Sunday, May 31, 2015

Review: "10:04" by Ben Lerner

10:04, the second novel of writer Ben Lerner, is the best kind of novel to end the first half of my reading list for 2015, but it is also, even more so than Tom Perrotta’s Bad Haircut, the most surprising book I have read all year. I had my misgivings coming in, thinking it was going to be a little too experimental for my taste: little more than a temperamental artist cannibalizing his own life for fiction. But my thoughts changed a little when it was favorable compared to the debut novel of one of my favorites, Paul Auster and his brilliant New York Trilogy. While it is a little different than that novel, this is still an amazingly inventive and thought-provoking book, providing candid looks into the mysteries of everyday life while presenting a picture of New York City that is completely unique, much like Auster’s novel did over a quarter of a century ago. And while Lerner does tend to cannibalize his own life for this novel (or at least it seems like he does), it is never exploitative, and acts more like an act of brutal self extraction instead of a painful self reflection, much like Bret Easton Ellis’ Lunar Park, a book I just listened to in audio form recently. Lerner presents the narrator, which might be himself, as a confused young man, whose success does little more than add to his confused state, which exists in a New York City on the threshold of disaster. The narrator, who is never named, has just been diagnosed with a rare heart disorder that might kill him at any time. To add to that earth-shattering bit of news, his best friend, Alex, has just asked him to father her child. And all this is happening in a New York beset by freak storms that have knocked out the power in the city, leaving everyone, including the writer and his odd group of friends, to their own devices. The plot is minimal, and includes a burgeoning book deal and a residency to Marfa, Texas. What makes this novel such a treat is the little happenings that take place within the narrators tumultuous life, which may or may not act to guide him to make the right decisions in his life. To bring up another book that this reminded of, there are a lot of details her that are similar to Javier Marias’ famous novel All Souls. Not only does it incorporate pictures into the text, but also each book is filled with little mysteries whose solutions would only ruin the beauty of the mystery, like who was the girl the narrator fell in love with years ago, who told her she was the daughter of mutual friends who then told him that they didn’t have children, or the weird parentage of Noor, the girl the narrator works with at a local whole foods store. Despite the book’s slim 240-page length, I am not even beginning to scratch the surface on the myriad of brilliant questions this book asks of the reader, while never once becoming arrogant or overbearing. It is the last book I read for the first half of the year, and it does nothing but make me excited for the second half.

Rating: 5/5

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Review: "Falling Man" by Don DeLillo

Falling Man is the most interesting Don DeLillo novel I have read so far, which, for a lack of anything better, his best as well. I haven’t read anything by him that was major or fantastic, but for some reason, I keep coming back to him once a year, or once every two years. What he is best at are ideas: whether they are a political conspiracy like in Libra, or something on a grand scale, like the collective American consciousness in what many will call his masterpiece, Underworld, the ideas at the heart of his story are unique and thrilling, even if I am not the kind of person who can grasp what they are right away, or even at all. My complaints, which do seep into this novel as well, are nothing new. His prose and dialogue is lifeless a little too much of the time, making some of his books intellectual black holes that threaten to swallow the reader. Luckily, this novel is rich in the former and lacking in the latter, as it tells the story of a man who survived the attacks on The World Trade Center, and what his family must deal with afterwards. Keith, a businessman with a failing marriage, walks out of the wreckage of the two towers (described in a brilliant scene towards the end) into a life that seems meaningless. Also suffering is his wife, Lianne, surrounding by the threat of aging as she spends time with her parents and teaches a class for Alzheimer’s patients. Soon, Keith takes up with a Florence, a woman who also survived the crash, while Lianne’s loneliness manifests itself in her interactions with the falling man, a performance artist who dangles himself above the streets in the same pose as the famous picture taken that fateful day. DeLillo works really well in tiny little scenes, like the moments Lianne has with her students, or when Keith becomes addicted to gambling, which leads into some of the books faults. Like all DeLillo novels, it is hard to see people talking like they do here, in intellectual nuggets that sound smarter than they actually are. But I can’t deny this is an entertaining book, which says a lot about an author who is sometimes too intelligent for his own good.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Review: "The Isle of Youth" by Laura Van Den Berg

While Richard Lange’s collection Sweet Nothing is the kind of short story collection I look forward to reading, The Isle of Youth, a collection by new (at least to me) writer Laura Van Den Berg, is a collection I look at with a bit more trepidation, since it promises a series of stories that don’t always offer what I want out of the form. On the back of the book, Dave Eggers compares Van Den Berg to Lorrie Moore, and reading these stories that is as good a comparison as any for this well-written, if dense collection of stories, since I am not a huge Moore fan. Like her stories, Van Den Berg is really good at setups here, telling old tales of desperate women caught in the webs of fate and circumstances in ways that are unique at best and harmlessly silly at their worst. The stories sometimes last a little bit longer than they need to, but their better qualities allow them to run smoothly. There weren’t any real standouts here, but luckily none of them were bad. Like I said, the setups here are amazing, with the first pages of each story easily grabbing your attention, like the duo of sister PI’s in “Opa-Locka”, the gang of female robbers in “Lessons”, and the Parisian acrobats that a scorned woman becomes infatuated with in “Acrobat”. These qualities are insightful enough to keep the story going, even when the narrative falls off the rails. If I had to pick a favorite story here, something to take away from this book, it would have to be the first story, “I Looked For You, I Called Your Name” which begins with a plane crash on a couples honeymoon, and goes onto to eloquently present a new marriage fraught with ambiguous feelings and motivations, with a tropical backdrop that juxtaposes beauty with danger. It’s a bittersweet accomplishment of the short story form that makes this collection worthwhile.  

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Review: "Smonk" by Tom Franklin

While I can’t really put my finger on the wild and crazy ride through the old west that I just finished, but I must say that Tom Franklin’s second novel, Smonk, is the weirdest, oddest and most bloody book I will read all year. It faces stiff completion, mainly from the recent release of The Scarlet Gospels, Clive Barker’s sequel to The Hellbound Heart, which I will be reading later this year, but I can bet it won’t have the same amount of brutality as this book does, which, if you are squeamish and are caught off guard by this book, might knock you on your ass. This book is also a perfect example of the talents Franklin possesses, since it is very different than the other books of his I have read. The Tilted World, His most recent novel, written with his wife Beth Ann Fennelly, is a mid-century love story set during prohibition; Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter felt like a modern country noir, easily comparable to Daniel Woodrell’s novels. And Poachers, his debut collection, the ghost of Flannery O’Conner seemed to be resurrected, this time a little dirtier and pissed off. But Smonk is not like any of those books. It is grittier, less refined and at some points, a bit exploitative, but that is what made this book so memorable and worth your time. It contains, in its brisk 251 pages, it packs enough bodies, blood and bullet wounds to fill one of Larry McMurty’s epic western novels. Smonk, the title character, has been terrorizing the townspeople of Old Texas, Alabama for too long. He murders cattle and people on a whim, sleeps with most of the town’s female population and cares little for his personal hygiene. He has a large goiter on his neck, a terminal case of syphilis and a bought of consumption that will likely kill him. When the townspeople organize a kangaroo court, little more than an excuse to lynch him, he escapes, with the help of Ike, his black companion, and Ike’s Gatling gun. His escape leaves many of the people in town dead, and the bailiff and the blacksmith, two men with judge axes to grind due to Smonk’s actions. Meanwhile, a prostitute named Evangeline is on a journey of her own, accused of homosexual acts due to her short haircut, she flees across Alabama, also leaving a trail of bodies in her wake, mainly men who tried to rape her, who were soon castrated after they were killed. The cast of characters here is rich and rewarding, from Walton, the man chasing Evangeline, whose obsession with God and purity creates an infinite divide between his men and his need to protect them, Ambrose, one of Walton’s men, a black man who has a little too much of a happy-go-lucky attitude towards murder, and the widow Mrs. Gates, a madam of a brothel who is the key to Old Texas’ dark secret. This book is bound to be too weird for some, once the secret is revealed, but the action leading up to it, which includes multiple head shots on the same head, a man whose face, for a lack of a better word, is ripped off, and a woman infected with rabies going on a biting spree, is too much fun for me not to recommend this book to anyone who likes their stories a little wet and gory. 
Rating: 5/5

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Review: "Sweet Nothing" by Richard Lange

A short story collection like Richard’s Lange’s Sweet Nothing is something to celebrate and cherish. It is a rich collection of small tragedies among smaller people, given the breadth and importance of a Shakespeare play. You get the feeling reading them that Lange not only enjoyed writing them, but also puts a piece of himself in each one. It is not a collection that is haphazardly thrown together with stories acting as nothing but filler. This book is, and should be, a major event to excited about. Lange himself is a writer I have been curious about for some time, drawing praise from some pretty trusted sources, and this collection is a great introduction to his world, which blurs the line between success and failure, which seems to be the only option for some of the poor souls that inhabit this version of Los Angles. The first few writers that came to mind when I was reading these wonderful stories were people like Craig Davidson and to a lesser extent Joe R. Lansdale (who both offer praise on the hardcover edition), but who I really thought of when I was reading was Thom Jones and his two legendary collections, The Pugilist at Rest and Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine. Lange shares Jones’ sympathy for losers, injecting an insight and humor into their (sometimes deserved) bad luck, adding an eloquent poetry to lives that have seemingly become meaningless, to no one more than the person whose life it is. With the exception of one story, a redundant post-apocalyptic tale of two loners, which offers nothing fresh, all the stories here are fantastic, and I will discuss a few that really stood out, as I do with all short story reviews. The first story here, “Must Come Down”, is one of the weirder tales here, telling the story of a reformed drunk whose life has finally come together with a steady job and a loving wife, being tested by his wife’s father, who works in the illegal diamond industry. It offers a great contrast of scenes, from the bucolic setting of a dinner at home tinged with tension, to the propulsive threat of violence when the father must seek out a customer who late on payments. “Baby Killer” about a middle-aged nurse who witnesses the murder of a child by a gangbanger, is one the saddest stories in this collection, showing how little this proud woman has left in her life, and her quest to make things right, which ends in an unexpectedly heartbreaking way, the title story is similar as well, about a man who has lost his family to drug addiction forming a relationship with a woman whose daughter is in coma. Others like “The 100-1 Club” about a first date at a horse track, “Gather Darkness” about the fragility of a man’s life after a drunken affair and the last story “To Ashes” about a father-son mission to rescue relative crossing the border, offer keen examinations into the hearts of the wounded. I can’t say enough good things about this collection and Lange as a chronicler of failure-dom. He know that life is more than a series of success and defeats, but how you deal with them, and what you take from them at the end of the day, and after reading this, I hope you do too.

Rating: 5/5

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Review: "On the Edge" by Edward St. Aubyn

After reading On the Edge, only the second non-Melrose novel I have read written by Edward St. Aubyn, I felt like I had put my foot in my mouth. On my Facebook page, I posted a picture of a new book that contained all five novels, raving about how good they were. I think they are the best books to come out of England in a while, being as well written as any novel I can think of, but telling a deeply affecting story, unadorned with smug self-reflection while being entertaining as hell. I even liked his most recent novel, Lost for Words, a brilliant but harmless satire on the cult of the literary award. But this novel is not only Aubyn’s worst novel, but one of the biggest duds of the year, failing to capture even a sliver of the magic of his Melrose novels, instead, retreading a tired old trend of empty decadence filled with one dimensional characters engaging in shallow behavior. At the center of this story is a man named Peter Thorpe, whose job and relationship have soured and caused him to enter a spiritual crisis. He meets a free-spirited girl named Sabine, and follows her to Big Sur, California, where he immerses himself in the New Age Movement, with varying results. The novel is funny at times, like when Peter stumbles onto a sexual liaison with a transvestite, and one person quotes Derrida, describing an idea like a vagina, “folding into and out of itself.” It is ridiculous in all of the worst ways, and is a huge step down from what I know Aubyn is capable of. It takes the sex scenes from his Melrose novels, which are painful and uncomfortable, and plays them for laughs here, especially during the novels very welcome end. Aubyn is a master, no doubt about it, so I’ll chock this novel to being a mere slip-up in a grand career. 
Rating: 2/5

Review: "The Ploughmen" by Kim Zupan

Picking up The Ploughmen, the debut novel by Kim Zupan, I had little expectations as to what it was, let alone whether it was good or not. It sounded like a standard western story, with echoes of Cormac McCarthy (bad) and Richard Ford (good), so I approached with an eager trepidation. And for the most part, it delivered quite well. It is far from something that will set the literary world on fire, but I don’t want to ignore its other qualities. It is a quiet, somber story of inescapable pasts set in a landscape as barren as it is unforgiving. But despite the eloquent brutality of the story, it has a certain charm that kept me interested during the slower parts where the story began to drag under the weight of its vagueness. But I can’t ignore Zupan’s talents for prose, which is great even if it is smarter than the characters he is writing about. The story focuses on two men with dark pasts that have shaped them into the men that they are today. John Gload, on the wrong side of 70, has led a life of crime and murder, and has just been arrested for a recent murder. He is watched around the clock, and the low man on the totem pole, Val Millimaki, is stuck with him through the night, a shift that causes his volatile marriage to only get worse. But as Gload and Val start talking, they form a weird kind of bond through shared experiences and mutual respect. This bond gets called into question when Gload’s violent past starts wreaking havoc outside the prison. The true star here is Gload; a fascinating man who is a charming killer, talking fondly about the first time he killed in what is the book’s most chilling scene. The book’s main conflict, involving a young acquaintance of Gload looking to build his reputation, pales in comparison to the one/two show of Gload and Millimaki. Despite a few minor gripes, this book is nothing if but interesting, and worth seeking out. 
Review: 4/5

Friday, May 22, 2015

Review: "Ghostwritten" by David Mitchell

Ghostwritten, the debut novel of David Mitchell, someone who’d go on to become one of the powerhouses of world literature, is a novel of astounding ideas in the hands of someone who doesn’t really have the skills to handle such backbreaking ideas. My love for David Mitchell came late. I read both Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and while I found both novels about as unique and genre-defying as you can get, they each left a lot to be desired. It wasn’t until I read Number9Dream that I truly understood Mitchell’s talents for the weird, grand and emotional. And after reading The Bone Clocks last year, easily one of my favorite novels so far this decade, I recognize his work as among the best being put out today, even if this novel is painfully subpar. Its setup is very similar to Cloud Atlas, in that it tells a disparate group of stories connected in odd ways that go beyond simple human interaction, and in the process, melding different styles of storytelling to create a tapestry of human experience. It works like a less competent version of Cloud Atlas, which is a book I feel, is more stunt than novel, so this book has a lot going against it. Its first few sections are fantastic, dealing with an intelligent member of a religious cult assigned to set off a poison gas in a Tokyo Subway, a lonely record store clerk, also in Tokyo and a disgraced business man who finds himself stranded in Hong Kong. These sections feel very Murakami-esque, and the clues in each of them are delightful. But the sections afterwards struggle to balance the narratives with the games Mitchell is playing with the readers, and the clues in each, like references to the book’s title as well as work as varied as the books of Paul Auster and the music of The Smiths, are merely cool curiosities in book that only hints at the writer’s astounding talents.
Review: 3/5

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Review: "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" by Anthony Marra

Nothing makes me wearier of a book when it is compared, by one of the review blurbs on the back, to a book that I dislike. Ann Patchett, an author I am indifferent to, compared Anthony Marra’s debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena to Everything is Illuminated. But luckily, this amazing book is nothing like that, deserving of every bit of praise it gets for being a joyous accomplishment of human will and the little things and victories that help get us through our days. This is a book, much like something like The Goldfinch, is really geared toward any number of readers. Its story is simple enough to understand while having flourishes throughout that make it unique, but it isn’t too complicated. It is a far cry from something like A Brief History of Seven Killings. But I am not knocking the book for that since the book is so enjoyable and eye-opening to read, telling a fictional story set in a war torn land, where humanity is on life support, and people find hope when they need it. I actually find it more difficult to write a story like this than it is to write something experimental, at least some of the time. It takes not only a great writer but a great storyteller to string a reader along, make them feel all kinds of emotions, while stimulating their intellect as well, and Antony Marra is for sure, a great writer. The story takes place in small village in Chechnya, where a brutal war has turned everything into ash and rubble, most noticeably the townspeople’s spirits. One cold night in winter, Havaa, an eight year old girl, witnesses her dad being taken away by soldiers to a place the locals call “the landfill”, where no one has ever returned from. Her neighbor, Akhmed, takes her in, and in an act of desperation, takes her to the local hospital, long since abandoned, to be taken care of by Sonja, the only doctor in the whole town, who is long since numbed herself the plight of many of the town’s dwindling residents. The next few days in all three of their lives will forever alter their futures. It’s not the most unique of premises, but it is done as well as I can remember recently. It is a harrowing story, filled with twists and turns that make the reading of this book easy and exciting, even when horrible things are happening to the characters that you love. Another surprising thing about this book is how funny it is, injecting humor if odd places, especially when it comes to Deshi, Sonja’s withering right hand woman, distrustful of all men, especially oncologists, due to a long ago heartbreak. It sounds sad, but her sad sack anger provides many laughs. It deals handily with not only the past but the future, which reminded me of the final pages of The World According to Garp, as things in the story and beyond get wrapped up tidily. I don’t have much of anything deep to say about this book. I enjoyed it on a purely emotional level, and just going by that, I found reading this book to be a very enjoyable experience. 
Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Review: "Your Face Tomorrow Vol 1. : Fever and Spear" by Javier Marias

I really hate to give a subpar review for a novel by Javier Marias, especially one that is supposedly his magnum opus. I loved his breakthrough novel, All Souls, a rare campus novel without any condescension, and his novel A Heart So White, while lacking interesting plot elements, was a feast of funny quips and delightful prose. But after finishing the first novel in his Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, Fever and Spear, I am left shaking my head and a little tired trying to mine the book’s density. I still feel Marias is one of world literature’s unsung heroes, producing accessible works of fiction that challenge the reader but never bullies them, even with books like this. He is obsessed with the past, and the ways in which our words can rewrite to fit whatever notion makes us feel better. This novel is no different, although its intent is never entirely clear. Its focus, and the focus of two subsequent novels, is Jacob Deza, a kind of personality hacker: he is able to look past the masks people put on in everyday life, and tell if what they are saying is not only the truth, but also sincere, a kind of safecracker with honesty and emotion. He is brought into to a secret government sect from his native Spain by Peter Wheeler, an old gentleman who seems to match Deza in knowledge. Along with a doctor named Tupra, Wheeler allows Deza to use his skills for the government, with eye-opening, sometimes nefarious results. The problem with this book is how it switches timeframes so quickly without indication. And this is not helped by Marias prose this time, at its maximum density, making it hard to decipher what is going on. The one bright spot is the conversations had between Wheeler and Deza, which feel like they are being had by two people who only understand one another. By no means a bad book, the flaws I see may be remedied by the next installments, so I hope this is just a great story trying to gain its wings. 
Rating: 3/5

Review: "Indecision" by Benjamin Kunkel

I guess I have calmed down in recent years, since my reaction to a book as self-indulgent and shallow as Indecision, Benjamin Kunkel’s only novel, is less volatile and more apathetic. It is the kind of book written by someone with too much of an education and hasn’t really read anything that doesn’t validate their false sense of intelligence. But for some reason, reading it, I didn’t feel anger but instead, felt a kind of glee knowing I was in the hands of someone who totally did not know what they were doing. Kunkel was not remotely interested in engaging the reader, making them feel any kind of welcome or sense of balance. He is more interested in pontificating on how smart he is, and doesn’t care if he leaves you in the dust. I am surprised that it doesn’t bother me more, but I wasn’t angry through this book, just bored and motivated enough to finish it. It is a similar to the affliction of the novel’s horribly self-centered narrator Dwight Wilmerding, a temp for Pfizer who can’t seem to make any kind of decision to improve his life. He rooms with four equally listless males and for some reason he has a girlfriend (the trope of losers somehow having girlfriends always sadden me a bit, for personal reasons). He gets a prescription for a drug named Abulix which is supposed to cure his indecisiveness. He begins taking the medicine, and before he knows if it working or not, takes a trip in search of his lost love, Natasha, and ends up forming a rocky relationship with Brigid. As stated, this book is a little too preoccupied with its own cynicism to approach anything that looks like a true emotion. Its characters, especially its narrator, are symbols for a bored generation as complacent as they are uninteresting. I don’t have much good to say about this novel. Except that it is harmless if you do decide to read, but if you want to enjoy a book, don’t waste your time. 
Rating: 2/5

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Review: "Bad Haircut" by Tom Perrotta

I don’t think that I will find a more surprisingly rewarding reading experience this year that tops Tom Perrotta’s first short story collection Bad Haircut. I have gone to great lengths to praise Perrotta, an underrated auteur of white, middle class suburban boredom and disappointment. From his highly controversial Little Children, the tumultuous original love story at heart of The Abstinence Teacher, the extreme success of The Leftovers and his oddly uplifting collection, Nine Inches, he plumbs the depths of everyday life, and comes back with golden nuggets and rotten cores, sometime indistinguishable. But all the books I have listed are from his later period, where he dealt with bigger ideas, became less solipsistic with his stories and broaden his range as a storyteller. I didn’t dislike his earlier books; Joe College was amusing, and Election, while read almost five years ago, still stick with as much as the movie does. I came into Bad Haircut with low expectations and came out floored as usual. It might not be as good as Nine Inches, but man, is this a really great, underrated collection. It deals with the same themes and emotions as his other book, such as the uncertain future of your average high school kid, the first time you learn adults are not always as smart as they say they are, and the heartbreak and despair we feel when we are betrayed being a catalyst that helps us grow up. These stories are rich in detail, and everyone can find at least one thing from their own lives in these stories. Like all great collections, some stories are better than others, but none of them are bad at all. The opening story, with the unfortunate title “The Wiener Man”, a funny story that is actually quite eye-opening, concerning a boy whose mom takes his boy scout troop to the local strip mall to meet a hot dog mascot, who turns out to be played by one of the mom’s old flames. On the surface, it is about how strong some ties can be, but as I looked deeper, it had a more bittersweet lesson about how hard work sometimes doesn’t pay off, and being a good person doesn’t guarantee success in life.  “Snowman” is perhaps the weirdest story that Perrotta has written, going to weird dark places you’d never expect from the story or even him, from an irrational bully bloodying the narrators nose to one lost soul of a boy taking the narrator on a homicidal hunt for said bully ending in a weirdly sad way. I’m not sure what the lesson is in this story, but I loved it. “You Start to Live” is another story that deals with disappointment, this time in young love taking place during prom night, ending with one boy who learns that the definition of love is much more than sexual conquest. And the final story, “Wild Kingdom” about the funeral of one boy’s neighbor who once showed him graphic pornography, delves deeply into the unnoticed awkwardness we all feel during somber moments. With the exception of the same boy likely being the center of all the stories (makes it feel a wee bit self-indulgent), I have no complaints about this book. It is great intro into Perrotta’s brilliant work, and crafts grand feelings out of the little moments that make up our lives.

Rating: 5/5