Friday, December 12, 2014

Review: Conversations


Conversations
Conversations by César Aira

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



Lovely and totally, obviously, unexpectedly pretentious. I don’t mean that as a criticism, but it’s just something that needs to be said (at least to me since I’d just read THE LITERARY CONFERENCE which is more absurd than pretentious).

Anyway. Who cares about all that. This is a great great read. Even the book description -- which promises a somewhat metafictional absurdity -- seems to be part of the book’s core game/question: if we know something is fiction how much does realism matter? (I won’t spoil anything, but don’t expect the crazy climax the New Directions Paperback edition summary suggests is waiting for you in these pages.)

Like a great lecture, this is a story that explores, twists and tumbles around and is best enjoyed in 1 sitting so that all the various ideas can be held aloft and please one’s mind.



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Review: Quesadillas


Quesadillas
Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



one of the funniest and craziest books I’ve ever read. The feeling you get when you know you’re being told a story by an author who will do anything -- not because they are out of control, but because they have a head full of great ideas and a character that’s willing to act and observe and suffer and just accept the unreality of it all.

Aside from quesadillas, alien abduction conspiracies, class conflict, and sibling rivalry (usually for said quesadillas), there’s cow insemination, political shenanigans, outrage, parental woe and more. The novel never loses sight of the critique of exploitation as practiced by the unreal (but sadly very real) government and social class systems at work in Mexico, but it also never falls all over itself to become maudlin. It’s a serious book that makes you laugh even though it could make you cry.

Some specifically great moments:

A great passage, where Orestes, the narrator, learns how to play Space Invaders on Atari at his rich neighbors house. He’s befuddled by the game because it did exactly what one told it to do via the joystick & button.

He concludes:
"The world was ruled by a band of incredibly dull Aristotelians. I didn’t understand where the fun was other than in verifying that the device always did what you told it to. Was it the paradox of having invented a contraption whose fantasies served to verify the rules of reality?”

Orestes also is obsessed with confirming that his family is actually poor. “I asked [my father] if we were poor or middle class. He said that money didn’t matter, that what mattered was dignity. That confirmed it: we were poor.”

Later when he tells his older brother Aristotle (yes, the father is obsessed with Greek names) that they were poor, Aristotle dismisses the notion. Orestes comments “My brother didn’t like being poor, but the poverty of the pilgrims all around us didn’t modify our own. At the most it left us classified as the least poor of this group of poor people, which merely proved that one could always be poorer and poorer still: being poor was a bottomless well.”

Later still, when he’s forced to work with his rich neighbor: “There is only one thing worse than a poor man’s pride: the pride of the poor man who has become rich.” ha!

Can’t recommend this enough -- just be ready for anything.



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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Review: The Literary Conference


The Literary Conference
The Literary Conference by César Aira

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



very strange. this is such a meta-fictional game that I’m not sure I should obsess over potential interpretations. But it’s a fun read if you like Borges or Kafka, then check this little book out!



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Monday, September 29, 2014

Review: Prelude to Bruise


Prelude to Bruise
Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



A fantastic collection of poetry that explores connection and loss, strength and weakness, lust and love, and the nature of race in the 21st century. This is a book of poems about being human, seeking out humanity, and sending out a powerful yell to the world, to be heard.

Check out these great lines:
“...a violent pause between your question / and what I will not say. I have no answer; // my throat is the ocean now.”

“I saw us breathing on the other side of after.”


“You answer his fist and the blow
shatters you to sparks.

Unconscious is a better place, but swim back
to yourself.

Behind a door you can’t open, he drinks
to keep loving you,

then wades out into the blue hour.”
--“Cruel Body”





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Review: I Await the Devil's Coming


I Await the Devil's Coming
I Await the Devil's Coming by Mary MacLane

My rating: 2 of 5 stars



The kind of book that seems like it’s going to be tawdry or evil or SOMETHING but it reads more like the tortured diary of Gertrude Stein -- brief moments of lyricism “A little evil would do--a little of fine, good quality.” Stuff like that but it appears randomly and, ultimately, this is a diary of “nothingness” that MacLane says in the last entry, that is no different from the nothingness of the 3 months before or 3 months to come. about 80% of it is MacLane asking for an evil man, a devil, to come and take her away from her stifling existence. Sounds fine; not sure why she wants that except that she says, repeatedly, that she’s lonely and odd and a genius and desperate to experience life.

Basically, by the time the conversation with the Devil happens late in the text it’s not very fascinating.

I’m pretty disappointed in this text but I can see it as an interesting example of an honest self-assessment of a woman who was probably not much more miserable than many young women of the time and place. Then again, maybe she truly was.



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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea


In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Kim Cooper

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I was hoping for a bit more about the complexity of Jeff Magnum’s mental health/personality here, since there are elements to his personality referenced that don’t get a clear presentation -- perhaps because no one speaks ill (or completely honestly) of him or because Cooper was not given enough clarity into his manner.** For instance, at the end of the book, one interviewee mentions that Magnum’s post-NMH life involved spiritual exploration that made him a “calmer person.” Yet, there’s not much in the way of erratic behavior presented in the book. Granted, the live performances and the obsessive musical composition and recording can be cast as frantic and chaotic (which Cooper does state) but there’s nothing that indicates Magnum in particular needed to calm down. At one point Cooper references the growing pressure of Magnum being deemed a rock star, but that too lacks any real...oomph as a claim. The rock star life on display here is more living-out-of-a-van-on-the-road not massive groups of fans, destroyed hotel rooms, substance abuse, mental health breakdowns, etc. Maybe none of those things occurred, but then what pressure, what ROCK STAR pressure, was truly being felt? Was it simply, as one of the band members states, that Magnum was more sensitive than most people? If so, then did he feel like a rock star?

So, this is quibbling and I knew going in that Magnum didn’t get interviewed for the book, so Cooper’s done an amazing job despite the glaring hole in the project. Fun to read, especially now that NHM has been touring again (2013-2014). I doubt Magnum will ever be comfortable talking to the press again, but he seems to have backed away from a pretty tame media circus compared to the circuses that followed other rock stars of the 90s-00s (e.g. Cobain, Corgan, Reznor). Those bands were signed to major labels and faced huge amounts of pressure for their sophomore releases, though I absolutely agree that NMH might not seem to be in the same position, consider that PRETTY HATE MACHINE, BLEACH, and GISH all promised great things and the resulting celebration of the follow up albums, in all three cases, rocketed the bands to high-pressure, big label stardom. NMH didn’t get there and perhaps Magnus had examples like this in mind? (something tells me he didn’t since Cooper gives great details about the band’s disconnection from any mainstream influences. Cobain was enough of an icon and his suicide such a massive hit on musicians that it could have played some role in Magnus’s decision to move on, of course.)

I’m not suggesting Magnus is overly-sensitive or that Cooper hyperbolizes the experience, it’s just that the book doesn’t make a clear picture of what the stress truly felt like.

** By all accounts Magnus is as kind and lovable as he’s described here; but something felt missing and, I’m 99% sure that it’s simply Magnus’s own words that would help complete the picture of him as a artistic person as opposed to the obsessive smart artist that I see in this text.



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Review: Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History


Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History
Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



an engrossing albeit problematic history of the Comanches. Gwynne provides a great sense of how the Spanish and later the Texans failed to treat the Comanches with any respect (be it social or military). Great cultural data and some enlightening (to me, anyway) information about the politics of tribes in the southwest.

My problems arise with some of Gwynne’s language choices, where his failure to signal an ironic stance causes some confusion. For instance, when using the term “uncivilized,” Gwynne demeans the Comanche and other tribes but it’s hard to know if this is meant to be harsh or is simply that Gwynne doesn’t see a problem using “uncivilized” when he means “nomadic tribes” or “non-European peoples”. Basically, civilized equates to “having a fixed architecture, written language” etc. I can see the need for a word that differentiates the oral-tradition + nomadic culture of the Comanches, but falling back on the binary of civilized/un-civilized privileges the European/Texan/American peoples. Similar issues arise with the use of the word “savage” that is apparently meant to be ironic yet lacks a clear signal of said irony (putting savage in quotation marks or using phrases “The warriors whom the Spanish believed to be savage and unskilled ended up decimating....”)

Definitely worth reading if one has an interest in the topic, but be ready for some of these frustrating moments.



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