Sunday, January 29, 2017

Review: "The Dismantling" by Brian DeLeeuw

The Dismantling, the sophomore novel from Brian DeLeeuw is a devilishly clever, ultimately somber neo noir that is a significant improvement on his first novel. I read that novel, In This Way I Was Saved, a few years ago, and was utterly disappointed. It failed at its attempt at a suburban gothic tale in the vein of Shirley Jackson and was ultimately a low rent version of Thomas Tryon’s The Other. Here, in this grounded yet propulsive tale of regret and menace, DeLeeuw seems more at home and easily guide’s the reader through a dreary landscape filled with waning souls and seemingly little to live for. It gets a little bogged down with the specifics of the story, which I will get to, and a rather tepid flashback sequence, but this book never loosens its stranglehold on the reader. Simon Worth, a shiftless medical school drop out lazily finds his way into the underground black market of organ brokerage to pay of his student debt. He has a sad past, and his most current job, getting a liver transplant for a washed-up pro football player, isn’t helping much. He secures a donor, a woman around his age Maria who flies in from California with a need for cash and a ton of secrets. The surgery goes off as planned, but after something dreadful happens, Simon finds himself with only Maria to trust as both of their sad tales have led seemingly to a duel confrontation with their conflicted souls. I won’t reveal what is haunting either of them, although Maria’s backstory is easily the most grisly, but it informs what happens between them and Simon’s paranoid boss quite well, with a poignant ending that is hopeful rather than dreary the medical jargon was lost on me, and the incident from Simon’s past is kind of cliché, this is a wicked thriller full of intrigue and surprise.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Review: "Brothers" by Yu Hua

There is just a little too much resemblances between this novel, Brothers by Chinese writer Yu Hua and the two longer books by 2010 Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan fro me to really get behind this book. It has the same strange plot, the same weird characters and the same sense of history that made the books Big Breasts and Wide Hips and Life and Death are Wearing Me Out such odd, unique pleasures, but here, in this novel, they can’t help but feel derivative, forced and more than a little lost in translation. This book, as well as those others, have a keen sense of history, but here, it is heavy handed in its execution, and might retroactively make me reconsider my thoughts on the three books of Mo Yan I have read, the other one being the kind of tepid in retrospect novel Frog. As the title suggest, it is about two brothers, related by the marriage of their parents, who each grow up during the rise and fall of China’s cultural revolution. There is Song Gang, the shy, introverted one who can’t quite gain the courage to chase his desires, but the real star of this novel is Baldy Li, who we first meet hiding out in outhouses hoping to sneak a peek at a girl’s butt. We learn that his father died in a similar fashion, and Baldy Li, named for his shaved head, seems destined to be guided and trapped by his aberrant sexual proclivities. The years go by and some really heinous, weird and funny things happen. Besides the two brothers and Lin Hong, a woman whom the two brothers fight over, seem real and three-dimensional. Hua seems hell-bent on creating a rigid narrative structure of victims and victimizers and it is hard to relate to anybody in this strange world, especially during the span of its 641 pages. It might be a cultural thing, but this this book offered a few laughs (wait till Wandering Zhou is introduced and you see what he is selling), enough for me to give it easy if slight praise.

Rating: 4/5

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Review: "Reputations" by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

Ever since I read The Sound of Things Falling almost four year ago, everything that Columbian author Juan Gabriel Vasquez has been of the upmost interest to me. That book, its dark brilliance and dreamlike tragedy are only equaled, in my humble opinion by Roberto Bolano’s 2666, and while that book is almost 900 pages, Vasquez brushed that kind of greatness with less than 300. So I’m a bit disappointed that none of his novels have been as good as that one, including this one (although this comes as close to that level of greatness more than his other two novels, The Informers and The Secret History of Costaguna). I was impressed last year by his short story collection, Lover’s on All Saint’s Day, a slim collection of sad and somber stories I have come to expect from this Vasquez, and was eager to read this one, Reputations. It is the shortest of his novels, clocking in at only 187 pages, but they are filled to the brim with revelations, regret and sadness. It opens with Javier Mallarino getting his shoes shined on the eve of receiving quite a high honor for his vocation of a newspaper cartoonist. It is a startling scene of faded notoriety and reflection, but it is also the weakest of the sections, having very little influence on the latter two. During the ceremony, a woman posing as a journalist manipulates her way into his house and reveals herself as someone from Javier’s past: a forgotten, buried memory that terrifies him. What is revealed is convoluted but believable, and while you may find Javier morally responsible for what actually happens, his musings and guilt seem overdramatic to me. Really a mediation on futility and the downsides of influence, this novel keeps my fascination for one of Latin America’s best exports alive and kicking.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Review: "Grief is the Thing with Feathers" by Max Porter

Short, charming and harmless, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, the debut novel from English writer Max Porter, is short enough to finish in a day, but also quite intoxicating and deeply moving. Not so much a novel as a prose poem or even a stage play, this book reminded me a lot of what Mark Z. Danielewski is doing right now with books like Only Revolutions and The Fifty Year Sword, only here it is much easier to swallow and is also quite good, even funny at times. While it’s scattershot style and stream of consciousness narration tended to keep a lot of the emotional impact of what is a very dramatic story at arm’s length at least for me, it has enough intrigue packed within its short, oddly laid out pages to make the short trip worthwhile. At the beginning of the book, a man and his two sons are reeling from the sudden death of their mother. When the man answers the door, thinking it might be another unwanted mourner or past friend of his wife, a crow greets him.  The crow’s size is never made clear, but he is strong and knocks the man out, claiming that he will not leave the house until they work things out. Soon, the man begins work on his Ted Hughes biography, and the two boys slowly climb out of the bubble of make believe and accept the world around him. The crow is an interesting character, the most interesting since Murakami’s giant frog. He is a passive observer of things, fascinated by human grief. We learn of some past events of the trio’s life, such as the dad’s embarrassing meeting with the subject of his biography and the boy’s trepidation toward those their dad dates after their mom’s death. Not a slam-dunk by any means, this short novel wastes little of your time and is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

Rating: 4/5

Review: "The Circle" by Dave Eggers

In the new, 20th Anniversary edition of David Foster Wallace, there is a new introduction with a quote that I could not stop thinking about while reading Dave Eggers’ brilliant and terrifying novel The Circle. In describing the book’s somewhat prophetic view on technology, the author describes the internet as something that can both bring people together yet make us more distant, and it does this in equal measure and simultaneously. That idea is pushed to its nightmarish breaking point in this devilishly clever novel which wears its association with books like Huxley’s Brave New World and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We(1984 is an obvious choice, but I have not read that book yet) with pride. While Eggers seems to have an enviable ability to write with any many genres, this book being different from novels like A Hologram for a King and last year’s Heroes of the Frontier, certain themes and ideas find their way into all of his stories, and one that I see strongly in this book and his others is the sense of loneliness that develops out of displacement, whether you are brokering a deal across the world, running from your former life in Alaska or even staging a kidnapping in an abandon army barracks, Eggers’ characters find themselves in strange worlds with even stranger feeling and almost all the time in a modern landscape that filled with both wonder and devastating dangers. In this book, that danger is one that can be found without the benefit of an airplane or mobile home, but one whose roots can be found in your pocket at this very moment. Mae Holland, the protagonist of the story, is more than thrilled to land a job with The Circle, a technology company with its hands in every kind of field imaginable and wanting to expand even more. She is bolstered by her friend Annie; a former dorm mate of Mae’s who got her the job. She quickly climbs up the social hierarchy of the company, whose dreamlike exterior masks more sinister intentions. The book is filled with many striking scenes, which Egger’s renders with deadpan wit and disturbing accuracy as Mae becomes more entrenched in The Circle’s all-encompassing world of zings, ratings and extravagant on site parties. There is some levity in the form of Mae’s home life, with her Mom and Dad, who happens to be suffering from MS and Mercer, her ex-boyfriend, who sees the horrid implications of Mae’s headlong dive into technological and ultimately ubiquitous transparency. I was impressed by the lecture/demonstration scenes, of which there are many. Most of the time they are guide by Eamon Bailey, one of the three founders of The Circle, whose gentle demeanor does little to hide what he really envisions The Circle is capable of, but one frightening scene near the end, where Mae herself demonstrates, without a hint of irony, a new invasive technology that promise to end crime. It is easy to see the horror in the scene, and the dreaded sadness at what eventually happens, but how Egger’s describes things, or sells them to the audience and us the reader, it is hard to argue with the character’s logic. Meditative, somber and exciting, with a rather bleak ending, this book is another high point for one of modern America’s literary titans. 
Review: 5/5

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Review: "The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake"

The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake act not only as a slim collection of short stories but also as a biography of a writer whose life ended long before he could realize his true potential. Lauded by writers such as Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut and Chuck Palahniuk, Pancake, a native of West Virginia, only published a handful of short stories in his lifetime, mostly with The Atlantic and all of which are collected here, before killing himself in 1979 at the age of 26. The sadness behind his death, and which imbued his life (as you will tell from the introduction and two afterwords) shine through in somber, dreamlike stories of his native state, some of which overstay their welcome after 10 or so pages but a few, especially the shorter ones, cling to the readers mind long after reading them, helped by delicate prose and breathtaking metaphor. I won’t get into all of the stories here, but I will talk about a few that I liked and a few that I did not like so much. The first story in this collection, titles “Trilobites” reminded me a lot of the work of Donald Ray Pollock, especially the title story of his first collection Knockemstiff. In both, we meet a narrator who has recently lost both the love of his life and hope for the future, and the narrator here meets said realization with profound clarity. Pancake is not a flashy writer, he lies somewhere between Hemingway and Carver, and sometimes comes off as a knock off of one or the other, like in the story “In the Dry”, but his shorter works, most notably “Time and Again” a loose metaphor for one man’s meeting with death, you can hear faint echoes of something that never came to fruition. These are stories that rub shoulders with greatness, as evidence by Andre Dubus III’s somewhat gushing afterword, and they are worth your time to seek out.

Rating: 4/5