Thursday, February 12, 2015

Review: Mother Night

Mother Night
Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yowza. The kind of book you want to read in one sitting. Tragic, funny -- all the normal Vonnegut adjectives apply here, though I’d say there’s less randomness than in some of his other work (looking at you BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS).

Can’t say too much except that the main character’s status as a double-agent in WWII who’s disavowed by the US only to be put on trial by Israel -- ugh. It’s a moral quagmire with a profoundly satisfying ending.

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Review: Reservation Blues

Reservation Blues
Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thomas-Builds-a-Fire is one of the greatest characters in 20th century literature. Period.

What a fantastic novel. Stronger than Alexie’s debut collection, RESERVATION BLUES explores similar territory with an even greater scope as he takes his compelling, hilarious, and tragic characters (Thomas-Builds-a-Fire, Victor, and Junior) off of the reservation while also bringing outsiders onto it. The result is a convincing portrayal of the complex status his characters find themselves in: eroded connections to family (often fathers), white culture’s simultaneous fetishizing and dismissing of Native American culture, the fine line between advancing the status of the nation and causing problems, as well as some great, subtle, connections linking the experience of Africans and Native Americans.

Overall, this novel should be the one people suggest when recommending Alexie to those who prefer novels (THE LONE RANGER AND TONTO FISTFIGHT IN HEAVEN is a great book but might not be as cohesive for people who already bristle at short stories, even though there’s plenty of character overlap).

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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Review: American Indian Myths and Legends

American Indian Myths and Legends
American Indian Myths and Legends by Richard Erdoes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A great collection and worthwhile starting place for those interested in Myths and Legends of the Native Peoples of North America. Broken up into topics with the only limitation being the one imposed by history: many of these tales were written down post-European contact (often by Europeans) so you can see Christian influence. Still, it’s imperative to know these stories in the best forms available and this book surely is one of the best.

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Review: From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across America

From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across America
From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across America by Ishmael Reed

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An amazing anthology for anyone who loves poetry, not simply meant as a textbook (though it works quite well for college or HS classrooms as well). So many names that were new to me and shouldn’t have been. I look forward to re-reading it many times.

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Review: The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy

The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy
The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy by Jacopo della Quercia

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Smart, funny, crazy, and fast paced. A mixture of fantasy and historical reality with a fantastic cast of characters, President Taft and all his heft at the center. I can’t even explain all the wonderful elements at work here because some things would be considered spoilers. Here’s a few early tidbits that should get you engaged enough to snag a copy of this book:

--Taft’s first appearance is in an underground boxing club.
--Taft and his entourage fly around in a zeppelin that’s supposed to be top secret but he flies it to a baseball game so he can throw out the first pitch.
--an automaton goes crazy in the White House
--Lots of insults tossed at Thomas Edison; Nikola Tesla is one of the presidents supporters and supplies him with a variety of gadgets that gives this novel its steam-punk-isn flair.
--Great time period offers up plenty of cool “I didn’t know that” facts (many footnoted). The stuff that’s fiction is, of course, most fun, but the reality of some of the politics of Taft’s presidency and the pre-WWI era are fun (JP Morgan, Russian relations, Roosevelt, and more).
--Robert Todd Lincoln as the brooding sidekick to Taft is a really interesting pairing.
--plenty of intrigue, and a few twists but nothing that will make you say “Oh, COME ON!”

I honestly found this book to be so much fun and so smart and funny that I want everyone to read it just so we can talk about how it could be an amazing movie.

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Friday, December 12, 2014

Review: Conversations

Conversations by C├ęsar 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 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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