Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Review: "Young Skins" by Colin Barrett

While half the year is over, and I still have about 40 or more so books to read before the end of the year, I don’t think I will come across a better short story collection, or for that matter, debut, than Irish writer Colin Barrett’s first book, the collection Young Skins. It works on all levels, being the kind of debut you expect from a young and hungry writer, being filled with manic energy and an almost hostile need to create something new, but it is filled also with lots of old world knowledge about actions, consequences and regret that make Barrett a smart and uniquely talented writer. This collection is of the quality of such fantastic debut collections like Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff and Frank Bill’s Crimes in Southern Indiana (although it is not nearly as violent or profane as those two books), and even, although it might be too early to say something like this, as good as some of my very favorite short story collections, like Scott Snyder’s Voodoo Heart and Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts. It has a quiet confidence that I felt with every story, something that lets the reader know they are in good hands. Within the framework of a small, forgotten Irish town that seems to have a force field against its resident’s hopes and dreams, and lonely people are a dime a dozen, Barrett has crafted a truly engaging cast of characters, wholly unique and endlessly fascinating. There really isn’t a weak story here, although some are slower than others. The first story, “The Clancy Kid”, is one of these. It is a slow burn story where a lot of action is passed over for deep emotional violence, as a man and his loose cannon friend discuss the disappearance of a boy in the area over drinks at a bar when the man’s ex-girlfriend, whom he is still in love with, even if he won’t say so, walks in with her new fiancĂ©e. “Bait”, a funny story about a perpetual sidekick ends in shocking, heartbreaking violence. “The Moon” deals with one of the town’s most lonely residents, a lovesick boy with a scarred face who’s resigned to his perpetual misery. It’s not the strongest story here, by far, but it is still pretty damn good. “Calm with Horses,” the longest story (really more of a novella at 90 pages) is also the most action-packed, as it tells the story of a lowly drug dealer, handling a botched job and a family that hates him. It features a prolonged sequence of shocking, out of place violence that leaves the readers in hypnotized and excited up until its strange ending. “Diamonds” is a rather quiet tale following “Calm with Horses”, telling the story of two NA members who form a connection, but quickly break it off when they realize it won’t work. This is also the story that gives the book it's title. “Kindly Forget My Existence” might be the book’s highlight, as two former band mates reminisce about the women they both loved, who has just killed herself and whose funeral they are avoiding at a bar run by a Serbian veteran. The story ends on one of my favorite scenes in recent memory. Spoiling it would be criminal. Together and by themselves, these stories are nothing short of fantastic, and announce, with great vigor and adulation, the promise of a fiery new talent.
Rating: 5/5

Review: "My Documents" by Alejandro Zambra

My Documents, the first short story collection, and ironically, the longest book by Chilean author Alejandro Zambra is a book whose few good qualities are drastically overshadowed by its plainness. Despite its unique setting and a unique worldview on Zambra’s part, it never comes through fully since its structure is never anything new. It treads emotional depths that I have seen many times before, and presents characters that have qualms and flaws that are nothing new. I read Zambra’s novel, The Private Lives of Trees last year. It was okay, a short novel with charm, but for someone whose books barely crack the 100 page mark, his first collection of short stories leaves a lot to be desired, leaving not a good or a bad impression, but really no impression at all. It’s the kind of book I will have forgotten most of by this time next year. But I did come away with an initial feeling of liking some of these stories, all of which take place around the time Pinochet came back into power in Chile in the early seventies. The title story is quite good, telling of this regime’s reach into the lives of everyday families in Chile. Again, I have seen it before, but it was still a well-written story. “Camilo”, while very uninteresting throughout, hits emotional pay dirt by the end, leaving each character with an undying pang of regret. My favorite story is “National Institute”, a kind of list about schooling during the regime. It shows Zambra’s talent for writing children, and is the most purely entertaining story of the collection. At the end, I felt a little too eager to leave this fictional world and go onto another. I’d say skip this book, and read one of Zambra’s little novels. This is an odd, out-of-place misstep. 
Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Review: "The Sellout" by Paul Beatty

The Sellout, the fourth novel by writer and poet Paul Beatty, is one of the most audacious, brutal satires I have ever read. It doesn’t just pick apart many of the sacred cows of race and ideas of equality in this country, it eviscerates them with a rusty backhoe in a way that is eye opening and hysterical. It speaks to both sides of the arguments on race in this country, two sides which I won’t name here, but we all know which ones they are, which is only to this books advantage; if it was on one side, it could be construed as deeply racist and repugnant, if it was on the other, it would be a plain tired old screed we have heard time and time again, spoken out of habit and not a need to make a desperate social change. I’m curious to see what other people will think of this book, if it ever gets a wide audience, which it so rightly deserved. I hope people can look past the surface of many of its events, which read like Spike Lee’s directorial version of Birth of a Nation, and get over their possible feelings of disgust and horror, and see the book for what it really is: a timely book on race, written with gusto, humor and lots and lots of balls, about how both sides of the racial divide use ideas to their own personal gain, and how far away that drives us from true equality. The main character of this book is an unnamed black man living in the agrarian ghetto of Dickens in Southern Los Angles. As the book opens up, he is about to enter the Supreme Court to plead his case, and we slowly find out what his case is and why he is pursuing it over the next hundred, funny, despicable and begrudgingly truthful pages. We learn about this man’s life, whose last name is Me, and why he does what he does in the name of his town. We find out about his social scientist father, who subjected him to a number of race based experiments to prove the existence of racism, some of which are quite hilarious until we realize how depressing they are. After his father’s death at the hands of the LAPD, and finding out his promise of savings was a lie his father told him, he begins his crusade to not only bring back segregation, but slavery as well. This book is not for the easily offended, with scenes involving the last surviving cast member of the Little Rascals. Hominy Jenkins, as Me’s willing slave getting whipped and called names being among the book’s most potent images. But what this book says about race for both black people and white people is from Beatty’s heart, and will make many people hate this book for the wrong reasons. By the end of the book, after a shooting and the ruling, I felt I had stood witness for something special: a new kind of comic voice, willing to take ideas that many humans hold sacred and true, and completely destroy them for our own sake.

Rating: 5/5

Monday, July 20, 2015

Review: "Down the Rabbit Hole" by Juan Pablo Villalobos

I’ll admit that sometimes it is hard for me to rate a short book a full five star rating simply because there isn’t enough to talk about. I fully recommend short books (by short, I mean less than 100 pages); length has nothing to do with quality. But I’m sometimes at a loss to write 500 words on something so short without giving anything away or being painfully repetitive, but with this book, the barely 70 page debut novella of Mexican writer Juan Pablo Villalobos, is not only great and thought-provoking, but has enough ideas and originality for me to discuss as in depth as it needs to be. Last year, I read Villalobos’ second novel Quesadillas, twice as big as this novel, making it barely 150 pages. It is a cute, crazy story about a large family, the aforementioned food in the title and space aliens. It was far from bad, but since it has been over a year since I have read it, I barely remember any of it. But nothing in that light-hearted book prepared me for this one, a brutal tale of a young boy growing up in a world where reputation is everything and the value of life is negotiable. Here, the book’s short length works to its advantage. You can read it in one sitting, and let its power envelope you for the short time you are reading it. The central character Tochtli is a young boy who lives in a palace. He is our narrator, and we learn about the world that he lives in and what makes him happy. He loves video games, wild, exotic animals, extravagant hats and samurai films. His father is always encouraging him and has friends over all the time, his mother is missing and besides his father, his best friend is his tutor. Through Tochtli’s viewpoint, we find out that his dad is a major drug lord, and is in danger of losing his empire. The most interesting part of this book is how Tochtli views this world around him, influenced not only by the violence in his own home, which he distinguishes by calling people he used to know that are now dead “corpses, but he is also influenced by the violence of the pop culture he ingests, mainly the many samurai films he watches. It’s not an indictment of media violence, but it shows that viewing it and living it make for a toxic developmental mix. It is quite scary sometimes, starting out like Boone in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, but slowly becomes something blood chilling, much like a Francie Brady or Balram Halwai, as  Tochtli’s grip on reality becomes terrifying. The main narrative of the book concerns a trip to Liberia so Tochtli can get a rare Hippopotamus, and it provides a chilling scene of a loss of innocence, which leads to an ending that deftly mixes horror and sadness. Short, swift and brutal both emotionally and physically, this book leaves its mark even though its time is brief.
Rating: 5/5

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Review: "Book of Numbers" by Joshua Cohen

Book of Numbers, the new novel by experimental novelist Joshua Cohen, is very much an experiment, one that I could easily forgive if it was much, much shorter. Instead, the near 600-page length is at times insurmountable for the reader, who is likely to get as bogged down by the tech jargon as anyone who isn’t as computer savvy as Cohen himself. Reading it, I couldn’t help but be reminded of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and his constant use of pharmaceutical and mathematical language that went over my head. Like that novel, Cohen tries to pepper his meandering story with lowbrow humor, but unlike Infinite Jest, it lacks any semblance of coherence. Throughout its long, sometimes insufferable length, you are on the Joshua Cohen train, and he doesn’t seem like someone who would know, or care, if you asked him to slow and possibly explain a thing or two. But I’ve got to say; I did like the beginning, where it reads more like Don DeLillo or Paul Auster with its unique New York setting. The main character is also called Joshua Cohen (a trope in books that I am downright tired of, no matter the book quality), who, after a failed publication of his first novel, is commissioned by Tetration, a web company much like Google, to ghost write the memoirs of its founder, also named Joshua Cohen, though he is referred to as Principal throughout. Leaving a rocky marriage and the ghost of a love lost on 9/11 behind, he is taken on a journey from places like Palo Alto to Dubai to Paris, as he finds out more about this omnipotent company. It’s hard for me to describe what happens, because I am not really sure. The book is very vague and gets bogged down on its own complexities. It is funny though, at times, describing the search history of Natalie Portman and the different kinds of porn people search for, but those only show up sporadically, and the reader is left feeling empty and confused as the narrator himself. I finished this book, because I am stubborn, but if you are an impatient reader, don’t expect to get very far.

Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Review: "Distant Star" by Roberto Bolano

I feel a little bad about dissing a Roberto Bolano book, but I’ve got to be honest: his novel Distant Star is a far cry from the books that made him famous. It seems like it is nothing more than a deleted scene from some book that might be great if it was published as a whole, but seems very dry and emotionally vacant as it is. It still holds some of those qualities that made books like The Savage Detectives and 2666 so great and astounding, but this is a little too light for what I’ve come to expect from Bolano, especially since it concerns an oppressive dictatorship responsible for many deaths. It is far from being a bad book, and has a few moments that succeeded in sending chills down my spine, but I was more bored reading through some of the book’s scenes more so than any others I have come across in Bolano’s novels. The story itself, narrated by Arturo Belano, Bolano’s fictional alter ego, tells of an aspiring poet Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, who Arturo met while he was a student. This man, who is later known as Carlos Weider, becomes a kind of a figure head of Salvador Allende oppressive regime in Chile. While at school, Arturo and his friend are immediately distrustful of him, seeing him as a second rate poet and a threat to them since he seduces the twin girls each of them secretly loves. Arturo later sees him again, in jail, as Carlos, as he is now known, has become a successful pilot and “sky poet” for the regime, and once Arturo is free, he begins to suspect Carlos is much more than a tool for the dictatorship. Minus the scene where Alberto/Carlo might have committed a horrific murder and an odd dinner scene where Alberto/Carlos disappears soon afterward, nothing in this book really grabs your attention the way scenes in other Bolano works almost grab you by the throat with their violence and immediacy. It is short enough to where it’s bad qualities are pretty much painless, but don’t expect to have your world moved. 
Rating: 4/5

Review: "The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley" by Jeremy Massey

The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley, the debut novel of Irishman Jeremy Massey, is pure joy: a rollicking, half-serious, half-hysterical look at one man’s resurrection on the eve of his destruction. It does for Ireland what Jo Nesbo’s crime novels do for the Nordic regions in Europe. It presents a heightened, esoteric version of a place steeped in myth, the tall tales of its landscape replaced by dread and threats of appalling violence. This is not the Dublin of James Joyce, but instead resembles the Dublin of Sons of Anarchy, circa Season 3. It is a dreary place and is filled with even drearier people. Another unique aspect of this endlessly entertaining book is its unique professional setting. The title character is an undertaker in what might be Dublin’s most successful funeral home, a profession shared by Massey himself. Not only does this provide a number of insights into the unseen world of running a funeral home, but on a deeper level, it comes to represent the plight of Paddy himself. Through a run of tragedies and awful luck, he has become something of a dead man himself, walking around listlessly through a life he long ago stopped caring about, and the four days of the title represent not just the actual impending death to Paddy’s actions, but the beginning of his rebirth as a man with hope and courage. What happens in these four days are intense, funny, frightening and even, against all cynicism, quite life affirming. At the beginning of the novel, Paddy, as I mentioned, is drifting through life, avoiding dealing with the grief of his wife’s death two years earlier by living vicariously through others. But on this particular October day, the world has other things planned for the complacent Paddy. After a strange sexual encounter with a recent widow, one that ends in the widow’s death mid-coitus, Paddy, shaken by the incident, accidently runs over a man on the road after he fails to turn on his lights. To make matters worse, as if there is anything worse than killing someone, the person he has just run down is Donal Cullen, brother of Vincent Cullen, Dublin’s king of the underworld and resident bogeyman. Paddy escapes the scene without being notices, but gets the shock of his life the next morning when Vincent shows up wanting Paddy to arrange his brother’s funeral. What strikes the reader first is how detached Paddy is from his fate at the hand of Cullen. Even with the threat of death hanging over his head, and a few staggering mix-ups with other funerals (which I won’t reveal here), he has a strange, scary sense of calm that allows him to think things through more thoroughly, if not with passion, but that all changes when he meets Brigid, the daughter of the widow he just slept with, who he falls in love with at first sight. It then becomes a race to make things right, and salvage the lives caught in the web of violence he has created. Surprisingly unique and affecting, with a perfect, bittersweet end, this novel never fails to entertain and enlighten the reader, and announces a forceful new voice in the literary world.
Rating: 5/5

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Review: "American Pastoral" by Philip Roth

I have said this about many writers in my reviews, and if I haven’t missed Philip Roth yet, I will say it about him again: if you are any kind of reader, you should at least try to read one of his books before you die. He has a lot to choose from, but if I could guide you to one of his periods, the books he wrote in the 90’s, the ones deservedly lauded with every major American award, are something to behold. Once you get past all the thick, stuffy academic stuff about Roth, and just read his stories fro the pleasure of reading them, they are fantastic. He can be funny, ironic clever and heartbreaking through prose and dialogue, if not realistic, at least entertaining and challenging. American Pastoral, one of the books from the aforementioned period, and the one that won the Pulitzer Prize, is widely regarded as one of his best books, and while I may have enjoyed his ribald sex comedy Sabbath’s Theater a little bit more for its sheer audacity, I have more respect for this novel for its range of emotions it handles over the course of 423pages. They are heavy ones, such as the American Dream, failure, and how we look at others much differently than we look at ourselves, to personal family squabbles and how one person’s actions can ripple throughout the person’s family, changing it drastically for better, and in this case, worse. Like many of Roth’s novels, the framing device concerns bachelor writer Nathan Zuckerman, who, after attending his high school reunion, is reminded of his adolescent hero worship of Seymour “Swede” Levov, a rare blond Jewish man who seemed to have obtained the American version of success in not only school but in his adult life as well. After graduation, he marries a former beauty queen, Dawn Dyer, inherits his father’s successful glove factory and moves into his dream home. But the radical sixties have a cruel surprise waiting for him. Amid the riot in his hometown of Newark, New Jersey, his daughter, Merry, whose increasing vitriol against the Vietnam War and bad stutter secretly shame Swede, sets off a bomb at a local post office, killing one of the town doctors. Merry goes into hiding after this, and Swede’s life is ruined forever. Through a mix of amateur reportage and speculation, Zuckerman reconstructs the fall of Swede in brilliant ways. It is hard, much like it was in Sabbath’s Theater, to view the narrative as a whole. Roth plays hopscotch with the timelines and it’s confusing until you get used to it. But what makes this a fantastic novel is the many complex ideas Roth presents, and the scenes, written with humor that can split your sides and emotion that can tear your guts out. From his many interesting ideas about people’s attraction to radicalism and how little we know of each other, to the scenes involving Rita Cohen, who cruelly trick Swede in his time of need, Swede’s meeting with his daughter five years after the bomb, a scene of helpless sorrow and misplaced regret, to a massive dinner party, where the last shred of Swede’s happiness is slowly torn away by night’s end. With this book, and many of his others, Roth has presented a unique American reality the way only he can, with dry, sardonic wit and a deep understanding of an esoteric form of American need and unhappiness.
Rating: 5/5

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Review: "All Involved" by Ryan Gattis

I can’t describe the true horror of the first few pages of All Involved, what I hope becomes the breakthrough novel of Ryan Gattis. I won’t spoil it here, but it ranks with the flaying alive scene in Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in brutality and cruelty. This event also paints a perfect picture for not only this book, but also the short time period it is fictionalizing, the LA Riots in the early 90’s after the Rodney King verdict. What sets the book apart from what might have been a tired political screed is that it is barley mentioned in the proceedings (although it is impossible for the reader not to think about as the story progresses), and it’s subsequent events only act as a catalyst for the violence to come. The reaction I had throughout reading this incendiary novel, aside from shock and disgust, was true awe as Gattis switches seamlessly from viewpoints, inhabiting them fully and never shying away from ugliness or sentimentality. Through the eyes of gangbangers, innocent victims, and people using the riots, and a lack of police protection, to satisfy their need for violence, we watch the events unfold over six days, six days where a normal society ceased to exist, and whole different world emerged for a short period of time. There are no central characters here; just 17 first person accounts of what happened, and I will do my best to describe them to you without spoiling any pertinent details. It begins with the aforementioned violent act, and through this we meet the unfortunate victims sister, Lupe a gang member with a violent streak who will commit equally atrocious acts to avenge her sibling. We also get into the heads of a few members of her gang, including the leader, Fate, whose both pragmatic and homicidal, Clever, the only one of the gang who has some college education, who nihilistic attitude promises his potential will be wasted, and Lil’ Mosco, the brother of Lupe, who committed a murder a few weeks earlier that is at the root of all the chaos. We also meet members of the rival gang, who are on a collision course with their enemy, leading to a set piece that is inventive disturbing and even more heartbreaking since we know the perpetrators and victims inside and out. While this conflict is at the center of the novel, and its driving force, Gattis also takes time out to describe outsiders as well, from a group of Korean vigilantes whose outcome is both comical and unjust, to a firefighter and nurse, who must deal with the violence first hand, and must make the best of their awful circumstances. And throughout this, I kept thinking of the title, which may sound corny, but is really truthful. People die here at the hands of other people, but it is maddeningly impossible to trace the source of its violence and in the end, everyone is involved here is responsible. There is little resolution here, and it ends with a somber, depressing act followed by the small chance of hope, but Gattis has achieved something special with this novel. It is a dark look into one of America’s most violent incidents, and Gattis does so with talent, respect and fearlessness.

Rating: 5/5