Thursday, October 24, 2013

Review: "Rivers" by Michael Farris Smith

If you want an intense, wild ride into a new kind of Apocalypse, Michael Farris Smith’s Rivers is the book you need to read as soon as possible. Not since Donald Ray Pollock or Frank Bill (whose blurb on the back made me purchase this book) has a salt of the earth writer presented a world that is as interesting and full of danger as it is real and emotional. A lot of books advertise themselves as being both emotionally complex and full of action, but it has been awhile since I have come across a book that marries two different feelings into a book almost seamlessly. There is plenty of action in this book. Many people get killed and maimed, and the world that the characters inhabit is dangerous even beyond the reader’s wildest dreams. You really get the feeling that anything can happen; from a character betrayal to character redemption, sometimes within the same page or paragraph even. This is definitely a page-turner of the highest order. But what really got me and what is going to stick with me long after reading this book is it’s long interior monologues that do a great job of exhibiting the person’s loneliness in this new, washed-out world. It gives the ensuing action a strong hint of sadness and loss of hope that never really leaves the page. Even when the bullets start flying and the blood seeps out of wounds, this emotional connection permeates every page of this thrilling book. The plot is simple, so simple I am surprised that no one has thought of it yet. Due to extreme weather conditions (think of Hurricane Katrina times ten) the whole gulf coast is blocked of from the rest of America, creating a lawless land much like that of the Mad Max movies; supplies are scarce, and the only way to get ahead in this violent new world is to live by your own rules. In this new world we find Cohen, a broken man after the loss of his pregnant wife, who is living day-to-day in this hellhole with little hope for the future. When his Jeep is stolen and his house is ransacked, he decides to go out and brave the terrible weather conditions and pass the Line, the border between the flooded states and the dry ones. On the way, he comes across the dangerous Aggie, a snake-handling preacher with a dark vision for the world to come that involves impregnating girls unlucky enough to cross his path and keep them locked up against their will. In Cohen, they find a savior, someone who will shepherd them across the Line and into civilization, if the lawless world and biblically bad weather doesn’t get them first. There are a lot of twists and turn in this story, which I won’t reveal because they are very good, but like I said, the melancholy atmosphere seeps into every action of this book, from a bloody raid in a strip mall, to the dreams Cohen has about him and his wives’ trip to Venice, it is all very powerful stuff that resonates long after you are done.
Rating: 5/5

Monday, October 21, 2013

Review: "Dissident Gardens" by Jonathan Lethem

Dissident Gardens is easily the worst novel I have read by Jonathan Lethem, a writer I used to really like and still, haphazardly, look forward to any novel or book that is released by him. It isn’t a matter of his work changing, but more to do with the broadening of my horizons. He is no longer the one modern writer I really enjoy, and find more an more that are quite better and offer better experiences than he does, and they don’t get half the recognition that Lethem does. It is the same reason I feel the same way about Michael Chabon; both are kind of quasi-literary superstars, at least to the intellectual elite, and any thing they put out, even if it is sub-par effort like this novel, is going to get a lot of press, and some undeserved lauded praise. Every novel they put out seems like an event, but it rarely lives up to my expectations, at least. This novel in particular, is actually worse then the last couple of books I have read by Lethem, even worse than Girl in Landscape. It concerns a cross-section of political radicals and dissidents as the tides of American politics change, and what it means to be a revolutionary when the terms and conditions of that label are changing with technology, people, and personal beliefs. I’ve got to say, this is a very arrogant book, as you would expect from a novel that has this kind of plot.  But that is not the reason I don’t really like this book. It acts so arrogantly, but it is rarely interesting, and it never brings anything new to the table. I liked all the references to literature, but everything else around it was quite pedestrian, not the kind of work you’d expect from someone who wrote Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude. I’d have to say skip this one.
Rating: 2/5

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Review: "Big Breasts & Wide Hips" by Mo Yan

This book was a pleasant surprise for me. I’m always worried going into a novel by a writer who has one the Nobel Prize in Literature. Although my perception of it has changed with writers like Alice Munro and Mario Vargas Llosa winning the award in recent years, authors who are also bestsellers, I’ve always viewed the award as being too political for someone of my tastes. For every J. M. Coetzee there is a Herta Muller who comes along and reinforces my notions of the Nobel Prize. But I’m glad to say, that even without a Nobel to his name, Mo Yan is one of my new favorite novelists, and his epic novel Big Breasts & Wide Hips is one of the best novels I have read this year. Beyond some of the politics and history that it utilizes (I will happily admit that I know very little of the history it presents), which only acts as a back drop to what is going on in the lives of the characters, this is good, old-fashioned storytelling at its finest; the rich, thick creamy kind that takes a little more time and effort than usual, but is worth every important second of your time. Reading this bulky, 532 page novel, the one author I couldn’t stop thinking of was none other than American John Irving, an author who is somewhat low on the totem pole of authors you would think of when discussing a Nobel laureate. But it really is a fitting comparison when you read the novel. All the markings of a classic Irving novel are here: a keen sense of a well-developed and wrought out place, oddball characters whose weirdness is only overshadowed by how weirdly real they seem to be, and brutal twists of fate that almost seem comical if you didn’t care so much about the characters. And this is a really brutal novel at times, and it rarely pulls any punches. To give a thorough summary would give away too much. But the too central characters, Mother, with her tenacity and all eight of her daughters, and her son, the worthless and impotent Jintong, who is also the narrator of most of the story, go through some pretty horrific events as the course of Chinese history changes over the course of the 20th century. Loved ones die, dignity is snatched away, and hope seems not only futile, but stupid most of the time, since the fates really have it out for Mother and her family. And unlike the works of Irving, there is very little levity to the chain of events, and there seems to be no means to an end as well. In that case, if it is ever gets adapted into a movie, Terry Gilliam would be a good choice to direct this greatly pessimistic, and hilariously angry story of Chinese history. This book is definitely not for the faint of heart, since it is not a very happy story, but it sure is an entertaining one.
Rating: 5/5

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Review: "The Willow Tree" by Hubert Selby Jr.

The Willow Tree is the first Hubert Selby Jr. novel I have read since high school, and with the reading of this novel came a few realizations of the kind of person I was back then; filled with intense passion and curiosity, but very little knowledge. Even now, his novels, or at least the memories of them, still intrigue me with its graphic violence and relentlessly moral storytelling. But now that I have grown up, I find a lot of the elements that made me like a book like this when I was younger really fail to satisfy me, much like the books of Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk, but the book does still maintain its core heart that made his books the emotional roller coasters that they were. It is very hard to walk away from one of Selby’s books without feeling someone just bared all of their wounded heart to you. This book starts rather quickly, with the chaotic event that starts the book down its dark path happening within the first ten pages. Bobby, a young black kid, and his Mexican girlfriend Maria, are attacked by a gang, with Bobby being badly beaten, and Maria is badly burned when lye is thrown in her face. While Maria is taken to the hospital, Bobby runs away from his damaged home life and falls under the tutelage of Moishe, a Holocaust survivor whose caught between fostering Bobby’s need for vengeance with his own memories of his time in concentration camps, and trying to save his soul and avoid his mistakes. The real problem I found with this book, and the past books of Selby, was that his ideas seemed to overdrawn to fit the length of a novel. The books I fondly remember, like Last Exit to Brooklyn and Song of the Silent Snow, worked because the ideas were in short form, and gave off the desired emotional impact in the proper way. I’m not sure if I should recommend this book wholeheartedly, but I do feel Selby is still deserving of his cult status.
Rating: 4/5

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Review: "Transatlantic" by Colum McCann

I have been curious about Colum McCann ever since he won the National Book Award and the IMPAC Award for his 2009 novel Let the Great World Spin. It has a cool premise, one of the few cool ones that a National Book Award winning novel has had in a few years, and I was excited to read his follow-up novel Transatlantic, which came out this year, coincidentally a few days after a similar novel, The Son, which happens to be my favorite book of the year. It isn’t nearly as good as that novel, but it does show McCann as a great talent that has many more good books in him. This is far from a perfect novel, and I have a few issues with near the beginning and end, but what it does well really warrants a reading if you can look past its glaring flaws to enjoy it. The book is really three different stories that have a bloodline running through it, much like Philipp Meyer’s book, and spanning a similar time line. The first story deals with a flight team in 1919 flying across the Atlantic to deliver a cache of letters to Ireland. Then the book flashes back to the 1850’s, where Fredrick Douglass is giving a speech in Ireland. Then we go forward into the president, where a US Senator is trying to broker peace between the warring factions in Ireland. These three threads never form a cohesive narrative, but for what McCann fails to provide with scenes of grandiosity, he gives us in the smaller moments, like the scene where Douglass lifts barbells made from slave shackles to inspire his writing. Scenes like that are profound and powerful, and make this book a pleasure to read, even when large portions of the book fail to deliver.
Rating: 4/5