Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review: "The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea" by Yukio Mishima

It is with great surprise to let you know that the Mishima book that I just read, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea, is one that that I liked very much. Late last year, I read The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, probably his most famous work outside of the story “Patriotism” and The Sea of Fertility tetralogy, and I say, without regret, that it is one of the funniest books I have ever read, even if it is for all the wrong reasons. It took something as innocuous as an obsession with a building, and took itself so seriously and with great importance (not to mention the kind of levity you could only find at a children’s funeral), and never once let any of its silly ideas go. All these qualities make it a laugh riot, and judging from the pictures I have seen of Mishima and how he presented himself in life and death, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t his goal. So I came into this novel ready for more samurai tomfoolery, and what I got was something completely different. It has the same overly serious tone and obsession with ideals as The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, but the subject matter fits well with the somber tone, and touches on some pretty heavy themes that are universal, and deeply conflicting. Despite one scene, a lot of the violence is in the language, and the feelings Mishima convey through this aggressiveness come off as sad sometimes, but also quite moving. There are three central characters in the novel. We first meet Fusako, a widowed woman whose life revolves around her 13-year old son Noboru. They have a very strange attachment to each other. Not so much incestuous as very obsessive, with Noboru sneaking looks at his mom in her own room from a hole in a trunk that is in his room. Eventually, Fusako meets Ryuji, a deeply independent and introspective sailor who is questions what he has been doing with his life. Noboru, along with his gang of very intelligent delinquents, admire Ryuji for his willingness to pursue his own dreams in the adult world, which they see as phony and without virtue. Once Ryuji forsakes life at the see to pursue his love for Fusako, Noboru and his gang feel betrayed and ruined, and decide to punish the sailor for his indiscretions. It sounds a bit nutty, but once you read it becomes quite emotional. It isn’t the conflict between childhood and adulthood, but more ideology versus personal happiness, and how they can’t ever really coexist. While it is important to maintain a sense of independent free thought as you grow into adulthood, it is more important, and nobler to think about your responsibilities to others and how you affect them by your actions. This is a short, shocking novel with an ambiguous ending, and a scene of feline mutilation that rivals the cat-skinning scene in Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. It’s unpleasant at times, and coldly serious, but it is damn good.

Rating: 5/5

Monday, January 27, 2014

Review: "Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer" by Steven Millhauser

I had heard of Steven Millhauser quite a bit ago, and was struck by how, despite winning a prize as prominent as the Pulitzer, he was not a bigger name than he is. Even after the win, he was still relegated to being a cult author, and the recognition that comes with winning that award did not follow him. Since my good friend Chad is did his dissertation on him, I decided to read that prize winning novel Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, and I can see why it won such an award. It is a singular story with a great arc and a great lesson to convey that presents something a little meatier than simply showing the evils of capitalism. But I didn’t feel it did much more than that, leaving out a few key elements that would make the story more than just a cautionary tale. The eponymous Martin of the title begins his life as clerk at his father’s cigar shop, and as he grows up in New York in the late 1800’s, he moves up in the world in big ways. He gets a job as a bellboy, and that leads to a managerial position, which leads to him opening up his own hotel, and finally opening the Grand Cosmo, his life work, which ends up costing him the success he has accumulated. In this book, success is like a drug, and Martin is so driven to succeed, he leaves a trail of dissatisfied humans in his wake, most notable are his relationship with his wife Emmeline and her sister Caroline, which is almost like he married two people. But this singular drive makes everyone else in the book seem paper-thin. Martin is the only real character, and all those in his life are bit players. If this book were half as long, I would have given it a much higher praise, but this is a very cool book that offers a unique perspective on success.

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Review: "A Model World" by Michael Chabon

The only thing I dislike more in Michael Chabon’s career than his recent output may be his early output, because his short Story collection, A Model World, may be the least impressive book, standing behind only the dreck that he came onto the scene with, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. It falls into doing something I really cannot stand when it comes to short stories: nothing ever happens. A few emotions are uncovered, and certain desires and wants come to the surface in these stories, but no real action take place. I’m not really judging those kinds of stories on their literary merit, authors like Raymond Carver are masters of the form, and his stories have very little action. It really comes down to preference, and I just prefer my stories to have a kind of weirder bent to them. It is a small enough form to experiment with, so I like it when a story loses its marbles a bit. My favorite short story writers; Dan Chaon, Haruki Murakami, Flannery O’ Conner and Joe R. Lansdale, all write stories that walk that line between insanity and brilliance very well. But having said that, I still feel that Chabon’s first collection is not a very good one. They all have interesting settings, especially the last one, which involves a group of kids who appear to be breaking into a house to proposition a foreign girl for sex. But I found it easy to lose the motivation of each character, probably because none of them were very well drawn-out, and what motivations they had, if any at all, were not really clear, or got in the way of what Chabon really wanted to express in the short form. I can’t be too made at this collection. It is from a very early period in the life of a literary superstar, and I’m glad to say that Wonderboys, Chabon’s best book, was right around the corner.

Rating: 3/5

Review: "Europe Central" by William T. Vollmann

Europe Central by William T Vollmann is the hardest book that I have had to get through in recent memory, for all the wrong reasons. There isn’t a moment in this book where it rises above its bland and dry layout that is almost too daunting for even the hardcore reader to get through. And the lack of reward at the end of the 750 pages (there are about 150 pages of sources and appendices but you couldn’t pay me to read them) shows what happens when a writer thinks too much with his head, and sometimes his penis, and not with his heart. The only positive things I can say about it is that some of the sex scenes in it are quite hysterical, almost as bad as the ones in Peter Nadas’ Parallel Stories, and it retroactively makes me think more highly of a book like The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, a similar book in size and scope, but has much more emotional impact than this book, which has almost none. Like The Kindly Ones, Europe Central takes place during the years of World War II and focuses on the affect that the Third Reich’s rise has on everybody from high-ranking SS officers to artists, mainly composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Vollmann, I can tell, is quite intelligent and has an output that I honestly envy, producing almost five or six books in his career, whether they are fiction or non-fiction that surpass the 1000 pages mark. But if they are anything like this book, or worse, than they should only be read by academics in high-level college classrooms. But I’m done with that. Even though the sex scenes, written with a clinical coldness, provide quite a few laughs, it can save this long book from being a colossal dud.

Rating: 2/5

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Review: "Live By Night" by Dennis Lehane

While it is very predictable, Dennis Lehane’s Live By Night is a book that I thoroughly enjoyed. It has all the trappings that make him my favorite American writer working today; prose and dialogue that expounds on everything from way a criminal act goes down to the very meaning of existence, and never coming off as arrogant or phony in doing so, and plot lines that create urgency and tension with realistic scenes of violence and characters who make you feel and live what is at stake in the pages. This is an indirect sequel to what I feel is Lehane’s magnum opus The Given Day. I don’t want to say that it is any less than the other book; it is just a different kind of story entirely. While The Given Day is almost purely a historical novel, Live By Night is definitely a crime epic set in the Prohibition Era, which makes this an excellent book for people who are fans of the show Boardwalk Empire (and shows why he was brought on as a writer for this previous season. And being a crime epic, this is a much darker book than The Given Day. The cost of life seems greater, the chances of survival, of both the body and the soul, are quite slim for all involved. The focus in this chapter of Lehane’s proposed trilogy is Joe Coughlin, who survived a bout of malaria in The Given Day, who is all grown up and leading a life of crime. A stain on the family name according to his father Thomas, a police commissioner, not just because of his criminal ways; he has fallen in love with Emma Gould, a squeeze of Albert White, the rival of the boss Joe works for. In a series of events that begin with a botched robbery, Joe is almost beaten to death, first by White, than by his vengeful father and a group of thuggish policeman, and Emma is presumed dead. A prison sent soon follows, where he is taken under the wing of kingpin Maso Pescatore, and is sent down to Florida to run his illegal rum operation. From there, he becomes a Scarface like figure, basically running the town with his love interest Gracelia, although trouble is never far behind, and the past comes back to try to take away Joe’s future. This is probably the darkest Lehane has gotten since he dealt with child abduction in Gone, Baby Gone, featuring a beating that is the most graphic and stomach turning one I have read in recent memory. It never glamorizes the lifestyle, and there still remains a nugget of the Joe we met in The Given Day, who is deeply moral and wants what is best for him and those that he loves, even though he knows that they are destined for tragedy and ruin. This is powerful, cinematic book that takes the reader on a journey into the darkest areas of desire, and it’s one that only Dennis Lehane can provide.

Rating: 5/5