Monday, March 24, 2014

Review: "Bleeding Edge" by Thomas Pynchon

It is always good to get the bad book out of the year sooner rather than later, cause I’m glad to say that great books come along far more frequently than bad ones do. And this year’s rotten egg is the newest tome by American headache causer Thomas Pynchon. I have never been a fan of his books. The ways in which he piles so much useless, esoteric facts into a ball of twine that is impossible to untangle never really sat well with me. It was Pynchon being somewhat of an intellectual bully, and there are much better post-modern authors to read that are easier and way more fulfilling. But nothing prepared me for how hilariously bad Bleeding Edge was. What do you think an aging intellectual like Pynchon would sound like writing about Notorious B. I. G., modern reality television, and video games? It sounds as bad as it really is, but it is quite fun to read. The loose plot that is characteristic of Pynchon follows Maxine, a house wife/internet terrorist who is living in 2001 New York right after the dotcom crash but right before the 9/11 attacks. I knew I was in for an exercise in awful when, within the first fifty pages, Maxine is giving an almost Ayn Rand-ian  graduation speech to a group of 8th graders. From there, it get more ridiculous, and you can’t help but laugh harder as things get crazier and more nonsensical. From a law office named after Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger (which I always have problems with since I am fans of those film franchises and people always treat them as a joke) to ill advised dissection of films such as The Wizard of Oz and Johnny Mnemonic. Nothing rings true, but everything is bloated to the point of near-explosion. While I may have had enough of Pynchon, it was nice to sit back and laugh.
Rating: 1/5

Review: "Room" by Emma Donoghue

While I try not to let it hinder my views on the book as a whole, I can’t help but feel cheated by Emma Donoghue’s Room. The premise is almost guaranteed to make you look twice at it, and, not to give anything away, it does not follow through with it in a way that satisfies the reader, at least this reader. Other than that, the book remains pretty solid, ratcheting up the tension through a unique viewpoint that you would not expect lends itself to such nail-biting suspense. And despite the narrator’s ignorance to his horrifying predicament, which could have caused plot points to be lost in translation, everything is clear and concise enough that lends itself to emotional investment and the suspense that comes with it, at least in the first half, which I will get to without trying to spoil it for you. The novel focuses on five-year-old Jack, whose whole life and existence is confined to a very small twelve by twelve room that he shares with his mother. He makes up games, learns from old books, and values the times when he is allowed snacks when Old Nick is in a good mood. In reality, his mom has been kidnapped and birthed Jack in the room, and she is slowly but surely planning her ingenious escape. Without any real tools at her disposal, Jack’s mom must rely on her wits to think of a way out, which she does, but it is quite risky and could cost them their lives. As I said, the first half of the book is quite well paced, never gets annoying, and offers a lot of intrigue as to how it might play out. It is the last 150 pages that are a letdown. Not bad or anything, just not as good as the first half, and that is too large of chunk to ignore.

Rating: 3/5

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Review: "Let The Great World Spin" by Colum McCann

I’d really like to read a short story collection by Colum McCann, I’m sure it will be much better than the novels he writes. In fragments, they are great, astounding even. He is a master at pathos, sadness and redemption, and every person he inhabits as the author has a distinct voice. But sewn together as a cohesive unit as they are in his National Book Award winning novel Let The Great World Spin, they come off as an intricately orchestrated mess. If these disparate narratives were just allowed to exist on their own in separate universes, this would be a book I would laud praise on. But together, it is quite silly and saccharine, with McCann using the singular event as a cheap way to gain our emotional trust without really earning it. The centerpiece for this novel is the famous walk of Philippe Petit, who strung up a wire between the World Trade Center buildings and performed death-defying feats for the onlookers in the streets below. Around this framing device, we meet two groups of people. The first are the Corrigan brothers, John and Ciaran, who grew up in Ireland. John, the younger one, seems destined for sainthood, and leaves for New York to start his mission, with Ciaran soon joining him after their mother dies. Into this picture come a couple, down on their luck after a failed movie career, who make a fateful mistake that has repercussions that extend decades beyond the 70’s. The walk has very little to do with the events, but on their own they are enthralling and tense, and adding another layer to the tragic set of circumstances comes off as manipulative. The parts that are good are good in a grand way. McCann has the chops and deserves some kind of recognition. He doesn’t need parlor trick to do so.

Rating: 4/5

Monday, March 17, 2014

Review: "The Accidental Tourist" by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler, with the exception of Joyce Carol Oates, has a presence about her, at least in the world of publishing that seems almost omnipresent. So I am surprised it has taken me this long to read one of her books. And it looks like I picked a good gateway book with The Accidental Tourist, arguably her most famous book due to the Lawrence Kasden movie of the late 80’s. It has its moments of boredom, and in the end comes off as a very dry book. But it is full of emotional whimsy that seems to sprout from the oddest places, whether that be the tragedy of a middle aged couple losing their young son to a senseless violent act or the training of an overly aggressive dog. The novel begins with Macon Leary, a publisher of an anti-travel guide called The Accidental Tourist, is left by his wife due to the death of their son, who was killed while away at camp during a convenience store holdup. Macon, a man content to stay in one place as much as possible, is thrown into a tailspin, leaving him with no motivation to work or do much else. To make matters worse, his dog, Edward, whom I am ashamed to say was my favorite character, attacks everybody but him. He takes him to a trainer, Muriel, who inserts herself into his life, and begins to make changes for him he has needed in his life. There is very little action, and gets dull toward the middle, but there is a great emotional honesty in this book, and nothing ever comes off as fake or trite, even with a silly plot. With an uplifting ending, that makes up for a needlessly cruel act, this book is sure to please anyone wanting to get lost for a few days in a pleasant world.

Rating: 4/5

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Review: "The Tenants" by Bernard Malamud

This is novel, The Tenants, is a very different book than the other Bernard Malamud book I read, The Fixer. Not just in setting and time period, which are also vastly different, but in character and theme as well. The Fixer, if I can recall, is a book about sacrifice and becoming a better person. The Tenants is a lot different and a darker, focusing more on themes of selfishness, race relations, and the thin line between being an artists and just being an awful person. Comparing the two books, it is hard to believe that the same man wrote each of these books. The styles are a bit different as well, with this book less straightforward and more willing to take liberties with context and reality, both inside the story and outside of it in the reader’s imagination. The novel takes place in a rundown apartment complex, where a previously successful writer, Harry Lesser, is living like a pauper and trying to finish his third novel. In the midst of his struggle, another writer, a black man named Willie Spearmint, is trying to pump out his first novel, one he believes he has been preparing for all of his hard life. The two become friends, despite Willie’s murderous hatred of white people and Lesser’s weakening confidence. Their fragile bond is disrupted by two things, Lesser’s judgment of Willie books, which may or may not be out of jealousy, and the introduction of Willie’s white girlfriend, Irene, which sends them both on a violent road to confront their individual identity. The book is a bit outdated, with Willie and his friends being portrayed in a negative way that some may see as racists. But the themes are quite alive, especially near the end, when a bit of the supernatural is introduced, at least metaphorically, recalling some of Malamud’s shorts. Also, Willie’s stories are described nicely, making me wish they were real and available. This is a solid novel that works pretty damn good if you can keep your mind open.
Rating: 4/5

Review: "The Painted Bird" by Jerzy Kosinski

A harrowing, rather fantastical look at World War II in Europe, Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird is a novel I will not soon forget. To be honest, it may be one of the most overtly and viscerally violent books I have read, with deaths happening on almost every page, and described in a detached yet gruesome fashion. Whether it is made up or not, as some critics of Kosinki’s claim, the power of this singular work cannot be denied, even with its flaws. While it deals with World War II, it is unlike any other book you might have read about that overly talked about subject. It has less in common with a book like Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge, and more so with the work of Clive Barker, with this novel being like a lost, extended story from one of his Books of Blood. The novel focuses on an unnamed narrator how, to avoid the violence of the conflict, is shipped, by his parents, to a far off village to live with his relatives. But that is just the beginning of his violent journey to the depths of human evil. Once on his own, he travels from village to village, experiencing all kinds of torment that are hard to imagine, but somehow he survives all these things, and is forced to grow into stronger person. If there is one major flaw in this book, it’s how repetitive the violence can get. The reader almost becomes desensitized by the violence due to the detached narrator, who describes things almost as if they are outside of him. But the scenes that do hit their mark, like the eye-gouging scene and the rape with the wine bottle, are extremely effective, and rival the skinning scene in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. This is not a book for the squeamish, but it is one that will leave you shaken, and possibly changed.

Rating: 4/5