets it take off into places it needs to go to be really, truly great storytelling instead of just great satire. Too many times in Home Land, he forgoes more realistic and more interesting route to make a funny joke or have a character say something really clever. It leaves me begging for something that might have been, even though, in small doses, it can make a reader laugh quite uproariously. The premise of this novel is really interesting, and is what made me read it as a follow-up to The Ask. Lewis Miner, known unaffectionately as “Teabag” by his high school classmates at Eastern Valley High School, decides to write to the school’s newsletter, Catamount Notes, and tell the world his awful history post-high school, from being left by the love of his life for an incestuous relationship with the love’s brother, his screwed up friendship with his best friend Gary and his antagonistic relationship with the principal Mr. Fontana, who publishes Teabag’s musings to spite him. There is very little plot, but of what there is, it is quite funny and sad all at once, leading to a climatic speech at Teabag’s high school reunion being the highlight of the novel. As I said before, there are a too many instances where a plot direction is ignored for a joke, but if you want a gut busting read, look no further than this, or any other Lipsyte novel.
Rating: 4/5