Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Review: "Lost in the Funhouse" by John Barth

As much as I have traversed the flat open areas of postmodern literature, I figure I simply must not get it. If I was being nice to myself, I guess I would say it is just not for me. Yet still, these tomes (even the short ones are tomes in a way) fascinate me. They challenge and madden me and hopefully make me a better reader. Some are good, like Infinite Jest, Against I don’t get almost the Day and The Public Burning, all books I quite liked even though I don’t understand almost half of what they are about. But some are just plain boring and read like the ingredient list of some synthetic cleaner you don’t want to touch your skin. Sadly, the last book I will read in 2016, John Barth’s short story collection falls quite snuggly into that category. These stories reads more like jilted, oppressive how-to manuals that break down story into little bitty parts that are microscopic and incomprehensible at times. It is hard to pick out a few elements that I like, since most of these stories, especially the shorter ones that range in length from half a page to ten pages, are all fit this description. Two do stick out, one is the title story, which I read earlier this before I decided to read this whole book. It tells the story of one boy’s trip to a carnival and how the story itself threatens to go of the rails. That same charm can also be found in the story “Title” where the author tells you what story he is trying to write, which is a story that has no real beginning or end. I am sure these stories have a brilliance and god forbid fun factor I was simply blind to, but it is hard to recommend a book that offered as little narrative enjoyment as this.

Rating: 2/5

Review: "A Burglar's Guide to the City" by Geoff Manuagh

After reading a book as intensive, interesting and beguiling as Geoff Manaugh’s A Burglar’s Guide to the City, you will be forgiven if you check to see if your front door is locked twice or even three times before you leave the house. This is an affecting book to say the least, putting us in the shoes of not only criminals, who the author sees as sort of rogue architects, but also the victim of break ins as well which, as described accurately (in my opinion) is second only to rape in terms of the emotional damage it can cause. If you have experienced a break in and have had valuables stolen, which I am lucky enough to not have experienced yet, it is the shattering of trust and routine that can turn someone into a mess. But I am just taking now about the feelings this book produced in me and not about the book itself. While calling this a book about the history of burglary is somewhat accurate, it is also simplistic. At the heart of this book is something a bit more grand and profound. Broken down into large chapters, covering every aspect you can think of when it comes to burglary , it makes the case, very successfully I might add, that crime, specially the crime in the title, is not only facilitated  what type of city you live in, but is a natural byproduct of its existence. This is a really cool book, and while I am not used to describing nonfiction books in my review, I guess I will treat this as a short story collection and pull out a few tidbits that impressed me, made me think or simply made me laugh. After an introduction, which chronicles the life of nineteenth century bank robber George Leonidas Leslie, whose heist techniques we still see in today’s movies, the book talks about what a city’s layout says about the crimes in the area and goes into detail about the city of Los Angles. For instance, the reason for helicopter surveillance being such an important part of LA policing is due to the city’s vastness and many tucked away corners where criminals can disappear, similar to the reason behind London’s many surveillance cameras being the city’s density. In the same chapter, like in many others, Manaugh goes into great detail on certain crimes, one being the robberies committed by the Hole in the Ground Gang of Los Angles, who used the creek system hidden beneath LA streets to drill holes up through banks and escape through makeshift tunnels on ATV’s without ever being caught. The book also goes in depth on what constitutes burglary, which is different from robbery, the tools of picking a lock, which a lot are available online and why Die Hard is a masterpiece of architectural indirection. I have not begun to scratch the surface of all that lies within this book, its many nooks and crannies that are hiding in plain sight. For all of it, you’ll have to break in and find it yourself. 
Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Review: "True Crime Addict" by James Renner

With True Crime Addict, James Renner brings a lot of the same sense of foreboding and everyday evil to a true story as he did with his two novels, both of which blend psychological realism, suburban fairy tale and the banality of evil amongst strong, hyper original narratives. But this is a more personal book, some would say too personal. It came about at the right time. I have a lot of free time at work, and one of the things that I became fascinated with are writings and videos on unsolved murder. While I admit that a lot of the fascination with that is of the grim type, I do feel a sense of duty comes with it. At the very least, it gives me an incentive to keep my eyes open and be more aware of the cracks and caverns hiding in plain sight. Renner feels that same way, and this book, through two different stories, shows clearly and disturbingly how that obsession, especially inside a deeply moral and deeply troubled man, can nearly destroy a person. The first story told is the main story, and one I was fascinated by even before I was made aware of this book. In early February in 2004, UMass student Maura Murray crashes her car on a rural road in New Hampshire. After interacting with person nearby, a former truck driver named Butch Atwood, she disappeared before the cops came. The window between the conversation with Bruce and when the police showed up at the crash site is a mere seven minutes. Maura has not been seen since and no traces of what might have happened to her have been found. The second story is of James himself, which begins when he was ten years old, and a missing poster of Amy Mihaljevic, a girl who was abducted and murdered in his hometown of Cleveland, caused him to fall in love with the dead girl and lead to a lifelong obsession with unsolved and cold cases. His investigation into the case of Maura Murray, which begin in 2010, uncovers a dense of web of conflicting evidence about Maura’ motives, hidden fissures  within Maura’s family and his own manic desires to see justice doled out to victims of violent crime. I won’t get too much into the details of what Renner finds: it would not only spoilt the surprise, but I will say that Maura was no the all-American girl that the media, her strange father and even stranger sisters made her out to be, and by the end I feel I can make an educated guess of what MIGHT have happened to her on that New Hampshire road. We also get glimpses into Renner’s strange worldview, which he espoused on heavily in his novels The Man From Primrose Lane and The Great Forgetting and his current home life with his wife and troubled son and a brief interlude into his past and his psychopathic, pedophilic grandfather. There is lot to digest and mull over, but it is presented in brief, digestible chapters. And it helps that the details of this case, both sad and scary, are not something you are soon to forget. 
Rating: 5/5

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Review: "What Belongs to You" by Garth Greenwell

Usually by the end of the year, I am very worn out from completing my reading goals, and am sometimes a little too harsh with the last few books I read for the year. But not this year, because Garth Greenwell’s sumptuous debut novel What Belongs to You, while I don’t think it will top my year-end list, it certainly will be in my top five. With a scant 191 pages, all of which are packed to the brim with beautiful, razor-sharp prose, Greenwell packs enough pathos, complexity and earthly wonder for books twice maybe three times it size. No matter your sexual orientation, you will find connections in this book to your own feelings, feelings much like the one had by the smart, if malleable unnamed narrator of the story. I do fear that much like this year’s film Moonlight, this book’s greater, more universal qualities will be buried under its more immediate social and political aspects, which I’d argue, are not in this book, but I digress. The book is short, and is split up into three different sections, the first of which was published previously as a stand-alone novella. It begins on a warm autumn day in Bulgaria when our narrator, a teacher from America, meets Mtiko, a fresh 20[-year old hustler, in a public bathroom underneath Sofia’s National Palace of Culture, and pays him to give oral sex. Mitko stops the narrator before he can climax, takes his money and leaves. The meeting is a tawdry affair, accented by the few friends Mitko has around him brooding just outside the bathroom stall. We know it as readers, but the narrator, who is not used to such affection and seems conditioned toward vulgar masochism, refuses to see it as such and becomes enamored with this young man. He visits him many other times, and convinces himself that there is something real between them. Mitko predictably inserts himself into the narrator’s life and begins using: he borrows money from him to use the train and when he stays over at the narrator’s apartment, he uses his computer to Skype with other clients. After a stay at a resort, where an argument about Mitko masturbating finally reveals the true roots of their relationship, and he throws Mitko out. The second section, centered around the narrator’s past life, we learn about his sexual history, as well as that of his father and younger sister. I won’t reveal the details of this section, since one scene is, I think, the key to the heart of this book, but it the scene is callous and heartbreaking, and you can see how it mirrors the actions or inaction of our narrator in the face of his emotional abuse. The final section, where we see Mitko reenter the narrator’s life with news that he has an STD and most likely gave it to him, caps off the story and brings everything full circle, as we, and thankfully the narrator, see just how large and impassable the divide is between what we desire and what attainable for us. Filled to the brim with memorable scenes and exchanges, like the tiny conversation the narrator has with the hotel manager, which pretty much sums everything up, to an extended scene on a train, where the narrator and his mother watch a misbehaving child, this is a rich, passionate book that slowly draws you in and leaves you aching.

Rating: 5/5

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Review: "Glamorama" by Bret Easton Ellis

For the first time rereading a book at the end of the year, my feelings on a book have not changed. That book, Bret Easton Ellis’ most forgotten novel (but not most underrated), Glamorama, has neither aged poorly or positively in the time that I have read it, I just feel now that I can talk about it more eloquently than I did when I first read it back in 2010 (I think). A good description of this book is that it is a beautiful mess. There are parts of it that I really enjoyed, parts where Ellis’ skill at creating blurry realities brought on by chaos, excess and detachment award the reader with some entertaining, and sometimes brilliant renderings of violence and sadness. But the book is still a mess. The paperback version which I read clocks in at 546 pages, which is simply too long for a book like this; where characters enter and exit the story rapidly with very little distinguishing features of characteristics, and the whirlwind narrative constantly threatens to leave you behind. The book can be divided into two sections and focuses on male model and aspiring actor Victor Ward. In the first section, he is struggling to open a club in the Bowery section of New York, he is sleeping with two models and he is trying to negotiate a deal to star in a sequel to Flatliners. The second section sees him whisked away to Europe where he is forced into a terrorist group of other pretty people who store bombs in high-end luxury bags and videotape the tortures of diplomatic relatives. I found it impossible to follow everything, and it doesn’t help when the main character is kind of a passive idiot who only comes alive during a few hilariously overwritten sex scenes. But some details, like Victor’s inability during some of the more violent sequences to distinguish between real violence and movie violence and the book’s really bizarre ending, which work out really well. It’s not for everyone, and it certainly isn’t his best book, but this bloody look at the elite, a kind of Zoolander drenched in gore, is still fascinating to me.

Rating: 4/5

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Review: "Dodge Rose" by Jack Cox

Even while almost exactly half of this book is totally lost on me, there is not another book that came out in 2016 like Dodge Rose, the debut novel from Australian writer Jack Cox. For this book to find any family company as far as style and audacity, you’d have to go to the beginning of the 20th century. This is a maddening, frustrating odyssey of two people stuck in the loopholes of Australian property law as well as that of some being, whether it is human or not, alive or dead I’m not sure nor will I ever be, although I have some good ideas about what it might be, but even those might be totally wrong and misleading. This is not a book for everyone, and that everyone probably includes me, but I will try my best to describe what is happening and what is going on. The first section, which is mighty dense but accessible, concerns Eliza, who travels by train to her Aunt Dodge’s apartment, who has just died. While there, she meets Maxine, a stranger, in Dodge’s apartment. What was supposed to be a quick collection of a sizable inheritance turns into a dull wait as the two women find themselves enmeshed among many bureaucracies. The second section, which begins around page 109 of this 201-page book, features a disembodied voice, seemingly lost in time, describing their history, which devolves by the end into gibberish. The first part, which reminded me of a more sophisticated version of Jonas Karlsson’s The Invoice, is a great curiosity, especially a section where one law, The Health Act of 1958, is described in excruciating detail, which brought me back to the descriptions of pharmaceuticals in Infinite Jest. The second part is a curiosity as well, but one without an immediate solution. If this book comes across your path, I’d say pick it up. You’re in for a challenging ride, but don’t expect to see here you are going.

Rating: 4/4

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Review: "The Fighter" by Craig Davidson

With his novel The Fighter, his first one published, Canadian author Craig Davidson establishes himself as one of today’s most interesting and compelling literary voices. Coming from a long line of masculine and trangressive authors as varied as Ernest Hemingway and Hubert Selby Jr. all the way to Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis, I have yet to come across an author who writes about the limits of toughness, manliness and the human body in ways that are equally repulsive and off-putting but also revelatory and emotionally complex. His first book, the short story collection Rust and Bone, later made into a movie, expresses these themes of the bloody human heart in a variety of capacities such as dog fighting, whale training and of course, boxing, or fighting in general, which, along with dog fighting, are the focus of his brilliant novel Cataract City. With this novel, published in 2007, Davidson just focuses on boxing and some of the mythic and tragic elements that embody the sport and those who take it up. It is hard to me to read a story or a novel about boxing and not think of the great short story writer Thom Jones, my pick for America’s most underrated writer, who sadly, as I just found out in the midst of writing this review, passed away in mid-October. But while this novel, and the title story of Rust and Bone, share the sadness and fatalism of Jones’ stories, this novel is meaner, more vicious and quite a lot bloodier. The book opens inside the mind of an unnamed fighter in a foreign land listing off the number ailments he has gotten from fighting, from the scars on his body to the missing teeth. We will find out which of the two main characters this is by the end. After such a graphic prologue we are introduced to our first main character Paul Harris. The son of rich parents who own a winery in Canada, Paul is shocked out of his comfortable life after a slight from a stranger causes him to get beat up. He begins to question himself, his worth and his importance in life, and this leads down a dark path that involves bodybuilding, steroid abuse and eventually an illegal boxing club across the border known as the Barn. Meanwhile, the young, fresh faced Rob Tully, the pride of his small town, whose boxing skills are seen by his father Reuben as a way out of their poverty-stricken existence, struggles with his place in the world and the limited options for the future. Soon, these two warriors will cross paths in the most aggressive and brutal ways possible. Davidson seems to relish the ways in which he accurately and graphically describes what happens to the human body, whether that is the ways the skin on your ass can harden when you inject steroids or the painful procedure Paul gets so his nose won’t bleed. But even with the violence, I was moved by the somber tone throughout, mostly from Rob’s uncle, the washed up boxer Tommy and Paul’s helpless parents, who watch his transformation with horror and more than a little regret. There are so many memorable scenes, some of which come in the form of out of left field hallucinations, but I won’t spoil them here. This is a heart stopping, plasma soaked account of manhood gone berserk. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it is for anyone looking for great fiction.

Rating: 5/5