Monday, August 31, 2015

Review: "Frog" by Mo Yan

A writer like Mo Yan is an odd choice for a Nobel Prize in this day and age. He does have very noticeable and heartfelt social and culture themes throughout his work, but for me, that pales in comparison to his many entertaining qualities, sharing more in common with western writers than his Asian countrymen (it should also be noted that his win in 2012 was met with controversy, and since he won, the writers awarded have been popular, if moderately so, here in the Western world). Reading through his longest books, Big Breasts and Wide Hips and Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (two titles that belie the broad, sweeping themes in each), you get a feeling of what it’s like not only to live in a place like modern China, but really any place where the quality of human life is negotiable. That same feeling imbues Frog, the latest book by Mo Yan to be translated into English. It is a bit a shorter, and not nearly as grand as the two books I previously mentioned, but it shares Yan’s bleak worldview, and I found it to be one of his funniest books.  It takes the harrowing lives of its characters, putting them through the wringer with them having little to show for it by the end, but never failing to perfectly balance a brutal, tuck your head between your knees tragedy with a kind of dark, esoteric awe-shucks sense of humor that might not be refreshing, but never fails to give the reader belly laughs. At the center of this novel are Gugu, or Wan Xin, a respected midwife in a rural chines community with a past steeped in rebellion and am almost mystical gift when it comes to childbirth, having a hand in the birth of almost everyone in the village, including her nephew, Wan Zu, or Tadpole, the narrator of the story. But after the enforcement of Mao Zedong’s One-Child Policy, and an unhappy ending for one of Gugu’s love affairs, she strictly enforces the Chairman’s policy, becoming a reviled villain in the community she was once a hero, having a hand in brutal incidents whose consequences not only affect her and her family, but everyone in Tadpole’s generation as well. Some of the tragedy here is a little hard to swallow for some, with two scenes involving the death of female characters being heartbreaking and infuriating in equal measure. But this book treats events in a weirdly kind-hearted manner, reminding me of the books of John Irving in its joyous validation of even the most horrid of lives, as one unnamed characters “a demeaned life is better than the best death.” Throughout everything that happens, there is a kind of life-affirming glee towards everything that some may find ironic, but I feel it comes off as quite sincere, showing the value of a rich interior life to the rigors of a shallow bureaucracy. It may not be pretty at points, but Mo Yan is a brilliant writer, always finding the tiny positives in a vast sea of large negatives. 
Review: 5/5

Monday, August 24, 2015

Review: "The Mad and the Bad" by Jean-Patrick Manchette

The Mad and the Bad, the novel by the late French crime writer Jean-Patrick Manchette, is an exercise in controlled, forward-moving chaos. Its slim 160 page length is filled with action, violence, menace, but not so much heart or feeling. It’s very creative though, and subversive in a number of strange and delightful ways. Reading this book, I couldn’t help but think of Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo, and see some of Manchette’s influence in him, especially in his stand alone novel Headhunters (I can’t speak for any of the novels in the Harry hole series, since I have not read any of them), which, like this novel, lacks a beating heart but somehow makes up for most of it by being propulsive and fiercely original, with events happening at random, much like they would in real life, and presenting characters that are quite one-dimensional, but are put in situations the genre that are joyful and out of left field. The synopsis, which is brilliantly and hilariously explained on the back cover of the NYRB edition, is simple as simple can get. Hartog, a failed businessman and scuzzy human being, just inherited a fortune when his brother and his wife die in a plane crash. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he is stuck with their useless and exhausting son Peter. To remedy this, he hires a woman named Julie, fresh out of a mental hospital to watch over Peter. He also hires an assassin named Thompson, sick with an ulcer, to kill them both and collect. What I liked about this book was, as I said, its originality, as it subverts many notions of books like this to great effect. The woman is flawed to the point of near uselessness, the boy is in no way sympathetic, and the killer is just trying to get a job done so he can retire. The ending is realistic, too, forgoing the usual tropes for something a bit more grounded. But these characters are merely archetypes, and it is hard to really, really care for them in a sea of rising action and bloody insanity. But still, this is a fun little book worth checking out if you want a different kind of crime caper.  
Rating: 4/5

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Review: "World Gone By" by Dennis Lehane

I have been a Dennis Lehane fan for such a long time, and I have yet to read any of his books that failed to be exciting, engaging and thought provoking. But nothing compares to his Coughlin trilogy, beginning with the massive novel The Given Day, following that with the violent and tragic Live By night, and he concludes this wonderful trilogy with World Gone By, what I feel is his saddest, most haunting book to date. It sounds cliché, but to classify Lehane as a simple crime novelist seems like move to pigeonhole him into one genre. From what I have read of his, he juggles all sorts of feelings in his book, not just mystery and intrigue (although there is a lot of that in his books). The central themes in his work are violence, what are its roots and what causes it, and the feelings of men and women who find themselves choosing it when all other options have faded away. The crime genre is simply the framework he uses to tell such stories. He’s a great writer as well, writing dialogue that is crisp, natural and funny without any kind of overly dramatic flourish, and they way he divulges character’s inner thoughts and feelings is disarming and poetic, but never seems out of reach when it comes the characters level of intelligence or experience. Simply put, I think he is one of the best American writers of today, and this book is one of his best. It begins almost ten years after the first book ended (so spoilers if you haven’t read Live By Night). Joe Coughlin is still mourning with the death of his great love Graciela, and is struggling to raise his only son, Tomas. It is really hard to do both when you are one of the key members of Lucky Luciano’s Commission, and a right hand man to guys like Meyer Lansky. Joe has hands in making money not just in Tampa but in Cuba as well, and is a major asset to the criminal underworld in America, despite his Irish ancestry. That is what scares him when he hears through an unlikely source that there is a hit put out on him, scheduled to take place on Ash Wednesday. Joe struggles over the week preceding the holiday to find out who wants him dead an why, all the while dealing with literal ghosts from his past that may or may not be a manifestation of his guilt and fear of the afterlife. Like the other two books in this series, it has some memorable scenes that will stick with you, such as a trip to a houseboat owned by a gangster named King Lucius, whose brutality and short temper are as scary as any horror novel, and just as violent. Also, Tomas is a full-fledged character, smart beyond his years, and fearful of the paths his father taking, and the ghosts Joe is seeing seems trite, but works well, maybe even more so than it did in Shutter Island. Once all is revealed over the last 75 pages, with a final image that is so affecting it made me tear up, I felt the awe, melancholy and exhilaration that only comes with the best of reading experiences. I urge you to check out this whole trilogy of mid-century America, from one of today’s great American treasures.

Rating: 5/5

Review: "The American People Vol. 1: Search for My Heart

I would first like to say, before I talk about Larry Kramer’s gargantuan first volume of his novel The American People, that I find him to be more of an activist than he is a writer. Also, he is an activist whose time, in my opinion, has certainly passed. More people today no about gay and lesbian issues than they did at the time when Kramer’s output was most fruitful, and while his work will always remain interesting (as this book is very, very interesting), I feel his need to be so volatile and enraged is quite unnecessary, and it isn’t so much a case of his cries falling on deaf ears so much as he is preaching to a choir, and everyone who has needed to hear his message, whether from him or someone else, has heard it. But I feel torn, because that same unnecessary rage brings us something so maddening, so involved and written with such heart and gusto it is hard not to stand up and cheer its publication, especially if you like your books long, complex and enveloping, like I do. But I will say that most people, even hardcore liberals who fight fervently for gay and lesbian rights will detest this book, as the reviews that I have read have likewise hated it. I won’t argue with their points: this is an extreme book that wears its insanity and its filthy heart on its sleeve. You will either love, like I did, or hate it with a passion, and that’s okay. I’m struggling to come up with a direct plot synopsis, but this book really doesn’t have one, so I will just describe to you how it is laid out. Basically, this book is a kind of mock historical text, reading like one of those tomes written by David McCullough, filled with fictionalized lives of some our founding fathers, all of which, in Kramer’s book, were secretly homosexual, and the AIDS virus has been around as long as time itself. It begins essentially at the beginning of time, near the Gulf of Mexico, where a community of monkeys passes, back and forth, a form of the AIDS virus through mutual sexual exploration, with one scene where a baby is killed by a well-endowed monkey that might make you laugh or vomit. It gets crazier from there: a tribe of Indians discover anal sex, a group of early settlers live happily in same-sex households until hate destroys it, and Abe Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth (and Booth’s crooked penis) meet long before that fateful night in The Ford Theatre. It goes all the way up to the 1950’s, and introduces a central family whose legacy of violence and secretive sexual depravity have something to do with AIDS, which is probably in the next book. This is a hard, exhausting read, much like 2666 and Infinite Jest, but like those books, it contains ideas, excitement and sadness that are well worth the hassle. At least it was for me. Whether you’re a Kramer fan or not, if you want a book that pushes you to the limit, give this giant book a shot.
Rating: 5/5

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Review: "The Way Inn" by Will Wiles

I’m just going to write off a book like The Way Inn as a misstep for British writer Will Wiles, because it is such a step down from his brilliant first novel, Care of Wooden Floors. I was excited for this novel, because the aforementioned first one was fantastic. It was a quietly brutal look into one’s man’s paranoia over the minutia of life leading to a total emotional collapse, while being very funny all the way there. I was looking forward to this book, and the premise had me intrigued, I have to admit. But after reading it, I can’t help but think that maybe this would work better, or work at all, if it was a short story. At 336 pages, it wears out its welcome within the first 100, never providing the reader with anything new, or anything interesting. The focus of the book is on Neil Double, a guy who is paid by people to attend conferences and let his clients know what they missed. He is a typical literary loafer, waiting for things to happen to him, and being too caught up in the lingo of his profession to make any kind of connection with the people he comes across while doing his job. His one point of interest is a girl he keeps seeing at the places he goes, mainly in the eponymous hotel chain he finds himself in most of the time. Following her through a corridor, he discovers the big secret of The Way Inn chain, which I won’t reveal. If I can take anything positive away from this book, its the little references to other things Wiles peppers throughout, like one of his bosses being named Convex, the same name of the villain in Videodrome (or maybe that’s just a coincidence). But most of the time, I found myself bored, when Neil himself couldn’t muster a smidge of excitement when the shit hits the fan. I was glad when this book was over, and hope Wiles has a brilliant career ahead of despite this book.

Rating: 2/5

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Review: "See You in Paradise" by J. Robert Lennon

I haven’t come across a more divisive collection, personally than J. Robert Lennon’s See You in Paradise, in a long time. It is a pretty even, readable collection, none of the stories being too long or too short, but mixed in with some of the best short stories I’ve read this year (which I will get) are easily some of the worst (which I won’t spend too much time on). And none of them really affect each other, which was weird for me. Sometimes a really good story will affect me positively, and help me enjoy the one that comes right after it, and the same goes for bad stories as well. But the ones here, of varying styles, subjects and moods, seem independent of one another, and despite similar dates and times in each story, they are drastically separate from one another. I’ve never really come across a collection like that before, and I’m really impressed with Lennon for what is really a unique collection. Some of my favorites here are “Portal” where a portal in a suburban backyard opens up into various places, and ultimately shreds the fabric of the family who lives there rises above its one-note premise and becomes emotionally absorbing. The title story, about a man who finds his new love comes with some horrific caveats goes great lengths to show the terrors that can lie in wait for someone who is handed everything. But the best one has to be the little sleeper called “Ecstasy”, where a series of tragic events befall a young babysitter. I don’t know what about it made me so interested, but nothing that happens I expected, and was left with a lingering, juicy mystery I’m still savoring. But with those are stories like “Zombie Dan”, a milquetoast re-tread of the zombie genre that did nothing for me, and “The Accursed Items” one of those appalling post-modern list-stories that I find endlessly irritating. This collection really has it all, the good and the bad, and more than anything, it’s made me curious enough to dig into Lennon even deeper.

Rating: 4/5

Review: "Spring Snow" by Yukio Mishima

I really hope nobody reading Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow, the first book in his final sequence of novels, The Sea of Fertility, takes him seriously. And that goes for all of his novels as well. Despite his amazing talent and insight into human emotion, I can tell just from his books that he was a grim, grim man, and not in the cool, misguided kind of way. His thought process is the kind that can end lives, as noted by his final, depressing hours here on Earth. I hope people approach this series of books, and his others, with great trepidation as to what they are getting into. It is important to understand the way Mishima felt, in all of its ugliness, but don’t for a second buy into it. Also, another good way to approach his books is with a sense of humor, which he had not the tiniest bit of. Having said that, this book, and I’m sure the subsequent three books, are nothing short of amazingly crafted and really smart. The story centers on a young man named Kiyoaki living in Japan at the dawn of the 20th century. He is a member of an ambitious family who send him to live a local aristocratic family in hopes of improving their future lives. Kiyoaki is a welcome addition to the family, but unwanted feelings for a local girl clash with his undying devotion to his country and its customs ultimately lead to an inevitable tragedy. There are many great scenes in this book that are breathtaking, such as a big reveal taking place in a billiard room, and the book’s haunting last pages. I can’t help but think that below his stodginess, Mishima was a romantic who knew things we didn’t. But so much of his politics and rigid, awful beliefs shine through the narrative, that it is impossible to separate the two. One of Japan’s greatest storytellers, for sure, but the divide between his Eastern and our Western thought process is a gap that will never be closed.

Rating: 4/5