Monday, September 29, 2014

Review: "Age of Iron" by J. M. Coetzee

There was a time when I was a huge J. M. Coetzee fan, and even placed him behind Haruki Murakami as one of the greatest living writers. But now that I have delved deeper into his oeuvre, I find myself not really liking what he has to offer. While I liked books like Disgrace, Life & Times of Michael K and Waiting for the Barbarians at the time, their effect on me and my memory has floundered, and that is only intensified by his novel Age of Iron, surely not his worst book, by far, but very far from his best. Coetzee has a great sense of place, and writes keenly about South Africa that adds great poetry to even the most aggressively violent and heartbreakingly cruel moments. But his stories, although distinct, have themes that are completely interchangeable, never once trying to shed new light on any idea from book to book. This particular novel, one of his lesser known and lesser praised books, concerns an ageing woman with terminal cancer whose dwindling life is interrupted by the brutality of apartheid. Through her interactions with a drunken homeless man, she sees the world that she is leaving behind, one that is hell bent on change and will most likely leave a number of bodies in its wake as it continues it’s progress. This book lacks any kind of memorable scenes, with even the deaths of two people having little effect on me. But the themes, however tired they are, make this story kind of an emotional one, with the dying woman’s plea for understanding as she writes letters to her daughter in America being quite devastating. But as the book went on, I felt these little revelations were not well earned by the book, who failed to provide anything else. Coetzee is not for everyone (and I’m beginning to think I’m in that group), but this is a book even his fans will have a hard time defending.

Rating: 3/5

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Review: "The Man From Primrose Lane" by James Renner

There is a point halfway into James Renner’s debut novel The Man from Primrose Lane that is the most audacious change a novel has ever undertaken. It comes without warning and without any clues that come up beforehand (at least direct clues). To be honest, when it came about, my first reaction was anger. It unfairly and maliciously pulled the rug out from under me in a way that made everything that came before it less impactful and honestly, less of a mystery. I am sure less patient readers than me will immediately put the book down, deem it “crap” and move on without any more notice. But I soldiered on, a bit confused and wondering how it will connect. And I am glad to say that it connects beautifully, with only a little of the books power lost. It begins as a thrilling crime story involving ruthless killers, a damaged lead and the kind of weird mystery that you will only find in a place like the Midwest. But after that, it becomes something a bit more and something I totally didn’t except. This is most definitely the most inventive novel I have read not just in this year, but also in the past few years, even more so than any thing David Mitchell would write. With him, the esoteric nature of his stories is expected, here, it is like a swift push into something otherworldly, that makes you think a bit differently about obsession and it longer lasting effects. The story is wickedly plotted, centering on a broken true crime author named David Neff, who lives in Akron, Ohio. After the success of his first book, which not only ended the death penalty in Ohio, but also made him a lot of enemies in law enforcement, his beautiful wife Elizabeth commits suicide. One day, fours years later, his agent tells him about The Man From Primrose Lane, which David wrote about early in his career. He was one of those local urban legends that are talked about in tight-knit communities. He was a man who lived alone, without friends or relatives, and was always seen walking around town wearing mittens, even in the summertime. Around the time of Elizabeth’s death, he was also killed, in a rather gruesome fashion involving the severing of his fingers. David agrees to this assignment, and travels down a dark rabbit hole where the other side is filled with truly evil people and other impossible things you can’t begin to imagine. To retain the true power of this book’s revelation, I will not spoil it for, so I will talk around it. The scenes in this book can be unsettling, reminding me of a mix between Jack Ketchum and Scott Heim, including one scene involving a “practicing pederast” that really upset me, but intrigued me as well. But when the twist occurs, it is very hard to see this book as anything more than a daring dive into the unknown, where desire and love are tools that can go way beyond what we think their capacities are.

Rating: 5/5

Friday, September 26, 2014

Review: "Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?" by Lorrie Moore

A major pitfall in any piece of flash fiction, or one that I find in a lot of it that I come across, is that it never allows enough time for a true emotional experience. It can be profound, funny, and even moving given the subject matter and caliber of the writer, but that feeling is a fleeting one that doesn’t last very long. That same kind of feeling came over me when I was reading Lorrie Moore’s brief novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? Despite the catchy title, there is very little to chew on in this book’s 147-page length. But delving deeper in the story the same problem presents itself. It is too quick to doll out cool phrases that sound even cooler when you say them out loud, but sound silly and pretentious when you try to put them together. The plot is simple, if you really want to argue that it has one. The main character, Berie, is on vacation in Paris with her husband when she begins to recall her time spent in the early 70’s with her friend Sils as they both worked at an amusement park. We learn of Sils burgeoning sexuality, which leads to a relationship with a nefarious man, and later, and abortion that forces Berie to steal from the amusement park. We also learn of Berie’s chaotic home life, and later, her abusive relationship with her husband, leading to her deciding at the end of her novel that some things you can’t change and some things you can’t stop from changing. There was very little in this book I found interesting, as I did Anagrams, her other famous novel. She rights well about desperation and failure, but doesn’t seem interested in anything else but these emotions filtered into their purest form, and sometimes, at least for me, that is a bit hard to swallow even in small quantities.

Rating: 3/5

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Review: "Bait" by J. Kent Messum

While no one will claim that J. Kent Messum’s debut novel Bait is any kind of high art, I would be surprised if no one is emotionally invested in the plight of the six poor souls who find themselves in a waking nightmare. This is the kind of book that I would gravitate toward in high school. It is filled with graphic violence, explicit sex scenes and heinous amounts of drug use that does an effective job of shocking the audience and gaining a cheap sense of curiosity from the reader. There really isn’t much special about this book, though. Despite its premise, it doesn’t break new ground or contain scenes or people I haven’t seen a million times over. But they seem real enough for me to keep reading, and there are a few surprises and shockers as the plot races toward its blood-soaked end. The coolest plots are the simplest: six strangers wake up on a deserted island off the coast of Miami. Soon, they all realize that they are heroin addicts, and a covert group of men have put them on this island to play a game. That game: on a nearby island sits a cache of heroin, the purest form they have had, and the product they have been using for the past few weeks. They must swim to the island through shark-infested waters. The plot alone grabs your attention, and it does a good job to not screw up that initial intrigue with any heavy-handedness. Sometimes, it does read like a guy who has OD’d on Palahniuk with characters simply existing to be picked off by ravenous sharks, but they become more fleshed out towards the end, which I felt was too nihilistic if Messum isn’t planning a sequel. This is a very different book than what I have been reading recently, and it was a very welcome experience.
Rating: 4/5


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Review: "Strong Motion" by Jonathan Franzen

I have said in other reviews, mainly ones I wrote on Dave Egger’s books that him and Jonathan Franzen have really swapped places in American literature today. Years ago, I felt Eggers was a pompous ass and Franzen was the cool one. Now, I feel there places have changed a bit, with Eggers producing unique books filled with innovation and emotion, while Franzen seems content to publish very little fiction and still come off like a grumpy old man. But there was a time where he wasn’t, and before he became famous for The Corrections, he wrote Strong Motion, a flawed yet fun novel that combines the muckraker’s eye for fiction that possessed Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis, with some decidedly post-modern aspects that took me by surprise coming from a straight-forward writer like Franzen. It produces mixed results, with some elements outshining others, but it is no way a bad book. The novel focuses on the Holland family, as most Franzen books tend to focus on families. They are reeling from the death of their matriarch, who dies in a rather funny way when she falls off the barstool in her large home during an earthquake, making her the only victim that is tallied. During a bitter feud over her inheritance, Louis, the idiot son of the family, falls in love with Renee, a seismologist who uncovers some damning facts about what caused the earthquake while taking a harrowing journey with the unstable Louis. The beginning is great, detailing Louis’s relationship with his seemingly much more successful sister Eileen. But Louis is too much of a blank slate to be interesting, with events going on around him without his participation. I was much more interested in people like Renee, who has a section involving abortion that really elevates this book. It is far from something as the arguably generation defining Freedom, but this long book was never anything but satisfying.

Rating: 4/5