Friday, February 27, 2015

Review: "The Invisible Circus" by Jennifer Egan

As much love as I have for Jennifer Egan, especially her two novels The Keep and A Visit from the Goon Squad, this book is far from her best. It didn’t disappoint the way her shirt story collection, Emerald City did, but it fell flat in the same area. But since this is her first novel, and one that really isn’t famous for anything, I went in with low expectations and came out with them satisfied. It’s very much an Egan book, with memory, deceit and redemption all playing a part in a story with more than a few tangled up yarns that are always fun to unravel. But here, that talent is in it’s pupa stage, and is a little unsavory to watch as certain tropes and themes are handled so ham-fistedly by a writer who has great potential, but hasn’t done the work to quite catch up to it. The novel has a very basic structure, something her later novels do not. Phoebe, mourning the death of her beloved and idealized sister Faith, a product of the late 60’s hippie movement (I thought I was done with books like this), travels to Europe in search of what led to her downfall. She has brushes with menace until meeting a man named Wolf, who shares with her information about Faith, which helps each of them mourn her passing. The romance is too basic and saccharine for a book like this and a writer like Egan, and doesn’t detract from some of the boredom that I felt while reading this book, the same kind I felt reading Emerald City. With the exception of one scene where Phoebe is searching for a hostel after a violent assault, nothing in this book really stands out. Not really a bad book, I might add, but not one I’m going to remember from writer of two unforgettable books.

Rating: 3/5

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review: "The Sunnier Side" by Charles Jackson

At times painfully self-aware and uninteresting, Charles Jackson’s short story collection, The Sunnier Side might have shocked readers when it was published in 1950, but I am sure most readers who aren’t stiff academic types will be lulled to sleep by most of these stories. To be fair, Jackson writing these kinds of stories in 1950 is daring and brave, almost a decade before The Beat Generation. They talk frankly and honestly about subjects like rape, child neglect, homeless and societal misplacement in a time when those problems were not much spoken about in polite conversation. But they also haven’t aged well either, being dry as bone, with some of the longer stories offering little distinction between characters and plots that crumble under the weight of Jackson’s presences in the stories. He is trying to create his own Winesburg, Ohio, with him as Sherwood Anderson and Arcadia has the eponymous town. I knew this collection with the opening story, the title story, which is Jackson’s fictional response to a lady’s letter espousing the virtues of clean, light-hearted stories. He goes on to insult her as well as map out the people of the fictional town of Arcadia. It is an arrogant exercise in self-reflexivity that again, might have been daring in 1950, but has been done and perfected so many times over that it feels tired. The rest of the stories are mixed, with “The Band Concert” a misleadingly dark story of sexual violence and “A Night Visitor” involving the reemergence of one family’s black sheep and “Rachel’s Summer” about the death of a young girl’s sister and her ambiguous secret being the three stories I will take away from this collection. Other’s like “Tenting Tonight”, a title that is self-explanatory and “How War Came to Arcadia, N. Y. “ a fluffier version of Benjamin Percy’s “Refresh, Refresh” fall really flat. A little more of a curiosity from yesteryear, this collection offers a few gems but nothing to throw a parade for.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Review: "Rust and Bone" by Craig Davidson

Craig Davidson’s debut short story collection Rust and Bone continues the streak of reading great books that make me feel kind of awful. These are for sure some of the best short stories I have read in a long time. They are well-written, told by a future master of the art form and are unlike anything. While I like most books published today, more so than my peers, I find there is a great tendency to soften them and make them puerile and too derivative of the past (most 20 Under 40 writers fall into this category). One thing Davidson will never be accused of is writing soft stories. These stories pack more of a punch than most anything you will pick up, featuring lost souls fighting for a life that may not be worth living, throwing punches even as they face the inevitability of defeat. Using metaphors like that, the easiest comparison I can maker to Davidson would be Thom Jones, easily the most underrated short story writer alive today. Davidson writes with same oddly poetic macho bravado, crafting stories that dissect the ideas of masculinity, showing what these broken people use to hide their flaws. A lot of time, it isn’t pretty, with more than a few moments in these graphic stories being as uncomfortable and heartbreaking as possible. But Davidson writes with grace as well as aggression, and never, through any of these harrowing stories, do we feel anything but the upmost empathy for these people who seemingly came into this world losing, and are doing so right into their graves. There isn’t a weak story in this collection, so I will talk about a few of them. The first story, the eponymous title story, is easily the strongest and ranks with Jones’ “Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine” and “The Pugilist at Rest” and like those stories, it uses boxing as a metaphor for a difficult life. “The Rifleman”, about an abusive father, living vicariously through his son’s basketball prospects makes you feel sympathy for someone you shouldn’t, showing the father’s regret of his actions, and the real love he feels for his son. “A Mean Utility”, concerning a husband and wife who use dig fighting as a way to cope with the husband’s infertility is easily the most graphic story, featuring a few upsetting scenes of the fights, which are told in graphic detail. “Rocket Ride” tells of a killer whale trainer who, after he has his leg bitten off turns to a life of depravity, works in a different way than “The Rifleman”, as a man who typically has your sympathy, has none by the end. Finally, “On Sleepless Roads” about a repo man whose wife has Bradykinesia, a movement disorder, has a beautiful scene where the narrator is forced to repo a vehicle of a former kid’s show performer, which involves the setting free of most of his pets. But really, most of the stories are great and powerful, even if they might be unpleasant, and it is hard to think of a better example of a great short story collection.
Rating: 5/5

Review: "Bonita Avenue" by Peter Buwalda

To say that Peter Buwalda’s debut novel, Bonita Avenue is not for everyone is quite an understatement. It can be gross and it can be brutally cynical to the point where it brings you to your knees. In that sense, it is very much like the work of fellow Dutch novelist Herman Koch, in where he revels in the underside of human connection, and likes picking at emotional scabs until they bleed. But for all those negative attributes I can attribute to this novel, it is also very entertaining and very enlightening, despite its grim, some would say too grim, outlook on modern life. It begs the question of whether ignorance is really bliss even when knowledge causes pain. The characters in this novel have many skeletons in their closets, and through sheer will and lack of moral compass, they have built lives around their mistruths and seem to have reached a state of balance in each of their lives. On the back of the book, a review compares it to the work of Franzen and Roth, although I feel that is inaccurate; Buwalda is a much braver and nastier writer than Franzen and he has none of the irony that Roth is known for. Even as the insults are flying, leaving people emotionally crippled, Buwalda keeps things serious, and when we laugh at the crazed events that take place in this book, we hate ourselves afterwards and question whether or not our own families are keeping this many screwed up secrets. The novel centers on Siem Sigerius, a former Judo champion and now a math professor at a prestigious Dutch college. He has a supporting wife and two stepdaughters, Joni and Janis, and tons of respect from colleagues and friends alike. It is only when Aaron, a photographer and the new boyfriend of his daughter Joni starts taking a much too keen interest in Siem’s past life do things begin to unravel for everyone. We find out about Seam’s past marriage, and his sociopathic son, who was sentenced to prison after beating a man to death with a sledgehammer. We also learn of Joni’s penitent for being a liar.  Along with these pieces of information, an explosion at a fireworks factory and Siem’s horrifying discovery about his daughter, this happy life begins to crumble violently.  As much as I liked and will highly recommend this book, there are some qualities that might detract some people, other than the subject matter. It is split up into three narrative threads, each in a different time period, which can be hard to juggle, and Siem’s wife and other daughter are mere extras to what is happening. But what is happening is quite glorious to behold. Unlike Franzen, this is a decidedly un-smug family tale, and Buwalda gives it plenty of room to breathe and become its own entity. From a grossly comic scene where Siem is caught in underwear that isn’t his, to the final brutal pages that went way past this books already nonexistent boundaries, this is a bitter, nightmarish tale of a family’s destruction and not something I’ll forget any time soon.
Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Review: "Last Night at the Lobster" by Stewart O' Nan

Many times, even the smartest of us tend to associate grand ideas and profound feelings with equally grand objects and places, such as foreign continents or massive events like war or large adventures, but they always seem to take everyday life for granted. They fail to recognize the poetry and beauty in things like jobs, the people we see everyday and the things we do to get through life. But in Stewart O’ Nan’s short novel Last Night at the Lobster, these events come to life thanks to a writer who uses his great skills to create a richly detailed and nuanced world of a place everyone who reads this has been to, probably in the last month. Chronicling the last day of a New England Red Lobster only a few days before Christmas, O’ Nan has crafted a story of wonder and amazement tout of people very much like us. They are hard workers, doing what they need to survive. They are flawed, sometimes in hilarious ways and sometimes in tragic ways, but they are fully-formed people with thoughts, emotions, hopes and dreams as well as regrets and malice, and O’ Nan writes about them with such clarity and sincere love, it is hard not to get emotionally invested in the lives of these people even with its short 146 page length, who always seem to be behind the 8-ball, yet always find a way to make things work even if that means giving up and admitting you need help. The main character is Manny, the manager of this soon to be closed establishment. As he goes about his day, he must deal with a staff that might not show up, or if they do, have no intention of working responsibly, the coming snow storm which may shut the restaurant down early, and the unrequited love he has for one of his waitress’s while his pregnant girlfriend waits at home. Throughout it all, which happens in the span of less than 12 hours, we find that Manny, above all, loves this place that is soon be gone and is trying to do best by his employees, even though he is bound to fall short. This is a funny novel too, with a scene involving an unruly female customer being painfully humorous, and another involving a busload of Chines passengers stopping by to use the bathroom after having a bad batch of mussels is done right funny. But really, this is a very moving novel from quite an unexpected source, as tiny moments, such as Manny helping one his chefs off the bus because his knees are bad, getting a pair of earrings in the nearby mall, or simply opening the store and turning on the stove and frialators are written in elegant yet not heavy prose that brings warmth and awe to these completely mundane events.  From the quiet opening, to the equally quiet ending, where things are promised to go on despite everything else, O’ Nan has written a breathtaking little book on what is ultimately the triumph of the human spirit.

Rating: 5/5

Review: "Snapper" by Brian Kimberling

I would never have thought a novel focused on a subject as stereotypically monotonous as bird watching could not only provide moments entertainment of the highest order, but also offer keen observations about the unpredictably of life, both good and bad, as well as being somewhat of a love letter to my odd home state. But that is exactly what Brian Kimberling’s debut novel Snapper accomplishes with humble skill and insight. Not so much a novel but a series of linked vignettes involving one recent wayward college graduate as he recounts both his past and his desired future, all while being completely surprised  at where his life has taken him. Don’t let the whole bird-watching, or bird surveying, to be more accurate, fool you into thinking this is the kind of book only retired blue-hairs will read. It is not that at all, feeling more like one Stephen Kings non-horror retrospectives on the history of an ordinary person. It is violent sometimes, funny quite often, and with this odd residue of melancholy and regret that always seem to show up in books like this, making it a quietly moving read as well. There are no big actions scenes, and the one scene of violence, which I will get to) is more humorous than horrifying. And the state of Indiana plays a big role in this novel as well, being both the key to the narrator’s hopes and dreams, but also something that threatens to derail any dreams he is working towards. Through his character of Nathan Lochmueller, who we first meet in the woods of southern Indiana tracking birds, Kimberling comes to embody a certain post-college drought that affects more young people than we want to admit. He spends his days out in the woods, mostly pining for Lola, his on again off again sex buddy who is never within emotional reach. We also meet his mentor, a sad man whose genius with birds separates him from any human connection. We also get a few glimpses into the past, where his friend Shane, as well as their acquaintance Eddie, who grows up to become an owner of a local strip joint, have a nasty encounter with a snapping turtle that almost costs Eddie his thumb, something that reminded me of the leeches in King’s The Body. There is also Nathan’s uncle Dart, whose old world views and undying love for his home state of Texas, causes problems for Nathan’s family in Indiana when they move up there. Nathan grows throughout college, majoring in philosophy, but is sidetracked when he is arrested for destroying a parking meter, somehow leading him to become a interested in birds, which he has quite a talent for. The reader finds out, through Kimberling’s turn of phrase accompanied with his eloquent prose that the story is being told from the future, and from a Nathan who has experienced the loss and pain life can dish out. But ultimately, he is the better for it. An off-kilter book for sure and never something that is destined to sell millions, but this book is still quite a gem.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Review: "Union Dues" by John Sayles

Sometimes a book’s one good quality makes it immensely readable and worth a recommendation, and that perfectly sums up my feelings on John Sayles’ novel Union Dues, a novel taking place at the tail-end of the sixties, and is sort of a back-handed love letter to that era (to be honest, with Inherent Vice and Already Dead, I’m tired of this type of book). I liked Sayles’ most recent book, the pet-crushing A Moment in the Sun for its sheer audacity that it reveled in every chance it got. But this earlier novel I don’t like as much, despite it having some qualities that are better here than A Moment in the Sun, most importantly its dialogue and cast of characters, which is as rich and rewarding as anything I have read in recent memory. But when it comes to the structure of the novel, the ideas that hold it together, it doesn’t form a cohesive unit. The plot of the novel involves a father and son, Hunter and Hobie McNutt still reeling from the death of the mother. Hobie, in a panic, decides to run away from home and join a disparate group of radicals traveling throughout New England. On his search for his son, Hunter falls in with a number of union laborers just trying to make ends meet. The dialogue here from Sayles, also a successful filmmaker, is impeccable and so entertaining, from the perfectly rendered Boston accent, complete with phonetic spelling of certain words, to the song Hobie hears about Jesus that shows religions connection to the high you get from drugs. There are also a sex scene and a moment involving a stopped up toilet that are the funniest I’ve read in awhile. My main complaint though, is that the cast of supporting characters greatly overshadow Hunter and Hobie, who are simply vessels for the events at best, and get in the way at their worst, making the shock ending kind of a letdown. Still, this book is quite a thrilling near 400-page sit by a true unheralded master of fiction.

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Review: "The Residue Years" by Mitchell S. Jackson

It has been awhile since I have written a review that is going to be long, which is disappointing to me by itself, but I am glad to be doing for a book like Mitchell S. Jackson’s debut novel, The Residue Years, easily the best book I have read in one or two months. After reading several books that tried, but never really succeeded in being great, this one soars with precision, originality and tons and tons of heart as it tells its story of two of two broken, wandering souls trying to what’s best for them and their families, but are constantly tempted by escape back to the easy road of selling drugs and abusing them respectively I have read a few books like this in the past. The one that comes to mind immediately is another debut novel that came out recently, Marcus Burke’s Team Seven, which I enjoyed, but didn’t love. I have been ruminating on what separates the two in quality, and it might be just that. Burke’s book is one written by a person with a lot of talent, but I know he has a lot to improve on, with a story that takes itself too lightly and is therefore, not emotionally affective. That is definitely not how I would describe Jackson’s book, which keeps quite a harrowing pace throughout its 350 page length, leaving me both breathless and horrified at the events that take place in these two people’s lives. The two people are a mother and son. Champ, the son, is wise beyond his years, knows big words and what they mean, and would make something of himself if only he could find a better way to make money that doesn’t involve selling crack. The drug also is central to his mom, Grace, who, at the beginning of the novel, is just leaving rehab for drug addiction. The plot is very loose, with short, manageable chapters detailing the lives of these people spent on the brink of despair. We witness Champ’s attempts at school, where a scene involving a presentation on black America and drug use might have been poignant, but coming from Champ, is horribly contradictory and filled with unrighteous anger. We also see his attempts at love with his girlfriend Kim, which is again sabotaged by his massive ego and his ability to be easily led toward temptation. Grace isn’t fairing much better, trying to fill the void in her life that drugs did with menial jobs, church and Narcotics Anonymous, all the while avoiding people, mainly men, who might lead her back to her old life. Jackson is a very original writer, using street slang in a way that isn’t too cumbersome for uninitiated readers and allows for great humorous moments in the lighter scenes, panic in the suspenseful ones and moving during emotional ones. A weird comparison I could make would be to Scottish writer James Kelman’s controversial novel, How Late It Was, How Late, having a similar mood to that novel as well as its themes of trying your hardest yet failing anyway, evidenced by a truly heartbreaking conclusion. Not always the most pleasant book, but one written with an unmatched passion for its subject and sympathy for the pathologically downtrodden.
Rating: 5/5

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Review: "Already Dead" by Denis Johnson

If I were to make a list of the writers who I keep reading yet I am not the biggest fan of (which is something I have been kicking around), Denis Johnson would surely be on the top of that list. Already Dead, his biggest novel before he became a big name with the publication of Tree of Smoke, is the fifth book of his I have read, but none of them have been anywhere close to great. I pick out things that I like in them, but it is never a grand event on the whole. He has moments of greatness in his books, some I still remember quite well. He is a great chronicler of a great American waywardness that formed in the last part of the 20th century. But with that way of thinking comes very disjointed narratives and characters that tend to go off the rails of realism and credibility. Already Dead is very much like that, with a story that involves drugs, murder and maybe even a little demonology. It centers on two very different characters; Nelson Fairchild, a landowner in the Pacific Northwest burden by an awful father, other familial woes, and the strange people he has to deal with owning a lucrative piece of land, especially if you are growing marijuana plants. Into his life walks Carl Van Ness, a drifter intent on killing himself. It seems these two can solve each other’s problems, if only people would stop dying. A great comparison for this book would be one I just read, actually, which was Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. They both have the same feel, which is a little too off-kilter for my tastes, but if you go along with its craziness, you’ll be rewarded with something. This is one of my favorite books of his, almost as much as his underrated first novel, Angels, so it is worth checking out.

Rating: 4/5

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Review: "Missing Person" by Patrick Modiano

I try not to write reviews for books so soon after reading them, but since I want to get caught up, I will be reviewing a short novel by the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Patrick Modiano. His book, Missing Person is something rather pleasant, but not something that made me jump for joy. The big thing I take away from it is how hard it is for me to think that a writer like Modiano can win what is the greatest prize a writer can receive. That sounds bad, but it isn’t. His style of writing, from the narrative turns, the spare prose and digestible length and syntax are not what I am used to when I approach a book by a Nobel Prize winner. That has changed in the past few years, with authors like Mo Yan and Alice Munro, popular authors, at least in their respective sides of the world, whose stories are interesting, fulfilling both intellectually and emotionally, although I find Mo Yan to be a bit dense, despite liking him a lot. The plot of this book is rather simple, and that is good considering its short length. It concerns a man named Guy, who, for the past ten years, is trying to find out who he was before and during WWII. He finds many clues, people who he was told are dead are actually alive, and he is never sure what to make of anything he is told. It is one of those times in a book where a mystery is so compelling that it doesn’t need an answer, or an answer would simply ruin it, and this book satisfies the reader in that it chooses not to reveal why Guy lost his memory or if he had a memory to lose. In the end, it was an interesting book, posing a lot of old question in a new light, and made me curious to read more from this author, now that he is world-famous.
Rating: 4/5