Sunday, April 30, 2017

Review: "Empire Falls" by Richard Russo

I’ve circled it for the past few years, but now I have finally read Richard Russo’s most famous and most acclaimed novel Empire Falls, and I can say that it is truly his best work: a culmination of his tried and true themes, his narrative ability and the grand yet quaint empathy he has for his characters, especially the misfits. Russo just might be the best writer living today at conveying the lives of small town American folks, people who just barely get by on dreams for the future of simply what little they have. They tend to fight, be in dire straits financially yet always seem to live their lives with dignity grace and more than a little humor, both highbrow and lowbrow. From books like Mohawk to his Two Fool novels, Nobody’s Fool and Everybody’s Fool, Russo is a master at these kinds of stories, that are warm without being cloying, sweet without being saccharine, deep in pathos, disappointment and aggression but always in ways that are recognizable and undeniably human. Those themes are on full display here in the fictional Maine town of Empire Falls, where everyone knows everyone, but the town’s foundations seems built on an intricately balanced collection of secrets and half-truths. Someone who seems to be the most burdened by the town’s framework is Miles Roby; the head cook at the Empire Grill. A man of great self-sacrifice but not a lot of self-awareness, at the beginning of the novel he is going through a painless yet exhausting divorce from his wife Janine, he has a shaky relationship with his daughter Tick and he is constantly under the thumb from the covertly cruel Francine Whiting, who seems to own every valuable piece of everything in Empire Falls. Russo is an expert at deepening the complexity of his narratives by having the perspective switch constantly, so the town and the people in it becoming integral to each other and to the story. There is Walt Comeau, the man Janine is leaving miles for; an ageing meathead who owns a fitness center in town and gives Janine orgasms that Miles could not. There is Miles brother David, a recovering addict with more wisdom and insight than Miles could ever have and Miles’ dad Max, a surly old leech with a heart of gold. There is Jimmy Minty, the power hungry cop with an axe to grind with Miles and a rock-lined path to the position of chief of police, who becomes more pivotal and more scary as the book moves toward a climax that was surprising for someone like Russo but pulled off in brilliant fashion that was never tawdry or exploitative. There is a certain comfort that comes with reading a Russo book, even one that is not very good. It washes over you as you slowly move towards an end that is always well crafted and eye opening. You know you are in the gentle hands of someone who knows what they are doing better than anyone else, and nowhere in his oeuvre is that more apparent than in this book.

Rating: 5/5

Friday, April 28, 2017

Review: "The Bricks That Built the Houses" by Kate Tempest

The Bricks That Built the Houses, the debut novel from British poet and rap artist Kate Tempest is nothing short of a deeply human prose pome that tries it’s hardest to encompass the feelings and thoughts of every character on the page. It is a book without heroes or villains, good people or bad people or victims and victimizers. It tries and succeeds (most of the time) in crafting this multi-layered narrative of two people who find in each other a chance at happiness and fulfilling their dreams, all in one go, if only they were brave enough. But besides that, Tempest also is willing to go into the minds of side characters and explain their complex histories that are at times even more fascinating than the story in the present world. There is a plot development way late in the story that I don’t think works as well as it would in a pure thriller, but that doesn’t take away from the intense feelings you have for everyone you come across in this book, and feel equal amounts of adulation and sadness when they’re plans succeed or fail. The focus of this book is on the lives and dreams of two women, who, as the book opens up, are in a speeding car driven by Leon with a bag full of stolen drug money. After that, we meet Becky, the consummate dreamer. She works as an underpaid PA on music videos she really should be choreographing, deals with talentless, prima donna directors and wonders constantly why, if she graduated at the head of her dance class, she is still struggling for any kind of recognition at this stage in her life. Harriet, or Harry to her friends, is a high level drug dealer who tends to only deal with rich clients. At a party, she meets Becky. While the word is not mentioned at any time in the book, Harry has been a lesbian all her life, and she falls immediately in love with Becky, whose feelings for her take a little more time to blossom. They’re paths intersect in coincidental ways: Becky starts dating Harry’s sad sack brother Pete without knowing he is related to Harry, and Harry’s drug trade has ties to Becky’s uncles and their café. As we come to the climactic scene that leads the characters to that speeding car, we also, as I said, learn a bit of history as well. We learn about Becky’s father, a political figure whose career ended in disgrace. We learn about Harry and Pete’s mom and her new boyfriend, David, himself a man with dreams, albeit of the quaint variety. We even learn of the history of the café with ties to crime, and how it came about over a mistaken identity and a snap decision during WWII. Like I said, the plot device at the end is exactly that: it moves things forward and adds unneeded drama to an already fascinating story, but that is practically a nitpick for me, and something that shouldn’t distract you from this deeply optimistic and deeply moving portrait of real, flesh and blood people.  
Rating: 5/5

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Review: "In Awe" by Scott Heim

Even after more than 10 years have passed since I first read it, Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin remains one of my ten favorite books. While other book I read during my literary gestation period have fallen out of favor with me, that one remains a powerful fictional account about child abuse and ways it can warp people’s lives in monstrous and self destructive ways. It is a book that is so good that I don’t think Heim has surpassed it (although he is working on a new novel, so I’ve heard), and his subsequent books have failed to match the emotive power and gut punch of his fierce debut, instead going a vague dreamlike route that is good in some parts, a head scratcher in others and a downright frustrating during a few brief moments, mostly toward the end. I barely recall his most recent novel, We disappear, but this novel, In Awe, is, I am willing to guess, much better that. It follows the lives of three people of varying ages, set again in Kansas, whose degrees of psychosis draw them to a violent conclusion. There is Boris, 17, an orphan living in a halfway house whose obsession with Rex, one his classmates on school, borders the line between creepy and extremely creepy. His situation is not helped by Sarah, a woman in her thirties who hasn’t quite left her teen years, who fantasizes about being a heroine in one of the slasher films she is obsessed with. Then there is Harriet, in her sixties, mourning the loss of her gay son Marshall (also close friends with Boris and Sarah) to AIDS, who seems to believe that her son is haunting the rooms of her farmhouse. Incidents happen involving a local string of killings, a brutal scene of gay bashing that connects to the book’s jumbled ineffective ending and the broken dreams of all involved. Like Mysterious Skin, there are a few scenes that will stick with me, like a carnival scene where Boris’ obsession with Rex intensifies and one that explains in gross detail what is on the cover. Just on the basis of his first book, whatever Heim is producing is sure to be something I check out, and I hope it is a return to a form that gave his first novel such staying power.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Review: "Soul Mountain" Gao Xingjian

The strangest comparison came to me while I was inching my way through Chinese author Gao Xingjian’s novel Soul Mountain. Reading through it, the episodic nature of its main character’s journey into the deep forests of southwest China reminded me of the writer Pedro Juan Gutierrez who lived thousands of miles away Cuba. While the two books share a similar flow and disregard for more linear literary elements, Gutierrez’s book is different in one major way: it is worlds away more engaging, entertaining and fun to read. Despite some of the book’s more harrowing scenes, which I will get to in a minute, I felt so detached while reading this. It was as if I picked up a book on yoga or transcendental meditation and not something that should be shelved in the fiction section of a library or bookstore. Xingjian has talent as a writer (a bit of an understatement), and I won’t argue with him winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. I just wish he parlayed that talent in a way that was less heavy-handed and more inviting. The basic setup of the book is something that really happened to Xingjian. When he was in his early forties in the 1980’s, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, the same disease that killed his father slowly and was diagnosed by the same doctor that diagnosed Xingjian. But when the diagnosis is proven false, he takes a journey into the mountains, in search of the eponymous mountain this book is named after. It works as kind of a travelogue, with the more boring descriptions clashing with the more brutal aspects, which include legends about the area and some of the flippant sexual encounters, and it never really works. It’s shifting narration between first and second person also doesn’t help things. But for all of those, it is still is readable and its’ 500 pages go by quickly. You might find something in it I didn’t if you decide to check it out.

Rating: 3/5

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Review:"Moonglow" by Michael Chabon

Wonderboys, Michael Chabon’s second novel, is still one of my favorite books and the quintessential campus novel, both funny and enlightening. It is so good in fact that I don’t think he has equaled it since, even as his career has skyrocketed to the top tier of notable American writers. Some of them have been good, such as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (his most famous novel) and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and some of been slogs, like his debut novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and both of his short story collections. And while it still falls short, I’m happy that his most recent novel, last year’s Moonglow is his best since that second novel, and I don’t think it is much of a surprise that, like Wonderboys, it is startling personal with little bits of Chabon’s trademark whimsy peppered throughout. It recounts the maybe true maybe not tale of Chabon’s grandfather, opening dramatically with him assaulting his boss and throwing an intercom out of the window, hitting and wounded Czech delegate. The delegate’s reaction to the incident really describes in a nutshell how tragedy and slapstick intertwine in the life of his grandfather and really all of Chabon’s fiction. One cannot exist without the other: they play off each other, inform one another and somehow create a full life. The tragedies of his grandfather’s life, such as the guilt and anger he feels over his time in WWII, where he failed to apprehend someone he believed to be a war criminal, his perceived failings as a parent and a husband to damaged woman, all have a certain humorous poetry about them, and the character’s will to endure makes these happenings anything but grim. I’m keeping a lot of the plot details a secret, since that is some of the joy of the novel: entering this world fresh, with the steady, skilled hands of a gentle master to guide you. 

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Review: "The Mirror Thief" by Martin Seay

I’m rather surprised a company like Melville House published a book like Martin Seay’s debut novel The Mirror Thief, and that it took such a long time for it to find a home. It’s a flawed work, but for a debut novel, you can’t get any more grand or ambitious. This is a book that I see having a lot of cross over appeal and given the right kind of marketing, it has the chance to be a sleeper hit. It clearly stands in the shadows of someone who is a little bit better at these kind of fractured narratives, with David Mitchell immediately coming to mind. But while each of the three story threads are not equally compelling, each at least has something that pulls the reader in, even if the subject matter goes above your head. And it is rather easy to look at this book as a whole, see what Seay accomplished and respect it for its audacity. Where to begin with a story like this: it starts out in the not so distant past of 2003, where Curtis, newly discharged from the army, is given a job by Damon, a shady acquaintance who manages a recently ripped off casino. The job is to find Stanley, an old friend of his dad who might have been involved with what happened at the casino. He flies to Las Vegas, and, in rather apathetic fashion, finds himself embroiled in a plot that very obviously involves murder. We also flash back to Venice Beach in 1958, where Stanley, then a young grafter, becomes obsessed with a book of poems written by an unknown poet named Adrian Welles, and he, along with a drifter named Claudio, goes in search of Welles. The third part takes place in the 16th century, as the subject of the poem, Crivano, also finds himself involved in a murderous plot, this time dealing with the invention of the mirror and escape from a religiously ruled island. I couldn’t find a connection between any of the three threads, at least directly, but that didn’t ruin the experience. I found the third section the weakest, since it is not the kind of story I’d pick up on its won, but each of the three is carefully researched and written with narrative vigor. This a fun a book, a page-turner with heaps of brains and lots of creativity.

Rating: 4/5

Monday, April 3, 2017

Review: "Ill Will" by Dan Chaon

My real job allows me a lot of down time during work hours, and to fill that down time, I became fascinated by YouTube videos that count down or dissect strange unexplained murders or disappearances. They both draw me in and give me the creeps, offering the kind of folklore that seems rather at home in my Midwestern setting but also a lot of dread as I put myself in the positions of the family members of the some of the victims and the horror of the unknown why of their pain. After reading his new novel, Ill Will, I can’t think of a better writer to fictionalize such feelings, and in doing so, he has produced his best book yet. While he is more known for his short stories (two out of the three failed to make a deep impression on me), I find his novels to be astounding works that carefully, impossibly mix genre elements and new American suburban malaise and emotional decay. They feel like thrillers, with the mysteries at the heart of all three of his novels, You Remind Me of Me, Await Your Reply and this one, being brilliantly laid out with reveals that are guaranteed to take your breath away, but not in the way of action or even violence, even though he doesn’t shy away from those aspect, but instead the reactions he gets come from the emotional decisions of his characters, whether they are revelatory, ones of betrayal or ones of self-deception, which is the corner stone of this book. The main character is Dustin Tillman, a psychologist living in Cleveland Ohio. In a fugue state (something the book brings up) after his wife’s death, two events, one from his past and present, threatened to pollute his mind and destroy the carefully constructed life he is sustaining. When he was thirteen in 1983, his parents were brutally killed in their home in Wyoming. Dustin told the police that his adopted brother, Rusty, was the culprit and he was given a life sentence. Due to DNA testing Rusty is exonerated and released from prison, a fact Dustin keeps from his sons Dennis and Aaron. Also, at around the same time, a patient of his named Aqil draws him into a supposed string of killing that involve the drowning deaths of drunk, white college males (loosely based on the Smiley Face Killer theory). The book shifts perspective often, sometime within the same page so it looks like newsprint, but each story thread is so engaging, the switches are smooth and feel appropriate. We learn about the events leading up to and after the murders from Dustin’s two cousins Kate and Wave, as well as the drug addled spiral that Aaron, Dustin’s youngest son takes after a friend also loses his mother and goes missing himself, leading to this book’s incredible final pages, which, much like Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, will haunt me, and hopefully you, for quite some time after. Filled with a palpable and humane kind of pain, filtered through a stranglehold of narrative threads, this is surely one of the best books of the year, written by one of our best writers. 
Rating: 5/5