Featured

First blog post

I started this blog, like I begin most projects, on a whim. I spent 5 minutes reading an article about why it is a good idea to blog and how to go about doing such a thing. I downloaded the WordPress app and away I go.I picked a theme and I even left up the pretty photo of a sunset or sunrise (I’m not sure how to tell the difference) that was given to me because why not. It is pretty.

I am not sure what this will become if anything. I write fiction, mainly short fiction, but I read more than I write. So I will probably write about what I am reading at any given time. How many blogs exist that already give book recommendations? I am sure it is numerous but I don’t even want to know. I will also probably write about popular culture and politics. These are other topics that I seem to obsess about. I will try to do all of it in an intelligent and entertaining way. But no promises.

post

Advertisements

The Great Believers, A Story of Hope

The Great Believers, A Story of Hope

The Great Believers

By Rebecca Makkai

 

Write what you know. This is advice that seems to be given to every young writer and I suppose for the novice it is good advice. It keeps things simple but also can keep things very dull. But in the hands of a skilled writer any story should be possible and not off limits, no matter what the subject matter. Rebecca Makkai is a supremely skilled writer and is capable of writing a compelling story about the AIDS crisis in Chicago in the 1980’s even though she is a straight female who was probably about seven years old when the events portrayed in her novel take place. I am a straight male who lived in Chicago in the late 1980’s so my judgment is anything but definitive. But from my limited perspective she tells a well researched but fictional story about what it meant to be on the front lines in the battle of living and dying with this terrible disease.

 

The story is narrated by two different characters on two different timelines that alternate throughout the novel. Yale Tishman narrates the portion that is set in Chicago in 1985-1990. He is a gay man in his early thirties who is involved in a committed relationship while also dealing with sexual temptation outside of the relationship and the rapid spread of a disease that is killing his friends one after another. The young sister, Fiona, of one of these recently deceased friends is the narrator of the portion of the novel set in Paris in 2015. She also is a main character in the 1985 timeline. Fiona is a staunch ally of her gay friends both practically and politically.

 

Judging by the responses to Makkai’s novel I am assuming she succeeded in representing the real fear, anger, and pain that was engulfing the gay community of Chicago in the early and mid 80’s. I know as a reader it brought me into this sphere in a real and palpable way. I can’t imagine the fear of certain and painful death brought on by an act as integral to life as sex but Makkai makes it real. But this is not just a story about fear and death. Makkai also makes it a story about people helping people, the joys that life can bring, and the affect one life, however short, can have on an entire community. This is a story of hope in the midst of death. We are all going to die but what should I do with the time I have? This is a question that several characters have to deal with in this novel and Makkai makes the question a celebration of life, and not a nihilistic treatise on the futility of fighting for belief or love.  

 

Makkai has written a page turner, that I had a hard time putting down (long after I should have been asleep or cleaning the house) about the AIDS crisis. Let that sink in. It is a testament to her skill at creating compelling characters and her compassion for the subject matter, that this is ultimately a story a reader wants to read and not one a reader feels is only necessary to read. This is a story with real human beings at the center and not props used to represent the number of the dead. It is an important book that will be read for years to come.

May We Be Forgiven Review

homes-9eca4ccfdd16fa4fd94e2606368cdde0c6d960dc-s800-c85

May We Be Forgiven

By A.M. Homes

 

I picked up a copy of May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes off the discount table at my local bookstore for $5. I had heard of the author but never read her stuff. I figured for $5 it was worth the risk. That might be the best $5 I ever spent. The book was quite a revelation. I have been reading a book a week for the last couple years and most of this reading has been contemporary literary fiction. I really enjoy the experience but at times it seems like the themes and styles blur together from one book to the next and every story that can be told has been told. But every once in awhile you get slapped in the face by something truly original. May We Be Forgiven is that book. It is funny, sad, clever, and outrageous in a unique way without relying on literary gimmicks or messing with classic narrative structure.

 

At the center of Homes story are two brothers, George and Harold. They can make the fabled brothers, Cain and Abel, look like the picture of brotherly love. Harold gets to tell his side of the story as the narrator and it is a doozy. The first 40 pages of the book are outright crazy and gasp inducing. I will not give much away other than say after the initial insane flurry of activity the book settles into a moderately insane story of family dysfunction and redemption.

 

I would call what Homes does in her novel literary pyrotechnics. She uses “shock and awe” in much the same way John Irving did in his early novels to grab the reader’s attention and give us a vision of our world that stretches the limits of what is real or possible but never, in my opinion, slides into total fantasy. By both disliking and empathizing with her flawed characters we can see a different way of viewing or living in a bat shit crazy 21st century.

 

If you have a stomach for the improbable and dark comedy you should read this novel, even if you have to pay full price. Homes is an original writer who demands attention and I look forward to reading her future projects.  

A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow

By Amor Towles

 

Moscow in 1922 was a very dangerous place to be if you were a man or women with a title. This is where we meet Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, the gentleman in Moscow. It is just after the Russian Revolution and the creation of the Soviet Union. The purging of the former Tsarist aristocracy is in full swing and the Count is a target. He is hauled into a windowless room by the secret police and informed he is to go back to the Metropol Hotel, where he has lived for several years, and never leave if he doesn’t want to be shot. He makes his way back to the hotel a bit stunned and finds his opulent suite of rooms unavailable to him and he is forced into a 10×10 room in the attic. This is the setting for the next 400 pages of this often witty and sometimes exhausting book.

 

The Count is a very charming and entertaining protagonist. He is a man of leisure who has never had to work in his life and only needs to find ways to amuse himself. He is really the cover boy for the need for a Bolshevik Revolution. He has done nothing to earn or deserve his privilege or wealth. But the reader soon forgives his fate of birth. He is generous with those who serve him, can tell a good joke, offers great commentary on Soviet Russia, and can offer educated opinion on which wine to have with your stuffed pheasant.

 

As told by Towles, a life lived in the confines of a luxury hotel can be very satisfying. The Count makes friends with the bartenders, waitstaff, chef, and a 9 year old girl, Nina. Nina, and her eventual daughter Sophia, are deeply involved in the life of the Count in the thirty years we follow his house arrest at the Metropol. He develops a family like bond with this small group of people and his relationship with them is the backbone of the novel and what kept me interested in the story during the narrative valleys that checker the landscape of the book. Because there are definitely valleys in the middle 300 pages. There are several multi page digressions into the proper place setting of dinner tables, the proper pairing of wine with entrees, the incompetence of waitstaff, and what it means to be a gentleman or lady. It is similar to watching the most tedious portions of Downton Abbey and thanking God I have no concern about fork usage or what the servants are saying about me.

 

The last 70 pages of the novel were a welcome redemption to lulls of the uneven middle. The climax is exhilarating and make the thirty year journey we travel with the Count well worth the time. The strength of Towle’s writing, the humor and fortitude of the Count, the generous nature of the secondary characters, the tutorial in middle twentieth century Russian history, and the ending of this novel all make this a book I can recommend. If you are a patient reader and don’t mind skimming the surface of characters (there is not a lot of depth here) you should read The Gentleman in Moscow. This may sound like faint praise but I was genuinely happy I read this book and will read others by Amor Towles.

The Mars Room, Where Dreams go to Die.

The Mars Room

By Rachel Kushner

 

One reason we read fiction is to enter a world we know nothing about for a short period of time. Kushner plunges us into the bowels of a women’s prison for a few hundred pages. This is not somewhere I would want to actually visit but it makes for a compelling read. Romy Hall, the main character, has had a challenging life to say the least. Her mother was negligent and her father was absent for her childhood. She lived on the streets of San Francisco and indulged in sex, drugs, and minor criminal behaviour. She stumbled into taking her clothes off for money at strip clubs in her early twenties, The Mars Room is her main location of employment. This sounds like the plot of a 70’s prison movie and it might be, I really haven’t done the research.

 

I will try not to give to many details away concerning how she ends up in prison but she should probably not be there. She was poor and couldn’t afford a good lawyer and she was a stripper, which doesn’t play well in front of a jury. This book tucks the reader into a pocket of society that receives little help or empathy from the larger portion of good citizens that make money in more socially acceptable ways. Romy is a single mother who strips for money, occasionally ingests recreational drugs, and lives in a shady part of an overpriced American city.  

 

The best parts of this novel are Romy’s comedic takes on her harrowing life from day to day. There is no reason suffering can’t be portrayed with a little humor. The group of women Romy lives with in prison are also funny, scary, and sad in equal measures. Kushner kept me reading late into the evening wondering what was going to happen next and how all of this was going to end. I suppose this is enough for a novel to offer the reader at times. Kushner is not breaking any new ground with her style, plot or theme but I would recommend this book to just about anyone. Dare I say a good Summer read? No I won’t say that, it could be read in late Fall also.

Review of There There

There There

By Tommy Orange

 

Tommy Orange has written an impressive debut novel. There There is a raw, gritty and sad portrayal of “urban indian” culture. The novel follows a collection of dangerous and endangered Native American characters in and around Oakland, California. The title of the novel is taken from the famous Gertrude Stein quote concerning Oakland that “there is no there there”. One of the characters in the novel quickly explains how this quote is always used out of context. I will let the reader figure out why.

 

Orange tells the story in several interconnected chapters that each follow a different character in several different time periods, but all center around Oakland and its Native population. The characters all come together in the final act at a Powwow at the Oakland Coliseum. This was a challenging literary form for me to read. The reader is immersed in the life of one character for 10 or 12 pages and then pulled from her world into another very abruptly. If a writer does this, in my opinion, he better bring everything together in the end. Orange accomplishes this delicate dance without a hitch, much like Jennifer Egan did in her similarly constructed masterpiece A Visit from the Goon Squad. This reader was happy he spent all this time getting to know the dozen or so characters in the novel by the climax and it offers an opportunity for a re reading.

 

Orange has given us a brutal and real look into the lives of Native American people living in an American city on the knife edge of existence and oblivion. The stakes are high for these characters as they get out of bed or peel themselves off the floor in the morning. The portrayal is not pretty or overly optimistic but the story does offer room for some hope. This is a book everyone should read, and not just for the important content, but also for the straightforward powerful prose that is scarce in American contemporary fiction.

The Plot Against America Review

The Plot Against America

By Philip Roth

 

David Foster Wallace, in his review of John Updike’s novel Toward the End of Time in 1997, coined the moniker “The Great White Narcissists” for Norman Mailer, John Updike and Philip Roth. He didn’t mean this in a completely negative way but for the 27 year old me it was enough to turn me off to these writers for the next twenty years. After Philip Roth’s death just a couple weeks ago and the attention given to Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America after the election of Donald Trump, I decided to at least give this white narcissist a chance. I have owned this book for at least ten years and finally plucked it off the shelf. Overall I was not disappointed.

 

This book is an alternative history.It tries to answer the question, what if FDR lost the 1940 presidential election to the isolationist and anti-Semite, Charles Lindbergh? The story follows a working class Jewish family from Newark, the Roths, as they try to come to grips with a government they put all of their hope and trust in, turning against them suddenly. Roth makes it clear that being a Jew in America  before 1940 was not easy, but the election of a bigoted President and the motivation this gives his supporters takes the anxiety and danger to a whole new level. The first two thirds of this novel, with the backdrop of advancing fascism in America, is a fairly traditional family drama and coming of age story. It is told in the voice of an older narrator, Philip Roth, as a 7 year old child in 1940. He vividly describes what it might have been like to grow up on the streets of Newark in the 1940’s. The final third of the novel offers a shift in tone and pace that matches the absurd violence, fear mongering, and rampant conspiracy theories that overtake the Midwest, the South and East Coast (the West Coast barely seems to exist in this book) of America.

 

The parallels between the imagined world of this novel and the rise of Trumpism in America are striking in a few limited ways. I say imagined world but the American Fascist movement in the 1930’s was very real. Charles Lindbergh did speak at America First rallies that drew thousands of spectators that were sympathetic with Nazi Germany and “the Jewish Problem”. Roth gives the reader a helpful postscript that offers data on the real events and characters of the time including Lindbergh and Henry Ford. The audacity of Trump and his campaign using the phrase “America First” is shocking. This was literally the name of an American Fascist group in the 1930’s! But the one common thread in all reactionary governments is the fear of the Other and the fear of the unknown. Charismatic leaders have always been able to exploit this fear for their own advantages. Roth’s tweaking of history exposes this faultline in the American experience.

 

Roth has quite a bit to say about history and its relation to reality. He writes, “ The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.” This struck me as rather profound. In hindsight everything seems obvious and events happen as they should and life continues but as we live through the difficult times it all seems like a frightening disaster and the world is coming to an end. I was reminded of the Martin Luther King Jr. quote as I read this novel, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Is this really true? Living in the times we do now and in the imagined world of Philip Roth I am not so sure. It seems like an optimistic idea but I suppose there is evidence to support the hope.

I am glad I read this novel, especially at this time and place in our history. I am not so sure I would have got as much out of it 5 years ago. We live in crazy times but I assume this can be said for many other times in the past. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone. Although I have not read much of Roth’s other work, this is one of his more conventional novels. At its essence it is a story about a boy, a family, and their closest friends trying to get by in the world. Something we can all appreciate and enjoy. Read it!

Point Omega Review

Point Omega

By Don DeLillo

 

Point Omega is a novella put out by Mr. DeLillo in 2010. If your favorite band releases a single in lieu of a full album, that is the feeling I got picking up this book. It was somewhat satisfying but I was left wanting more. But that is my issue and not that of the writer. Point Omega is a stripped down skeleton of a story that is used to carry a few ideas that have run throughout most of Mr. DeLillo’s work. He has been called a “systems” writer. I am not crystal clear on what this actually means but I believe I received a glimpse of the concept in this book.

 

The plot is thin, which is not unusual for DeLillo, but it does offer a few interesting characters for the reader to inhabit for the length of the book. The story opens with a mystery man pontificating on a conceptual art piece in an art museum but the bulk of the book involves the Iraq war consultant Richard Elster, a filmmaker Jim Finley, and Richard’s daughter Jessie. They spend a lot of time drinking and talking on the back deck of a house in the Californian desert.  In the midst of all of this, Point Omega is a book of ideas or systems or a system of ideas. The Omega Point of the title references an idea that originated with the scientist priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The idea or belief that the universe is fated to spiral to a final point of divine unification and the end of time. Richard Elster references this priest in the novel so there is no mystery to what DeLillo is doing.

 

I think this is an idea that permeates a lot of DeLillo’s previous work in, for example, Underworld, White Noise and Libra. The idea that there is a vast hidden structure underneath the surface of day to day existence and this mundane existence is mere surface or skin covering a more solid foundation. Is it all spiraling into a black hole of nothingness or into a final single point of absolute meaning?

I might be reading to much into this but I look forward to going back to his earlier work after reading Point Omega and see if this is mere fabrication on my part or something real.

 

But to put an end to this review and readerly speculation, should you read this book? If you haven’t read Libra or White Noise, I would answer no. Read one or both of those novels. If you enjoy the strange texture and cadence of DeLillo’s writing then yes, you should absolutely read this book. Or, by all means, ignore my advice and dive right into the spiral nature of Point Omega. But please be aware that Don DeLillo can do so much more than he does within these pages.