Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Review: "Heartbreaker" by Maryse Meijer

Heartbreaker, the debut short story collection of author Maryse Meijer, is the best short story collection I have read all year and easily the book put out by FSG Originals since Frank Bill’s Crimes in Southern Indiana. These straightforward yet brutal stories share a lot in common with the work of Amelia Gray, Lindsay Hunter and Laura Van Der Berg: each one of them seems fragmentary, in kind of a rush towards something that writer or the reader not might know. Those stories tend to be interesting but very shallow and work better as stunts instead as stunts that lack emotional impact. Thankfully, that is not a problem with these powerhouse tales, which get under the skin, linger and leave deep scares once they have been finished. I think what she did differently here that her compatriots failed to do with their short story collections was have a clear theme within the madness. While those stories are all too eager to go over the edge, even when some readers won’t accept that invitation, Meijer seems firmly planted on the edge of the abyss, staring down, on her tippy toes, her characters hoping against hope that things will be alright, even though they know otherwise. The title of this book is rather apt, since most of the tales, which straddle the line between normalcy, depravity and even reality, all concern unlovable people existing in a cruel world long after they have outlived their usefulness, and Meijer is merely curious about how they exist. There isn’t a bad egg in this bunch, but I will pick out a couple that really stuck with me. The first story, “Home” is about a young girl who is willingly kidnapped by an older man, and the story charts their relationship, fraught with abuse from the unlikely source. It gets more disturbing from there with the title story, which focuses on a girl who begins a rather perverted relationship with a mentally challenged boy in her class: she buys him a porno magazine and almost molests him, even though she swears she loves him. The laughs in this story don’t distract from the horror of it. In a cool story called “The Fire”, really an extended metaphor, a man falls in love with a fire that has erupted in a forest. As goofy as it sounds, it is a perfect representation of an abusive relationship. But nothing prepared me for what is not just the best story here, but the best story I have read all year, which is “Jailbird”. It begins with a man in prison, and we find out he is there to satisfy his girlfriend’s sexual fantasies of his abuse at the hands of other inmates. This was a disturbing and sad tale and shined a light on the emotional abuse a man can face at the hands of a woman who is a bully. These stories of people whose sexual needs separate them from the love and affection they desire are bound to leave a mark with their skill, originality and heart. A smaller title this year, but easily one of the best this year. 

Rating: 5/5

Monday, August 29, 2016

Review: "Great Jones Street" by Don DeLillo

I always assumed that the books Don DeLillo published before he became world famous with White Noise would be different than the books he published afterward. I noticed a distinct difference in plot details between the books from each period. While his books post-White Noise covered heady topics such as the JFK assassination (Libra) and the 9/11 attacks (Falling Man), his early books seemed like they were more fun, with topics such as football (End Zone, code-breaking (Ratner’s Star) and the book I just read, Great Jones Street, which is equal parts rock n’roll, hard drugs and secret hippie societies hell bent on control of the country. For the most part I was right, since this book is probably the most fun I have had reading one of his books as well as being the one where I felt the most for what was going on. While I found his bigger books, such as Underworld, Libra and White Noise enriching, I found them too dense and too analytical. This book touches its toes in those waters, but the story is grounded in an emotional core his other books are lacking. At the beginning of the book, Bucky Wunderlick, a famous musician, is hold up in an apartment in the aforementioned street, hiding from the public with a sample of a new drug that is quite potent and sought after. He interacts with his manager, a few hanger-ons such as the whipping boy Hanes, and gets a visit from his girlfriend Opel, all while trying to sell off his sample of the drug to the Happy Valley Farm Commune, a group of terrorists. While this plot get convoluted, especially towards the end, I found the other tenants in his apartment, such as a failed writer and a mother of a severely retarded child to be much more fun to read about. The banter between them and Bucky gives the book its heart. If you are like me, and found DeLillo’s other books a bit droll and heavy, I’d suggest seeking this out however you can. 

Rating: 4/5

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Review: "Einstein's Dreams" by Alan Lightman

Reading Alan Lightman’s slim novel Einstein’s Dreams is like eating a few spoonfuls of pure cake icing. It is nothing but sugar and fat, bug you are thankful it is not the whole tub you have to consume. I don’t think I have come across a more saccharine and rather puerile book to be honest with you. It’s very well written and very imaginative with the places it goes and how rich the detail is. I just wish that for this book, Lightman could have used his talents in a better way, so instead of a challenging look at the nature of time and the intricacy of the world, we are left with someone rather maudlin, simple and way to easy to read. While I try to steer clear of making comparisons to book’s I have not read, I assume reading this book is a lot like reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho: a sort of dime-store guide to spirituality for those who’d rather feel than think. The small, 140-page book uses as its framing device conversations between a young Einstein and his friend Michele Besso sometime in 1905. But the bulk of the book is centered on dreams Einstein has about various worlds where time is perceived differently. Some of the differences are concrete, such as one world where people’s lifespan is simply one day, and most others are more abstract, where time is simply a series of pictures, and people can be aware of many different time lines based on the decisions they make. There are characters in each dream, but they are one-dimensional and not as memorable as the conceptions of time Lightman creates. Some people may find something in this book, perhaps genius or even solace for some, but for me, it was a mercifully short exercise in very shallow philosophy.

Rating: 3/5

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Review: "Listen to Me" by Hannah Pittard

With each of her three novels, author Hannah Pittard has given readers something completely different every time she comes out with a new book. Her debut novel, the fantastic The Fates Will Find Their Way, takes a concept that was famously put forth in Jeffery Eugendies debut novel The Virgin Suicides and makes it a little more accessible and emotionally impactful. Her second novel, the more traditional family in crisis story Reunion showed a bit of humor and pathos as a weekend funeral attended by three estranged siblings becomes an unexpected bout of healing for all three. Her new novel, Listen to Me, she finely dissects a marriage fraught with unspoken hostilities in a world filled with paranoia, and she views all this through the subjective lens of a thriller. She succeeds for the most part, with fully formed characters careening towards and ultimate meeting with menacing fate, but I felt Pittard was a little out of her element here: she doesn’t try to go for the reader’s jugular, as that is where novels like this succeed, and the culmination of everything was a huge letdown. It begins when Mark and Maggie, a 40-something couple, begin their road trip from Chicago to Mark’s parent’s farm in D. C. Maggie has just been the victim of a brutal mugging, and has become paranoid and distrustful: she buys a switchblade and hides it in her bed, and reads the news’ darker headlines to an unwilling Mark. This has distanced the couple, and Mark, is entertaining the idea of an affair. After each has a has a disquieting encounter with a local just outside Indianapolis on an already cursed trip, tensions get high, and in the parking lot of a rundown hotel, their place in each others lives will be tested. I found the flashbacks to when Mark and Maggie met, which has its own fateful implications, more fascinating than the present road trip. I was digging the pathos at hand, and the little ways Mark and Maggie subtly tore each other down without raising their voice, which is why I found the finale very rushed, poor and sporting no sharp teeth. A short novel that’s brilliantly written, just don’t expect your world to be moved.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Review: "How to Set a Fire and Why" by Jesse Ball

I have been circling around the work of Jesse Ball for a few years. I was always impressed with his prolific output, but a bit put off by his style, which, from a few glances at his past few books, struck me as detached and emotionally scattered. But with his new book, How to Set A Fire and Why, I feel I picked a good one to begin with. To begin, it is a very scattered book whose themes and ideas are a little hard to grasp with the syntax Ball puts forth and what kind of narrator we have. But I had a really good time with this book, more so than really expected, and some of the books flaws, which I will discuss soon, actually add to the book’s overall charm. The narrator on hand is Lucia, a young girl who has recently suffered a tragedy, and is acting out in increasingly aggressive ways. Her father has died, her mother is in a mental hospital and she is constantly kicked out of schools for disciplinary reasons. She lives with her aunt in a crappy garage, and is attending another school, this one with its own burgeoning group of min-terrorist who call themselves the Arson Club, and armed with her dad’s lighter, she intends to join at any cost. Lucia is unreliable at best, the world seen through her skewed, quasi-nihilistic solipsism. She is a cross between Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen and that annoying chick from My Life as Liz, passably smart, yet lacking true self-awareness of the basics of empathy, so all the other characters are either too stupid (especially the male characters) or emotional fodder. But she is entertaining, and through a few emotional scenes, one involving and easily predicted death, her humanity shines through, as does the humanity of the story. This won’t be on my year-end list, but I found this book to be way more of a blast than I anticipated. 

Rating: 4/5