Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Review: "Mrs. Fletcher" by Tom Perrotta

It has been a few years since Tom Perrotta has put out a novel, and like all good writers, absences makes the heart grow fonder and his new novel, Mrs. Fletcher can fit comfortably next to his best books, like The Abstinence Teacher and Little Children. Perrotta has long been the master of suburban malaise. His characters are instantly recognizable, as there hidden desires and unmet potential. Like most people in the real world, they float, sometimes with ease and sometimes without. And the determining factor for their ejection from their homeostasis is always interesting and compelling in the hands of someone like Perrotta, who renders his characters with heaps of staggering empathy that make even their most mundane accomplishments glow majestically. Another really cool aspect of his novels and his short stories are how well they are tied to the events of today and how they reflect a current social conflict. I am not aware of his politics, but I am glad a book like this, which mirrors the world around probably better than any of his previous novels, takes time with both sets of ideas and the people who hold them, creating multi-dimensional characters with clear and understandable motives. It makes for a story that lacks easy answers and identifiable villains, but also one that is complex and hopelessly fun to read. While the novel shifts focus quite a few times during the book’s 307 pages, but the main focus is on Eve Fletcher, the Mrs. of the title. Recently divorced and dreading the thought of an empty house once her son Brendan leaves for college, Eve finds herself drawn to pornography after and anonymous text she received described her as a MILF. She navigates the lonely world she finds herself in with the help of Amanda; a co-worker of hers at the Senior Center Eve manages. Amanda is much younger than her, has tattoos and carries with her a different set of regrets. Meanwhile, at college (and written in first instead of third person), we get a POV of Brendan’s first year at college as he tries to grow from jock adolescent into thoughtful adult and the mess he makes for himself as it pertains to campus sexual politics. While I won’t get too much into it here, Perrotta’s rendering of this is rather spot on and brave, presenting a person who would fit easily into the “victim” category and shining a light on some of their not so savory qualities. It might be my own biases seeping into this review, but I found it refreshing. Both what is going on at home and at college reflect other Perrotta books, with the college scenes improving on Perrotta’s third novel Joe College and a scene near the end echoing a scene from Election with the genders swapped. Add to that one of the most respectful depictions of a transgender character I have come across, a farfetched but funny climatic sex scene and a well-earned sweet ending, this is another knockout from one of America’s most humane and popular writers. 
Rating: 5/5

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Review: "The Impossible Fairy Tale" by Han Yujoo

The Impossible Fairy Tale, the English language debut and first novel from South Korean writer Han Yujoo is, for both good reasons and bad reasons, one of the most confusing books I have come across in quite some time. It is a style that at first hypnotizes you, then frustrates you and finally, clubs you into submission. It is a very hard novel to pin down theme wise, but it’s unsolvable mysteries are entertaining and engaging in and of themselves: some readers will get lost in them and never find their way out, others will scoff at them and won’t make it past page 100 in this 211 page book. It is no surprise that Yujoo is mainly known in her home country as a short story writer. This strange, detached style she has no doubt mastered works better over the course of a few pages, or 20 or 30 at the most. In novel form, it is a long strange journey that some will finish successfully, but not all, and even those who do will have little understanding of what they just bared witness to. I will try my best to summarize and offer my opinion on such a strange book. Without trying to spoil anything, it is obvious early on that things might not be as real as they seem. The sentences are almost declarative, which reminded me of David Peace’s Red or Dead. Ideas, such as fancy colored pencils, school journals, kittens, puppies and bricks, take on more importance than they should, even something of a sinister quality. And when the book switches gears a little over halfway through, it’s motives become apparent, but we are never any closer to the heart of this book. Is it about the social privileges of those who are popular and those who are not? Is it about the perils of turning life into art? Or is it about a person’s need to fix a past mistake through fiction? There is a lot to chew on in this book, some savory and others a little bland, but it is a very filling read for something so short.

Rating: 4/5

Friday, August 11, 2017

Review: "Little Star" by John Ajvide Linqvist

It has been awhile since I have thought about the sad and scary worlds crafted by Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist, let alone picked up one of his books to read. In that time, I had forgotten how powerful his stories are, and, among the wider public since Let the Right One In has come and gone, I am not alone in this sentiment. That is a shame, because through four novels and a collection of short stories (which I must admit I have not read), he has crafted a world filled with equal amounts of dread and melancholy, with horror arising from sadness and disappointment and not some long hidden ancient evil or something otherworldly. The monsters in his books, whether they are vampires, the undead, or in the case of Little Star, his longest book which I just finished today, werewolves, are products of pain and loneliness, and the horror and violence they inflict stems from this very human feeling, making his stories very emotionally impactful while also being scary. But in the end this novel and those that he published before it, are somber tales of the dispossessed, those who struggle to find a place in the world, a place that might not exist unless, sadly, blood is spilt. This is not only his longest book, but also quite possibly his darkest, with the downbeat mood being applicable to something like Stephen King’s Pet Semetary. It begins in a quasi-cemetery setting, where Lennart, an ageing failed musician, stumbles upon an abandoned baby in the woods while out hunting for mushrooms. He takes the baby back to his house where Laila, his crippled life, ekes out an existence with her husband. But this is not an ordinary foundling. This baby seems almost sentient, aware of her surroundings, and its malevolence is immediately made clear to the reader, but both Lennart and Laila are too deep under its spell. While I use the word werewolf, a term that is not used in the book but implied in a deeply metaphorical sense later one near the end of the book, I couldn’t help but think of the 2014 Dutch film Borgman, where an obviously evil figure holds sway over a group of easily enticed people. Here, the baby, whom they name Theres, takes a liking to music and sings pop hits like “Nothing Compares to You”. The years go by, and after a shocking scene of violence, the couple’s son Jerry whisks her away, only for her talents to be discovered on a Swedish version of American Idol, where another girl named Teresa sees her and finds a disturbing purpose to her disappointing life. The plot can be silly sometimes and the violent scenes, all involving disquieting use of hammers come out of nowhere, but this is a story that builds toward the central characters’ dark destinies, which are hinted at right from the beginning. I was oddly moved by this story, much like I was by Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things: it is a dark story, but one with a beating black heart and awareness of the cruelty and beauty of the world. I hope more translations from this Swedish master of horror find themselves across the pond.  It would be much appreciated.

Rating: 5/5

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Review: "The Answers" by Catherine Lacey

The most striking thing about Catherine Lacey’s sophomore novel The Answers is its prose style. In lieu of using ellipses, she denotes the dialogue with italics. While it may seem like a minor switch, one that lets the books aesthetics stand out a bit more, I also feel it gives the book a dreamlike quality: we never really know what is being said, what people wished they had said and what other people are saying filtered through someone else’s psyche. It makes for a strange read. But that is also something that harms the book slightly. This is a not a novel with very strong characterization. I never felt for those at the center of this novel, whether that is Mary, Kurt or Matheson. They are ciphers for themes that by the end I am still a little confused about and wish were presented with a bit more stylistic clarity. The book centers around Mary Parson, who is in a situation we can all relate to: she is broke and in constant physical pain, of which is never made clear what really hurts, but it manifests itself in her back. She discovers a treatment known as PAKing, which is again vaguely described and might have something to do with chiropractic medicine. These cost a lot, and she is forced to take a second job. This job has her becoming part of a social experiment/art piece created by famous actor Kurt Sky. She must be his emotional girlfriend, the terms of which are among the best parts of the book. As I said, I struggled to find what the book was really about: was it about a woman’s journey toward independence? Or was it about the hardships of forming romantic bonds in a society that rewards self-serving behavior? It is never made clear and by the strange ending, it still baffles me. But for some reason I kind of enjoyed this book. It has a charm about it that made me quite curious about its mysteries.

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Review: "The One-Eyed Man" by Ron Currie

After giving it some thought, I can’t think of a living writer who so effortlessly and covertly blends together sadness and humor like Ron Currie. Like an easier to swallow David Foster Wallace, he presents people, men most of the time, who find themselves ousted from a world that they either don’t understand or doesn’t understand them. They struggle to find a place in the world and get their voices heard; usually losing friends, lovers and pints of blood in the process and Currie documents this with a humorous yet un-ironic emphatic streak that make his stories very funny and very moving. His most recent novel, The One-Eyed Man, sort of completes a little bit of trilogy on the process of grieving, another human emotion that he seems to have mastered in novel form. His first novel, Everything Matters, dealt specifically with the end of the world, his second novel, Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles, where Currie, casting himself as the main character and fakes his own death, had sections dedicated to his dying father and in this novel, about a pathological know it all who might have a death wish has the death of the protagonist’s wife as a driving force behind the novel’s ever escalating action (I see a pattern of the grief forming at more and more intimate places, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Currie’s next book has the author staring down his own death). It is typical for a book like this to have a strange opening, and it does, since a broken crosswalk sign triggers all of the book’s main action. As K, our narrator, waits for the sign to go that will never come, he witnesses a robbery in progress of the coffee shop he has just exited. He knocks on the window and the perp, instead of shooting the scared barista, he shoots K instead. We soon find out the kind of person K is through what brought him to that coffee house in the first place. After the death of his wife from a long bout with breast cancer, he becomes obsessed with finding meaning in life, to the point where the label on a bottle of hand soap and bumper sticker on the car of a xenophobe will lead to hostility and violence. This habit of his is made public as he accepts an award for bravery, and through that, him and Claire, a disillusioned woman 10 years younger than him, become reality TV stars in a world that is increasingly hostile to their ideas being question, one that is out of whack and terrifyingly real. K is hard character to like, but next to someone like his producer Theodore, he is the voice of reason this odd world deserves. The book moves along smoothly, getting more aggressive and scary, and when the book’s main characters find themselves in a hale of apocalyptic gunfire, it makes sense and feels appropriate, as does the somber ending, which lets us know that sometimes, we have to rely on hope to get through life. This is powerful stuff disguised as screwball antics and bouts of shocking violence, and few do it better than Ron Currie.

Rating: 5/5

Monday, July 31, 2017

Review: "Ties" by Domenico Starnone

Ties, a simple title for a simple novel by Italian writer Domenico Starnone (translated by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri), might be one of my favorite books on a crumbling marriage, or at least my favorite one for quite some time. And like its title, its quality lies in its simplicity. At 150 pages (the first 25 of which are dedicated to a worthwhile introduction from Lahiri), there is not an ounce of fat on this slim novel, making for an engaging look into the lives of a married couple whose lives began to crumble after the man is led astray by a younger woman. What I feel sets this part from other novels and what stops this from becoming shallow melodrama is the way the incident and what comes after it is presented and what this implies about the lives of the man and the woman and their two children, a son and a daughter. It offers a very unique perspective on infidelity, one that puts the discretion in question in the context of the time period (the book is set in the present day, but the actions in question took place in the mid-1970’s) as well as the context of each of their personal happiness. The slim book is separated into three sections. The first section, which is only about 15 pages long, is a series of letters Vanda is writing to her husband Aldo. It is made pretty clear within the first letter what Vanda is so angry about: Aldo has left her and their two kids, Sandro and Anna to go live with a younger woman, Lidia, who happens to be his student. While I find this section to be the weakest of the three, it acts as a strong opening as Vanda describes how her life fell apart after Aldo left her, leading her to try to end her life. The next section and the books longest is split up into three chapters. The first chapter takes place in the present day, where Aldo and Vanda, now in their seventies, come home from a vacation to find their house ransacked their cat, Labes, missing. Late at night he goes into his study and finds the letters from the beginning. We see the rather mundane circumstances that led to his affair and, more importantly, the mundane but deeply metaphorical reason he came back into their lives in the second chapter. The third chapter leaves us in a state of terrifying ambiguity, as Aldo, now a man easily duped, lets into his house what may or may not be people with ill intentions. The last section lays out cynically the ill effects Aldo and Vanda’s relationship has on others and as well as what happened to their house and cat. None of the actions of the people here are presented with passion: they are boring people who are trying to gain any type of happiness they can, and the book details eloquently how those plans fail and for better or worse, they are tied to people they need but might not like. For a short novel, this packs a wallop that you won’t soon heal from. 
Rating: 5/5

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Review: "The Dinner Party" by Joshua Ferris

There are writers who are downright master of the short form almost exclusively, the obvious names that come to mind being Raymond Carver and George Saunders who made their name just from their short stories and there are masters of both short and long form storytelling, like Haruki Murakami and Joe hill to name a just two. Joshua Ferris fits too comfortably into a third category of a writer who’s only a master of novels, because his first collection of short stories, The Dinner Party, is dramatically uneven, with some stories working magnificently and some making me want to hold my nose. It doesn’t help that all of the 11 stories here are over 20 pages. It makes the stories that don’t work drag on, repeating techniques that fail to engage the reader and making me feel relieved once I had finished them. I’ll start out with the good ones, such as the title story that opens this collection. It follows a couple whose conversational daggers, while playful superficially hide an underlying malice. They are preparing for a dinner party with some old friends. It is obvious they have grown apart when they don’t arrive on time, and when the man ventures out to the friends house, he is met by brutal reality check. With stories like these and The Valetudinarian, where an elderly man celebrates a birthday only to have his life saved by a prostitute his friend orders, Ferris is able to demonstrate our tenuous connections to one another in shorter forms. But then you have stories like “Fragments” and “The Stepchild” which switch up perspectives and feel like shallow literary stunts. The collection ends strongly with “A Fair Price” a story about a man unable to talk with the person helping him move that is rich in ambiguity and sadness. Not a terrible collection, but after three homerun novels, this is easily the most tepid thing Ferris has put out.

Rating: 4/5