Friday, March 31, 2017

Review: "Open City" by Teju Cole

Open City, the debut novel from the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole is the perfect kind of debut novel, something that can share ample shelf space with Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, Tea Obreht and Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds. It mixes a fiercely original voice with classic literary techniques to make something new, fresh and instantly memorable, which is great, because this novel, and its wandering narrator, seem to be obsessed with memory. Sadly, I also see this book as a sort of one and done, and would not be surprised if Cole can never reach the pinnacle that this book so gracefully and effortlessly reached, very similar to how I feel about Powers’ novel (also a book that won the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction), with both finding avenues outside the medium they are more at home with, with Powers’ being a poet and a Cole being a skilled essayist and photographer. It is sad, but we will always have a book like this that turns one’s man shiftless odyssey from one side of New York City to the other into a pastiche of random facts, close encounters and buried grief. I was reminded of quite w few other writers while reading through this book, mostly from Latin America, with echoes of Bolano, Vasquez and Guillermo Rosales at points, and its’ structure has the same hypnotic grace and confidence of something like Javier Marias’ All Souls. A very loose novel, with no driving plot, it is made up of a series of vignettes, all experienced from the perspective of Julius, a Nigerian born doctor slowly making his way through a medical residency. He has a girlfriend who lives in San Francisco and a disparate number of friends, one of which is never named. The walks he takes and the items of trivia he rattles off with a scholar’s knowledge and a nihilistic indifference characterize his isolation and displacement among what seems to be the entirety the NYC population. Speaking of nihilism, the back cover compares this book to Albert Camus’ The Stranger. I don’t see that connection, since this book is much more interesting than that book, and a lot less grim and full of more life. The real treats here are in his interactions, all of which Julius seems to be disconnected from. From the relationship with the elderly Japanese English professor who was interned in a camp during World War II, to a fellow doctor whose journey into the underbelly of history leads to tragic results, and the most shocking revelation of the novel. This book requires a lot of focus, but you will be rewarded for it in the many odd coincidences you will find throughout Julius travels, from the recurrence of bedbugs among three different characters, and two visits to church, one in Belgium where Julius is vacationing and one back in New York following the book’s most violent scene, and the many concerts and art galleries he goes to, with the last one bringing with it what I feel is the book’s most indelible image. It’s easy to see that he is running from something, and the many historical details he indulges us with are his way of looking back to avoid the present. This is an intensely engaging and brilliantly structured novel from a talent I want to see more from, even if it is not in the form of fiction.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Review: "The Diviners" by Rick Moody

It is fitting that just a few weeks ago that I read easily one of the best books I have read in a few years that I read its doppelganger: easily the worst book I’ve read in a similar amount of time. Not once in the 567 of Rick Moody’s The Diviners is there a good sentence or a good idea presented. And not only are the ideas not good, they are unoriginal. I was reminded of the article written almost ten years ago by Dale Peck about rick Moody, where he called him the worst writer of his generation. While I think any title like that is overstated and a victim of it own hyperbole, it does have its basis in fact, and I sympathize with his statement even more so after reading such a book as this, one that has nothing good in it at all, which itself is an accomplishment, albeit an unwarranted one. The book has easily the worst opening scene I have read in a book, at least that I can remember, where Moody goes across the world when the sun is just rising, describing in tepid and tedious detail the lives of people we will not interact with. From there, we are thrust into a derivative story of the entertainment industry and how it whittles down and destroys anything good that enters its hemisphere. From the cabbie with the story idea, to the horn dog lead actor, no one can escape the dull spoon skill of Moody as he strips them of any good literary qualities, leaving any reader constantly reminded of better books that are more interesting and enlightening (such as Infinite Jest and even Gaddis’ The Recognitions) and begging for it to be over. Skip this, avoid it at all costs, there are better books you can spend time with. A book that invariably taints further Moody books, the only good thing about this is that it ended eventually.

Rating: 1/5

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Review: "Problems" by Jade Sharma

Problems, the debut novel from author Jade Sharma, is an ugly book, but I think it was meant to be that way. It reads like Bukowski filtered through Chad Kultgan but through the lens of a female living in New York City. It is filled with graphic sex that is heartlessly described that becomes titillating at pints, sad most of the time, and eventually, as it is with any book like this, tedious and rather uninteresting. It has a confidence that I like when it comes to first works of fiction, but I don’t think it is of the well-earned variety: it’s perspective is unique, but I have seen this type of song and dance before, and the last time I really enjoyed it I was a fresh 20 year old. But still, there is a certain car crash quality to this kind of work, and some of the dialogue, which this book has a lot of, really shines. It focuses on Maya, an Indian woman in her late twenties or early thirties, juggling more than a few vices. She has a heroin addiction, a coke habit and when she is not cheating on her husband with men she meets online, she is carrying on an affair with one of her professors thirties years older than she is. The book begins here, and it is about when what she calls a life comes crashing down in front of her. Like I said, the sex scenes, which come off tawdry and not somber, which I think was Sharma’s intention, become a chore to read and offer nothing new. But watching Maya sabotage her personal relationships, like the quasi-predatory one she has with her professor and a rather uncomfortable Thanksgiving she has with her husband’s family, a prelude to her desertion is where this book’s black heart beats the loudest and fastest. A book that can sometimes suffer from its unwillingness to beautify anything somehow walks away with an inkling of charm to take away from it.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Review: "The Laughing Monsters" by Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson, much like Don DeLillo, is a writer I come back to even though they have not produced anything that I would call a masterpiece. I enjoy his books quite bit: they are stylistically rich and have enough bravado to make certain aspects funny, but not enough to be unforgivably annoying. He sort of exists on the outskirts of literature, or did until the mammoth Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award, and has always been a little underrated (although I tend to discount authors of this description  once they win one of the big four of American literary awards). He has produced some good work, with his first novel Angles, easily being his best and least talked about work, and all the others are passable. But his most recent effort, The Laughing Monsters, just by default, has got to be his worst. It concerns two men who are over the hill in experience even though they are a few years off in age. Roland Nair, a man who drifts in and out of secretive government operations, finds himself in the country of Sierra Leone to meet up with his friend, the mysterious and unhinged Michael Adriko. Michael, with a new fiancĂ©, indulges the whims of Roland, whose reasons for coming back to a country that made him money are left vague. A trip to Uganda to meet Michael’s tribe leads all three into the wilderness and to a tribe that is eating itself alive. Like most of Johnson’s stories, it is filled with a sort of tough guy/hipster grit, which works in some instances, such as Angels, but for here, it seems tawdry and even, for the most part boring, with the second half, which was supposed to be more interesting, doesn’t live up to the introductions. I will still read more of Denis Johnson, going backward instead of forward in his bibliography, but this is far from his best, which, coming from me, isn’t saying much.
Rating: 3/5

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review: "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" by Iain Reid

Some books simply strike a chord with you. You can’t help it. Even if it’s a terribly flawed work, you can’t help but see a little bit of yourself in it. Thankfully, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the deliciously and infectiously creepy debut novel from Iain Reid, is not one of those works. It affected me rather deeply, in a way that makes me feel more than a bit changed, and yes, even a bit scared too, but it did such a thing to me in the guise of an expertly routed thriller that grabs you by the throat and quietly whispers nasty things into your ear. On the front flap, it compares it to two recent novels that bridge the gap between the literary and thriller genre: Michel Faber’s Under the Skin and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. While those are two of my favorite books, each with its own nasty surprises, I didn’t think too much about them over the two sittings I spent with this book. What really came to mind, especially since this author seems to where its horror genre roots proudly on its sleeve, were the novels of English horror author Ramsey Campbell and a handful of Harlan Ellison short stories; quiet horror stories with dread that covertly infects the reader until the final, heart-stopping twist. This is one of the best horror novels I have read in such a long time, one that doesn’t have a drop of blood (actually, just one), and relies heavily on mood, atmosphere and an ever increasing nightmarish reality. It is going to be hard to review such a book without spoiling anything, because the deeper this book gets, the clearer its intentions are, but I will try my best. It starts on a dark country road on an impossibly dark night. Our unnamed female narrator is in a car being driven by her boyfriend Jake. They are on their way to meet Jake’s parents for the first time. Off in the distance, she sees an abandoned farmhouse with what seems like a brand new swing set out in front. She asks about this but Jake deflects her questions. From this, we know something is not right, and we know whatever is going on is disturbing and uncomfortable, but what I wasn’t prepared for was how sad it was going to be. We learn a little about our unnamed narrator, we learn she intends to dump Jake soon, we learn she met him at a trivia night at a pub and we learns she has a past of her own, and a story she tells of waking up as a young kid to find a man standing at her window is chilling rendered. The story goes deeper and deeper, until someone finds themselves locked in an old labyrinthine school, where this book’s dark and somber heart is laid bare. This book was a timely read for me, as it put me face to face with some problems of my own, the areas where I need to grow but seem destined to be stuck in. While I won’t go as far as to say it exorcised me, I did find a perverse comfort and sense of self-reflection in its final pages. Even if this boom doesn’t do that for, it is a brilliant and impressively laid out thriller with teeth and a surprising and astounding emotional impact.

Rating: 5/5

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Review: "A Clue to the Exit" by Edward St. Aubyn

I have said many times before that Edward St. Aubyn is my favorite English writer, and the best, in my opinion. No one even comes close: Barnes and Amis bore me to tears, and Ian McEwan, if his latest novel Nutshell is any indication, can’t seem to write an interesting or decent book. I find a lot in Aubyn and his most famous creation, The Patrick Melrose Novels. Over the course of five novels, we see the character of Patrick become a victim and a victimizer, sober and clean, vengeful and vindictive and quietly forgiving. They are a cherished work of art that should be sought out by any bibliophile worth their weight in paper and ink. His novels outside of them aren’t nearly as good though, with Lost for Words, his most recent one, being a fun read, and the less said about On the Edge the better. And this one, which is perplexing but very fascinating, might be the best one outside the Melrose cycle of novels. It begins as Charlie, a successful screenwriter and borderline libertine, is diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and given six months to live. He decides to use that time to writer a novel about death and consciousness while coming in contact with a woman named Angelique, whose gambling problem and appetite for destruction matches Charlie’s. The book is a deadpan fiesta, filled with brutal barbs and quips that only Aubyn could dish out. It doesn’t matter if it all makes sense, or if the book he is writing is a piece of crap (most other character’s reactions indicate that it is), this weird, 185 page journey through one man’s last days is filled with bizarre character’s like the Maestro and his boring films, and a truly confounding ending. This is Aubyn having a little fun outside of the harrowing Melrose world, and because of that, the reader is having fun too.

Rating: 4/5