Saturday, October 29, 2016

Review: "A Gambler's Anatomy" by Jonathan Lethem

I may have said this before, but I will say it again, the books of Michael Chabon (whose new book comes out in a few weeks and is in my library request queue) and Jonathan Lethem are the literary equivalent of the blockbuster superhero movies I, as a film fan, choose to see over the summer. I have not expected them to be good for quite some time, but I feel an odd sense of duty to check them out, even though I have not read a fantastic book from either of them in year. For me at least, the best book by Chabon is Wonderboys, although I enjoyed but did not love most of his other fiction. For Lethem, whose new book, A Gambler’s Anatomy I just read, he has not put out a good book since The Fortress of Solitude, and the other novels I have read of his have come frightfully close to being terrible. It is hard for me to tell, even now as I write this, how close this book comes to embodying that notion. Its premise is cool and made me pick it up. It focuses on Alexander Bruno, whose untouchable backgammon skills, of which he uses to cheat stupid rich men out of their money, is being threatened by a facial tumor that is blocking his vision. He goes back to California, a place he was banished from, and has a surgery paid for by a sketchy old friend, with some expected complications. The first few sections, where Bruno is fighting his ailment and goes through the surgery, performed by one of the most unprofessional doctors in fiction, are splendid. But when it is not boring, I found the anachronisms to be distracting and hobbling. Everything about this story has the feeling of an early 20th century yarn: the game in question, the character’s names and way people talk, but it is set in the present day. It sounds like a minor complaint, but the more I thought about it, the bigger an issue it became. I can’t say that I hate this book, but from someone who wrote Motherless Brooklyn, I shouldn’t feel okay with just an okay book.

Rating: 3/5

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Review: "Cannibals in Love" by Mike Roberts

Across 18 brilliantly conceived vignettes, Mike Roberts’ debut novel, Cannibals in Love, tries its best to condense the experience of those first, fresh-faced millennials at the beginning of the year 2000. This great book brought to mind many other great books as well, such as Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, a book mentioned on the back cover, as well as other works cut from that same cloth, like John Fante’s Ask the Dust and Pedro Juan Gutierrez’s The Dirty Havana Trilogy: stories of a writer sometimes choosing or sometimes forced to exist on the fringes of society and outside of stable conditions like love, romance and direction. It also calls to mind the brutal works of Donald Ray Pollock and Richard Lange in the subject’s amorality. But what sets this book apart from those writers and the books that I mentioned is its undeniable familiarity. This is a book of this moment, and I feel like I know the people it is talking about: a class of people who have been coddled by the generation before them, and are completely unprepared for a world that is collapsing around them. They make attempts to find themselves, but, as is the case for our narrator, also named Mike, they find trouble and confusion. The plot of this novel is quite loose. It reminded me a lot of the structure of Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, where one scene will end abruptly and a new one will take its place just as quickly. It all focuses on Mike, who is just about to graduate college and has no idea what he wants to do with his life, a feeling that many will find mutual. He has his wants and desires, many of which center around women or his unreadable allegorical novel about raising and milking cows, but they never seem to add up to much of anything worthwhile or long term. He has many jobs, such as counting lamp posts in his hometown of Washington D. C. at the beginning, which involves a memorable scene with his sixty year old co-worker Don and a sad trip to an off-track betting site, a gig in Portland, Oregon of babysitting a friendless sociopathic teen and writing spam emails from home in his underwear. But the true heart of this novel, as I see it, is Mike’s tumultuous relationship with a woman named Lauren. They seem right for each other, but through their constant addiction to fighting each other and their tendency to bring one another down, their eventual split and movement away from one another, is quite heartbreaking, even for two people who sometimes don’t have our sympathy. There are a few memorable detours as well, such as one section which talks about the disappearance of someone the same age as Mike and another where Mike’s car breaks down and he lies his way into the house of some well-meaning Christians. This is an energizing almost manic book that is also a perfect, clarifying snapshot of our troubled, ambiguous times. 
Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Review: "Nutshell" by Ian McEwan

Even though I am always excited to read whatever new novel Ian McEwan puts out (although these last few times I’ve gotten them from the library instead of spending money on them), I can’t deny the fact that the quality of his work has gone down. Simply put, I don’t think he has put out a great book since Atonement. Some have been good, like Saturday and solar, but some of them have been quite bad, like his failed obsession with British spies characterized by his dull novel Sweet Tooth. This novel, Nutshell, easily his most unique and experimental novel, lies somewhere in between. It executes its concept successfully, more so than I thought it would, but it can’t help being a rather rudimentary story of infidelity, murder and disconnect, albeit with a very interesting perspective to say the least, that perspective being an unborn child of the treacherous Trudy. Trudy has betrayed her husband, the poetic and thoughtful John for his brother Claude, a dumb and foolish idiot. The unborn sees this and reacts with scorn and pity, as it is able to experience the events as they take place and the emotions they create, but is unable to do anything about them. This narration, surely wise beyond it years (or year), is what sets this book apart and makes it not be terrible. It is at times nihilistic and oppressive, but it is also thoughtful and poignant at times, revealing the deep trenches we fall into attempting the impossible tasks of trying to understand fully the ones we love. It does a good job of distracting the reader from the rather boring love triangle that is playing out, which involves anti-freeze poisoning and visits from the cops. A solid midpoint in McEwan’s oeuvre, one that at least keeps me interested in what he puts out next.

Rating: 3/5

Review: "The Nix" by Nathan Hill

I’ve been lucky enough these past few years to read at least one book a year that simply announces itself and it author as loudly as possible. Last year, that book was Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, and this year, that book is another debut novel, Nathan Hill’s wondrous and big-hearted first novel, The Nix. The comparison on the back is very apt, because the novel’s complexity, intricate plotting and emotional impact are very reminiscent of the best of John Irving like The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany, all of which tell big yet intimate stories tinged with just the slightest, even ambiguous amount of otherworldliness that not only grounds the story, making it believable but also allows the themes it presents to transcend the novel itself, making for a memorable story that will stick with you. That otherworldly quality is right in the title. The Nix is a Norwegian folktale about a horse that leads wayward children to their doom. But in the real world, and what is taught to our fascinating and empathetic protagonist, a nix is any person who we love that eventually disappoints, abandons or destroys us, leaving us changed irrevocably. At the start of the novel, Samuel Andresen-Anderson (a clever name in my opinion) is in the rut to end all ruts. He is a disrespected teacher of literature at a small college and the only joy in his life comes from playing an online game called Elfscape. A lawyer representing his long lost mother who abandoned his family years ago who recently made headlines by attacking a right wing political candidate contacts him, wanting Samuel’s help. Samuel at first declines the offer, but when he finds himself in a bit of financial trouble, he agrees to help out his mom, and in doing so, goes on a journey to uncover his mom’s past and how her life, as well as the lives of a few others, connect to make a beautiful web of love, loss and hope. The novel switches gears a lot but it never misses a beat. Along with the present story in 2011, with the highlight being a hilarious section where Samuel’s accusations towards a female student who he believes plagiarized is sectioned off with every logical fallacy. We also learn about Sam’s early life, his relationship with the troubled Bishop and his beautiful twin sister Bethany, and the love of Samuel’s life. A lot of the story also traces the life of Sam’s mother Faye, and how her troubles in the 60’s she feels stem from a story her father told her about the eponymous creature, which she thinks attacked her one night. It is a startling and mazing section of the book, one that reminded me of the supposedly haunted dress mannequin Owen sees watching John’s mother in Irving’s novel. To watch these stories meld together, along with said cheaters, a vengeful judge and one of Samuel’s online companions, is great and wonderful. Always interesting, fast-paced and easily relatable, this is the novel of the year and one you want to pick up as soon as possible.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Review: "The Fireman" by Joe Hill

It has to happen sometime: a writer with a near perfect track record puts out something that is not nearly as good as what we have to come to expect from them. For every 1Q84 there is an After Dark, for every New York Trilogy there is a Travels in Scriptorium and now for Joe Hill, he has his: The Fireman an imperfect book that succeeds in telling a story, but doesn’t seem to have the flash of originality that made his previous novels and one fantastic short story collection so great. That is not to say that this book is not thrilling. It totally is, with plenty of action sequences and loveable/hateable characters that make the 747 page count fly by really quick. But the strange, otherworldly spark (no pun intended) that made NOS4A2 and Heart-Shaped Box leave such an indelible mark is absent here: this is a by the numbers action thriller and very little else. The novels focus is Harper Willows, a school nurse who watches as her world radically changes once it is overtaken by a plague that leaves the infected covered with gold and black markings and finally causes them to spontaneously combust. Soon, she is infected with what they are calling Drgaonscale as well as becoming pregnant. Her husband leaves her, and she is soon caught up in a cult of the infected whose intentions are not as good as they seem as well as cremation crews, whose intentions are just as bad as they seem. The book moves quickly, with the right amount of twists and turns and scary scenes, like when Harper is assaulted by a clan of youngsters among the cult (won’t say more), but I simply don’t feel I will take much from this book, which disappoints me, since Hill was, and still is, one of the best genre authors working today.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Review: "Screamin' Jay Hawkins' All-Time Greatest Hits" by Mark Binelli

I am going to assume that for people of my generation, their first interaction with the musician Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was through the movie Hocus Pocus, where the Sanderson Sisters put a spell on the parents of Salem with a rendition of Hawkins’ most famous song. It was hard not to see Bette Midler, decked out in witch garb belting out this tune while reading this novel by author Mark Binelli, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins All-Time Greatest Hits. But even with those images floating around my head, along with images from a handful of Jim Jarmusch films, added to the wonderful inventiveness of this slim novel, which effortlessly blends fact and fiction until you not only can’t see which is which, but by the end, simply don’t care because the story is so rich and magical. It takes a mythic figure like Hawkins, who was part Robert Johnson and Part Alice Cooper, whose legend preceded him by a country mile, and does its best to dissect such an incredible person and story. It is not a perfect book, but with a story such as the one that is told, that really doesn’t matter. To begin, I will discuss a few of the details of Hawkins early life. He was born in 1929, and was soon adopted by a Native American couple who named him Jalacy. Other than those few facts, which come up within the first few pages, the bulk of this novel is a series of vignettes that attempt to describe the origins of a lot of Hawkins’s stage and personality quirks. These scenes sometimes don’t form a linear trajectory (the book itself is far from linear), but they are quite fun. There is a scene early on involving Jay’s grandfather hunting squirrels which, along with his burgeoning interest in horror films and a Great Lakes ballerina show, cemented his love for macabre subject matter and led to his outlandish stage acts. We also get glimpses into his time in the army, where an otherworldly experience with a tribesman during World War II inspired his signature look, most importantly the thin bone attached to the bottom of his nose. The most memorable vignette about his stage person involves the skull on the staff he’d carry to the stage, who he called Henry, and claimed was a monk who fell prey to Satan. The story also has sad moments, such as his many loveless flings, characterized perfectly through the eyes of one of his illegitimate children (of which there are reportedly 75), who, listens to the songs of his father and is depressingly unimpressed. The most indelible images I will take from this novel are two sections, the first of which is a virtuoso rendering of a ghost of a former musician Jay replaced who died of an overdose. The scenes are rendered with great ennui, forsaking profound or horror elements, and are quite funny. The other section is the last section, where Binelli speculates on the origin of “I Put a Spell on You” his most famous song, in a scene of longing and rejection. Don’t let this book slip past you. It is a smaller book, but very deserving of your time. 

Rating: 5/5