Friday, February 26, 2010

Review of : Methland by Nick Reding

Apparently, after reading some reviews by some native Iowans (is that what they call themselves?) there are a few factual inaccuracies throughout the book, such as Iowa City is not the largest city in Iowa, or that The University of Northern Iowa is in Cedar Falls, not Cedar Rapids. For the most part, I don't care. These facts aren't really relevant to the whole story BUT they do chip away at Reding's credibilty as a reporter...but I'm sure these kind of mistakes will be fixed come the paperback edition.

As with any reportage of this type, one which the book industry seems to be saturated by, you can't go taking everything the author says as The Truth. You have to view it as a version of The Truth that helps (hopefully) create a better understanding of the subject in question and (hopefully) creates a 'national dialogue'. So this is Nick Reding's version of rural America, of the Meth problem in those areas, and of Oelwein, IA.

This is a very human centered story. Reding devotes just as much time to understanding meth and the DTO's (Drug Trafficking Organization) as he does to the people whose lives are effected by them. So if you're going in expecting a meth-soaked narrrative, you might be a little bit disappointed. That is not to say that meth is not present on every page, because it is, but in a more atmospheric way. I guess I was looking forward to understanding more about meth as drug and I came away with a vague understanding but nothing incredibly concrete. And that has more to do with my expectations than it does with Reding's execution as a writer, because I'm sure he intended to devote a lot of narrative space to these people he befriended and whose lives he saw crippled by meth.

But I don't want to sell Reding short. He does a damn good job explaining the history of meth and it's ever changing distribution and manufacturing. Sometimes I felt he bit off a little more than he could chew, narratively, as he tried connecting all the pieces that come into play when talking about a major drug like meth. He starts off talking about rural America, then economic turmoil, then meth, then big agriculture, then Monsanto and Cargill (of which his father was a vice chairmen, which was a neat twist), then the meat industry, then DTO's, then legislation, then pharmaceutical lobbyists, then insurance companies, etc, etc. I'm not saying this isn't all important because it most certainly is if a reader wanted the whole picture. But I felt Reding didn't devote enough space to all the pieces of the puzzle. The book needed to be twice as long as it was to form a proper, coherent narrative. So that's kinda positive criticism: I wanted more. After all this unnecessary nitpicking, I recommend this book.

Also, it reinforced the idea that, yet again, Big Pharma is evil, evil, evil.

Review of : Do Not Deny Me (Stories) by Jean Thompson

Now, I normally don't like it when people review books they haven't read all the way through, but I'm making an exception. I read about half of this short story collection and I would have finished it if I thought the rest of the stories would offer something different than the first half...but I have a pretty good idea of what the other stories hold.

I'm coming to realize that the more I read, the more and more I'm attracted to style and voice rather than content. Of course content is important to me as well but usually in a more abstract, cerebral way. Above all, I want, as a reader, to be entertained. And not in the 'dance monkey dance/passive viewer/don't make me work hard for my reward' way, but in a way that brings me simple pleasure, as in I Enjoy Reading This Book And I Gladly Devote Time And Brain Energy To These Pages. I usually derive the most pleasure from the books that make me work the hardest. And when I feel that the books aren't challenging me , well...I feel like I'm wasting my time or something. This all sounds very pretentious upon review but it's hard to talk about this stuff without coming off that way.

There is a flip side to this, always: that the narrative voices I am prone to reading are just as homogenous and unvarying, though in a different way and that reading them is just 'preaching to the choir' so to speak, not really a challenge at all. And I understand that completely. But I guess what I'm trying to say is that that particular arguement is a matter of content...not really style and voice. I believe that the writers that I have a tendency to read and enjoy share similar ideas about the world, yes, but they have unique voices in which they communicate these ideas/themes/feelings.

Anyway, in terms of short stories, I've been a little bored with some of the narrative techniques. Or not the technique, but their voice. Which is mostly a boring, safe voice. I want a writer who is doing something different with language. It doesn't have to be crazy experimental or anything but all too often, what is being held up as 'vibrant' or 'original' or 'sublime prose' or whatever it may be seems to be more of the same. These safe voices are necessary in order for other voices to set themselves apart from one another but it makes for a dull experience reading. So content is important, yes, but a compelling voice is what keeps me reading. And it's my fault for reading this stuff but I'm exploring, ya know? Seeing what's out there, reading what other people think is good fiction. And it's just as important to read stuff that you don't like, or might not like, as it is to read the stuff that you do like, just to better understand why you enjoy the stuff you enjoy. Right?

Oh, by the way: Jean Thompson is an okay storyteller but isn't doing anything that is out of the ordinary. This collection popped up on a lot of 'Best of 2009' lists for whatever reason, so I wanted to give it a go. No offense to Ms. Thompson. This review just kinda turned into a platform for some things that have been on my mind as of late. The opinions expressed in this review do not necesscarily reflect those of the Fox Broadcasting Company.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Review of : You Are Not A Stranger Here (Stories) by Adam Haslett

A collection that takes no risks. Nice and safe. Characters connect with one another through pain or the retelling of their pain. One reviewer remarked that this collection restored his faith in the short story. Please. Overall, a bit dull and disappointing. Notable stories: Notes to My Biographer, My Father's Business, and The Volunteer.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Review of : Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer

I wasn't gonna read the new Krakauer book, mostly because the topic didn't really interest me, but then it was picked for the book group book and I have to lead it this month, so here we are. And I should have known better than to doubt Krakauer.

This book is 90% interesting. It details the life (and death) of Pat Tillman, a former NFL safety that decided to enlist in the Army, post 9/11, and was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. Now, that statement describes the "plot" but it doesn't really do the book or Tillman justice.

As always, Krakauer's main talent as an author is amassing ridiculous amounts of information and forming it into an understandable, readable narrative. In this case, he tackles the complex history and present state of Afghanistan, including the United States involvement with the mujahideen and the Soviet Union, the birth of the Taliban, al-Queda, where the hell Osama bin Laden came from, the Invasion of Iraq, present day military progress (or lack thereof), and the terrorist movement in neighboring Pakistan.

Now, along side all this history, Krakauer tells the story of Pat Tillman. Through the first half of the book, I wasn't really connecting with Tillman, or at least the picture Krakauer was painting of Tillman, this jock with a heart of gold and intelligence to boot. But by the end, Tillman's story had won me over, even if Krakauer tried a little too hard at times to jam his uniqueness down my throat.

By far, the most engaging part of the book is Krakauer's dissection of A) the Jessica Lynch saga in Nasiriyah and B) the fire fight that led to the death of Pat Tillman near Mana Village. In both cases, the Bush administration chose to purposely manipulate the events so as to boost approval for the wars. In the case of Tillman, his death and investigation of said death, was completely and utterly mishandled up and down the chain of command. The facts of the cover-up are far too weird and numerous to name here. I mean, there was an Office of Strategic Influence, whose sole purpose was to distort events and facts coming from the battlefield.

Krakauer also devotes much needed narration to the whole Bush/Gore election of 2000 and pretty much lays out how stupefying the whole mess was. Seriously though. It was unbelievable.

"We lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war: the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win."
-Henry Kissinger in reference to the American experience in Vietnam

"Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it's leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it's always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it's a democracy, a facist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship...Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to greater danger. It works the same way in any country."
-Hermann Goring, Hitler's designated successor and commander of the Luftwaffe, 1946

Review of : Chuck Klosterman IV by Chuck Klosterman

Mostly previously published magazine articles. Classic Klosterman, for the most part. I enjoyed the THINGS THAT MIGHT BE TRUE section the most. I think he's at his best when pondering strange scenarios, both real and imagined. The piece of fiction at the end was great at times and eye-rolling at others.