Sunday, February 28, 2016

Review: "The Greenlanders" by Jane Smiley

I was not expecting Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders to be as complex as it was. Much like probably everyone my age who has read this book, I picked it up due to Jonathan Franzen’s glowing recommendation of it as one of the best novels of the last part of the 20th century. Judging from vague notions about what Smiley’s other novels are about, mainly her Pulitzer-Prize winning A Thousand Acres, this book, which is one of the most difficult books I will read all year, threw me for a loop. That isn’t to say it is a bad book or that I didn’t enjoy some parts of it, judging from my positive review of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day at the start of the year. I just didn’t expect the book to be like this, and that expectation really influenced how I feel about this book. It is an interesting read, and a staggering feat of the imagination, but a lot of its brilliance went over my head, and I’m not ashamed to say it. Since most of the names in this book are brutal tongue twisters, I will use them sparingly, but this book, which takes place in Norse world of the 14th century, focuses on a family, Gunnarsson’s, and the small community in Greenland who thrive with very little influence from outside forces. The real treat is here is in the intricate pastoral setting Smiley conjures, which is filled with rituals, storytelling, some that go one for pages, and shocking acts of violence, the best and most unexpected happening within a few pages, as well as the drama that comes with the lives of people living in a tight-knit community, with a lot of the more interesting ones coming from the priests, who control much of their society, but are not as puritanical as you’d expect. This is a novel that swings for the fences, and whether it not it hits all the right marks, this book deserves praise and much more attention than it gets.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Review: "Story of My Life" by Jay McInerney

I read a few reviews of Jay McInerney third novel, Story of My Life, and most of them came to the same ideas I did, in that it is a well-written novel, but a very unoriginal one with flimsy ideas and tired traits that presents absolutely nothing new. I was a big fan of McInerney’s first and most famous novel, Bright Lights, Big City, and consider it a greater novel of the 1980’s than Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero. Its brilliant use of second person narration and its focus on emotional decay instead of Ellis’ emotional vacuum really set it apart. It is cursed by being an artifact of a moment like Less Than Zero, but at least it is a really good one. This novel is not. It is in the same vein with an almost identical story. It might have been something to behold in 1988 when it was published, but it has not aged well at all. The character in this novel does have a name, and hers is Alison Poole. She lives in New York City. She hates her father but still takes his money, she doesn’t like the men that she ends up sleeping with and she doesn’t trust her friends not to betray her. The plot is loose, and involves the on again off again relationship with a guy named Dean who tries to be nice to her, but ultimately fails. McInerney’s sense of humor really shines here, since Alison is self-aware about her faults, but can’t seem to gather the energy to rise beyond them. And it is surprising that a story about a woman has such weak female supporting players, with the men, especially the immoral Skip, leaving a more lasting impression. A final revelation in the last few pages doesn’t do this novel much good. I’ve seen it done before much better and way too often. 
Rating: 3/5

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Review: "Losing in Gainesville" by Brian Costello

Reading a book like Brian Costello’s Losing in Gainesville makes you glad you live right now and not during the 90’s. This not very original, sometimes clever, way too long novel about a group of, as you can guess from the title. Losers making music in the southern state is the kind of experimental out of control novel that I would have liked when I was in high school. But I have grown up, and so have my taste, and I found a majority of this book painfully goofy, overstuffed with weirdness until it feels very inauthentic and just plain bad in some parts. I feel bad saying this, because I can tell just from the writing of it, and the timeframe in which it was written, that this book is a labor of love. It focuses on the exploits of Ronnie Altamont, who, in the book’s opening pages is riffling through a dumpster when his friend bites into a granola bar covered in fire ants. It’s a scene that sets the standard this book pushes throughout its stretched 500-page length. Ronnie is a college dropout, voluntarily living on the fringes in Gainesville, trying to write a book and immersing himself in the local punk rock scene with bands like The Laraflynnboyles. One of the few things I enjoyed in this book was its sense of humor, like the many goofy band names and some of Ronnie’s loser friends, like Alvin, who has two assholes and an encyclopedic porn collection, as well as a few sly literary references. But this book’s emotional weight is lacking because the quirkiness stacks up to ridiculous heights, to the point where the actions and people just seemed phony to me. I give Costello credit for writing a novel completely unlike anything else, but that doesn’t make it a good book.

Rating: 2/5

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Review: "City Primeval" by Elmore Leonard

While the concept behind it is very amusing, writing a classic Western set in 1970’s Detroit, and for that I give Elmore Leonard a ton of credit, I feel his novel City Primeval is simply not one of his better ones. I’m still a little unfamiliar with his work. I have read only two of his books, LaBrava and this one, while true fans of Leonard have read four of five times as much as I have. He has a gift for dialogue that is unmatched, plain and simple: it paints pictures in the readers mind better than truckloads of prose can and it is just fun to look at. Maybe it is because I am spoiled with really hard-edged stuff when it comes to crime/mystery/thrillers, but I find what I have read of him so far very tame when it comes to his tone, despite his mastery at moving the plot forward. This novel begins with a string action sequence and the disturbing murder of a female by the book’s villain Clement Mansell. It’s odd to bring it up after what I just wrote, but the book’s playfulness can’t distract from the horror. Mansell is a guy whose propensity for violence and murder is only matched by the slippery ways he has gotten off in the eyes of the legal system. This motivates Raymond Cruz, an old school lawman, to do something about it, even if that means going outside the law to have his man on man showdown with Mansell. The plot is simple, a little shallow, but satisfying, including the memorable ending, very similar to the one in The Grifters. But the characters, besides Cruz, Mansell and a female detective named Maureen who works with Cruz, don’t linger in the mind after finishing it and so does the aforementioned plot. But with only two books in, I have only scratched the surface of this American original, and look forward to digging for more. 
Rating: 3/5

Friday, February 12, 2016

Review: "Agostino" by Alberto Moravia

Agostino by Alberto Moravia is a quietly devastating short novel about innocence lost and the beginnings of what I take to be a meek life filled with disappointment and self-loathing. I don’t know about the political implications of this novel, although it says on the back cover that it was banned by Fascist Italy on it publication, so I will not discuss that so much as the story itself, which is deeply symbolic and relatable even across timelines and cultures. It is a story of one young boy’s indoctrination into a life of solitude. We sense, at least I did, that there is something more to this short 102 page novella, that it is only the beginning of an even sadder story of missed connections and a habitual failure to understand and deal with the intricacies of growing up. We first see thirteen year old Agostino on a boat with his mom and a much younger man who she has picked on their Tuscan vacation. We don’t know much about them, except that Agostino’s father is dead and that he and his mother are well off. Agostino is chided about his naiveté by his mother and her new friend, so he goes off and finds sanctuary in a group of poor local boys, who engage in sadistic bouts of hazing with the young Agostino, which eventually leads to somber ending and Agostino’s entrance into a sad life. There really isn’t a lot of action, minus one scuffle between Agostino and a boy named Berto, but a lot of book’s best scenes are of ones of dark emotional revelation, especially during the end scene, where Agostino’s nocturnal journey ends in an expected betrayal and his acceptance of his once and future place in life. Like all really good short novels, this one embeds itself deep in the reader’s mind despite the short amount of time you spend on it. 
Rating: 4/5

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Review: "The Grifters" by Jim Thompson

The Grifters is really a departure from what I am used to from Jim Thompson. It doesn’t have the bite or immediate brutality of The Killer Inside Me or Pop. 1280, although it shares the latter’s dark sense of humor, nor does it have the sense of total spiritual annihilation of one of his lesser works like Savage Night, but again, it does share a similar kind of ending. I never felt like there was a lot at stake in this story of greed selfishness and a not so hidden undercurrent of incestual longing. With the exception of one scene involving a disturbing incident of male on female violence and the aforementioned ending, this book is rather funny, with crisp dialogue, corny love scenes and a characters as lost as you would expect in the Thompson universe. The novel begins on one such hilariously ironic scene, where in the midst of a simple con, which fails, our main character Roy Dillon is hit in the stomach by a sawed-off bat and almost dies due to internal bleeding. This brings his mother Lilly to town, who had Roy when she was only 14 and has not seen him in 8 years. She cares for him as best she could despite her emotional decay, but senses that his mistress Moira is bad for him. She enlists the help of an innocent nurse named Carol to fall for Roy and steal him away, but once motives are revealed as well as hidden desires, things go hell. Besides these four, the other characters are a bit weak, including Bobo, who punishes Lily in horrific fashion, and Roy’s boss Perk at his one straight job. The plot is as well until the final confrontation in a dingy hotel room which ends with one dead and one worse than dead. There is something very sincere about Thompson’s novels, which transcend the genre as all really great books do. He believes in better world, but doesn’t know how to get there, so we are left with these fascinating character pieces of real people on very real journeys. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Review: "The Easter Parade" by Richard Yates

Finishing Richard Yates’ novel The Easter Parade in public was something of a mistake, because it has been a while since a book nearly moved me to tears. It didn’t just make me feel sad, or gloomy, but I felt my eyes welling up over the last 70 or so pages and had to take a few breaths before I could function properly. It is a testament to Yates as a writer, to his simple prose, unadorned but authentic, and the compassion he has for his characters, who are more like us than we’d like to admit, and face the cruel world Yates crafts with a surprising amount of dignity. Before I finished the novel, I read part of a long article on Yates written by writer Stewart O’Nan, which was written before Yates’ resurgence in the public eye and the release of the Sam Mendes adaption of Revolutionary Road. It gave me a bit more insight to the book I was reading. What sets Yates apart from a lot of his contemporaries from his rich period between the 60’s and 70’s, and what probably caused his slip into obscurity soon after his death, is not in his subject matter, which he shares with writers like Raymond Carver and John Cheever, but his brutal honesty completely free of any cool, hip cynicism or macho irony. Yates seems to weep for a better world. He wants it just as much as his characters do, and wonders where his and their happiness is, and whether it even exists, and is crushed when its search turns out to be a failure. We are told at the beginning that Sarah and Emily Grimes will not lead happy lives. Their parents are divorced, and they live between their idealistic yet defeated father and their aloof, prickly mother, who frets over how special each one is. They take different paths in lives, with Sarah, the older one, marrying early and pumping out a few kids. We only learn later on the extent of her personal problems. Emily, who is really the main character in this novel, starts out as the uglier sister, but loses her virginity in a passionless tryst in Central Park and always finds herself in relationships with men who are varying degrees of pitiful and worthless. Emily seems smart, at least smarter than her sister, but attracts the weakest kind of men, such as a self-obsessed jealous poet, a psych major who reveals his dark heart after a family gathering and the head of an ad agency who poorly hides his love for his younger ex-wife. Yates never spares us the horrid scenes of dysfunction, like the Grimes’ mother slip into dementia and circumstances of Sarah’s dysfunction, which leads her down a path of emotional ruin. But Yates handles it delicately and with great sincere sympathy that feels like a knife in the heart and a kind of warm empathetic hug. This is a powerful book with searing honesty from a writer whose resurgence has placed him among the greats of the 20th century. 
Rating: 5/5

Review: "The Hollywood Trilogy" by Don Carpenter

For the third year in a row, I picked up a Don Carpenter book and it has blown me away. Not only has he blown me away with his storytelling ability, the intense depth of his characters and razor-sharp dialogue, but I am very, very impressed that of the three books of his I have read (five really), each one is so very different of the other. First, back in 2014, I picked up Hard Rain Falling; his book about the relationship between two young criminals in Portland, and feel it is the best book about American prisons I have ever read. Last year, I read his unfinished novel Friday’s at Enrico’s, about a group of writers finding varying degrees of success in their careers. It is a very honest take on the creative life, doing away a lot of the romantic ideas of being a starving artist and instead focusing on the hard work, disappointment and personal growth that comes with such a lifestyle. And now, his omnibus edition of three novels called The Hollywood Trilogy, made up of the novels A Couple of Comedians, The True Life Story of Jody McKeegan and Turnaround, is one of the definite Hollywood books I have read. Each one captures the dreamlike qualities of Hollywood, from the euphoric to the nightmarish and the people who have cozied up to success, with little intention of sharing, and those at the bottom, who are willing to do anything to realize their dreams. The first book in this collection is A Couple of Comedians, which is the second one chronologically, and tells the story of a comedy duo, made up of Jim Larson and David Ogilvie. Told from the perspective of Ogilvie, the straight man in real life but the clown in the movies, it charts the rise the duo, who frequent big-wig parties, lust after women and try to get a movie off the ground, with many surprising and expected events getting in the way. The True Story of Jody McKeegan, the first book chronologically whose eponymous character makes cameos in the two other books, focuses on Jody, who grows up in a severely broken home with a delusional mother, her drunk father and dishonest stepfather and her sister Lindy, who is nice and caring towards her, but is naïve and horribly misguided. Her childhood marks her relationships with men in Hollywood, as she, through pure luck, finds herself cast in a supporting role of a film noir. Finally, Turnaround, the most purely Hollywood of the novels, focuses on three people, an old studio head and his younger counterpart who wants his job, and a fresh-faced screenwriter  who dreams of making a living through his writing. What makes these books so great and so memorable are Carpenter’s skill at creating lasting and symbolic scenes, from the death of David’s grandfather and ghoulish burial, to a not so subtle scene where Jody kills a June bug, and the many infidelities that happen in Errol Flynn’s cabin. This world Carpenter describes is unlike anyplace else. It can be the most wondrous place or the most soul-crushing, as many characters find out when they fall in love with the wrong people. It all depends on your quality of luck and opportunities as well as your willingness to go on after utter failure.  These books, and the other two books that are easily available, show a writer at the height of his skill, free of genre constraints, showing a world filled with equal amounts of despair and wonder. 
Rating: 5/5

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Review: "Crow Fair" by Thomas McGuane

After reading a few really good short story collections, I knew I was in store for a bad one, I’m just sad that it came in the form of Thomas McGuane’s latest book, Crow Fair, something I had been looking forward to. I became familiar with McGuane a few years ago, after I noticed Mr. McAllister is reading one of his books on the plane in Home Alone. After a few writes in reference books that I own, I decided to check him out. First and foremost, I give him credit at least for being a good writer. His prose is strong and almost aggressively original with his weird and strange tales. But it is that same weird sense of place that makes this collection such a dud, with only a few stories sticking out the almost twenty here. He grabs your attention, and when you realize the gimmick that grabbed you is doesn’t have any substance, you get narratives that drag, interchangeable characters and uninteresting dialogue. The two stories that I liked here were right after one another, and one being one of the two stories here that is only five or six pages. “An Old Man Who Like to Fish”, about a man who gives everything in order to help his wife cope with her strengthening dementia has moments of true, if quiet beauty, and a hidden emotional core that I kept ruminating on. “Prairie Girl” about the pragmatic courtship between an ugly gay man and a beautiful woman has a few laughs within it and has a touching ending. But besides those two, which only make up about twenty pages of this 267-page book, are worth checking out. I own a few more McGuane books, and I hope this is first impression doesn’t stick when I pick up something else by him sooner or later.

Rating: 2/5