Thursday, August 31, 2017

Review: "Selection Day" by Aravind Adiga

If it had come from any other author, I would label Selection Day a successful novel. It is quite good, a cut above the rest, if you will, with a rich story filled with humor, horror and tragedy, all three spread out throughout the novel, co-mingling with the greatest of ease. But since it comes from Aravind Adiga, (his third novel and fourth book overall), it is a giant step back for a writer who wowed me twice over with his debut novel The White Tiger, still, even seven year after finishing it a favorite and his second novel, Last Man in Tower, both of which were novels of India with teeth, forgoing the magical realism associated with fiction from that area in favor of a gritty, harsh atmosphere adversely affected by Western values, where the greedy succeed and the good sometimes, if not always, suffer. This novel is not nearly as caustic or angry as those two, and while I like it more than his tepid story collection Between the Assassinations, its’ quality is not too far off. It concerns the lives of two brothers whose world consists of their overbearing father and the sport of cricket, which they both excel at. While Radha is primed to make it big, being sponsored by a wealthy expat with the skills to prove it, his younger brother Manju has skills of his own, but once he meets Radha rival, his life begins to unravel as new experiences fill his life with confusion and indecision. I like how it takes an overused trope, which I won’t spill here and create something new for it, so instead of it being a story of self-discovery, it is instead a story of the consequences of inaction. But this little nugget of wisdom doesn’t really help this novel’s story, Adiga’s weakest or the swath of disposable characters, like Sofia, a sort of cricket groupie. Adiga is still young and I will chock this little novel up as a minor misstep.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Review: "Chemistry" by Weike Wang

Chemistry, the debut novel from Weike Wang is the most assured, confident and fully formed debut novel I will read all year. It is short and sweet at an easy 211 pages, but none of those are filled with any kind of disposable fat. Everything found on the page is important and integral to the ideas the book puts forth, much like the numbers in an equation or the steps in an experiment. Reading it (which is rather quick and not just due to the page length), I was reminded of other great debuts of the past few years, thoughts that bring with them good and bad qualities. This is the kind of debut novel that announces itself loudly and proudly: both an eloquently written account of a messy life and keen presentation on how a unique individual surveys their surroundings and deals with their problems, which are of both the interior and exterior variety. I was reminded of self-assured debuts as varied as Teju Cole’s Open City and Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, all three compact, tightly woven stories that give a fascinating glimpse into the minds of their original protagonist (and the other two besides this novel having won the prestigious PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction). But also, all three of these books hint that there is very little left in the creative well after finishing. They say seemingly everything the author needs to say, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Wang doesn’t produce another novel, or at least one quite so soon after this. At the center of this cerebral novel is an unnamed PhD student in chemistry at a prestigious school in Boston (which is likely Harvard given Wang’s credentials) who’s ordered life begins to unravel once her boyfriend Eric proposes to her. The novel is loosely structured as our narrator tries to make sense of the world and her own burgeoning unhappiness, and the book shifts rather sporadically between past and present, where we learn about our narrator’s troubled relationship with her immigrant parents and the their cruel pragmatic cynicism toward life and work, her history with Eric, whose little quirks about music and science widen the gulf between the couple as well as her attempts to get back on her feet after she quits the PhD program in dramatic fashion. In between these varied vignettes are little tidbits of scientific history, such as a few pieces on Marie Curie, a few Chinese proverbs and our narrator’s own interpretations of such themes. While it is a bit more lighthearted than Open City and The Yellow Birds, it doesn’t shy away from darker themes of loneliness and the ephemeral nature of romantic love, characterized by the narrator’s best friend’s volatile marriage and pregnancy, ending rather abruptly on the cusp of what could be the deepening or the alleviation of our narrator’s depression. This is the kind of debut novel I seek out throughout the year as long as I am reading something, a book filled with a ferocious energy whose odd world becomes something poetic and moving through the skilled and knowledgeable hands of wise beyond their years writer. 
Rating: 5/5

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Review: "The Burning World" by Isaac Marion

I am surprised that a book like Isaac Marion’s The Burning World, the follow up to his sleeper hit Warm Bodies, did not come out with much fanfare. Its predecessor was a surprise success that had enough mainstream appeal to warrant a big budget movie, but it was also much more than that. It was a quaint, eloquent story about the elusiveness of love, shot through the familiar lens of a zombie tale. I read it back in 2011 (I think), but after having read its sequel, some of the book’s flaws are now pretty apparent, especially after finishing this souped up sequel, which clocks in at an even 500 pages, and tries to thread in a few different story threads that don’t really add up until the very end, which left me a little disappointed and not quite satisfied. The book begins where the other one left off. R is enjoying his new life, really his third one, after transforming from a flesh-eating zombie into something in between a human and the undead. He has the love of Julie, who sacrificed a lot to save R’s life, and they are trying to carve out a life in the shell of what was once Earth. But after an attack and an invasion by a mysterious company that promises to restore order, R and Julie, as well as a few people they meet along the way, literally take flight from them in search of a cure and a place to hide. There are three story threads that come in at out at different times, and it is hard to tell what is set during a different time period, what is happening now and what is a dream. Marion is very good at making something that would corny in a lesser writer’s hand seem profound and moving, and this proposed trilogy is a testament to that, but the journey the group takes and where they end up didn’t have the power the first lean novel promised. I will be eager to finish out the trilogy, but I will be quite weary about doing so.

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Review: "The Grip of It" by Jac Jemc

As much as I loved reading it earlier this year, I feel somewhat hindered for having read Iain Reid’s monumental debut novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things because it makes books that are skillfully written and rendered, such as Jac Jemc’s novel The Grip of It, which I just finished, sort of fall by the wayside and faults in it I would have forgiven otherwise are glaring in the shadow of a superior work. Jemc’s novel is quite good actually. Divided by chapters that are never more than five or six pages, this is an effective and thought-provoking haunted house story for the millennial age, where our culture’s obsession with independence drives wedges between those we love and ourselves: our problems become ours and ours alone and we suffer in silence. This novel takes that idea and expertly places in it in the confines of a familiar genre. The two people at the center of the story are James and Julie, a couple who move from the city into a remote house to help James rid himself of his gambling addiction. The weird stuff starts up right away. Strange noises come from the vents that are more animal than mechanical, stains and crude drawings appear on the wall, their creepy neighbor Rolf is spying on them and all that is before they learn of the houses dark, sad history. Soon, James becomes obsessed with finding out more about the house in between strange blackouts and Julie develops painful large bruises all over her body. I was reminded of the work of Blake Butler and his novel 300,000,000, in that both novels present really cool ideas that demand answers or at least a cool payoff and never really get there. It offers some really cool scenes, such as the ones with Julie’s parents, another where they are staying with Julie’s friend Connie and a few scenes involving cops who might be linked to the house’s malevolent nature, but none of these really lead anywhere and the book ends with a quiet whimper and not a profound bang. I still like this book for what it is though and think it is worth checking out.
Rating: 4/5

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Review: "Pages from a Cold Island" by Frederick Exley

I wouldn’t be surprised if I (with the exception of one person, more on that) was the only person within a 50-mile radius to read Frederick Exley’s Pages From a Cold Island, a widely unread sequel to book that still very few people have read. It is an odd feeling. It’s like you are reading something just for you. It’s a good book, one that I don’t think surpasses its predecessor A Fan’s Notes one of the great unheralded works of 20th century literature, which I read back in 2009, and the reading of this makes me curious to revisit it. Exley is skilled at these self eviscerating swaths of prose that both impress you and fill you with pity for a person who seemingly had mountains of talents but for some reason, both personal and impersonal, seems destined to remain on the fringes of literary history, a writer whose constantly being discovered, the quintessential writer’s writer, something the title of his first book quietly implies. The plot is meandering and a bit hard to follow on the surface, but it does take place after the publication of A Fan’s Notes. Exley has found himself mourning the death of writer and mentor Edmund Wilson, and takes to drinking to stave off the grief and other demons introduced in A Fan’s Notes. During the course of the book, he obsesses over a meeting with Gloria Steinem, infiltrates Wilson’s family, badmouths Norman Mailer and begins having affairs with students he teaches at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. There is a harsh truth to these vignettes; they use the real names of people (one being Dan Wakefield, a writer from Indiana who taught at my college) and don’t always say the nicest things. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that a lot of Exley’s obscurity is self-imposed. At times charming, at times annoying and at times sad, this forgotten book by a forgotten author isn’t quite the hidden gem as some others are, but it’s worth checking out if you come across it.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: "Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash" by Eka Kurniawan

Equal parts, crude, sad and deranged, Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, the third book to be translated into English by Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan is really the perfect book to be reading while in the daze of the headiest of head colds. It is a strange swift journey severed into small, digestible tidbits that switch perspectives and time periods, its themes are hard to put a finger on (pun intended), but boy is it a fun book to read. This novel is many things: an assault on good taste, the idea of love and the quest for manhood, but above all else, it is entertaining, and even though these past few days, with sleep in the single digits, finishing this book as quickly as I did was not as hard as I thought it was going to be. The sad sack loser at the center of this novel is Ajo Kawir, who had the starts of the book is like most young boys living in the slums West Java. He craves sex and along with his friend Gecko, seeks it out whenever he can. It is only after he is witness to a gang rape of the town’s female unto does he become impotent, and with that comes a bubbling rage and a need to fight. Just as he is finding something resembling happiness in the form of Iteung, a female bodyguard, he comes into the crosshairs of feared gangster Tiger, the payoff of which is totally unexpected and leads to the events ten years later where Ajo, now a truck driver, talks to his impotent member (called “Bird”) and coaches a younger driver as he fights his own battle with a man named after an animal. It is a fast-paced fun story that reminded me of the gutter poetry Pedro Juan Gutierrez and the brutal cynicism of Leonardo Sciascia, right down to the downbeat, yet funny ending. This is a wild ride, one others might deem shallow, but will be hard pressed to deny its audacious nature.

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Review: "Mrs. Fletcher" by Tom Perrotta

It has been a few years since Tom Perrotta has put out a novel, and like all good writers, absences makes the heart grow fonder and his new novel, Mrs. Fletcher can fit comfortably next to his best books, like The Abstinence Teacher and Little Children. Perrotta has long been the master of suburban malaise. His characters are instantly recognizable, as there hidden desires and unmet potential. Like most people in the real world, they float, sometimes with ease and sometimes without. And the determining factor for their ejection from their homeostasis is always interesting and compelling in the hands of someone like Perrotta, who renders his characters with heaps of staggering empathy that make even their most mundane accomplishments glow majestically. Another really cool aspect of his novels and his short stories are how well they are tied to the events of today and how they reflect a current social conflict. I am not aware of his politics, but I am glad a book like this, which mirrors the world around probably better than any of his previous novels, takes time with both sets of ideas and the people who hold them, creating multi-dimensional characters with clear and understandable motives. It makes for a story that lacks easy answers and identifiable villains, but also one that is complex and hopelessly fun to read. While the novel shifts focus quite a few times during the book’s 307 pages, but the main focus is on Eve Fletcher, the Mrs. of the title. Recently divorced and dreading the thought of an empty house once her son Brendan leaves for college, Eve finds herself drawn to pornography after and anonymous text she received described her as a MILF. She navigates the lonely world she finds herself in with the help of Amanda; a co-worker of hers at the Senior Center Eve manages. Amanda is much younger than her, has tattoos and carries with her a different set of regrets. Meanwhile, at college (and written in first instead of third person), we get a POV of Brendan’s first year at college as he tries to grow from jock adolescent into thoughtful adult and the mess he makes for himself as it pertains to campus sexual politics. While I won’t get too much into it here, Perrotta’s rendering of this is rather spot on and brave, presenting a person who would fit easily into the “victim” category and shining a light on some of their not so savory qualities. It might be my own biases seeping into this review, but I found it refreshing. Both what is going on at home and at college reflect other Perrotta books, with the college scenes improving on Perrotta’s third novel Joe College and a scene near the end echoing a scene from Election with the genders swapped. Add to that one of the most respectful depictions of a transgender character I have come across, a farfetched but funny climatic sex scene and a well-earned sweet ending, this is another knockout from one of America’s most humane and popular writers. 
Rating: 5/5

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Review: "The Impossible Fairy Tale" by Han Yujoo

The Impossible Fairy Tale, the English language debut and first novel from South Korean writer Han Yujoo is, for both good reasons and bad reasons, one of the most confusing books I have come across in quite some time. It is a style that at first hypnotizes you, then frustrates you and finally, clubs you into submission. It is a very hard novel to pin down theme wise, but it’s unsolvable mysteries are entertaining and engaging in and of themselves: some readers will get lost in them and never find their way out, others will scoff at them and won’t make it past page 100 in this 211 page book. It is no surprise that Yujoo is mainly known in her home country as a short story writer. This strange, detached style she has no doubt mastered works better over the course of a few pages, or 20 or 30 at the most. In novel form, it is a long strange journey that some will finish successfully, but not all, and even those who do will have little understanding of what they just bared witness to. I will try my best to summarize and offer my opinion on such a strange book. Without trying to spoil anything, it is obvious early on that things might not be as real as they seem. The sentences are almost declarative, which reminded me of David Peace’s Red or Dead. Ideas, such as fancy colored pencils, school journals, kittens, puppies and bricks, take on more importance than they should, even something of a sinister quality. And when the book switches gears a little over halfway through, it’s motives become apparent, but we are never any closer to the heart of this book. Is it about the social privileges of those who are popular and those who are not? Is it about the perils of turning life into art? Or is it about a person’s need to fix a past mistake through fiction? There is a lot to chew on in this book, some savory and others a little bland, but it is a very filling read for something so short.

Rating: 4/5