Fiction Review: “If it is your life” by James Kelman

Book Reviews, Fiction, Story Collections No Comments »

RECOMMENDED ifitisyourlife

A few years back, The Guardian attempted to interview the Scottish Booker Prize winner James Kelman about his then-new novel “Kieron Smith, Boy.” The result was essentially an interrogative monologue by the interviewer, interspersed with Kelman’s “monosyllabic replies” and silences that were “long and Pinteresque.” Unfortunate for the interviewer, yes, but also no real surprise given Kelman’s writing, which dwells on the gaps between spoken words and the tangles of thought beneath them. As a character in his brilliant (if bleak) new collection “If it is your life” puts it, “Human beings are near the surface. Just scratch and that is us.”

Kelman’s work is all about this scratching, laying bare the inner lives of men and women in the margins as they have a pint or die alone or watch children build a raft to sail across a lake of detritus in the backcourt of a Glasgow tenement. His stories drop readers into the murky minds of working-class, often nameless, largely Glaswegian narrators who are plagued by intractable troubles that they cannot effectively convey to themselves or others. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “The Other Side” by Lacy M. Johnson

Book Reviews, Memoir, Nonfiction No Comments »

RECOMMENDED theotherside

Lacy M. Johnson’s new memoir “The Other Side” tragically details her experience of getting kidnapped and raped by her former boyfriend. Nothing about this is necessarily strange—Johnson isn’t the first to write a memoir in order to render a personal trauma. What is strange about “The Other Side” is that despite its difficult subject matter, it is pleasurable to read. Johnson isn’t a victim of a crime who has become a writer in order to work through the physiological repercussions of that crime, but rather, she is a writer first and has the powers to render these events in a virtuosic prose that is simultaneously horrifying and admirable.

The book opens just as Johnson is escaping a soundproof room where she was raped and slated to be murdered. From there Johnson’s narrative is in constant nonlinear motion, racing back and forth between self-confessed naiveté and hard-fought empowerment. Although most of what is contained in “The Other Side” is reflected off of the crime at its center, Johnson is smart enough to use this horrific event to reach for higher truths and new epiphanies. What her audience is left with is a powerful, but often quiet, meditation on memory as it pertains to the physical body. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?’ by Dave Eggers

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RECOMMENDED yourfathers

Book by book, Dave Eggers has pushed the limit of what he has done before, and then takes one step further. His latest novel may look slim, but it represents another startling leap into new territory.

Here is a tale as tightly wound as an alarm clock. Told entirely in dialogue, it takes place on a deserted military base on the California coast. Thomas, its hero, has kidnapped an astronaut, Kev, and chained him to a post. “I’m a moral man and a principled man,” Thomas assures him.

It’s usually a bad sign when a hostage-taker makes such assertions. It may not be so here. Thomas merely wants to ask Kev a few questions about his past, but then he gets another idea. He grabs another hostage. This victim is a congressman, a double-amputee war veteran who wakes up groggy on the floor. He is kinder to Thomas than Kev, more understanding. He knows this will not end well for Thomas, and pities him: “You’ve got a head full of rocks, kid. And there are a hundred thousand others like you in the desert right now.”

On it goes. Thomas begins conversations and then cuts them short, rushing off for another hostage. He grabs an elementary school teacher; he abducts his own mother. He subdues and kidnaps a police officer.

In the past five years, Eggers has begun writing screenplays and “Your Fathers” yokes the economies of that work—its reliance on dramatic thrust and human speech—to novelistic purpose here. Toggling between his captives, Thomas assembles a kind of explanation for why, as he sees it, the world has forsaken him: it has vacuumed his generation’s sky free of dreams and replaced it with satellites, or “space kites,” as Thomas calls the International Space Station. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking” by Jordan Ellenberg

Book Reviews, Essays, Nonfiction No Comments »

RECOMMENDED hownottobewrong

Jordan Ellenberg starts off his mathematics paean by invoking, of all things, sports. Much like math, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Not everyone’s going to be a professional soccer player, he says, but pickup players and World Cup defenders use the same skills. So is it with math. It’s more than just the passing drills of multiplication tables and quadratic formulas. “How Not To Be Wrong” is the logical continuation of Ellenberg’s classroom teaching, and Slate’s “Do The Math” column. For years he’s been working to inspire not just math literacy, but respect and wonder too.

The stories Ellenberg tells—and he is a storyteller—refuse to insult his reader’s intelligence. Whether it’s the bullet-riddled planes coming back from the front or the dead salmon that seem to show a thought process in an MRI, things are not always what they seem. To the mathematician, math is a curious process of assumption and provocation. “How Not To Be Wrong” is part exposé—concepts most of us are never privy to are explained along with obvious surprises we just need to hear over again. (Numbers are fudged, findings inconclusive. If we had a logically mathematical voting system, we’d have elected President Gore.) A truly gifted professor, Ellenberg includes diagrams, proofs and poetry to illustrate his points. His utility has been clearly maximized by the telling of mathematical yarns. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Girl Who Was Saturday Night” by Heather O’Neill

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RECOMMENDED thegirl

“The Girl Who Was Saturday Night,” the second novel by Heather O’Neill, follows two years in the life of Nouschka Tremblay. Nouschka and her fraternal twin brother Nicolas grew up as child stars. The product of a night between the irresponsible Quebecois singer Etienne Tremblay, who only raises them when the cameras are running, and a fourteen-year-old groupie, whose only contribution to their upbringing was leaving them on their grandfather’s doorstep, the Tremblay twins’ childhood in the limelight has left them extremely damaged people.

The novel begins when the twins are nineteen and inappropriately attached to one other; they still share the same bed. Nicolas is a petty thief and already a deadbeat dad. Nouschka is an accidental beauty queen who finds herself in the middle of numerous affairs, the next of which might be with Raphael Lemiux, a mentally unstable criminal and former figure skating champion.

“The Girl Who Was Saturday Night” is chiefly about fame. The Tremblays spend the novel dodging the narratives of paparazzi and documentary filmmakers; when Nouschka’s relationship with Raphael flourishes, she vows to “lead a well-adjusted, serene life” to overcome everyone’s expectations for their failure. However, the largest narrative with which they must contend is the one of their supposedly happy childhood in the limelight, when the reality is that it was mostly spent in the squalor of their grandfather’s apartment. As Nouschka says of the reaction of one character to she and Nicolas: “Of course she loved our persona. It was designed to be loved.” Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “The Animals: Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy,” edited by Katherine Bucknell

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theanimals

RECOMMENDED

The most enlightening part of “The Animals” is the introduction. Without it, there would be simply no way to tell what letters Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy had exchanged in times of strife. Isherwood and Bachardy are among the most eminent of historic gay couples: right up there with Stein and Toklas. Isherwood—famous for writing the stories that formed the basis of “Cabaret!” and the novella “A Single Man”—spied a barely legal Bachardy, who would become a portrait sketcher to the stars, on Valentine’s Day in 1953.

“The Animals,” which collects a large sum of the letters the two sent each other, starts three years into their relationship, and soon the lover’s lexicon creeps in. The middle-aged Isherwood is Drubbin, an old wise horse perpetually one trot away from the glue factory, while the frisky young Bachardy plays a snow-white Kitten longing for Drub’s cuddles. As they transcribe their sweet nothings, their hands become paws or hooves, their domiciles baskets or stables.

Aside from each letter’s rather fulsome beginnings and endings, theirs is a pragmatic, chatty love of the day-to-day. It’s odd to discover that Bachardy and Isherwood have similar voices. Both are quick to cut down a boring dinner companion. There are digressions about unpaid bills or slow mail. Theirs is a world of rented apartments, trips to England and notable names: Cecil Beaton, W.H Auden, Glenn Ford. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “A Better World” by Marcus Sakey

Book Reviews, Chicago Authors, Fiction, Genres No Comments »

ABetterWorldAfter all the time Marcus Sakey spent creating a stratified, believable world of gifted and normal races, all he intended to do was knock the blocks over. Pour the bucket of water on the sand castle.

Let’s back up. Last summer Sakey released the thriller “Brilliance,” where about one-percent of the population had strange talents, like the ability to anticipate body motion, count large numbers in seconds, or see computer code. “Brilliance” was a marvel of total immersion. The world felt fully explained and realized partly because almost every character the protagonist Nick Cooper (at the time a “gifted” government agent) encountered was dimensional. Every place fully drawn and realized.

“A Better World,” the sequel to “Brilliance” carries none of that over. For one thing, it likely wouldn’t stand alone if encountered first on a bookshelf. Compared to how thoroughly “Brilliance” delineated the systems we all encounter, “A Better World” just requires a lot of swallowing and accepting. Characters so pivotal and fascinating in “Brilliance,” like a financier gifted with supreme probability analysis, barely seem familiar here. The main characters—Cooper, his love interest Shannon, his ex-wife Natalie—don’t reveal any more of themselves. Read the rest of this entry »

Comics Review: “Sex Criminals, Volume I TP: One Weird Trick” by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

Book Reviews, Comics/Graphic Novels/Cartoonists, Fiction, Humor No Comments »

RECOMMENDED sex-criminals-vol-01-releases

It’s a story as old as civilization itself: A young woman who stops time when she has an orgasm meets a guy with the same thing. Brought together by the whims of circumstance, they fall for each other, and in the throes of a new relationship start robbing banks.

Think “Tristan and Isolde” filtered through Philip K. Dick and you’ve got half of the idea.

The other half is a smart and sex-positive take on the romantic comedy. Suzie (she’s the girl) acts as the narrator for the series, bringing the smutty shenanigans and the sci-fi to a personal level. What makes her and Jon (he’s the guy) so compelling as a romantic pair is the sheer amount of honesty between them. It’s downright refreshing to see adults talking so frankly and intimately about their sexual histories, not as an arousing enticement but as an intimate disclosure. Past partners, masturbatory habits, even musical preferences are shared between them and with us.

It’s a bold approach to sexual comedy, and some of the best work by Matt Fraction (he’s the writer). Largely known as a prominent writer for Marvel Comics, one of his strengths is playing around with multiple levels of plot and mood. He knows when to place a joke about fleshlights and when to spin out lines of near-poetry, as when Suzie describes her first experience with post-climax timelessness: “I was enveloped in silence and color.” Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Young God” by Katherine Faw Morris

Book Reviews, Debut Novel or Collection, Fiction 1 Comment »

RECOMMENDED YoungGod

Regarding her brutal, minimalist masterpiece “Play It As It Lays,” Joan Didion has said that she wished “to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it.” Many have mimicked this literary wind-knocking technique, but where others have produced accidental parodies, Katherine Faw Morris delivers a brass knuckled gut-punch with her debut novel “Young God,” a piece of pure, uncut psychobilly fiction. Writing with a narcotized numbness and rawboned brevity reminiscent of early Bret Easton Ellis, Morris follows the travails of Nikki, the most hardcore thirteen-year-old you’ll ever want to meet. After her mother’s death, she barely bats an eye before breaking into—and quickly dominating—the narcotics trade in her rural southern town, which is captained by her father.

This kind of bumpkins-behaving-badly premise might sound a tad familiar. Recently, America seems to have turned to backwaters, bayous, and trailer parks for entertainment fodder, gorging itself on books, shows, and movies spanning every strata of taste, from the high (“True Detective”), to the middle (“Hunger Games,” “District 9″), to the low (“Duck Dynasty”). But this is something different. Rather than merely riding the coattails of her best predecessors (or becoming borderline exploitative like the rest), Morris ups the ante. In her world, good is not pitted against evil. There’s not even moral ambiguity. Years of isolation, addiction and deprivation have obliterated bourgeois decency, and life is nasty, brutish and short unless you fight like hell for no one but yourself. Nikki is no Katniss Everdeen. She’s a new breed of heroine who reeks of authenticity. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “We Were Liars” by E. Lockhart

Book Reviews, Fiction, Young Adult No Comments »

WeWereLiars

RECOMMENDED

In “We Were Liars,” Cadence Sinclair and her mother go to the Sinclair’s private island, just as they’ve been doing for years. Her mother’s sister, her grandfather, and her cousins converge on this private paradise, each family to their own manor house. The oldest cousins and a friend of the family, Gat, are best friends and are known as the Liars. The younger cousins are The Littles, not yet involved in the intrigue of teenagers. This summer is different from before because seventeen-year-old Cadence is recovering from a memory loss that occurred on the island two years ago. She woke up without her clothes, on the beach with a head-wound and no memory of what had happened. Since then she’s felt abandoned by her friends and at a loss with her stiff upper lip family.

Written by E. Lockhart, a Printz honoree and National Book Award finalist, “We Were Liars” is a young adult book that will appeal to both teenage and adult readers. Lockhart’s characters are thinly disguised figures from “King Lear.” Cadence’s mother and two aunts stand in as Lear’s daughters, squabbling over who has the largest beach house and which grandchild is likely to get the largest inheritance. Cadence’s grandfather is the King Lear figure, growing ever more senile and infirm. If reading about wealthy, white New Englanders isn’t your cup of tea, consider, at least, that it’s based on Shakespeare. Cadence’s propensity to refer to her mother as “Mummy” does grow tiresome. But her affaire de cœur with the unrelated Liar, Gat Patel, brings a much-needed balance to this story. Gat’s sense of social justice doesn’t allow the Sinclairs to forget that their carefree summer vacation rests on the shoulders of their tireless servants or that he, as the brown visitor, is never fully accepted by the patriarchal figure. Read the rest of this entry »