Review of Something Happened by Joseph Heller

Family dynamics and office politics are explored with acerbic wit in the ranting, eccentric ramblings of our sleaze ball narrator in Something Happened.

The internal monologue is so steeped in hate and vindictive self-righteousness that it will easily polarize half the readers. But following the main character’s galloping train of thought is like having a lucid nightmare. The endless parentheses and asides, pages dripping with spittle and spite ring true to me. You don’t have to agree with anything the narrator says, or the author, for that matter.

Is it possible to write a great American novel about the depressing lie of the American dream? How oppressive and selfish it is? How the American dream every salesman, and most every man dreams, can quite possibly lead to personal tragedy? More than that though, I feel that most people can sympathize with the self-destructive tendencies of our over-stimulated, Consumerist state of mind. In this book there are a plethora of self-created problems. It reads like the sorry tale you might hear if you interviewed the well-dressed man at the end of most of the bars in America. Even so, it is indicative of, and a product of, the time in which it was written. Open commentary, racism, misogyny and nihilism played for cheap laughs, lascivious daydreaming, anxiety-ridden whimpering, and a slew of other incantatory criticisms, extrapolated and examined endlessly from a solitary point of view.

In the end, after the storm passes, a vast emptiness is left in its wake. Perhaps it is a warning against perpetuation, an entreaty to make more of an effort at kindness. More likely, it is a purgative, a way to become conscious of the little devil on your shoulder, who whispers bad things, who always points out how fat or lazy people are, which is always pointlessly going on about stupidity, incompetence and denial. The trap of self-loathing and of loathing everyone and everything is almost more natural than complacency, than quiet acceptance. It is possible to be alone, even around other people, but it is never necessary.

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is an established classic, cause for much grumbling in high school English classrooms, and is a more positive satire.

But if you aren’t scared of a little negativity, if you find you can rise above complainers and reflect upon the sheer volume of complaining that warrants tuning out, then there is a lot of value in this prolonged tirade against the cruel and inhuman state of our own minds, enmeshed in a prison society of corporate greed and filial pressures. Love it or hate it, you will not set the book down unmoved.

Review of Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah’s autobiographical “stories” read like reminiscences. There are moments of wit, and some startling descriptions of life under apartheid.

 It is an especially brilliant audiobook performance from the author as well. There would’ve been no one more qualified or better able to read his work aloud than himself.

There is very little reportage but plenty of storytelling in this book. It is a sort of rags to riches story, but it focuses on what was important in Noah’s memories, rather than what the reader might expect. Raised by his mother in the unbelievable environment of South Africa at the time. I was more interested in the setting than I was in his awkward years, trying to talk to girls, go to dances, and get in with the crowd at parties and school. But he is relating the details of his life to reveal the incredibly valuable perspective he has gained. I had very little understanding of apartheid and didn’t even know who Trevor Noah was until someone recommended this to me. I guess I need to watch more television???

The vivid depictions of his mother, the communities he interacted with and the most complicated race politics I’ve ever read about combine to forma memorable picture of another part of the world most Americans can gain from exploring. It is an easy read, but challenging in the difficult circumstances it confronts you with. Sure he is witty, but his sense of humor wouldn’t have been enough to engage me without the unfamiliar territory he described. I am not a nonfiction reader by nature, and this still appealed to my thirst for literary entertainment. It’s hard to imagine true poverty, living in America, where our brand of poverty is having to eat at McDonalds because the other restaurants are too expensive. In this memoir, McDonalds WAS the expensive restaurant.

Trevor Noah has obviously gained a following. I only hope that my review, buried under thousands of ecstatic, more qualified reviewers, converts a few more people into trying this important book.

Review of Cynicism Management (Cynicism Management Series Book 1) by Bori Praper

Cynicism Management is an English language novel by a Slovenian author and musician. Its tone is, of course, cynical.

A colorful group of pseudo-amateur musicians converge in a spy-tinged romp through modern Slovenia. On the outskirts of these absurdly amusing characters are contracted corporate spies, who treat the affair more like a vacation than a mission.

The culture clash between American and Eastern European lifestyle is evident. One can only assume the author is spoofing American corporations in many scenes, though the same treatment could be applied to Asian conglomerates, or any all-encompassing post-war Consumerist brand.

“So no severance package for us?”
“Only if it’s severance of our packages…”

With incredibly witty dialogue the personas on the page spring to life. Not to mention, the author has a keen eye toward detail and elegantly introduces punchlines you won’t see coming. The style flows smoothly and is far more sophisticated than a passing glance might reveal. The book can be a bit long-winded at times, but the sharp satire and irreverent characters do not get old. Except for the fact that some of them are old, as in, they are aging rockers, and like to dream big, even in a small town pub.

No one is immune to Praper’s cattle-prodding satire: women and men, Irish or Middle Eastern, child or terrorist. Each possesses folly and charm, weakness and strength. In short, the characters are well-rounded, easy to follow, and endlessly entertaining.

As the author warns on page 1, it is meant as a stark parable. It is the polar opposite of politically correct, and if you turn off your trigger warnings, it results in a fabulous good time.

This is a well-written, unreserved, but controlled, nostalgic labor of love. Much thought and deliberate care went into crafting the characters, descriptions, dialogue and pacing.

I’ve not visited Slovenia yet, though I have been in the same Slavic neighborhood. Therefore, I was not as surprised by some of the behavior and culture on display as many Americans might be.
I enjoyed similar rock-related anecdotes throughout my childhood, since my father fit into the category of “aging rocker,” for some years.

Praper’s casual, readable style is infectious. The comedy is quick and furious. One might say unrelenting. It is an aggressive display of verbal wit well-versed in personal, daily tragedies and the Rabelaisian aspects of everyday existence.

Completely convincing character introductions, the ravings of conspiracy theorists, and a Wayne’s World type atmosphere are combined with a writing ability comparable to Aleksandar Hemon’s.

What are the root causes of cynicism? For some it is a sadness too deep to confront directly. Beneath the humor is also deep pathos, the struggles of a downtrodden people, yet concealing personal baggage and hard knocks like champs, putting on a smile and playing their heart out.

Review of Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis

“This is what would happen if I gave my kids a trust fund.” – said someone, about this book.

I fear this frame of mind for our youth. This casual nihilism, this destructive illusion of indestructibility. At times powerful, at other times, just not that compelling. Excessive, isn’t it? It is, at the very least, thought-provoking on the level of: If only you kids understood anything about how the world works. I recommend listening to the audio version, love thy neighbor, and try to wash out your ears afterward.

Bret Easton Ellis’ remarkable debut novel, rife with topical allusions, already glows with pure pop 80’s nostalgia (not that I’m that old…) in the 2010’s – why, it’s almost 2020, but somewhere, probably, kids are acting like this, and B. E. E. was brave enough to write about it in the first person, and having spent a day in L. A. I feel like I might have seen some of these people walking around… Joking, of course. Take the whole thing as a joke, it’s obviously an exaggeration… right?

It benefits from brevity. Being in the vicinity of these characters is possibly toxic. I found the other Ellis book I read less bearable than this one. He works in this sub-genre, skirting Hunter S. Thompson and Johnathan Lethem, carving out his own literary digs next to Donna Tartt, and reusing his characters later, at greater length, though I don’t think I have the wherewithal to follow through and read the rest of his oeuvre.

Review of Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds

Second Reynolds after House of Suns. This one felt like he was phoning it in by comparison with the first. 

Still a decent s-f novel with a great concept. If you look at all of his concepts, they tend to be perfect set-ups. The backs of his books often read better than the books themselves.

I do think he weaves in a lot of ideas, but I did not feel that the world was fully explored. I did not care about the characters and the pacing dragged. A lot of people may be easily immersed in the futuristic setting, taking place on a sky-piercing tower, with multiple civilizations distributed throughout its levels, each constricted to a different level of technology. You can go a lot of directions with such a concept, but the central thrust of the narrative, the main conflict, while it worked in a cinematic sense, seemed to lack the tension I was hoping for.

If I compare it to House of Suns, the leading concept is more central to this plot than that other. In HoS, the experience of reading the book is heightened by the subtlety of the world building, how one gets the sense of an endless variety of forms within the fictional universe. There is less of that feeling here, much less, and it is a straightforward exploration of an intriguing world.

Long-winded, slightly repetitive in plotting, and with fewer memorable characters. Nonetheless, Reynolds is a powerhouse s-f writers. Clearly one of the best, but is not exempt from occasionally boring me. How could he have improved it, you ask? The simple answer would be detail. It feels a little like Mad Max, which I liked, but non-stop action only serves to turn the brain off. I wanted a discussion of scientific speculations, woven with the tried-and-true themes, lots more atmosphere. Instead, we got one action set-piece following another.

Review of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

A fascinating look at characters and the brutalities of war and violence that seep into our lives. 

Murakami’s characters aren’t necessarily deep, but they feel like real people. The women are mediums, he claims, allowing the male protagonist to experience new concepts. They take some getting used to.
The whole book is memorable, and seems like the condensation of all of Murakami’s signature ideas: cats, violence, pasta, random sexual encounters, wells… His style is well-polished and Rubin’s translation is of the highest quality. Though once I found out that a lot had been removed from the novel I wanted all the more to read it in the original. Rubin claims he translated all of the best parts of the novel in his book Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words – still, I don’t see his reasoning for cutting things out. The novel is composed of disconnected segments with only tenuous relations to one another. Murakami’s masterpiece should be given it’s due. I hope once enough time has passed another translation will come out. As much as I admire Rubin, I think he may be trying to make one of his favorite authors safer for American audiences. I could be wrong, but Murakami’s MO is weirdness. He is Raymond Carver fed through the meat grinder with pop-culture and dream-logic.
I’ve read Wind-up Bird twice and might read it again. It really affords me an opportunity to escape from the mundane world. I even enjoyed reading interviews with Murakami – because this book always comes up. It’s the sort of work that invites discussion. He’s really on a whole different level with this one. There are already so many reviews out there, but in the end you’ll have to decide for yourself if you’re completely taken by his bold literary surprises or turned off by his jazz-like improvisations.
You get snatches of humor in this book as well to lighten the tone. The personality really shines through. As a writer with journalistic tendencies, he knows how to cater to the gut-level desires of his seething hoards of frothing-at-the-mouth fans.

Review of The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami

The quiet beauty of a store interior. The intentionality of the setting. The sincere dignity of a retail worker. The cyclical expanse of such a life, confined within shrinking walls, hemmed in by the minutiae of the commercial products of everyday life. 

Constant exposure to these mundane implements imbues them with chimerical, mystic qualities, and reminds us that a dioramic life can still be a rich one.

Very similar to the set up of Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, Nakano Thrift Shop takes place in a store in Japan. The employee who narrates our story lives the repetitive rhythms of most retail workers, yet in this manner, exposes the hidden beauties to be found in minimalist lifestyles. That is not to say she is not also fraught with worry, shame, jealousy, loneliness and anxiety. In fact, her experience proves to be both boring and enlightening.

What this short novel does well is portray the feeling and nuance of its setting. It lacks dramatic twists and startling lyricism, but possesses the sophisticated clarity and restraint characteristic of the author’s other books, all of which I enjoyed to some degree. This is for fans of Banana Yoshimoto and for those who can appreciate the subtleties of a Japan frozen in a state of perpetual unrest and gender tension. This genre is often called Slice of Life. In small doses, it offers a refreshing reprieve from one’s own often underwhelming existence.

Review of The Abyss of Human Illusion by Gilbert Sorrentino

A brief, final testament left by Sorrentino, and proof that his dotage was virile and discerning.

Broken into 50 scenes, these flask fictions (flash fictions) are reminiscent of Barthelme and even, fragments of Bolano.

Often humorous, this “novel” shines with deep human emotions, wry bathos – as the author himself describes it – and bawdy touches of loving fun. While not free of his habitual racial slurs, it is less scathing and indicting than the previous book of his I read, called Aberration of Starlight.

The presiding sentiment, I think, is the futility of living, of aging, and of growing sour. Clearly coming from his own perspective, he depicts writers in their final death throes (in the literary sense) and has the detached wit so clearly at the forefront of literary fiction in his time. Unlike the distasteful scenes you’ll find in the previously mentioned work, he is no less honest here, but subtle and refined.

The defining characteristic of these vignettes is eloquence. In the short space of a couple pages, he encapsulates characters with precise details and charming nonchalance.

As I explore this author’s work further, I doubt I will find another book as refreshing as this one in his revelrous oeuvre. But he is apparently full of surprises.

Review of La Grande by Juan José Saer

Long at 500 pages but not-quite monolithic, this scattered Argentinian novel about a confusing literary movement called Precisionism, is less precise than the dependably inaccurate blurbs led me to believe.

Jumping from close-knit characters to disparate scenes to clandestine moments of startling imprudence, through days and nights and the tired territory of restaurants and bedrooms, childhood and romantic entanglements, I was propelled through the narrative in the same way I enjoyed many bigger, better Spanish language tomes in the past. But unlike Terra Nostra or Infante’s Inferno, Le Grande appears at times hastily composed. Many sentences rely on similes and strained metaphors, but as often as they shed light on pithy topics, they distract from action and tension, going on at exuberant length to prove a point I might have gleaned from a few choice words. Nonetheless this was an occasionally entertaining, readable, slightly tedious novel, with mesmeric atmosphere and an effective setting. Disregarding the politics it describes (not my department), the South America is presents is both exquisitely beautiful and rife with commonplace sin and disillusion.

Like Bolaño’s contrived literary movement in Savage Detectives, you might read a thousand pages more about the bit players of Precisionism before being swayed by their views.

I counted six pages in a row describing one character threading a needle. It really got to me. I recall passages in Beckett minutely cataloging inconsequential actions, but since Saer didn’t prepare the reader for this side-quest, it came as an unwelcome surprise. The majority of the pages contain mundane descriptions of one sort or another interspersed with just as many good literary choices. Most of the paragraphs take up 2 full pages, cut through by sparse resuscitation of dialogue. Great lines might pass you by if you aren’t paying attention, and when the description isn’t fantastic it is just long. The main and only downfall of this book is the perspective. It is difficult to zero in on and understand these literary characters, bewildered as we are by the flood of detail.

La Grande is a twisted look at a fascinating culture and time, but made for an uneven reading experience in my opinion. Admittedly, there are unifying themes, images and motifs (especially wine). The characters are not shallow puppets but fleshed, flawed, damaged individuals. A dense and complex amalgamation of memory and texture, fruitful relationships and a definite, disturbing undercurrent. Read it for the publisher, who is making a valiant effort to fill the gaps in foreign literature available in English. Read it for Saer, who put his impassioned talent to use, reaching for a greatness he might not have fully attained, but certainly approached.

I may tackle more of Saer’s books in the future, but I see myself enjoying the rest of Cortazar first.

Review of The Last Olympian (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #5) by Rick Riordan

Percy Jackson and the Olympians is a series that embodies many of enjoyable aspects of YA fiction and fantasy.

The difference between this volume and the first is pretty vast in my opinion. The development of the author is clear throughout the series, more so than in similar sagas. Writers don’t often find their feet and then run a marathon in the way Riordan has done for the length of his career.

The only back-step was the second volume. Now at the finish line of this influential series, this book is marked by spectacular action, great stakes, good characterization, and payoff for all of the set-up. The Last Olympian provides a satisfying conclusion. Some characters are redeemed and others have to turn over the spotlight. The whole thing was tense and interesting, with a few unexpected turns.

From the beginning, the strength of the series was in its characters and the choices they make in the final volume continue to keep them relevant. The lessons from the last few volumes trickle over and you’re not always sure what is motivating them. The tone is dark, but it makes for cinematic set pieces.

The theme of sacrifice is well-explored and memorable gods and titans paint a vivid backdrop for thematic elements.

Review of Abyssinia by Damian Murphy

Redolent of mystic awareness. Cryptic and profound. With a highly refined prose style, the author indulges in subtle subterfuge of the reader’s expectations.

A quiet and subconscious exploration of inner landscapes, characters bound by association to a storytelling doll, imbued with sententious sentience. Constricted to the confines of a microcosmic hotel, the novella radiates a distinctly European allure, but yet contains the puzzled musculature of a Borgesian foray into the wild unknown.

Mr. Murphy uses his locales to push and pull at the contours of his characters’ perceptions. With a sort of blurred clarity, he conveys an elegiac acquaintance with the uncanny and a breathless insinuation toward the everyday-magical aspect of a quiet, plotless endurance of the presence of other beings. For when you get right down to it, people are other consciousnesses, whom we must perforce fail to comprehend. This is a sublime descent into the outskirt encounters of lives adjacent to our own, each possessing an exquisite and memorable texture.

Review of The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada

This would have been a fun book. But the short sections are told through shifting first person perspectives, adding unnecessary layers of confusion. 

I wanted to read about Japan’s Middle class struggles. It is hard to tell if this book is about jaded employees or hallucinogenic workplaces. Overall, it has intriguing ideas buried beneath unreadable paragraphs, lumbering under the weight of too many rhetorical questions and skittish internal monologues. Read Convenience Store Woman instead. That book displays a fascinating underclass struggle in a modern, heartfelt way.

This is not a story told in a straightforward way. The author was either trying to experiment, or wanted to obscure timelines and narrators, creating a ghost-like cast spouting dream-like inter-office frustration. Absolutely unenjoyable. But I would read other books by this author, simply for the atmosphere.

Review of Mr Palomar by Italo Calvino

Mr. Palomar, Calvino mentions elsewhere, is another one of his literary exercises.

 It is not as fascinating or developed as Cosmicomics or Winter’s Night, but a worthwhile read. Mr. Palomar observes various phenomena, draws cosmic and personal connections, and then moves on. He is more a mouthpiece or a device for the author than a character. The observations are astute and frequently fascinating, though disconnected, arbitrary and exotic. Whether he is examining the sunset or an albino gorilla, our narrator always has a skewed and charming perspective. There is less knowledge and more humor and pathos in these contrived scenes.

An enjoyable, languorous atmosphere beset with gem-like set-pieces. A metaphorical journey through the mind of a literary master and more polished than his other books of reminiscences.

This is still a minor work of slight literary interest, and I would recommend The Cloven Viscount or Nonexistent Knight for those new to the author.

Review of Endangered Species by Gene Wolfe

I would question anyone who reads this whole book and fails to rate it 5 stars. What are you looking for in fiction?

Sophisticated characters, complex subtexts, compulsively readable science fiction themes, lighthearted fantasy, excellent world-building, truly immaculate imagery, well-defined dramatic scenes, a huge variety of motifs, atmosphere and tense dichotomies? The list could go on and on. Stretched over 500 pages, this more than generous helping of Genius Wolfe is enough to satisfy anyone.

In 34 stories, Wolfe displays his brilliance on several levels. His usual fascination with ghosts runs through many stories, including a breathtaking traditional literary ghost story and a space opera that plays out as effectively as George R. R. Martin’s Nightflyers. Many of the stories are long and incredibly engaging. Each has unexpected twists and mesmerizing, subliminal suggestions. I was bowled over by the completely convincing Dickens homage. There is also a ghost story that read like a Somerset Maugham tale. There were a few interconnected stories related to the Solar Cycle and the mythology of Thag. You will encounter anthropophagi and anti-matter entities, robots and rampaging unicorns, post-apocalyptic struggles and straightforward insurance fraud. There have been stories of synthetic human war machines and interdimensional battles with magical creatures before, but no one tells them quite like Wolfe. I was enchanted by the Arabesque and moved by the many interlaced storytelling elements throughout. This work represents a career well-realized and a talent well-developed.

Wolfe has an expert’s understanding of science fiction’s underpinnings, and displays them by incorporating microuniverses, macro DNA strands and genetic modifications. He ropes in traditional fantasy storytelling, epic space action, and parodies. His work is known for allegory and Biblical themes, and many can be found herein. Yet, it is not easy to pinpoint some of his references, and true to form, he leaves many pieces and strings for the reader to work out upon reflection. Speculation is part of the fun, whether a character’s existence is called into question, or the reader must doubt another character’s perception or sanity, this is part of the process of digesting these vivid creations and deriving the every bit of intellectual stimulation out of them as you can. Like all of his stories I’ve read so far, I think I’ll be revisiting this collection.

Review of A Captive of Love: A Romance from the Original Japanese of Kyokutei Bakin by Bakin Takizawa

Takizawa Bakin or Kyokutei Bakin is a truly remarkable Japanese author, little known in the West. 

He lived from 1767-1848 and according to online sources wrote at least 470 books, many of which were quite hefty, according to accounts from other Japanese writers, and the most famous of these works is The Chronicles of the Eight Dog Heroes of the Satomi Clan of Nansô, sometimes called The Chronicle of the Eight Samurai Dogs. It is a work rivaling Remembrance of Things Past in length. He was Japan’s first professional writer, and I can only imagine that he spent the greater part of his life writing. To some Japanese, including Akutagawa, he is considered the greatest Japanese novelist.

Like Dumas, he was incredibly prolific, and wrote “romances” in the olden sense, involving chivalry, warfare, love, and adventure. Judging from the one major work of his available in English, (this one) his style is extremely refined, on the level of Dumas or Jack London, and he captured characters and settings extremely well. I have discovered stray stories and chapters from his samurai epic online and through scholarly translations, and they are all of a similar quality. It is astounding to me that English speakers have access to less than 1% of this giant’s literary accomplishment.

Chronicle of the Eight Samurai dogs, composed in 106 chapters, over 28 years, is an established classic in Asia, and has inspired numerous movies, animes, and other books and adaptations. Glynne Walley has admitted online to having translated at least 70 chapters of this monumental work, but none have come to light, except his college thesis translation, which his University library won’t let me check out, though I have tried repeatedly. The only other chapters available are infrequent fan translations and Donald Keene’s four chapter selections. What a shame.

The reason Bakin was inspired to write novels of such length was due to the prevalence of the great epics of Chinese literature, which during the Edo period were the prime literary examples. Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Outlaws of the Marsh, and Dream of the Red Chamber were just the most famous. I don’t think it is possible for a non-Chinese speaker to comprehend the full scope of Chinese literature, given the paltry selection we have access to in this information age. Lu Xun’s “Brief” History of Chinese Literature opened my eyes. Like Pu Songling claims, even during the Ming dynasty, libraries containing over 10,000 distinct works were not uncommon…

But back to Bakin,
A Captive of Love is an extraordinary novel, and since it is available online for free, I highly recommend you read it.
The perspective, like many Edo novelists, is Buddhist, though Shinto still shows strong influence in the stories, more so than in this particular novel. You can expect Japanese folklore to make an appearance, like yokai and everything Lafcadio Hearn outlines in his works, but Bakin lends gravitas to his plot through forceful writing, though he is famously lacking in any trace of humor.

As a member of the samurai class, Bakin was qualified to write about protagonists from this stratum of society, and I gather that he wrote of them often. The morality of the characters and the author’s intentions are always clear. This is both an entertaining and a didactic work, but it is mainly a valuable testament of a time out of reach of modern novelists. It is hard to imagine a more effective historical evocation than this one, even if it is not an exhaustive study or soaring masterpiece. Even if this is one of Bakin’s less important works, what else do we non-Japanese have to work with?

The adventures undergone by the main character, dictated by class and fate, are wild, creative and picaresque. They are reminiscent of Don Quixote’s travails, without as much wit and just as much deep moral consciousness. I was sad to finish this novel, and found the need to reread Pu Songling’s stories to capture that graceful elegant, playful storytelling again. I may return to this work to relive its charming evocations, but I certainly, undoubtedly, will read anything else by Bakin that ever sees a proper translation. I’m looking at you Walley.

Review of What is All This?: Uncollected Stories by Stephen Dixon

I’m not going to go easy on Dixon this time. But I will read more of his stuff and decide if he deserves the accolades and blurbs.

The stories here are artificial because the mechanics of what he is doing are never concealed by the writing. You can see the gears turning in his writerly mind, and in some cases, predict what he is going to type next. This is the writing of someone with a gun to his head. In a way, the urgency of the words is immense, you can barrel through a void of unmeaning – while he churns butter – the literary equivalent of it – out of the void.

Some tales are genuinely moving though. They are tales of American desperation. At the same time they convey a desperation for recognition and are too often about how to infiltrate female trousers.
The plight of writers, rarely writing, but always seeking to be known, is a consistent subject. The author tackles this concept repeatedly, while not forgetting to include the unsung heroes of our country’s formidable industries of food and manufacturing. The stories do not often attain a resolution, are fundamentally uneven, a crap-shoot, and contain too much mundane conversation.

His most traditional stories are his best in my opinion, which could just mean I’m not impressed by pure experimentation. When he isn’t fooling around, his writing plumbs deeper and provides memorable drama.

When he nails the voice, he’s mightily convincing. His clipped ticker tape style is very easy to read. Dixon sticks to 85% dialogue much of the time, when describing the petty squabbles of lovers, he can be alternately clever and puerile, exact and infantile, and slipping into jabbering nonsense too quickly. The longer stories are sometimes well-fleshed out, multi-dimensional, and affecting. In many others, he is simply exhausting narrative possibilities. The most radically different ones are obnoxious catalogs of internal checklists, or monologues eliminating various scenarios ad nauseum. Pointless speculations, mindlessly repetitive worrying, automatic writing, and the rest of it, as if Dixon were trying desperately to fulfill a word count quota. The psychology of blame recurs again and again, as does marriage, guilt, and the spats of cohabiting men and women, irreducibly selfish in nature, these characters enact combat theatrics as if their lives depended on it. Unfiltered, raw, frequently awkward, rhythmic, free associative, could all describe the prose style. It is usually futile to search for deeper meaning in these mundane snippets of existence, too inconsequential a glimpse into a life, haphazard, free form rambling, coming off as pseudo-autobiographical, uber-realistic, depicting inner storms, the psychological conceptualizations of imagined interactions, the visualizations of internal turmoil, details piling up like Tetris blocks, until unexpected humor arises in metafictional commentary.

It is a mind unraveling onto paper. What happens seems inevitable. Cause and effect is all it is. Concerned with accurate dialogue, and conveying a realistic passage of time, he passes muster – you can feel you are living in the story. Often hoping for a climax, I was only faced with anticlimax, with real life, and disappointment. If you enjoyed Queneau’s Exercises in Style, these will offer similar distraction. Subtle intuition may be required to determine some of the character motivations, especially if you are not accustomed to the sparse, dry, occasionally captivating style. Longing, frustration, bureaucracy, torment, despair, ridiculousness, Kafkaesque situations and more congeal into an impactful package, when he pulls it off.

I enjoyed the couple examples of dystopian society, but the fragmentary recounting of everyday human relationships, the intricacies of emotion displayed, the gestures, the psychological associations, all the tough days, hard times, and bleak prospects wore me down. There is plenty of evidence that he was writing the first thing that popped into his head. I cannot discourage that enough.

Ordinary, abundant clichés abound in the character speeches cropping up in almost every story, but the situations contrived subvert some expectations. I hated the discussion of semantics, found the selfishness blasé, was reminded of the pain of living with another human being, did not appreciate the demonstration of the art of the whiny argument. On top of this, he covers domestic violence, adults fighting like children, and adults fighting children. The demands of interacting with people in harsh reality, the pain of humility and why it is necessary in human interactions, people making poor decisions and suffering the consequences – all part of this circle of life. Dixon’s literary exploration of an imaginative environment yields a few gems. Mostly it is a bunch of goofy, gabbing, crabby men and women, irresponsible man-handling peddlers of quirky disturbances, cockamamie schemes, swagger, robust jiving, pin head roundtable debates, blustering blowhards, flimsy blokes with parasitic leanings, or Dixon’s typewriter had diarrhea.

Review of Man or Mango? by Lucy Ellmann

Man or Mango is my least favorite Ellmann novel. 

I have gotten through all of her novels aside from Doctors & Nurses and Ducks, Newburyport. This not to say that Man or Mango, a Lament, is not good. It is entertaining, like all of her work, though it lacks focus and subtlety in my opinion.

Ellmann, famously an expatriate, who looks down on America’s excesses through the lenses of her biased characters. There were segments in this book of unfiltered feminist vituperation. She also takes occasional potshots at Britain, so I wonder if she really feels at home there. One would gather from her humorous tirades that she was perpetually uncomfortable. Her characters, which are all uniformly Vonnegut-level snide social commentary machines, sniping at Presidents and secret shoppers and innocent old ladies, never tire of criticizing the universe around them. This method is used to best effect in her masterpiece Dot in the Universe, where she pulls out all the stops and unleashes the full force of her imagination. Ellmann has it out against aging, infirmity, and general unhappiness, the cruelty of the universe and the barbarity of human beings. Fulfillment doesn’t present itself to her hopeful and hopeless, lovelorn protagonists. It is the illusive Grail they compose their grim jeremiads to.

Present for the reader’s reflection is a fixation with ice hockey, cramps of a sensitive nature, and other unexplainable absurdities. The novel would have gone off without a hitch if it weren’t for digressions, transgressions and lists. They intercede the story whenever the protagonists interact in a semi-interesting way. Unlike in Mimi, not a lot of participation occurs between the elements of story and the outward-directed commentary. If she could, Ellmann would operate solely within the confines of her characters’ heads, as she does in her massive psychological tome Ducks, Newburyport. The outside world is only a medium through which the opinions and perceptions of these literary players wade. Nothing is as real as their own vexations. I got the sense that Ellmann started writing without much thought where she was going with it and then the pen started veering off wildly as she attempted to navigate fictional automatons through the tangled web of her own discontented worldview.

Still, she is an intelligent writer tossing aside the reigns, and training the rifle of her seething resentment on the personal and trivial tragedies of human lives.

Review of Sing to It: New Stories by Amy Hempel

Amy Hempel’s award-winning The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel was chock-full of absorbing, somewhat dog-centric tales, with formal artistry and quirky characters. 

Her latest collection proves that she has been doing something the past thirteen years. The main problem is the brevity and insignificance of what is on display here. Any selection of her earlier work is superior, and most of the pieces in this tiny collection are clearly flash fiction. There is only one full-length story, which delivers. There were several question marks popping into my head when I read the lesser ones. Remove all of the negative space in the book and you will end up with out 50 full-length pages.

One other thing I fail to understand is why the publisher thought it necessary to state on the cover: “By the Award-Winning author of The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel”.

In the end, this is a footnote-sized collection for Hempel completionists. I don’t think it’s my fault that I’m beginning to question my appreciation for an author I used to rank with Lorrie Moore and Joy Williams. Still, an influential author with a style all her own. I highly suggest her earlier collection over this one.

Review of The Titan’s Curse (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #3) by Rick Riordan

The Titan’s Curse is better than it predecessors and sets up the next entries nicely.

Where the last book was weighed down by lackluster stakes, this one brings the conflicts to a new level of urgency. The plot grows in every chapter and the power of the main villain is on display. The villain is finally someone to fear, since we see what he does to those that serve him and what he has in store for our heroes. The immediate quest feels more perilous and important. By the end of the book, even if good prevails, so does an uneasiness, since the future is full of implications.

The strength of this plot-driven sequel is the give and take of loss and victory. Sometimes heroes need to fail to grow . The first entries suffered from a safer approach. With this one, all bets are off and a nice tension permeates the pages as safety nets dissolve.

Character-wise it’s more of the same. The differing personalities of the cast result in a well-rounded lineup, rather than a main character stealing the show. Motives and backstory add layers, but some of the touches could be called “paint-by-numbers.” Nobility is sometimes predictable, but you shouldn’t come into this series looking for subtlety.

It would be nice to see more nuanced villainy, to get more motive for their dastardly deeds. There are a few exceptions in some of the newly introduced characters, hinted at with a returning villain, Luke, but overall, it was consistent with the other books.

The writing seems to have improved as well. The narrative relied less on happenstance and the tense ending felt well set-up. It lacked poetic descriptions and memorable lines, but the juxtapositions of myths and our world are always good for a grin. Playful irreverence and pop culture references don’t distract from an engaging quest. I would like to see more world building in the next installment and some new mythological references to texture the reading experience.
Unfortunately, it would be difficult to get into this book without first picking up the previous adventures. At least by this point the training wheels begin to come off.

Review of Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes

A Möbius striptease.

Time is a permeable membrane.
Cervantes and Caesar, Bosch and Quetzalcoatl.
Historical figures rise, maggot-ridden from their tombs to conquer, make love, philosophize and dissolve in the polychromatic strobe of dreams. These fantasies fuse with antiquity, birthed from moldered tomes, exhausting the faiths of pious men, eviscerating kings, and bleeding across timelines.

The symbolic journey of this novel is an intense, dense, immense expedition through Old Spain, New Spain, and lands beyond, fraught with wordplay, wigwams, and wampeters. The repetitions, revolutions, and rhythms blossom in the final pages, recalling the mythological wheel of time, the mechanics of Fate, God playing ‘ghost in the machine,’ and ouroboroses in a boudoir. As Kundera explains in his afterword, the novel spreads its wings to encompass interior and exterior worlds, landscapes of the mind and the abyss of the heart.

A novel of conquest, submission, doom, and the many frightened cries of the powerless souls lost in the continuous apocalypse of the past. The past rests on our shoulders, like a prolapsed soul, weighty, invasive, and recurrent.

The Nature of existence, echoing the edenic ambitions human beings inherit from the great puppeteer in the cosmic theater. A bold deathly pale specter hovering over Mexican literature, this monolithic masterpiece bends your ear gently, only to scream its nightmarish hymn into the echo chamber of your brain.

An unforgettable, Joycean whirlpool of perennial, Imperialist themes, set to a constant boil until the precipitate becomes a Kraken with its myriad limbs straddling the limits of temporal awareness and physical sensation.

Review of The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre

Fabre is a French novelist. He has written a lot, from the looks of it, but English translations are slow in coming. 

His biographical data reveal that he chooses to focus on describing life on the periphery, on neglected people in society. For this slim novel, the main character works as a barman. As a pastiche of small, mundane observations and events, it is not terribly striking or memorable. I did find that it conveyed an appealing atmosphere of lower class European existence. His style is conversational, almost awkwardly so, and he dispenses with modern formalism. Instead, the thoughts of the narrator flow into the descriptions, and the setting takes on an ethereal quality. Unfortunately, it was over quickly, and culminated in nothing more than an accurate snapshot of an ordinary life. Perhaps too accurate.

Review of Requiem by Daniel Ståhl

The only other collection of Sonnets I’ve read is Shakespeare’s.

One would think that any other would pale by comparison. But this is one impressive collection. A stand-out among all the poetry I’ve read. Flipping quickly through the book, you will see that the hands of a clock on the pages turn with each leaf, and with this accompanying image of time, you set out on journey into an uncommonly compelling world. In a way, I was reminded of Clark Ashton Smith’s fantastic, imagistic poetry.

Thrilling, rich, and properly metered lyric sonnets, dense with imagery and sonic resonance. Here is a brief quote:

“In dreams we miss a paradise thought lost
To wake and carry out its holocaust– “

The pithy phrases and philosophic metaphors and motifs recur with startling regularity. There is a lot to be gained from reading this work. It is composed of carefully wrought poems, interwoven with addictive, dreamlike rhythms. The style is not tiresome or boring, even after 211 examples of the same structure. The blended mythologies and intimate portraits are both memorable and surreal.

For lovers of splendid writing, hidden morals, and interplays of grand themes, give this singular work a try.

Review of Hemming Flames by Patricia Colleen Murphy

A devastating collection of poems dealing with tough topics in a way that leaves a memorable impression, written by a contemporary poet unafraid to openly discuss humanity’s deepest fears.

You would be hard-pressed to find a better debut collection published in recent years. The last lines of the book deliver on what the rest of the collection promises – that there is symbolic relationship between the images and interconnected stories – beyond lyrical intensity – clasped within the slim volume’s covers. As re-readable as her second production: Bully Love. Tame is not a word to describe her work, but even the faint of heart will be able to perceive the deep thought and care that went into these poems.

Review of Fluffy’s Revolution by Ted Myers

Blade Runner X Homeward Bound.

This was top-tier dystopian science fiction. The stakes are high in this wryly humorous anthropomorphic adventure. In its future world like Poul Anderson’s Brainwave, with a touch of Orwell’s Animal Farm mixed in, I was intrigued and won over by the charming and witty characters, the over-the-top plot, and the eccentric world building. There were multiple surprises in every chapter, and the book rarely slows down to let you think too hard about plausibility. The writing is slick and moves at a breakneck pace, through an engaging pseudo-technical cinematic crescendo, and left me eager for more. I’m onboard for the sequel Mr. Myers.

I had no problems with this book and would read it again. Recommended for all ages. A few classic movie references thrown in were a bonus.

Review of Hotel World by Ali Smith

While I appreciate Ali Smith’s experimentation, I’m not a fan of the quotidian rhythm of her narrators. 

Whether they are waiting at the airport, or sitting around on their home computer, or flopping on the bed of a sleazy hotel room, I find myself waiting for something interesting to happen far too frequently. Many will find much appeal in Smith’s wry and pointed, thought-provoking comments on society, but you can’t escape the droll pace and lingering taste of inconsequential dread of the mundane that it leaves in your mouth. At least, that is my feeling after listening to a third audiobook by this author. Curiously, the best audiobook reader I’ve heard was Ali Smith herself.

The best parts of this book was the brooding on the topic of death and the unique perspectives. They added some variety, but you will never find a conventional thrill in one of her books. More likely, you will stumble through with the sensibility you have during those dreams, where you’re in a public place, nothing is happening, but you are suddenly overcome with incomprehensible anxiety, or you’re suddenly naked and dead – one or the other. Obviously, Ali Smith has garnered popularity and success through her slanted view of modern people and their foibles.

I find myself slightly drawn to her other titles, if only for the ease of listening they offer. I know what to expect by now. Some call this literary fiction. It seems to me more fiction of everyday life. A supernatural twist here and there isn’t going to change these laundry lists into anything remotely resembling a spectacle.

Review of Zeroville by Steve Erickson

Abandoned at 65%. I’ll only comment on the positives and negatives I noticed listening to the audiobook version. Don’t know about the ending, but was not sufficiently engaged to finish it.

Beginning showed a quirky voice. I liked the cine-centric commentary and obsession with old film stars running through the plot. Some irony and attempt at grand themes. Kind of a stretch considering what’s actually occurring in the novel.

Plot starts to meander. I lost count of the chapters after 225. Why so many chapter breaks? Is each chapter like a frame of a short film? The main character shows increasing zombie-qualities, an inability to relate with people, borderline mental deficiencies handled for the sake of humor? Vikar is clueless, yet luck is on his side. Plenty of deus ex machina, things happening to him over and over, rather than Vikar doing anything to affect the plot.

The book is an outlet for the author’s film commentary. Includes some spoofs of popular culture nerds, druggies and other so-called outcasts. There is a nostalgic quality to the setting, but I did not find it rewarding or interesting. The prose was dry and unremarkable. No stand out descriptions. A couple laugh out loud moments, but ultimately left me empty. The unreality is more convincing in Murakami, and the aberrant behavior is better related in Bret Easton Ellis. Brautigan is funnier. Despite the excellent reviews out there, I have to rate this one based on my lack of enjoyment.

Review of Buddha, Vol. 1: Kapilavastu (Buddha #1) by Osamu Tezuka

Tezuka manages to sustain a gripping pace while inserting subtle philosophy and universal themes.

If the other 7 volumes are as good as this one it might be his greatest series. I like this first volume more than most of the volumes of Phoenix.

While the narrative is not bound by the strictures of its underlying faith – at least not yet – the moral compass of the plot is geared toward that expression of enlightenment, whether through sacrifice and death or through patience and love. The love of humanity is present in many if not all of Tezuka’s work. He is famous for his heart. He never loses sight of this central concern in his characters. He knows that the reader will sympathize with someone who is performing either evil or magnanimous acts out of love or other well-established motives. By clarifying the motive the action proceeds smoothly and the characters are allowed to react as the situations arise. I got the sense that the world extended far beyond the borders of the comic frame and could sink into the pages and feel the dirt and grit of the landscape even when every extraneous detail was excluded.

He was a utilitarian artist and consummate storyteller. No matter how complex the plot becomes I cherish the moments I spend reading with Tezuka’s creations because they shed light on the beauty of the human soul. When he wants to show the soul’s wickedness it is depicted nakedly and in lurid ways, but when that beauty overcomes the inherent flaws in mankind, you can appreciate his work as more than mere entertainment. Tezuka winds a convincing yarn even when he bends the laws of physics and plays around with anachronisms.

One of the few times when manga becomes indistinguishable from literature. At least it seems to have placated most critics of the medium. The most sophisticated work by the most important graphic storyteller in Japanese history.

Review of Old Floating Cloud: Two Novellas by Can Xue

A rare scatological mosaic elevated to the highest levels of artistic expression. Can Xue is my favorite contender for the Nobel Prize. 

Rising out of humble beginnings in China to become in the space of a decade, a force to be reckoned with in world literature. A titan of disjointed, haunting, sloppy elegance. A feverish, hyperactive geezer with a child’s imagination. She has published some 50 novellas, a few dozen stories and about 9 novels so far. They all partake of the same excruciatingly visceral style. The critics love comparing it to this or that author, like Kafka and Bruno Schulz and Cortazar and others, but she is entirely in her own league in my opinion.

Yellow Mud Street, the first novella in the collection, is a revolting, beautiful, contradictory summation of life in the ditch. A recounting of a fabulous town sinking into a pit of its own excrement. The bats and the centipedes, and the people and pigs, all leaking and spewing into each other, the roofs collapsing, and the hungry, sad animals beneath them called human beings, crumbling and festering in their own resentful sties. Can Xue conjures a continual excrescence of polyp-sprouting images. The characters and lunatics she peoples this scourged landscape with are hideous, Goya-esque renditions of nightmare beings, hovering between life and death and love and salvation.

So why is Can Xue doing all this? Why does she fly in the face of convention and challenge the notion of enjoyable reading and the status quo? Each moment, each gory detail, each unimaginable horror taking place is the even-toned, straight-faced, loving joke of an activist. She uses our fears and aggravations to build a castle of images, colors and flavors. Whether the Chinese government reads it or American students or Argentine professors, there is something to be gained from her intense vision. You can draw parallels to the questionable bureaucracies that spawned the human suffering she depicts in exaggerated detail. Beneath the hyperbole lie wounds of truth and blisters of history. You can find in the hairy horrors and pus-dripping walls, the squealing prostitutes and puddles bubbling with frogs, a cause and a purpose. She sees human beings as dependent creatures. Communities, when built upon mud, can only foster mud creatures. Yet in death and decay there is often found a germ of life and a sick kind of natural beauty. Can Xue excoriates our taste, and abrades our minds. She is the loving dictator of the lost hells of impoverished villages, where patches of our worst habits lurked and corrupted our ancestors.

Old Floating Cloud, the second novella, is a subtler, pointillist display of her powers. She weaves a tapestry of symbols to convey brilliant satires and memorable dreams. Plot and character development are not her main concern. The roles of family and community, the emotion and trauma we compile in our daily, animalistic existences, are her bread and butter. We are walking contradictions, all of us, and what we love, often destroys us. Our adornments are all sequins, and our blemishes are our defining characteristics. While this story is far more readable, far easier to digest, it is not as powerful as Yellow Mud Street. The sheer accumulation of her images, and the Jenga tower of her atmospheric malaise are impressive to a startling degree. Even more than her other short story collections, these two exemplar works are enough to prove to anyone that she is not afraid to expose and explode our literary refinements and the sealed bags of cultural baggage we all lug upon our shoulders like severed heads.

Can Xue may be overlooked by some now, but in the future, I think, her great artistry will continue to grow in influence.

Review of Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

This book is loud. I do not mean that as a bad thing. A lot of books are not quiet. A book full of voices need not be silent.

This reminded me in some ways of Black Leopard, Red Wolf. This has a similar aura, but a different tone. (Those 2 things are different in my mind). It takes place in Nigeria, where an extraterrestrial entity has appeared. What follows is an unconventional series of events, some political, some reminiscent of family sagas replete with religious symbolism. I found the shifts in perspective distracting, but this seems to be the trend today for a lot of literary fantasy, or fantasy with an edge, which this is, I think. The author is clearly talented, and the dialects were uncannily done in the audiobook version, which made for a steep learning curve as far as the characters were concerned. Yet, the setting and ideas to back up the genre elements were worth including, frequently surprising and creative, even if they make use of tried and true descriptions. It was cinematic and enthralling, when it wasn’t overly engrossed in its own action set pieces.

There are a lot of conflicts and much emotion to be found in this book, both positive and negative. There is plentiful food for thought as regards human significance and the progress of science versus the destruction of ecosystems. The setting made for an unsettling, and exotic experience, though I found that the whole left me cold and slightly confused. Set against the human terror and violence, the science fiction/ fantasy/ magical elements seemed almost inconsequential in places. The author has worked in genres before, but I am not very familiar with her work. This was an ambitious and personal endeavor, and an admirable novel in many respects, but it takes a certain palate to appreciate the stark social commentary, blunt brutality and strained metaphors.

Nonetheless, if you are intrigued by African folklore, and anything else described in this review, certainly give it a try.

Review of Uzumaki: Spiral into Horror, Vol. 1 by Junji Ito

Many of Junji Ito’s themes and motifs are simple and even nonsensical, but they tend to stick in the mind.

They have the ineluctable quality of nightmares, of good horror films. His concepts have the same staying power as a cheesy slasher flick, with the advantage of impressive artwork. No matter how far he takes the mutilation and monstrosities, they are rooted in true nightmares and real-life phobias. One gets the sense that the author is of a delicate sensibility and exorcises these demons in his work. Maybe horrors accumulate inside his mind and he has no choice but to draw manga for temporary relief.

Inanimate objects take on ominous contortions and morph into a dramatic diorama of blood and guts in most examples. Something as tame as clay pots are twisted into mesmerizing terror in his most representative work, Uzumaki. More so than in Tomie or Gyo, this is considered his stand-out production.

Reading it once is enough to start seeing spirals, to be infected by the madness. He points out society’s flaws indirectly, and you can usually dig beneath his nonsensical fables for subtle commentary. It was easy for me to acquire a taste for this brand of obscuring reality and blending it with nightmare. There is a gnawing madness to this and most of his other stories. Everything from marionettes to advertisements to snails to hot air balloons become objects to be questioned, or even to be abhorred. In Junji Ito nothing is as it seems. But under the horrid images, I can sense humor. The surface is only one layer. The true heart of his manga lies in a pervading irony and solid sense of grotesque joy that is easy to miss if you only consider the bones of the story.

Like in any good horror story, the characters in Uzumaki are constantly acting contrary to reason. I have heard of the unsuccessful live action film based on the manga. His ideas really only work on paper if you ask me. The exaggeration becomes silly when mishandled. That’s why I’m a fan of the manga alone, and will remain a fan, as we’re finally getting more of his titles and collections in English.

Review of Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of Orïsha, #1) by Tomi Adeyemi

“Children of Blood and Bone” is an interesting study of themes that is dragged down by odd storytelling decisions and a bloated length.

It’s at its best when it is using its themes. The idea of slavery and oppression go hand-in-hand with this world’s characters, creating a deep perspective on the matter. The narrative is riveting when it is subtly exploring the lasting trauma and repercussions of its themes. I really appreciated how Tomi Adeyemi even touches on what would happen if the oppressed gained power and the darkness could follow. The navigation of themes is holistic and feels like a natural extension of the world.

What really sells the themes is how hate, fear, and oppression effect every character and their psyche. All the main characters have had different experiences and reactions to the harsh world they live in and it helps the reader see how deeply oppression can affect culture. From Zélie’s rage to Inan’s blindly following his father, their positions seem organic and help the reader come to their own conclusions about the relation of the themes to history and the modern day. Even the king, who is the cause of much bigotry and violence, has been touched by the fear oppression causes. His hate stems from his family being killed by those he now oppresses when they were in power. This shows in a detailed manner how the cycle of fear and hate that racism creates is propagated. However, beyond their use to embody themes, the characters fall a little flat. The author makes use of good motivation and backstory, but they often feel one-note. Zélie’s, who is a wonderful mix of blind anger caused by years of pain and the YA hero, feels underutilized. I think this results from how the author chose to tell the story more than from the characters.

What lessens the impact of this book is its length and the storytelling. While the writing is solid almost nothing happens for long stretches. The book contains a lot of talking and shifting points of view within a scene. When the plot arrives, the book is engaging and thoughtful but most of the issues could have been solved by cutting out one of the points of view. While the perspective helps the theme, it kills the pacing. The depth provided by 3 perspectives could have been done with 2. As it stands, it is confusing and only makes these sections, most of which happen during a fight or an important moment, curdle.

The general set-up is good, though somewhat typical of young adult novels. There is a lot that could be done with African myths to inform the fantasy genre. But the world building is also stifled here, at least in this first book. The magic system is bare bones. Beyond “people can have different types of magic” there is nothing else to it. The story follows suite. If you’ve read YA adventure before you may predict what happens. Though this story is darker than most with its brutal depictions of slavery and deaths. This is probably not for younger readers. The brutality and themes is about the only divergence from the normal “save the world plot.” And I wish more time had been devoted to exploring the world and culture.

“Children of Blood and Bone” is a mixed bag. It is far too long in my opinion, but the good parts are very good even if it is not as good at other times. The exploration of theme and the consequences of that theme are much closer to literary fiction. It does a great job showing vs telling you how to feel about the terrible racism within the country of Orïsha. The world building might have been taken further. If you’re interested in revisiting these themes, it is a fairly interesting look at how racism destroys both the oppressor and the oppressed.

Review of Lila by Marilynne Robinson

While I admire M. Robinson’s writing ability I found the messages in this book plain as day. 

The ideas and character emotions were well-conveyed but did not require much analysis or interpretation. What I’m trying to say is that cut and dry situations, and some repetitive concepts added up to an unimpressive whole.

I don’t fault the author for using compelling language to explicate worthy themes, but I found almost nothing new in the characters, setting, or circumstances described. Nonetheless, I can see that the down-to-earth protagonist and heartfelt moments in this book appeal to a lot of people out there and I respect that. I may read her other novels in the future to see if they strike me more.

Review of The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #1) by Rick Riordan

Nothing beats a good adventure story. 

Whether it’s the adventure of discovery like in Ringworld, the adventure of slaying a dragon in The Hero and The Crown, or a hybrid like Brave Story, you can get into these journeys so long as they are done well. Which is why, though the Percy Jackson series is not particularly deep, I still have fun reading it. It is a “slay the dragon” story that knows exactly how to do this sort of thing.

The first book in this series, The Lighting Thief, does exactly what I would want from the first in an epic adventure. It sets-up the general world and story expectations while introducing us to characters and the plot to come.

Character-wise, the main cast is fine. Percy is a good lead who is a mix of flaws and capabilities. He does fail and is not always right, leaving room for the characters surrounding him to show-off their own strengths. This dynamic of character interaction is where the book is at its best. Though none of the characters are brilliant, they play-off each other well and are amusing to follow. This interplay of personalities is pivotal to the longevity of any series like this and is a clear strength, akin to what Rowling did in her series. The character interplay will be what keeps you reading, even if some of the other aspect of this book rust with age.

The set-up is fun, though the world-building is generic at this point. In this world the gods of the Greek pantheon are still alive and living in the West. Along with them comes the whole of Greek mythology and their predilection to make demi-gods. Percy finds himself thrust into this unknown world but soon finds he fits better here than in the mundane world us mortals live in. Again, nothing special, but the mix of the familiar and foreign is as good as any other example I could think of. It is fun to read each chapter waiting for the mythology to sneak in and subvert our expectations. The details are built up constantly though they are never overwhelming, and for any fan of Greek mythology will seem appropriately crafted within the realm of those myths. Rick Riordan does a good job of using these ideas to the fullest while also (usually) knowing how far to take them.

The writing is aimed at a younger audience. It is never challenging, but flows at a steady pace. The tone is similar to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (even though this came first). Even while dire things are happening, the characters make jokes or sarcastic comments and the interplay of Greek mythology and our world can be tongue-in-cheek. The whole book reads fast and kinetically. If you’re wanting a deep plot story this is not for you.

The over-arching story is also well done. It has the right amount of twists and turns to keep you engaged in the unfolding adventure but never feels like its talking down to you or did not set-up a twist. It foreshadows its sequels well. It does not end on a cliff hanger per-se but definitely hints at how this will end and how epic that ending will be.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lighting Thief was more novel of an idea when it first came out. Now it feels more generic, surrounded by a sea of copy-cats. What makes it last is that the adventure and the character who experiences it are memorable and a blast to read. Any fans of adventure or Greek mythology should give this a try. If you don’t like a semi- constant goofy tone that never takes itself too seriously, stay away. This is Neil Gaiman for a younger audience , but I would argue that most adults can enjoy what it has to offer.

Review of A Spy in the Panopticon by Damian Murphy

I wish I could find the edition pictured on Goodreads. I only had access to the first part: Spy in the Panopticon, which by itself is another stunning work of the imagination from Damian Murphy. 

In this one especially, the seed of an obscure metaphysics seems to be present. There is a suggestive association between the female main character, the enigmatic machine, and the spyhole in her room, all of which adjust and skew reality in some way. By controlling perception, creativity, and the muse, she is first inspired and then pursued by the manifestations of her curious investigations.

There are patterns cropping up in the architectural elements, dreamlike aura, and fear-laden recounting of the main character’s descent into this strange internal extension of her craft. Once again dark sides of human nature are subtly revealed through the interpolation of myths and mirrors which reflect an untrue image.

Review of The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George

I admire the author’s boldness. 

There is a lack of restraint in the freewheeling bizarro-ideas. The stories function without character development, plot twists, or reflection. They are fast-paced, bare-bones cobbled-together surrealist evocations of modern day discontent, obsession and sexual fantasy. Shock and awe, surprise and delight, but plainly stated, divested of emotion, coupled with bland imagery and no sense of setting. Reads more like a dream diary, which is fine, but I hoped for more challenging fare, more relatable humor. Tone it down or expand the premise, adding some flesh-out characters and a pervasive setting to get me invested. But not everything has to go through the motions of posing as a traditional fictional product. At least this defies the mold.

Review of Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

The first thing you’ll notice about this book is the unique design. The black-stained page edges and the reflective hardcover. The high-quality paper. These are the things which lend themselves to a unique reading experience, and that is what it is.

Our Tragic Universe contained most of what I love and hate about literary fiction. A writer main character who talks about writing to everyone around her but does very little of it in her somewhat disorganized life. The attendant guilt she feels. The nagging problem of the unfinished novel that most writers understand too well. The broken relationship with no hope because neither party is trying to make the relationship work in any meaningful way. Constantly resuscitated dreams, no loyalty to principles, selfishness driving the decisions she makes, super high maintenance friends with no regard for normal behavior. She is offered a way out but still clings to pieces of her messy existence. She displays an elegant understanding of the art of fiction, but life plays plenty of tricks on her. It could’ve been a slog, but Thomas manages to avoid most of the easy solutions.

The M. C.’s boyfriend, Christopher, is a deadbeat, a leech, a parasitic, personalityless worm. Another man, Rowan, is a flawed, but idolized ordinary fellow. Her female friends are quirky, garrulous, demanding, spastic enablers. All of them are far more articulate than real people.

She spends her time (which she has an unlimited amount of) pretending to be a fictional character, while her friends imitate Anna Karenina, making tragedies of their puny conflicts. A bit of it is hard to believe, but much of it is charming in an obliquely surprising way. Living out and discussing the plot holes in your own life might be fun, but it begs the question of your own silly behavior and motivation. Meg gets paid egregious amounts for her writing, but seems to do far too much knitting. Her useless boyfriend has strict principles related to environmentalism which increase their cost of living, and he never contributes anything except infantile commentary. She gets paid to write book reviews, which is the most unrealistic part of the book.

The author clearly cobbled the book together from profuse notes on topics she found interesting, from wide reading of nonfiction, selecting concepts and unusual phenomena to dress up her skeletal plot with strange arcana and alchemical mixtures of themes and plotless wandering, wrapping it all in suggestions of cosmic significance.

The book goes for it. Embraces the weirdness. Through subtle atmospheric details a mystique accumulates. Using giant leaps of logic in metaphor and imagery, she subverts expectations and falls into the common traps at the same time. There is much figurative language, a weaving of elaborate notes into digressive internal monologue, tangential discussions with friends, a hyperactive frenzy of ideas, which in the end is simply a sharing of wide-ranging conspiracy theories, chance encounters, instigated coincidence, fate’s niggling, a pervasive powerlessness within the grand scheme of the novel, a discussion of pop culture and its definition of the edges of our consciousness, the boundaries it draws around our behavior. It is a mash-up of a ton of plotlines for potential novels, applying an addictive style reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut. It manages to make derelict characters fascinating in a train wreck sort of way. The perspective is relatable, but it is so focused on New Age pseudo-science, philosophical meandering, and loitering literary references, it might drive some readers mad. Meg’s dopey side quests on every page lose their original flair the more she indulges in them. If you can handle obscure ruminations, the fatalistic viewpoint, and a slew of meaningless moments building into a profound summation of life’s haphazard meaning, it should be fun for you.

The concept of the storyless story, the simplicity of life created versus life lived, trying to be somebody you’re not, stressing about your carbon footprint, how we make excuses to live an empty existence, knitting as a metaphor for writing and life, collages, motifs, mosaicked idea-webs, being content with obscurity, seeking out small adventures, fake memories, the question of whether we should believe in magic, alternate breathing techniques, curses, living forever, carpe diem, the value of dying, savoring momentary happiness, infinity, cowardice, doing things halfway, splendid anecdotes about the publishing industry, artificial relationships, image consciousness, virtual eternity, hipster mystic wisdom, Aristotelian poetics, genre techniques, how disasters are built into the system, inevitable loss as a product of gain, defamiliarizing the ordinary, fairy phenomena, success, failure, mass production, the essence of a person’s soul, living out ideals, the small problems which consume us, the absurd lengths to which we will go to seek help, banish emotion or wallow in it. Self-help exploitation, and a rampant beast of Dartmoor (another instance of metafiction impregnating her reality).

Overall, an entrancing read.

Review of Reality Testing (Sundown, #1) by Grant Price

Reality Testing is a colorful novel, generously long, pumped full of so much creativity that the experience of reading it can only be compared to an overdose of science-fiction brand narcotics. 

Blending a complex web of illusion and reality, with prose that is so tight, sleek, polished, and chromium-plated, it can only belong to a talented writer, giving voice to his vision within the peculiar demands of the cyberpunk realm.

I believe the stylings to be the essence of the book. You will notice the dense imagery right off the bat, with its grungy city atmosphere, and lightning-paced, adrenaline-fueled thriller tones, Reality Testing is a true test of fictional constraints. Getting used to the world-building and futuristic jargon can make for a bit of a learning curve, much like in the work of William Gibson, but the words begin to slot into place over time, filling in the blanks in a vast mosaic of author-trademarked background props. The Blade Runner grit and layering of imprints, tech conglomerates, slum dross, high concept drugs, mods, etc. provide profuse atmospheric accoutrements, along with the constant pleasure of discovery, as you navigate the break-neck plot.

The vicious society it depicts, the gritty landscape, flooded with sleazy grime, slime, and dense urban decay, is crowded with seething, plastic-drenched corporations, speedy, neurotic enclosures – conjuring a metropolis which is at once a melange of cultures, influences, languages, product placement, glitz, gliders, and well-sustained tension. Also sustained is the continuous action, like the non-stop gallop of a manufactured dream. Billowing beneath this construct are the dog-eat-dog politics, made-to-order for the chase through streets so teeming with commerce and potential as to embody a circuitboard of virtual lives. The hive-minded individuals hock their wares and enact the subtle subterfuge of a race lobotomized by its own innovations.

Our vibrant main character, via neural instructions, seeks to escape the microcosmic entanglement of her situation, but in a life oozing with so many engineered conveniences and rife with technical splendor, is there any hope but for a replacement peace, a static chaos? like a bridge of dead ants across a stream, sustaining a new army upon the carcasses of the fallen – such is history, our bridge. Luckily, Grant Price balances lengthy descriptions of immense imaginative power with bracing dialogue, cheeky narration and good storytelling. Every page makes consistent use of localized fictional bytes which add up to a convincing fictional software, to be downloaded directly into our collective unconscious. True science fiction establishes the sources of its fantastical elements, explains the unbelievable and renders it uncannily believable. The synthetic lives and overstimulated existence present here illustrate that principle magnificently. I do not think it is possible to rewrite cyberpunk with a more authentic display.

Review of Snakes and Earrings by Hitomi Kanehara

Unlike Ryu Murakami’s transgressive works, this small book lacks polish. 

It deals with the immature, shallow concerns of its adolescent characters with stark, unapologetic realism. Edgy in the extreme, but lacking depth of any appreciable kind, it reads quickly and has all of the trappings of a bestselling Japanese alternative pop literary prize winner. It is a shame that the Akutagawa Prize is handed out to such amateurish attention-grabbing authors, which make their way into English, but cannot compete with even the common run of American rebellious teen novels.

Review of You Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon

So far, I’ve enjoyed the short stories of Chaon more than the novels.

The novels stick with you, though. He might be compared to Lorrie Moore for the crystalline style, but his depiction of American life verges on disturbing at times, and reveals the undercurrent of our repressed age, bringing to mind Brian Evenson. Overall, I look forward to Chaon’s further works, but wish he would stick to original short stories. It could be my jaded mindset, but his novels are only striking at moments, and largely reside in the believable territory of literary fiction’s tested waters. They are not exactly safe, but they do not startle in the way his stories do.

The interwoven storylines in this one are slow-paced, forceful and focused on characters wrestling with familial strain, and ties that link their pasts, towing the significant baggage into the present. There were a few moments when upfront communication would have relieved the aching buried psychological secrets of their weight, but literary characters are usually tight-lipped during those brief chances. I think anyone boasting experience with the foster system will find much to like here, and initiates of this author will gain from the easy and effective style.

Review of The Seducer by Jan Kjærstad

Jonas Swallows the Whale.

This is a cathedral of words.

Cocooned within these pages is a living organism. In preparations for metamorphosis, the encasing structure takes on increasing complexity, immersing the reader in its development, through stages, through time, the creature inside is the main character, Jonas, but he is also the author, and the cocoon is both the world, and this book.

The DNA of causal relationships takes on life while Jonas’ desire to dissect the structure of reality mirrors his subsuming of physical natures. The heated passion for understanding illuminates his carnal quest. The conquering of intellectual forces, merging with physical mastery, as he engages in speed skating, tennis, art, music, or politics, no talent is out of reach, and the value of his own genetic material increases, as if he were reincarnating into his own body as different versions of himself. The ambition to swallow the entire universe, against the threat of invisibility, is inversely proportional to the extent the author buries himself beneath this dramatic persona, this living embodiment of his literary ambition.

“How do the pieces of life fit together?”

They are particles, these human masks, the psychological disguises, the whims of propriety, these densely congregated principles, these guiding facets of our being. The central wheel’s relation to time seductively reaches each corner of this gamopetalous book, wherein deceptively layered complexities of form and rhythm portray profound insight into Jonas’ psyche. Peering in at his escapades at intrinsic viewpoints allows us the same wish fulfillment as the author, who indulges in every excess of accomplishment.

Recursively returning to cause and effect, the interiority of stories bleeds through the framework of the novel. You have the constant contest between Bach and Mozart, Hamsun and Hitler, Ibsen and Shakespeare, and multitudes of others in Jonas’ life. The competition is inherent to the far-reaching initiative of this book. The phallic fixation of his aunt, the willingness of the women to be seduced, while it all defies verisimilitude, reinforce the central career of our hero, the man among men, Jonas, as he fits together the jigsaw puzzle of his life, standing outside of it, at the defining moment, the hub of the wheel, revealed in the first chapter in the form of a dead woman. The author falls back on the 2nd person perspective for these recursive moments, outside of time, at a far remove from the action of discovering Jonas’ modus operandi. Against tradition, casting a male in the role of seducer is not as original as at first glance, but it does raise many questions about the role of women within this novel, and if they are mere objects. The self-indulgence in this regard would merit scorn, if it wasn’t so artfully composed – perhaps.

Several digressions into Norwegian history, politics, science, music, history, and sports, at first seemingly disparate elements, eventually coincide in their focus within the schema of Jonas’ mind.
The search for the self, entailing the architectural symbolism that comprises a human, the myriads we contain, the authenticity and imitation, the layering of memory and the ghosts it paints over our experience, the tapestry radiating outward, of the generations that spawned us, all of these confluent forces charging toward some inevitable conclusion. Luckily, the tone is one of a constant unveiling of intimate secrets. The book is supremely readable. We are allowed to draw our own conclusions about the morality of conquest, and the merit of competition.

The inversion of religious imagery, the transcendence of isolated experience, the references to popular and classical music, and regional artists people the very infrequent landscapes, and inhabit a strictly intellectual panorama instead, navigating a layered political climatology, invoking the great artists of the past in every major discipline, like Mount Rushmore-size affronts to our MC’s immortality.

If none of these themes interest you, how about the exploration of human archetypes? Light: a particle and a wave, representing turbulence and the dual nature of human beings as both divine and animal.

Who or what is a seductress? What seduces the seducer? Can we deduce that that seducer is a medusa?

Secrets triggering memories, many episodes marked by a peculiar odor, rites of passion, sex devoid of lasting love, events spoking out from the central point, the Wheel of Fortune revealing letter by letter the inevitable fate of our Grail-seeker. Recapturing lost childhood, longing for nostalgia, Jonas ventures farther afield in search of consequences, finding only affirmation of the dreaded summation of his career.

Kjærstad also incorporates Norway’s cultural imprint on the world, the art and music scene, fashion, high society, critics, schmoozers, culture, corruption and frailty, Nationalism, in a word, and posits a contention that Jonas is the Everyman his country needs, to pull it out of the small ice cave it has become.

Our myriad selves, the nucleus of human potential – all of the people you might have been, a haunting evaluation of artistic accomplishment as a life’s defining features, are we more than the sum of our works? From one step to the next – from Zambezi river rapids, budding with memento mori, to a garden of gravitas sprouting around the biographical cocoon. There’s always 2 sides to every coin, 2 sides to every mirror. Every mirror has a deceptive silver lining. And the Bergensveien winding serpentine, a silver vein, the silver thread running through it all, from Jonas’ very spine, this same thread, thrummed by the gods. He becomes a divine instrument, the overcomer, the proto-human, Prometheus, resulting in his intuition, or 6th sense for opportunity and conquest and significance that derives from this subtle vibration. And the charging silver train, a forward thrusting movement, until he returns to the polar bear rug and the Antarctic fascination spreading outward from it, an interstitial motif, a preoccupation with snow, death, and the story’s central cavern, relegated to a base level background hum, in an absence of scenery, in the irrelevance of fame, a Faustian accumulation, the prestige, success, like weighty concentric circles, ripples, latitude lines, planetary orbits, causality, the Butterfly Effect, the hurdles he leaps. Each sport he triumphs in is a symbol, becomes part of his DNA, like the women, palimpsests laying on top of one another, like cards in a deck, stacked.

The body, blood, fluids, heart and adrenaline runs through the prose. Once again the book is a living organism, Jonas merging with the other characters, conquering one after another, sexually, physically and intellectually. If he were a chess player, he would be Magnus Carlsen.

The motif of the color silver – Nefertiti’s mouth organ, frozen mammoths, the transmogrification of animals and vehicles, the merging of symbols, alongside the golden luster, the golden opportunity, the golden child, his lust and manhood, like the naked ladies on the highball glasses’ interior, clothed on the outside, the 2-sided mirror, the dimensions of lives, like images trapped in the camera obscura of her dead pupils.

The Lego blocks, mirroring his near death in the fetal ice fortress, the relevance of temperatures, a fear of cold, Norway, if it can be so labeled. This is the reason Jonas’ travels abroad. In order to escape.

P. 499 sums it all up in a vast atemporal vision, encompassing eras in the snapshot of the moment, Jonas sees through time to the various states of the environment as the scene transforms, regresses and progresses. In a way we glimpse our own deaths day after day, in the interrelationship of forces and concrete reality. We relegate this trauma to memory, blurring out time and reimagining ourselves anew. Our malleable clay lives, as much as we would like to mold them, are not in our own hands. Or are they?

Review of The Wicked + The Divine, Vol. 1: The Faust Act by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie (Illustrations), Matt Wilson (Colorist), Clayton Cowles

“The Wicked+ The Divine: The Faust Act” is an interesting opening act.

The concept might be its strongest selling point. The premise that 12 gods from different pantheons are reincarnated every 90 years can lead to a lot of plot development. These reincarnations will then die 2 years later. I expected interesting interactions and deeply personal decisions. Would it be worth it to have god-like powers but have only a few years to live in return? Many pages rightly concern themselves with this dilemma. Some of the characters accept the trade-off, and others reject it. It is also a good way to reign in potentially overpowered god characters and give them a weakness we can understand. The writer made an excellent decision casting doubt on the true nature of the reincarnation cycle. Though the gods claim to be gods you are not quite sure if that is what’s going on. This mystery at the center of the larger narrative kept me flipping pages even if some of the other elements didn’t astound.

The storytelling and pacing was not as strong as the narrative elements, I felt. Some abruptness and lots of set-up. The unevenness might be balanced by later volumes, but this volume might have stood better on its own with a few tweaks.

The art is great. Good form and color choices. Some of the designs are great but stereotypical. With all of mythology and other cultures at their disposal I would have hoped for more pushing of the design envelope.

The characters have charm or depth overall and really pull the story along. Beware occasional one-dimensional characters, which may be a result of unfocused set up. I hope the important characters will blossom as the story gets more room to breath later.

The Wicked+ The Divine has a great central idea. From this idea interesting stories and characters can be woven into a great narrative. I will have to see what lies in wait with further volumes.

Review of The Magic Kingdom by Stanley Elkin

The Magic Kingdom is bound to arouse mixed feelings from many readers. If you approach it as a playground for linguistic experimentation, it succeeds in entertaining. 

From most other perspectives, I felt, it failed to compel me. The forceful writing Elkin is known for is here in evidence, but the scenario makes for a long, dull ride.

Beginning with a shamefully incompetent, off-putting, regurgitative, slapdash, silly, irrelevant, pathetic, and harrowingly awkward Introduction by Rick Moody, I was immediately put on guard. I’d read Elkin’s book Living End. My opinion of that work plummeted as the page count increased. He seemed, at the time, an inconsistent writer with major talent, who might start a book well, only to go off his rocker midway, as if flipping up his middle finger at the reader who had the gall to enjoy what he had been doing while sane, so he could glory in his own insanity. This novel marks out its course after a short, unrealistic episode, assuming layers of importance and grandeur after the shaggy dog story of its beginning. This is a journalistic look at dying children, but it becomes a grotesque display of exploitive descriptions. It might have been deep, meaningful or heartbreaking. In a sense it is, but you have look past the fireworks. Elkin calls attention to every garish flaw in our troupe of unfortunately doomed children. Not only are they physically appalling when reduced to mere carnival spectacles, but they prove to be morally bankrupt, as if in result of their unfair lot in life. Elkin has no restraint when it comes to casting the black light over his characters’ stained sheets. We are given such details as never vacate the mind of unsuspecting readers till their dying day.

As with other Elkins, humor abounds, but the wit can be mean, in my opinion. Most good satirists give up their compunctions, hang ups, and filters, and delight in exposing the worst blemishes of our nature without batting an eye. I would have appreciated all of the care and delicate nuance that went into the massive, page-sprawling paragraphs of description if I had bought in to the other thin aspects on offer. It lacked exploration, where it might have benefited from tension, emotional investment was wanting, as I perused with a sigh all of the infantile fixations going on within the text. Am I supposed to be impressed that he can shock and awe with his verbose humor, autopsying the characters who might have provided backbone or humanity to his vacuous novel? I get that a potty-mouthed Mickey Mouse figure is bound to crack a few grins in the audience, but what about the rest of the conversations? The personalities of many of the players are touched on here and there, loathe to initiate any attachment, sympathy or comfort. The youngsters are as libidinous as their guide, and in groups only elevate the haphazard enterprise’s goofy futility. I was much saddened by the novel. Not because I contemplated all of the meaningful questions Elkin posits, but because he limited his book to the least amusing observations of a very bright creator.

Review of We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (Bobiverse, #1) by Dennis E. Taylor

It didn’t live up to the hype. For me at least.

Many other people will enjoy this. Every time I was introduced to an interesting, high-brow scientific concept, I was cringing at the corny humor. The main issue is Bob, the narrator/ commentator, giving a peanut gallery run down of events, which are all about himself, in different forms, conquering the galaxy. It would be fine if he didn’t treat the audience like kids, encouraged by a subliminal laugh track.

Starts out pretty geeky: main character going to a convention. Sets up some foreboding points of reference. Then we are treated to a big chunk of time post-mortem, Bob hasn’t really changed, except in his calculating power. You can hear a ‘Wa Wa Waaaaa’ after every one of his snide remarks. The action scenes felt planned throughout the book, and we get our first taste of this in the facility where he is trained for his mission to operate a Von Neumann probe. Much of what happens in the book displays the main character’s astounding luck. However, there are several instances later of his resourcefulness, so the balance is there, if not a little skewed in his favor. There is an instinctual drive to his actions, which made up for some of the Deus Ex Machina.

The anti-religious sentiment was laid on thick.  Spoiler alert for the rest of this paragraph: I would have preferred a less heavy-handed method, since it doesn’t come from our narrator’s beliefs but from the world building. The world is theocratic. Bob’s commentary and reaction are understandable upon waking up in such a world. Yet this doesn’t appear to fit in with the modern trend of society, as in, I don’t see this development as realistic. It’s blatant and quite ‘out there’ in its depiction. I got the feeling that the author didn’t try to understand the religious mentality which would champion such a system. He is rallying for the triumph of science and the extinction of limiting world views. Some of Bob’s actions later label him as another ruthless human being, ruled by survivalism. The hypocrisy is the main driving force of the plot, but it came off as forced, very basic, and grandiose. I suppose it was better than the typical WW III scenario or simple climate change wiping out humanity. I’m split on whether it was compelling or trite. In any case, it felt childish in a way.

Once Bob is finally free to create change in his environment, there are plenty of clever applications of future technology to keep any science fiction fan going. The book has a lot of value, in my opinion, as an extension of the genre’s tropes. The main issue is the main character and that pesky need to make everything into a joke. The cultural references rival Ready Player One. You get Star Trek, Wars, Simpsons, and so on. You don’t have to watch out for them. They’re unmissable. Bob actually rolls his eyes at his own joke more than once. I grow very aggravated by such antics.

Of course other planets are routed out, utilized. There are remnant factions, and a dwindling hope for humanity. Bob becomes the hero through his goofy perseverance and split-second decisions. The investigation of Deltan evolution grew tedious. It was like watching the History Channel for a few hours. Relevant, but you wish they’d simply boiled it all down, gotten to the point faster. What I mean to say is, the book really takes its time. It’s a leisurely ride. This is probably a sign of its widespread appeal. The humor offsets the bleakness. With its flawed everyman character, many people will relate.

Here are a few more sticking points. Bob seems asexual. There was that stuff about his girlfriend in the beginning, but it was glossed over. He becomes detached from meaningful relationships as an AI. I would have loved to see some exploration of male psyche like you get in the film Her. He doesn’t seem to want female companionship, even within the infinite reaches of space and time, instead settling for a holographic butler ripped from pop culture and a pet named Spike. The naming is pretty lame as well. It is clear the author has a knack for many of the demands of science fiction writing. But a more honed sense of maturity, ambition, and pragmatism would have served the book well. In the end, it is a diverting, unique, watered down work of speculative adventure, executed with a wide-brush for the sake of entertainment. Possibly on the level of Hitchhiker’s Guide, which I also had problems with.

Review of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera

I didn’t laugh. And it was quickly forgotten.

Kundera knew how to write. (I speak in the past tense because he is now 90 years old and I wonder how much writing he’s doing nowadays.) But he chose to write about things I find it very hard to care about. In this, more than in Unbearable Lightness, he glorifies sex frequently as a rite of passage, and goes on at great length about its incredible significance. The characters are all so literary. So avant-garde, and in this day and age, cliched. There is a lot of political drama too. But hasn’t everything in the book been done before, and done by Kundera specifically? Yes, the characters were witty, but that was about the extent of their depth in my opinion.

I understand if you enjoy his polished sentences and pithy remarks. There’s satire and humor and possibly some heart. I won’t argue with you about his skill. But I’m usually looking for a different brand of literature.

Review of Vlad by Carlos Fuentes

Fuentes serves up a vampire yarn in a minimalist style. Compared to many of his other works, this one is straightforward, short, and perhaps a departure from his ordinary fare.

What begins as a hilarious and subtly creepy familial tale, complete with comedic and eccentric descriptions of a Count morphs into psychologically disturbing territory. Culminating in a bleak and eerie crescendo of terror, the relentlessness of fate, the literary, utilitarian language and the dark humor will appeal to many brave readers.

The old theme of temptation, and the dread of death, in all of its embodiments drives the narrator. One of the character calls history “a garbage dump of lies.” And one of the short chapters is devoted to criticizing the ill-wrought secrets of human progress.

If you’re not ready for Terra Nostra, come savor the seamy dreamlike imagery of Vlad, nibble on the symbolism, sip at the bloody and noxious fountain of its perversion.

Review of The Other City by Michal Ajvaz

A harmless and creative work, quirky and European in flavor, but lacking the depth of the shameless blurbs hailing Ajvaz as the Czech Kafka

Wait, never mind. This is a dream book, a better than average Surrealist romp. Relatively flat, but well-animated, colorful, goofy, surprising, and atmospheric. Superimposition plays a big part, and the inversion of scale. The interpolation of a microcosm occasionally comes into play. Lustrous and splendid and eldritch, the prose is reminiscent of Ducornet or Angela Carter, without the burden of being about anything. The author performs with abundance and imagination, yet with a directionless approach, such that an inept travelogue comes to predominate the set-pieces. Still, providing about as much entertainment as Calvino’s Invisible Cities with more phosphorescent dream-carnival vibes. A fluctuating, fructose, allegorical, chimerical digression of a book. An unpruned indulgence and an overripe fruit upon Dalkey’s bounteous boughs.

Review of Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu

Monsu held the butterfly uterus in the open palm of his right hand. Its skin fibers gently pulsed. In the end, it took flight, not through the mechanical beating of lepidoptera, but by undulations within the gelatinous medium, the way transparent beings on the bottom of the ocean proceed dreamlike through the abyss. P. 458

This book is nuts. In ways reminiscent of snatches of William S. Burroughs. But Cărtărescu’s approach to the novel appears to stem from a deep appreciation for poetry. His habitual use of arcane scientific terms can only be intentional, geared toward, one would hope, precise observation and the enhancement of photo-realistic depictions alongside the dreamlike, demented transformations and unholy images recorded by the detached narrator. It’s enchanting, unnerving and brilliant. But it would be easy to pick apart his hastily conjured juxtapositions. Death and birth, death and sex, death and lust, death and dreams, and lots of skeletons, both sentient and inanimate, human and animal, all cut a jig through the tormented landscape of post-war Romania. Wallpapered with more butterflies than the books of Nabokov, the texture and tone puts me in mind of a wild Dia de los Muertos procession, an exaggerated show of fanciful horror. Every ingredient under the sun makes it into his witch’s brew, concocted for sheer entertainment. Even the above quotation, while elegant in its imagery, requires a leap of faith. You must suspend your disbelief and turn off your critical faculty. The only way to enjoy this luscious prose is to ‘see it’ rather than ‘read it.’ Flaws of logic make way for jungles of interpretation and labyrinths of the imagination.

Blinding thrives on impressionism. It follows its omniscient eye through uncanny valleys of hospital nightmares and filthy streets, where coupling ghosts wreak havoc alongside childish phantasms. He stirs in helpings of philosophy and sprinkles in holy relics. The author challenges your mind while delighting the senses. Many will be offended, as he does not shirk away from fluids and acts often better left in the dark, but his brand of magical realism casts wide nets, roping in astral projections, macrocosmic wombs, and ending in an unwelcome exegesis. Luckily, Mircea eases the reader into his madness, describing lengthy family and community rituals, focussing his intense author’s lens on the finest of details, tackling every topic you can think of, while descending into moments of traditional coming-of-age narration. Truly this is how I would have liked My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgård to read. This is more imposing, acerbic writing. You can learn from his fantastic gravitas, whereas Realism so often strikes me as pointless reiterations of thoughts and emotions that are all too familiar. If done right, this is not always the case, of course.

Once again, prepare for long descriptions, flights of fancy, and an uncontrolled narrative. This will obviously rub many readers the wrong way. It cannot be called autobiography unless you consider Dante’s Inferno autobiographical as well. Nor is it strictly a dream diary. Much effort went into the craft of the sentences, even if the scattering of the themes and watering down of the plot inevitably followed. It is also a remarkable feat of translation that we can read this in English and still be astounded at the density of invention on display.

This novel is a bold experiment and a delight to read. It sustains a high pitch of aesthetic value and political relevance. It relishes, celebrates and shames human anatomy, religion symbols, and urban squalor. Like Pessoa, Cărtărescu lives vicariously through dreaming. Welcome to his madhouse, watch your step, when you come out the other side, the world may not look quite the same…

Review of Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth

One’s enjoyment of this collection may depend on one’s enthusiasm for wordplay. 

There is a significant amount of utterly clever portmanteuing. Buried beneath the lexical prestidigitation is a penchant for unconventional storytelling. Combining homages to classical mythology with post-modern shenanigans, Barth’s creative use of the English language is a rare confection. Yet, there are points when his esoteric noodling will become inscrutable for Cro-magnon readers like yours truly.

The high-browness of some sections are Rushmore-esque. Experimentation prevails through retellings, reimaginings, and regurgitations of Greek tragedies, pseudo-Arabian tales, and a perplexing ménage a treize of Gulliverian travails.

He admits preference to long-form fiction, though condensed, his voice is richly exuberant. My fave example was the tangled Siamese twin’s illicit and unimaginable tale, told in a slippery and macabre bildungs-Geschichte.

If I had to describe the nested tales in one word it would be: ovoviviparous.

Review of The Book of Human Insects by Osamu Tezuka

With the Book of Human Insects, Tezuka’s appeal is reaches new heights. He compressed an incredibly fascinating character study into a short space.

It is what he did with MW, but you’ll see even more compression here. One eternally gets the sense that Tezuka suffered from too many ideas. He simply could not draw fast enough. In fact, I would have been okay with him just resorting to stick figures or blocking out his stories and allowing apprentices and assistants to finish his works. But no, he chose to work much harder than anyone else and do everything himself.

The Book of Human Insects, with its bleak commentary on art, is actually prophetic. How many artists would discover Tezuka and then copy and reinvent his ideas? He single-handedly created a market for anime with Astro Boy, and revolutionized manga into a legitimate career path. After leaving behind 150,000 pages of drawings in the famous 700 volume Tezuka collection, he still didn’t want to stop at the end of his life. The inspiration he found from Hollywood and Disney is clear in some of his work, but in the end he showcased a capacity to invent ideas at a greater rate than any other creator of his time.

The Book of Human Insects is a good place to enter into Tezuka’s work. Before embarking on Ode to Kirihito or Barbara or MW, this one, solid volume is enough to convince anyone with literary leanings that Tezuka was more than just a serious contender in the medium. He might have been the Mozart of manga. He makes everyone else look like Salieri. Sure, he had his flaws. You can find plenty of jokes that really aren’t funny and plotlines that come out of nowhere only to go nowhere, but you won’t find that kind of thing in this volume.

After reading The Book of Human Insects I needed no more convincing. I wanted to reread it. But I knew there was too much Tezuka left. I couldn’t pause to linger over this fine work of storytelling. I had to move on to his other works. The quality of Tezuka is such that even when he is not at his best, he is still addictive. And even when he was just starting, his brilliance was recognizable. When the medium didn’t allow for much space or experimentation, he still found ways to innovate with works like The Mysterious Underground Men. This work is marked by adult themes, adult atmosphere and a total lack of appeal for children. Tezuka was making an effort to elevate manga above the level of the funny papers and to spread appreciation.

The Book of Human Insects categorizes many typical characters, recognizable in part, from other examples of his work. It contains journalists, writers, actors, assassins, businessmen, lovers, but is devoid of children. It is fairly obvious when Tezuka is trying to be mature. It is a testament to him that he could dash off something like The Book of Human Insects while working on other projects simultaneously.

Tezuka must have internalized the basic themes he wished to explore: the human spirit, sacrifice, religious dogmas, futurism, dystopia, love, jealousy, etc. etc. And he conjures scenes organically, invents plot twists at the drop of a hat, inserts the right amount of conflict, tension, and mixes up the atmosphere as necessary. This book occupies a special place in my mind as one of the most crystallized Tezuka works. It’s hard to beat for sheer intense storytelling. It contains all the drama and comedy and tragedy you could ask for from a graphic work. All he needed to do was dream, and let the characters come to life, and draw them into being in the midst of their frantic worlds.

Review of And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov

There are so many versions of this book on Goodreads because this book has been reprinted so many times. It’s one of those classics, like War and Peace, that endures. 

It is a multi-volume epic, and aside from its intimidating size, how is an American reader supposed to choose an edition? Many of the editions I’ve come across claim to be abridged, and the unabridged novel series goes under varying titles. It’s all rather confusing. Giving up after a while of browsing, I finally read the Signet Classics edition, at just over 500 pages. I’m not worried about how “abridged” it is, because the content of those 500 pages was brimming, bursting at the seams with human endeavor, war set-pieces, nature meditations, tragic and poetic elegance, intense action and a narrative which flowed like a river.

The author was in love with the Don river, one would assume from its presence in all of his titles, but people take center stage in his epic. In fact, the author was concerned with portraying the mountains, fields, farms, and battlegrounds with equal facility – but these reflections are nothing without their inhabitants. The Cossacks who people this landscape are as well-rounded, flawed and “human” as many of the characters from Tolstoy. If I had to pinpoint another author who could compare to Sholokhov, it would have to be Tolstoy. Except there are some fundamental differences. Sholokhov had to stop his education in high school, and worked many years on his 4-volume novel of the Don, which he eventually serialized in a major publication after much hemming and hawing on the part of publishers. After the novel’s merit was recognized universally, it became a bestseller, was condemned by the Soviet authorities, who wanted to cut it down to safer proportions, until it finally won the author a Nobel Prize.

Like Tolstoy’s novels, you will find too many characters to count here. It takes place during the Bolshevik Revolution, mainly out in the fray, against the breathtaking backdrop of the goose-sprinkled countrysides, the cow-studded farms, the poor and downtrodden villages, and always, like a subdued meta-protagonist, the Don river flows through it all, connecting the people to the land and the history to the land. There are many memorable deaths, cinematic triumphs, and intimate familial spats. It possesses a balanced pace and a jam-packed cast of everyday men and women, lost in the harrying tempest of war, and swept up in the history unfolding before their eyes.

The only issue may be that the complexity of the political climate and many historical details may be lost on some contemporary readers. I won’t pretend I remember every last tripartite Russian name and the intricate conflicts of their idiosyncratic domestic and professional bonds. But digging a little deeper will likely reward you, if you’re astute. This is not War and Peace Lite. This is another beast of equal scope and length, equally challenging, fun, and a fundamentally important work of world literature.

Review of The Invisibility Cloak by Ge Fei

This was one of my favorite modern Chinese novels. Instead of dealing with the horrors of war and destruction of families and bureaucracies, as in Mo Yan and Yan Lianke’s works, this was a breath of fresh air. 

It read much more like Japanese fiction in its depiction of an everyday narrator, tasked with his very specific struggles. It was well-polished and informative, as regards the high-end audio business. The author’s style possessed the charm of Murakami’s early works without as many pop references.

This is a short, absorbing tale that could be enjoyed by just about anybody, and a nice departure from the bleak style of a lot of the Chinese translations we are getting recently. There are many clever observations on contemporary frustrations, and it left a bittersweet, lingering aura of unfulfilled dreams in my mind. The blurbs make the work seem far more surreal and magical than it actually is. There are easy comparisons to Murakami, but Ge Fei has his own voice. His only other title in English is a minuscule novella called “Flock of Brown Birds.” I have also found scattered stories in scattered anthologies. They are all good, solid pieces of writing, partaking equally in the realms of pulp and literary fiction.

I believe this author has wide appeal and would be able to capture a large number of readers in America and elsewhere if he were only given the chance. They call him one of the most important writers working in China, but because of his lack of political agendas, hack writers like Yan Lianke get egregious amounts of attention, while his charming gems go unnoticed. Besides Can Xue, he is my favorite living Chinese author.

Review of The Paper Door and Other Stories by Naoya Shiga

Naoya Shiga’s short story collection, translated by Lan Dunlop is a condensation of a career, a well-translated, well-written, well-selected enticing collection.

In Japan, Shiga is hailed as “god of the novel.” His only novel-length work was the morose A Dark Night’s Passing, but in Japanese, apparently, the term ‘novel’ refers to short stories as well.

I would not rate his stories higher than Akutagawa’s, but they are so varied and careful, I am tempted to compare them to the work of Soseki. You get a lot of variety in this small collection, and I only wish the rest of Shiga’s oeuvre would get translated.

I would suggest reading this before attempting his 400-page novel, because you can absorb them more easily and get a feel for his unadorned style. There are traces of brilliance and after reading all the stories I can see why the author inspired a fanatical following. They are distinctly Japanese, and if you are a fan of Chekhov, Maupassant and Akutagawa you will probably enjoy this book. I know I will be adding it to my Japanese Literature shelf. Especially good examples are “Han’s Crime,” and “The Shop Boy’s God.” In these two stories you can see the range he covers in his style. The first is representative of his storytelling art. Simple, straightforward, riveting, old fashioned tale in the fashion of Pu Sungling. The latter is a subtle, indulgent character study, a relatable anecdote with memorable charm.

In short, this is an important piece of J-Lit in translation, which will hopefully, at some point, be made obsolete by a complete collection of the author’s short pieces.

Review of An Evil Guest by Gene Wolfe

“Money is an evil guest.”

Gene Wolfe can write in any genre he desires, I suppose. This book was a noir with subtle science fiction elements. The blurbs and book jacket call it Lovecraftian horror, which is a lie. You can expect 95% dialogue, well-polished, for about 250 pages, and the final 50 pages reward you with a surprising, even shocking, ending.

The best part of the book is the main character, Cassie Casey, who is a well-rounded (voluptuous), smart, funny, charming, likeable, up-and-coming actress, who stumbles into a conspiracy of cosmic significance. Her run-ins with rich bastards and slick sorcerers, and later, vicious islanders, make for an occasionally harrowing drama. But for the bulk of the novel you will be piecing together the plot elements through Wolfe’s effective dialogue, which only reveals enough background to draw you into the tale. What it does on the surface level is establish deep characters, with complex motivations – enough for any fan of pulp noir.

Written with the simplicity and pace of a Philip K. Dick novel, Gene Wolfe afficionados and neophytes alike will appreciate a breather from his near-incomprehensible world-building. This was a refreshing, easy, compelling and surprising read, even if it lacked the abyss-like depth of Wolfe’s masterpieces.

A close examination of his themes and devices reveals far more hidden meanings in the characters’ names and “metamorphoses” than I gathered from my reading – as usual, I had to look them up. Wolfe, the sorcerer himself, doesn’t disappoint on this score. But one can’t help but wonder about Woldercan and many of the unexplored “islands” of this book. How much of the interior and exterior universe do we actually get to see? Very little. He maintains a close perspective, and limits himself to cast an aura of historical nostalgia. It would be a simple matter to dismiss this as a minor work, a mere curiosity in Wolfe’s disturbing cabinet of secrets.

Yet, the dialogue-heavy explication does undermine the author’s typically genius plot cues. We are given an Idiot’s Guide through the characters’s anxious dialogues. Cassie is still figuring out the scenario along with the reader. But I think this is more playful sleight-of-hand on Wolfe’s part. How are you supposed to notice the influences outside the narrator’s field of vision? Luckily, we are presented with a wider view at the end of the book. I think this abrupt shift in perspective saved this book from being ordinary, though it will bother some readers, who were enjoying the simplicity preceding it.

A memorable, exciting and still profound book by a grandmaster of the bizarre.

Review of Six Memos For The Next Millennium by Italo Calvino

Calvino’s lectures, prepared but not delivered late in his career, are just as thought-provoking as his fiction.

He discusses some key, broad aspects of literature, and his personal discoveries of certain propulsive forces in writing. His discussion of Multiplicity I found most interesting, and the way he categorized encyclopedic and plural texts. It will certainly aid your understanding if you are already familiar with Flaubert, Gadda, Balzac, Ovid, Dante, Boccaccio, Shakespeare, Mann, Goethe, Poe, Borges, Calvino, Leopardi, Eliot, Joyce, Perec, da Vinci and more, but familiarity is by no means required for enjoyment. Skillfully, Calvino ropes in the work of all of these authors, outlines their methods in some measure and suggests how precisionism or autodidacticism or lightness and suggestion led into the completion or success of the work. By handling a wide range of styles and general approaches, Calvino offers a splendid viewpoint of artistic achievements of the mind.

There are many quotes, especially from the Zibaldone, which could have used some condensation. But it is easy to see how Calvino’s own work, such as If On a Winter’s Night, Cloven Viscount, Baron in the Trees, Nonexistent Knight, Invisible Cities, Palomar, Cosmicomics and other books, were inspired by literary predecessors, and he even reveals the sparks of intuitive imagination that led to their shape and form.

Review of Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace

Polishing off the remainder of DFW’s works has been a treat this year. I began by listening to the author-read audiobook, then picked up the paperback where the audio left off.

What an astounding journalist he was. “Consider the Lobster” is an in-depth look at a lobster festival. “Big Red Son” is a porn industry inside scoop. But like most of his books, the surface narrative and the snarky commentary enlarge upon grand and universal themes. The omnipresent wit and sophistication is never absent, though the subject matter is rather specialized. Shock and awe are two of the many techniques Wallace employed sentence by sentence.

Included are also reviews of an Updike book, Kafka’s aesthetics, and Joseph Frank’s 5-volume Dostoyevsky biography. All of them offer unique approaches to the book review form, while maintaining traditional appeal and technical proficiency.

Ever the perfectionist, DFW does not write a poor sentence. Many of his long footnotes are demanding, even bound to be irritating, and he does not restrain himself in this collection. “Authority and American Usage” is a tough expose on an obvious topic. DFW flexes his linguistic skills but strains the reader’s patience if they are more inclined to read for plot and character. I always prefer his fiction, but there are few nonfiction books I enjoyed more than this one.

Totally in character, he provides a review of an abysmal tennis biography, which is also a resounding meditation on sports biographies as an industry. An impressive article. Then “Up, Simba,” a very long and ultra detailed recounting of his campaign coverage for McCain, destined to become dated in future generations, but displaying many of his writerly strengths. For someone who is not immersed in politics, it makes for a difficult read, but rewards as it demands, like the best of his output.

If you can’t get enough DFW, pick up this book. You won’t be disappointed.

Review of Literature™ by Guillermo Stitch

Guillermo Stitch is starting off strong. This and his more recent Lake of Urine showcase a singular ability to incorporate dark comedy, magical realism, and slick writing chops.

This short novel is easy to read, but deep enough to keep me thinking about the world and characters afterward. The onset of futurism is rather subtle. Literature has become an illicit thing in the setting provided. Technology is no more explained than it is today, but it has changed – the reader is made to intuit certain inventions from interactions and clever product labels. We rely on gadgets more than ever, and they have infiltrated every facet of our existence.

The commodification of our lives, corporate bureaucracy. The tendency for conformity. A fast-paced satire on these topics emerges amid a fiercely compelling scenario, within a skewed world.

With a gift for dialogue and the quirky turns of phrase, Stitch entertains and simultaneously comments on our dystopian leanings, our social insecurities and the disconcerting aspects of our probable future.

A remarkably compact and thrilling read.

Review of Three Fantasies by John Cowper Powys

In the Afterward, Cavaliero draws a lot of biographical significance out of the farcical improvisation of the juvenilia of Powys in his dotage. This Beckettian collection of three novellas is both saddening and quirky

 At the forefront are confrontations with physical embodiments of Death. The skepticism of an animist, the waning imagination of a latter day Rabelais. These are cold and disconcerting, but readable nursery confabulations.

As in other works, Powys is mainly concerned with discussing the relationship of human beings and the natural world. This intersection of ideas was expanded to the greater universe in his final years. Here you can see how he depicts how history bleeds through time, staining the present. The nature of consciousness within the physical world never leaves his mind. The psychic nature of the wild also impinges on the reality of very two-dimensional characters. This author produced plenty of literary oddities, but even multiple readings of Three Fantasies will probably confound most readers.

Powys elicits a heartwarming nostalgia in some of his works, I think, the aura of abstract uncanniness has the capacity to overwhelm. He excels at portraying quiet, psychologically strained scenes wherein supernatural forces intrude like an impending gloaming, suffusing the whole atmosphere of the story.

The first story in this triumvirate of tales is Topsy Turvy. It contains philosophical discussions by furniture of varying worldviews. The dialogue of personified souls in inanimate objects is merely a stage for an exploration of standard Powysian ideas. It is argued that Powys believed all things to be animate, and he elucidates the manifestations of souls in his household objects, extrapolating their human qualities to an absurd degree. It is both odd and alarming when he suddenly slips into notions of rape which end the story on a note of spiritual significance. I simply shrugged and turned to the next story.

Part of the force of creative energy is imbuing objects with consciousness and perceiving this consciousness throughout one’s experience. I picked that up right away in “Abertackle.” It gets pretty tangled up with procreation, which according to Powys, is the intertwining of souls. His random ramblings take in several literary and historical figures apropos of nothing, and fly quickly off the deep end toward the stars. His eerie pronouncements are at times fascinating and for fans of improvisational writing, this is better than most modern experiments in unplanned, casual automatic writing. Famous writers, angels and demons make their way into the second story, which is the most chaotic. Everyone gets naked in order to inhabit the vague “Fourth Dimension” where they jump back and forth through history, space and time, discussing religion. Spouting off theories about God’s death, man’s creative powers, the reincarnation of Merlin, a lot of speeches made by the Devil. It’s all very uncontrolled.

Overall, I prefer Powys reigning in his creative energy, focusing it on elaborate set-pieces of constrained storytelling. He’s got some incredible books to his name, but this is minor in every way. It showcases none of his genius and only an ounce or two of his personality and charm. It is quite readable, and harmless, if a little unhinged.

Review of The Pleasures of Queuing by Erik Martiny

The second book by Martiny I’ve read. This one was very different from Night of the Long Goodbyes.

Both were singular in their content, and contained a mix of traditional and non-traditional techniques. I would call this a hysterical picaresque novel infused with mesmeric weirdness, peppered with quirky satirical aplomb and sensual, imagistic fabulism.

The sarcastic title is carried into the text, given new weight, and the author leaves very little time for the reader to breathe, since the laughter he induces will be fairly constant.

Frank, polished, memorable, nostalgic, wise and innocent at the same time. A gift for detail marks the first half of the novel. The second half slides into an uncanny valley of sexual frustration and fulfillment.

Extraordinary straight-faced humor draws the reader in to the overabundant Montcocq family, bilious with their modern trappings, but far more unstable than the average 2.5 kid-Lower? middle class fin de Twentieth siècle domestic unit. Martiny charms with multilingual literacy, very rapid jokes in every paragraph, outlining unique family dynamics using sophisticated language while commenting plentifully on religiosity, societal complacence, Irishness and Frenchness, playing with narrative distance, playfully reminding the reader of key details, and addressing them directly with instructions and apologies when necessary. I found this to be the antidote to the tiresome clichés of everyday life. The historical perspectives offered, the sexual revolution enacted on the scale of an individual, the tongue in other cheek feminism, conveys ecstatic enthusiasm for the richness of human life, though it is rife with digressions, with mazelike brambles of commentary. It purports to be a memoir by our first person narrator – every plot development might turn out to be a joke, keep your ears peeled for corny moments, as outrageous, vivid descriptions assail the senses, at times masterfully capturing an absurd but touching moment, in quick-paced, haphazard bildungromanesque fashion.

The author can milk a situation for all it’s worth, and historical recaps provide grandiosity, albeit excessively, while being morbid and hilarious footnotes to the events in the life of our hero. It is also anti-idyllic, a sort of anti-Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, charming childhooddom pervades even the adolescent and pseudo-adult time periods he covers, with impeccable comedic timing, ranging from elevated storytelling from the perspective of an infant, and juxtapositions which are thrillingly relatable. Resistance, repression, not much guilt, familial bureaucracy, eccentricity, overpopulation of the household, deliberately wordy descents into momentary madness, proliferation, excess, overproduction of testosterone, all make for a chockablock barrel of laughs. The lengths his parents go to to live out their ideals is astounding, while the naivete, cruelty, childlike sense of awe and horror, the ridiculous levels of character quirks, the domestic insanity, schoolhood days, and bizarro-lucid maniacal categorization of psychologically disturbed behavior as symptoms of societal conditions, all make more a good read. It is Wodehouse uncensored, Bill Bryson, but unhinged, complete with body horror, male adolescent egregious over-sexualization, and a bulbous, generous, beating heart.

Review of The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia by Samuel Johnson

A passing acquaintance with Samuel Johnson will reveal that the man could write splendidly.

He possessed, by all accounts, an unapproachable intellect. His literary works are reminiscent of Voltaire’s: witty, erudite, vast, and infinitely readable. His travel accounts and the biography by Boswell are considered paragons of their genre.

Sadly, Rasselas is his only true novel, and it is a short one. The rest of his corpulent corpus was composed of a book-length literary evaluation of Shakespeare’s plays, biographies of major poets, an important (in its time) and well-crafted dictionary of the English language, and serial publications, which when compiled, are enjoyable “agony-uncle” style epistolary philosophical tracts. Take almost any sampling of his work, and you are almost guaranteed to be delighted – if you delight in profound insight into the nature of the human soul and its relation to the world. His sentences are complex, daunting, but continually stimulating. Rasselas, more so than The Rambler, is probably the best introduction to his work. It is not exactly a masterpiece, but is is far more interesting, in my opinion, than his plays and poems (the only other things he wrote which can be digested without much effort).

Written for quick money in the space of a week, this charming novella, in the style of Candide or A Voyage to the Moon by Cyrano de Bergerac (if that means anything to you), is nonetheless a brilliant morale tale, both timeless and grounded in the atmosphere of Johnson’s mind (an intellectual Christian moralist, who sympathized with common folk), even if it takes place in Abyssinia, and various points along the map traversed by its sentimental characters. I found it to be a picaresque read, and enjoyed the analysis of the relative merits of different approaches to life – themes later explored at exhaustive length in The Rambler.

You have the prince, who wishes to experience the world, and who must do so at the expense of the luxury he is entitled to. Of course, he travels in style, sampling temples and lively districts, and encountering unexpected wonders, similarly to Gulliver during his sojourn. It is not a scathing critique and contains very little of a risque nature, as in Voltaire, but that makes it all the more approachable in my mind, and enjoyable to casual readers.

Samuel Johnson is a writer to enjoy over a lifetime, one to study. One of the giants of literary history, comparing him to Voltaire and Goethe is only a slight exaggeration of his powers. His strengths lie in the didactic discussion, which will become readily apparent if you embark on his great later works, which I have been doggy-paddling through slowly for some years, since the Rambler, not to mention the Idler, and his seemingly endless, encyclopedic miscellanies is a daunting task indeed.

Review of Vaseline Buddha by Young-moon Jung

What a fascinating read!
I’m going to unpack it, but there’s no way to properly convey the captivating reading experience this author provided me. Undergo the trial of reading it. It’s well worth your time. Dalkey missed their chance at publishing this, and I’m grateful to Deep Vellum for putting it out. I’ll have to get the other 3 books in English by Jung now.

At first, you’ll likely be confused. What you are observing in the initial pages is the discovery of the source of inspiration. Within the limitless capacity of the human mind to create, recreate and abuse reality, the proliferation ideas with hardly an impetus but the mind’s own insatiable curiosity takes place in a realm we can pass through regularly, but so rarely do we appreciate it.

The first forty pages are a thesis statement, used to justify the literary excesses of the rest of the book.

Methods of making the world disappear are known to most of us. Sustaining the hypnotic separation from the moment is how we often cope with the stress of daily life. At its heart, Vaseline Buddha is a game of ideas, used to obviate the difficulty of expressing the difficulty of life.

You’ll notice the author cutting himself off whenever he verges on narrative. Like Pessoa, the narrator travels the world in his mind while sitting at home. The flexibility of time when recounting tales allows for ambiguity in the structure and content of the retellings. The uncertainty of time passing in memories facilitates the analysis by the author’s mouthpiece, whose uncompromising terms of surrender to the compulsion to create manifest in a charming landslide of visions and revisions. He recounts buried tidbits from random encounters and reminiscences, meditation and dreams, including fainting goats, Madagascan baobab trees, ornamental false eyes, bagpipes, the surprising difference between saffrons and crocuses, and an increasing number of tangential morsels.

Our unnamed narrator can be elegant when he wants to be, but he patently avoids elegance most of the time. I was entranced after 40 pages. I enjoyed it far more than my readings of Bernhard. (I have not yet succeeded in finishing a Bernhard novel, but this was a breeze to read.) I could feel Jung taking control of the center in my mind responsible for my imagination with his pointed repetition. It took a while for the novel to win me over, but once it did, I was thoroughly won over. The rhythmic precision as it navigates the vagueness of the vagrant mind was enchanting, its vagaries, its vacancy, and its vaseline, was exquisite. The narrator is not a fan of his native country or language. Though Korea is never mentioned, he is self-described as a foreigner from the East.

On the surface, this is a ceaseless internal monologue. “Maybe” and “I thought” is the compulsive refrain. These words are a continued questioning of the subject and perceptual search for a subject. The reference to the writing of the book within the book betrays a lack of a plan. The improvisation is clear, and the narrator’s deception only compounds as he utilizes his capacity to visualize.

Shades of Kafka and Beckett make their way into the text. The river of memory flows counter to the stream of reality, to the images it produces in the mind. Similar to Beckett’s subtraction of elements of narrative, Jung removes the trappings of the ordinary novel to create something new, molding out of the gray matter of the mind a recognizable form.

I found it far more tangible and readable, than Ellmann’s Ducks… but it is in the same vein. It is far more entertaining, in my opinion, for one thing, though opinions will diverge on that point.

The observation of things being done without rhyme or reason, commenting on those things without purpose, and the self-analysis are all call backs to classic existential philosophy. I admit to being weak in the fields of psychology, Freud, mysticism, and philosophy, but even I noticed some parallels. The free associative filling of a frightening absence, the obscenity of the blank page, and the obscurity of our mind’s own schemata are all enumerated with great aplomb.

Useless speculation on and analysis of an environment which, by definition, defies logic, characterizes a human’s propensity to interpret its relationship to its surroundings. The affliction of sentience in the face of everyday life is combated through the self-imposed mesmerism of fantasy. The attachment to a perceived significance of reality can sometimes get in the way.

Somehow, I was able to process these concepts without being distracted by my own cognition. The repetitive musical rhythm of Jung’s prose lulled me into a false sense of security. It is somehow reminiscent of Tao Lin in the puzzling conscientious usage of dissonant language patterns.

The narrator assigns arbitrary significance to observations, he contradicts his own accounts through rambling explanations and questions the veracity of his memories. By revealing the obscurity of information, his thoughts become more real than reality. Jung brings his translator sensibilities to his fiction, in that his awareness of the inadequacy of words informs his narrator’s choices. The archetypal storyteller this character becomes accuses himself of fabrication, while trying to express the inexpressible, and understand his compulsion to do so.

“There are things in life that can be revealed by shedding darkness, not light, on them.” he says.
Humanity’s animalistic tendency toward constant hunger and ceaseless ambition, the parable of the kea eating the sheep’s kidneys, and the fabulous allegories inserted throughout the book call attention to the fearsome, defiant quality of silence. Simple language, unadorned narration, his comfort in Surrealism, the unrealistic qualities of the physical world, all while making an effort to unsee the troubling inevitability of Death and its infinite incarnations. Surrealism becomes reality “within reality,” for our hero, who is locked inside his own head, but far more free than the close-minded men in the streets.

Wallowing in contradictions and defining his own existence in the rejection of reality, in the de-emphasis of realism, he experiences the numbness caused by experience and the dullness of remembrance, desensitized to reality, but hyper aware of his imagination.

Does questioning his own behavior excuse the unexplainable behaviors he displays, or are they just peculiar fantasies, observing his body from a distance, the balm of literary invention, and the comfort fantasy brings within chaos? The countless stories which make up a human being take on life as we give them form. Yet, how is it possible that the organization of certain words animates the formlessness within us? A “story about the process of writing a story,” is the jumping-off point for a deconstructed travelogue, backtracking a life held captive by wandering thoughts. It is, in a sense, Pessoa’s narrator revived.

The sea of narrative and the infinite, arbitrary meaning ascribed to the creatures within it, is the origin of much of the world’s literature, but the beliefs that derive from this oceanic creativity often seep into historical interpretation and inform our lives. The private ritual of expressing inner thoughts, or journaling, can birth new perspectives. The novel is an amusement at bottom, much like nonfiction, while serving as a vehicle of understanding environments, both farcical and accurate. Whether or not the places and people described are real is a mere technicality. Literature is both a game and an antidote.

Writing words down gives them power. We realize this. Ideas give birth to other ideas. That much is clear. The proliferation of words can go on forever, the mind is a breeding ground. But when is it appropriate to draw the line? When is it finally time to stop making stuff up?

The temptation of experimentation is inherent in the human spirit. It allows us to progress, through stages toward greater levels of awareness and compassion. In this way language bears the responsibility to communicate relevance, and has its limitations. There is an immeasurable disconnect between words and thought. With deceptive intelligence Jung plays with these concepts, and even touches on different aphasias and their effects on meaning, through automatic writing, and uses his arguments to bolster his antipathy toward straightforward narrative.

Realism is full of plotholes, he claims, and communication through abstraction, allows us to ascribe meaning to the chaos, which is the “greatest constituent of life.”

The narrative of life is contrived. Life is fragmentary. The removal of traditional story elements, the removal of substance, and the prevention of the development of story chokes out the mind’s ability to surrender to fantasy. The author is hiding behind the narration and questioning his own authorship. He becomes author as arbiter, and then lets his ideas degenerate into narrative, while sustaining the cognitive dissonance of aborted literary scenarios.

Finally, death and doubt personified make appearances throughout as the abstraction of concepts, the breaking down of the inevitable abstractions of words counteract the flow of time, until the author’s motifs are pointed out by the narrator and begin to leak into the narrator’s personality.

Dodging existentialist quandaries at every turn, haunted by a failure to communicate concepts, the main character drowns in the bottomless well of his own psyche. Propelled by poisonous banality, while imagining the sentiments of great men facing death and the conscious thoughts of animals placed in bizarre situations, is a way of constructing mental labyrinths for himself, all to avoid the inevitable conclusion that reality is an illusion.

Despite his logically invalidated writing, intentionally including mistakes and second-guessing everything, his metaphysical journey in the second half of the book, comprised of memories contorted through creative interpretation, blurring the border between truth and fiction, his artificial confessions, false details inserted seemingly without motive, the deviation, interpolation, reiteration, eternal returns, resistance, entropy, detours, endless insertion of random anecdotes which are far more interesting than the author’s thoughts, all serve to anchor him as the embodiment of the banality he despises.

Sprinkled with romantic wishful thinking, indulgence in playful fantasy, entertaining surrealist set-pieces, insignificant facts, cameos by Napoleon, van Gogh, Chirico, Nietszche, Vermeer, Chekhov, Dali, and others, the intentional sloppiness of the sentences, the clumsy recountings, and wacky outrageous humor, all add up to a riveting conglomeration. Add to this the subtle inclusion of the absurdity of war, the absurdity of human behavior in contrast to the exactitude of certain historical details that cast light on the folly of Man through the ages, and display how “treating ideas as objects and objects as ideas,” can invade every sector of our lives.

The difference between poetry and fiction, Nature contemplating itself, how to seduce a cow, the comparison of Buddhist monks to hippies, superstition, alien invasion, Venice, Paris and the Amazon, the initial spark and germination of stories, the virtue of self-reliance, loneliness, desensitization and human agency, and a lot more is to be found in Vaseline Buddha. It is once and for all a demonstration of free will and a masterpiece masquerading as a free associative rant.

Read it.

Review of Lord Valentine’s Castle (Lord Valentine, #1) by Robert Silverberg

A grand and imaginative adventure on an alien planet.

Our prototypical hero has been transplanted from his rightful throne, and he must rise from rags to power through the sheer will contained in his magical dream-enhancing powers and his innate juggling ability. He will gather a band of weird followers, and inspire all those around him with his glorious destiny. If this sounds corny, it is. Silverberg has produced some questionable literary material in his time, but this is good, relatively clean fun. Unlike the other science fiction novels of his I’ve read, he seems to have put a great deal of effort into designing a complex system of well-realized constraints.

All told, it is an effective novel or journeying, with danger around every corner and never enough tension to make you gasp. You get the pulp-novel jokes that fail to make you laugh, the slyly inserted sexual encounters, the tentacled beasts wrapping their tentacles over peoples’ faces, tentacle-tickling them into submission, the psychedelic undertones reverberating through almost every chapter, pretending at mysticism, the labyrinth wandering, ornate architectural descriptions worthy of Lovecraft, the tricksters appearing out of the woodwork to impede and cajole our band of misfits, the segment at sea, with its predictable outcome. How could you not have fun in such a well-realized fictional set-up? The world building really elevates this book out of the crowded realm of its fantasy trappings. Majipoor is a memorable, colorful planet, chock full of strange islands, allegorical chimeras and inhabited by a dozen alien races, each with their own history, relation to the hierarchies ruling the bureaucratic government and an endless wilderness, as treacherous as any intelligent adversary.

The stakes are fairly low, when you consider that Lord Valentine is really the only one who needs to take back his rights. In the grand scheme of things, Majipoor was not in shambles as a result of his usurpation. He could have lived a merry life among the entertainers. But he chose to forsake simplicity and pleasure for the mighty calling of Fate. He makes for a silly protagonist, another product of wish-fulfillment. But seldom have I ever encountered another world I would have liked to explore more. The reward is in the discovery, and there is a magnificent treasure-trove of fantastical elements to unearth, even if the book is none too deep.

Review of The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

I could try to compose a lengthy review, but the essential points are in the product description. You don’t need to know more than that to determine if this book is for you. Combined with the page count, it shouldn’t be a difficult decision.

I will just say that it could have been better. Disc 29 was simply bad. I’m not sure if he was going for a William S. Burroughs homage. The historical details are startling, as expected. Length is a positive virtue in historical novels in some instances. The main character recounts a large variety of relevant experiences, but the many side characters are not developed. Not to mention there were dozens too many hook ups for the scenes to be aesthetic or important. In essence, the author was attempting, I think, to desensitize the reader, and the accumulation of atrocities was astounding. It has the major advantage over Chuck Palahniuk of being of historical interest, instead of an excessive display of bodily functions dissected and put on display for shock value.

Review of Dragonflight (Dragonriders of Pern, #1) by Anne McCaffrey

The start of a well-known series. While the writing was on par with many fantasies I’ve read, the characters and setting did not amaze me. 

It is dragon-centric, so heavy with dragon-lore and dragon-activities and dragon-relationships and dragony stuff that it left me curious about the characters.

For all of its world building, threads and mind-tapping, and so forth, it fell rather flat for me. I can see how plenty of people will enjoy the series. It has the right tropes, and it is competently written, but the power and majesty of the author’s fictional universe did not come through. While reading more compelling series at the moment, I was less than impressed by this one.

Review of Eggs, Beans And Crumpets by P.G. Wodehouse

Wodehouse may be the most comic writer from his time. This book, in a consummately British, very moist audiobook reading, was constantly hilarious.

This author’s use of similes might be unequaled. The wordy acrobatics he pulls off juxtaposes a mundane setting for bumbling characters. The prevalent theme is money, and how it is variously lost and gained, in relatively trifling amounts by people who just can’t resist themselves. Featuring lost Pekinese, stamp collections and top hats. Don’t expect earth-shattering dramatic panoplies but endlessly entertaining small-time antics. Even if many situations are interchangeable, they are wonderfully wild.

Review of Dali – The Paintings by Robert Descharnes

This is the best collection of Dali’s paintings I have ever found. It has dozens of massive full color, full page prints. It does not contain all of them, but several hundred works are represented.

To gain a deep understanding of Dali’s symbolism you will also need to read supplemental works. You can gain some quick tidbits from the footnotes and commentary but this is largely a visual coffee table style volume. However, like any true surrealist, his art can be appreciated purely aesthetically, with little interpretation of the striking symbols.

You will find several of the large works missing from this collection, but it would be difficult to imagine a more comprehensive single volume.

It is easy to see that his work progressed in stages, from hyper-realism in studies and sketches to phalanxes of surrealism throughout the early and later paintings. Influences arise from Cubism and the various locales he visited. The ever-present Gala remains the worshipful motif. Bleak landscapes and mental anguish belie the weird mustache and bread sculptures. It was very difficult to pinpoint the line between genius and insanity in most of the works, until I read up on the analyses and meanings behind the elephant obelisks and bleeding saints. Even when perusing his autobiographies, you may struggle to grasp some of his ridiculous ideas. Undeniably though, beneath the eccentricity, verifiable brilliance frequently blossomed. This is a massive tome of elegant prints, well-worth the cover price if you are at all interested in one of the most enigmatic and alluring artists of all time.

Review of Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami

I have trouble motivating myself to write about the works of Haruki Murakami. The fact of the matter is, I have read all of his work in English, I love it, I know it has flaws, and I don’t care.

He has a legion of followers, rivaling Neil Gaiman, but I believe, at least in my eyes, his literature has lasting value, and literary merit in its own right. His work poses as pulp, lite magical realism, but it touches something deep. It is at times incongruous, dreamlike and silly, but it is always readable.

H. M. is an unexplainable phenomenon. Imagine a batter that gets called in out of nowhere late in the game, during the last inning. No one has ever heard of him before. He is about two feet tall, a hundred pounds overweight and has one eye. The whole crowd laughs him off in the stands. The pitcher shrugs. The game is already in the bag, he thinks. Then this little batter stands at the plate, wears this incredibly serious look on his face, and waits. The pitcher tosses him a defiant pitch and the guy knocks it out of the park. The ball heads straight for the Jumbotron, pierces it like a comet, and shatters it with a huge explosion. Then the batter snaps the bat over his knee and strolls around the plates without a care in the world.

This strained analogy reminds me the career of Haruki Murakami. In his own words he has dug down deep into himself and written about what he found there. What an interesting guy, I keep finding myself saying. What makes his scenes feel so real, so memorable? What gives his characters such wacky charm? Why do I not care that what I am reading hardly makes sense? I think some of the answer lies in the author’s inability to hide his personality in his writing. His heart is revealed often, and it communicates messages most people can relate to.

I think Dance Dance Dance is a good book, but if it were rewritten by someone else, in any other voice but the inimitable Murakami’s it would have been, simply, bad. Like Rodrigo Fresan, Murakami does not put on a show when he writes. It is unfiltered, unplanned, jazzy improvisation. But what he writes is still a spectacular show. In all of his interviews, he comes off as someone who cares little about public opinion. Nonetheless the populace has largely been on his side. How is it possible for him to be so unpretentious? He either does not provide an explanation for his works or genuinely doesn’t know how he writes them. Philip K. Dick blamed an alternate consciousness invading his own for the insane ideas he had, at least toward the end of his life. Murakami seems to believe there is an abyss of dreams within us, which he needs merely to siphon off in order to produce literature.

Only after thirty years has the Japanese literary society begun to take him seriously. In more time, probably, his goofy body of work may attain the status of “classic.” Does it deserve that status? Who can really say? If he wins the Nobel Prize, perhaps. This impending event is a source of constant annoyance to him, like every time the possibility is mentioned, he throws a temper tantrum and withdraws from the public eye.

If there is one sense I get from reading this and other books by him, it is that he is largely solitary. Sometimes, Murakami describes people like animals, pacing their cages, interacting and coupling like insensate entities. Other times they are communicating spirits, intertwining in physical and mental synchronization.

As a translator of Carver, you can see subtle and not-so-subtle influences. Murakami has resisted the pull of influence from his homeland endlessly, only to dawdle overlong in American easy-reads, and stake a claim for himself as a competent, and even brilliant translator into Japanese. In his introductions, novels and statements, he has admitted to having read Faulkner, Dickens, Salinger, John Irving, Dag Solstad, Agota Kristof, Kafka, Carver, Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Chekhov, Fitzgerald, Vonnegut, Brautigan, Stephen King, Kerouac, and then he skimmed the Japanese classics when he was bored one day.

He has embodied some antiestablishment principles in regards to the Japanese literary climate, and since the beginning, always done his own thing, an outsider who draws a crowd. Someone who might gain some respect from and be compared to other writers like Banana Yoshimoto, but if you start talking about Tanizaki or even Ryu Murakami, you are talking about a different thing – that is, actual literature.

Which brings me to the book Dance Dance Dance, which I have obviously avoided mentioning. The politics spouted off by the characters is straightforward anti-Consumerism, and not exactly central to the plot. There are so many tangents and asides by the narrator that it is a miracle the novel stays relevant to its own narrator. The plot is a cooked up caper involving confusing characters acting out random conflicts and interests, all the while charming the pants off you, the reader, with their witty, blasé, selfish attitudes. The prose glows with sappy, effortless nostalgia. Murakami is a genius with an average IQ. I think he has admitted to being ‘average’ in more than one interview, but his ability to zero in on people is remarkable. They take on full-blooded life, even when they are caricatures. The bottom line is, this book is a convincing distraction, with a lot of satisfying moments. While the real meat of themes and subtleties are forsaken for mysterious, ominous presences, unexplained emotional outbursts, and truly affecting, beautiful atmosphere.

You can love and hate this book at the same time. It is the second book by the author I read. The first was Wind-Up Bird. This book, more than the first, cemented my love for his writing style. I have read it twice. The second time I was examining it, mainly to see if it was actually as good as I thought. It has undeniable mesmeric power, at least to me. It would be easy to point out things that just don’t work in the novelistic sense, but they work for Murakami’s skewed, dislocated reality.

By this time, Murakami was feeling the pressures of, what was to him, celebrity status, and it caused him to speak out against celebs, to lampoon them in a way, and like all of his opinions, he is completely transparent about it. Everywhere there is the same existentialist dread you should get comfortable with, the discombobulation and the “obsession with music to the point of insanity” as Seiji Ozawa remarked.

Does it really matter if elements of the plot are advanced by a man wearing a sheep costume? What about fetishization of ears? Random portals popping up leading to localized, video game like debug rooms? This is an ecstatic work of fiction. A breathtaking accomplishment in absurdist folly, a hairy dog joke carried to the heights of Mount Everest, and then whispered into a whistling cave never plumbed by the tread of Man.

If you are anything like me, you will finish this book thinking: “where can I find me more of this stuff?”

Review of Great Short Works Of Henry James by Henry James

Without further reading, a comprehensive view of James cannot be gained from 6 of his short novels. He is one of those authors: namely, no matter how many of his books you power through, there is always an infinite amount of reading left to do, like Trollope and Dickens. Your shelves will collapse if you try to collect it all.

I took this compendium to be a good place to start, though I battled my way through Watch and Ward years ago, only to discover that James swore on a stack of bibles he never wrote it in later life. What you get here are: Daisy Miller, The Aspern Papers, Beast in the Jungle, Turn of the Screw, The Pupil, and Washington Square. I don’t care if James called these nouvelles, Washington Square is a full-length novel. The others are still long. He was incapable of writing short short stories, it seems.

Tempting as it is to call James old fashioned with his two first names and tireless scribbling, I will do my best to outline the pluses and minuses of embarking on the endless journey of reading him.

Starting with the minuses:
His literary texture is too stiff.
Too many adverbs, subordinate clauses, way too much use of passive voice, weak verbs, unspecific words like “thing” cropping up with high frequency, too loquacious. He describes around subjects, instead of nailing them to the page with any sort of precision. Use of filler words, like I tend, sometimes, I think, perhaps, to do, occasionally, one might say, in some of my typical, so-called, reviews. Reading him can be like drinking diluted tea, if you get out of bed in the morning craving the rare lightning strikes of mot juste. The dialogue is grossly inefficient, and he can take things a little slow, plodding around the fancy garden of his subject matter, never calling a spade a spade. Too many similes, repetition, and so forth. His choice of subject is rather safe, rather too polite, as if he were writing with his pinkie extended. He is careful only to insinuate, instead of telling it to you straight, and why would he risk doing anything wild, like that foolhardy bloke D. H. Lawrence? Finally, the dialogue for different characters contain the same diction – they all sound like H. James.

There are pluses, in case you were wondering. In fact, there are many reasons to read James.
His style creates cumulative force and inescapable tension. He is not limited to one style. The stories do not read the same. They build into their own consistency, constructing a world out of ornate language. Washington Square, for instance, is a powerful romance, a heartfelt character study, and much more. The narration can be forceful, and he achieves massive character depths with ample, weighty, dense cumulonimbi of descriptive paragraphs, looming over the atmospheric setting. This descriptive power is masterful, immersive and accounts for much of the nuance and sophistication of the tales.

The dialogue might take a little getting used to for modern readers. It seems to rely on revealing meaning gradually through the stressed elocutions of distressed minds, of suggestive minds. He explores the vulnerability of innocence, the stubbornness of old people, the toll of experience, is concerned chiefly with the privileged classes and enchanted by Europe’s locales: London, Paris, Italy, etc., probably since he spent most of his life abroad.

Let’s not beat around the bush any longer. Henry James was a towering genius. So what if he liked to dress up his stories with eccentric, absurd levels of detail? Maybe he is long-winded, but he had things to say – not all at once, mind you – but plenty of grand statements in the offing. Both a pioneer and an old school automaton, James will challenge and enlighten you.

Washington Square and Daisy Miller were my favorites from this collection. Essentially explications of the relationships between men and women, the courting period of life, and extending these verbal jousting matches into maturity, and spinsterhood. There is some groveling, and a character even raises his voice once or twice. These two stories were brilliant for many reasons, and did not rely on plot to carry them to moving conclusions.

The remainder of the stories require much unpacking. They were dense, vaguely unpleasant, ripe with the same tension I felt while reading “Heart of Darkness” but not nearly as interesting to me. Perhaps I’ll reread them after a few thousand pages of James have passed before my jaded eyes.

Review of Both Flesh and Not: Essays by David Foster Wallace

Not sure if I’d recommend this one. It’s DFW, and yes, it’s witty, acerbic, articulate, et. al. but the items under discussion did not engage me in the way that Lobster, and Supposedly Fun Thing did in their turn. I’d therefore call this his least successful collection.

They padded the thing with extracts from his vocabulary lists, which I found a might tedious. If I wanted to look up definitions for abstruse words, I’d Google. But why would I? Wallace himself rails against Academese – how people use big words to sound smart. He distinguishes proper smart-writing as extra-precise, and surprising et. al. You could play the double-bind game and say he has to point out snobbery to patently avoid it, and he goes out of his way to call himself a snob, but then tiptoes around the whole snobbery issue elsewhere. It comes off as him not being able to decide whether he wants to embrace the self-image or be repulsed by it. (See “American Usage” essay from Lobster for concrete evidence of snobbery embrasure).

The title essay is a methodical Federer expose, reminiscent of Jest. Plenty of tennis trivia. Not sure I needed the close-up, lengthy descriptions of jock straps etc. Overall, an illuminating, journalistic look at the sport. But again, he’s written THE Definitive novel on Tennis. The not-so-Finite Jest. Ergo, this is less impressive.

Also to be found here is his long essay on Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which I found more lovely than the novel itself. He studied Witt back in his college thesis days, and he is something of an authority. It helps, if you’re like me and didn’t get much out of Markson’s seminal work, to disabuse you of your disillusions.

In another: Probably the best metaphor for a writer’s relationship to his manuscript, a mini-essay, which expands a comparison ripped from Delillo’s Mao II. Extremely memorable.

He goes on to review a terrible Borges biography and a duo of novels from the “math prodigy” genre, which latter essay turns out to be well-nigh unbearable.

A Terminator 2/ film industry article flexes his pop culture musculature. A funny and telling thing, that one is.

Then the explanation of “conspicuously” young writers of his generation, up and coming, breaking rules, and a cynical analysis of what they are actually doing. I already knew what he was telling me. Anyone who reads someone like Bret Easton Ellis can get the feel for why it attracted attention. This one made DFW seem like a snide, weasel-shaped anti-writer.

I was entertained. I got more of Wallace’s distinct voice. But I was not enthralled.

Review of Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

Earthling is a very absorbing and unconventional coming-of-age story. It is told from the perspective of an eleven year-old girl and then shifts to later in her life. Broken up into two perspectives, they are both profoundly effective and deeply disturbing. 

I found the novel to be an exploration of the rippling effect of abuse in myriad forms, and includes many outlying themes centered around social isolation, regret, misplaced love, and subtle questions of what it means to be human. The themes are woven beautifully, displaying a full range of emotion as they echo through the characters’ lives and relationships. It contains some of the most graphic and disturbing moments of child abuse and sexual abuse I have seen in literature, as well as an ending that will never be expunged from my mind. But it also contains a playful escapist, magical realist motif. The coping mechanisms used by the main character define the quirky relationships she maintains with her group of outcasts throughout her troubled life.

I was swept away by the straightforward, bold narration and the Murakami-esque magical intrusions. There was a dislocation of reality skewing the perspective, since the main character believes herself to be from another planet. It was harrowing and sad and I had to read the whole thing in one day. One of the best Japanese novels I have read in years, a must buy, and confirmation that Murata is a brilliant novelist, capable of more than the mundane brilliance that she showcased with her first English title, Convenience Store Woman. Earthlings expands upon many of the social concerns Murata brought up in her earlier novel. While that one was based on real-life experiences, I can only guess that some of the anger and detachment in this one comes from some level of real-life discontent. Her artistic achievement is remarkable though, and this book was better than the majority of Murakami’s novels and better than the recently translated Breasts and Eggs by Kawakami. With it, Murata joins the foremost ranks of Japanese novelists in my mind. This was a heartbreaking work, both memorable, terrifying and mesmerizing. You will probably never read anything like it again.

A lot of the reviews I’m glancing at on Goodreads are spoiling all of the surprises and taboos in the book. That’s why I’m not going to read them. I formed my own opinion and read it blindly, actually expecting another melancholy, droll, slightly comedic slice-of-life like her prior novel. I was bowled over. I’d recommend jumping into it blindly if you’re a brave reader, a fan of horror or psychological horror. You should trust that the author knows how to handle difficult material. Even if you disagree with how she handles it, you will still learn a lot by reading the book.

The character development, description and action all flow well and, while it is not the most literary of novels, it is polished and emotionally charged. The discussion of taboos and behavior by the character named Tomoya was a bit stilted or contrived, but otherwise, the juxtaposition of internal justifications and the surprising response we get to the narrator’s early life is utterly engrossing. It is not easy to predict where the story was headed but I found myself glued to the page.

Make no mistake. You could approach this as a horror novel in the same way you might cautiously approach the darker work of Ryu Murakami. But it has a distinctly feminine viewpoint, including an in depth allegory on Japanese traditions, touching on wifely duties, the concept of acting as a tool for society, brainwashing, and boldly assesses the loss of identity as part of a herd mentality, casting it as the death of individualism in traditional Japanese familial traditions. The inheritance of a patriarchal system creates an oppressive atmosphere, which may come off as forced, but which is really quite necessary for the plot. The plight of the outsider who chooses not to participate in the soul-crushing rat race is something I hope many of us can relate to on some level.

The judgement of others, the overreaction to the transgressions of childhood, the distrust children must endure as parasites to their parents all struck a chord with me. the way society guards normalcy and condemns the individual were all utilized in a thought-provoking argument. A quest, a searching, and the troubling prospect of getting by in a demanding society underlie the final, mind-boggling passages.

The sad reality of loss of innocence, the need to grow up forcefully, imposed on youth even when your childhood is stolen from you – those themes are all well-crafted here. The unrealistic expectations, the differing notions of love, the unpleasant need to keep up appearances, and the notion that human civilization is nothing but a baby-making factory, a gene reproducing mechanism with many moving parts, all combine into a solid backdrop for our eccentric narrator.

Mixing the societal expectations with the internal family pressure to preform, to have children, to fall in love, and to live the kind of existence that other people can accept, lend the tale great relevance. Really, a massive departure from her earlier novel, but I can’t think of another writer with this much courage working right now.

Thanks go to the publisher for the ARC via Netgalley.

Review of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife by William H. Gass

Reads like an appendix to The Tunnel.

For Gass enthusiasts, it represents a departure into more experimentation than is really useful. Plenty of meaning can be drawn out of his alliterative sentences, but untangling the twelve fonts and piecing together the abstruse suggestions takes work. The entertainment value is limited. Luckily, it’s short enough and peppered with distracting pictures. A one-of-a-kind, crude, somewhat overwrought novella. The mind as a sexual organ, the body as text, the invasion of literary techniques. Prose poetry. But you have to turn multiple pages to connect the narrative dots due to constant interruptions mid-sentence.

Review of Collected Early Stories by John Updike

This one surprised me. It is a luxurious and splendid collection. Well worth the money. My first Updike. Reading it resulted in me buying 12 of his books.

For some reason, he has acquired a reputation recently, and most of the chatter about his work takes the form of complaints. This might therefore be the best place to start with his oeuvre.

Listing off major themes and my emotional responses to the stories:

Fatherhood’s and husbandhood’s sinuous triumphs and challenges. Nice mix of life stages represented. Though women are always secondary characters. Many main characters resemble one another or are simply cut and paste versions of Updike – or they come off that way.

Death contemplated from the perspective of youth as a discovery of mortality arrived at abruptly. Sort of a universal feeling, portrayed with startling elegance. The lyrical brilliance is everywhere, as are the scintillating similes. Updike is at times reminiscent of Bradbury, but in this volume, he is devoted to Realism, and can be quite boring. He relies on plot very rarely.

Men shoved along the march toward death, assembling in their persons various paraphernalia of dignity. The mysteries of unassuming men – the men who uncomplainingly hoist the world upon their shoulder, only to expire pitifully in the next instant. Updike’s observational facility is construed through poetic juxtapositions.

Some of the stories are short sketches, exquisitely rendered snapshots, even, on occasion, still-lifes.
Updike is well-practiced in the art of literary allusion, as well as imagistic illusions. His command of description is magisterial.

DFW lumped him in with Mailer and Roth as GAMN (Great American Male Narcissi). This proclivity is not evident in this collection of his work. I’m assuming in later books, Updike turns into a sex-crazed dirty old man Narcissist. I’m basing this on how other people have described him. His language strikes a chord. The words are always brave, stating with poignant fierceness, never hiding behind safer, cliched lines. They have the spontaneous quality of free verse.

It would be hard to believe that the eight or nine thousand pages of writing he produced are all so inspired, uniformly pleasant to read, or infused with such radiance.

Pointing out the differences between Brits and Americans, rich and poor, young and old, never gets old with him, at least not yet.

Homely stories, in that the home is the theater of the drama, played out in unflattering starkness.
Visions of Christian life and Atheistic death. Some of the proclivities of Thomas Wolfe, but with a more honed style, no nonsense, a storytelling agenda unclouded by aesthetic bravado. Snow-covered parking lots, and equipment crowded back rooms, offices and book-lined studies. The quietude of Sunday afternoons; such pleasantries as make us thankful for our uneventful lives.

They possess the blandness of daytime television, how a lot of life is wasted between conversations, which are hardly ever thrilling. American ennui, childhood angst, prim and well-educated, privileged, sniveling. The dawning of maturity, nostalgia’s blush upon a quaint memory. The tales don’t require analysis, they yield to light, casual, leisurely reading. They are deceptive, glowing with inner warmth.

The stories are very tame, cool, refulgent, quiet, you can get the sense of relaxing into them.
Slow and methodical, employing straightforward 3rd person unvarying perspective. Sometimes it is only a lucid expression of palpable tension between characters. His stories seem ideally suited for the New Yorker, that is to say, they are inconsequential. The connective tissue of ordinary lives.

Flowing consistency, humdrum existence, everyday life, ie. strong emotions are often absent from the stories or are merely implied. Many of them rely on ephemeral epiphanies. Cool detachment, affected attitudes, hipness. The skill lies in the minute observations. The tales are easy to grasp, addictive, do not suffer from accumulation, are riddled with pop references, but just superb precision, fabulous word choice, blossoming prose cataracts, pervasive humor, implicit loneliness, the evocation of being young, naive, full of one’s self to the brim, the lives of unproductive, idle lounge lizards, in often entrancing descriptive prose.

American life, freedom, a certain type of indulgent selfish boorishness, middle class woes. Caring, and knowing it, is enough, feeling it in your bones, for these characters. Even when his storytelling ceases to be relevant and interesting, his sentences sustain themselves. Allusions to Joyce, Plato, Wodehouse, W. H. Hudson, philosophers, psychologists, etc. Speckled with memorabilia from the 50s and 60s. The utopian era of American ennui. He settles into a more utilitarian style toward the latter half, Sherwood Anderson-esque, accompanied by youthful moments of clarity. Dark moments are few and far between.

Couples and young men, never too poor, never quite happy, nor overwhelmed with despair.
Beautiful flora, elegant rooms, charming furniture, clean shops and safe streets, streetcars, smoke-filled sitting rooms, the mesmeric melody of words, intricately assembling crystalline images.
And the persistence of morality: how over time, a person, when interacting with others, begins to sense something in themselves called a soul. Some stories are meditations, solitary recordings of daily details, and associations, impressions, dusty photographs, sepia-toned reminiscences.

Some stand-outs include a bedtime story about a wizard. “The Persistence of Desire,” contains a brilliant episode at the eye doctor. A lot of husband-wife spats, children making mischief.

Evocations of childhood so convincing and effervescent as to be awe-inspiring. Dinosaurs at a dinner party – the mingling of surrealism into later stories. In some he begins to depart from Realism in favor of satire, but only in brief experiments, all of which prove to be magnificent departures. Makes me wish he would have stuck to satirical fantasy. There is a conversation with a Baluchiterium. (Throughout, his vocabulary is immense.) “The Pro” draws parallels which boil down to “Golf is life, life is lessons.” The interactions of paramecium, more dinosaurs, extinct animals reverberating into the consciousness of bored narrators. After 800 pages of 19th-century meekness we are treated to a 25-page sex scene in “Transaction” – showcasing another side of Updike’s talent.

All 102 stories are richly resplendent with the potential of artful language. “The Chaste Planet” is one of his most fascinating stories, in that it is satirical speculative story about the musical mating rituals of pickeloid Jovians.

Let your troubles melt away, live in the moment. Read rippling character intentions in his ripe dialogue, where cigarettes serve stylistic purposes. He is an expert at picking key quirks out of gestures. These slices of life are full of wonder, tender moments, and a strained self-conscious judgement of the world. Even a story about nothing is fascinating, containing many remarkable turns of phrase. With pithy sentences aplenty, Updike presents a thrilling panorama of descriptive detail through aptly chosen images, showcasing holistic human beings depicted in unflattering lighting, effortlessly smooth, moody, in displays of the pleasures of exercising the imagination. Pining after a vanished ideal, the disillusion that comes with growing up, and much, much more.

Review of The Melancholy of Anatomy by Shelley Jackson

Like Gogol’s “The Nose,” but extrapolated, updated, crafted in a deliberately daring manner, modernized, and covering eggs, spermatozoan, blood, milk, fat, nerves, and more.

Casting off abstract concepts like character, dialogue, and plot, S. J. focuses on the human body as an object of dream, fetish, and fascination. Implementing her vast imagination, she swells her subjects to uncontainable proportions. They become palaces, cathedrals, and labyrinths. If Borges dwelt in morbid alleyways, peddled grotesque poetry for psychedelic sustenance, his snippet productions would bring to mind this enigmatic short story collection. A thrilling emanation of ideas, and a visceral ride through gristly viscera, inhabited by the piquant ghosts of our primal fears, our soul-encasing frames expanding to encompass tantalizing visions. Beautiful, excessive, absurd, and unutterably strange.

Review of The Tunnel by William H. Gass

What is this monstrous thing in the shape of a novel? this corpulent, unkind, savage, lexical anomaly? Maybe not a good gift for your grandmother for Hanukkah.

The first thing you might notice, if you’re paying attention, is Gass’s sentence architecture: most of his prose waterfalls are extended metaphors woven through elaborate sentence jazz sessions, hinging on portmanteau-ed verbs, vividly surrounding an image without precisely touching it, m-dashes prancing haphazardly, splashing interpolated questions at the reader, commas like ants, fluid, rhythmic, incantatory monologuing, mingled with short sentence fragments, snippets, wrapping around heady themes, and wildly weird moments peeking inappropriately from behind the curtain mid-sentence.

Many performances flabbily luxuriate across multipage beds. He constructs defensive bulwarks from brick-like metaphors, voyaging across time and perspective, acquiring layers of dense blubber and baroque barnacles along the way, manacled by the belligerent narrator, who is buried in deep piles of suspicion and guilt. The narrator sees himself in his work, becoming a work of fiction in turn. His body of work is propelled corpseward, a body already corpselike, like his own physical body, and yet his mind keeps his corpseworthy self in the self-composed loop of renewable decay.

It continues on at great length, fractally expanding from its origin. Language is the vehicle with which the narrator travels, while chairbound, hidebound, within his tenement of uncomfortably moist clay, his thoughts shimmer, elegiac, uncontainable, craggy, scintillating with love, but much more hate, and all related crenelations of despair, cruelty, obsession, strained analysis, and terror, partaking of spite in form & style, inflicting the mental acrobatics of referential mania upon the reader. Subsiding over this accumulating mess is a dense shadow, crystallizing the experiences of his youth and professional mistakes, his humiliations and family trouble. The descending darkness takes on abyssal depths, dawning, breaking, frothing, molting, assuming wing-like protuberances, hovering, sucking in with maw-like apertures all hope and joy from front and center, the here and now, and that vain contemplation of the future. He relates the grievous chronicle of his growing up, the heinous history of disdain which ploughs over sympathy and modesty and good sense, leaving pummeled and flattened any shriveled shred of innocence, while the ripe, musty, and brackish stench of his tainted presence stains the pages. The weight of the book increases as the reader proceeds, taking on teetering bastions and ramparts of lingual innovation, slime-castles, gluttonous rage, ruthless, grim, determined, sustained, abstract loathing, and many poetic, sublime and pasty comparisons, all transmogrified into indictments, glued together with bubble gum and band-aids, threatening to collapse from a stray breath.

Kohler’s life is not without tragedy. With each baroque sentence, he fingerpaints himself into a gilded cage. His bawdy, infantile ramblings are textbook Freudian diarrhea. Listening to him creates a lack of envy toward any psychoanalyst currently on the beat. It makes for nerve-fraying reading, comparable to letting a donkey bray in your ear for hours on end. It is an endless barrage of apt metaphors and carousing similes, which always and forever hesitate to shamble meaningward, but limp toward nirvana in their protracted, spasmodic swagger. The vagaries of pantomiming dilly-dallying are distracting, like the quasi-experimental breakdance of his typographical schizophrenia.

Pervading the entirety of the novel is the humid presence of the main characters’ engorged personality, percolating sweat and salacious innuendoes into every line, adding racy description into every profound passing thought.

Our narrator does not believe in the inner goodness of human beings, does not believe in beauty as an internal thing. His thesis would seem to be: Unhappy people like to blame others for their unhappiness. As such, he would like to list off all of the people who make him unhappy.

And he goes on furious 15-page bigoted rants, skewering other cultures for humor and laughs and giggles, following up the long paragraphs of vituperation with “my father said,” and thereby absolving himself. Bigotry may be a symptom of unhappiness, he posits, and he distinguishes it from racism. (The whole theory is wack if you ask me.)

This book is a monstrosity. A monolith of self-indulgence. Gass has his cake and eats it too. He regurgitates it and masticates anew. He does things with the cake which will make you blush.

This book is a vomitorium of mundane human details. Much of it is unnecessary. The intimate details of baking, driving, shitting, bathing, and that traumatizing doctor scene. The obsession with chocolate and poop – the main and central subjects of the book – the quirky pages about cake, lathering textures into skyscrapers of imagery, investing meaningless drivel with inherent significance. For the benefit of whom? Toward what end? Just why?

Is there an upward limit to introspection? This novel exemplifies why so many mega-novels are not written in the 1st person. I’m reminded of Auster’s similar literary debacle – they are merely a thick gruel of mental effluence.

The sad, nauseating bathroom rituals, obscene details, intensely self-focused categorization. The tunnel-vision of this novel is astounding. Kohler almost never mentions his children, as if they are off limits. But he decimates his wife with diatribes, jibes, cruel, sick, and horrifying descriptions. Gass never bothers to explain how a character so physically and mentally repulsive could seduce young students into twisted relationships – are they all in his head?

Thankfully, he provides a few astute observations on the ruinous effects of history resonating through modern culture.

In the end, there was far too much navel-gazing. If you’re a fan of all the goofing off in Philip Roth’s less relevant novels, you’ll have plenty to chew on here. Gass records enough aberration to fill every confession box in the Vatican. The frank and libidinous memories will wear and tear your peace of mind, but some of the nostalgic childhood woes may touch you in a special place, which you may have to indicate on a chart later for the law enforcement professional. The self-pity, the verbal virtuosity, the ranting, raving, and savage gallivanting toward aesthetic interpretation is a stylized descent into Hell, a reminder that we decorate our own prisons in life, and that the search for peace or culpability will often lead to cobbling together meaning out of the junkyard baubles of the past, discerning glorious veracity in reflective pools of toilet water. We frame the world in words, only so we can gaze at the incomprehensible artistry of it.

Passing comets of ideas illuminate an otherwise bleak and unendurable novel, happy accidents abound beneath the pun-piles. All in all, you have a punhill to look forward to, Gass is a pun-beetle, equipped with an inward-diving plumb-bob for the universe. He does a bang up job bounding a loathsome man in a nutshell. Flashes of erudition occur like intermittent lightning. The literary creation of history offers food for thought, and Gass bears out his ideas in exhaustive ways – does writing absolve or incriminate, and what better way to focus these concerns than through a writer narrator?

Besides the swarming ranthills, the gross meditation, the jingles and limericks galore, the illustrations, digressions, double coding, the bad breath, the propaganda, quips and unfortunate stereotypes, this rantfarm abounds with echoes of Homer, Oedipus, Joycean mumble jumble, and frequently channels Whitman’s Song of Myself, in a “sordid sado mado” catalog of maximinimalism.

Everything from the: “eggplant, marveling at the beauty of the soft glossy fruit, at its obvious inedibility, its incomprehensible name,” to the terror and inconvenience within the sphere of marriage. Blake’s Songs of Innocence & Experience might come to mind. If you are not bothered by the mist of a prolapsed soul jettisoning out of the pages when you crack the book open, feel free to freefall into this book, go ahead and contemplate the abyss. Maybe this cathedral in a snowglobe will ring your bell. It is an elaborate building indeed, tenanted and fully reticulated, etched into white soapstone, with microscopic precision, with the fidelity of a St. Peter’s or Notre Dame, but constantly battered with fake snow, concealed by that artifice, making a mound out of motes, blinding in its simplicity, muddled by the never-invisible pudgy hands of the author, smudging any obscure definitions of self-perpetuating chaos you might read between the flurries. This is dredged pond scum, silt and sputum of the mind,

Despite all of the jokes, it is not funny at all. It is quite deeply sad.

Review of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

** spoiler alert ** This book is an experience. It is also a comment on society. I will try and outline some of the value I have found in this book. Consider giving it multiple readings.

What is most striking about the main character is that his self, often formless, subject to dramatic changes and abuses, stands in for the entire race; is, in a sense, an universal man.

His shoes could be filled by countless others – and this is the reason he makes such a compelling impression, even with his ‘invisibility’ which is both an amorphousness of his physical appearance and a undefined self. His journey and distinctive personality, anger and dreams, embody the cultural atmosphere in which he is embroiled: that of the South, and eventually that of Harlem. By examining his actions throughout the novel, it is possible to gain a chilling perspective of the African American’s historical struggle for recognition and equality. What becomes apparent from looking closely at his actions and reactions within the framework of the novel is that his Fate is not random, the disasters he continually comes up against are not mere accidents, but he is in fact towed forward by a purpose. I challenge you to find another character like the Invisible Man in a book today, whose journey unfolds like a dream, only after it has expired does it make any sense. It is a unique work in that way, because it is just a nightmare. A very meaningful nightmare full of the types of impressions we are wont to forget.
Since his dreams epitomize the dreams of the Common Man, his struggle is no different than the Union workers he tries to avoid; his position is the same as the frantic street preachers chanting jeremiads that he shuns in the beginning. It is only after the loss of faith in his idol, Dr. Bledsoe, and his immersion in the backward North, that he assumes an attitude of disgust for the system of inequality imposed on his people and finds courage within himself to enact change.

Since Ellison meant the Invisible Man to be the figurehead of a social movement, he placed his narrator’s final destination underground such that the revolution he seeks be of an underground nature. If you are thinking of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground you are on the right track. Essentially, the only effective revolution must take place under the controllers’ noses, under the cover of darkness, making use of the handicap and the advantage of invisibility inflicted upon them through the twisted psychological blindness of the oppressive white society. – This is one of the fundamental conclusions, one of the most thoroughly employed themes in the novel. Locating the narrator underground furnishes an additional advantage to his situation as an invisible citizen, becoming separated by the flawed social system, detached from the world of the upper crust further accentuates the observation that progress comes only with sacrifice and through suffering. The narrator’s perspective, though subject to vast changes throughout the length of the novel, finally settles on the supposition that his numerous misfortunes were the result of his vital progress as a reasoning individual and as an experienced observer of the warped mores and inherent flaws of American culture, that without his inevitable surrenders, unendurable agonies, and countless humiliations, he would have been able to achieve nothing.

Thus, the Invisible Man comes to realize that no other method exists to reach his goal, that his developing tendencies for violence are a result of his punishments, and that the only surefire path to freedom, equality and the fruit of his work lies in a self-destructive affinity of sacrificing for the greater good of the downtrodden members of his race, of standing in for those that refuse to fight for themselves.

The first clue the reader might receive that the Invisible Man may suffer from a self-destructive personality is in the prologue, wherein he brutally beats and nearly kills a man for calling him a derogatory term. However, he realizes that he had actually been completely invisible to the man – or so we are led to believe – and so the man had only been cursing an entity he could not understand or distinguish. Therefore, the narrator takes the slur as a personal affront, and is apparently looking for any excuse at all to act out his frustration against the people he sees as blind. It is only after the terrible forces of fate have changed him that we come to understand that the narrator is capable of true violence in the name of his purpose. At first he is not willing to take the risks, in fact does everything he can to avoid possible mishaps. However, in reality the true spirit of the Invisible Man lies buried beneath the comfort afforded by assurance in the benevolence of Fate, in the plausibility of his dreams.

His desire to speak his mind is the critical exponent of the danger he must face. No matter how often he flies in the face of the oppressors the ramifications of his actions will send him reeling back to his place. Yet the desire to act on his impulses, to not accept his situation is what propels the Invisible Man forward. Despite his many compromises and the unforeseen consequences, he is continually impelled forward by the knowledge that the state of affairs is entirely wrong and he seems to be the only one capable of initiating change.

Yet, often the narrator’s inability to cause the necessary ripples, to garner assistance or to coddle a sense of familiarity and conspiracy with those like him, and the constant pressure exerted upon him by the external forces of the tyrannical society of which he is a part accelerates his blossoming disloyalty and simmering resentment. He simply cannot resign himself. The Invisible Man’s final decision to go into exile beneath the streets of the city is a result of his inability to relate to his fellow man. In a sense he seems to have lost faith in the capacity of our culture to change. Still, the reader cannot help but feel that he has not rolled over to die. Ellison’s message seems to be to act underneath the radar, or in the words of the narrator’s grandfather: ‘overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.’

One facet of the narrator’s invisibility involves his voice. He is not allowed to defend himself, and his inability to take control of hazardous situations is largely the result of his vocal impotence. The narrator’s tone throughout the course of the novel reflects the pent up frustration caused by this lack of acknowledgement – equivalent to a lack of respect. The Invisible Man’s yearning for visibility and his penchant for speechmaking equate to the proponents of jazz, the symbols of positive contemporaneous African American influence. Ostensibly, the concept of jazz has always evolved as a subdued form of resistance in the African American community, paralleling the Invisible Man’s philosophy.

The Invisible Man’s every action and every word involves a risk. Slowly, however, he gains some measure of confidence in his dealings with others. At first he watches how he addresses whites. When he arrives in the North he knows that to show his education in his speech could be fatal. It is only after he has been crushed by the weight of Northern racial oppression that he speaks his mind. Directly antagonistic comments begin to become more and more frequent in the novel, as the narrator becomes more and more willing to take the risk of raising his voice. The Invisible Man himself senses the change– ‘I had been talking beyond myself, had used words and expressed attitudes not my own… I was in the grip of some alien personality lodged deep within me,’ he says.
Seemingly, the Invisible Man is finding his voice. He is finding the power within himself as it begins to dawn on him that he has no identity. The emptiness inside him becomes the source of his power and the impetus of his striving.

Almost all the intrinsic conflicts in this novel are working beneath the surface, like the sizzling discontentment and rage within the narrator’s psyche. There is everywhere something written between the lines. The first chapters of his life that he had spent as a servile African American youth with glowing prospects he ultimately begins to see as wasted years, naïve indulgence of the worst kind. Had he been searching for a purpose for his life from the very beginning, things would have gone differently.

In a sense, Ellison’s main character is trapped in an insufficient society, where men cannot live with dignity or attain their dreams. Therefore, the only choice for him is to die in pursuit of the cause. The Invisible Man gives up his life to ‘hibernate,’ as he calls it, and wait until the right moment to act, when the political and social climate suits his purpose. But what the Invisible Man forfeits is not the life he wants. What use it is to live in a world where nothing is available to you, and you are reduced to a ghost?

It does not take a keen observer to conclude that Ellison’s treatment of his main character is borderline sadistic. In a sense, the hand he drew over the keys when he typed out the Invisible Man’s life is the hand that wracked and ruined him; the hand is the synecdoche for the social structure that makes men invisible or enacts their doom. It could be deduced then, that the Invisible Man’s self-destructive, stop-at-nothing mindset is produced for him by his surroundings. It is an evolutionary trait in a world in which he is not acknowledged. In order to become the necessary part of the revolution in civil liberties, he must be the catalyst for violent change; it must become his elemental existence.

Dostoyevsky does the same thing with his protagonists. They go through the torture of scandal and humiliation, believing all the time that they are right, and society mocks them, beats them, or locks them up until they either admit they are wrong or die. The era Dostoyevsky knew was not all that different in some ways from the place described in Ellison’s novel.

Many critics have indicated that each obstacle the Invisible Man staggers over represents the death of a former self. Each time he reawakens from the chaos that has torn his former self down he awakens as a new man. This intrinsic quality is analogous to the continuous strain of African American culture, lurching forward through history, through slavery and violence, always coming through changed but never satisfied… This is the characteristic most clearly defined by the narrator’s journey. Each episode of the novel allows the Invisible Man to surmount another demon inherent in the system he is fighting against. Each trial allows the narrator to take another step toward discovery, to inch deeper within himself, to access more aggressive solutions to the problems he faces.

His struggle for meaning symbolizes the untapped potential in every human being and pierces to the core of the eternal human endeavor. And despite its disturbing tone, its overarching theme is one of optimism, looking forward to a peaceful future for all Mankind. Ellison’s masterful weaving of an identity shaped by anger and discontentment shines light on the predicament of a nation suffering from psychological civil war. Invisible Man represents the pinnacle of expressing through satirical exaggeration with terrifying power the disgusting nature of our own Humanity. This revisionist narrative seeks to iron out the creases still left in American society as the lingering effects of ill-resolved racial tensions finally float to the surface. However, the most astonishing aspect of Ellison’s novel will always be the narrator, a latter-day African American Odysseus, simultaneously the most vital individual of his time, as well as a nonentity. The Invisible Man works as a scarcely perceived force in Ellison’s nightmare allegory, even as he takes up permanent residence in our minds. His character gains momentum and self-worth while at the same time losing everything. It is only when you have nothing to lose can you show true bravery, and make the necessary sacrifices. You may be distressed by the unresolved issues of the novel, but what has happened is enough to show progress, what has been gained is a foothold: even within hibernation there is the seed of a revolution. Even the Invisible Man does not know if all he has done was worth it, if he is any better off than if he would have just submitted to the way things stood – ‘I do not know if accepting the lesson has placed me in the rear or in the avant-garde,’ he says. As the Invisible Man is tucked away in his bright manhole, impotent with rage, we are left with his tale, and can only wonder if his struggle will ever end.

Review of Opalescence: The Middle Miocene Play of Color by Ron Rayborne

In movies, you normally get a nerd protagonist traveling through time to figure out if he can change some insignificant facet of his own life

In reality, if we ever get time travel, it will be scientists who utilize it for the purpose of saving our species from extinction, or some other worthy purpose. Yet scientists are only human. R. R. understands this, and depicts the conflicts of realistic characters in a dystopian future, marching to the beat of their drums. Is the planet doomed? If it is not already, the future this book depicts is startling for its feasibility, if not inevitable.

Opalescence is meticulously researched, that much is clear from the get-go. There is a persistent sense of dread inherent in the trajectory of human progress, and a consistent mourning for the lost potential offered by the distant past. Crushing and mutilating the Natural world in our ceaseless march forward, what humans have accomplished is surpassed only by the baffling immensity of the cosmos and time itself. In our Imperialism, we have unwittingly backed ourselves into a small corner. Enlisting the input of a team of subject matter experts, our author has compiled an impressive amount of technical expertise within the confines of his absorbing story, roping in every discipline from botany to volcanism.

In a government run by clones, scientists serve as secret operatives in a journey farther than any human has gone before. The pacing is conducive to page-turning, and the subject matter is fitting for a vivid evocation of the vanished past. Julie’s intricate backstories serve as an anchor for our dangerously curious characters. The tyranny of man over the natural world is merely the prologue to an exploration of a shimmering pre-historical odyssey. The protagonist possesses an advanced knowledge of extinct fauna, and the author uses a lot of specialized vocabulary, which may lead some readers running for the dictionary. I didn’t let it bother me. You don’t need to understand every single scientific reference, unless you are reading this document to compose your thesis. He communicates the vast importance of the mission and provides tangible motivations for the risks involved. Reminds me of the story by Bradbury called “The Sound of Thunder.”

Who would not want to leave behind a society illustrating various dimensions of anarchy, for a favorite period of prolegomenous beauty? Progress is at war with human needs and the downward spiral of genetic engineering, the conquering of unruly weather patterns, etc., incites an inherent need for an alternative comparison. While maintaining lighthearted detachment to the straightforward world-building, the author’s examination of futurist theories, and conjectures of his chosen narrative destination lead to many an informative catalogue of pre-historical data, dramatized elegantly. At bottom, it contemplates how intimate is our connection with our planet. How much of a shadow is our current understanding of the world as opposed to the planet’s prehistorical foundations? Grand in scope, human nature remains constant, even in various forms of survivalism, which by the way, is ecstatically detailed. One of these books could theoretically be written for every previous era in Earth’s untrammeled pre-human history: Ice Age, Jurassic, etc. How tiny is our sliver of the inhospitable cosmic scale pertaining to the functioning of our lives. The immense diversity of extinct creatures to be found in his version of the Miocene illustrates that beautifully. The author takes his time to demonstrate his ideas, incorporating countless S-f tropes.

Perhaps the best reason to read Opalescence is to get a non-Hollywood survey of pre-history, without the dryness of a textbook, in the form of a well-told story, offering far more knowledge than your average Crichton novel. A fitting epitaph for a probably unreachable wilderness, of which our present is a mere echo.

Review of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

Recommended for hardcore DFW fans. This collection is a deeply personal, scattered exhibit of loneliness, a harrowing, sad, and convincing portrayal of damaged psyches. Wit, brilliance, and exuberance are all evident in Wallace’s oeuvre, but here, must be discerned through strata of mimesis.

Listening to the audiobook reading by the author this time around allowed me to feel landscapes of hurt and brokenness within its multitudes of layers of densely packed, heady elegance. Its psychological abysses yawned before me, its desolate precision etched indelible fingerprints of gracious remembrance into my mind.

Elevating this story-jumble are the author’s tangentially related interviews with fictitious personalities, wherein elaborate thought-salads congeal into heartbreaking, cohesive episodes of disturbing humanness.

Unlike his other 2 story collections, untamed libidos and feverish perversity reign here – hence the title – along with truly awe-inspiring prose-segments, interspersed in a confusing and disorienting package, where every page yields meteoric surprises, hand-in-hand with sweaty frustrations, culled from the unhallowed interior corridors of bed-sheet-twisting angst. Especially notable are the longer pieces, the meditations on violence, where Wallace proves his mastery of voice and imitative dialogue. He somehow renders incomprehensible concepts digestible, and translates his polymathic cogitations for the layman reader.

My second reading enlarged upon my first, and no doubt a third review of his complete works would uncover further joys. His contribution to American letters is astounding, and though divisive, these fragmentary stories depict an oft-forgotten side of Wallace, who had a tendency to tiptoe around his own insecurities, except when he dramatized them, when, carried away by the slippery slope of his magnificent intellect, he connects the dots for us, that we might better come to terms with the hidden maps of the mind and heart.

Review of The Inverted World by Christopher Priest

This was like China Mieville, but without the Baroque prose indulgence.

Christopher Priest wrote it in an unadorned style, and the characters and world are not as unbounded by mundane constraints as the forward led me to believe. Too straightforward and not surprising enough to engage me all the way through. A slow-crawling novel, which slithers like the Leviathan city-snail at its heart. The imperceptible character development was stunted and bland. As a metaphorical concept, there was a lot to like about the set-up for this novel. However, the storytelling did not elevate the concept to a viable level of vividness. Until I finish all of Mieville, I see no need to return to Priest’s work.

Review of Chinese Letter by Svetislav Basara

Hear me out.
I realize Dalkey publishes challenging, subversive, and often experimental titles. I collect them. But I will be donating this one. I am sure many others will get more out of it than I.

I’ve listed some observations for your deeper consideration:

Basara’s existential experiment may appeal to some. The amount of assumptions a reader could draw from the text might take up more pages than the text itself. Unearthing authorial intent is not the only way enjoyment is gained from reading though. In summation, Beckett and Gombrowicz engaged in more engaging experiments, wrote with far more lucidity on similar subjects, and constructed more artful expressions of their solitudinous mental wanderings.

A few pluses and minuses for your consideration:

The author, narrator, character or whoever says: “I could write about my trousers for hours.” The existence of this book proves that fact. At least once he says “I don’t know what I’m writing.” There are many versions of: “I don’t know what to write. I have to write, I am writing [this], [that], and [the other].” Repetition, static tone, absurd humor, signs of automatic writing, directionless wandering, etc. all visit and linger upon the page, staking claims, but ultimately, floundering amid drivel and quick, cryptic pseudo-scenes.

In a sense, Fritz’s writing is a pathetic attempt to ward off death. A ghost hovers over him. It plagues him. The self-referential text is purposely structured and detailed in a sloppy, unaesthetic way. He writes like a man stumbling through the darkness of his own mind. The central conceit institutes a challenge to the narrator, to utilize 100 pages to free associate. The motivating factors are so random that one can only apply dream-logic to justify their propulsive force.

Though occasionally amusing results are yielded, it appears to me to be a fairly purposeless experiment, an incantation against emptiness.

The absence of narrative, plot, realistic characters, common sense, the subtraction of purpose, outline, moral. That’s what it comes down to. The writer is writing to validate his own existence. The consciousness is in a state of constant existential crisis. The suicidal thoughts are not comical in my opinion, though there are many attempts at quirky humor. Much of which elicited a distasteful frown from me.

His life reflects the randomness of his thoughts, and absurdist paranoia. Also notice an obnoxious tendency to disregard what he has just written, to dismiss it at every turn, shirking responsibility for writing it, claiming he was forced to produce it.

At one point he is paranoid that he is only dreaming he is writing, and not in actuality fulfilling his commitment to fill 100 pages. There is no real explanation for his behavior except for a panicky writing compulsion, which most serious writers should probably feel at some point.

While endlessly fretting about what he should write he invents his own false backstory, progressing in reverse chronological order till he reaches the stage of a spermatozoa and encounters a previous reincarnation. Nice touch, but too little, too late.

Many other things happen, or threaten to occur at various stages of this metaphysical struggle. I am at a loss to explain most of them, except from a Dadaist perspective. If you are a fan of David Markson or Beckett’s drier stuff, I’m sure your rating will differ from mine.

Review of Outlaws of the Marsh (4-Volume Boxed Set) by Shi Nai’an

I have long wanted to reread this established classic. The most complete edition I could find in print was the Chinese Classics 4-volume Edition from Foreign Language Press, weighing in at a slim 2,149 pages. Nonetheless, I would call this an un-put-downable page-turner. One of the original Proto-Wuxia novels from Ancient China, which was rich in both history and literary mystique.

Far superior, in my opinion to the other lengthy “Great Works” of Classical Chinese, namely The Story of the Stone (Dream of the Red Chamber), Golden Lotus, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and The Journey to the West, although everyone seems to have their personal favorite. The mixture of historical narratives with myths and legends is a phenomenon seen the world over, but hardly ever do we find a personal and epic masterpiece to rival this one. Sure, you can find any number of recountings of legends and mysteries, ghost stories and battles throughout Asian and European literature, but not until you fast forward to Lord of the Rings, will you find such a magical, and intimate journey of struggles, and tales within tales, and influential themes, seamlessly woven throughout the breathless adventure.

I imagine listening to these tales in their original language on a street corner, in the fourteenth century, as people once might have listened to Homer and Virgil recite their own vast creations, and the long-lost world comes more alive. Within a modest 100 chapters, averaging 20 pages in length, with constant cliffhangers at the end of each chapter, you follow the story of heroes and villains, conquerors and families, and brothers-in-arms and murderers, for lack of a better term. The violence and torture is often cruel and brutal, but I assume, perfectly accurate for the time it depicted (12th century). The purported author Shi Nai’an (with a credit to the master Luo Guanzhong) was telling these tales at a remove of a few centuries, while at the same time clearly passing comment on his own corrupt and traditional society mores.

The richness of invention and superb and often humorous character detail is priceless beyond words, and I was enraptured throughout the entire book, which took me only 2 weeks to read. Granted, the print is not as small as some paperbacks and the pages almost turn themselves during many of the riveting chapters. The fact that I am seriously considering rereading it after a few years, and remember many of the events it describes (except for the impossible-to-remember-for-a-Westerner names) is an indication of its staying power. Not to mention that the approach and conflicts have been reworked into literature, Chinese and otherwise, countless times. We got a Christianized translation from Peal S. Buck, at least one manga/ anime based on it, and arguably, several scenes/ themes from the films of Akira Kurosawa.

Also translated as Water Margin, with some translations available online, I would recommend buying this 4-volume edition before it disappears completely. You cannot seriously read Chinese literature without running into references to this epic. It would be like diving into Italian literature and trying to avoid Dante and Boccaccio.

Put down Game of Thrones and pick up this book which has endured for 7 centuries.

Review of The Sea Lady by H.G. Wells

A skippable, unnecessary, and nonetheless pleasant-to-dip-into novel from Mr. Wells, who felt compulsed to reach triple digits with his belletristic novelizing. 

Sure, he dashed off a few masterpieces in his day, but this is not one of them. I doubt he could even recall writing it a few years later. It’s sort of about a mermaid, but more about the bickering about the mermaid, with social commentary tossed into the mix. It reads like a series of notes between cardboard cut-out characters cobbled together from one of his loose notebooks of pseudo-ideas. Yet, Wellsie manages a few dashes of genuine absurd humor, and a touch or two of surreal speculative description. A diverting, extremely minor short novel-thing I only read so I could add a check mark to my completionist charts. How many more of these grade-school-exercise-esque books wait to be discovered in the dusty heap of Wellisana?