Friday, September 25, 2015

Review: "You Have To Be Careful in the Land of the Free" by James Kelman

Surprisingly, the language, a lot of phonetic spellings of Scottish mispronunciations and accented phrasings is not the biggest problem with Scottish writer James Kelman’s novel, You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free. It’s actually one of the strong points of this, and of Kelman’s work in general. It has an odd sort of grungy poetry to it, making mundane actions look like profound movements, giving a humble voice to someone who may have the intellectual capability to understand their situation, but not the vocabulary, much like American author Larry Brown did for his Mississippi, now that I have read novels by both authors. It is also very funny at times and very dreary as well, offering the full spectrum of human extremes. It is too bad that with this book, all of that is transposed onto to someone who is as unpleasant and uninteresting as the novel’s narrator. Jeremiah Brown, a Scottish immigrant, is spending what he feels are his last days in the United States before he goes back to Glasgow to visit his mother. He spends most of his time in a bar, or maybe many bars, since the book takes stream of consciousness narration to the extreme by offering no chapter stops and little indication as to whether something is happening in the present or past. It’s not too unwieldy; since the book offers many acute scenes of desperation and bliss, from his relationship with his ex-girlfriend Yasmin, a woman whose ambition matches his lack thereof, to his guilt at leaving an unknown child back in the states. Kelman is a serious novelist who tackles serious subjects, but this book seems like a large misstep, focusing instead on flippant musings against America from someone I’d argue reaped more benefits than he’d like to admit. Still, reading this, or any of his books, is quite an experience for those unfamiliar, and fresh to one of Europe’s greatest living writers.

Rating: 3/5

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Review: "The Power of the Dog" by Don Winslow

Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog, the best book I have ever read about the drug trade in the modern world, is the kind of book that I look forward to reading, cherish while reading and come back to not just months, but years after I finish it. It is both impeccable in its executions, powerful in it subject matter and intimate enough with its characters that they never seem like a statistic or a sad symbol for our decaying times, but real people we come to take emotional stock in as the story progresses turns violent and scary, and finally breaks our heart. What really makes a book like this so special is that Winslow himself never sacrifices one important aspect of his long (the 600 page sequel to this 500 page book, The Cartel, just came out this year) narrative for another. This books deals in equal measure with the minutiae of the War on Drugs, most of which are fascinating albeit horrifying, and the politics intertwined with many facets of this ongoing operation as well as the big human emotions felt by many of those who find themselves in the eye of the storm: feelings like regret, fear, a kind of hallow satisfaction and, most of all, the dreaded feeling that you have gone too far and can never get back from where you are at. These qualities, which are astounding, are joined by Winslow’s propulsive, addictive narrative gifts that leave us weary and exhausted, but with the kind of glorious satisfaction you get from bearing witness to great story. In this one, which spans about 30 years, we meet five people who have more than just their hands in the drug trade. Art Keller, arguably the protagonist, is a DEA agent who witnesses, and has a hand in, the birth of what is going to be the most powerful and brutal drug empire in the world, and spends the next decades ruthlessly trying to destroy it. That empire, headed up by the smart but merciless Adan Barrera, has ties to politics, real estate, and an unlimited supply of almost omniscient power. The three other players are at first witnesses, than perpetrators and ultimately victims of this empire’s power: Nora Hayden, a mythically beautiful woman who uses her looks and covert wit to move up the ladder, with one scene, where she meets another of the main characters on her first night as a call girl brilliantly showing who she thinks and how broken she is, Sean Callen, an Irish hit man who murdered his way to the top becoming an unlikely hero in this story and Father Parada, a bishop whose faith is undying even amidst very human evil. This book is violent, one of the most violent, really, with many scenes of brutal, prolonged torture and murder that are never gratuitous, but are as jarring as you’d think, with one hundred page stretch, which I read in one sitting, having three moments that shook me to my core and ripped my guts out. This is a strong book that takes itself seriously, written with humility, wisdom and a desperate need to be honest about its subject matter, and succeeds gracefully. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  
Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Review: "Paradise Sky" by Joe R. Lansdale

For over three decades, Nagadoches, Texas’ favorite son, Joe R. Lansdale, has been peppering the landscape of literature with the stories that horrify, humor and enlighten his fan base. Yet, despite a few movies being made from his books, most recently the fantastic adaption of Cold in July, he remains utterly on the outskirts of popularity, maybe due to his refusal to stick to one genre and that is really a shame, because he is one of the truly great American, with a capital A, writers we have, able to trace his lineage not only to writers as varied as Flannery O’ Conner and Jim Thompson, but to this country’s greatest writers like Mark Twain. He is comfortable with the gruesome, as in his novel The Nightrunners, the bizarre, with his trio novels set in a post-apocalyptic drive-in theater, and noir, as his out-there novel Freezer Burn shows. But more recently, he is finding a bit of a wider audience with the western genre, and this novel, Paradise Sky, caps off what I feel is a loose trilogy of that mythic age, starting with the brooding Edge of Dark Water and the blackly comic novel, The Thicket. This is a larger novel, and something with a bit more emotional substance than the other two, since it has the same amount of sequences that will gross you out as there are that will make you cry. And as always, Lansdale’s wry sense of humor permeates almost every passage, a mixture of directness and down-home wisdom that simply can’t be imitated. The novel is the fictionalized story of Willie Johnson, aka Nat Love, aka Deadwood Dick, a black man who, as his mother told him, was destined for greatness. After a minor squabble leaves his father dead and the life he knew in pieces, he begins his journey across the American west, with deep, unshakable values from a man named Mr. Loving, the first white man he meets that treats him as an equal. He becomes, at various points, a Buffalo solider, which ends in a heart-racing battle with Apache Indians, a bouncer at a bar in Deadwood, directly under Al Swearengen, and a famous gunman who wins the heart of his one true love, named Win, who he first meets killing rats to make extra money. Soon, his past catches up to him, and he must seek out vengeance against those that harmed him and took away what was good in his life. As I said, this book has many tear-jerking moments, like the death of Mr. Loving, and the goodbyes he has with his friends. But what really makes this, and Lansdale’s other Westerns, a bit different, is how they are written with a modern eye, where not everyone in them is a racist or a stone cold killer, and values, even ones frowned upon in such an uncivilized society, must be upheld if you want to be human. This and other subversions of the genre, including one very sad ending to one character I didn’t see coming, make this one of Lansdale’s best, and the possible denouement for an amazing trilogy.  
Rating: 5/5

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Review: "The Infernal" by Mark Doten

The synopsis on the back of The Infernal, the debut novel of Mark Doten, does absolutely nothing to warn you of the craziness of the novel he has written a kind of brutal, precise dissection of the War on Terror that is vague and frightening and within a few feet of brilliance. Reading it, you can’t help but think of the books that it is trying to be like, being less of a war book like Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds or Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and sharing more of its DNA with Mark Z. Danielewski. But reading it, and the emotions I got from it, a kind of well-earned frustration with the sinking feeling that the world as I know it is crumbling page by page, I couldn’t help but think of Blake Butler’s nightmarish 300,000,000, a book I read earlier this year. While this book is not as scary as that one, the quality of narrative is. What begins as a simple interrogation of a wounded boy in the Iraq desert turns ghoulish with world-wide menace that also, as I write this, reminds me a little of David Mitchell. Hooked up to a machine called The Omnosyne, which is described as a kind of torture device, whether intentionally or not, he broadcasts the inner thoughts of many of the War on Terror’s players. In this weird world, Osama Bin Laden is vampire-like figure that feeds off the blood of Jewish boys; Donald Rumsfield and Condoleezza Rice have a dark history, and a wounded veteran, adjusting to civilian life, is having murderous visions that terrify him. It gets confusing, and that’s an understatement, keeping many details cloaked in unreliable narrators and narrative threads that are frayed. But it that is the point of the novel, it does so very well, and I walked away from this novel exhausted, but with a reluctant admiration for story that went to great lengths to make me think differently than I normally do.

Rating: 4/5

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Review: "Fridays at Enrico's" by Don Carpenter

There are hundreds if not thousands of books out there that fictionalize the life of being a writer. Some are good, some are derivative but good as well, and some are quite bad. But I have not read one that blends so perfectly truth, suspense and sadness like the late Don Carpenter’s last, unfinished novel Fridays at Enrico’s. Finished by Jonathan Lethem (really, in Lethem’s words, just dotting the i’s crossing the t’s and making a few corrections), this fragment, if you want to call it that is something much richer than other fragmentary novels, such as David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. But this book’s legacy is outshined by the book’s quality, acting as a sort of antidote for novels and stories that romanticize the life of a writer. It looks at five people with the desire to make it big, become legends like their literary heroes, but get caught up in petty jealousy, crushed dreams, and the sometimes staggering hands of fate. This is the second book by Carpenter that I have read, the first being his novel Hard Rain Falling, a lost classic of the 1960’s, and this book is structured very much like that, and, I assume since I haven’t red them yet, his Hollywood novels as well. Carpenter likes to play with time, not so much focusing on a life-altering event as much as the actions that led up to it and the consequences that followed afterward. The book follows, as I said, five people who dream of becoming something as a writer. We are first introduced to the couple Charlie and Jamie. Jamie is from an affluent home with many skeletons in their closets, Charlie, a war veteran living the life of a bohemian. Jamie is attracted to Charlie despite their age difference, and what begins as a somewhat hollow relationship morphs into something stronger when Jamie’s life falls apart as Charlie’s begins to soar. Into their life comes Stan, a career criminal with an untapped literary knack that is both nurtured and exploited by the other central characters. Finally, we meet Dick, a kind of lothario whose publication in Playboy he tends to coast on, and his distant girlfriend Linda. Soon they become a unit, with many relationships and feuds forming within them. What makes this different than many other books of this ilk is its brutal honesty. It shows not only the hardships and bitter disappointment that come from a creative life, but how much it can distance you from other people if you aren’t careful. At best, these characters are first-rate writers and second-class human beings, and at their worst you wouldn’t give them the time a day. But still, you feel for them when their dreams crash land, and in one instance, are swept away in a matter of a few paragraphs. This is a very humble, gritty look at a group of people’s journey through fantastic dream, crippling ruin, and finally a somewhat shaky acceptance of what life has doled out.

Rating: 5/5

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Review: "The Wall" by H. G. Adler

I had never actually seen a book that had plot spoilers printed smack-dab in the back of the book until I was reading late German author H/ G. Adler’s magnum opus, The Wall, but as I was reading it, and discovered the spoilers, it really helps saved what would have been an arduous, exhausting read and makes it somewhat passable. Really less of a Holocaust novel and more a man’s personal journey towards escaping the past and making something of his present life, The Wall might be one of the most daunting books I have come across. At a somewhat gargantuan 618 pages, what really makes this reading experience hard is that there are no chapter stops and no divided sections, acting as one man’s symphonic journey in and out of time, which allows for some great moments, for sue, but can’t help but become convoluted and dense as the story goes on. It deals with a man named Arthur Landau, a concentration camp survivor who lost everything in the Holocaust. He finds himself with a new job, working at a museum collecting lost items from the great horror of his life, and somehow finds a new wife and starts a family, but the past tends to intrude in his life in metaphorical, and often times, brilliant ways, much like an actual physical wall: he is visited by pallbearers who wish to take him to the cemetery, a figure keeps calling him Adam, and many normal events in everyday life have the tendency to almost destroy him. These events are actually quite intense, fascinating and moving, from a subway ride that seem eerily like the train rides to the concentration camps and the moment he gets weighed down literally by all the items people are giving him, a heavy-handed but well-earned metaphor. As I said, it can’t help but get confusing sometimes, and the ending is something I wouldn’t have grasped if it wasn’t for the spoilers at the end of the book, but this book, really more of an endurance test at points, is an interesting, and shockingly original book in the overripe canon of Holocaust novels.

Rating: 4/5