Review of Majipoor Chronicles (Lord Valentine, #2) by Robert Silverberg

This was unexpected. After reading Lord Valentine’s Castle, which I was a big fan of, I bought the rest of the series and jumped into this book, the second volume. 

It is a collection of unconnected stories, with a flimsy framing device, set on Majipoor, exploring locales, eccentric inhabitants, races, creatures, politics, and various adventures. A few of the stories were entertaining, a few of them were silly, and several were inconclusive.

The first story, about a woman living with an alien in the jungle, was an unconventional love story. Not terribly moving, but contains excellent descriptions of the rough wilderness.

Then we get a clear commentary of war politics (Vietnam?) in a war tale about the Metamorph conflict.

The third story was an impressive story about a ten-year voyage halted by sinister dragon-grass. I loved this story. It was unexpected, and reinforced the Medieval quality of many of the societies of Majipoor. The technology levels can be confusing in Silverberg’s most expansive world building creation, but if you come into the Majipoor stories ready to accept magic, science, sex, and adventure, a lot of these iterations will satisfy your curiosity.

The fifth story was also quite good, about a desert journey, and dream manipulation. It conveyed the immense landscapes on the planet with brilliant imagery.

Then comes a tale about a soul-painter – another romance about finding one’s muse.
Several more lackadaisical stories followed those.

I am getting the sense after reading several Silverberg titles, that he was interested in depicting the far-flung experiences of extraordinary individuals. He is no different than most pulp writers, but his work is very easy to read, fairly engaging, and when it is good, it can hold its own against Heinlein, Asimov, and other big shots of science fiction. While the first book in the series is clearly better, this second installment gives us a mixed bag of story elements, churned out rapidly for sheer entertainment. I read this lazily, over a couple weeks, picking away at it. It was not nearly as immersive, yet I can’t say it was poorly written. Though I fail to remember several bland stories, there was a pleasant and undeniable sense of the grandeur and psychedelic tinge of this colossal and beautiful world of Majipoor. I think that was the whole point. If you just want to revisit the enchanting setting, give it a go.

Silverberg’s work – the more I read of it, the more I want to read of it – contains an exuberance for life. His characters are always trying to get the most out of it, pursuing every pleasure and opportunity for gain. This is epitomized by the frame-story’s character Hissune’s search for another life in the archives in the labyrinth. It reminded me of the kids from Book of Skulls, seeking after an ideal existence, and gaining unexpected knowledge and maturity along the way. They selfishly consume life, and its offerings, wisdom, and hardship, taking into possession the stories these things congeal into. It represents a vicious and unending battle against boredom and mortality.

Review of A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin

It was interesting reading these stories at the same time as the Collected Stories of Raymond Carver. There are some similarities, such as the slavery to alcohol, but Lucia Berlin’s have more humor, in my opinion.

There is a great deal of personality to these tales. They are on par with Joy Williams and Lorrie Moore, but with Berlin, there is a greater sense of autobiography to them, even if that is illusory. As in the case of Carver, what we read about her life matches what is contained in her stories pretty closely.

The 43 stories in this collection present a relentlessly entertaining, open-hearted, brash, and consistent narrative voice, blazing with life and wit. It discusses humility, outcast life, aimlessness, and the attempts at recapturing youth, defining a spurious motherhood, and dealing with incorrigible men, societal restraints, her physical handicap, and much more. There is some brutally, sex, a lot of drugs, and the struggle of downtrodden, abused, and dissatisfied women. Clever observations abound. The prose is slick and seductive, with minimalist details that hit the bull’s eye. The collection opens with a couple tame stories – the titular one about the life of a cleaning woman, and two taking place in laundromats. The charm is palpable and addictive.

She hits you pretty hard with the abortion story, “Tiger Bites,” which I found devastating. The first 125 pages were extremely strong, but after the story of the Communist teacher, I noticed a wavering cloudiness to the storytelling, though I could’ve been getting too used to the exuberance. The enchantment fell away somewhat, only to return toward the end of the collection with renewed force. This is to say that the collection is not perfect, but it is still extremely good. It has a certain consistency, and all of her stories are unmistakably products of her difficult and crystallized inner experiences, bled onto the page by a talented, down-to-earth writer. Like life, the stories have ups and downs, and many repetitions. The intimacy of the stories lie in the fact that she holds nothing back, and you will really feel you have come to know the author from the inside out. Brief moments of clarity often overshadow the larger themes. It was mainly the battle with alcoholism I tired of after several iterations. The same thing happens with Carver, and it makes one posit that alcoholic writers can only write about alcoholic writers.

The biographical details put many of the stories in perspective, and the forward and introduction were effusive, if a little uncritical.

My favorite story was “Toda Luna, Todo Año” about a diving trip. I don’t know why I liked it so much, only that it was mesmeric, memorable, beautiful, profound, and exquisite. In rare moments over the course of the collection, the author achieves singular brilliance, but it is hardly ever sustained for an entire story’s length.

The most brutal story was “Mijito,” which will live forever in my memory. Her depictions of infants and children are heartbreaking, as are her portraits of homelessness, halfway houses, and prison. Several stories straddle Central American and American cultural divides, adding much cultural flavor.

Overall, I have to rate Berlin higher than Carver. She has a very strong method, and a persuasive voice. These were extremely compelling. As I become more disenchanted with Carver and similar short story writers, I look forward to reading her other collections.

Review of Eyeshield 21 Vol. 37: Ready Set Hut by Riichiro Inagaki, Yusuke Murata

“Eyeshield 21” is a sports manga with wide appeal. Like most great sports stories it understands that the true heart of the game is the people playing it.

“Eyeshield” verges on being on a shonen manga due to its clever take on football. Every game is a battle between warriors. All the stars have special moves that they use to give them an edge and the plays are often spectacles to behold with constant strategic interplay. This less then realistic take gives the manga an infectious quality, making the games feel like life or death struggles. Some of the games could be likened to battles in Naruto and Dragon Ball for the intensity and lasting impact.

The art also propels this clash of titans along and brings it to startling heights. The artist Yusuke Murata, of One-Punch Man renown, shows his usual level of excellent detail and understanding of form. The funny light-hearted moments and sense of comedy are expressive and charming. The action is tight and easy to read. Even in scenes of dialogue the mastery of anatomy shows how to combine the cartoonisms with realism effectively. When he pushes things to more unrealistic levels it feels like an organic extension of his realism due to his ability to judge how far to go. This is a manga that can be looked at purely for the art and framing even if football means nothing to you. Read it for the superb characters.

The characters are where “Eyeshield” truly shows its amazing plays. All the main characters are fleshed-out with compelling if not complex motivations. All have arcs, and watching them grow with each other and fight through there struggles is the highlight of the storytelling. Even all the teams they face have likable and memorable characters. Many of conflicts feel like true tests of ability and endurance for the main cast. More than once in the story you are left wondering how the Devil Bats will compete against their foes only for their heart and talents to come bursting forth in interesting ways.

There is a lot this series does right but it has a few weak points. While the writing is good, the story structure is repetitive. The series falls into a loop: of a volume for preparing for a game and then 3 volumes for the game. The games are intense but almost always come down to a few seconds and one point. This cliché and unrealistic approach to every game does get tedious.

Fans of action, sports, and great characters need to give this a try. Even if you are none of those, picking this up to look at the art is well worth your time. Every tackle hits like a truck, every victory screams from the page, and defeats drips with bitter sweat. Experience the thrill of sports vicariously and cheer for the characters.

Review of The Dark Room by Junnosuke Yoshiyuki

This slim novel is quintessentially enjoyable in the same way that the author’s stories are. It is also easy to criticize. 

Like Oscar Wilde said: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.”

This book is beautiful and grotesque, and I believe that it is an effective psychological condensation, a profound depiction of narcissism and an eerie tale of obsession. It is not surprising that this author was a translator of Henry Miller. It is a shame few of his works have found their way into English.

Many people will dislike this book and the main character. Reading Paul Auster and even Orhan Pamuk will reveal similar characters embodying perversions, or at least dwelling in this frame of mind for protracted periods of time, but in this simple novel, the sensuality is far more palpable to me. I found this work moving and do not think it is necessary to justify the standpoint of the writer or the fictional persona.

It has the sensibility of a Tanizaki novel and the narrative distance is incredibly close. Whereas Tanizaki can still be mentioned in polite conversation, it’s risky to bring up Yoshiyuki. But Junnosuke’s scenarios are just as memorable. They have a wonderful consistency. I found myself unable to stop turning pages. That was why I finished the novel in only a couple sittings. If only there was more of this author’s work in English! One gets a sense of the times while really sinking into the plight of the main character, who only knows one way to live. By being a womanizer he is portrayed as a sad individual, but one that does not grate on my patience. He is almost as trapped by his flaws as the females he uses. They are all human and real. I sensed that the author labored over this book, that it took him many months to get the feel right, and to perfectly capture the aura of decadence he was going for. It could be true, but what it became was a powerful document dredged from the depths of his soul.

Review of When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin

“When the Sea turned to Silver” is a tough call. It is better than its predecessor in every way except the most important: the theme.

“When the Sea Turned to Silver” is a direct sequel to “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.” It not only follows the same family but wraps up a few lose ends from that story. I was pleasantly surprised by this fact. Seeing some of the ideas from the first book fleshed out and some stories come full circle was immensely satisfying. I do not known if Grace Lin had this sequel in mind when she wrote the first but the continuation of the story and characters is masterful. Overall, I am highly impressed by the fact that Grace Lin did not settle as a writer and strived to do better in her sequel.

My biggest qualm from the first book is also addressed. While storytelling is the heart of this series the first book proportionately had too many pauses in the main story to convey the pacing of a folktale. This disruption at certain points lessened the story’s impact in my eyes. Here, the balance is sound. There are still plenty of folktales that flesh out the truth behind the narrative, but the main story is not forgotten. Plenty happens and the characters feel more autonomous and the main story more epic for the entirety. The narrative in general is also better. While the last story was very personal, very little was at stake. Here the whole kingdom could suffer if the story teller’s granddaughter fails and the narrative has more power for it. There is also more action in this sequel which helps to make the stakes feel dire.

The writing is better has also improved. The metaphors and similes do not get in the way of the storytelling but paint beautiful word-pictures. These echo the idea of storytelling and its power and bolster the themes of stories in the book.

The only place this book falters is the main theme. “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” had flaws, but its heart was a powerfully realized message. Here there is no main message, no driving theme besides how stories weave into life and eternity. At least, that was my opinion. It is a shame because while this is an objectively better read, it is hard to say it is a better book without the universal theme anchoring it.
If you enjoyed “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon”, give this a read. It is everything you like about the first and is more polished. Young children and young readers should also read this. Time to check out what else the author has written.

Review of Sons (House of Earth, #2) by Pearl S. Buck

After reading The Good Earth, it is hard to imagine a more worthwhile reading experience.
Pearl S. Buck, like John Steinbeck, knows how to combine characters, setting, and strong themes with great pacing and balanced prose… usually.

Editing a book is like creating a katana, I think. To create these masterful Japanese swords the blacksmith folds the metal many times, working out the impurities to strengthen its edge. A lot of writers edit a book in a similar manner, going through time after time to remove and distill their ideas down into a finely crafted weapon of storytelling. What can make a sequel feel dull is the lack of such honing down. “Sons” suffers from this, even if some of the pure delights of the first book are still perceptible in bits and pieces here.

Though the page count would lead you to believe otherwise, Sons feels long. Interesting characters and cultural exploration are to be expected, as are the continuations of the original story’s plot. Much of the book does feel unnecessary in my opinion, and there are fewer shocks and a lot less awe, because we have visited this setting before, and in the first book it was mesmerizing. The Good Earth was a truly great work in my mind, and I can’t help comparing the sequel to it.

In Sons, more than in the first part, characters spend a lot of time, grumbling and being indecisive.
The characters are all flawed, as we know but they should not be incompetent or impotent. Ms. Buck’s fascinating look into Chinese culture and traditions, drawn from life as it is, feels forced without new and refreshing themes to carry us along. The story is looser than in the first installment. Instead of a laser focus on the life of Wang Lung and his rise through his appreciation of the earth, in Sons there is a listlessness pervading the narrative. We get to see what his sons do but their selfish agendas don’t possess the same grandeur as the heartbreaking struggle of his youth.

The reader might expect Wang Lung’s sons to lack the same appreciation that made their father wise and successful, and to suffer as a consequence. Thankfully, there are still some excellent nods to “The Good Earth” that will make any fan smile. Whether its how the Tea House from the first book is used as a symbol of how little Wang Lung’s children understand their father and how his lessons are completely ignored. Pearl S. Buck also follows through on her promise from the prior book regarding how the wealthy house of Hwang fell and shows us how Wang’s house is decaying through the same cycle. But even these well-penned continuations are diminished when they come few and far between in a book without much as much substance to offer. If this book had been edited down it could have been nearly as riveted as the first. Knowing that there is a third in the series, I wonder if the second and third might have been combined and condensed to possibly equal the first.

The cyclical nature of life is a theme in this book and is an echo from the first. From how Wang the Third went off to be a rebel and his son follows suite, to how Wang the First’s life of idleness is passed to his sons, the cycle of father to son is an inescapable dilemma. But the theme is weakened by a lack of focus and takes far too long to mature. It is not until the very end of the book that we start to see impact and there is too little sustaining my attention by that point. Even the idea of the importance of land which was the heart of the first book fell flat for me. Though it tries to weave itself with the idea of cycle and legacy there is too much noise for it to bloom.

There are good elements in “Sons” but nearly everything significant is diluted with unnecessary length and exposition. It is hard to say if the writing is good as the individual sentences are tight, but the overall feel leaves something to be desired. If you like books that explore other cultures or times look no further than The Good Earth. A cursory look at the Nobel Prize winning author’s massive body of work will show that she spent a lifetime writing about China, Japan, Korea, and other cultures. The Chinese traditions in her trilogy are fascinating and it’s interesting to see how they effect people’s lives. However I think what the first book displays is enough to satisfy most peoples’ curiosities. The unfortunate truth the last line of “The Good Earth” did a better job of examining Wang’s sons then this entire book. One day I might tackle the third, but I think I would rather start looking into Bucks’ other fictions first.

Review of Azumanga Daioh: The Omnibus by Kiyohiko Azuma

“Azumanga Daioh” is not deep, thought provoking, or complex. However it challenges the reader in the best way possible. It challenges them not to laugh till they cry.

“Azumanga Daioh” is about friendship, growing up, and living with a “all cats bite me” disability. The jokes come fast, loud, and often in this 4-panel compendium work. It is not subtle but it is all the merrier for it. The format helps this rush of gut-busters. Most of the gags are a few panels in a small story that leads up to a punch line. This keeps the pace brisk and even though some of the jokes don’t land, another one is always only moments away.

The characters are the heart amid the insanity. Though none of them are too layered and most of the backstory we get are asides and inferences, they are a blast to follow. The enjoyment is in their personalities and the wonderful hi-jinks they get each other into. Whether its surviving a teacher’s spectacularly bad driving or the warfare of “field day” how the characters interact in the ever-change landscape of high school is endearing and nostalgic. Some of the characters can be annoying, but they are balanced out by the other characters who either act as foils to them or show just how ridiculous they are. This manga is a prime example of using a cast of personalities to its fullest.

The art is also well-done. The jokes land because of Kiyohiko Azuma’s excellent use of physical comedy and framing. The characters fly off the panels, their kinetic energy and personalities apparent in every line. The reactions are the right amount on the over-the-top scale and the art changes from complex to simple erratically but is expressive in all the right places. Azuma is a master of knowing how far to go and how best to display a joke.

This manga is not without its inconsistencies. Like those old Garfield cartoons, the main draw is following the characters over time. The author creates the illusion that the characters are real, no matter how absurd they act. That means that occasionally, for the sake of a gag, we don’t get to follow them on. After some punchlines, you might be left wondering what happens next. There are no distracting subplots and the action is contained to a limited area, but like stage plays, the props and repeated scenery are used well.

It is always about surviving high school and the craziness of certain friendships. This is obviously aimed at fans of lighthearted comedy of the teenage variety. But I hope readers will keep an open mind and remember that doom and gloom are not the only intellectually stimulating literary ingredients. I enjoy artists and writers who know how to take simple situations and find the heart and beauty in them. Grounding this over-the-top comedy is a sense of reality we can all relate to.

“Azumanag Diaoh” is not an existential work of genius, but it doesn’t have to be. Its only concern is entertainment and at this it succeeds. It is a safe avenue for those unfamiliar with manga tropes. While it has many of the usual Japanese comic quirks, the more esoteric references one might find in other titles are largely absent. Anyone interested in physical comedy, comic strips like Calvin and Hobbs and those wishing to refresh their brain after something difficult will find joy between these pages. Then they will split their seams like a teddy bear being hugged too tightly.

Interestingly, Azuma is still writing a subtle, hauntingly beautiful work in the same vein called Yotsuba! (14 volumes). The level of sophistication is still low but the characters are masterful. A must-read if you enjoyed this.

Review of Tales of Love and Loss by Knut Hamsun

Hamsun is a reliable writer, able to absorb me effortlessly.

Several of these stories are memorable, though some of them are less significant than others. A few pastiches and plenty of journeys by train. Hamsun’s personality shines through, especially when referring to gambling, lack of literary appreciation by passersby and the woes of traveling. A compelling addition to Hamsun’s strong body of work, but not quite on the same level of chilling brilliance as Growth of the Soil and Hunger.

Review of The Lost Hero (The Heroes of Olympus, #1) by Rick Riordan

Heroes of Olympus: The Lost Hero is an engrossing start that improves upon what came before. Though I liked the Percy Jackson series, it feels like an early work in comparison to this.

Everything that made the first series fun remains. The mix of mythology and the everyday world is still entertaining and done in a creative way. The stakes feel dire and appropriately grand. The characters’ interactions are believable and make them feel vulnerable, even if they are demi-gods. But this series has already taken these staples further.

Don’t spoil the book by reading about the new mythological exploration. The first series was hinting at the way the world grows and it leaves so much room for plots and ideas. The stakes are uppity from the get-go. We get to see how powerful the new enemies are and it makes way for the coming together of heroes. The characters are each given story arcs, whereas the first series focused more one character. Percy was a good lead, but he did not grow as much as he might have. Here the narrative is shared by three different protagonists, all of whom have issues to work through alongside the plot. Dynamic and layered is one way to describe it. It keeps things fresh since every viewpoint helps us relate to the characters.

The overall plot and writing is on par with the last in The Percy Jackson series. The plot is well-paced but follows the structure we’ve come to expect without risking deviation. The story is appropriately funny, witty or serious, but much of the narrative suffers from exposition dumps in the convenient packaging of dreams. If you can handle the unvarying structure of the author’s work and wish for more mythological variety this is a great read.

Review of Gesell Dome by Guillermo Saccomanno

Another well-done production from Open Letter Press. Great cover, good book.

A Gessel Dome, as the introduction explains, is the two-way mirror used to observe, suspects, children and animals in a “natural environment.” This is the perfect double entendre to describe Villa Gesell, a real place, much like every other tourist town, except for the undercurrent of racism, sodomy, pedophilia, incest, murder, gang violence, mass rape, pillaging, burglary, gossip, blackmail, adultery, and every other imaginable corruption Saccomanno describes with journalistic detachment. The sentences are short, but the stories are dense. Probably gleaned from thousands of newspaper accounts, the author compiled short sections in this novel, centering the events around recurring main characters, and interpolating occasional commentary, snide humor, and reflections.

Overall, I found the author’s method engrossing and effective. Spread over 600 pages, this technique of recounting gruesome incidents, one after another, without much framework or context, felt a little like scanning newspapers in a particularly grisly time and place, trying to solve some sort of case, the extent of which keeps expanding infinitely in every direction. It was as if he picked out the worst and most representative parts of journalism’s intellectual territory and pasted them together in a sociopathic album.

It is easy to believe that the author wrote for film and cartoons, given the absurd level of antics he includes. The sheer number of events and the amount of perversity strains credibility, but it is satirical in its use of the subject matter. The book has one foot in the realm of pulp fiction and the other planted fully in the arena of great literature. The use of short sentences is key. It is written in a quickly paced, fully fleshed style, cyclical and recursive, mirroring the mindset of addiction, of consumption, of sin, and encouraging the reader to race forward in an ever-increasing enthusiasm, throwing caution and morality to the high winds. But those jettisoned scruples are the same ones that hover accusingly in our wake.

There is continual reaffirmation that the plots occur on the same street corners as one another, right around the corner from the last atrocity, in the same neighborhood, the same stores and bars, where the same sorry individuals relive these horrendous crimes and tragedies, until the grotesque level of death, sexuality, miscarriages, brutality, etc., become a microcosm, the opposite of the Garden of Eden, or a prison…

“We are strangers to ourselves.” We know more about strangers than we know about ourselves – that is what the Dante tells us. He is the aptly named narrator. The storyteller, though he is not immune to partaking in the derelict culture of the domain that is his jurisdiction. He is the one publishing the events in the Villa, and many people blame him for spreading the virus of their own troubles.

A cacophony of voices confessing, accusing, and hectoring, but rarely taking responsibility for their ethical failures, the tragedies depend as much on human folly as on Fate’s whimsy. Like characters observed in a fish tank, the reader will pick out favorites from the catalogue of vice, men and women in their darkest moments, much like the menu of death served up in Bolaño’s 2666.

The gritty, grisly, suicidal town is also concerned with the symbolic construction of a sewer system that will clear out all of the accumulated stink and pave the way for greater commerce and an influx of purity into their lives. Really, they just want more tourists to come next season and drop a dime. What tourist would want to come to such a place, the reader wonders? And we all know things are not going to get any better for these people. They have dug themselves so deep, what hope is there for them? It is rather sad, if a bit entertaining to vicariously experience their cruel existences.

The Villa is defined by the scandals within it. “Los abusaditos,” the victims of child abuse, brutally described throughout the novel, brought up like a dark stain on the inhabitants’ consciences, are a shared responsibility, and the focal point in the whole state of affairs, while the underfunded police force, complain about their lack of car batteries and weapons, their inability to clean up the festering corpse of a community they call home.

I enjoyed the parallel to “Waiting for Godot,” which the townsfolk bastardize and interpret in their own way. In fact, I enjoyed all of it, and will read more by this author.

Review of Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard

I’m convinced that Ballard didn’t care what people thought.

Of course he did, though. His sentences are polished enough that he ironed most of them out like a fussy tailor. He shines best in his short novels, when he just takes one simple idea and draws it out to the extreme of absurdity. His landscapes retain a corny sort of Twilight Zone quality. Concrete Island is a representative work for him, I think, because it shows what he can do with a couple satirical characters in a nightmarish situation. Even more than High-Rise, I think this book epitomizes what he was going for. One puts oneself in the character’s shoes, wondering if it would be possible to live under such circumstances. Next time you pass a freeway island you’ll wonder, imagine yourself erecting a lean-to on the side of the road.
The main problem one will encounter while reading Ballard’s novels is interchangeability. They all feel the same. You get a natural disaster or something happens to tear holes in the fabric of society, and his characters are still sipping Perrier from crystal snifters as their mansions burn. They are like obnoxious sitcom characters. But Ballard’s satire is often effective enough to cause a chuckle. If you can’t decide where to start, this novel is a good appetizer.
Many of his stories lack these easily dismissed character cliches and rely so much on imagery that they can muddle your memory of them. He did write many brilliant stories, but there are some that I find a major slog. For this reason I think Bradbury is a superior writer, though Bradbury always worked in the safe territory, colored inside the lines, and Ballard laughed at the lines, deliberately avoided them, and danced around the borders. He was a bold writer, got to give him that, but would you really be able to hand one of his books to your mother and say, look here, you might enjoy this? Probably not. Bradbury on the other hand, can sit right alongside any other book on the shelf without getting dirty looks from the other books (strained metaphor).

Review of Nine Hundred Grandmothers by R.A. Lafferty

My first encounter with R. A. Laugh-ferty. His humor and cleverness are quite astounding.

He sets up gags and jokes in the middle of serious situations. His humor is often so unexpectedly outrageous it is harrowing. He made me catch my breath and squint my eyes. It is all a matter of subverting expectations. And he has a way of throwing out an offensively absurd line and then justifying it a few lines later. Anything can happen at any moment. And yet it all adds up to a satisfying conclusion.

In several of the stories, RAL seems to be commenting on Capitalism, contraception, xenophobia, economy, relationships, mortality, and conventional science fiction tropes. But often, it is impossible to separate straight satire from facetious propaganda.

These stories are wacky, gruesome, inappropriate, hilarious, abstract, and still compact. They operate almost entirely on dream-logic, and are guaranteed to baffle and entertain. A few times I was ready to move on, in the sense that I felt I had already gotten the joke, but he felt the need to throw in a few more punch lines. His wit is ripe though, and holds up well with the passage of time. Some of the stories are re-readable in my opinion, but knowing the plot-twists, or predicting them can ruin part of the fun. He still reads like a Golden Age science fiction author, and can run circles around some of his contemporaries as far as plot goes.

My only gripe is his choppy, chunky, rough sentence structure. Occasionally reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s sloppily constructed, contrari-wise, underachieving sentences, Lafferty’s take some getting used to. But he is worth it. The clownish antics border on bizzaro-genius.

Review of The Samurai by Shūsaku Endō

I only feel comfortable rating this novel 3 stars because I enjoyed a few of his other novels so much more. 

To be clear, there was nothing bad about it. It was a historical novel about the clash of religion and politics between Japan and Europe. There is much discussion of power and faith, which are two of Endo’s primary concerns as an artist. Yet I hesitate to hail this work as a masterpiece because I did not feel drawn or even connected to the characters.

Unlike in The Sea and Poison and The Girl I Left Behind, I felt that Endo’s true powers lie in depicting stark human emotions and that this then represents one of the weaker offerings. Consider his book The Golden Country. It also deals with the struggles of missionaries in Japan, but it is a visceral and memorable account, compact and simple. Aside from the thesis statement dialogue in The Samurai I failed to find most of the scenes memorable. You can certainly read this work for its mature, intellectual discernment, for its historical accuracy or for the pristine prose, which never fails to convey a clear message, but I will turn to Endo’s other novels for more variety and more passionate portrayals of human beings. I look forward to delving into the other novels in his oeuvre.

Review of Hunter (Hunter, #1) by Mercedes Lackey

For the first novel by this author I have listened to on audiobook, I was entertained most of the way through.

Mercedes Lackey has written an infinite number of novels – by which I mean I know I will never be able to read them all. (Seriously, look at that bibliography…) Taking this one as an example, it is part of a trilogy taking place in a dystopian world full of storybook creatures and built upon centuries of fantasy cliches. However, it justifies the use of many of the tropes through clever loopholes in its own world-building. I will list some pluses and minuses.

Pluses: an easy read or listen.
Lackey does not seem any worse or any better at writing than Ann Leckie. The suspiciously similar last name notwithstanding, I was more engaged by Hunter than I was by Ancillary Justice. Whereas Lackey writes prolifically, Leckie seems to scoop up all the awards and acclaim. I prefer an industrious writer working from the shadows.

I was surprised by the dark tone, the violent action sequences and the fast pacing.
Strong suspension of disbelief is required. Humorous bloodthirsty gnome-like monstrosities and other nightmarish hoards.
The world-building actually does its job.
Functional post-apocalypse where conflict is essentially guaranteed for eternity. (I used this same approach for my serialized novel.)

Minuses:
Cardboard side characters.
Unlikeable 1st person heroine. Seriously, the biggest let-down is that main character. What if she had been similar to Poul Anderson’s main character from Broken Sword? It would have been a much more enjoyable read.
World-building shortcuts. Heavy reliance on cliches. Clashing tones.
Anti-religious themes that don’t seem to add anything to the plot.
The magic system could’ve been more interesting. I don’t require plausible explanations, but advanced tech + super powers without any literary invention is tough to swallow.

I actually feel like listening to the sequel’s audiobook. Despite my reservations, it was still competent. I have been a lot less enthusiastic about certain Niven, Sheckley, Heinlein, Anderson, and Silverberg disgraces.

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 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 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 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 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 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.