Saturday, June 18, 2016

Review: "Bullies" by Alex Abramovich

A book like Bullies, the debut memoir of writer Alex Abramovich, is sure to be compared to Hunter S. Thompson’s famous book on the Hell’s Angels. Since I have not read that, I cannot attest to any comparisons made between the two. All I can say is that this book was an exciting, thrilling and informative jolt that I have needed for the past month and a half, and the right kind of book to end on before my next block of reading begins in a week. Knowing little about the subject matter, minus a quick tour of the East Bay Rats Facebook page, I found this book that dives headfirst into the violent and aggressive world of a modern day motorcycle gang to be a pleasant mixture of many different kinds of writing, and it exceled spectacularly at all of them. It begins in a rather familiar place, than drops us in a world that is both scary and fascinating in its intricacy and ends up being a rather tragic view of our times as well as the psyche of people who find acceptance, tolerance and brotherhood in such a place. That relatable beginning is right in the title: Alex and Trevor, “his friend” who eventually became the president of the East Bay Rats Motorcycle Club, begin as foes in the fourth grade. They get in fights in the middle of class, and when they move away from each other, Alex is left with poor memories of this boy, who grows into a rather big and rather violent man. They strike up a shaky friendship as Alex moves from his native New York to the crime-ridden city of Oakland, where the club is headquartered. Alex quickly establishes a rapport with everyone, and immerses himself in the world of the Rat, which include promoted boxing fights, one of which, is between a member named Meathead Eric and Vice founder Gavin McInnes, as well as the random fights that breakout in the club owned bar, The Ruby Room, with the most memorable one being a rather sad outing where a crack head is chased and beaten. As Alex gets to know this group better, he begins to do a little research on Oakland itself, and the story he tells also becomes about the city and its violent sad history, including its loose connections to the rise of outlaw culture (which in turn gave rise to things as varied as Marlon Brando and The Beatles), which makes it the perfect place for the East Bay Rat, and people like his childhood foe Trevor, who he begins to suspect is a sociopath whose tough upbringing makes him predisposed to like violence and chaos. I think Abramovich is trying to make a statement about masculinity and its painful intersection with carnage, but it is simply not as fascinating as the story he is telling, which I found myself lost in, especially towards the tumultuous end, which includes a rather grim murder trial connected with famous member of the Nation of Islam, and finally, the Occupy protests, which, viewed through Abramovich’s passive lens, is really just an excuse to let off some steam and cause mayhem, with it ending in not only a senseless death, but oddly enough, a wedding and a scary image of a guy carrying a broomstick with a claw hammer tapped the end. This is a book that doesn’t proved lofty or concrete answers to the problems it presents, but it is still a very intense and voyeuristic look at one of America’s most folkloric subcultures.

Rating: 5/5

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Review: "Born to Kill" by T. J. English

The most fascinating thing about Born to Kill, T. J. English’s account of the rise and fall of America’s first Vietnamese gang is the strange sense of displacement he conveys fro all involved. This is not your average gangster tale: this is not a story made up of great heroes or nasty villains. Instead, it is made up of people set adrift in a world that they are unprepared for, and the ways in which they deceive themselves into believing they do. Yes, people get killed, and the trajectory of the story is akin to every other story about the rise and fall of criminal enterprises, but not once reading this did I feel a sense of grandeur to the proceedings or even a sense of misplaced honor and moral code. But this is really a story made up of rather sad, misguided people and the somber circumstances that quickly brought them down. Born to Kill, or B. T. K., was an oriental street gang headquartered in New York’s Chinatown and headed up by a Vietnamese immigrant named David Thai, who ruled over a group of almost 100 other Vietnamese immigrants who robbed and extorted and killed at his command, it is also the story of Tinh, another immigrant who joined the gang to fill a hole in his heart, and eventually brought the gang down. What really fascinated me was how the gang acted: they only robbed or extorted other Asians, since they rightly surmised that they would not call the police, and Thai rarely if ever killed his own men for discretions. It was like they wanted to be more than they were, but their culture and ambivalence toward their own lives stopped them, which makes the eventual number of turncoats when the trial occurred not the least bit surprising. And the Tinh, the best part of this book, is a rather tragic figure, who found what he wanted in this lifestyle, (although a harshly quick romantic sojourn showcasing his sense of alienation), until he turned rat out of a depression rather than fear. There are cops talked about, but they aren’t nearly as compelling as the gang, a gang that didn’t end before its time, but sadly, had the lifespan it earned.

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Review: "Shame and Wonder" by David Searcy

One thing that I have come to expect after reading a bad book, and more importantly writing a review of that bad book, is that I will feel good after doing so, because, as you can see from my reviews, nothing will come close for at least a year, and with half the year still to go, many more great books will block out its memory. But for now, Shame and Wonder, a book of essays by Texan David Searcy, is one of the worst books I have read in long time. I tried my best to find some redeeming value in it: any quality I liked or at the very least found interesting or amusing, and I simply couldn’t find anything here that was enjoyable or even passably enjoyable. This is, by design, a small book that won’t get a lot of press or mainstream attention, and I am begrudgingly giving it an honest review. Less of a series of informative essays and more a painful and rather tedious dissection of a rather uninteresting mind, with these essays, Searcy tries to take the little things in life we all relate to, and inject them with a wondrous and magnificent profundity. Instead, these meandering pieces, ranging in length from a few pages to 20 and 30, intellectualize their topics to the point that they are not only boring and uninteresting, but what little whimsy they have or might have had, are drained by loose and flighty language and annoying musings: topics such as cereal box toys, a mythical circus performer, cartoons in a newspaper and a trip to the dentists are literally analyzed to death, robbing them of their possibly grandiosity. If I can say one nice thing, it is that Searcy has talent as a writer, and I get the inkling I might have a better time with his fiction, or even his poetry, if either exists for purchase. His essays though, sure did leave a bad taste in my mouth. 
Rating: 1/5

Review: "Here and Now" by Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee

I approached Here and Now, a book of letters written over three years between writers Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee, both of whom are among my most cherished, with great excitement, and after reading it, it is exactly as I expected it would be. It has no real central theme, and the discussions cover many topics, some of which interest me, some of which didn’t and some of which I didn’t know would be so fascinating until my eyes were opened by two giants of contemporary literature. I’m having difficulty summarizing the book, my first book of letters, as I tend to do for the first half of the review, so I will simply dive into some of the things that they discuss. These two writers, separated by oceans and continents, talk about a variety of subjects, including big ones like fate, religion, current affairs and the validity of what they do, one exchange concerning one of Jonathan Franzen’s most famous pieces comes to mind. The talks also can be fun, yet no less eye opening, like the ones about sports, both of whom have conflicting feelings about their love of baseball and soccer respectfully: they like the pageantry and experience, but deep down, feel put off by idea that they are based around the idea of someone having to lose. My favorite topic they cover is a touchy one: incest. These letters were written while Auster was working on Invisible, one of his three best novels, which deals with this heavily, and the conversations they have are fascinating, not exploitative. Most of the time Auster comes off as the begrudging American intellectual influenced by 20th century pop culture just as much by the greats, and Coetzee comes off as the out of touch rebel, proud of his ignorance toward trivial things (although both show signs of crotchety grumpiness that comes with age). By the end, I found this book rather delightful and laid back, showing two masters of a solitary craft bond over everyday things we can all relate to, and that is a very fine pleasure.
Rating: 4/5

Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: "Snowblind" by Christopher Golden

For all its faults and its’ brief forays into the corny and trite, Snowblind, a novel by author Christopher Golden is a novel I really needed to read after a series of rather hard and challenging books, and the perfect book to round out the first half of my year’s reading list before I take a five day break. This superior horror novel shares a lot with Stephen King’s third novel Salem’s Lot, and it does for snow what that novel did for small towns. It has a rather unique setup, and find it hard to believe that snow has been used so rarely as a tool for terror and dread, and Golden skillfully crafts each of those emotions, and the fact that we care so deeply about the semi-large cast of characters tend to elevate this book past a lot of schmaltz, some failures to suspend disbelief, and a rather tepid climax, which I tend to befall many books in this genre. One night during a snowstorm in Coventry, New Hampshire, a mysterious force takes the lives of eighteen people. Twelve years later, another storm is on the horizon, and those affected most by the blizzard, a cop who watched a boy he was trying to save disappear, an oddball police photographer who watched his brother pulled to his death by some nefarious force, a petty criminal whose wife lost her life while he was getting drunk, a couple who found each other while snowed in even when the man’s mother was killed, must contend with the evil that destroyed their lives twelve years before: an evil in search of something hidden within some of the citizen’s of Coventry. Golden’s attention to detail is very good: even on a hot day it was easy to feel the chill that the characters do. Some characters are paper thin, like a burly police detective and a pair of two bit criminals to go along with some of the book’s other mentioned faults, but this book was a pure blast, and its final lines, as Stephen King promised, are chilling (no pun intended) enough to grab you by the throat.
Rating: 4/

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Review: "The Twenty Seventh City" by Jonathan Franzen5

Jonathan Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty Seventh City is a far cry from what most people have come to expect from this modern day icon of Western Literature, and that makes this early work something akin to great because of and not in spite of this quality. The family elements are still there, both painful to watch and frightfully close to the reality of most people, as well as the keen eye for the messy human condition, were intelligence, opportunity and good will are not the guarantees of success we wish they were. But this book, equal in length to Franzen’s four other novels, reads less like those and more like a user friendly version of a novel more likely to be written by Thomas Pynchon or Robert Coover, with a grand sense of paranoia and conspiracy accenting the unfolding family drama in a nice, aesthetically pleasing way, easily making this book my second favorite of his novels, just behind Freedom. The plot is the first sign that this is not an early version of The Corrections. It centers on the town of St. Louis, as the hiring of a new police Chief, S. Jammu, not just an Indian but a female, corresponds with a huge, somewhat vague conspiracy that brought her to power. Business leaders and figureheads all end up supporting her under threats (such as the Radio DJ whose house is peppered with bullets) until one man, the milquetoast Martin Probst, defiant more out of convenience and apprehension than malice. The best parts of the novel deal with the breakdown of the Probst family, as well as the rise and fall of this grand scheme set in motion at the beginning of the novel. With more emotional weight than the books of Pynchon and Coover, along with a snide, slightly cruel and funny ending, this early work by an undisputed modern master is more than just a curiosity: it’s one of his best books. 
Rating: 4/5