Saturday, December 26, 2009

Books I got for Christmas (2009)

I usually get a handful of books for Christmas because, well, I like books. Here's what I got this year...

The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing
by Mark McGurl

Angels by Denis Johnson

Chuck Klosterman IV by Chuck Klosterman

White Noise (25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)
by Don DeLillo, Intro by Richard Powers
Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf
Black Sabbatical (poems) by Brett Eugene Ralph

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Review of : Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan

I grabbed this at the library on a whim. The art work is like nothing I've really seen before, yet not so foreign as to be distracting. She does some interesting things with her colors, and her display of water seems to stand out in my mind, which seems like an odd thing to remark on, I know. At times, Modan's art work has an almost child-like innocence which couples remarkably well with the serious subject matter: commonplace terrorism, death, complex love, fractured families, class, racism, and sexism.

The story centers around Kobe, a young taxi driver in Tel Aviv. One day, a young woman approaches him, telling him that she thinks his father has died in a recent suicide bombing. The narrative launches off from that point, Kobe trying to solve the mystery of his father's possible death and reconciling his bitter feelings toward aforementioned father.

There are some really great moments strung throughout the graphic novel and the last panel of the book left me feeling hopeful and terrified, which is how I imagine a lot of the Middle East must feel most of the time.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Top Ten Books I Read in 2009

I'm gonna give you two lists, actually. The books listed do not necessarily have a 2009 publication date and are listed in no particular order.

Top Five Fiction

1. American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell- An excellent collection of short stories about Michiganders living on the fringe, trying to love and be loved in the midst of their shitty lives.

2. Clockers by Richard Price- The other side of the American dream. If you like The Wire, you'll love Price, but then again, if you like The Wire, you should already know Price.

3. Suttree by Cormac McCarthy- Roger Ebert considers this McCarthy's masterpiece and I'm inclined to agree. Dark, sad, funny, and contains some of the most beautiful passages I have read in the English language.

4. Pastoralia by George Saunders- Reading Saunders for the first time is the reason I keep looking for new writers. A brilliant collection of short stories full of grace, humor, and sorrow.

5. Oblivion by David Foster Wallace- I'd been putting off reading this collection, but it was everything I'd hope it would be. Classic Wallace though displays him evolving as well. Some of his funniest and saddest work.

Top Five Non-Fiction

1. Zeitoun by Dave Eggers- Eggers continues to push American letters into new realms. A devasting, frustrating, frequently hopeful look at the mess that was Hurricane Katrina.

2. Comfortably Numb by Charles Barber- An eye-opening look at Depression, SSRI's, and slimy Big Pharma.

3. Among the Thugs by Bill Buford- Oh, Buford, where have you been all my life? This book about English football supporters, explores the consciousness of the crowd from the front lines. Brave, insightful, disturbing, and funny as hell.

4. The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan- Not much more needs to be said about this much beloved dissection of the contemporary American diet. It changed my diet (for now).

5. Smoke and Mirrors by Dan Baum- I haven't finished this quite yet, but I can already tell it deserves to be on this list. The history of the War on Drugs. Astonishingly detailed and well researched.

Honorable Mentions

Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman
Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli
2666 by Roberto Bolano
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
With by Donald Harington
Acme Novelty #19 by Chris Ware
Elegant Complexity by Greg Carlisle

Friday, December 18, 2009

Review of : American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell

This collection of short stories absolutely destroyed me and I mean that in the best possible way. Bonnie Jo Campbell is my new favorite writer and it's a shame this didn't win the National Book Award. I suspect the reason it didn't was because it was labeled as 'too depressing', which for me, is a cop-out.

American Salvage is confrontational. Each story forces you to examine your own life and the lives of these Michiganders. In most cases, the characters are living in economical ruin, what would be considered poverty. They are people clutching onto the past, living day to day with what they have, but have hope for the future. Well, I saw hope in these characters and I think Campbell saw hope too.

Probably the most apt metaphor for the collection is the salvage yard, which takes center stage in King Cole's American Salvage. Campbell describes the catalytic converters that Johnny and his uncle save from broken down cars, "...mostly they were dirty and rusted from the slush and mud and road salt, but each of their bodies contained a core of platinum." These people are those catalytic converters, their lives covered in slush and mud, abandoned by society, living on the fringes...but at their core is something of value. They are still human beings, worthy of receiving and giving love. These are not bad people. They are just doing what they have to do to survive, to feel human.

There is a strong theme of redemption and forgiveness that runs through the stories that left me feeling hopeful for most of these characters. Each are searching for a modicum of redemption, something to absolve them from their lives, and in a handful of situations, redemption is achieved. Maybe not in the traditional sense, but these characters and their lives aren't traditional, so why should their redemption be?

I could go on for a few pages about the richness of American Salvage but I will just say: read it. Of the maybe 50 books I've read this year, this is Top Five. Personal favorites were The Yard Man, The Inventor, The Burn, Winter Life, King Cole's American Salvage, and Storm Warning...though all the other ones were magnificent too.

"Johnny nodded to Slocum, not in agreement with anything he was saying, but because he realized that the man was indeed a monster and that he was also a regular guy like Johnny, the same guy Johnny had talked to until four in the morning. Slocum was a screwup, the way Johnny was a screwup, only much worse. Slocum should go to prison for life, but that didn't mean hew was all that different from Johnny or anybody else." Pg. 128

Review of : Shoplifting From American Apparel by Tao Lin

It's easy to read Lin and conclude that he writes about nothing. I mean, that's what I was thinking half the time. But what is behind the 'nothing'. And what do I mean by 'nothing', because clearly he's writing about something. 'Nothing' is really a representation of the current twenty something generation (of which I am a part) that spends way too much time on their Macbooks (this is a Macbook on which I am typing)and talking on Gchat (of which I am also guilty...guilty? Why do I say guilty?).

The principle character is Sam, and from what I gather, Sam is a representation of Tao Lin, mostly because he said so on the inside book flap. Sam wanders through his life, "goalless", working his vegan restaurant job, going to parties, occasionally kissing girls, and yes, shoplifting from American Apparel (and not being very good at it). So. This is my generation. And I see some of myself in Sam; the goallessness, the ebb and flow of depression, the wandering, the estrangement from others.

Ultimately, SFAP left me feeling worn out. It didn't make me feel less alone because I had found someone else leading a similarly disillusioned life. It didn't make me feel motivated to change my circumstances. It didn't make me feel hope or even despair. It just left me feeling tired and ordinary. I think his writing style had a lot to do with the overall sense of exhaustion. And I can see that's how Lin's environment and life translates itself onto the page. He writes like he is looking at the world through the lens of a robot from a distant planet who happens to find himself moving through modern America. A robot that drinks a lot of smoothies. And not a clunky robot...a robot like Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Ya know, like, a highly advanced robot.

I will probably read a little more of Tao Lin to get a better perspective on his writing but Shoplifting From American Apparel gave me a pretty good idea about what I'm in for. And if he ever comes across this review, which it's very possible he might, I say to him, Tao, this is just my weak opinion. What do I know? My brain moves slowly compared to your highly advanced robot brain. Disregard all of the above.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Review of : City of Glass (Graphic Novel) by Paul Karasik & David Mazzucchelli

I'm guessing this was really hard to adapt to the graphic novel medium. City of Glass (the orignal story) is just so bizarre and looping and metaphysical and mysterious. But David Mazzucchelli (and Paul Karasik) pull it off beautifully. I wouldn't use it as a substitute for Paul Auster's story but more as a sister-text. It enriches the original piece but I would imagine first time readers would be very confused. Mazzucchelli continues to kick illustrative ass.

"Night and day were no more than relative terms. At any given moment, it was always both."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Review of : Of the Farm by John Updike

This is my first Updike novel. I forget where I had come across this recommendation. So...successful city man and his new wife and step son visit his childhood farm where his kinda-dying widowed mother still lives. I say "kinda-dying" because it's implied that she's on the way out, though no illness is mentioned. Old age?

A gentle introduction into Updike's world, though from what I can gather, Updike made his career on chronicling suburban disillusionment and the despair of the American dream (and writing about sex I guess, which is why a lot of people hate him...or why a lot of people love him). So this slim novel would seem set a part from all that. Well, sex is sprinkled about, hither and thither. I think that's the first time I've ever typed "hither and thither." I might dip my toe into the "Rabbit" quadrilogy, see what all the fuss is about.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Review of : Among the Thugs by Bill Buford

This book is awesome. No, like really. It inspires awe. Bill Buford sets out to grasp some kind of understanding of the crowd...more specifically, English football supporters. This research, as far as I can tell, takes place in the early 1980's through the early 1990's.

Buford befriends several "hooligans" or "thugs" or "supporters" or whatever you want to call them. They are the devoted. The violently devoted. They live for the weekend, when football matches take place, and they can terrorize the small towns of England as a roaming mob, all in the name of football and country. Not wanting to stand on the outside, judging the mob, Buford wants to know what motivates these relatively "normal" English citizens to behave so violently towards opposing supporters and in some cases, innocent bystanders.

Buford becomes a figure lost in the crowd, participating as much as he dares. He begins to understand, or think he understands, a motivation which comes down to something as simple as: it's exciting, almost euphorically so. Becoming a mob has a drug-like high attached to it. But as the text moves on (beautifully so, I might add, never a dull moment) Buford becomes exhausted by the senseless violence and destruction he witnesses and realizes the stupidity of it all.

I don't want to spoil too much, but Among the Thugs is a remarkable meditation on the consciousness of the crowd and Buford is one bad-ass writer.

"A crowd creates the leaders who create the crowd..." pg. 282

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Review of : Little Oceans by Tony Hoagland

An interesting, quiet little chapbook from one of my favorite poets. He has a longer book of poems coming out in February 2010. In this particular collection, he tackles a few global/political topics that seem to be a little out of his poetic range and some metaphors felt a bit forced. The last poem is a good representation of his style and my favorite of the collection:

"The Perfect Moment"

In the kisslike early summer twilight/under the weathered backboard/and the ragged net hanging from the hoop/and the ball swooshing through it/as a long sweeping motion of the wind/bends all the marshgrass down at once/but only for a moment/before it springs back up/and Kath comes out of the house/with the iced tea and the newspaper/folded to the page of the movie times,/I am thinking that if this /really is a perfect moment/ it is probably up to the person/with stage four lymphoma to say so/-but he is concentrating, setting up a corner shot/trying to get his backspin right.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Review of : Richard Stark's Parker (The Hunter)

Richard Stark (aka Donald E Westlake) is the original crime fiction writer, and by original I mean like everyone imitates him, by original I mean when he was doing it, it wasn't cliche, it was authentic. He pretty much invented crime fiction.

BUT...even though that is true, this story still feels cliche and overdone. It can't be helped. The artwork was good, even great, but the story (itself redone by Hollywood several times...Mel Gibson as Parker? Pfft) is a tired, predictable revenge yarn that you've seen a dozen times before. But like I said, it's not Richard Stark's fault that people keep re-making his work.

Can we go back to pieces of art that weren't cliche when they were produced? Can we go back to the origin of cliche and be moved?

Review of : Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli

Mazzucchelli (who you may remember from such excellent comics as Daredevil: Born Again and Batman: Year One) is quite simply, an amazing artist and storyteller. I've never seen anything like Asterios Polyp. Granted, I feel that I'm a novice when it comes to current graphic novelists. Well, not novice...but my knowledge base is limited. But this feels almost revolutionary. Okay, that's an insult to revolutionists but it certainly feels significant. What I mean to say is that Mazzucchelli has out done himself.

Asterios Polyp is the story of the aforementioned Asterios, a middle aged "paper architect", whose life begins to deconstruct after he loses his apartment in a fire. Asterios uses this opportunity to start a new life and embark on a classic "Greek-hero-tragedy" story arch, becoming a mechanic in some no name town. As the story unfolds, Asterios becomes a fully realized character in ways I didn't think were possible in graphic novels. Only in Chris Ware have I seen this kind of insight and empathy. Along with a compelling love story, Asterios Polyp touches on various philosophical and intellectual abstractions which are not only interesting but are also presented seamlessly by Mazzucchelli and don't feel contrived or pedantic. The art and story mirror one another on every page, with the artwork reflecting the words and the words reflecting the artwork. It's hard to list all of the reasons (and there are many) this graphic novel is worth your time.

All hail David Mazzucchelli.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Review of : Invisible by Paul Auster

Paul Auster has renewed my faith in Paul Auster. I've been a little hard on him in the past but Invisible is certainly one of his better works. It has all the trademarks of any Auster novel. Story within a story, part mystery, part psychological character dissection. But there's something different about this novel that I can't quite put my finger on, something that sets it apart from his other work.

I'd say structurally, it is his most inventive but not annoyingly so. It's almost glaringly simple but in the best way possible. I enjoyed the subtle narrative shifts that Auster, the master storyteller he is, placed perfectly throughout Invisible. It's a little hard to talk about the novel without giving too much away. Typical of Auster, it is stories within stories, a book within a book, and towards the end, everything gracefully dissolves into a parallel reality, as the book you've been reading begins to quietly warp into something else entirely. I know this all really vague but, ya know, you should just read it yourself or something.

"A place that is not a place..." pg 282

Friday, November 20, 2009

Review of : The Art of a Beautiful Game by Chris Ballard

An unique glimpse into the work ethic of NBA players. Ballard's thesis is pretty much: NBA players (and I suppose professional athletes of all sorts) work way way harder than you think and that yes, they are very talented, but only the truly devoted rise to athletic superstardom, mostly due to the countless hours of hard work they put in off the court. I would say Ballard is of the new generation of sports writers, that is, the ones who look at sports (in this case, basketball) from a different angle, a la or or Chuck Klosterman (in some cases) or David Foster Wallace (in some cases), viewing sports as representative as more than just the sport. I welcome this new generation.

Also, I learned that Lebron James does Yoga and that Dwight Howard's grip strength was measured at 90 pounds per square inch, the same as a dog's bite. So, if given the opportunity, don't ever shake his hand.

Review of : The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

One of the things I loved about this novel is the language of Diaz: American English, Dominican Spanish, Jersey Street Slang, and Comic Book/Fantasy Nerd Slang. These are all on display, voiced through various characters, all threads essentially leading back to Oscar.

I don't want to water down the plot by summarizing it, so I won't. I knew little to nothing about the dictatorship (though according to Diaz, dictatorship does not give him justice) of Rafael Trujillo. Trujillo's essence suffocates the novel like some kind of mustard gas attack. His spirit is on every page. Diaz likens him more than once to the lidless eye of Sauron. The feeling of being watched by pure evil makes the funny parts even funnier and the sad parts absolutely devasting.

The fact that this won the Pulitzer but regularly references Lord of the Rings (in very specific ways), role playing games, Akira, Dune, and Dragonlance, is kind of remarkable. I probably picked up on 80% of the references but damn, there are some obscure ones in here.

Highly recommended, though may not be for everyone. It has a scattered time line that can be a little confusing and some may be frustrated by the non-translated Spanish phrases and words. More than a few reviewers couldn't tolerate his use of swear words, for some reason. But Diaz easily lives up to the hype that has come to surround his work. Check out his shorter fiction in Drown if you wanna get a little taste before jumping into his novel. I just hope we don't have to wait so long for his next piece of art.

Review of : Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman

I love me some Chuck Klosterman. I may not agree with everything he writes but I love the way he thinks and what he chooses to think about. Highly recommended for anyone who likes to ponder fictional time travel, spying on your neighbors, the deleterious aspects of laugh-tracks in American comedy, the unifying traits of Kurt Cobain and David Koresh, and the state of contemporary advertising. If any of that sounds interesting to you, let Mr. Klosterman be your jaded, nerdy guide.

Review of : The Alcoholic by Jonathan Ames & Dean Haspiel

Ames doesn't really bring anything new to the alcoholic narrative but Haspiel more than makes up for it with his art work. The story felt a bit rushed, which was both a pro and con. Pro because it kept the story moving, con because it didn't give much time for characters to develop. But maybe that was the point, that alcoholics move through life solipsistically, narcissistically, not letting the people in their lives develop into nourishing, stable relationships. Well, not narcissistically because that is a love of oneself and I'm pretty sure alcoholics are mostly full of self loathing. Though I guess narcissism also applys to just straight up self-preoccupation, so that works too.

But anyway, maybe the characters were supposed to be blurry, as if viewed through those dreadful "beer goggles". In the case of Ames, "Beer/Vodka/Cocaine/Heroin goggles". For the record, I hate the term "beer goggles" and I am ashamed for having used it. If only there was some sort of delete function on this dang alphabet board.

Review of : The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner

NOT a how-to-write book but really I think I've read enough of those (though I may read a few more, a guilty pleasure). One of the best books on writing I've read. Lener captures the frantic, fragile, manic pysche of writers perfectly. I feel that the first chapter, called 'The Ambivalent Writer', was written for me. The second section, about the publishing process, was informative and terrifying.

"One day a long time from now, you'll cease to care anymore whom you please or what anybody has to say about you. That's when you'll finally produce the work you're capable of."
-J.D. Salinger, pg.76

"Rejection along with uncertainty are as much a part of the writer's life as snow and cold are of an Eskimo's: they are conditions one has not only to learn to live with but also learn to make use of...The gifted young writer has to learn that his main task is to persist."
-Ted Solotaroff, pg.18

Review of : Stitches by David Small

Beautifully illustrated. Small has kind of a sketchbook style that appears rough and unfocused but when you really pay attention, it is sparkling with amazing detail.

The memoir itself is remarkably sad. Small is born with sinus complications and his father, a radiologist, conducts multiple treatments involving crude x-ray technology and essentially gives his son throat cancer at the age of 12(?). David undergoes two operations to remove the growth on his vocal chords and as a result is rendered nearly voiceless. His parents decline to tell their son he had cancer and David stumbles upon the information on his own. His parents are less than supportive, borderline neglectful/tyrannical. This is a rather rough outline of the story but you get the idea. Beautiful to look at, heartbreaking to read. Highly recommended.

Review of : Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Something for everyone. The political/investigative journalist thriller? Post apoctalyptic? Sci-fi slave spieces (Bladerunner-ish)? Historical fiction? Screwball comedy? All of these genres are within the pages of Cloud Atlas and all are done perfectly. No doubt, Mitchell is a talented writer. I have a soft spot for writers who seem to possess multiple personalities, alternating voices at will. The stories are loosely linked to one another, in mostly small ways. Each could be read independently of the other. Short Story as Novel. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, An Orison of Sonmi-451, and Letters from Zedelghem were among my favorite sections. Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After takes some getting used to, language wise. Mitchell is just a really good storyteller. Interested to see how the Wachowski Brothers (who bought the rights) choose to screw it up.

Also, crime novelist Marcus Sakey remarked that Cloud Atlas replaced Infinite Jest as his favorite novel. I only know this because I had to go to one of his readings and sell his book. Well, that's his opinion and I predictably, unequivocally, disagree.

That being said, I look forward to reading more David Mitchell. Recommended.