Friday, December 12, 2014

Review: 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 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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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Review: The Ballad of Peckham Rye

The Ballad of Peckham Rye
The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not as intense as THE DRIVER’S SEAT (which is the book that’s caused me to read more Muriel Spark), THE BALLAD OF PECKHAM RYE has comedic moments and essentially shows how a suspicious character who may or may not be the devil causes chaos amongst the various relationships of the people he meets. Unlike other novels that rely on the “he’s the devil but no one knows” setup (see: THE CONFIDENCE MAN by H. Melville), this novel seems less concerned with keeping his true nature a secret. It just doesn’t confirm the truth. In fact, Dougal Douglas originally comes to town because he’s following a woman he loves; but Dougal has a weakness where he cannot be around people who are sick.

I had a trouble keeping track of the cast in this book, but that could be because THE DRIVER’S SEAT was a story about one person on a mission and this was about the corrupting nature of one character amongst many.

Maybe not the best novel to start with by Spark, but definitely worth reading.

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Review: The Driver's Seat

The Driver's Seat
The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Have you ever read a book that’s reveals to you the ending, the factual ending, but doesn’t tell you why, just gives you little clues about the why, just pushes you and pushes you to get to the end because you have to know WHY everything just happened?

Of course you have, if you read mysteries.

But this book, oh this book.

Don DeLillo once said:
"When I think of highly plotted novels I think of detective fiction or mystery fiction, the kind of work that always produces a few dead bodies. But these bodies are basically plot points, not worked-out characters. The book’s plot either moves inexorably toward a dead body or flows directly from it, and the more artificial the situation the better. Readers can play off their fears by encountering the death experience in a superficial way. A mystery novel localizes the awesome force of the real death outside the book, winds it tightly in a plot, makes it less fearful by containing it in a kind of game format.” (

Muriel Spark wrote this novel as a direct counter to what normally happens in a mystery novel. And it’s fast, weird, FUNNY, and brilliant.

Read it and know this: the main character is infuriating but she’s funny in her comments, behaviors and thoughts. Things get grim, but I read this so fast and loved it.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Review: The Blue Fox: A Novel

The Blue Fox: A Novel
The Blue Fox: A Novel by Sjón

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

THE BLUE FOX reads like Hemingway crossed with a more recent Jayne Anne Phillips novel. Cut into three sections, the first is a series of precise beats following a hunter who tries to take down a fox. The middle section bursts forth with life and connectivity, loss, death, and reveals just who is the hunter we were first introduced to. The final section provides an excellent resolution, if one takes joy in reading about the suffering of a cruel and heartless man. I’d say more but don’t wish to spoil things.

Read this if you love crisp sentences and want to see how a story can be told slightly out of order to great effect.

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Review: The Heart of a Dog

The Heart of a Dog
The Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

HEART OF A DOG is a fun, focus, grim, wonderful book. Some understanding of the history of the Soviet Union is helpful going in, but as long as a reader understands that this is a critique of societies that expect immediate change in the common citizens after revolution, things will make sense.

Put this on your list if you enjoy Kafka, politically astute fiction such as IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE by Sinclair Lewis, or even George Saunders.

Translation is always crucial and while I have no idea how “faithful” this is to the original, I can say that it reads well--losing none of the intricacies of the conversations, though early on the narration is a bit confusing.

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Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well paced and fascinating, with a dark energy beneath it all. The voice is strong and I love the scene with cousin Charles and Uncle Julian. Basically, lots of things in this story are odd, perhaps untrue. In fact, this is an unreliable narrator story whereby the reader knows this but still trusts the narrator since the facts are less fascinating than the mood.

Hard to describe more without ruining elements of the plot, but at 148 pages, this is not the kind of book that will demand huge amounts of time, so I’d recommend it to anyone who likes gothic fiction.

Only downside is that I expected a bit more out of the ending because the plot climax was substantial and seemed world-altering. Not saying the ending “ruins” anything; it just wasn’t what I expected.

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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Review: Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia

Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia
Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres Sanchez

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Frenchie Garcia is one of the best characters I’ve read in a while thanks to a classic technique: the exploration of mortality. Instead of focusing on her own, however, Sanchez constructs a story wherein Frenchie ponders the suicide of a guy named Andy with whom she spent one adventurous night. Frenchie’s own mental state is fragile enough to suggest she, too, might take herself out of the world but the more compelling threat is what her own rationale might be. She’s in search of a deeper truth not to life, but to ending life.

A satisfying story with great exchanges of dialogue, a sprinkling of Emily Dickinson, and a very effective exploration of coping with death.

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Review: Charm & Strange

Charm & Strange
Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

intense and smart. to say too much is to ruin it; the narrator’s convinced he’s a monster. His friends don’t believe him. None of them are prepared for the truth.

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