Saturday, September 30, 2017

Review: "The Dead Do Not Improve" by Jay Caspian Kang

I think I have read enough to know when a writer is out of their element, and in one instance that stretches across the whole book, it becomes very apparent that Jay Caspian Kang, in his debut novel The Dead Do Not Improve, doesn’t have what it takes to create a mystery worth solving or a thriller worth following along with, because it features one of the most poorly rendered characters I have come across, which zaps almost all of the good will it establishes with the main character who isn’t anything special, but still creates some goodwill with the reader. With a convoluted story with a little too much quirk and pointless asides that derail everything constantly to a rather intense climax to an ineffective final few pages. This is a real mixed bag of fiction, one that leaves me unimpressed and happy to move on from. It opens up with Philip Kim, a Korean immigrant and failed writer making a living writing for a pseudo-revenge website in San Francisco. He has a few friends and very little connection with the world until a neighbor is killed seemingly by accident which sets off a series of events that lead him toward a reckoning with his violent self, which he become aware of in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting. It also places him in contact with Sid Finch, the surfer cop who was the poorly drawn character I was speaking about at the beginning. None of his scenes, which include confrontations with a porn wizard, his Korean partner or a violent gang that plays a part in the end ring true. His sections take up half the book, and when he was on the page, the book stalled. It faired a little bit better when Philip would talk about his interest in hip-hop or his sexual exploits, but this is a rather corny book, and with it dealing with such a touchy subject matter, I expected it to be a bit more polished, less derivative and way more entertaining.

Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Review: "The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley" by Hannah Tinti

Hannah Tinti’s second novel The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley might be the biggest surprise for me this year. A few years ago, I read her short story collection Animal Crackers, and to say it did nothing for me would be in understatement, with whatever I didn’t like it about being totally eclipsed by how quickly I forgot about it. But those ill feelings are all but forgotten in this clever, sprawling yet intimate portrait of a father and daughter who are drawn to and seemingly excel at violence and trouble. But for all its blood and guts, which is expertly kept at minimum at the beginning and is slowly ramped up as the story unfolds, I couldn’t help how touched and moved I was by this story, with its twin narratives of two people who grow up with brutality in their bones only to find that the world that has been so cruel to them has kindness and compassion to offer. What it gets right about its subject matter, which blends a nourish approach to the sudden emergence of violence with a quaint, almost Russo-esque setting of New England, reminds me of what a book like Michael Farris Smith’s Desperation Road got wrong. A story like this doesn’t work unless there is a sense of urgency, a sense of danger and a chance for high body count containing characters we have come to love over the course of their narrative, and this book simply does it better than Smith’s sophomore slump. The book focuses on two people, the eponymous man of the title, whose twelve lives are twelve scars he carries around with him, all of which came from him being shot, the other being his daughter Loo, a girl destined to grow into a woman with the violent tendencies of her father. The book is told in alternating chapters. The first concern the present day, where Samuel and Loo now live in Olympus, Massachusetts, the hometown of Loo’s late mother, the other detailing the twelve bullets that have passed through Samuel’s body, each coincidentally coinciding with an important moment in Samuel’s life, like how he met Lily’s Loo’s mother and how he lost her, his moral compass and his unwilling proficiency in killing people. It is no surprise that these two threads eventually collide in predictable but pleasurable ways, but it is very appropriate as well, and the story would not have been complete if they hadn’t. I also enjoyed how Tinti’s subverted a lot of the stereotypes about this story. There are villains, but they are clearly outlined and not who you’d expect, with characters like the buffoonish Jove, Samuel’s partner in crime, Mitchell, Loo’s crush and the love scorned yet compassionate Principal Gunderson (my favorite), who would be viewed negatively in other stories set up like this, but become quiet heroes in this one. Full of intensity, suspense, tragedy and undeniably, on- ironic hope, this is a brilliant second novel from a writer I had mistakenly cast off years ago. 
Rating: 5/5

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Review: "Six Four" by Hideo Yokoyama

Six Four, the English language debut of Japanese crime writer Hideo Yokoyama might be the most interesting international crime novel I have come across. Since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo came out, we have seen a rather insane amount of noir books come from Scandinavian countries. What most of these books have in common is their length, with the hardcover editions being around 400 pages and the paperback editions clocking in around 500, and their proclivities toward violence and extreme behavior. I have only ever read books by Jo Nesbo, (although the two that I have read have not been a part of the Harry Hole series) and The Crow Girl by the Swedish duo Erik Axl Sund. As intense as they books were, especially The Crow Girl, the violence turned me off a bit, going from disturbing to gratuitous to ridiculous. But in Six Four, there is none of that, and it makes what happens a little bit more interesting without lowering what is at stake. It is sure to disappoint a few people in search of blood and guts, and a lot of the problems here can be found in other international crime books, but this is a more mature book than some might expect. At the heart of this novel is Mikami, a former detective turned press director of Prefecture D haunted by the Six Four case, where a young girl was kidnapped and murdered, partly due to the botched attempts to recover her. Now, 14 years later and with his teenaged daughter missing and an upcoming visit from the commissioner general, his life slowly becomes chaotic as he discovers new clues in the decades old case, which only offers up more questions. As I said, my problem with a lot of these kinds of crime novels is their details are area-specific, which can sometime hinder the urgency of the proceedings. But there are enough human moments to elevate this away from mere boilerplate status, with in scene where a crime is described in heartbreaking, but not graphic detail being a standout. The twist is also good, much better than the one at the center of The Crow Girl. It takes awhile to take shape, but when it does, it is very rewarding. If you like mystery with a foreign flare and a beating, non-cynical, this is a long ride worth taking.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Review: "The Adventures of Augie March" by Saul Bellow

This is about as close to a “classic” as I will get to until I reach my goal some time next year. It has been a long time since I have cracked open a Saul Bellow book and finished it, at least a decade or more. When I saw Bernard Sr. reading a copy of The Victim in The Squid and the Whale, I picked that one up, which led to Dangling Man and Seize the Day. Bellow was my first taste of the top of the literary hierarchy, the next step from authors I was reading at the time: Hubert Selby Jr., Bret Easton Ellis and the guy who got boys to read, Chuck Palahniuk. It had been awhile and it felt right to start with his most famous novel The Adventures of Augie March. For a more critical look at this book, I will assume you can get one in the few introductions to this book written by Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis, but here, I will try to review objectively a book that is on the short-short list of “Great American Novels”. First off, it is great and deserves the status that it holds in American letters. Sprawling yet grounded, whimsical but harshly real with every page filled with equal amounts of hope and despair, this is the kind of novel that lives and grows in your gut, it vivid scenes alive in your brain and in your heart, surely to stick around with you forever. No wonder it is so beloved. It’s famous first sentences about being “Chicago born” our uttered by our eponymous hero, a rather different kind of hero to be exact, one who finds himself embroiled in situations beyond his control, which is exactly how he likes it. Augie grows up during the Great depression, with his mother, Grandma Lausch, who might or might not be his real Grandma, his mentally challenged brother George and finally Simon, his older brother who plays easily the biggest role among a rich, diverse and fascinating cast of characters Augie meets throughout his travels, which take him from Chicago to Mexico to New York and finally Europe. What sets Augie apart from other American literary heroes is his constant state of inaction. He always finds himself caught up in plans made by others, whether they are selfish or altruistic. Reading through this, I couldn’t help but think of the doomed protagonist Tommy Wilhelm from Seize the Day, another character who lets the world determine his path in life and, to offer a bit of armchair interpretation, the sort of person Augie might become if he doesn’t take action in an increasingly large and frightening world. While Seize the Day is a grim little book, this is a bog book with a big heart with many memorable scenes, my favorite being one where Augie saves a girl named Mimi, only, in doing so, to lose everything he has worked for, and rich, minor characters like the crippled William Einhorn, a property owner financially crippled by the Crash who is a surrogate father figure to Augie, to Hymie Bateshaw, whom Augie meets on a sinking ship in what is the book’s wildest scene. A long, extensive ode to the growing world and the harshness and beauty of it all, this is truly a great book, its status undeniable and well earned. I can’t wait to read more Bellow. I didn’t realize I missed him.

Rating: 5/5

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Review: "Universal Harvester" by John Darnielle

Trying to make a name for yourself as a writer after you have already made one for yourself as a musician, or really any other type of artistic endeavor, must be a hard thing to do, and not because of the work involved. It has been done before, with people as varied as Thomas Tyron and Willy Vlautin coming to my mind immediately as being successful. Now, add to that shortlist John Darnielle, mostly known for his accomplishments in the music world as the lead singer and songwriter of the band The Mountain Goats, whose few songs I have heard are fantastic. And so is his second novel, Universal Harvester. While it can sometimes fail at making any kind of sense, especially towards the end, this is a confident book, one that tries its hardest to be original and self-contained with nary a hint of painful self-awareness or an uncomfortable sense of an artist out of their element. This is a creepy story set in a small town in Iowa. It focuses on Jeremy, a young man still reeling from his mother’s death who works a day job at the Video Hut. Soon, people start returning videotapes with complaints that another movie is spliced into the one they rented. Jeremy soon watches these “defective” tapes and finds disturbing scenes of a malevolent nature and pulls in his troubled boss, Sarah Jane and his old teacher Stephanie into this strange web, which has its roots in the near past and an old farmhouse at the edge of town. This reads like a second-rate Dan Chaon novel: it’s a suburban gothic of the highest order, with creepy scenes of menace and an overall feeling of disquiet that permeates the pages, but it doesn’t all piece together. That would be okay if the mystery at the heart of the book wasn’t begging for more inference or clarity, especially its last 50 or so pages, which introduce a new thread that is cut off at the end just as things are making sense. Still, this swell, brilliantly out-there novel by one of the best musician turned writers around. 
Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Review: "An American Dream" by Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer is one of the towering figures of 20th century American literature and one of the most divisive, and it is because books like An American Dream. This book is less a novel and more like an assault on sacred values as well as the reader’s sensibilities. It is at times an angry book, a philosophical book and a downright angry book, but it always seems to be a plodding, meandering mess with a rather terrible protagonist both morally and on the page. I looked up some info on this book, and when it came out in the 1960’s, it really pissed women off, and seeing as how the two women central to the book’s narrative are portrayed, it is easy to see why. I will always give credit to Mailer for giving the world something like The Executioner’s Song, easily one of the most important and best book’s ever written, but book’s like this, The Fight and Harlot’s Ghost, I am not very impressed. It begins with Stephen Rojack, a moderately successful former politician turned TV personality killing his wife and making it look like a suicide. What happens after that is a rather dull trip down into the underworld, where Stephen sexually objectifies a woman named Cherry who might have connections to the mob and alienates the high society he was seemingly born into. Stephen is not a nice guy and dare I say, not a very interesting one, at least in the year 2017. He drinks too much and has extramarital affairs, but what protagonist doesn’t during the literary timeframe this came out? I dig a few scenes, like Stephen’s interrogation from cops just as sleazy as he is and a sex scene involving foot worship, but as a whole, I found this book an unpleasant drag, and from now on, I won’t be so quick to pick up a Mailer book as I was in the past.

Rating: 3/5

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Review: "Black Moses" by Alain Mabanckou

Most years my reading list revolves around certain obsessions I have, or things that pique my interest. For the past few years, that interest has been new books, book released during the given year. This year, I have modified that a bit to focus more on international writers with translation released during the given year. It has been a great strategy so far, because it brings in contact with some very interesting and phenomenal writers, such as the Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou, whose novel Black Moses was released this year and I just finished tonight. Simply put, it’s a stunning achievement, the kind of book that is easy to get lost in, to follow along with and have your heart broken by. With flighty but not weighty prose, a strong sense of character and a weird slight of hand that Mabanckou pulls more than once during the book’s slim 199 pages, this story of a young boy’s journey through a corrupt and lonely landscape becomes almost biblical in nature, much like the name of the young boy himself. It is a brutal story and one of the saddest I’ve come across this year, but it has an undeniable energy that flows through the pages that acts as a sort of shock to the reader’s system. The eponymous character (whose name is A LOT longer than “Black Moses”, which I won’t spell out here) lives Loango, an orphanage in Point Noire, the second largest city in the Republic of Congo. He was left there a week after he was born and he was given his name by Papa Moupelo, the orphanage’s priest. The book charts his coming of age and the turmoil of his country (with little moments of melancholia denoting certain political aspects), as he eventually escapes and moves about the city’s underworld, suffering sad loss after sad loss, which leads to the change of pace near the end that culminates in an act of violence and an ending that is depressingly appropriate. Reading through this book, I couldn’t help but think of Black Moses as a distant cousin to characters like Francie Brady in The Butcher Boy and Balram Halwai of The White Tiger, each one a young boy out of time who come of age in harsh environments that never quite understand them, who navigate the cruel world around them as best as they can with varying degrees of success. Along with a great narrative drive, the character’s Mabanckou creates are magnificent, ranging from the brutal bureaucratic director of the orphanage Dieudonne Ngoulmoumako, the pair of twins Moses escapes with, Old Koukouba, the caretaker of the orphanage with a grim backstory and finally Bonaventure, Moses truest friend at the orphanage, whose lineage is wrapped up with the country’s changing political landscape and whose spirit haunts the book up to its final few pages. This is a great literary work of history and humanity; exciting, funny and grim all at the same time, from an international writer I can’t wait to dive into again.

Rating: 5/5