Sunday, October 26, 2014

Review: "Love Me Back" by Merritt Tierce

I don’t think I have ever been challenged, both personally and morally, by any book more than I have Merritt Tierce’s debut novel Love Me Back. On its surface, I should truly dislike this book. Judging from the synopsis and from some key scenes in the story, it would be easy to see this book as having a strong feminist agenda. While I am far from a chauvinist, I will never be one of those guys who calls himself a feminist. For one, I am not very comfortable with absolutes, and two, I find it real phony for men make such a statement. Even if they truly mean it, it always comes off as insincere pandering to make them look cool and progressive. But anyway, there are scenes in this book that feel like they are making a case for female sexual independence through promiscuity. But while that is a debatable topic in this book, I feel many people who do take that path are missing the point. Marie, the central flawed narrator of this swift novel, is characterized in a way that doesn’t warrant pride, honor, knowledge or even sympathy. In the amoral world she finds herself inhabiting, one of waitressing, late night shifts and drug induced sex; she becomes both a victim and victimizer, the user and the used. And the same can be said of her many partners, who become spiritual identicals to Marie in the course of her sexual encounters. This book is not a feminist wale for independence, but a scathing portrait of a lifestyle where love is nothing more than a kids joke, or worse, doesn’t exist at all. The book feels like something Hubert Selby Jr. would write if he were still alive, which came as quite a surprise to me. We follow Marie, a single mom, as she wanders aimlessly through her life, in and out of waitressing jobs and other men’s beds. It is impossible not to be intrigued by the depths Marie sinks to. From her first orgasm, brought on by an older black man, to her crumbling relationship to her daughter, Marie swiftly floats between being a victim of a harsh system brought on by a simple mistake, as evidenced by a few flashbacks to her earlier success in high school, to being a full-on monster, whose appetites for sex and sexual degradation threaten to swallow her whole. An interesting subtle technique this book uses is how Marie sees the men in her life. Her first descriptions are sexual ones, and anyone who might actually care for her, like her husband and a person who tries to ask her out on an actual date, remain nameless, while we know way too much about her more toxic partners. Marie can only relate to men through sex, which also happens to be her only form of social currency in a world that cares little about her. Overall, Marie reminded me of a Dennis Lehane quote, where he says some people don’t like kindness, they just want to get into bed, turn off the lights and feast on one another. Marie is sadly one of these people, and her story ends with a whimper, and a promise that her life will continue on its current path. It can be an unpleasant, repugnant ride, but one that is brutally honest and true to itself.

Rating: 5/5

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Review: "F" by Daniel Kehlmann

No matter the quality of his novels, Daniel Kehlmann always brings an odd originality to the books that he writes. They are quirky but never so much so that they don’t carry real weight. It is real hard for me to pinpoint an underlying theme in any of his books, but that never messes with my enjoyment of his books. At his best, like in the novel Fame, he is writing in the spirit of mid-career Auster, using stories within stories to pontificate on truth and coincidence in everyday life. At his worst, he can overwrite things and be too esoteric to bridge the cultural divide between America and his native Germany. His new translated novel, F, is somewhere in the middle of Kehlmann’s talents. It contains some of his best work, especially the opening scene, but seems to lose steam and direction once action begins to move forward in the story. It has a hilarious, but a heartbreaking concept at the center of the narrative. Arthur Friedland, failed author and failed father, is taking his three sons, from two different wives, to a performance by The Great Lindemann. An overbearing skeptic, Arthur volunteers to be hypnotized, and when he does, he abandons his three sons in the middle of the drive back to move to America and pursue his dreams uninterrupted. All three grow up to lead miserable lives, as a priest without faith, an investment banker who is bad with money and a painter who paints forgeries. Arthur comes back into their lives, with disastrous results. There are some really cool scenes here that may lack any depth, but are cool anyways, like the opening hypnosis scene, and reason the son went into priesthood, which is painfully funny. But the story somewhat goes off the rails once everyone is introduced, with Kehlmann using a device similar to what Paul Auster used in novel like Oracle Night and Invisible. Despite that, this a cool, swift ride into absurdity from an author who is destined to be an international sensation.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review: "Parade" by Shuichi Yoshida

It has been awhile since I have read a book that was so boring, with a plot that careens so fast towards nowhere and with characters so unlikable as Shuichi Yoshida’s Parade. Reading it, it felt like one a low rent novel of another Japanese writer, Ryu Murakami, and since I really don’t like the books he has written, I really didn’t enjoy this novel, since it is setup like Murakami’s Almost Transparent Blue, except it is twice as long and never takes the kind of odd risks that made that book more enjoyable than it actually deserved to be. In this novel, despite the comparison on the back to Steig Larsson, it can be argued that nothing actually happens here, and the writer seems to be more interested in the disparate, yet uninteresting details of the lives of these young people, which can’t help but come off as painfully one-dimensional. While they are certainly interchangeable, each of these five people, living in modern day Tokyo have their own issues. There is one guy, an economics major working at a fast food place who is sleeping with his best friends girlfriend, a girl who is obsessed with her famous boyfriend, even though he has no intentions of calling her like he promised, another girl who has a drinking problem exacerbated by her poor choice in friends, and finally, an older film director, who seems to have it all together. Into this world comes a young male prostitute who stirs up trouble. There is rarely a moment in this book that doesn’t come off as pretentious, arrogant, and downright unpleasant. While it is fun to watch these five morons wallow in their own self-hatred, too smart to realize how stupid they are, but it really doesn’t add up to anything resembling a pleasant reading experience.

Rating: 2/5

Review: "Drama City" by George Pelecanos

I have been a huge fan of George Pelecanos for a long time, and when I began one of his stand-alone novels, Drama City, I found myself a little disappointed. Judging from some of my favorite books of his, such as The Turnaround and Hard Revolution, his stories are always fast, and I get through with a great sense of urgency. This one is a bit different though; it is a lot slower, and instead of dealing with large criminals and even larger crimes, this a is a book about everyday people, some of whom are trying to get free of the drug game, despite it’s massive, alluring pull, and those who seek happiness and recognition through their criminal activities, in a sense emulating the people who have come, and mostly died before them, seeing their sad, pointless deaths as some sort of pathway to immortality. As I continued to read on, and Pelecanos ingeniously gets inside the head of five or six main characters, I finally understood what he was trying to do with this book. This is a book where no one is going anywhere; they are trapped by system, or code, if you will, that turns innocent bodies into victims of violence, with no real reason of reward. People are killed by other ruthless people, but there are no real villains in this story, just people who find themselves at a crossroads in life, being forced, by friends or by their inner thoughts to make a tough decision about their future. One such person is Lorenzo Brown, who is seemingly on the right path. He is out of prison and out of the drug game, making an honest, and possibly noble living working at The Humane society, saving neglected animals from the streets. He has a good relationship with his parole officer, Rachel, who has enough problems outside of her job, but is tempted to get back into crime by his old friend Nigel, who finds himself in a war with Deacon, another drug dealer, whose dreams, identical to Nigel’s, leave no room for sharing. Unlike like a book full of action like Hard Revolution, there aren’t many big action sequences in this book, but the one that is the most memorable is among the best pieces of writing Pelecanos has ever put down. In it, four men, two of Nigel’s and two of Deacon’s, are headed toward a violent showdown that will leave some of them dead. Pelecanos gets inside each of their heads, showing four complex mindsets, with hopes dreams, regrets and aspirations, and when finally, the bullets are fired, I guarantee it will break your heart, especially when one of the surviving boys makes a rash, repugnant mistake, one that finally forces Lorenzo to make a decision of his own. Spliced into the narrative are NA meetings, which seem to stall the story a bit, but it pays off beautifully at the end. Those expecting a high-octane story of murder and revenge may feel let down, but this is quite a moving story that will reward you if you’re patient.

Rating: 5/5

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Review: "Cataract City" by Craig Davidson

Even at this late in the year, I have not read anything that packs the punch of Craig Davidson’s novel Cataract City. It is a vibrant creative masterpiece of the kind of stories Thom Jones and Jim Thompson would write. It is a brutal world, and that is putting it lightly. Gallons of blood are split, bones are broken and spirits are crushed throughout this small town epic, but it not only written in a way that is poetic and eloquent, which I have found in most novels like this, with the violence and depravity sounding not like inferior speech, but as an almost operatic expression of human feeling, but it is also endlessly creative in the many ways its two central characters journey from boyhood into adulthood, and from their personal nightmares into something that look something like a redemption, at least for the people who find themselves stuck in the vice grip of Cataract City. This book goes to so many different places, some dark, some heartwarming, that it left me awestruck that Davidson, with such skill and precision, connects these disparate dots in a way that doesn’t give the reader any kind of whiplash, and little protest as to whether or not that was exactly how things should have ended up. Besides that, the book has many scenes of intense violence that made me think of Frank Bill’s Donnybrook. You don’t simply read about the injuries, you hear the crack of cartilage, and feel the many cuts opening up on the human body that almost feels transformative. The novel focuses on two unfortunate boys who find themselves stuck in Cataract City, a place where jealous and hateful people snuff out dreams of idealistic people. They are Owen Stuckey and Duncan Diggs. They have slightly different upbringings, but it isn’t so much that people notice. They bond over a love of wrestling, leading to a scene in a forest in the outskirts of town that is one of the most brilliant pieces of writing I have had the pleasure of coming across, with the direction Davidson takes both audacious and moving. Eventually, they each grow up, Duncan becoming involved with many illegal dealings, such as dogfighting, and bare-knuckle boxing, with one of the most shady and hateable antagonists in recent memory, leading to him going to jail for eight years, while Owen becomes an embittered ex-athlete who is now a cop with little to do in such a draining town. When Duncan gets out of jail, he has big plans that he wants Owen’s help with. Without spoiling too much, the book somehow circles back on itself in the end, when the two broken men at the center of this whirlwind of a story find themselves in pieces, both physically and spiritually, and desperately trying to put themselves back together. There are some scenes in this story that even I had a hard time reading, especially during both the dig and human fight scenes, but there is something primal and deep going on in this book, with Davidson tapping into questions of masculinity, pride and desperation unlike any other writer working today. Approach this book with an open mind, an open heart and an empty stomach.

Rating: 5/5