Sunday, August 31, 2014

Review: "Volt" by Alan Heathcock

I went back and forth on what to rate the book I just finished, the debut short story collection of Alan Heathcock called Volt, probably more so than any other book I have read in recent memory. My feelings are split down the middle exactly, which is rare: out of the eight stories in this collection, there are four that are great and four that are simply good. But finally, after mulling it over for a couple of nights, those four stories are too fantastic not to give this book my highest rating. Even with a few duds in this collection, it is easy to see what a great talent Heathcock is and will become in the near future. He has a great sense of place, with the fictional town of Krafton coming alive in the way that Flannery O’ Connor’s Georgia and Lansdale’s Texas do: filled to the brim with characters seeking redemption but lacking the skills and insight to do anything but take the wrong action. As the comparison suggests, Heathcock belongs to the new generation of Grit Lit authors like Frank Bill and Donald Ray Pollock, but while those authors offer a story with blood and guts, Heathcock is more of a cerebral, emotional writer, with his character’s emotions being the main guiding force behind not only there need to succeed and gain what they want, but it also taps into the reader’s need to find out what happens next, whether these damaged people get what they deserve or not. While the other four stories in this collection are still pretty good, even if they lack the power of the ones I liked, I will just be focusing on the four stories that made this collection special. The first story in the collection “The Staying Freight” has an incredibly visceral start, where the main character, Winslow, accidently runs over his son while he is tilling the field with his large tractor. Feeling great guilt, he runs off into the woods after accidently hitting his wife. When he is found far away in another county, a local farmer takes him in and exploits him by letting the townsfolk beat on him for money. His jaw is wired shut after sustaining an injury amidst capture, so it adds to the mystique of his geek-like role. It sounds silly, but it is quite an emotional journey, bringing to mind the work of writers as varied as the aforementioned Bill and even Haruki Murakami. “Smoke” is another great story, about a father who asks his son to dispose of a body. It dissects father-son relationships and the mistakes made by both, and reminded me a lot of the opening scene in Matthew F. Jones’ A Single Shot. “Peacekeeper” is an ambiguous story told in three timelines about a female sheriff who does horrific things to cover up even more horrific actions. It’s hard to wrap your head around it sometime, but the addition of female role in one you’d expect a man to take is quite refreshing. “Fort Apache might be my favorite story, where a group of 20-year-olds on the abyss of a crushing adulthood take about dreams and destroy property in a vacant town. This story is a perfect example for the importance of this kind of literature. It takes lives lived on the brink of uselessness and gives them the poetry they so rightly deserve. While some my find the pacing of these stories a bit slow, you will be rewarded for your patience with a great new insight into low lives, and a glimpse at a new talent that might take the world by storm.

Rating: 5/5

Friday, August 29, 2014

Review: "Love and Obstacles" by Aleksandar Hemon

Reading anything by Aleksandar Hemon is always a unique experience, and that is no different than his short story collection Love and Obstacles. He is the writer Jonathan Safran Foer wishes he could be: brilliant without being arrogant, though-provoking without being needlessly obtuse and possessing an ability to dissect his homeland in a way that is humorous new and not simply to fill the void of a foreign writer. His narratives lack an urgency and newness that make them come off as stale, but his prose styling, influenced by a command of the English language that didn’t come about until Hemon was almost 30, is very fun to read and something to behold. It can come off as funny, the misuse or overuse of metaphors and similes can have the tendency to produce belly laughs. But it can also become very poignant and serious, with Hemon stumbling, almost by accident over great human truths that go beyond boundaries of culture and country. This collection is pretty solid, and is linked not by people, but by themes and a few different actions within the story, like the war in Sarajevo and trips to Zaire to avoid trouble at home. There are a few stories in this collection that really stand out. One of them is the opening story; “Stairway to Heaven” about a lovelorn young man who befriends a nefarious American while his family is staying in Zaire. It doesn’t break new ground but it is rather funny and has a lot of energy. “Everything” is a more emotional based story, where the narrator finds bigger things to worry about than lost love. But my favorite story is “The Conductor” about a wannabe poet who constantly gets belittled by actual famous poets. It dissects intellectualism in a Bolano-esque way that is truthful, hurtful and funny. As I said, these stories don’t break any new ground, but Hemon is definitely worth checking out if you want to laugh and cry within the same page.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Review: "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel

Since I am reading at an accelerated rate, a lot of the bigger books I have read, ones that are 500 pages or more have not been very good. I don’t feel my rate of reading is to be at fault, but it has somewhat put a damper on my love of longer novels. That is the case with the book that I read while I was on vacation at Cedar Point, the first book in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell, the Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall. While it is certainly better and more entertaining than a book like Turbulence and easier to read than Skagboys, there was sadly not a lot that interested me over the book’s 600 pages. Historical fiction, at least when it comes to medieval times, really isn’t a big area of interest for me, and my feelings toward this book are really encompassed my disinterest for that time period, but I always seek out new books to challenge myself. The book focuses on the lawyer Thomas Cromwell, a rather ambiguous man whose agenda is self-serving, but also rather important to the success of the monarchy. He is tasked with the opposing the Pope and the rest of the Catholic Church in order to help Henry VIII annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he can marry Anne Boleyn and so she might possibly birth a male heir. The book starts off really strong, with Walter, Thomas’ father, almost beating Thomas to death for learning how to read. I was much more interested in these lay characters more so than I was with anything having to do with the Royal Court, which I felt was a little too complex for an average person to really enjoy and understand. I have no qualms about a book like this winning the Booker Prize, which is always a crapshoot when it comes to actual quality, but this book is well-written enough that it deserves the honor. It is simply not my cup of tea.

Rating: 3/4

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Review: "By Night in Chile" by Roberto Bolano

I feel that I should let this book rest in my mind for at least a day, but since tomorrow I will be headed to Sandusky, Ohio to spend a few days at Cedar Point, I have to do it tonight so I will not get behind. But I feel if there is any novel that needs time to gestate and settle into the readers mind for a while before they start talking about it, it is something like Roberto Bolnao’s first published work in English, By Night in Chile. Reading this book, you really get a sense of what we lost when the great Chilean author died. The way he thinks about and the way he discusses topics such as mortality, oppressive regimes, creativity and the cult of intellect is really second to none. He is a smart writer, delving deep into what characters think and feel and coming out with odd yet introspective ideas about life. But he is never an arrogant writer, having his feet firmly planted in the camp of the common folk, who are sometimes his victims and sometimes his perpetrators. When reading a Bolano novel, even one as short as this one, it is important to look at the small picture before you look at the big one. To understand a book like 2666 or The Savage Detectives as a whole will likely drive you insane. His books work best as pieces, with many of the scenes in his books being not only fun, but also part of a greater mystery that the reader may or may not solve. In this slim novel of only 130 pages, we are listening in on a long nighttime rant of dying priest Father Urrutia, whose dreams of being a world famous poet are lost when he becomes a critic to the brutal regime of dictator General Pinochet. Through this monologue, which takes place at night, he traces his regrets in a series of vignettes that might be real, or might be just another one of the crazy dreams he is being plagued with. This novel brings up a lot of questions that are not in his longer novels: are the things happening in the past, as the opening would suggest? Are they happening now in the narrator’s panicked mind? Or is the whole scenario of the dying priest something the narrator concocted to look into the future? Either way the writing is filled with regret and longing for a dream that went unmet. Through the priest interactions with a famous poet, two sketchy characters he meets who get him the bureaucratic job, and a teaching job where he may or may not have met the Pinochet himself, the unreliable priest weaves in intricate web of details where only emotions and darkness can escape. Some critics don’t like that, but I feel it sets Bolano apart as a writer who was way more ahead of his time. This is difficult, but it is short, so the patience required for finishing it is minimal, which makes this probably the best introduction into the great author’s work.

Rating: 5/5

Review: "A Solider of the Great War" by Mark Helprin

I went back and forth on what to rate this book, but finally, I had to go one lower than what I was going to rate because although it is bookended by good scenes, Mark Helprin’s A Solider of the Great War is an 800 page book that feels all of its 800 pages. That number is even more harrowing when I realized a fatal flaw that makes the middle 700 pages quite a slog. I have said before that a long book should be shortened by at least 100 pages or even 200 pages, but this book needed it badly, with that middle section being jam-packed and overstuffed with repetitive details and weak characters that suck the energy out of the story and the intrigue of the main character. It should have been only about 200 pages at the most, shortening this epic by half its length. The epic in questions starts out strong, with a minor incident that hides the more vast story to come. Alessandro, and aging professor of Aesthetics or beauty, if you want to get down to simple terms (I didn’t know that was a major) is thrown off of a train to Rome when he tries to help out a kid who does not have the bus fare. They are stranded, and to pass the time while they walk to Rome, which takes two days, Alessandro tells the kid his story of a life that began in great fortune, but went to hell almost as quickly when he enlists to fight in WWI. The books has memorable scenes, like one taking place during an execution by firing squad, but the novel has no real heart and no real purpose, at least one that I can see. The people Alessandro meets are painfully one-dimensional, and Alessandro himself is not really that interesting. The good scenes are completely outweighed by the bad, so I can’t really recommend reading this novel.

Rating: 2/5