Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review: "Traveler of the Century" by Andres Neuman

Traveler of the Century is a pretty smart and mature novel from a writer, Andres Neuman, who isn’t even forty. The things that he knows and has extensive knowledge of are pretty impressive. I just wish he had the experience to make them seem interesting instead of pointless. I had really high hopes for this author, since I am developing a thing for Latin American writers, and it comes with the seal of approval by the late, great Roberto Bolano, who most people who know me know I admire greatly. But this book is rarely as good as anything Bolano wrote. It acts as a cross between something Kafka might have written and a Jane Austen/Edith Wharton novel of social moors, neither of which I care very much for. It does have very interesting scenes, much like The Savage Detectives and 2666 had, but they are crammed in between scenes of village life that nobody could make very interesting. The story revolves around a man named Hans, who travels through the village of Wardernburg, a town between Saxony and Prussia, on his way to an unknown destination. There he meets an unnamed organ grinder who lives in a cave, and meets a very intelligent woman named Sophie who he falls in love with. These two forces make him stay in the town longer than he has to. Each provide a kind of intellectual match for him, one that leads him to rise, and fall among the ranks of the society itself. The discussions had are insightful, but very dry and boring since the reader rarely gets a break from. A storyline about a Jack the Ripper-like murderer is interesting (and if Bolano was writing this it would have been fantastic), but I hate to say that it goes nowhere, leaving us with a predictable ending that has no emotional resonance. I am interested to see Neuman grow as a writer, and consider this novel a slight misstep.
Rating: 3/5

Friday, September 20, 2013

Review: "The Intuitionist" by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead is a very good writer, even if that sometimes gets in the way of the cool stories that he has the potential to tell with his books. He isn’t as bad as Ben Marcus is; whom I feel wastes story ideas in order to pepper up his prose, Whitehead has more of a handle on his keen ear for description, and his first novel, The Intuitionist, is proof of the potential he has to be a really great presence in the world of modern American fiction. His last novel Zone One, which I read a few years ago, showed the kinds of interesting ideas that Whitehead can bring into a genre of fiction that really needs more interesting ideas, even though that novel does not deal directly with themes of race in modern America. The Intuitionist, on the other hand, does so, but in one of the most interesting ways I have come across. Lila Mae Weston is the first black elevator inspector in an alternate dystopian timeline where elevators are the lifelines of metropolis cities such as New York. There are two kinds of elevator inspectors: the Empiricists, who go by the book and actually look and search for what is wrong in a damaged elevator, and the Intuitionists, who go by sound that they hear while riding the elevator, when one crashes, she is blamed for the destruction it caused since she was the person to last inspect it. Fearing she was set up, she goes on the run to figure out who has it out for her. The plot is a bit thin, but what it services is a little bit cool. I stumbled onto the metaphor for what elevators mean in this story, and the few twists the book offers add some poignant perspectives on how race is treated in the 21st century. Like a futuristic Chandler, the real treats hear are not the story, but in the place the author vividly depicts, and Whitehead does so marvelously.
Rating: 4/5

Review: "Darkmans" by Nicola Barker

This is going to be a difficult book for me to review, because, even though I spent more than a week with this book, I cannot really give it an accurate synopsis, so I cannot give it a really thorough review. I can still give you a somewhat accurate opinion of it at least, cause my feelings, being negative, are quite clear to me, I didn’t really like Nicola Barker’s Darkmans. I found it confusing and convoluted to the point where the confusion about the plot became a real hindrance to me in my quest to finish it and move on to something better. But for all of what I just said, the actual reading process, for me at least, was quite easy to get through. The book has a good flow, mainly due to its layout, and the trail to the end became more noticeable as I kept on going through it. Having read a more in depth synopsis, I can kind of piece together a coherent plot. It reminds me a lot of Trainspotting, in that it deals with a group of lowlifes in Scotland over a few days, but there is a strange connection to a history-traveling gesture that interrupts the flow of their relatively empty lives. I think you can tell from the slight disconnect of this review, that I really didn’t enjoy this book very much. I found the parts that I did understand to be to indicative of the kinds of British writing that I find unappealing, like a second rate Amis, which is really saying something: it tries very hard to be vaguely post-modern, but just comes off as emotionally vacant. Like I said before, it is a quick read if you force yourself to finish, but if you do not plan on writing a review of it, 800 plus pages is too much of a sacrifice if you don’t have the time.
Rating: 2/5

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Review: "Canada" by Richard Ford

I have to give Richard Ford a lot of credit for writing Canada, his latest novel. It could not be more different than the Frank Bascombe novels that he is known for. Gone are the suburban enclaves hiding Yates-like desperation. That motif is replaced by a more naturalistic setting in the harsh, yet beautifully so, land that connects America to Canada in the far north. It reminded me a lot of the setting of David Wroblewski’s wonderful novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Yet this novel is not nearly as interesting, and that becomes its greatest downfall. This is a very slow, probably one of the slowest I have ever read (although nothing surpasses Peter Nadas’ navel gazing snooze fest Parallel Stories, a book I am not sure I will ever go back to again). And this book shouldn’t be slow, it involves bank robbery and murder. I expect a gritty look at this kids life with nuance, which Edgar Sawtelle was able to do. The story is told from the perspective of Dell Parsons, now an old man, who looks back on his life and the most memorable time he had, which occurred in 1960’s Montana. In breathtaking descriptions, we learn how overwhelmingly normal his family is, despite his dad selling stolen beef to Indians. So when his dad, along with his reluctant mother rob a bank, it comes as a shock. When his twin sister leaves for California, Dell is left alone, and is taken to Canada to stay with Arthur Remingler, whose violent past and lost ideals make him a toxic entity in Dell’s life. I hate to say it, but most of the action in the novel is boring, although Dell’s sense of loneliness and isolation, even after the murders happen and he reunites with his sister years later before she dies, is very palpable. I just wish the action were too. If you can tough it out through the long haul with some dry passages, you might enjoy this book.
Rating: 4/5

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Review: "All Souls" by Javier Marias

It took me awhile to find my way to a book by Javier Marias, but I finally did, and I am a better reader for it. I had heard rumblings about this writer for the past few years, actually having owned a copy of his novel A Heart So White at one point, which went missing a while ago (yet I got a new copy recently). It wasn’t until his large, multi-volume work Your Face Tomorrow appeared near the end of the second edition of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die book that I decided to look more intensively in to him. Having made room in one bookcase, and ordering all three volumes of Your Face Tomorrow, I decided to check out an early, shorter work of his. And if the Your Face Tomorrow sag is anything like this novel, All Souls, it should be a grand reading experience I cannot wait for. Although it is a campus novel, which usually reek of sub-conscious pomposity, the real revelation here was how much fun this book was to read. In its compact 210 page length, there is rarely a dull moment, and the best, juiciest scenes remind me of the smaller, darker scenes in Bolano’s 2666 and The Savage Detectives, possessing both the stylistic trickery and intrigue of those two masterworks, yet on a smaller level. And he actually becomes a bit funnier than Bolano, offering a little levity to the proceedings, even when things get very serious and introspective. This is a campus novel, so the plot deals directly with a professor from Spain spending a two years teaching at Oxford University. This unnamed narrator is truly an outsider, experiencing all levels of backstabbing, one-upsmanship and glad-handing that comes with being a professor at one of the world’s most famous universities. He falls in love with Clare, a married teacher who has a tragic backstory that prevents her from making a commitment with any of the man in her life. While this relationship is at the heart of the story, it being the driving force behind many of the narrators actions, and ultimately being the one thing he hinges all his happiness on, the joy I got from this novel comes from the little scenes the narrator fins himself in, as well as the bizarre cast of characters he meets in this strange land. From the opening scene involving a groundskeeper whose memory lapses into the past focus on certain years, and you can tell which one by the professor he mistakes someone for, to the narrators meeting with a group of overweight women, affectionately called “fat tarts”, that ends with quite an introspective musing on oral sex, each event shows the separation he feels by being in an unfamiliar landscape like Oxford. This really resonated with now that I am out of college, a place I never really felt at home at. Marias gives us a very fun look at the kinds of hypocrisy that exists on a college campus, especially one focusing on liberal arts, where even the heartiest compliment can be neatly veiled example of a self-serving gesture. Even if you don’t agree with that, you should read this fun, over the top book that promises to put a smile on your face.
Rating: 5/5