Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Review: "The Informers" by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

Maybe because The Informers is Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s first “real” novel (he published a few before, but he doesn’t consider them readable), but this is quite a step down from the sucker punch of his most recent novel, The Sound of Things Falling. That novel came out of nowhere, and was easily in the top five books I read last year. It is both a chilling and emotional journey into loss and the ever-present encompassing evil that has, unfortunately, made its way into the collective conscious of an entire country. It might be that this novel is a bit more personal in the themes that Vasquez expanded upon in The Sound of Things Falling, but reading through this novel, which is about 75 pages longer, it lacked an emotional core that was easily accessible for me to latch onto, making some of the politics it discusses a bit overwhelming. The novel deals with a writer, Gabriel Santoro, who publishes a book that his father, Gabriel Sr., a famous professor, destroys in a review. Afterwards, their relationship is strained, until Gabriel Sr. dies in a bus accident. Once he begins to investigate his death, and the more clues come out surrounding the nature of it, Gabriel uncovers a much darker secret between the book that he wrote, about family friend Sara Guterman, and the reasons for his father’s hatred of it; reasons that involve guilt over a betrayal, and the implications it had on the future. I still think this novel is okay. It has a great mood throughout, a kind of dank, inescapable loneliness that lies hidden on almost every page, but the affect that the tragedy has lies strictly within a small group instead of innocent bystanders, making the horror that Vasquez is so good at engineering less potent. If you haven’t checked out Vasquez’s work yet, you should do so; this is an imperfect novel, but still pretty damn good.

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Review: "Serena" by Ron Rash

I love the country noir genre, and despite its flaws, I found Serena by Ron Rash to be a near perfect edition to this kind of story that is growing in popularity, more so with the upcoming movie adaption starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. While it has it’s violent moments, this novel is more in line with something Tom Franklin would write, in that it is more about the characters and the unique setting than the plot, and for a writer like Rash, he is right at home in the early 20th century setting, and he makes his character’s quite believable, even when the happenings in the story become almost biblical in execution and emotional weight. The story opens in a train station, where a newlywed couple, George Pemberton, and his wife, the almost omnipotent Serena, arrive in small logging community in North Carolina. When they get off the train, Abe Harmon, whose daughter, Rachel, is siring his illegitimate child from a time before he met Serena, accosts them at the train station as they are arriving. George kills him in a knife fight, a callous scene reminiscent of the opening kill in Daniel Woodrell’s Woe to Live On, and shows how ruthless Serena is in her love of George and ambition. Through a series of orchestrated deaths, Serena and George claim the land for their own, despite the encroachment of the government, who want to turn it into a national park. The political; aspect account for most of the dull moments in the book, and makes the motivation of Serena and George a bit murky. But Serena still comes off as one of the coldest women I have come across in book, made more so by the innocence in Rachel and her child. With a few gory scenes, such as an attack by a mountain lion, and pretty nasty death involving logs and a river, along with the best ending I have read sense Philipp Meyer’s The Son, this a pretty solid piece of American writing.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Review: "Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out" by Mo Yan

Just like Mo Yan’s other 500 plus page novel Big Breasts and Wide Hips, Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out doesn’t suffer from a bad or misleading title, but it suffers from being too humorous and jokey in the face of what the novel expresses and sheds light on. But despite the title, this is just as good, maybe even better than Big Breasts and Wide Hips, and is for sure the single best book on reincarnation that I have ever read. While Mo Yan does seem to be a primarily political writer, as evidenced by the time periods in this novel and the other aforementioned one, but he is able to safely, and skillfully walk the balance between searing criticisms of his homeland’s (China) brutal history, and be epic journeys about small people in tiny places. This novel can be brutal sometimes, with brutal deaths of key characters occurring almost at random, and life being treated like a commodity for those who have power and those who do not. But throughout all of the heinous actions perpetrated by the state on the individual, Mo Yan always maintains a very dark sense of humor, so dark sometimes that it may be hard for the reader to see it, but it is there if you approach the story with an open mind, and open heart. The plot is very complex, but I will try my best to sum it up. It begins in hell, with Lord Yama, king of the Underworld, torturing a former landowner named Ximen Nao, who was executed in 1950 after Mao Zedong’s Land Reform Movement gave more power to the peasant class, who revolted and killed Nao, despite him having a good and giving heart. After being tortured, which included being fried alive, which is the worst thing that can happen to a soul in the Underworld, Nao refuses to confess to any wrongdoing. In frustration, Lord Yama sends him back up to earth, but reincarnated as a donkey, which just so happens to belong to Lan Lian, or Blue Face because of his birthmark, the assistant to Nao when he was alive who has now taken over his farm land, remaining the only independent farmer in China, as gossip would go, and married to one of his concubines, Yingchun. This book, like Big Breasts and Wide Hips is full of surprises that I won’t dare spoil, but they include the many incarnations of Ximen Nao over the course of 50 years. It is a little less like John Irving than Big Breasts and Wide Hips, and is more like a harsher Murakami novel in the way it balances out the absurd with the harsh realties of Chines life under Socialist rule. The book is challenging, but it does come with a character list, although incomplete, at the beginning of the novel that makes the reading of it a bit easier. This is one crazy ride from an unlikely winner of the Nobel Prize, and I hope in winning it, Mo Yan becomes a bigger name in the Western Hemisphere.

Rating: 5/5

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Review: "The Orphan Master's Son" by Adam Johnson

Time will tell as to whether or not Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Orphan Master’s Son will go the way of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and make him a celebrity, or Paul Harding’s Tinkers and leave the author right where he started as merely a cult author. But for me personally, I think it will go the way of the latter, because it is a bit too dense for mass appeal, and even though some scenes are packed to the gills with blood and guts, it never really gets interesting beyond the confusing plotline with little in the way of guideposts to let the reader know about timelines and who is telling us the story. In that way, it feels like a more complex but similar book to something that writer Chris Adrian would publish, both Adrian and Johnson being writers writers who value originality over coherence, A. The novel is told in two different parts using three different narrators. When the book begins, we meet Jun Do, a not-quite orphan in an orphanage (his father runs the place and his mom is dead) in a dystopian version of modern South Korea. As he grows up, he becomes kidnapper for the police state, and in doing so, falls in love with the legendary and elusive Sun Moon, an actress who is married to the great Commander Ga, who is an intense rival to dictator Kim Jon Il. It gets rather confusing, with fake identities and an American woman sailing around the world in a small boat, making me wish that Johnson had at least put a character list at the beginning, which I think is fair. It’s very elusive and idiosyncratic at times, but there is great talent here, enough to make me want to read the next book by Johnson, as long as he has control over his subject.
Rating: 3/5

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Review: "The Bayou Trilogy" by Daniel Woodrell

I don’t know what it is, but on paper, I should really like Daniel Woodrell. I like Tom Franklin, Frank Bill and Donald Ray Pollock, other writers who turn southern violence into biblical tragedy, but after reading his omnibus collection, entitled The Bayou Trilogy, thus reading everything he has written to date, I can’t help but feel a little let down by the promises of other writer’s who swore by him. He may be the best prose stylist in the genre, and arguably, the country right now, but the thing that he lacks, really what he always lacked, was simple storytelling skills. His characters speak cleverly but never untruthfully, but they never really drive any narrative forward that is anywhere near novels like Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter or Pollock’s The Devil All the Time. With the exception of The Death of Sweet Mister, all of his books come off as rather critic friendly, leaving in cool little nuggets of dialogue, but leaving out the blood and guts that give any of the stories he tells an edge. It is weird reviewing this book as a whole, because it really is three different book, featuring Rene Shade, a Cajun Marlowe, with haunted past and a real messed up family tree, and all take place in the violent Bayou town of St. Bruno. Through the three novels, he deals with a race-related murder that threatens the fragile balance of the town’s residents, a brutal gang that comes from the outside to take it over, and Rene’s father John X, who comes to town, bringing a brutal sociopath with him looking for blood. It sounds interesting, but the people who inhabit this town seem to exist to be clever, and it never gets interesting, even when something shocking happens, like the death of a woman in one of the books. I hope he writes more, and even though he has one book I love, I still think he is criminally underrated.

Rating: 3/5