literary fiction

Game, Set, ‘Sudden Death’

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It isn’t a book about Caravaggio or Quevedo, though Caravaggio and Quevedo are in the book, as are Cortés and Cuauhtémoc, and Galileo and Pius IV. Gigantic individuals facing off. All fucking, getting drunk, gambling in the void. Novels demolish monuments because all novels, even the most chaste, are a tiny bit pornographic. —Álvaro Enrigue, Sudden Death

The sudden death referred to in Álvaro Enrigue’s new novel (translated by Natasha Wimmer) is not the literal kind. Mystery and true crime buffs, look elsewhere. The title refers to a tie-breaking round in tennis. Sudden Death is indeed a literary tennis novel, the story of a fictional sixteenth century match between a Spaniard, the poet Francisco de Quevedo, and an Italian, the artist Caravaggio. The match is a duel of sorts, which the poet proposes after a night of hard-drinking. Neither can remember exactly why they are on the court fighting for their honor at the novel’s opening, and both are suffering from hangovers. The ball used in the match, which bounces with unusual lightness and spirit, is made of the seductive, curly locks of the beheaded Ann Boleyn.

This is a big book in a small package. Enrigue envisions history’s bigger figures, often making them endearingly small and human. It is also a book of exactitudes, a book that narrowly focuses in on history’s larger sweeping tides. Enrigue builds a disjointed but hinged world in which Ann Boleyn’s executioner, the lover of conquistador Hernan Cortés, and cardinal Carlo Borromeo all bump and whirl up against each other, influencing the world around them and bouncing their balls off each other’s rackets in one grand historic tennis match.

Sudden Death is a bold, lovely, but choppy read, which lobs its ideas fast and low. The crescendo of an ending alone makes the entire novel worth reading.

This review was originally published on the San Francisco Book Review on April 8th, 2016. Check it out there and read my other reviews, which I don’t always cross-post, if it strikes your fancy.

Sudden Death on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

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John Darnielle Quietly Releases the Wolves, withWolf in White Van

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But at that moment all I could see was the wolf in the white van, so alive, so strong. Hidden from view, unnoticed, concealed. And I thought, maybe he’s real, this wolf, and he’s really out there in a white van somewhere, riding around. Maybe he’s in the far back, pacing back and forth, circling, the pads of his huge paws raw and cracking, his thick, sharp, claws dully clicking against the raised rusty steel track ridges on the floor. Maybe he’s sound asleep, or maybe he’s just pretending. And then the van stops somewhere, maybe, and somebody gets out and walks around the side to the back and grabs hold of the handle and flings the doors open wide. Maybe whoever’s kept him wears a mechanic’s jumpsuit and some sunglasses, and he hasn’t fed the great wolf for weeks, cruising the streets of the city at night, and the wolf’s crazy with hunger now; he can’t even think. Maybe he’s not locked up in the back at all: he could be riding in the passenger seat, like a dog, just sitting and staring out the open window, looking around, checking everybody out. Maybe he’s over in the other seat behind the steering wheel. Maybe he’s driving.–John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van

Sean Phillips, the disfigured narrator of John Darnielle‘s highly buzzed-about first novel Wolf in White Van, pushes said wolf in said white van into possible existence when young, a boy with an imagination capable of hijacking reality. Young Sean watches TV at all hours, eyes glazed, seeking “a sort of shelter.” After all the other networks have gone down late at night, the Christian network stays on and Sean stays glued, learning about how some rock music, when played backwards, plays satanic messages. Satanic messages like the simple, ominous, unclear, “wolf in white van.”

Darnielle has crafted this short, shocking novel with care, he’s built it just like one of those bewitched rock songs which contains a hungry wolf when played backwards. Less deft prose would crash this book. Here, the story you come to understand is something overwhelmingly large, almost repulsive, but so often not talked about in this deliberate, compassionate way.

Sean Phillips is imaginative above all else, game and fantasy-focused. After a disfiguring accident/incident in high school, he’s become a complete social isolate. Living reclusively to avoid scaring people with his marred face, he directs players through the post-nuclear meltdown world of Trace Italian, his mail-based role playing game. The game sounds amazing, and seems to be much more clear and simple to Sean than the real world.

Few manufactured landscapes are as foreign to me as the terrain of the angry adolescent male’s mind, so inexplicable I can’t even make generalizations about it here. Maybe this is why some of the most powerful books I’ve read attempt to take on this frontier, so often dropped from our cultural narrative as we focus on the sexualization of young girls. What about young guys, these days?

Russell Banks’s Lost Memory of Skin introduced a young man so disconnected from physical contact, so plugged into chat rooms and visual delight, that he didn’t yet have the mental acuity to realize when he stumbled into a ‘To Catch A Predator’-like trap. Dave Cullen’s Columbine revealed disconnected kids totally lost inside their own minds, fueled by fantasy much more than anything around them. Not bullied, not trench-coat mafioso, but hormone-laden, romantic and imaginative guys who romanced their deaths into something worth doing.

Wolf in White Van joins this group. If books offer us understanding, a mainline into another’s thought process, then the most powerful books are the ones in which we find ourselves, page by page, understanding those among us that seem the least human, the least comprehensible. What begins as a possibly sympathetic story, of a man with a disfiguring injury, evolves into a story with so many flashes of dissonance that the text seems to shift around you and you realize you have possibly been empathizing with, or sympathizing for, a monster. Or look at things a different way, and you realize monstrous acts are always committed by struggling humans, trying to keep their own dark wolves in control, navigating mazes of problem and solution deep within their own minds.

Sean explains at one point, “Some lessons you learn gradually and some you learn in a sudden moment, like a flash going off in a dark room.” Darnielle teaches in both ways here, building to a moment the reader knows is coming but stuns all the same. I’m not going to say too much about plot, other than that. If you’d like to know all the details, the reviews revealing them are out there. Wolf in White Van has already received a National Book Award nomination, and I don’t think this is the last we’ll hear about this little book.

Wolf in White Van on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Important book of the Day – The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead.

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“What does the perfect elevator look like, the one that will deliver us from the cities we suffer now, these stunted shacks?” —The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead

This is a near perfect book with striking language – Colson Whitehead’s metaphors are worth pausing over and re-reading.  He writes such gems as “In person he is too flesh, a handful of raw meat.  Dogs have been known to follow him, optimistic.”

Centering around the elevators we all must ride in to rise up, quite literally, allows for allegory on so many levels – the concept’s brilliance comes from its simplicity.  A black female elevator inspector tries make it in a white elevator inspector’s world, intuitionist trying to make it in a rationalist’s world, all of us built up on top of each other in these big cities waiting to take the ride up to that next level.

I think this is a book that kids will be reading in high school in America when all of us are long gone.

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead on Amazon.com

Review – Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel.

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I’m still processing this book – at several times near the beginning I hated it, and was sure I’d put it down at any minute.  And yet I kept reading, as Maazel’s writing hit me in beautiful gasps and starts, mixed in with and nearly masked by all the madness of her stretched-thin plot.

The summary in a chick-mag hooked me instantly – a man develops a cult to fight the pervasive loneliness of our times, only resulting in his further isolation as the cult grows.  When I checked this book out from the beautiful Walnut Creek library and glanced at the Goodreads reviews before I started reading, however, it was rated 3 stars.  This means average, and I was worried.  People weren’t digging Woke Up Lonely, for some reason.

If Chuck Pahalniuk and Christopher Buckley were lovers and decided to adopt an African baby, Fiona Maazel might be that baby in its infancy.  One of the blurbs on the back compares Maazel to George Saunders, and I was like “WOAH let’s not go that far – George Saunders is a master of the craft!”  But then, I guess, I can see it.

What I kept getting tripped up on here was the incredible (meant in the literal, hard to believe, way) plot.  This book has a ton of bells and whistles: corrupt government officials, North Korean leaders, spies with full time makeup artists building alter egos out of face paint, an entire subversive tunnel city under Cincinnati.  I guess what gives me pause in comparing Maazel to great authors is I felt that there was such simplicity in the premise of and the concepts in the book, and yet the book itself was full of Buckley-ish mayhem that was meant to be cynical/funny but just didn’t make any sense.  I thought the plot was all fine as long as I was looking at it from a distance, not focusing my eyes too hard.  But if I stopped to pause and think what was happening in the book, I was like “What is this crap that I am reading?”

The saving grace for the plot was the writing – the main characters’ long expositions on love and loneliness are so sad and true, and Maazel has a gift for poetic one liners, like:  “I was stunned but then not, because if Norman was his own season, he came every year.” and “We were not excitably poor or evangelical, but we were striking for how little capacity any of us had to dream of a life outside the one we had.”

I would have loved a more simplistic book that showcased Maazel’s crisp writing and her premise, loneliness in the 21st century.  If you are thinking of reading this book, get ready for a messy and bumpy ride.

Woke Up Lonely: A Novel by Fiona Maazel on Amazon.com

Review – Broken Harbor by Tana French/A Case of Redemption by Adam Mitzner.

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When our shadows showed faintly they were twisted and unfamiliar, turned hunchbacked by the holdalls slung over our shoulders.  Our footsteps came back to us like followers’, bouncing off bare walls and across stretches of churned mud.  We didn’t talk:  the dusk that was helping to cover us could be covering someone else, anywhere.  — Broken Harbor, Tana French

The thrill of a mystery can sometimes be cheap – I just finished a legal thriller, A Case of Redemption, by Adam Mitzner, that reminded me of this.  And that is why Broken Harbor, by Tana French, is so worthwhile.  Tana French has created an experience here, a bizarre world of baby monitors and built up dreams shattered and a development site that seems to be its own House of Usher.  French is a master of language, and although she has written three other books in this series she has chosen this one to reveal herself as such, to come out of the literary closet and really blow us all away with her ability to write a book.  The story is crisply gothic and full of the thinking type of police procedural that makes detective books great; the characters are deep and round and real.  This is definitely one worth reading, as are the first three (In The Woods, The Likeness, Faithful Place) if you haven’t checked them out.

A note on the concept for the Dublin Murder Squad series:  Tana French picks a minor character from the previous book, and focuses on that character for the next book.  And like a chain, the books connect.  French seems such a master at character development, it almost seems a shame to keep running from characters she’s already created, and I wonder if she’ll ever go back to past favorite detectives.  I think it speaks to her skill as an author that she is able to use devices which traditionally frustrate readers, such as ditching main characters and leaving loose ends, and she still has a large fan base.

Broken Harbor on Amazon.com

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It did not bode well for my experience listening to A Case of Redemption by Adam Mitzner, narrated by Kevin T. Collins, that I was reading a hard copy of Broken Harbor at generally the same time.  It really amplified for me the difference in the quality of writing.  Where everything about Broken Harbor had been fresh and bizarre, everything about A Case of Redemption, a legal thriller, was stereotyped so heavily I almost laughed in a few placed.  Even the title was so blatantly unoriginal (A Case of Need, A Case of Conscience, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, A Case of Identity, A Case of Curiosities) it really let me know right what I was getting into.  In a sort of “ripped from the headlines with a twist” manner, a black rapper is on trial for murdering a white pop star he was dating.  I listened to this as an audiobook, and when poor writing is read aloud it starts to sound like bad acting.  The dialogue is strained, the sex scenes could use some lessons from Fifty Shades as they were more awkward than the imaginings of a 15 year old boy, and even the twists near the end couldn’t save what I felt had been a waste of a story.  What it feels like to me happens with Mitzner’s stories is he doesn’t have any sort of original voice.  I hear a story which isn’t quite as full of striking characters as a Grisham or Connelly novel, which doesn’t have that unique page-turning property of a Harlan Coben book.  Nothing special here.

A Case of Redemption on Audible.com

Review – The Dinner: A Novel by Herman Koch.

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This was a novel of beautifully slow pacing. A husband and wife out to a painfully slow, grotesquely upscale dinner which they admit dreading from the morning of. The drinks, the appetizers, the meal, the desserts, and all the life in between. The novel matched the meal in time – dragging in a way that was purposeful and neat. The lines that finished each chapter were crisp and the chapters themselves were timed beautifully, each chapter ending with a cut that left an absence, a statement in itself with the words unsaid.

I listened to the audio version of this book, narrated by Clive Mantel, and he took the time with the story that it deserved. Each time he spat out the family name I felt all the emotions boiled up underneath “Lohman”, I heard the contempt broiling up in way that is hard to do in a narration without sounding overdone.

I was surprised to read other reviews that compared this to Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Every book I’ve read since Gone Girl has been published, there’s a required comparison. I don’t see too many similarities. I would compare this to the film There Will Be Blood by Paul Thomas Anderson, for its slow crawl through the story, and its emphasis on family, social expectations, and violence. Or another comparison here, without giving too much away of either book, would be to Defending Jacob by William Landay.

I loved this book and it helped me get through several loads of laundry and many commutes. If you dislike a book that drifts before it reaches its conclusion, however, I’d skip it.

The Dinner on Audible.com

Why hello there!

I’m a lover of books. I can’t stop reading them, telling people (who aren’t asking) about them, buying them, selling them, browsing them, adding them to wishlists, checking them off my lists, reading reviews of them, listening to them. I’m creating this little site to share my love with you – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I mainly read mystery (currently Broken Harbor by Tana French, just finished Red Dragon by Thomas Harris), popular fiction (on my to-read shelf: the first four Game of Thrones novels by George R. R. Martin), literary fiction (trawling through 2666 by Roberto Bolano, just started and then sort of put off Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, listening to The Dinner by Herman Koch), memoir (currently in the middle of In the Body of the World by Eve Ensler), and non-fiction and essays (on the to-read shelf: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and currently in the middle of How to Be Alone by Johnathan Franzen). Oh, and I love a good science fiction or speculative fiction story but for some reason these aren’t in my spotlight right now.

This site will be full of reviews that I won’t insist to be unbiased, chock full of my own opinions. I like to take into account our current cultural climate while considering the medium and the message of the books I read.

All for now.