Monday, April 28, 2014

Review: "Voodoo Heart" by Scott Snyder

It has been quite awhile since a book really floored me. Some of it has to do with the reading decisions I have been making, but most of it has to do with a massive life-changing event that I am going through right now involving moving across the country. I have been coasting for a while, at least with my focus on the book I have been reading. And it was nice to finally read a book that I feel is not only great, but more than great, something that is a masterpiece of an art form that is populated by people more interested in their own talent than the art of narrative. And I can safely say that Voodoo Heart by Scott Snyder is masterpiece of the short story format. The amount of care that is put into every single story that is in this collection not only astounds me and makes me want to do better things in my personal creative journey, but makes me a bit emotional as well. There is not a hint of irony, pessimism or cynicism in any one of these 7 long stories, although the endings may make you think differently. They are written with the passion and intrigue you can find in the short stories of the masters like Flannery O’Conner and Shirley Jackson as well as contemporaries like Joe R. Lansdale and Wells Tower. They can scare you, manipulate you (in a good way), move you and ultimately break your heart. Since every story in this collection is great, I will discuss them all here in this review. The first story in the collection, “Blue Yodel” concerns a young man chasing the love of his life, who is holed up in a sky city that of floating around the country during the early 20th century. It has a theme that runs through most of the stories, which is the idea of romantic longing and the things we do to protect it. It is a very touching story, with an “uplifting” ending. “Happy Fish, Plus Coin” has another young man, running from his family, who finds himself in Florida working at a large bouncing house and befriending a messianic burn victim. It’s a bizarre fun ride you won’t forget. “About Face”, about a man who begins working for a military school after his life falls apart, touches on themes of romantic sacrifice, where you must let the person you love love someone else if you really care about them, even if the person is awful. The title story has a couple move into a large mansion near a women’s minimum-security prison, where the man begins to obsess over the compound as he moves toward a painful prophecy from his past he’s been trying to avoid; probably the darkest story here. The next story, “Wreck”, is probably the saddest, where a huge celebrity recovering from plastic surgery begins a romance with a meek loner out in the woods. The ending is inevitable, but it still quite melancholic. “Dumpster Tuesday” is the weirdest, where a once successful Wall Street trader loses his wife to a country singing oddity, which leads him in a direction that threatens to destroy his life; this one has to be read to be believed. The final story, “The Star Attraction of 1919” has a new pilot teaming up with a runaway bride as the travel the country giving rides in small towns. This one is really touching, despite the surprise downer at the end. The perfect collection of stories for anyone scorned by love that you feel you deserved, or anyone wanting a truly great short story collection, I cannot recommend this enough.

Rating: 5/5

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Review: "War By Candlelight" by Daniel Alarcon

It seems rather appropriate that the way I feel about one 20 Under 40 author’s book of short stories, in this case my recent review of Chris Adrian’s A Better Angel, is the same way that I feel about another 20 Under 40’s book of short stories, with Daniel Alarcon’s debut book, War By Candlelight being his best all around book. In both collections, there are a few missteps that cannot be ignored, and each are far from perfect, but each brought an overall enjoyment over the course of a few days. Each collection is far better than the novels that the authors have produced, with the stories in Alarcon’s book showing a slight violent edge that were only hinted at in Lost City Radio, and completely absent in At Night We Walk in Circles. Hew writes about his war town homeland with vim and vigor, and even when the stories are not perfect, they can’t help but feel alive with fire and passion. Some highlights from this collection include the opening story “Flood”, where a flood in a rural village in Lima, Peru forces a group of kids into a form of gang warfare that lands them in prison for a few dangerous and life altering days. The title story, which could have been trimmed by at least 10 or so pages, farms similar territory in the adult world using altering chapters to represent different points in the life of the narrator. And despite it’s unoriginality, “Third Avenue Suicide”, about a mixed race couple whose attraction dwindles as illness and secrecy rule their lives, remains fresh and packs a punch. My favorite story in this collection is “Lima, Peru, July 28, 1979”, where a night of revolutionary action turns ugly and immoral. It is swift violent, and like Chris Adrian’s “Stab”, it’s Alarcon’s best work. Check this collection out if you can, it made me rethink Alarcon’s place in modern literature.

Rating: 4/5

Friday, April 25, 2014

Review: "Hot Pink" by Adam Levin

Despite the cool cover, Adam Levin’s Hot Pink is the worst short story collection I have read since Justin Taylor’s Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever. I tried reading Levin’s massive 1000 page novel The Instructions last year, and if these stories are anything like that huge book, I am glad I stopped when I did. There isn’t a note in any of these stories that ring true or genuine or written with any kind of originality. While I discussed postmodernism a few reviews back, I would like to apologize to Padgett Powell; these stories are the kind of postmodern exercises I feel are written with zero signs of effort in both the writing off, and the effect it will have on the reader. The writer seems too preoccupied with his sense of self to worry about whether or not what he is writing is boring the reader to tears. Despite my vitriol, I didn’t hate all of this collection. While I did not like most of it, it did have it’s bright spots, like the story “Jane Tell”, about a doomed romance set within the community of Narcotics Anonymous. There are moments in this story that are really emotionally resonant. And the story “Scientific American”, about a family’s house oozing a weird kind of gel out of its walls is quite funny as well. But even these stories have problems, with each respectively trying to resurrect the spirit of Infinite Jest and House of Leaves, which really needs to stop, especially for Infinite Jest. It is sad and insulting when it occurs. It is books like this that really leave a bad taste in my mouth about what can pass for literature sometimes. For every great author bringing to the public his or her unique vision to an eager public, there is a book like this turning literature into a silly game of one-upmanship in boredom.

Rating: 2/5

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Review: "A Better Angel" by Chris Adrian

Chris Adrian is one of America’s most unique literary talents, and his short story collection, A Better Angler, is by fat his best book. While I say unique, I don’t always mean good. His novels, Gob’s Grief, The Children’s Hospital, and The Great Night can be a bit too idiosyncratic at times, but when he is on the ball, he offers emotional resonance better than any other author I can think of. It is almost frustrating because I want to like them. And while that problem is present in this collection of short stories, it is much less so than his longer novels. The ideas he is playing with are more contained and reduced for their obvious short shelf life. While some stories do fall flat, as is bound to happen in most, if not all short story collection, Adrian is down right brilliant when he succeeds. Most of the stories in this collection farm similar territory that you would find in any of his novels: real life emotions like grief and loss collide with the world of the supernatural, with angels and demons playing key roles in the outcome of many of these stories. Some gems I would like to point out are “The Sum of Our Parts”, where a female suicide victim floats out of her comatose body to experience the many lives of the staff at the hospital her body is at, with both sad and aberrant results. Another story I liked was “The Changeling”, where a small boy drifts in and out of what may or may not be a demon possession, much to the exhaustion of his two caretakers. But the best story of the collection is easily “Stab” where a boy whose twin brother (who happened to be his Siamese twin before a surgery) dies, falls in with a burgeoning female psychopath to find his body. The imagery, the darkness and the light all make for one of the best short stories I have read in a while and is totally worth seeking out on its own. Not a perfect collection, but proof that Chris Adrian deserves your attention.

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Review: "Typical" by Padgett Powell

While my good friend Chad is really into postmodern literature, especially the short stories of George Saunders, I am much less warm to them. While the books I enjoyed that would fall into this category of literature I really love, like Infinite Jest and House of Leaves, the ones I didn’t like I actually really don’t like, like anything written by Ben Marcus. I really question the skill it takes to write some of these stories, which have more brains than heart most of the time. And while it started out really promising, Typical by Padgett Powell is just another lazy attempt at though-provoking literature. That sounds cruel but I mean, especially when good literature is tossed aside in favor of it just because it isn’t labeled daring and original. Having vented, I would be interested in reading Powell’s novels. All of them are short and have ideas that I would think would contain them. The problem with this collection seems to be the opposite; ideas are so flimsy that they can blow away and disappear at the slightest breeze. As I said, the collection starts out great, with the title story being about a man from the south who, in the immortal words of Al Bundy, seems to not have been passed over by time, but for time to be sitting on his head. It is a sad, funny, gross monologue that Powell executes with precision. Too bad the rest of the stories are your typical (no pun intended) postmodern exercises in navel gazing. Stories that don’t connect within themselves or the reader, and even worse, stories that read like grocery lists, like the set of stories titled after states, which use metaphors that are painfully obvious. I like Powell as much as I like any other southern writer, and I hope he has left these techniques behind for his later books.
Rating: 3/5