Thursday, January 29, 2015

Review: "Kinder Than Solitude" by Yiyun Li

The more books I read from The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 Class of 2010, the more I begin to think that the list was rigged, and was set up to only highlight authors who modern academia wants people to be reading and put high on a pedestal. For every good writer on that list, such as Karen Russell, Philipp Meyer, ZZ Packer and Wells Tower, they had two that were filling a void for a recently deceased author, like David Bezmozgis and Yiyun Li, whose most recent novel, Kinder Than Solitude, I have just read, and it nothing short of a snoozer, filled with characters whose conflicts aren’t unique with traits that are painfully interchangeable. I read her first novel, The Vagrants, a few years ago, and I found it passable, but God help me if I remember anything about it. This novel is novel is a little worse, it flirts with some cool ideas that I was kind of interested in, but it never touches on any of them, leaving you unsatisfied and begging for it to be over. The book concerns three friends who are separated by continents of land as well as emotions and connection. Each was somehow implicit in a crime from when they were children that involved one of their good friends getting poisoned. Now that they are all grown up and wallowing in their separate miseries, the death of another one of their friends will bring them back together, for better or worse. There is not much here of interest, certainly none of the action is going to propel you to the end of the story. I liked toward the end, when the details of the crime are released, the idea of a meek life morphing into one of violence, but it never gets beyond that. Not a very impressive book, and nothing I can recommend.

Rating: 2/5

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Review: "The Big Crowd" by Kevin Baker

The Big Crowd by Kevin Baker is certainly not the best book ever written about New York City, crime and America in general during the first half of the 20th century, but it has enough memorable scenes that make it quite an entertaining journey through my favorite time period. Kevin Baker is most famous for his trilogy of door-stopping novels known as The City of Fire trilogy, dealing with the same time period that this novel does. If they are anything like this novel, I am a little weary of reading them. Not so much for their size, all of which is between 500 and 700 pages in length, but because Baker comes from a more historical background, obsessed with details and accuracy than telling a compelling story. He has great storytelling ability though, and he uses it to craft many scenes that are surprisingly moving given the harshness of the story. The novel follows two Irish immigrant brothers, Thomas and Charlie O’Kane who, through the heyday of the 1920’s and the despair of the 1930’s rise to prominent positions in the world of New York politics, Thomas as an attorney well on his way to being the DA and Charlie who became mayor of the city. It is only when they collectively bring down most of Murder, Inc. the famous group associated with the newly formed crime organization, the Syndicate that their lives shatter. Charlie is implicated in the death of a former gang member turned witness and flees to Mexico, while Tom must piece together who threw this witness out the window. The timeline is really clunky, even with the spate chapter headings, because there are very little details that make each timeline important. But the little scenes, as I said, really make this book, like the sad life Charlie has had, with the death of a surrogate son and wife, as well as scenes involving the rat, a killer himself that brings into question the brother’s victory. Ultimately, this is a story of betrayal and regret that didn’t have enough to warrant a full recommendation, but is still an engaging story from an extremely talented writer. 
Rating: 4/5

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Review: "The Secret History of Costaguana" by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

I think with every book Columbian writer Juan Gabriel Vasquez writes he gets better. I didn’t enjoy his first novel published in The Informers, but his latest novel, 2013’s The Sound of Things Falling is one of the most brilliant books in recent memory, and now, The Secret History of Costaguana, a book published here that didn’t have the fanfare of his other two books, improves greatly on The Informers lack of direction, but doesn’t quite reach the level of real-life horrors that made The Sound of Things Falling so great. Even if you have not read the book that is central to this one, Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, which I have not, this is still an interesting and readable tale of personal history clouding our judgment of the future, as well as the mistakes we make that are impossible to make up for. The story, written in a way that reminded me of Aravind Adiga’s Balram Halwai, is told to the reader, and later we found to the narrator’s daughter, by one Jose Altamirano, a man whose connection to Columbia’s history is intricate, sad and rather brutal, whose claim to fame, as he thinks, is inspiring Conrad to write one of his most well-known books. While that is Jose’s main interest in telling his story, he is more focused on the history of his family, and atoning for the sins of cowardice, the details of which we find out towards the end of the novel. The one weakness in this book is it’s myriad of historical details, which can be too dense for such a book that has truly interesting family dram, from Jose’s father, caught up in an even great history than his son, Jose’s conception and birth, and the many ways, in Jose’s eyes that he and Conrad are connected throughout their respective lives. It isn’t perfect, but it shows the promise of a fiercely original writer in the midst of sharpening his tools.

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Review: "300,000,000" by Blake Butler

300,000,000 by Blake Butler is quite the book, and I am likely to not read another one like it for the rest of the year. It is filled with chaotic poetry and brutal violence, and the only real flaw it has its impenetrable vagueness, and even that can be argued by people with different views of the book. Butler’s novel has two obvious comparisons that are clear influences on the writing. One is 2666 by Roberto Bolano, which I have talked about endlessly throughout my reviews, but I won’t get too much into here, just to say that Butler’s novel shares the book’s five part structure, appalling murder scenes and obsession with death, as well as it having an epigraph taken from the book to open it. The other is Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which it shares its Russian doll-like structure that folds in on itself, creating the stuff of nightmares. While it never reaches the levels of those two books, it is safe to say that 300,000,000 is way scarier than each of them. It begins, if it really has one, with the capture of Gretchen Gravey, a mass murderer whose body count is in the hundreds. He, along with an unknown number of teenage accomplices have murder countless numbers of people. He doesn’t speak, and shows no signs of guilt or acknowledgment of his crimes. Flood, a detective on the brink of a breakdown, is assigned to the case, which includes reading Gravey’s many manifestos which begin to push him over the edge, and has unseen consequences for the rest of the world. A synopsis for this book is rather useless, since it works more an emotional level than anything else. In its attempts to break down language and our view of the world and our self, it obtains a few rather horrifying notions that I found hard to shake, with the commentary that made sense of things all but disappearing halfway in. It is not a book for everyone, but I do recommend checking it out if you want something new and fiercely original.

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Review: "Inherent Vice" by Thomas Pynchon

This book, Inherent Vice, is by far, leaps and bounds, the best thing Thomas Pynchon has ever written, despite it still having the hallmarks of what makes his book so unpleasurbale to read. It is still convoluted, still has a wandering plot and still has characters that act as vessels for whatever Pynchon is shoving down our throats instead of actually acting like real people. But at least it is a fun time between the pages. Instead of the action being little more than a gateway for Pynchon to discuss topics such as paranoia, politics, government and the advent of new technology in a way that makes him feel superior to his reader, who for the most part is bored, here, it is simply to give the reader a good time with a plot that goes awry, but gloriously so, with a smile it’s face and a doobie hanging out of it’s mouth. That last part really sums up the existence of Doc Sportello, a private dick living on the beach in L. A. at the tail-end of the 60’s, who can’t seem to get his ass off the couch, let alone to do so and solve crimes. But when Shasta, the great love of his past, asks him for some help on a case, he feels motivated to do something and assist her. It only leads to trouble and more trouble, leaving Doc wishing he had just stayed on his couch. If there is a plot it is really hard to follow and never makes much sense. But there are scenes of hilarity that make this book really work, such as anything involving Bigfoot Bjornson, whose hatred of Doc and hippie culture provides quite a few laughs, and an action scene found in many noir tales that, tinged with Pynchon’s oddball sense of detachment, makes for something really memorable. I really can’t say this book is great, but it is surely is a good time from an unlikely source.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Review: "Sorry" by Zoran Drvenkar

Sorry, a German thriller written by Zoran Drvenkar, opens with a really nasty and very brutal sequence of violence, but after that, nothing much else happens. If any genre of literature is overrated while still being okay, it is the European mystery genre, made popular by the likes of Jo Nesbo and Steig Larsson. These stories are always brutal, long and rife with cultural quirks. But for some reason, I have never found anything profound or moving in these books, and that applies even more so to this book. I think I just prefer my American crime stories to anything across the pond. The violence in books like this are gruesome and creative, but it treats them casually and lessens the effects it has on the people in the story, which you won’t find in books like Lehane’s Mystic River or Pelecanos’ The Turnaround. Some people like it, and I won’t fault them for it, but to me, it tends to veer off into a place that is tawdry and tasteless. After the brutal opening involving a very large nail and a very unlucky woman, we meet our quartet of losers, drifting through middle adulthood, who stumble onto an idea that might net them millions: take a poor schmuck who doesn’t have the courage to apologize, and do it for him. It’s a morally corrupt, but successful way to make money that ultimately leads them into the clutches of the person who commits the crime at the beginning. I give the book credit for not taking easy ways out, especially when the device they were using (writing the killer’s section in second person) didn’t lead to where I thought it was going to, but the plight of these four misfits never seems urgent, even when someone major dies, and after a dismal climax, I was left feeling unsatisfied, but not that I had wasted my time.

Rating: 3/5