Thursday, September 29, 2016

Review: "The Heavenly Table" by Donald Ray Pollock

Of all the books I have read this year, Donald Ray Pollock’s new novel, The Heavenly Table, is the only one I can say is a bonafide masterpiece. From its intense narrative, seamless style and off the wall tone, I can’t seem to find any chinks in its armor. This is such a massive improvement from his other two books, both fantastic in their own right. Knockemstiff, his debut collection of short stories (complete with a glowing recommendation by Chuck Palahniuk) was an interesting introduction to Pollock’s savage world just south of where I live. They were soulful and gritty with a flair for deconstructing the interior lives of its downtrodden characters. Pollock stepped it up a notch with his first novel, The Devil All the Time, a brutal gothic tale of murderers and savages trying to find salvation in the world. But this book is something much different. It is more sophisticated, having much more in common with the work of Daniel Woodrell and Flannery O’Conner than some of Pollock’s contemporaries. It is filled to the brim with rich sentences, cloaked with the conflicting feelings of hope and terror from a bygone era. What I took away from this novel, and I’m sure many people will as well, is that besides such an interesting and at times intricate plot line, Pollock is so skilled at getting into the heads of almost every character that is introduced, and it just makes the story that much more rich, and that much more grand. There are a few more plotlines than the two on the book’s front flap, but I will start with those. We are first introduced to the Jewett brothers in the year 1917. There is Cane, the oldest and smartest, since he knows how to read, there is his younger brother Cob, fat and rather slow, and there is the youngest Jewett boy, Chimney, who seems prone to violence and flights of fantasy based around the dime store novel Cane would read to them. After their put upon father dies suddenly, all three tired of the sad lives they are living, brutally murder their employer, himself a rather violent man, and set off toward Canada, robbing banks and building up infamy in the eyes of the public. A few hundred miles away from them is Ellsworth Fiddler, recently swindled out of his life savings, is eking out a living on a farm with his equally tired wife and delinquent son. Their paths cross, but not before Pollock builds an astoundingly well rendered world filled with barkeeps that are serial murders, sanitation inspectors with an abnormally sized penis that has rendered him impotent, closeted Army lieutenants with a death wish and various others whose personal dreams, sins and actions we get an archeological eyeful of thanks to Pollock’s immense talents. I want to leave some surprises for you, since this is among the year’s best, if not the best; with an ending that is a beautiful contrast to this book’s somewhat brutal view of the early 20th century. Check it out as soon as you can. 

Rating: 5/5

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Review: "Loner" by Teddy Wayne

Some books are painful to read for the right reasons, like this one, Teddy Wayne’s Loner. It is an expertly rendered, if derivative first person novel about obsession, misplaced affection, and the world that enables sadomasochistic behavior. It is a disturbing novel, one that will stick with me for a long time like Jack Ketchum’s Stranglehold and Joyce Carol Oates Zombie, two titles that match this book’s social hideousness. But what made this painful to read was its familiarity. While I am glad to say I never went off the deep end, I related to the narrator’s struggles with his affection for his dream girl, his pitiful mentality and unearned sense of entitlement. It made my lack of sympathy for him as the book went on, which turned to pity and finally to revulsion by the end, more than a bit embarrassing and cringe worthy for me personally. The narrator is young David Federman, a rather forgettable adolescent who has somehow found his way to Harvard. He gets good grades with ease, but you get the sense that he doesn’t really enjoy anything he does. He comes alive during orientation, when he spots Veronica Wells, a beautiful girl who captures his cold heart. What would be an awakening instead becomes a trip toward one young man’s damnation. He starts dating her roommate, Sara, just to get close to her, and as he infiltrates her life, we as readers slowly find out she is not as beautiful as David finds her. His attempts to gain her favor, while shunning Sara are both pathetic and reprehensible, and by the book’s ending, which does come off a bit tawdry, I feel that everyone got what they deserved, good and bad. An easy read, since I finished most of it in a day, but a harrowing and morally complex one that intrigues and repels in equal measure.

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Review: "Here I Am" by Jonathan Safran Foer

As much as I hated his first two novels, you’d be surprised at how much I was looking forward to Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel Here I Am. It was getting a lot of good buzz, especially from TIME Magazine’s Lev Grossman, and I’m always a sucker for big books, so my curiosity trumped my trepidation, and I went in with rather high expectations. Well, those expectations were smashed because this is the kind of book that Foer can stake his claim to greatness. Gone are the emotionally manipulative techniques of his first novels, ones that were showy yet shallow and maddening, and with this 571-page behemoth, you can tell he has grown from the little squirt responsible Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. This is a serious adult novel (although it is hysterical at many places) about marriage, family, the shaky bonds that hold us together and the times when those bonds reach their breaking point. Jumping effortlessly between narrative moods, all of which are inviting as opposed to distancing as was the case with his first two novels, the characterization of the Bochs and the four weeks where their lives change is nothing short of masterful: everyone has a their shining moment and their connection is tenuous at times, strong at others, but never did I find it false or cloying (again, another problem I had with the first two novels, and I will stop mention them from now on). It begins as Isaac Boch, the patriarch of the family, struggles with what to do with his lingering life when Israel is devastated by a severe earthquake, and all the major Jewish monuments are all but destroyed. But he is a mere background character whose presence is always felt in the lives of the two main characters: Jacob, Isaac’s grandson, a famous writer for a television show (quite obviously a stand in for Foer himself), and his wife Julia. They are in their early forties with three kids, Sam, the oldest, Max and Benjy, a kid wise beyond his years, and the family dog, Argus, whose importance grows as the story goes on. Over four weeks in their home in D. C., major problems arise that threaten to tear the family apart. Sam gets in trouble at school for writing curse words in class, an extension of his ongoing problems with an online RPG and morbid sexual explorations. Argus is getting old and is quite incontinent, leading to some rather funny scenes as they look for where he pooped. But the major problem concerns Jacob and Julia: Jacob is sexting a girl he has no intention of sleeping with, and Julia entertaining the idea of an affair with a friend to sooth her dissatisfaction with Jacob’s complacency. The earthquake happens, and someone dies in a tragic way that makes it so they can’t be buried in Israel. I won’t spoil what happens after that, but it takes a few breakneck jumps in the timeline, but I never felt out of breath. This is a very heartwarming and funny story with funny characters, such as Tamir, Jacob’s rich cousin from Israel, a straightforward man who’s a mirror to Jacob’s unwholesome qualities, funny jokes, like the one about the zoo with one animal and sometimes astounding revelatory scenes of human fears and emotions, like its perfect ending, one which we see coming, but whose satisfaction lies in how much it says about the story as a whole. Bring your hankies for this one. A truly great book coming from an author I had given up on. Color me surprised!

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Review: "Dhalgren" by Samuel R. Delany

During this second half of 2016, I challenged myself to read three of the hardest books that I have attempted within a certain time span. My first book was Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, the second longest book I have read. I found it boring and long winded and far from Mailer’s best. I then read William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, a book I had been curious about for some time, and found it to be simply too smart for me. The third book, this one, Samuel R. Delany’s Sci-Fi epic Dhalgren, was another book I have been circling for some time, and I’m glad I took the plunge. It is maddening, confusing and difficult, but it is never boring, and as far as my experience with Science Fiction, it is probably my favorite. It is hard to give you a solid description of what happens, but I will do my best. Appearing seemingly out of nowhere (although the last line of the book fits perfectly with the opening line), a young man known only as “The Kid” or “Kidd” finds himself in the city of Bellona, a place cut off from the rest of the United States that has strange weather patterns and weird sky phenomena. He falls into various groups, but the constant is always a woman named Lenya. Throughout the book, he slowly becomes a poet and prose writer, and leads various gangs until the book kind of implodes, but in a good way. While this book is compared to Gravity’s Rainbow (a book I have not read yet), Pynchon was not the writer I thought of most as I was enveloped by the book’s 801 page length. It shares his difficulty and complexity, but I was reminded more greatly of the recent work of Blake Butler, with the last section, a fragmentary journal that conveys a labyrinthine nightmare very similar to the way I felt reading 300,000,000. This book isn’t for everyone (Harlan Ellison supposedly threw it against a wall), but tis was a fun, engaging read, even though I feel I will never fully understand it.  

Rating: 4/5

Friday, September 16, 2016

Review: "The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead

My reason for avoiding any book about slavery in America is the same reason I give for avoiding any book or movie about the Holocaust. I find the subject rather redundant, they make the same points over and over again, and while it is a noble cause to help people never forget such things, I have a hard time finding most modern attempts (after so many successful one) to be that interesting. So I can safely say that I probably would not have read Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Underground Railroad if it wasn’t written by Colson Whitehead. I am a big fan of his and am always curious about what he puts out, fiction of non-fiction. And I’m really glad I picked the book up and I’m really glad I read it, because this book is the most fascinating, sophisticated and complicated book dealing with such subject matter in quite some time. Right off the bat, I can say that this is not an angry book. It doesn’t shy away from what happened, and the evils that seemed to infect a passive American conscience, but Whitehead is more interested in crafting a rather unique alternate version of the Antebellum South, one where there is an actual railroad that is underground, and one where both hunted and hunter are finely crafted individuals, and the proceedings are imbued with more than a little grey. Switching between chapters about certain characters and chapters headed with wherever the story’s action is taking place, the novel deals with Cora, a slave on a plantation in Georgia. She is a strong-willed person, who destroys a fellow slaves doghouse when part of her land is taken away (the payback is horrifying), but she is a torn individual. Her Grandma, Ajarry, lived on the plantation all her life and was complacent and happy. Her mother Mabel, on the other hand, just recently escaped. She is offered a way out by Caesar, and after a brutal beating from the plantation owner’s son, Terrance, she decides to go for it, killing a young boy who tried to catch her in the process. What made this novel so rich was its emphasis on setting, character and action. There might have been political points made, but I was too busy with the book’s intense narrative to find and decipher any. Besides Cora and Caesar, there are the people she meets on her journey to freedom, such as Sam, who she meets in South Carolina, a drunkard with a strong sense of justice and inner turmoil, Martin and Ethel, a couple she meets in North Carolina, who keep her locked up in their attic for safety and eventually sacrifice everything for her. But to me, the most memorable characters were Ridgeway the slave catcher and his group. Having failed to capture Cora’s mother (whose fate we don’t learn until the final fiery pages), he is man with a grudge, wounded pride and a sense of duty. He doesn’t show outward signs of racism toward slaves, evidenced by Homer, a free black man and Ridgeway loyal servant, but he cuts a presence, one that is violent and disturbing, and he is the true villain of the book. Whitehead has created an engaging funhouse reflection of our country’s worst era, one that is propulsive, alive and original. 

Rating: 5/5