Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Review: "Preparation for the Next Life" by Atticus Lish

I can pretty much guarantee you have not read a love story like Atticus Lish’s first novel, Preparation for the Next Life. It is a grimy, brutal and harrowing read in subject matter, its direct prose and its dreamlike quality, only this time that dream is the American dream, and it isn’t really a dream at all: it’s a nightmare. This story of the love between a Chinese immigrant and an American solider is many things. It is maddening at times in the way the stories of Hubert Selby Jr. are. We know it won’t end well, and our only hope is that these people leave unscathed, but it is also breathtakingly original, telling a story unadorned by sentiment and imbued with a harsh, yet magnetic sense of reality’s cruel ways. The story begins as we find Zou Li, a Chine-Muslim immigrant coming to America illegally who is thrown in jail, where her experiences reminded me a lot about the horror in Selby’s novel The Room. Once she gets out, she begins selling bootleg DVDs on the streets of Manhattan. She meets Skinner, an ex-solider, when he is looking for an erotic massage. They both carry their pain like large boulders on their back and sometimes take it out on each other, but more than anything, they just want to not be alone, even if they are better at, to quote Dennis Lehane, “feasting on each other until it hurts to move”. The shifts in the novel are jarring, as are the character introductions especially that of Jimmy, whose importance isn’t known until the books final, astounding pages. Recalling writers like Selby and Thom Jones (which is mentioned in a review I read), this is far from a masterpiece, but makes me, as a reader, very eager to see what a writer this breathtakingly original does next. 
Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Review: "The Book of Night Women" by Marlon James

To say that I came into The Book of Night Women, the second novel by author Marlon James with high expectations would be a huge understatement. His third novel, the Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings rocked my Wrestlemania trip out west, and became, along with Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog (whose sequel, The Cartel, is bound to do the same this year when I head to Dallas on Thursday) the best book I read last year. My only misgiving has to do with, as I found out, our fundamental differences in politics, but I didn’t let that stop me. So I was surprised when this book, much different than his first one in time period and subject matter, turned out to be just okay, instead of really good or really bad. His use of language is unparalleled, which made some of the book’s other glaring weakness disappear while I moved ahead. The book, instead of focusing on many voices, just has one as we follow Lilith, a slave in a Jamaican plantation who is caught up between the brutality of her life as a slave and her so-called destiny linked to a group of women who are planning a bloody revolt. It is hard to follow, one of the casualties of only have one voice throughout, but she does at one point fall in love with a man named Robert Quinn as well as English literature, all of which drives a bloody wedge between those she works alongside. Like A Brief History of Seven Killings, James’ prose, profane yet beautiful, violent yet introspective, is a thing to behold, and like I said, elevates this material, which is not very original. It becomes part prose poem, part angry cry, and, while not intentional, part snuff film. Not nearly as good as his more famous third novel, but still something to dive in and open your heart for. 
Rating: 4/5

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Review: "Shaker" by Scott Frank

I feel it is the sign of a good reader when you can seamlessly switch not only between what you read genre-wise, but style wise as well. That I can go from a book as deeply introspective as Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station to something as propulsive as Scott Frank’s debut novel Shaker makes me feel like I am on the right track. It has been quite a long while since I have read something as purely exciting as this novel, which is very reminiscent, mainly in the setting of Ryan Gattis’ bloody masterpiece All Involved. I was drawn to this book by the reputation of its author, who is a famous Hollywood screenwriter, popular for such varied work as Get Shorty and Marley and Me and for directing two of my favorite movies, 2007’s The Lookout and 2014’s A Walk Among the Tombstones, which was one of the year’s most underrated movies. His resume, along with a really interesting premise for his first novel, it had no problem sucking me in, and boy did it deliver the goods I was hoping for. Over the course of 335 pages, Frank tells a story filled with intrigue, menace, violence, a surprising amount of complexity, and even a few sure signs of the end of the world as all of the book’s events occur after a series of cataclysmic earthquakes nearly destroy this fictional version of Los Angles. Into this mess comes Roy Cooper, an unassuming, milquetoast man who also happens to be an assassin for hire in Los Angles for a job. He completes the job, in very gentlemanly fashion, only to find himself in the middle of what appears to be a simple case of assault and robbery. The perpetrators, however, are a murderous local gang of black kids, and the victim, is a candidate for mayor. Roy is seriously injured while the victim is killed. The whole thing is caught on a cell phone video, and Roy is labeled a kind of hero by the public. His case draws in a number of different people, like Science, the one who pulled the trigger, a smart kid pulled into a life of brutality, who sees a twisted path to fame in finishing the job, Kelly Maguire, a shamed detective on the case whose stubbornness hides the book’s only moral center, Miguel Santiago, a mayor who is surprised by the accusations thrown at him after the death of his opponent, and Albert Budin, Roy’s cruel mentor, who is looking for revenge. There isn’t a lot to really unearth here contextually. It is just a really entertaining and disturbing romp that had me as hooked as I have been in a while. From the moments in Roy’s sad childhood, this included abuse, parental betrayal, and finally, his baptism into a world of violence by Albert at a dreary juvenile prison, to a scene where Science and his friends sexually assault a naïve white girl trying to help them, this book feels like a snapshot of a broken world, one with very little in the way of true redemption, yet with pockets of hope, like its haunting ending, in unexpected places. 
Rating: 5/5

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Review: "Leaving the Atocha Station" by Ben Lerner

Much like he did with his surprising second novel 10:04, Ben Lerner’s debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station is a beguiling and vastly smart novel that snuck up on me and made me think very deeply about its subject matter. I recall in my review of 10:04, that the author that Ben Lerner most reminded me of was a young Paul Auster, with his many aside stories and sense of everyday mystery being something that constantly reminded me of books like The New York Trilogy, Moon Palace and Leviathan. Here, in this novel, which is a little different, his use of mass media (which he used very well in 10:04), reminded me a little bit more of Javier Marias at his most accessible, like in his novel All Souls for example. This not only has to do with his inclusion of paintings and pictures, but also the setting as well, which takes place in Madrid, Spain, the home country of Marias. But what really sets this book apart, and what had me going, was the unreliable narrator Adam Gordon, who may or may not be a stand-in for Lerner himself. He is a skilled liar, a drug-addict and a horribly neurotic person whom the reader is surprised is motivated enough to even write a poem, let alone be successful enough to give readings at big events. Through this scoundrel, Lerner is able to expound on such varied topics as mortal culpability, the short half-life of love and lust, and the rather shallow world that many artists and creative types begrudgingly inhabit. It begins in an art gallery, where Adam claims he is at to do research, but the reader doesn’t know for sure if that is the truth. While there, he witnesses a man viewing a painting burst into tears. The feeling he has while watching is one of profound jealousy, since he is so far off from having a genuine reaction to art. We are witness to a few scenes that tell us a little bit about him, from his friends Teresa and Arturo, both intellectuals like him who lack the depth they so fashionably put forward, and a girl named Isabel, who he claims to be in love with, but consistently fails to fully commit to her. The true joy in this novel is all the lies, big and small, that seem to come out of Adam’s mouth. From the big ones, like lying to Isabel about his mother being dead, and stealing a friends harrowing story of watching someone die to gain sympathy point from Teresa so he can sleep with her, to small ones, like lying about having seen Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger. These lying episodes, brought on by a lack of empathy or the drugs he is taking, show the hollowness of the world around Adam and how comfortably he fits into such a miserable world, a world that comes tumbling down when he finds himself a victim of the real life 2004 Madrid Bombings. This book is at times infuriating, but it cast a certain spell on me, and I felt I was in the hands of a brilliant young writer with vision and originality.

Rating: 5/5

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Review: "My Struggle: Book One" by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I had been hearing nothing but good things about My Struggle, the 3,600 page ongoing novel by Swedish author Karl Ove Knausgaard, and for the most part, it lived up to my expectations. No matter what, with its length, this book was bound to be a groundbreaking work of fiction. It throws out every kind of normal literary technique, much like Henry Miller did with Tropic of Cancer, and in doing so Knausgaard has created a kind of portal into his fractured yet brilliant psyche. It is many things at many times. It can be maddening, self indulgent, meandering and at times very pointless, but one thing it is not is boring. Despite some of the book’s poorer qualities, which cannot be denied, the fact that he can make his own life so fascinating and intensely readable is quality that cannot be ignored, even if the ultimate product is something that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. This book is really just the first 400 pages of 3,600, so really it acts as an introduction to this world. If you can tolerate it, and like it if you are lucky, you can continue on to the other 3,200, at your leisure of course. It is divided into two sections. The first section is a bit loose, with it going between introductory musings about death, and early parts of Karl’s life as he discovers the very adult vices of booze and women, all the while detailing the shaky relationship he had with his father. The second section, the better one, sees Karl as a struggling writer who finds his world turned upside down as he has to deal with his father’s death and, by proxy, his grandmother’s increasing senility. A book like this lives and dies by its little moments, and luckily, they are fantastic, from early scenes of Karl’s failure in both music and writing and a scene where a cleaning product triggers memories like cookies did for Proust, they are windows into Karl’s genius and insecurities. Books like this will divide people, and I think that is a good thing, it creates interesting discussions and free flowing ideas for books whose richness deserve such intense attention.

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Review: "The Odds" by Stewart O' Nan

Continuing the loose theme he began with Last Night at the Lobster ( a short novel set loosely around a holiday), The Odds proves that Stewart O’Nan is a master at making very compelling stories out of the most basic of human interaction. With Last Night at the Lobster, one of my favorite books from last year, he uses the Christmas setting to describe the end of a kind of family, that one being the staff at a New England Red Lobster. Here, he uses the setting of Valentine’s Day to view a marriage on the brink of collapse. In the two books, nothing really major happens, but it is some of the most interesting fiction I have read in such a long time. The way he describes these basic events, such as food poisoning and a rock concert, is really something to behold. He imbibes it with a kind of grand poetry you’d expect from a much larger novel. The great service he provides in doing this is that his characters are ones that are painfully close to people we know in real life, and most of the time, they are ourselves. They have dreams that have gone unfulfilled and they are trying their best to make things work with what they are given, whether that’s a simple restaurant that has become yours or a marriage that has not lived up to the expectations of both parties. O’Nan provides grandiose ideas to these very human, relatable emotions. The couple at the center of this short 179 page novel are Art and Marion Fowler, married for 30 years and on their way to Niagara Falls when the bus they are riding on is involved in an accident. It is a perfect metaphor for the current state of their marriage. Not only are they broke, with Art having recently lost his job, each has slowly drifted into a kind of mutual hatred of one another, with Art’s infidelity years before still fresh in both their minds, and Marion’s hidden affair with a woman filling her with guilt and disappointment. Their plan is to have one last vacation together, and in doing so, they have devised a betting system for the local casinos that will either leave each one with a comfortable financial situation or make the hole that they have found themselves in that much deeper. This is a quick read, not only for its short length but for how suspenseful it is, with each event, like the aforementioned food poisoning which afflicts Marion and the weird specter of a newly engaged couple, acting as harbingers of doom and creating a palpable sense of dread as the more backstory is revealed, and the true connection between Art and Marion is both threatened and strengthened as the book moves toward a rather beautiful conclusion. This is a different kind of love story, one that is more realistic in both its emotional brutality and breathtaking tenderness, and one that is as rewarding as it is endlessly fascinating. 
Rating: 5/5

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Review: "The Man Who Loved Dogs" by Leonardo Padura

Full disclosure, I have been as deathly ill this past week as I have not been since I had the flu in middle school, and reading something as dense and uninteresting as Leonardo Padura’s The Man Who Loved Dogs was not what the doctor ordered. To be as fair as possible, I don’t think I would have liked this book much anyway if I was completely healthy while reading it. It doesn’t handle its historical points very well and its core fictional story is woefully unfocused and something I have seen countless times before. Being sick made a lot of these bad qualities more apparent, and I struggled through all 572 pages of it with little enthusiasm, hoping whatever I was to read next was better than what I was reading now. That isn’t a very big hill to climb. The three stories that make up this overstuffed novel have to do with a fictional writer, toiling away at a crappy job after a dissenting story cost him his reputation, the life of Leon Trotsky in exile and the journey of Ramon Mercader, his eventual killer, from solider to ideological tool. The writer eventually befriends a man who turns out to be the assassin and the eponymous man who loved dogs, which ties all the stories together in a very uninviting way. If I can say one thing positive about this book, it is that it does succeed at trying to present the idea of how dictatorships take away people’s sense of free will, as evidenced by the powerlessness of the three central characters in deciding their fates. But I have seen that done before so many times, and much better, that I was left with, by the end, a dry, thick history lesson with very little narrative drive. Maybe the illness got to me more than I thought, but I this was not the most pleasant reading experience.

Rating: 2/5

Review: "The Point" by Charles D'Ambrosio

If it were not for two really good stories at the beginning and the end, The Point, Charles D’Ambrosio’s first story collection would not be worth picking up. I read his more famous story collection, The Dead Fish Museum a few years ago, but I recall very little of what it was like, so I came into this book somewhat fresh. I can tell that D’Ambrosio has immense talent in the art of the short story. Despite their length, which I will mention, the emotions and themes are well contained within the framework of 30 or 40 pages. But nothing new is brought to mind while reading them, and in some of them, some I’m a little dismayed to say were the longer stories, made me think of writers who had tread in the same territory earlier and better, and reading through them just made me want to read the better stories. As I said, there are two really good stories in this collection, and I will briefly discuss those two. The first one, the title story, sees a man of undetermined age (my guess would be early 20’s), whose life after his father’s suicide consists of being a babysitter for the people at his mom’s parties who are too drunk to walk themselves home. It creates a certain mood where the man feels both physically trapped by his surroundings and emotionally trapped by his grief and the infantilized emotions of those around him. The last story, “Open House” is about a man who helps his lonely, angry father sell his house while reminiscing about one brother who’s in a mental hospital and another who killed himself. This story carries great emotional weight, and is oddly entertaining. Other than that, the stories recall better writers like Denis Johnson or Raymond Carver while never becoming something more. If you can find the two stories mentioned anthologized anywhere, you can avoid this book altogether. 
Rating: 3/5

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Review: "Tumbledown" by Robert Boswell

A book as ambitious and directionless as Robert Boswell’s Tumbledown is quite the reading experience. It can be exhausting and even frustrating, and when it works, you see tiny moments of a master at work, but one thing this book is not is boring, which is the greatest sin any book can commit. I became curious about this novel, Boswell’s most recent, after I learned that he was one of David Foster Wallace’s English professors, and that really shows in some of the writing here, not the least of which is the setting replacing a halfway house for drug addicts with a halfway house for the mentally unbalanced. It has the same disjointed narrative structure in a smaller form, which kind of hinders much of the book’s potential, as well as the sense of humor, which is dry, witty and never one to shy away from an immature joke or two. The main character is James Candler, a successful therapist who is a few steps away from getting a big promotion at the facility he works at. He is engaged as well, with a nice house and an even nicer car. Too bad he is in debt, in love with another woman (when you find out how he got engaged, you won’t blame him) and he must deal with group of heavily unstable coworkers and patient, like his sad sack friend Billy Atlas, a beautiful but mildly retarded girl named Karley, and Mick, the schizophrenic who is madly in love with her. This book is all over the place, which makes reading it a bit uneven until the end, where a suicide, one you’ll see coming, brings everything weirdly together. I liked this book for the most part, I applaud its good qualities and forgive all of its bad ones, and I’m glad I spent some time in this off-kilter world.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Review: "The Wishbones" by Tom Perrotta

Tom Perrotta is a writer I have admired for a while, and with the success of the TV show based on his novel The Leftovers and a few successful movie adaptions, I’m surprised he isn’t more of a household name. His stories are universal, and can be read with the intellectual and emotional acuity of an academic and enjoyed for their drama by someone needing a book to read on vacation. He is hard to label and pigeonhole, and his books are read by a wide variety of people, so maybe that is the reason he’s not a superstar. All of his books have similar themes, but set themselves apart from one another in settings, and, judging from this, his first novel, The Wishbones, in maturity. It’s as funny as all of his others, maybe the funniest, but it lacks the urgency of his best books, like Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher. The plot is simple and is the kind of youthful naiveté you’d expect from a first novel. It follows Dave Raymond, a guitar player for The Wishbones, a local rock band who make a healthy living playing at weddings. He still lives at home at 31, and has been dating his girlfriend Julie for 15 years. After he watches the lead singer of another band die of a heart attack, he proposes to her on a whim, an act which not only threatens his place in the band, but might unravel his cozy contented existence. Perrotta uses the framework of the band to tell many different stories concerning things like infidelity, failed potential and the small joys of hanging out with friends. There are a poor sentences or a poor character once in a while, such as the Gretchen, the woman Dave has an affair with, who comes off rather paper thin, but this book is pure fun, and shows the promise Tom Perrotta would deliver on in the following years. 
Rating: 4/5