Thursday, May 26, 2016

Review: "Eleven Hours" by Pamela Erens

With Eleven Hours, author Pamela Erens tries to do for pregnancy what Knut Hamsun did for starvation and what Hubert Selby Jr. did for loneliness: take an experience, whittle out the fat of extraneous character development and give the closes possible external representation of the emotions said experiences cause in the one who is going through it, And while this story is a lot more hopeful and a LOT less horrifying for those rather distinguishable examples, this book exceeds pretty well. While it breaks the promise on the front flap about its focus on a woman and labor and the nurse who is helping her, who is also pregnant, we learn the most about those two even with the interruption of other characters. It avoids any kind of feminist leaning, or at least any that I noticed and instead focuses the acts that brings humans together, in this case child birth, as opposed to the life experiences that may divide us. The woman in labor is Lore, who came into the New York Hospital alone, with a bare-bones birth plan, a ring crushing her swollen finger, and a covert need to connect with someone or something. That person is Franckline, a Haitian nurse who is dealing with one of multiple pregnancies, all of which have ended in miscarriages. We learn a lot about these two, but it is uneven, because Lore’s story is more fascinating to me than Franckline’s, which steeped in the way her culture viewed the act of childbirth and is dwarfed by Lore’s life at the moment, including a love triangle with a beta-male husband and a best friend with bi polar disorder. The last few pages are sublime, as the birth comes with serious complications, and the story saves us from a tidy ending, instead it floats throughout the hospital, and we get a glimpse of the bittersweet lives of the hospital patients. It caps a rather quaint and moving story about finding connection amid chaos and despair.

Rating: 4/5

Review: "Operation Shylock" by Philip Roth

I was making some pretty odd comparisons while reading Philip Roth’s quasi-novel Operation Shylock. At points it reminded me of many other novels that were fictionalized accounts of the writer’s life: good ones such as Ron Currie Jr.’s Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles and bad ones such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. At other times, the comparisons I was making got a little too weird for even me, with some of the more oddball scenes in the book reminded me of some cinematic counterparts, like Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Lucio Fulci’s Cat in the Brain. It is a true testament to a writer like Roth to bring to mind such a varied selection of stories in such a weird and confounding story. This book, published during Roth’s fruitful period in the 1990’s, where he picked up award after award with ease, is rather experimental, and not nearly as good as Sabbath’s Theater and American Pastoral, which came after (although it is mildly better than The Human Stain). It center on Roth himself, who, after a nervous breakdown brought on by his use of a sleeping pill, finds that he is embroiled in a worldwide plan to get Jews out of Israel, headed up by a swindling doppelganger and taking place during the show trial of an accused Nazi war criminal. It’s deeply flawed and convoluted, but like all of Roth’s books I have read, it has real charm and a deep intelligence that thought provoking in spite of it all (and no Roth book is complete without awful sex, this time over the telephone). It brings up questions of Jewish identity and how people tend to fetishize their past sufferings, and in Roth’s hands these ideas are both profound and goofy. While far from his best, and definitely not a place to start with Roth, I found this book charming and deeply intelligent, and it allowed me to mentioned Fulci in a book review! 
Rating: 4/5

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Review: "Song of the Shank" by Jeffery Renard Allen

In the midst of reading Jeffery Renard Allen’s monstrous second novel Song of the Shank, I went in search of more information about it, and came across a review that stated it took ten years to write. That doesn’t surprise me. It wouldn’t surprise me if a book like this took twenty years to write. Books that are as intricate, complex and as thoughtfully laid out as this not only take talent which, like Stephen King once said is “cheaper than table salt”, but it takes lots and lots of effort, the amount of which makes my head spin, almost as much as it spun while trying to digest such a dense book. But its density is warranted, because while I was left breathless most times trying to connect the dots, let alone try to thoughtfully deconstruct it, I found it had a deep richness hidden within the smaller passages that filled me with awe and wonder. It takes place a few years after the end of the Civil War during the Reconstruction, and its focus is on the partially fictionalized account of the life of savant musician Blind Tom Wiggins, little none today but vastly popular at the time for his almost mystical skills when it came to the piano. We follow him as time and the ways of life shift around him. He is many things to the many people who come in contact and hold sway over him: to some like his mom and Tabbs Gross on Edgemare, an island filled with black expatriates, he is a savior for change and for others, like General Bethune and his family, who owned him before the Civil War and never told him he was free, and the impotent duo of Perry Oliver and his servant Seven, both bearing witness to someone greater than them, he is a symbol for a dying culture and a way back to the top. This book is complex and yes, maddening, but I enjoyed the hell out of it. I found it smart and whimsical, especially when Tom, a character much like Benjy Compson, whose disability leaves him out of place and out of time, but also makes him something of a clairvoyant, waxes poetic. As mentioned, this book has a lot more in common with modernist literature than post modern, and for that, this odyssey into forgotten American history and race relations is a pure breath of fresh air.

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Review: "Slade House" by David Mitchell

Again with Slade House, David Mitchell has given the reading public an immensely entertaining, mind-blowing and life affirming novel, only this time, in the form of a rather creepy and skin crawling haunted house story. Even when I don’t like his book’s very much (Ghostwritten, his first novel, is not very good, and Cloud Atlas, as I have said before, is more of a literary stunt and lacks substance), I’m always pretty amazed by the level of creativity and originality he inputs into stories whose human elements greatly outweigh the fantastical ones. This book, much like Cloud Atlas and 2014’s The Bone Clocks, is set in many different time periods, and through the passage of that time and the melding of different genres, he is able to dissect ideas and emotions like grief, loneliness, and alienation in a way that tugs at the heart strings and fills your mind with wonder. This book is a bit different though, not only in length, being almost half the size of most of his books. The story exists in the same world as The Bone Clocks and its villains are the same as well, but this is a much more contained story, with almost the story’s entire action taking place within a few small blocks. And the real big difference between this book and Mitchell’s others? It is look-under-your-bed-and-grab-a-nightlight scary, much in the same way House of Leaves is. The eponymous house is one scary place, a kind of artifact of a frozen moment in time, and once inside, you won’t ever leave. The book is divided into sections, beginning in 1979 and ending in 2015. Every nine years, in an unassuming alley, a little black door appears that leads to Slade House. You will be greeted by name, and inside, you will find what your heart desires. But it is really a trap set by a set of twins, who are, for a lack of a better word, “soul vampires”, who feast on the essence of the meek and desperate in order to stay young. Whether it is a young boy who finds a desirable and cool friend within the garden walls, a divorced police detective looking for a sordid affair or an overweight teenage girl who is willing to do anything for social validation and the affection of her unrequited crush, all become ensnared in this labyrinth to cruelty and selfishness. The book has many moments that surprised me by who scary and how cruel this story gets with its twists and turns. Within the house itself, a person’s reality, under the right influence, can be anything, from an old silent film where you are rescued by Charlie Chaplin to a Halloween Party and even the pub down the street. But despite these dark elements, there is a hint of playfulness here and a hint of tragedy as well as it pertains to the passage of time and the wounds it sometimes fails to heal. If you are new to Mitchell (I hope not), he has written an excellent and rather fun introduction into his wide and beautiful world. It is most definitely a journey worth taking. 
Rating: 5/5

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Review: "Black Chalk" by Christopher J. Yates

Black Chalk, the debut novel of Christopher J. Yates (and a gift from my brother this past Christmas) is a curious little thriller that defies expectations, being something a little and otherworldly despite a rather basic premise that is anything but new. It is clearly standing on the shoulders of a book like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, acting as a kind of second rate version of that book with potboiler elements (that is not an insult), but reading it, I found myself thinking of other authors Yates seemed to echo, some of which caught me by surprise. The narration, filled with a desperation and fear that is trying to be quelled by unreliability and a need to change the past reminded me of Paul Auster’s darker works, it’s quiet menace that got under my skin reminded me of Peter Straub (not so much Stephen King, whose referenced on the front cover) and its surprisingly experimental structure couldn’t help but make me think of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. Much like Donna Tartt’s novel, a lower middle class kid interjects himself, by accident, into an affluent academic world that hides hidden motives and dark desires. That boy is Chad and the school is Oxford University. He meets Joylen, and together with four other friends, they become enmeshed in a game where the consequences escalate from cheeky, to the humiliating and finally to deadly, all the while, a paranoid, drug addled voice from fourteen years in the future prepares himself to finish what he started. This is a very interesting book, filled with intrigue that I underestimated, and even with the head-scratching and rather disappointing ending, this book didn’t feel like a waste of time. Yates seems like a smart writer, who is putting his talents to good use with such an entertaining novel, and I look forward to what he puts out next.

Rating: 4/5

Friday, May 13, 2016

Review: "The Big Nowhere" by James Ellroy

Sure enough, The Big Nowhere, the second novel in James Ellroy’s L. A. Quartet (I have not read the first book in the series, The Black Dahlia, so I’m breaking a cardinal rule here) is very different than the three books that make up the Underworld U. S. A. trilogy, not only in scope and subject matter, but in time and place as well. Do I think it is better than said trilogy? I’d have to read at least two other books in the Quartet to give you a better answer. In ways it is very similar to the Underworld U. S. A. Trilogy despite some glaring differences. The characters are hard-bitten; speak as if they came into this world viewing it as a nightmare, and the reader has very little clue as to where to look for moral comfort or familiarity. It makes for a hard read, as actions and characters seem thin and needlessly complex, but Ellroy is so good at crafting this almost carnival-esque society of brutal murder and the psychopaths who are assigned to deal with it, that I can forgive him these trespasses. The story sees three men from different levels of lawlessness investigate a brutal serial killer and the Red Scare in Hollywood at the dawn of the 1950’s. All three are desperate for something else, such as family, acceptance and freedom, and in that desperation, they sell their souls to the city, not all of them will make it out intact. The serial killings are the best part, as Upshaw, the young upstart, finds himself questioning the weird and the scary, from a former alcoholic who chugs mouthwash, to a wolverine breeder who names his animals things like Rape-O. As these two stories intersect, the true horror of it all really comes out, in a twist that is sure to make you gag. Ellroy is a master at picking the scabs on the underbelly of the American underbelly, and he does so with glee, viciousness, and, if you look closely, a desire that it will all turn out okay. This book is no exception.

Rating: 4/5

Monday, May 9, 2016

Review: "The Public Burning" by Robert Coover

Robert Coover’s most famous novel (which isn’t saying much, no offense) The Public Burning, for better or worse swings hard and for the fences every single sentences. When it wants to be crazy and chaotic, it does so, and it is very fun and hilarious, when it wants to be dense and convoluted, it does so unapologetically. In that way it reminds me a lot of David Foster Wallace’s fiction: with a book like this, you are in the hands of fiercely intelligent polymath who is at times verbose to the point of annoyance, but who always has a low brow joke up their sleeve to keep you interested as their tomes challenge you and push you. The plot of this novel is rather vague and ambiguous as you would expect, but at its core is the sad story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a couple who were convicted of espionage and executed for their supposed crimes against the state. In this alternate view of the events, the country is in the throes of the Korean War, and the nation’s popularity is in steep decline. The couple’s execution is seen by the living embodiment of Uncle Sam as a way to bring the country together with a common enemy. The execution is set for their wedding anniversary, and will take place in Times Square in front of the whole country. This task is given to then Vice President Richard Nixon, who Coover makes out to a dense, misled man-child, but one who much more of a victim here than he was in real life. The book is very dated, but that is my only real and logical complaint. The caricatures of real people, especially Nixon and Ethel, who form a deep romantic bond, are great, and the physical manifestations of fictional entities, like Betty Crocker are quite bonkers, but Uncle Sam takes the cake: a tough talking, good ol’ boy salesman with a god complex who eventually rapes Nixon as he is pledged into office. This is a crazy and impressive pipe bomb to American values that is worth your time. 
Rating: 4/5

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Review: "Suttree" by Cormac McCarthy

I have never been as gung-ho about Cormac McCarthy as other literary minded Americans tend to be. While some find his dense, meandering stream of consciousness style a sign of staggering genius, I always found it dull, relentless and too much like something g meant for the college classroom and little else. But the one book of his that I was always curious about, the one that interested me the most, which is Suttree. For one, I think it is funnier and more accessible than the other books of his I have read, which strange, because it is also the longest and has the loosest plot. It switches time periods rather frequently, but it makes up for that with a really strong central character, interesting secondary characters, which there are a lot of, and strong theme of identity and autonomy that is both joyful and sad in equal measure. The book opens as our eponymous character, a voluntary vagrant living on a houseboat on the Tennessee River, watches authorities pull a body out of the water. It is a good introduction to Suttree, a man who does bad and does good, neither of which have any influence on the quality of his life. The real joy of this novel, both intimate and epic, is watching him interact with the people in this rather dirty yet poetic world of the damned. Whether it is with his group of drinking buddies at various bars around town, or with women, which never ends well for him, or with young men he takes under his wing, especially the wayward Harrogate, whose mischief hides a scary lack of culpability that eventually breaks Suttree’s heart. I take a bit of issue with the way McCarthy changes voices from narration and dialogue, giving complex thought processes to people who, for a lack of a better word, are not that self-aware. I feel it divides McCarthy from his characters and setting in a way it does not for writers like Larry Brown and Daniel Woodrell, putting himself above it all, and giving them a sense of grace out of mere pity. But that may just be me, and it no way hindered what I felt was a thoughtful book about one’s place in the world, and said world’s indifference to human desire. 
Rating: 4/5

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Review: "Goat Mountain" by David Vann

It is convenient that I’m reading Suttree by Cormac McCarthy right after reading this book, since the two styles and the two writers seem to complement each other greatly, although this book, David Vann’s Goat Mountain, is a little easier to read. To say this book took me by surprise is an understatement. I went in, having read the description on the back, expecting a kind of murder saga, filled with revenge and bloodshed. And while that is not what got at all, I still found this book to surprisingly ethereal, moving and a little bit unnerving as well. Vann takes a simple act, whose motives and purposes are left ambiguous, and shows not only the effect it has on the impressionable eleven year old narrator, but shows the lengths his family goes to do what they think is right. The narrator, left unnamed, is on a hunting trip with his father, grandfather, and the father’s friend Tom in 1978 in the Northern California Mountains, an area they have owned for decades. Things are going smoothly until a poacher is sighted on their land, and the boy, looking through the sight of his father’s rifle, shoots the man, killing him. The rest of the 239-page book sees the different reactions the five men have: the boy sees his whole life flash before his yes and quotes the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and Jesus, the father is the most apologetic, mainly because he sees that his son’s life is now over, the grandfather takes a more ancient approach to his son’s actions, leading up to the book’s harrowing climax, and Tom, sees himself caught in the families’ mess and regrets the time he has spent with them. If this book has any flaws, its poor characterization, since no one, not even the boy himself, is very fleshed out. This is a deeply allegorical story where innocence is lost and primordial values of life and fate descend upon an unsuspecting and undeserving clan. And with those complex ideas, this book succeeds.

Rating: 4/5