Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Review: "Koko" by Peter Straub

Peter Straub’s Koko is easily the most travelled book I own. Back in 2014, it went with my friend an I as we drove up the East Coast and back and now, I read it a second time while I whiled away lonely hour after lonely hour in the City of Angels on my first solo vacation. The first time I read it, I really didn’t like it. I found it a boring follow up to what I had just finished, Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole. I sped through it, wanting it to end quickly and gave it a barely passable rating. It wasn’t until I read the other two books in the Blue Rose Trilogy, the off the wall novel Mystery and the surprisingly ingenious novel The Throat that my animosity turned to curiosity and I decided to revisit it on my trip. While I appreciate it more, especially some of the characters, I still find it to be the weakest entry in this thematic trilogy of novels. One thing I liked at first about this novel of Vietnam, murder and flip-flopping identities is its opening scene, where Michael Poole, arguably the novel’s center, saunters around Washington D. C. during the Vietnam Memorial dedication. It brilliantly flips between flashback and painful present that foreshadows the breakneck structure of the novels later parts, like the dreamlike sojourn in Bangkok and the rather weak flashbacks to wartime. Also, Koko’s narration in some chapters is quite chilling and a thrill to read alone in an unfamiliar hotel room. It’s vagueness both hinders and elevates the book: it makes its characters rather weak and hard to care about, but it creates some eerie scenes, like its somber final pages. Straub is so often overlooked in favor of his Kingly contemporary, and this trilogy of novels, giant in scope and audacity, show he is one of the great modern horror authors.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Review: "Barbarians" by Lauren Southern

Even though I retweet political posts on a regular basis, I don’t want to turn my reviews into a forum for my political ideas. I will say that they don’t have a lot of mainstream acceptance and when it comes to a lot of the social issues brought about nowadays in film and literature, my opinion is in the VAST minority, with most of the books I come across I am in ideological opposition to (even though I enjoy them). And part of this growth away from certain schools of thoughts can be attributed to those like Lauren Southern, who I describe as a libertarian Ann Coulter, although she is a lot more palatable. In this, her first book, Barbarians, I agree and disagree with some of her points. I agree with her thoughts on the threat of Islam and the true nature of SJWs but find her themes of nationalism near the end and a brief discussion on the death penalty near the beginning a bit to extreme for me. But I don’t want to bore you with too many details about my political leanings (you can just see what I retweet and agree or disagree), this blog is more about the quality of a book and for its brief length, where it feels a bit more like a pamphlet or a taste of something bigger (hopefully) or worse, a dry academic paper, it presents its ideas in an entertaining way with lots of footnotes to readings, articles and some YouTube clips (some of which I have read and liked). Her few personal anecdotes, one about her time in college and one from a video I have watched quite a few times that clearly and accurately prove both points she’s making about how the left has become illiberal. As hard as it is, I try my best to not mix art and politics (even though I am working on a short story that does just that), so I won’t be doing many reviews such as these (I’ll make an exception for Milo’s book), but if you want to read opposing viewpoints, and I hope you do, this short book by an interesting and elegant voice is a great place to start.

Rating: 4/5

Review: "Thrill Me" by Benjamin Percy

Even though most of his books haven’t really resonated with me (although his short story “Refresh, Refresh” is a personal favorite), I have always been fascinated by Benjamin Percy as a literary figure. His drive to break down walls between genre and literary fiction and his seemingly erratic reading interests are inspiring to me and I am sure to many others who encounter him and his work. So it is no surprise that his essay collection Thrill Me, his first nonfiction book, is his best book yet. It is also one of the most pragmatic and humble books on the writing craft to come out in a long time. Through fifteen essays that speak about any number of topics pertaining to the writing (from suspense to violence), we are given an unplugged look into Percy’s writing process: what inspires him, what made him want to write and the things that bug and entice him when it comes to writing and reading. He invites us into his hall of influences which vary from literary writers such as James Baldwin, Cormac McCarthy, Alice Munro and Tobias Wolff, to genre authors like Stephen King, Peter Straub, Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon to authors such as Flannery O’Conner and Michael Chabon who bridge and sometimes destroy that gap. Since this is an essay collection, I will pick out my favorites of the fifteen presented and discuss them briefly. It starts out swell with the title essay (while the quote is attributed to Barry Hannah, bonus points if you can name the 80’s horror film it CAN be attributed to). Percy talks about his early life, how he was always attracted to scary things and how this led to his wanting to become a writer. It also discusses how his reading life grew from purely genre fiction to literary and how he slowly found out there was very little difference between the two styles of writing. In “Urgency” he speaks about the need to keep some details of a story hidden, amusingly characterized by a joke with a lame punch line that shows that monsters are scarier right before they are revealed (most of the time). “Making the Ordinary Extraordinary” is self-explanatory and uses examples such as George Saunders and Karen Russell to show how common events can become something otherworldly in the hands of a skilled writer. In “Modulation” he takes about the sleight of hand that can be executed by storytellers to get the desired reaction, using a scene from Jaws and the reveal in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” as examples of this. “Consider the Orange” speaks to meaningful repetition that is not too obvious but deeply symbolic, it’s title taking from what oranges symbolize in The Godfather. And it ends strongly with “Going the Distance” where he speaks personally about his beginning failures and how the need to move forward is a key to creative success and happiness, with Percy brilliantly using Rocky Balboa as a metaphor for this state of mind. This is an essential book for anyone who sits down in front of a computer and creates new worlds on a regular basis. It is a refreshingly honest take on being a writer that is also very hopeful and optimistic, a sort of rarity nowadays. And that it comes from someone like Percy, whose advice I find more valuable than 99% of people out there, makes it that much more special.  
Rating: 5/5

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Review: "Searching for John Hughes" by Jason Diamond

While it is not my favorite movie (although it does belong in my “Seven Movies in Heaven” list), I don’t think there is a movie I have seen more times than The Breakfast Club. My feelings for it have grown, wrapped and changed dramatically since I first watched it a few weeks before I started my own disappointing high school journey. I can quite it almost verbatim and every time I see it I spot something new. That love for a movie inhabits every page of Searching for John Hughes, the memoir of writer Jason Diamond. And it is that love that makes it such a charming read, even though I have to admit that some of the writing is not that good and, from how it is written and it’s approach to external, non-cinematic components, I don’t think Diamond has grown as a person as much as he thinks he has. Diamond was born in Chicago to Jewish parents who took all their frustrations and disappointments out on their son. His only solace came in the form of movies, mostly the teen cinematic universe of Shermer, Illinois, created by writer/director John Hughes. From the moment a babysitter let him watch Pretty in Pink a few years too soon for him, his life was changed, and through all his hardships, loneliness and social betrayal, the movies become a lifeline for him, so much so that he starts to write an ill-fated biography of the then reclusive filmmaker. It’s a fool’s errand, and we, as well as Diamond, are aware of this when it is first brought up over drinks with a long lost friend. It’s a journey of self-discovery that is littered with failed ambition and self-hatred that anyone who has ever felt less than and unable to move on from point A to point B will see their reflection in the life of Diamond. It is too bad that it is sometimes comes off as a shoddy megalomaniacal journal written by someone without the awareness of other people and the world beyond their feelings and emotions. But if you are one to see yourself more in the context of pop culture and less in the world around you and have ever felt stuck, this book will charm the pants off you.

Rating: 4/5

Friday, June 16, 2017

Review: "The Hero's Body" by William Giraldi

Much like he did with his air tight, thrilling gut punch of a second novel Hold the Dark, author William Giradli puts his skill to great use in maybe the best way he can with The Hero’s Body, his first book of nonfiction. It is a twofold memoir about his early years as a bodybuilder and the death of his father in motor cycle accident, and how both of these pursuits, his and his fathers, are informed and controlled by an unspoken masculine code that was passed down from one generation of men to the next. There were times I was worried that at the heart of the novel there would be a brutal critique of the ways in which we perceive masculinity in our modern world, but I’m happy to say that is not the case, and not once during the book is the word “masculinity” paired with the word “toxic”. Instead the book is a more somber affair about human frailty, the bonds between a father and his son and the painful limits of the human body and the constant struggle to keep pushing those limits. And much like his first novel, there is not a wasted word or painful metaphor to be found on any page of this 265 page book. The prose is both understated and has the power of gloved fist. The book begins with a prologue of a high school aged William collapsing in one of his classes. He finds out that he has meningitis, and the disease wracks his body and afflicts him with impossible amounts of exhaustion and in one scene, he receives a spinal tap from a doctor who doesn’t know what he is doing. This illness makes him obsessed with his own body and ways to improve it. A way shows itself when he finds his uncle’s basement gym, and decides to strengthen and reshape his body into something more glorious. This is the book’s strongest overall section, with the many descriptions of dietary restrictions and the types of steroids William and others would use to gain the perfect form (there are a few wrestling references in this section, which is always a plus) being entertaining, ghoulish and as obsessive as you’d expect. It culminates in his first competition, of which he does better than he expected, but a strange scene at a local competition he and his friends attend, one that is rendered painfully and memorably, sets him on a different path. We also, in this section, get to know his obsession with reading and eventually writing, a hobby that contradicts greatly with his other hobbies. It both sets him apart and makes him more emotionally isolated. The second and longest section details his father’s death: from the funeral to the autopsy and the questions surrounding his death create a map of Giraldi’s grief, one that shows great conflict with the love he feels for his family and the culpability certain ideas had in causing his father’s death. It ends with a powerful coda that brought back memories of my dad’s early death as well as the hole such a sudden earthly departure leaves in the person. This sounds grim, but it left me feeling oddly hopeful at times, or at the very least, less alone, this emotional excavation by a stunningly talented writer is nothing short of mesmerizing. 
Rating: 5/5

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Review: "Confederates in the Attic" by Tony Horwitz

As I do once I finish the first half of my reading list for a given year, I fill the time by reading a few nonfictions books, trying my best to read as many genres of nonfiction that I can. This year, I wanted to read a history book, one that was not too long or as dry as sawdust, and I found the perfect example in Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic. While it is a dense read at points, this is the perfect book for someone whose interest in history is limited and not adept to the long tomes you find in your local book store. While ostensibly about the Civil War in America, it is more focused on the effects today in the modern age, or 1998 when it was published, than with any of what happened 150 years ago. It acts more like a travel book with history thrown in, and it is never anything but fascinating, conflicting and complex. It is also, in our current political climate, a very relevant book even though it is almost 20 years old, with one chapter, arguably the best section of the book, eerily familiar to some of our headlines today.  It begins with Horwitz, after years abroad, comes back to the States and becomes obsessed with the Civil War and how it influences so many people today, especially in the South. First he begins to infiltrate the many numbers of people who become entrenched in the act of reenacting many of the more famous Civil War battles. Preferring to be called “living historians” the level of intensity is all over the place, with those who eat a hearty hotel breakfast before going out to the battle field, to those who only speak a certain and about certain topics while on the battle field, to one man, Robert Lee Hodge, maybe the star of the book (it’s him on the cover gripping the big knife and looking intimidating), who is skilled at bloating, the act of looking like the dead in war photographs and talks about the weight he loses so he can look more like the starved soldiers and get more modeling gigs. He is a fascinating person who shows up a few times throughout the book, and the reader, at least this one, looks upon him with reverence a tinge of sadness. Horwitz travels throughout the South, from Atlanta, where Gone with the Wind is more an industry than a movie, catering to people’s perceptions even when they are not true, to Tennessee where a talk with writer Shelby Foote reveals some very interesting and controversial opinions on the Civil War and Nathan Bedford Forrest, and finally Kentucky, where Michael Westerman was killed by a black man named Freddie Morrow for having a rebel flag on his truck. This is the most interesting and sad section of the book, where the crime is seen as indicative of how frayed the relationship is between blacks and whites, something that lingers as the book comes to a close on the fields of Gettysburg. A dissection of our nations split psyche as well as a look into how nostalgia can liberate us and hold us back, a book like this makes history, at least for those who don’t find it as interesting as fiction, a different more thought-provoking and urgent beast all together. 
Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Review: "Gravity's Rainbow" by Thomas Pynchon

I have deliberately waited a few days before I pounded out this review of Thomas Pynchon’s most famous novel and one of the most famous “hard novels” of all time, Gravity’s Rainbow: a book, like Infinite Jest and War and Peace that is doomed to sit on the shelf of bibliophiles across the world and collect dust. I have skated around this book for a few years, even   reading and enjoying his longest novel last year, Against the Day, which gave me the confidence to try this one. And I must say, that I enjoyed the experience overall, even though there is a wealth, probably much more than 50% (a generous number to be honest), that I don’t get. After discussing this book with a new friend a few weeks before I read it, I understand the importance of rereading a book like this and Infinite Jest. There is simply too much to take in on the first reading, and if you want to know a book like this, you have to read it multiple times, as said friend did. It is impossible to explain the sexual and wartime adventures of Tyrone Slothrop across Europe in the amount of space I allotted here, so I will simply talk about parts of the book I liked. This book, like other Pynchon novels, is riotously funny, a trait that I noticed as I became a more astute and patient reader, with many musical interludes and turns of phrase (I found myself saying “hashish in the hollandaise” under my breath in public a lot), but one argument I lobbed Pynchon’s way was his lack of humanity, a trait that is given a surprisingly large amount of room to breathe in the side story between Roger Mexico and Jessica Swanlake and one scene, easily the one I will remember the most, where a side-side character named Franz Pokler, whose manipulation at the hands of arguably the book’s only villain ends with his realization of the horrors of war and an act of astounding emotional depth involving his wedding ring. I have not given this book a lick of justice, and in writing this review, my urge to read this again, maybe on the other side of 35, is growing and will probably keep doing so. 
Rating: 4/5

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Review: "Life Drawing" by Robin Black

I felt the need as I wind down this reading cycle for the first half of 2017 to sandwich a small book in between two large ones, and Robin Black’s debut novel Life Drawing, placed in between Dan Simmon’s Carrion Comfort and Thomas Pynchon’s daunting Gravity’s Rainbow is the perfect book that acted as a good breather in between two longer works. I described this relationship drama as harmless but fun, and after finishing it, I still say that is a fair assessment. This book doesn’t break new ground and it is almost proud of its familiarity: it is straightforward, like a second or maybe even third rate Richard Yates or Richard Ford novel, but it does its familiar trick so well that it is easy to glide along its pages as if it were a thin sheet of ice, and by the end, which was a bit shocking, you aren’t changed or really even moved, but you are sure you had fun. It begins with Augusta Edelman, or Gus, recounting her life just after her husband’s death. The book focuses what led up to this event. Her and Owen, her husband, have moved out to the country to try to get away from a few past misdeeds and emotional shakeups and start anew, focusing on their creative endeavors (she paints, he writes). But old wounds are opened when Alison moves across from them, and brings with her a heap of baggage and a fanatical daughter. I will keep the details of the betrayal and what eventually takes place a secret, but it is an easy one to find out. The beats this story makes are rather transparent and even with the shocking conclusions it failed to surprise me. But luckily this book never exceeds its reach and thinks it’s something it’s not. I may not recall much as time goes on, but for right now, this book was a passable pleasure to read. 
Rating: 5/5