Monday, July 31, 2017

Review: "Ties" by Domenico Starnone

Ties, a simple title for a simple novel by Italian writer Domenico Starnone (translated by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri), might be one of my favorite books on a crumbling marriage, or at least my favorite one for quite some time. And like its title, its quality lies in its simplicity. At 150 pages (the first 25 of which are dedicated to a worthwhile introduction from Lahiri), there is not an ounce of fat on this slim novel, making for an engaging look into the lives of a married couple whose lives began to crumble after the man is led astray by a younger woman. What I feel sets this part from other novels and what stops this from becoming shallow melodrama is the way the incident and what comes after it is presented and what this implies about the lives of the man and the woman and their two children, a son and a daughter. It offers a very unique perspective on infidelity, one that puts the discretion in question in the context of the time period (the book is set in the present day, but the actions in question took place in the mid-1970’s) as well as the context of each of their personal happiness. The slim book is separated into three sections. The first section, which is only about 15 pages long, is a series of letters Vanda is writing to her husband Aldo. It is made pretty clear within the first letter what Vanda is so angry about: Aldo has left her and their two kids, Sandro and Anna to go live with a younger woman, Lidia, who happens to be his student. While I find this section to be the weakest of the three, it acts as a strong opening as Vanda describes how her life fell apart after Aldo left her, leading her to try to end her life. The next section and the books longest is split up into three chapters. The first chapter takes place in the present day, where Aldo and Vanda, now in their seventies, come home from a vacation to find their house ransacked their cat, Labes, missing. Late at night he goes into his study and finds the letters from the beginning. We see the rather mundane circumstances that led to his affair and, more importantly, the mundane but deeply metaphorical reason he came back into their lives in the second chapter. The third chapter leaves us in a state of terrifying ambiguity, as Aldo, now a man easily duped, lets into his house what may or may not be people with ill intentions. The last section lays out cynically the ill effects Aldo and Vanda’s relationship has on others and as well as what happened to their house and cat. None of the actions of the people here are presented with passion: they are boring people who are trying to gain any type of happiness they can, and the book details eloquently how those plans fail and for better or worse, they are tied to people they need but might not like. For a short novel, this packs a wallop that you won’t soon heal from. 
Rating: 5/5

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Review: "The Dinner Party" by Joshua Ferris

There are writers who are downright master of the short form almost exclusively, the obvious names that come to mind being Raymond Carver and George Saunders who made their name just from their short stories and there are masters of both short and long form storytelling, like Haruki Murakami and Joe hill to name a just two. Joshua Ferris fits too comfortably into a third category of a writer who’s only a master of novels, because his first collection of short stories, The Dinner Party, is dramatically uneven, with some stories working magnificently and some making me want to hold my nose. It doesn’t help that all of the 11 stories here are over 20 pages. It makes the stories that don’t work drag on, repeating techniques that fail to engage the reader and making me feel relieved once I had finished them. I’ll start out with the good ones, such as the title story that opens this collection. It follows a couple whose conversational daggers, while playful superficially hide an underlying malice. They are preparing for a dinner party with some old friends. It is obvious they have grown apart when they don’t arrive on time, and when the man ventures out to the friends house, he is met by brutal reality check. With stories like these and The Valetudinarian, where an elderly man celebrates a birthday only to have his life saved by a prostitute his friend orders, Ferris is able to demonstrate our tenuous connections to one another in shorter forms. But then you have stories like “Fragments” and “The Stepchild” which switch up perspectives and feel like shallow literary stunts. The collection ends strongly with “A Fair Price” a story about a man unable to talk with the person helping him move that is rich in ambiguity and sadness. Not a terrible collection, but after three homerun novels, this is easily the most tepid thing Ferris has put out.

Rating: 4/5

Friday, July 28, 2017

Review: "Things We Lost in the Fire" by Mariana Enriquez

Things We Lost in the Fire, the English language debut of Argentinean Mariana Enriquez is the most powerful short story collection I have read all year. Written with anger, intensity and a love for the macabre that recalls writers and storytellers as varied as Roberto Bolano and Rod Serling, each of these stories is a perfect exercise in profound creepiness, giving the reader some very disquieting set pieces while sneaking in a little social and political subtext that is noticeable but not overbearing. While Bolano might seem like an easy and slightly unfair comparison, since they are both Latin American writers, the comparison fits very well, with the scenes of violence and cruelty here recalling some of the most harrowing works of what is arguably the Chilean writer’s masterpiece 2666. Enriquez is very aware of the history of her country and the everyday degradation she uses as the basis for most of them is rendered rather appropriately: the story she tells and what inspired them is essentially a horror story as scary as anything you can imagine. With the exception of maybe one story here (thankfully, it is also the shortest), all of these in this slightly less than 200 page book is a total knockout and will make you want to leave the lights on when you go to sleep at night. The book starts off strong with “The Dirty Kid”, where a lonely woman moves into her Grandma’s old house only to become obsessed with the homeless duo, made up of a crack addict mom and a unwashed young boy,  living across the street on a bare mattress. At one point, the boy knocks on the woman’s door and the woman takes the boy out for ice cream, only to have the mom threaten her when they get back. Soon after, the boy disappears, and the dead body of young boy is found ritually murdered and dismembered in a nearby park. It doesn’t follow the path you think it would, and the lasting image, conjured brilliantly by Enriquez in the final few pages, is the stuff nightmares are made of. You begin to see a pattern here in the stories, of people whose broken lives and unmet potential manifest themselves in grotesque and supernatural ways. For instance, the shame felt by the young girl at the center of “The Inn” of her burgeoning homosexuality and her sister’s promiscuity take the form of ghosts haunting an upscale resort hotel. The strange events leading to a disappearance in “Spiderwebs” might be the reaction the central female has with her rather belligerent and dense husband. The theme of strained marriages also permeate this collection, like the truly creepy “An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt”, where a male tour guide sees vision of Argentina’s most horrific serial killer while his wife suffers from post-partum depression and “The Neighbor’s Courtyard” where a woman recently fired from her job and estranged from her brutally pragmatic husband begins seeing a boy chained up in the neighbor’s front yard, another story with a nightmarish conclusion. These are strong brave stories (including the title story, which, might be a critique of radical feminism) that ring true with lived experiences, filtered through a disquieting lens of graphic disturbing horror. 
Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Review: "Desperation Road" by Michael Farris Smith

The genre of “country noir” has many masters of the craft both living (Donald Ray Pollock and Tom Franklin spring to mind immediately) and dead (you can see echoes of Larry Brown in pretty much every novel or short story that can fit comfortably into the genre), but it is genre whose confines I can see restricting, with the last few novels I have come across being near carbon copies of each other: there is the wasted potential of the protagonist, family bonds soaked in blood and, most of the time, methamphetamine. Michael Farris Smith’s second novel, Desperation Road, thankfully doesn’t have that last tired narrative device, but in the end, I don’t think it will stand out from the pack. It is good though, a deeply psychological and heartbreaking story of broken people whose lives are bookmarked by violence, but it has been done before, and it is not nearly as breathtaking as his debut novel, Rivers. It tells two stories that eventually converge. One follows Maben and her daughter Annalee. They are drifting into a small Mississippi town when, through a cruel twist of fate, Maben is forced to shoot and kill a lecherous deputy. The more interesting thread concerns Russell, recently released from prison who’s past mistakes are so fresh that they meet him once he’s off the bus and throw him a beating. He was put away when he killed someone while driving drunk, and is not doing a good job of picking up the pieces in the wake of his release. These two stories converge, in both the past and the present and in expected and unexpected ways. I’m impressed by Smith’s prose, that is deep but not cloying, heartfelt but not saccharine, but the story is one I’ve seen done before. It is done well here, with a pseudo-villain just as pitiful as our two heroes, but it failed to light my world on fire. This is a good, but not great novel from a talent a cut above the rest in his field.

Rating: 4/5

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Review: "Augustown" by Kei Miller

I had a great time reading Kei Miller’s Augustown. It is an engaging novel filled with precise prose and crackling dialogue that flows easy across the wrinkles in my mind. But what it gives us in those regards can’t distract from what it doesn’t have, and that is a firm grip on story and narrative. It attempts to cram a lot of mythos, history and a wife range of people into the small space of a 239-page novel. It has been done before and has been thought provoking in other books, but that is not the case here. I always felt Miller was playing with big ideas, and by the end I can’t help but think he held back quite a bit. I picked this book up based on its settings and its recommendation on the back from Marlon James, and sure enough it is very much like his first two novels John Crow’s Devil and The Book of Night Women, both all right books that pale in comparison to his flash of brilliance that was A Brief History of Seven Killings. The novel tells two stories that, now that I think of it, really should have been one. First, Miller trains his eye on the character of Ma Taffey, an old blind woman who acts as a godmother to the rest of the town and a lynch pin of the book’s events. Kaia, a young boy, comes to her door crying because his beloved dreadlocks have been forcibly cut off. She sits him down and tells him the story of The Flying Preacherman, a local legend of a preacher who claimed to fly who was oppressed by the local government. This section feels quite out of place, and it isn’t until we leave the past and focus on the present, which takes place in a single day and tells the tragic story of Gina, Kaia’s mother and what leads to the book’s violent final few pages. This is a book full of wonder with a firm grip on the past and present, and something worth looking at.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review: "Broken River" by J. Robert Lennon

It is really nice to see a story you read early this that was not very good done extremely and uniquely right. Earlier this year, Joe McGinnis’ second novel Carousal Court disappointed me, and when I think about it still, it bothers me even more. But thankfully, Broken River, the new novel by J. Robert Lennon (a last minute addition to my second half of the year reading lost) does everything right that Carousal Court did wrong, and with a nice twist that in hands of a less skilled writer, would turn the whole novel into a hackneyed mess. But with Lennon, it elevates what is a rather simple story of murder in a small town to something more ethereal, otherworldly and deeply haunting. My only other contact with Lennon’s writing was his last book, the short story collection See You in Paradise, and with the exception of one story (his most famous story, “Portal”, which is way better than it should be on paper, which I see now as a pattern with Lennon’s writing) not much contained within its pages is that memorable. But those apathetic feelings are smashed with this meditation on truth, time and family disguised as a break neck thriller. While not as out there, I couldn’t help but think of Dan Chaon’s Ill Will: both novels move between the somber and the disturbing with the greatest of enviable ease. You’ll know your in the hands of someone who wants to give you something new just by the first chapter alone. A family is fleeing their home in the middle of the night. They try as hard as they can to escape their fates, but it is too late for them. All of this is being watched by some being, which presides over the events in the novel. Called the “Observer”, we never really know who this being is. Are they an angel, doomed to watch events unfold yet unable to intervene, much like the angels in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire? Or are they an alien or human from the future, looking out toward the past at the wreckage wrought on a few select people? What they aren’t for sure is a cheap ploy to draw your attention from the main story, which involves a family of three moving into the house where the murder takes place. Karl, a womanizing artist, his wife Eleanor and their daughter Irina moved there from New York to heal from Karl’s transgressions. Slowly each sinks into their own world of lies, as the past crimes come forth again in harrowing and violent ways. As the cast grows, so does Lennon’s ability to draw you in. He can make you sympathize with Louis, under the thumb of the violent and evil Joe, as well as Sam, whose link to the past is tenuous and brought by Irina’s obsession. This is an entirely unconventional take on a rather tired trope, so much so that as the book closes, much in the same place as it started, there are no easy answers, great personal revelations or emotional breakthroughs. Bad things simply happen to people and life goes on whether people are ready or not. A strong thriller that smashes expectations while entertaining the hell out of you, this is one novel worth seeking out as soon as you can.

Rating: 5/5

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Review: "Encircling" by Carl Frode Tiller

It has been awhile since I have come across something as fiercely original, inventive and fun to read as Carl Frode Tiller’s Encircling, the first in a trilogy I cannot wait to dive deeper into. Though deceptively simple in nature, the narrative, broken up between prose passages and what I assume to be letters or emails, offers up a world of ideas that are seemingly infinite, building on top of one another an ever deepening well of thoughts on subjects as diverse as identity, memory, perception and the shaky bonds of a broken family. While it does mention the series on the back, I couldn’t help thinking about Karl Ove Knausgard’s gigantic 3600 page, six-part self-referential novel My Struggle and how different it is from a book like this. While I liked both, I found My Struggle, at least the first book in the series to be a rather solipsistic experiment whose effects wore off soon after the 100 page mark, but Tiller’s novel sustains its unique breathe and speed, offering new ideas and ways of looking at events that belays the world’s complexity. It reminds me of the first time I read the novels Paul Auster and Daniel Kehlmann: the gleeful feeling of finding an author whose view of the world around them is both compassionate and all-encompassing. At the center of Encircling and what I assume to be the other two preceding novels is the character of David who has recently lost his memory. What sets him apart from any other main character I have come across in recent books is that we never really get to see David really at all, at least not as a flesh and blood character. All we know about him is gained from the letters written by the three people who answered an ad he placed in the paper, Jon his former best friend, Arvid, his stepdad and Silje, his former girlfriend. This setup begs a lot of questions, all which are rich and detailed. Is everything each of the three people say about David true? Are the personal biases clouding their judgment of events? Do they even know David? Is David even a real person? I enjoy books like this that creates such interesting ambiguities that offer rich questions instead of cheap answers. But if the book were only as good as its unique structure I wouldn’t be raving about as much as I am. In between the long letters are passages that give us a glimpse into the shattered lives of each character, all with dates that take place before the letters are written. Jon is a failed musician and closed homosexual who comes home to his mother and is berated by his brother, a successful right wing politician. Arvid is laid up in the hospital and craves human contact. Silje is in a loveless marriage whose only enjoyment is lying to him about affairs she is not having. Each prose section informs on its epistolary counterpart, which crafts a view of the unseen David as both unquestionably faceless and full of an infinite number of possible character traits. A sullen yet funny book about our crushed hopes and dreams, our fractured families and the ones we tend to blame and project our faults onto in the worst of times, this is an explosively fun novel I hope gets wider recognition ASAP. 
Rating: 5/5

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Review: "A Book of American Martyrs" by Joyce Carol Oates

A Book of American Martyrs, the new novel by Joyce Carol Oates (and her longest if I assume correctly) deals with the subject of abortion, a subject that has been swimming around my head for little bit, in a way that is fictionally interesting even over the span of 736 admittedly bloated pages. It is no secret that Oates is a master of the craft, whose skill is matched by her prolific nature, a rare dynamite combo, but as someone, who has befriended people who hold pro life anti-abortion stances, her rendering of those people in the novel can come across shoddy and one dimensional, but thankfully never insulting. But thankfully Oates makes up for it with two very compelling female characters whose lives are shaped by a violent event at the heart of the book. That event is the murder of Gus Voorhees, an abortion provider by Luther Dunphy, a religious zealot. What opens this book is a rambling account of the event in question, whose violent details are surpassed by its confusing nature. For a story like this, the pieces have to fit together, and throughout the book I didn’t feel they made for a pleasant whole, but by themselves I enjoyed them for what they were, some more than others. I found the look into Luther’s childhood, marked by a confusion toward modern life and a struggle to find a calling in his faith really interesting, as was the look into Gus’ family and the cynical fatalism he instilled in his children, making his death out to be something inevitable. But after the murder and trial the focus shifts to the men’s daughters. Naomi, Gus’ daughter is stricken with anger toward the world and her family, and her detached sections remain the least interesting, especially compared to Dawn, Luther’s daughter, something of a simpleton who finds a way to fight back in the world of boxing. These scenes shows Oates’ in a great way, crafting fights just as authentic and urgent as those of Thom Jones of Craig Davidson. This is a long book, and its length is sometimes not necessarily warranted, but for Oates to produce work like this in such quick spats is impressive and enviable.

Rating: 4/5