Friday, November 20, 2015

The King of Losers, by Justin Hood - review

Rating: 4/5

The narrative opens solipsistically in Michael August's morning work commute under heavy rain. His thoughts, focused on a grocery list, get derailed by the presence of a homeless beggar to whom he feels compelled to give away his umbrella. The act acquires a significance when it becomes apparent that giving away the umbrella becomes tantamount to giving up control over his life: Michael August gets lost. Lost in the London streets of a part of the city that he doesn't recognize, lost in his memories, lost in a reality in which fantasies lurking in the dark corners of hi subconscious suddenly intrude physically into his life. He befriends a dog, both a new attachment and the reminiscence of an old family dog.

The writing draws from magical realism and surrealism: it's not taking place in the the real world but it doesn't obey any implacable inner-mind logic either, floating as it does somewhere in between.

Michael August's excruciatingly (and, frankly, sometimes annoying) handicapping politeness prevents him from reaching out to passersby to get out of his predicament. The writing is imbued with tender indulgence for him, like M. Jones from the Bob Dylan song for whom 'something is happening here, but you're not quite sure what it is.'

The enigma that's laid out from the start is whether he's doing it all on purpose. Is he caving to some latent death wish or is it the exact opposite, a man who's been lost for years and finally wants to be found, to fall up, to give in to a life wish? It unfurls at a dreamlike pace, hinting at terrible appetites and unsuspected motives. As I neared the end of this read, I found that it didn't matter if Michael August was going toward something or running away from painful memories: his quest is the universal hunger for meaning.

There's also a backstory about the burgeoning love of an amateur artist for his model, which upends the notions of observer and observed, until the backstory flows into the main story and fits in a vital piece of the puzzle.

In the end, the story, moving incessantly back and forth in time to draw a picture that stands just out of time, resonates. We're all Michael August, or at least we've been this guy before.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami - review

My rating: 2/5

Murakami is a seasoned and dedicated runner, and draws many parallels from his joint universes of running and writing. In distance running, it’s important to move forward, to find the pace that suits the distance, to avoid friction and unnecessary energy expenditure, find a rhythm and occupy the mind with music and daydreams to allay the monotony.
He seems to apply the same to his writing. The plot moves forward, the characters patiently pursue whatever is awaiting them in the barely-discernable distance, and bounce along avoiding getting hurt and keeping their heads level with the horizon. Then, toward the end, an all-out sprint that releases a cascade of adrenaline and it’s done. His plot is on a path from which he does not veer, his characters are always in character and self-coherent, there are no superfluous digressions, the whole is like a well-greased machine that glides forward, seemingly effortlessly.

(spoilers ahead)

The novel has two main characters: Tengo and Aomame. Tengo is a math teacher and writer, whose writing talent is stymied by some form of writer’s block until he does a rewrite of a strange girl Fuka-Eri’s story about mysterious Little People who enter this world to build air chrysalises, which may or may not be made up, who knows. Fuka-Eri asks questions that don’t end in audible question marks, which adds to her strangeness. Tengo has known Aomame from his school days and retains an intense memory of her, of the one time she held his hand and peered deeply into his eyes. Aomame is a martial arts instructor with a fetish for intense sex with middle-aged men with thinning hair that may be proxies for Murakami, who knows. She also dabbles in contract killing of abusive husbands, contracts given to her by a rich dowager who is referred to as the dowager, whose security by a burly gay man named Tamaru, who may be a contract killer himself, who knows.

This is how the plot moves forward: Tengo rewrites Fuka-Eri’s story and in the process is drawn closer to her, thus learning of her past in a a cultish organic farming institution called Sakigake. Aomame kills abusive husbands and is introduced to the women who have retreated from them, among which Tsubasa, who escaped from the Sakigake compound. Ramification point identified. Oh, and Aomame’s world is strangely different from our own, because the police carry berettas, not revolvers like she seems to remember, and by-the-way don’t look now but there are two moons in the sky just like, it is revealed, is the basis of Tengo’s novel.

(end spoilers)

I’ll admit I was bored during much of my reading of this novel, though the strangely familiar strange elements make up for it. I expected more grit, more dissonance and friction and pain. My main problem with it is that it’s a long and slow-paced read, but the various hints it sheds along the way, so many little promises, don’t deliver.

There’s not enough character evolution to justify such a long read. Not enough world buiding. The narrative doesn’t take us to the places where we want to go, the places we’re curious about. The depictions of the boiling perils turn into roadside puddles. The magical realism doesn’t seem necessary. The characters, initially well fleshed out, stagnate in their inital cast.

And so, having gotten through it, I can only turn to other potential readers and say, “Don’t bother.”

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Boxer, Beetle, by Ned Beauman - review

Rating: 4/5

The story starts with Nazi memorabilia collectors before diving into 1936 and a 5-foot, 9-toed, gay Jewish boxer on his way to a world title match in New York, and his meeting with a fascist entomologist who is fascinated by his achievements in regard to his physical attributes.

This novel is a bizarre patchwork of genres. The action in the present is pretty funny, the main character and narrator suffering with trimethylaminuria, a condition that makes him urine-stinky to the point of not having a social life beyond the forums where he trades in his Nazi memorabilia. When the novel plunges into 1936, it becomes a historical reenactment of the upsurge of eugenics, applied Darwinism and British fascism. It is also a psychological portrait of two characters. First the Jewish boxer, his innate violence and the environment in which it allowed him to rise, and then the entomologist who in his headlong rush to acquire the boxer, doesn’t (or can’t) identify the true nature of his attachment to the boy. These different genres create breathing space from each other and add to the pace of the narrative as it unfolds and considerably complexifies, ultimately binding together the Darwinism, the eugenics, the insects and the fascism quite coherently.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Welcome to the Abyss, by Steve Nahaj - book review

Rating: 3.5/5

I bought this book after hearing the author read it - a performance that mixed the reading in with music and video - and being rather charmed at the way it was done.

The novel chronicles Johan's experience traveling from Colorado to Paris to Amsterdam, searching for a reason to stop, seeking solace and self-knowledge in a series of hasty and overlapping relationships. Reading it, I missed that the "abyss" to which the title refers is never defined or explained, and one can only suppose that it just means liking booze and hasty overlapping relationships a little too much. It makes the main character hard to sympathize with at first, his voyage of self-discovery being pretty much financed by generous, sedentary family members. But then, his candor and open-eyed appreciation of life, his occasional deep insights into the whole human carnival are refreshing and keep us on with him, choosing to follow as he jumps from place to place following an undeniable whim and thirst for revelation. Written in a brash, eager style that doesn't let go of any metaphor it snatches, no matter where it's been.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson - book review

Rating: 4/5

This is a  strange ghost story, as ghost stories go. The premise is a group of people who volunteer to spend time in the Hill House to study the haunting phenomena from a scientific perspective. They’re initially strangers under Hill House roof and the relationships start off happily, buoyed by eagerness and excitement. The story is told from Eleanor’s point of view, coming from a sheltered and restrained life and who attempts to pass herself off as one of the cool kids. Theodora and Luke are actual, dyed-in-the-wool cool kids and the older doctor Dr. Montague is a cool father figure to all of them. As Eleanor strives for acceptance and to overcome her own internalized imposture syndrome, the group dynamic marginalizes her and she drifts between hope and resentment. Oh well, at least the House is her friend.

Thoroughly good read, quite touching at times, though the style is a little difficult to follow at times, flitting between the factual and metaphorical in keeping with Eleanor's inner turmoil.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline - book review

Rating: 3/5

Following the death of a billionaire software developer who created a gigantic virtual world, the control of that world is legally set to be given to whoever uncovers the clues leading to the retrieval of three different keys and ultimately the egg. the narrator is a poor orphan set on winning the contest with the occasional help of his OASIS friends, none of whom he has ever met in real life.

The story, through the quest, is chock full of 80's references, be they video games, computers, films, or songs. All these references happen to be part of the deceased billionaire's cultural baggage, but really they're an unabashed excuse to revisit a period and revel in the nostalgia, thick and syrupy.

It's hard to complain about it, however. Wade's quest for keys in a recreation of a historical period is a stand-in for just about anyone's search for meaning in the many meanders of the cultural past.

The key (see what I did there) to appreciating this novel is not to look at it too closely. The Japanese buddy Shoto speaks American too well, the love story is trite and unsurprising (OMG I've never seen her in real life what does she look like), and the some clues are obvious enough that it's hard to believe that no one got them through simple artificial intelligence programs. Other than that, it's a rollicking good, bro-tastic ride, fun and feisty.

There's even a men-becoming-gods subtext to it, made believable by the virtual world.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

On Becoming a Novelist, by John Gardner - book review

 Rating: 4/5

Well, this book could really be titled "On Becoming a Novelist in America" because it's really US-centric. The rest of the world, for instance, won't care that Iowa has a good creative writing program but that Stanford's is no slouch either. But that doesn't take anything away from it, a mix of craft guide, insider wisdom and above all the cumulative experience of the author's many years teaching creative writing in a university setting.

It's enlightening to read that creative writing teachers, while not exactly making it up as they go along, hold to a diverse set of values and goals, though he affirms that in the end it doesn't matter what values are used so long as the students are free to adopt or buck them. No values is bad values, because it leaves the student at the mercy of fashion and unending subjectivity.
Any fledgling writer will want to pay close attention to the section that highlights the signs that you may be in a bad workshop.

I really enjoyed the author's take on the pithy one-liners that circulate in writing circles. For instance, "show, don't tell" isn't widely applicable at all, it only applies to describing emotions and internal states, or which basic adjectives are often wanting. "Write what you know" is another one that, while not debunked, gets a deeper treatment than it suggests. Theme is not all that’s it’s hyped either.

There's stuff to keep from it and anyone reading it will disregard certain aspects or passages, but the
weight of experience in this work is apparent and enriching.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The End of Eternity, by Isaac Asimov - book review

Rating: 4/5

Mankind has conquered Time Travel and a society of guardians,  the Eternals,  regulate human activity by small interventions that are calculated to optimize human happiness in all the centuries in which man still exists. A member of the Eternals seeks to buck his responsibility to Eternity though,  when his love for a Timer contravenes the Eternal's code of conduct.

There's a good deal of world-building in the opening chapters of this book,  so much that I began to worry that that's all there was,  but small flaws in the description of the utopia described through the regulating actions of the Eternals build up and lead to a richly layered narrative that flits between the love story,  flimsy at first but steadily more believable,  and the larger context of the relationship between the Timers and the Eternals,   the politicking between the Eternals themselves,  and the light shone on the small mysteries in the fabric of the curated universe as they converge and coalesce,  becoming more gripping as the story moves into a conflict for the very survival of Eternity itself. Riveting read!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Red Sorghum, by Mo Yan - book review

Rating: 4/5

There is a lot of mention of sorghum in this book. Sorghum is a grain, and a type of wine can be made of it. From early on in the novel, it weaves into the narrative and enfolds the main characters together. After a while, you wonder how the narrative would hold if it weren’t for the sorghum, as a living embodiment of China’s Gaomi Township. If it weren’t for the sorghum, it’s hard to imagine what is keeping the story together, because it leaps across styles just as it leaps across a generation, encompassing the narrator’s grandparents and parents. It’s a country tale, then a love story, then a bandit tale, then a war epic, then a far-east western, then a martial arts story, then a mafia story, then a folk tale, back to love, then a fairy tale, and still it goes on with only the sorghum to bear witness as the narrator’s grandfather woos a small-footed woman promised to the wealthy and leprous son of a distillery owner. The distillery is for making Sorghum wine, and the narrator’s grandparents make a ‘special’ brew that draws instant fame in the surrounding area.

War looms large in the novel, the Gaomi armies fighting the Japanese almost as hard as they fight themselves. It lends the characters a heroism that draws their flaws into stark contrast and makes them relatable even as it seems they would be lost without the excesses that lead to their demise. An exciting, multi-faced and constantly transforming read.