Saturday, November 29, 2014

Review: "Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster" by T. J. English

Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish-American Gangster by T. J. English is both the reason I rarely read any non-fiction, but highlights some of the personal biases I have toward the format that I wish didn’t keep me from enjoying it. This book does read very easy; maybe not like a novel, but it doesn’t bog you down with too much distracting information, and gives you just enough historical tidbits that will leave you wanting more, especially if you are like me and are fascinated by the idea of the American Gangster, and with a last name like Delehanty, I am very interested in reading about Irish gangsters, who have a very different history than that of Italian gangsters. In the Irish mob, if you can call it that, there really is no hierarchy or any kind of archaic codes that these criminals live by. They have gained success and legendary status through hard work and determination despite stereotypes, and they would be inspiring figures, if they didn’t have a long trail of innocent blood staining their coattails. This book is really an introductory work, spending no more than 50 of its 450 pages on a single time period or person. It begins in the mid-1800’s, where the potato famine brought many impoverished Irish people to the US. We learn about John Morrissey, the first true Irish gang leader, and his famous boxing match with William Poole, the basis for Billy the Butcher in Gangs of New York, and follows with stories ranging from little known activity in New Orleans, to prohibition legends like Owney Madden, Dean O’Banion and Legs Diamond, to Westies gang, which I found most fascinating, to Whitey Bulger, still on the run when the book was published. The book can drag, especially when it gets into politics and business, but ultimately this book rarely disappoints in telling a story that in recent years, has gone untold.

Rating: 5/5

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Review: "The Betrayers" by David Bezmozgis

For my last official book of the year, I wasn’t expecting a masterpiece or something I would enjoy greatly, since I have never been one to experience life in that sort of way, but I wasn’t expecting the book, David Bezmozgis’ second novel, The Betrayers, to be as plain and boring as it was. It is easily my most disappointing book released this year, sharing that dubious honor with Scott Cheshire’s High as the Horses’ Bridle. There really isn’t anything new or unique about the book, despite blurbs on the back and inside of the book from trusted sources like Gary Shetyngart and Joshua Ferris. It is a derivative piece, trying to imitate the best of Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth, and in doing so, never tries to carve out it’s own, original place in modern literature, and ultimately just fills a the niche of a maudlin, slightly funny tale of Jewish identity. The main character, Baruch Kotler, is a high-ranking Israeli politician finds his illicit affair with a much younger woman revealed when he fails to side with the majority of his peers. He flees the country with his mistress, and finds himself back in Crimean resort Yalta, where he finds himself reacquainted with his tumultuous past, including the person who sent him to the Russian Gulags. As I said before, this book doesn’t offer much. With the exception of the opening scene which takes place in a restaurant and goes to show what an overbearing jerk Baruch can be, this book seemed like a total waste, and even with its short 225 page length, way longer than it needed to be. I read Bezmozgis’ first novel The Free World and found it all right but forgettable; this book isn’t even that good, and I’m thinking Bezmozgis’ might be one of our most overrated writers.

Rating: 2/5

Review: "Ride Around Shining" by Chris Leslie-Hynan

Ride Around Shining, the debut novel by Chris Leslie-Hynan, easily has the best premise of any new book that has come out this year, even for ones that I have loved and raved about. It has a lot of promise, and the hands of a writer who was willing and unafraid to delve deep into the controversial idea presented and ask the uncomfortable questions this idea presents, you’d have one of the most daring and original books on race written in years. But ultimately, this book seems more focused on this weird culture it presents, which it does so in a way that comes off as corny and more than a little farfetched. Hynan, despite creating a truly fascinating narrator, that is equal part Iago, Nick Carraway and Thomas Ripley, he takes this story in absurd directions that are unbelievable at times, even if they are interesting and humorous. The narrator is a man named Jess, adrift, like many young men today, after spending all his money on a Master’s degree, figuring out too late that it isn’t going to get him very far. He lies his way into a job being the driver for Calyph West, a forward for the Portland Trail Blazers, and his beautiful white wife, Antonia, and through a series of strange events, sets himself up as their perverted spiritual advisor when their marriage begins to fail. Jess is an angry man, but his anger seems justified at points. He has lived a life of strife and disappointment, but it isn’t the kind that can lead to greatness. He feels left out, and through him, Hynan could have asked some tough racial questions about who black and white people view each other when there is a power gap. But instead, he focuses more on the weird lifestyles of these ballplayers, where masquerade parties, kinky sex and degradation are the norm. It sounds interesting, but it takes away from the true power of the story. Hynan is skilled, to say the least, the characterization of Jess is evidence, I just wish he worked this golden idea into a better story with his skills.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Review: "John Henry Days" by Colson Whitehead

Before reading John Henry Days, Colson Whitehead’s audacious sophomore novel, I had all but written him off as an overrated writer. His most recent novel, Zone One, has to be one of the most boring zombie/post-apocalyptic novels I have ever read, and his debut novel, The Intuitionist, is way to esoteric and out-there to appeal to anyone but academics. I’m beginning to think that Whitehead poured all his talent and literary attributes into this novel, because it is way better than I expected. The premise seemed weak from what I heard about it, and at 400 pages in small print, I thought I was in for some trouble. But what I didn’t expect was what Whitehead gives the reader over these 400 pages, which is an experience I would liken to reading Bolano’s 2666, Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and even Wallace’s Infinite Jest. There is something very demanding about this book, that it brings out the best in it’s reader, making them put all their focus and energy into the time it takes to read this book, almost to the point where it I habits your every waking moment, and sometimes even your dreams, as House of Leaves did for me. Before I started reading this book, I read Jonathan Franzen’s review for it, and I would have to agree that this is far from a page-turner, and although there is a whodunit involving a shooting, it isn’t very important, and any smart reader will figure out who it is before page 100. But what makes this book great is the complex ideas it presents, some that I will still be forming in my head for months to come. The plot, unlike its structure, is simple. J. Sutter, a journalist, is assigned to cover a festival in Talcott, West Virginia, honoring the legend of John Henry, who is getting a commemorative stamp. He is about to beat the record for most days on the job, but can’t get over how bored he is with everything in his life. Throughout the book, we meet his fellow journalist, one with a first hand account of The Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, as well as a woman whose life is dominated by John Henry memorabilia, a husband and wife who own a hotel in Talcott, and stamp collector whose wife is cheating on him. Interspersed with this narrative are many tales related to John Henry, from what might have actually happened to him during his fight with the steam drill, to the people affected by his legend, from songwriters to a depressed Paul Robeson in the book’s shining moment. Trying to tie these threads together is hard, but I think what Whitehead is trying to say may go deep into the human condition, about the myths, or lies we tell ourselves to stretch the truth in our favor, or how we let history define us, shown through J. Sutter, a well-to-do black man who is comfortable around high culture, but uses his race to judge whenever it suits his needs. Whatever this novel says, of which I am still not sure, it is one to make you think, from its many entertaining tangents to it’s near perfectly beautiful ambiguous ending, Whitehead has written a novel of astounding brilliance that I am in awe of.

Rating: 5/5

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Review: "Cry Father" by Benjamin Whitmer

Reading as much as I do, you quickly realize that all books are not going to be fantastic, even within a genre that produces some of the most original and entertaining works of fiction being written now. I kept thinking about that while reading Cry Father, the novel by relative newcomer Benjamin Whitmer. It falls into the “country noir” category, and has a feel and psychology that can be found in books by Donald Ray Pollock, Frank Bill and Craig Davidson. There is a lot of violence, and the story is filled with seemingly reprehensible, or at least broken, people who try to find dignity in their shattered lives. I am attracted to those stories for their gritty honesty and refusal to follow trends. That doesn’t make all of them good, though. Whitmer’s novel is not bad, either, but it doesn’t have the force of will and maniacal edge that makes this genre such a memorable one. Despite what the front flap says, this really is the story of two different men, one whose hair-trigger personality makes living on the edge his only option in life, and another man, destroyed by grief and regret, who follows him on his dark journey. Patterson, a relief worker finds his way toward Colorado, drinking to forget the tragic death of his son and the dissolution of his marriage. After finding a naked woman tied up in friend’s bathtub, he finds himself embroiled in a conflict featuring Junior, the son of a former friend, whose life in the drug game is about to get even more chaotic. Whitmer writes more like Woodrell than say, Katherine Faw Morris: it is weightier, and tends to slow things down, even when flesh is torn and the bodies begin to pile up. Still, there is something entrancing about this quiet story of depravity that kept me reading, and I think it’s worth checking out.

Rating: 4/5