Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Review: "Burnt Tongues: An Anthology of Transgressive Stories"

With Burnt Tongues, a Anthology of Transgressive Stories, a collection of stories by new or sometimes unknown writers, I feel I am taking my goal of discovering new writers more seriously than I have before. This is a collection short stories pulled from The Cult Workshop, a fan website of author Chuck Palahniuk. I see it as a writing equivalent of an open mic night, and with that comes some really good things and some really bad things as well. On one hand, you get some super-talented writers who were brave enough to post their stories online for free and find an audience, and possibly a publisher with the release of this book and Palahniuk’s named attached to it. But you also get some people who have simply read to many of his books and simply present a poor imitation of his stories that have little merit besides a few shocks meant to make you gag. The stories here are really dark, dealing with subjects as grief, loneliness and jealousy manifesting into aberrant behavior. I’ll pick out a few I liked and a few I didn’t to review. The first story “Live This Down” by Neil Krolicki, about the failed suicide of three ostracized high school girls is both funny and sad in its execution and inevitability, as well as “Mating Calls” by Tony Liebhard, which covers the male side of that spectrum. Then there are the stinkers, such as “Ingredients” by Richard Lemmer and “Heavier Petting” by Brian Piechos, which use shocking acts like objects used for vaginal insertion and bestiality just to make the readers puke and leave them unimpressed, although they aren’t as bad as “Zombie Whorehouse” by Daniel W. Broallt, which tells you all you need from the title, and still mages to be unoriginal. But the true gems I take away from this book are “Gasoline” by Fred Venturini, a dark coming of age tale about unwarranted sympathy and guilt that feels like something Daniel Woodrell would write, and “Engines, O-Rings and Astronauts” by Jason M. Fylan, a story about a school shooting with a unique perspective that echoes Shirley Jackson’s story “Charles. I do recommend this book, despite it’s glaring flaws, and it is a good choice if you want to take a chance reading some dark, dreary fiction by some unknown authors, this book is made for that.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Review: "Only Revolutions" by Mark Z. Danielewski

Reading Mark Z. Danielewski’s second novel, Only Revolutions, is one of the hardest and most frustrating books I have read, but it somehow also made me a much better reader when I came out on both sides of the book (quite literally), much as I did for House of Leaves (which is haunting and fantastic) and The Fifty Year Sword. If I ever attempt to read James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, which I firmly believe no one has ever, it will probably feel a lot like this book, whose status as a novel can be argued. It is more of a prose poem that really doesn’t have a clear ending or beginning, like a snake that is eating itself. It has some fun moments, where Danielewski, a brilliant wordsmith as well as a mad scientist of literature, uses misspellings of words and rhyming scheme to uncover some really neat truths about love and dreams at his best, and is quite funny and briefly entertaining at it’s worst. But be warned, this book is far from a page-turner, with many vague notions presented that will leave readers wanting concrete solutions to this endless knot confused, or worse frustrated. There is no real plot, or at least anyone that I could discern by reading this. The focus is on two young people, Sam and Hailey, or Hailey and Sam depending on which section you begin with, traveling around the country, while a time line traces the history of the world from the mid-1800’s to the middle of this century. To get into the syntax of this book is kind of useless, since it works more on an emotional level than anything else, but the timeline seemed superfluous to me, but this books functions on a higher level of understanding than I was capable of. The best way to approach it is to read 8 pages at a time on one section, and flip the book over and do the same thing until you reach both ends of the book. A complete understanding of the book, even using this sound method, is really impossible. But if you want to challenge yourself over Christmas break with something gargantuan and labyrinthine, you can’t do better than a book like this.
Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Review: "Our Lady of the Assassins" by Fernando Vallejo

This is the longest times between reviews for me in a long time, but I will do my best to talk about Columbian author Fernando Vallejo’s short, brutal novel, Our Lady of the Assassins. This book is less a novel, and more of a sustained cry from a narrator who is painfully, irrevocably lost in the world he grew up in, that, thanks in part to drug lords like Pablo Escobar, has turned the streets into a battlefield of a useless drug war, and innocent civilians into collateral damage. The first writers that came to mind while reading this were from Vallejo’s continent, such as Chile’s Bolano, and fellow countrymen Juan Gabriel Vasquez, especially in how he writes about what illegal drugs has turned his country into. But I was also reminded of Scottish author James Kelman, who is famous for these manic first-person narrators who seemed destined for an early grave if God is merciful. The man here, a writer just like Vallejo, comes back to his hometown of Medellin to find it overrun by a brutal drug culture that has devalued human life. He finds some solace in his sad, yet fulfilling relationship with a young male prostitute. The young man also happens to be a paid assassin, who kills at will and for the most minor transgressions, such as having a bad haircut. I won’t tell you where the story goes, but it is quite brutal, with deaths of important people in Fernando’s life being killed off in the span of paragraphs. This book is far from perfect, with its pause-less style barely able to sustain it’s brisk 132-page count, but it is never uninteresting in its unredeemable bleakness. If you can find it, and have a few hours to kill, this book will definitely satisfy you. 

Rating: 4/5

Monday, December 1, 2014

Review: "The Little Friend" by Donna Tartt (2014 Re-Review)

Last year, I decided to reread a book from a few years back, one that I felt deserved another chance after my first thoughts felt a bit swift and unformed, and it was a success with my opinion of Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle changing drastically. That happened again this year when I decided to reread Donna Tartt’s sophomore novel The Little Friend. Too bad it is the other way around, since I came away from this novel disliking it much more than I did the first time. I feel a lot of my discontent with this novel has to do with feelings for her other two novels, The Secret History and, more importantly, The Goldfinch. Each book is a modern classic, the works of a writer who is miles ahead of many writers working today at a level they wish they could function, and The Little Friend, a boring book of dry academic origin masquerading as a southern gothic thriller, makes the experience real hard to swallow. I won’t get into the plot so much, since I already have a written review somewhere on my blog, but I will talk about my few likes and a few of my many dislikes as I was reading this. The opening is awesome, where the decaying Dufrense family finally crumbles when they find the dead body of the Robin, the prized grandson, hanging from a tree next to there house. It is a feeling that doesn’t last long though, as the next 500 pages become dry and monotonous as Tartt writes about low people in a way that comes off as showboating, which is beneath her, and while I like Harriet, and even Hely, her male admirer which, as a testament to Tartt’s unparalleled skill to make him real and not a caricature, no one comes off as anything but superfluous. I feel Tartt is out of her element here trying to write about the place she grew up, but it doesn’t feel like her place at all, and this is one blemish on a career that will be rightfully remembered for ages.

Rating: 2/5

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Review: "Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster" by T. J. English

Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish-American Gangster by T. J. English is both the reason I rarely read any non-fiction, but highlights some of the personal biases I have toward the format that I wish didn’t keep me from enjoying it. This book does read very easy; maybe not like a novel, but it doesn’t bog you down with too much distracting information, and gives you just enough historical tidbits that will leave you wanting more, especially if you are like me and are fascinated by the idea of the American Gangster, and with a last name like Delehanty, I am very interested in reading about Irish gangsters, who have a very different history than that of Italian gangsters. In the Irish mob, if you can call it that, there really is no hierarchy or any kind of archaic codes that these criminals live by. They have gained success and legendary status through hard work and determination despite stereotypes, and they would be inspiring figures, if they didn’t have a long trail of innocent blood staining their coattails. This book is really an introductory work, spending no more than 50 of its 450 pages on a single time period or person. It begins in the mid-1800’s, where the potato famine brought many impoverished Irish people to the US. We learn about John Morrissey, the first true Irish gang leader, and his famous boxing match with William Poole, the basis for Billy the Butcher in Gangs of New York, and follows with stories ranging from little known activity in New Orleans, to prohibition legends like Owney Madden, Dean O’Banion and Legs Diamond, to Westies gang, which I found most fascinating, to Whitey Bulger, still on the run when the book was published. The book can drag, especially when it gets into politics and business, but ultimately this book rarely disappoints in telling a story that in recent years, has gone untold.

Rating: 5/5