Sunday, January 31, 2016

Review: "Train Dreams" by Denis Johnson

I badly want to like Denis Johnson, and I feel worse that I don’t. He’s an American original, crafting interesting novels throughout his long career with a distinct voice and powerful originality, but most of the time, I just don’t get their appeal. Maybe it is just because he is too weird, or he doesn’t utilize his weirdness correctly, I have not given a stellar review to one his novels yet, and to date, I have six of them. But I have come really close with Train Dreams, the brief novella he wrote a few years ago I between Nobody Move and his most recent novel, The Laughing Monsters, and is my favorite book of his I have read with the expectation of his first novel Angels. It feels like a smaller episode from a book like John Sayles A Moment in the Sun or, more recently, Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. It is a startling look at loss, regrets and loneliness set in the early parts of the twentieth century. It’s main character is one Robert Grainer, who we first meet as he is tagging along on an ill-advised lynching. He is a common man, who is too content to let the great moments he has a chance to participate in pass him by and live simply. After his family, dies, he becomes something of a recluse, and the short book chronicles a few moments in his depressing life, from an early act of cowardice involving a dying man, his superficial relationship with those he comes in contact with when he is left alone, and his constant ignorance of his true desires to find love and make life worth living. It ends sadly, with Robert’s bleak fate and a glimpse at one final lost opportunity, but it is a very powerful book, and gives readers a glimpse of a more restrained and focused Johnson that is welcome and refreshing.

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Review: "There's Something I Want You to Do" by Charles Baxter

Sometimes a book’s high concepts carry the reader along the way over bumpy narrative and chuckhole size stretches of poor dialogue. Author Charles Baxter’s collection of linked short stories titles There’s Something I want You to Do does this perfectly. It has a groovy setup and a set of lofty ideas behind it, and even when parts came up that I either didn’t like or found myself bored by, I found what Baxter was doing with these stories to be quite noble and quite humane, not to mention very interesting and entertaining. But if it weren’t for the care taken with his themes, this collection wouldn’t get as high of a grade as I eventually gave it, with stories that stretch the boundaries of the realistic (which is a big turn-off for me in collections like this) and the boundaries of the reader’s attention, not too mention some really poor dialogue which I will get to soon. All these stories, which are named after both vices and virtues and with most taking place around Minneapolis, Minnesota, involve people reaching out to others, whether out of selfish need or desperate need, and their reactions to what they get back. In the first story, “Bravery”, a man loses his wife only to get her best friend who talked her into leaving. In “Charity”, a man searches for his boyfriend, finding clues in a seedy bar where a drug dealer quotes Shakespeare, and finally, in what I think is the best story, “Vanity” an attractive man has a odd yet revelatory conversation with a short old man who claims to be one of the Jews Oskar Schindler saved. When the stories hit their mark, they become magical, but when they don’t they are boring at worst, and laughable at best, with dialogue that is overly written and not very believable. But this is a short book; one that packs heavy ideas that had me thinking when it had me in its grasp.

Rating: 4/5

Review: "Hell at the Breech" by Tom Franklin

Over the past few years, Tom Franklin has become one of the most consistent and interesting authors I have come across. Like Flannery O’Conner with big snarling teeth, Franklin is in the forefront of Southern Gothic/Country Noir authors with stories steeped in Southern mythology, rich history and more than a little blood and guts. My first experience was with his breakthrough novel, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, set in modern times, much different than his other books; I was impressed by his fleshed-out characters and the web of mystery and violence they found themselves in, all with the unmistakable tint of sadness and anger woven throughout. I was less impressed by his first book, the short story collection Poachers, and his most recent publication, The Tilted World, co-written by his wife Beth Ann Fennelly, but each had a charm that kept me interested and invested. And last year, I read his second novel Smonk, which may be one of the ten most violent books I have ever read. It tells a crazy story of bloodshed with the blackest of humor that may not be to everyone’s taste, but I enjoyed the heck out of it. His first novel, Hell at the Breech, based on a true story, feels like the book Franklin was meant to write. It is both bigger and more epic than Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter and way more mature than Smonk, and has an emotional core that is invigorating, exciting and heartbreaking. The events of the story, which are based on events that happened mere miles from
where Tom Franklin grew up, focus on a town named Mitchum Beat during the last years of the 19th century. After the murder of a well-respected citizen with political aspirations is killed, a group of vigilante who take the name Hell-at the-Breech, cut a bloody swath across the town, killing all those they think are involved, and any innocents they feel get in there way. The effects of this rampage are seen through the experiences of four town citizens, the main being the ageing and morally straight Sheriff Waite, who vows to uphold the law and end the violence. The three others are the Widow Gates an old, midwife who birthed nearly all of the gang’s members with supposed mystical powers, Ardy Grant, a former town member turned detective with a murderous past and a thirst for vengeance, and finally, Macky Burke, a young town clerk who knows more about the initial killing than he lets on. The book is paced well, with plenty of actions scenes that can excite or disgust, one of the trademarks of Franklin’s storytelling abilities. A few standout characters include Ardy Grant and one of the gang members named Lev James, both of whom have short tempers and bone chilling propensities toward violence and murder, and are people you’d likely find in the world of Smonk. The ending shootout gets repetitive, even with another revelation which changes most of the story, and the final story, added to the paperback edition, doesn’t really add much, but this story, of guilt, revenge and the hold a person’s place of birth over their actions and emotions entertained me and moved me the way only a writer as generous and talented as Franklin can.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Review: "Stay Up With Me" by Tom Barbash

I love a good, classic short story collection: ones without needless experimentation and or overcompensation, ones that tell classic stories of human need and the little moments that make life profound. The collection Stay Up with Me by writer Tom Barbash is just one of those collections. Through thirteen stories, ranging in locales like the Upper West Side of New York to a ski resort, we witness people on the edge of something, whether that be interpersonal, professional or emotional, and we watch as they struggle to make sense of things, cut off, by ego or a finite grasp of their limitations, from the words and actions that might make things right, or at least verbalize their pain and desperation. I’m struggling to make an appropriate comparison, but the best one I can come up with, at least honestly, are the two collections by another Tom, that being Perrotta. Much like Bad Haircut and Nine Inches, the people who populate Barbash’s world are adults fighting with themselves over their failed ambition and parenthood that seems less like a gift and more like a prison sentence, and people on the cusp of adulthood, no matter their age, who find out, quite harshly that about the more brutal aspects of the world. It is hard to pick a few out of this collection, since none of them are weak, and each one conveys its themes and ideas in brilliant and effective ways. A few standouts include the first story, “The Break” where a mom who supplants her loneliness onto her son’s love life involving a waitress. It’s quietly creepy and ultimately sad for both son and daughter. The second story, “Balloon Night” sees a man struggle to put together a party during the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade just as his marriage has fallen apart. It was fun to see him trying and pull it off, dropping hints all the way until its rather hopeful climax. There are two really unique ones I want to point out. One is “Paris”, where a good-natured but naïve journalist does a piece on a small town, which backfires as the town feels betrayed by his, what they think, is an exploitative representation of the town. What the man says and what one other person says toward the end rings of harsh truth and the dishonest feelings we have when we see our good deeds as wholly pure. The other is “Letters to the Academy”, told in letters from a tennis coach to one of his player's father, which quickly becomes something unshakably eerie. I can’t find the bigger picture here, but the story is fascinating. Finally, the last two I want to discuss are “Somebody’s Son”, about a man who, through kindness, is cold-bloodedly trying to force an old couple to sell their land, whose last few lines will cut you quietly and deeply, and the title story, about two former lovers finding themselves alone in the middle of the night, sharing fears and regrets, and finally, some sense of connection they didn’t have while together. These stories show a true hope for a better life for its characters, or at least the tools to get there and the knowledge that you are never as alone as you think.
Rating: 5/5

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Review: "Submission" by Michel Houellbecq

Michel Houellbecq’s most recent novel, Submission, comes with a lot of publicity, some of it good and some of it bad. It was published in Houellbecq’s native France on the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and in it’s writing, is very critical of the doctrine of Islam. I won’t pontificate on my opinions here, that is not what my reviews are for, but I will say that those ideas are present in the book, but they are merely a tool he uses to expose one man’s flotsam life as he stumbles, ever so not-gracefully into old age and an ineffectual existence. I first read Houellbecq back in high school (when I didn’t know how to pronounce his last name), and this book has a lot more in common with my favorites, such as The Elementary Particles and Platform, recalling writers like Celine and Georges Bataille, mixing a strong intellect, a questionable distaste for modern or mainstream life and lots of intricately described perversions. The book takes place in the near future, and focuses Francois, a literary professor; whose primary area of study are the decadent novels of late 19th century author J. K. Huysmans. Entering middle age, he finds himself bored with his life, which consists of binges on junk food, porn and occasional flings with his students. In the midst of these doldrums, his country puts into power, with the help of a Socialist party, the Islamic party, which immediately institutes changes to society, such as legalized polygamy, reduced rights for women, and control of the education system. Eventually, Francois must choose to whether to lose his job or convert to Islam. Through this dilemma, Houellbecq explores the end of one man’s life before it ends physically. The submission to Islamic law and life is, in a sense, identical to Francois’ submission to his useless life. It, like all of his novels, is very bleak and filled with magnificently bad sex scenes, so it is not for everyone. But once you wade through that, you see something akin to optimism in Houellbecq’s prose, a kind of cry for change, and a hope that people aren’t as bad as he, or his characters think they are. This is a book heavy on ideas, but they go down easy, whether you find them enlightening or repugnant.

Rating: 4/5

Review: "The Spider's House by Paul Bowles

My first introduction to writer Paul Bowles came from his fantastic short stories and not from his more famous novel, The Sheltering Sky. I found them entrancing to say the least, mixing the hellish landscape of Bowles’ obsession, Tangiers, with a dark sense of foreboding doom. They end brutally, with the main character meeting a fate that is worse than death, and have more in common with the stories of Shirley Jackson or Edgar Allen Poe than some of his Beat contemporaries. When I pick out a book to read by an author whose legend seems a little bit bigger than his actual writing, I tend to pick out a book that is less heralded than the one that he is most famous for, so instead of picking out The Sheltering Sky, which I do own, I went with the little more obscure selection with his third novel, The Spider’s house, which I feel was a mistake. The themes that made his short stories good lose their novelty when Bowles stretches the narrative from a few pages to 400, and this story, which begins intimate, minus the prologue, quickly derails at the halfway point as a far less interesting main character becomes central to the book. I liked the beginning, where a young boy named Amar, floating through life, finds himself within the clutches of political forces beyond his control, the ‘spider’s house” of the title. In one of the books most memorable and disturbing scenes, very reminiscent of his short stories, Amar brutally beats one of his friends unconscious, and we never figure out if he survived. But once an American ex-pat writer, a stand in for Bowles himself, shows up, the book lost me with its political complexity and uninteresting characters, despite Bowles amazing skills on a sentence by sentence basis. I’m still curious about his writing, and while this book didn’t impress, it makes me a bit eager to read some more of his short stories. 
Rating: 3/5

Monday, January 18, 2016

Review: "Lovers on All Saint's Day" by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

Only three books into the year and already I have read one that has blown me away. Like most people on this side of the world, the first time I read any book by Columbian writer Juan Gabriel Vasquez was back in 2013, when an English translation of his novel The Sound of Things Falling was published here in the Untied States. It is quiet yet brutal in in its devastation, and brilliantly recalls a Bolano less obsessed with inner thoughts and grand nightmares and more on the outer world, and how evil seeps into the contours of our lives, affecting our love of people and humanity and our desire to change things. It is not the most upbeat book, but it is masterful one, and also a very sincere one that is among the best of this decade. I liked his other novels, The Informers (not the Bret Easton Ellis short story collection) and The Secret History of Costaguana a little less than his English language breakthrough, but his most recent North American publication, his story collection Lovers on All Saint’s Day, is simply fantastic. It trudges some of the same material he does in The Sound of Things Falling, but here, in these seven stories, the settings and ideas are a bit more intimate, sometimes too intimate. They sneak up on you in a big way, and found myself, at different times, confused, scared, revolted and ultimately moved. They are linked by not only their ideas, but by their setting and a few disparate details, such as marriages on the brink, infidelity, mortality, and, oddly enough, hunting, which makes an appearance in no less than three of the stories. As with collections, I will give my opinions on what my favorite stories were. The first one that caught my attention was the second one here, called “The All Saint’s Day Lover’s” which begins with a hunting party of three tracking quail, two of which are a man and a woman whose marriage is pretty much over, and in an act of betrayal, the man finds himself in another’s woman’s bed, the circumstances, which I won’t reveal here, is what make it special. It’s a sort of spiritual cousin to the final story, “Life on Grimsey Island”, also about a hesitant couple, the man much younger than the woman, who meets as strangers and become harbingers of doom for one another by the end. The strongest theme of the boom rests in these two stories, where the central character, the man, catches a glimpse of his dower future in someone he does not know, and it is too late to change said future, something very similar to what is found in The Sound of Things Falling. Others here that I enjoyed were “The Lodger” about an aging couple whose quiet resignation is interrupted by the third member of their long ago love triangle, and “The Solitude of the Magician” about the sad life of a magician, who is used by a bored housewife and discarded after a massive tragedy. These stories are treats in the classical sense: well written, breathtakingly intimate and more revealing the more you think about them.
Rating: 5/5

Review: "Did You Ever Have a Family" by Bill Clegg

Bill Clegg’s debut novel Did you Ever Have a Family was a release from last year that I was hearing very good things about, and for the most part, it lives up to my expectations. It gently but drastically takes the tragic events of one person’s life and shows how it affects not only those close to her and others affected by the tragedy, but people who come in contact with her and their own stories. In short, digestible chapters, we are introduced to a stellar cast of characters, each carrying their own burden, and greatly affected by June, the main character of the book, where this book falls flat in its failure to balance the intrigue with these separate stories, especially when it comes to the central plot and the not so ultimate revelation. For how short it is, and how short the chapters are, there were few too many moments I found myself bored, and eager to read one of the more interesting sections. The tragedy at the center of it all, which we never truly get to witness, is an explosion that claims the lives of all June Reid loved ones, from her daughter and her fiancé, who were to be married that weekend, to her philandering ex-husband and boyfriend. It could be a comical case of bad luck anywhere else, but here, it is just sad as we watch June check out and finally go on a drive across the country, where she stays at the motel owned by Rebecca and Kelly, a lesbian couple. I loved getting to know everybody, from the mom of Jane’s boyfriend, Lydia, whose history is fraught with secrets and rumors, to George, who faces his own set of tragedies as he is slowly connected to the events. As I said, some of the sections overshadow others, like George’s section, and the backstory of Rebecca and Kelly, and the revelation at the end involving a boy named Silas is not very well explained and not very impactful. But Clegg’s talent is undeniable, and if you are seeking a different kind of family novel, you are in good hands.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Review: "Against the Day" by Thomas Pynchon

I took a big risk and started 2016 off by reading what will be the longest, and I bet hardest book I will read all year in Thomas Pynchon’s epic Against the Day. I have a long history reading his books, and a lot of it is not good. From being confused in high school by The Crying of Lot 49 and later on by V, to absolutely hating Bleeding Edge and kind of liking Inherent Vice, Pynchon is writer who greatly divides his audience. But I am glad to saw with this monster, clocking in at 1085 pages, is the best book of his I have read to date. It has the same problems most of his books have, which I will get to later, but what emerges as you read this is something clearly seen here that is hidden in most of his other books, or maybe I just wasn’t careful enough to see it. A plot explanation is not just hard but impossible. It deals with a series of events stretching from the 1893 World’s Fair to just after World War I, and involves two families, the Vibes and the Traverses, one seemingly, whether intentionally or unintentionally, oppressing the other, the discovery of a clear mineral with mystical powers and a group of explorers, called the Chums of Chance, who fly around in a hot air balloon and might just be a fictional creation in the story, or something much more. Yeah, I don’t get it either. It has a lot of characters to keep track of, some who only appear in one scene or two and speak in ways that make it impossible for you to identify with. Some people like it; I find it needlessly convoluted and a bit pretentious. But what makes this book different is that Pynchon’s sense of humor is displayed extravagantly, from funny song interludes, to weird sex, smart puns and dirty jokes that had me laughing out loud more than a few times. I can’t give this book my full recommendation, since I know many aren’t as patient with books as I am, but if you are up for a challenge, a challenge with some surprising rewards hidden inside, this book is the right mountain to climb.

Rating: 4/5