Sunday, December 17, 2017

Review: "The Tragedy of Brady Sims" by Ernest J. Gaines

The Tragedy of Brady Sims, the new novel from well-known writer Ernest J. Gaines was a late edition to my lineup this year, so I did not expect to have my world moved when I finally picked it up and read it. It turns out I was right. While it is not a bad book (there are very few out there, or maybe my radar is just that good), it feels like a minor work, something that shouldn’t be seen to represent the author’s output. Gaines is most well known for his bestseller A Lesson Before Dying, which I don’t know much about besides it was adapted into a TV movie by Oprah. And this slim 114-page novel is his first published work of fiction since that book was put out in 1993, almost a quarter century ago. It was released this year to little fanfare, and after reading it I can see why. It begins with an intense scene of sudden violence, where a black man is coming out of a courthouse after being sentenced to death and is shot and killed by Brady Sims, a well known person in the town of Bayonne, which is where all of Gaines’ fiction takes place. The majority of the book takes place in a barbershop where the local population of elderly men reminisces about Sims, who was known to take extreme measure to keep local youth out of jail, and his strange relationship with Mapes, the local sheriff. I like the setup and it benefits from the book’s short length. It reminded me of Stephen King’s short story “It Grows on You”, where the remnants of a destroyed Castle Rock are seemingly stuck in a place out of time, who tell pointless stories to ignore the horrors around them. It is just too bad none of those stories are very interesting. The locals tell the stories as stories within the story, so they come off heavy handed, inauthentic and not very compelling. The book has a very good final few pages, but the bulk of this short novel never seems like anything very special.

Rating: 3/5

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Review: "All the Dirty Parts" by Daniel Handler

Despite it’s childish nature, even when it is describing things like oral sex and hardcore internet pornography, there is something about Daniel Handler’s slim 135 page novel All the dirty Parts that feels very real. It is a major improvement over his first novel and the only other book of Handler’s that I have read The Basic Eight. With the character of Cole, a young teen whose sexual appetite feels more like an infection than a natural outgrowth of puberty, Handler presents a person who is at times clueless of the consequences of his actions but also sympathetic because of how little the world around him has anything to offer. I was worried coming into this book knowing Handler’s politics, but this is not a treatise on sexual assault or an indictment of male sexuality (thank god), but it goes much deeper and asks important questions about where sexual attraction and love correlate and don’t and how to possibly find a balance between these two natural human feelings that more often than we want to admit lead us astray. This is a short book not just in length, but also in its structure, with scenes lasting from a few pages to a few sentences. It becomes tawdry at times, but not as much as I thought it would, especially during a section where something happens between him and Alec, which reveals Cole’s detachment from his world.  And once Cole meets Grisaille, whose implications are predictable, Cole’s armor and the full weight of his behavior comes back to hurt him in ways that are expected but still very sad. He reminded me a bit of Telly from Kids but not nearly as monstrous. It ends sadly in a whirlwind of confusing emotions, but one gets the sense that Cole has learned a valuable lesson. This is a book with a lot of heart and that is unexpectedly warm despite its coarse and sometime unappealing subject matter.

Rating: 4/5

Friday, December 15, 2017

Review: "Affections" By Rodrigo Hasbun

Reading Affections, the English language debut of Bolivian author Rodrigo Hasbun is one of those total joys you get when you go out of your way to read a writer who is either fresh or new or from a totally different area of the world (and in most cases, the book fits perfectly into both of those types of descriptions). It is a new book from an author unfamiliar to those in America and with a few blurbs from authors such as Jonathan Safran Foer, Andres Neuman and Adam Haslett to draw readers in; those who take the plunge with this new face in English fiction will be greatly rewarded. It is a brief plunge though, since the book is only 132 pages long, but I know time is precious to some, but this little book is totally worth it. It is easy to see why one of the blurbs on the back cover compared it favorably to Roberto Bolano. What it lacks in the size and scope of what I think are the two cornerstones of his legacy (The Savage Detectives and 2666), it did make me fondly recall his smaller works such as By Night in Chile and Distant Star (which this book is superior to). Like those, it crams a lot of drama, action and emotion into a tiny space that you can finish in a single day if you wanted too and feel like you have experienced a fully thought out story without any filler. The book tells the fictionalized story of Hans Ertl, who was the cameraman for Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. After the war, he and his family move to Bolivia, and Hans’s untethered spirit manifests itself in his hunt for the lost city of Paititi. And while the expedition to find that city is at the heart of this novel, it is really not the focus of the book’s events. Instead, what this book is more interested in are the stories of his three daughters and the different paths their lives take. Monika, the oldest that inherited her father’s reckless spirit, Heidi, whose romantic obsessions lead only to disappointment and Trixi, whose contentment hides a deep seeded loneliness and a rock lined path to regret and disappointment. Told in alternating chapters, which focus on different individuals in the story, including Reinhard, whose shares Monika’s thirst for social change but who is never able to reach her heart and Inti, a political prisoner whose section only becomes important as the book goes on, whose life is destined to be short and legendary, the novel tells a dark story about desires unmet or gone sour, the real reasons for why people join revolutions and those we sometimes have to hurt in order to obtain a sliver of happiness. I am struggling to find the heart of this book because so many memorable sections seem to hold within them deep truths about what the book is trying to say. This is a large hearted epic of a novel disguised as something small from a writer I hope to hear more from in the future.

Rating: 5/5

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Review: "Ultraluminous" by Katherine Faw

Some kinds of stories you just outgrow and don’t have the same effect on you at 29 that they did when you were 19, as is the case with Katherine Faw (Morris)’s second novel Ultraluminous. Her first novel, Young God, is a startling debut of immense power; written in short bursts detailing one young woman’s fight for survival in a brutal back country world is a quick read but leave a lasting impression. For her second novel, Faw takes quite a step down. While never boring, this novel about an unnamed girlfriend experience prostitute feels very immature and I don’t think a lot of work went into it. It shares a similar layout to her previous book, with an immense number of chapters, themselves broken up into seemingly unrelated and directionless scenes, but there is very little in the way of plot, and it is impossible to really care about anyone or anything described in the brief 196 pages of this novel. As I said, there really isn’t a linear plot. Over 52 chapters, we get a harsh glimpse into the world of a woman who trades in sex with rich men in Manhattan. They don’t have names and are described by what they do with, for and too her (Calf’s Brains Guy for his obsession for weird food, Art Dealer Guy, Junk Bonds Guy, Guy Who Buys Me Things, etc.). The one person she sleeps with is an ex-Army Ranger whose only different from her other clients due to his lack of wealth. This book reminded me a lot of Bret Easton Ellis’ Glamorama, from its setting, to the extreme and comical descriptions of sex acts and drug use, to what is eventually at the heart of what the unnamed prostitute wants. And like that book, it is engaging and dare I say fun, but as a work of art, it’s not something I think of that highly.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Review: "The City Always Wins" by Omar Robert Hamilton

There is a moment early on in Omar Robert Hamilton’s debut novel The City Always Wins that I think, quite possibly, be the hidden center of the story that is being told. In the one review I read for this after I found, it did not bring it up and talked about the book in a way that I thought kind of misrepresented what it was. Here it is: early on during one of the first riot scenes, amidst the threat of chaos, violence, torture and death, a man walks into the fray carrying gas masks which he intends to sell. He shouts about their availability as if they were bales of cotton candy being sold at a baseball game. It is a striking image that I think holds the key to the rest of what might be one of the most covert pieces of satire I have come across. In talking about the 2011 uprising that occurred in Egypt, Hamilton, whether he intended to or not, offers a brilliant critique of the revolutionary mindset that affected many of those involved in the events and, quite possibly, events around the world as well. I’m a bit worried to pontificate on these themes because I am not so sure they were intentional. If they weren’t then this book and this review are first for me, and I will try to talk about them coherently and offer my reasons for liking this book so much. At the center of this novel are two young people whose souls are aflame with rage and motivation. Khalil, an American born Muslim and the son to a wealthy father and Mariam, the daughter of an equally revolutionary minded doctor, run an underground network of artist, bloggers and podcasters called Chaos. They set up illegal radio and internet feeds where they show videos of the state’s violence and espouse their own revolutionary ideas. The book is very episodic, with riot sequences and quieter scenes taking place in beds, internet cafes and hidden meeting rooms almost being piled on top of one another. It is confusing but the book has an energy that makes up for it as well as some memorable sequences that are aesthetically pleasing. What is very apparent, especially after the scene I described earlier, is that the two central characters, as well as side characters, my favorite being the aspiring filmmaker Hafez, are painfully na├»ve, there drive and passion outweighing their thoughtfulness. It is an interesting trick (if it is a trick at all) that Hamilton pulls here in how separated these young people are from their actions and the world around them. It works in obvious ways, when one of the side characters admits to filming Mariam when she was close to death during a botched protest, to more subtle instances, such as the sections where the parents of those who died get spotlight in text that reads like newsprint. In these short sections you see the true cost of what Khalil and Miriam are fighting for, of which they remain blissfully unaware in their world of social media and an almost pornographic obsession with the idea of revolt, which leads to a sort of quiet, almost Kafkaesque ending showing the uselessness of it all. I really hope I am right about this book, because as I see it, this is a brutal look not only at the idea of fighting back against tyranny, but what happens when you lose your humanity in the process. 
Rating: 5/5

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Review: "Ghosts of the Tsunami" by Richard Lloyd Parry

Richard Lloyd Parry is like the Roberto Bolano of nonfiction, but swap out Chile with modern Japan and the fictional stories with ones that are painfully, scarily true. And while his new book, Ghosts of the Tsunami, lacks the cataclysmic gut punch of his previous book, People Who Eat Darkness, this catalog of victims of a natural disaster is just as haunting. Parry is really good at exposing how human folly and ignorance can lead effortlessly toward an unimaginable tragedy. He did that with the murder of Lucie Blackman in his previous book, and he does that here with the 2011 Tsunami in Japan, and more specifically one village that experienced loss that is well beyond comprehension. It begins with an account of Parry’s experience with the first minutes of the earthquake that caused the Tsunami. His relative safety contrasted with the devastation he will catalog throughout the rest of the books is glaring and obvious. The village in question is the Kamaya Village on the Sanriku coast of Japan. What happened there during the tsunami is the stuff of nightmares: one school, Okawa Elementary, due to circumstances that will always be a little murky, lost 74 students to the disaster. Parry, with grace and dignity, chronicles the aftermath of such an amazing loss of life as well as the trial that followed once a few pertinent details emerged about why there was such a loss of young life in this one school and no others. My one complaint with this book is that it is actually too short for the kind of story Parry is telling. You get glimpses of the horror experienced by the grieving families, such as that of Miho, whose loss rings harshest by book’s end, but I felt most of it was kept at arm’s length, while his previous book made me think the horror was in the next room. But still, this is a powerful and passionate account of a world upended and torn apart and the dignity a community somehow kept when they were trying to put it back together.

Rating: 4/5