Book Reviews

I mostly review books here, but you may find some short stories along the way.

Review: Starve a Rat – Justin Torres

If you haven’t read “Starve a Rat” by Justin Torres, please do; it’s wonderful.  Published in the October 2011 issue of Harper’s, “Starve a Rat” deftly uses first-person point of view to create a wonderful narrative that draws the reader in.  Are we being lied to by the narrator?  Definitely.  Does he ever tell us the truth?  Probably.

The narrator is basically homeless and sleeps with other men to get by.  He’s charming and attractive, but also manipulative.  In the story he hooks up with an older man, Norwood, who cares for him on some level, but also is interested in using him, though it becomes difficult to tell who is using whom.  There are truths Norwood wants to know, like does the narrator have a disease, and stories about the narrator’s past, which seem fabricated, that Norwood is willing to accept.  For the reader, we know more of the truth than Norwood, so it’s a bit easier, but still ambiguous.  The idea of truth and lies is clear in the following passage.

“My girl and I used to play a game called Two Truths and a Lie—but the trick was just to tell three lies, or three true things; the trick was to let no one ever really figure you out: Take my picture. Be my father. Let me stay right here.”

This paragraph haunts the story as we listen to the narrator.  Is he telling us three truths, three lies, or a combination of the two?  It’s up to the reader to decide.

Review: Blackout – Connie Willis

Some books are read for pleasure. Other books are read to gain knowledge, to learn something factual or expand one’s mind. Still, there are books that fit into neither categories. They are read, because a person is bored and it’s the only free book available in a hostel. They are read, because it’s a beautiful day outside and there are few books which look appealing on the new book display. Blackout by Connie Willis is one of those books.

I grabbed the book off the shelf, sat outside with my lunch, and hoped to enjoy a hour’s respite from work. The premise of Willis’s novel is time travel. Historians based in Oxford travel back in time to study events. Willis’s intent seems to be the creation of a sweeping saga. She introduces a plethora of characters with little context. These characters will each have sections based on their third-person limited perspective, but it takes 50-100 pages to keep the straight or care about them.

The novel starts out knee deep in action, but it feels like something was missed. I asked myself if this were the second book in a series? Nope. The reader must play catch up and look for dialogue clearly written to pass information back to the reader. Remember when you wanted to go to the Crusades? Aw, that was ages ago, I’ve changed. Who is that dialogue for? The characters or the reader?

One major flaw with this novel is that it’s entirely overwritten.  Two-thirds of the book could be cut out and it wouldn’t really matter. Going back to the premise of the novel, historians travel back in time to study events. The group we follow are all headed for different points during World War II. There are some rules regarding time travel (of course, there are always rules), but Willis doesn’t go into these too much and definitely offers no basis for how time travel works. The historians use a machine called the Net and it’s so smart it won’t allow them to be placed in places where they may affect events. These points are called divergences. So, the historians go back in time, and lose contact with Oxford. What follows is their incredibly boring activities as the war rages on and they fret about returning home.

Eventually, the three find each other as their time has overlapped. That seems like the point of the novel. They’ll come together and be rescued. After 450 pages they are all in London and it seems like escape or rescue is imminent. Then, the books ends and there’s a message: “For the riveting conclusion of Blackout, be sure not to miss Connie Willis’s All Clear. Coming from Spectra in Fall 2010.”

I read this book, because it was there and I had nothing else to read. I skimmed along just to see what happened. Not only does nothing really happen in this novel, but the premise is ridiculous, and the characters are bland. Blackout is an inflated novel with little to say and even less to offer.

Review: The Oregon Experiment – Keith Scribner

Anarchists, secessionists, and floundering academics!  Oh my!

Keith Scribner‘s novel, The Oregon Experiment, follows Scanlon Pratt and his wife, Naomi Greenburg, as they move from New York City to Douglas, Oregon, where Pratt is ready to begin his first tenure-track position in the Political Science Department.

Immediately, tension fills the pages as Naomi tries to cope with the move.  She’s eight months pregnant, misses New York, and suffers from anosmia.  For Naomi, anosmia is crippling, because she used to design scents and perfumes for her career.  She has no explanation for losing her sense of smell and it’s been gone since before she met Pratt.  The loss becomes something the two explore in their relationship.  Naomi teaches Pratt how to more fully experience scents and in return he describes the world to her.  It smells like lavender pressed into the collar of  a well-loved wool coat, he might say.

Due to this aspect of the characters, Scribner delights in describing the world through various scents and smells.  It makes for an interesting perspective and adds rich details throughout the narrative.

Instead of soothing Naomi’s anxieties, Pratt continually adds to them.  Off to a rocky start in his department, he glosses over his career prospects, and seeks out the local secessionist group to study.  But can he stay objective?  Lured into the ranks by a seductive, earthy, young woman, Pratt soon finds trouble.  Add young, naive anarchists into the mix and more than a marriage is likely to explode.

To be unfair to Keith Scribner, I kept thinking, what would this novel be like if T.C. Boyle wrote it?  It has the trappings of a T.C. Boyle novel, but lacks the crisp writing and sharp characters.  It’s completely unfair and shouldn’t shadow Scribner’s work.  Perhaps, part of the appeal is that it does remind me of a T.C. Boyle novel.

While the pacing dips toward the middle, the last 100 pages read quickly as events pick up.  Relationships splinter, the FBI investigates, and a local anarchist, Clay, turns to domestic terrorism.  It’s in Clay that Scribner’s compassion for his characters is fully expressed.  At the end of the novel there are two versions of events.  Events how they really occurred and events how Clay perceived them.  Scribner didn’t have to do this, but his decision captures Clay in a moment of glory and fulfillment.  Scribner takes a character who may alienate some readers and finds a sweet spot in resolving the plot.

The Oregon Experiment examines love, passion, alienation, and community.  Scribner creates a satisfying work that sheds light on an area of society, which is usually stereotyped in the media.  Overall, the novel is engaging and extremely relevant as Occupy Wall Street protests swarm into business districts across the country.

Review: The House on Sand Creek – Thomas McGuane

Published in October 3rd, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, Thomas McGuane‘s “The House on Sand Creek” is a well-written story that can’t wait to get to the punchline.  The story centers around the narrator, a middle-aged, male lawyer full of clichés, and his wife, Monika, an architecture student stranded during the dissolution of Yugoslavia.  The two rent a house, sight unseen, in the country.  When they arrive to the property they find:

“It was an absolute horror. Skinned coyote carcasses were piled on the front step, and a dead horse hung from its halter where it had been tied to the porch. Inside was a shambles, and there was one detail we couldn’t understand without the help of the neighbors: shotgun blasts through the bathroom door. Apparently, Mrs. Old-Time Buckaroo used to chase Mr. Old-Time Buckaroo around the house until he ran into the bathroom, locked the door, and hid on the batch. The sides of the tub were pocked with lead.”

Soon after the move, Monika leaves the narrator and goes home to Bosnia-Herzegovina.  Monika meets another man, has a child with him, and seems to move on.  The narrator continues to live in the house as a bachelor and becomes friends with an off-balance neighbor, Bob.  Monika’s fresh start ends up failing and she moves back to be the narrator, her little boy in tow.

The tone of the story is humorous and there’s a sadness about the narrator which is laughable, because he’s self-aware enough to see how his life must look to outsiders.  He’s aware that he trends toward using clichés instead of direct language.  With Monika back he describes the situation saying, “The feeling came back to me, from the days of our marriage, that I was doomed in life to take a lot of shit and make weak jokes in response.”  That line sums up the narrator well.  Still, the reader reads, not because the story is altogether interesting, but to see what joke the narrator is making.

The joke involves Bob and Monika’s son, Karel, whom Bob has babysat as a kind of surrogate parent.  Mixed in are the narrator and Monika’s deluded belief that there is something salvageable in their relationship or that they are somehow more together than Bob.

Stories like these don’t keep me coming back for more.  I wasn’t caught up in the language, but it didn’t get in the way either.  The result was that I started skimming.  Get to the punchline already, I thought.  Punchline stories, while funny, can leave little for the reader to take away and encourages the reader not to linger.  “The House on Sand Creek” is funny with hints of melancholy, yet it is a story that doesn’t resonate long after it’s been read.

Review: Dog Run Moon – Callahan Wink

Published in the September 26, 2011 issue of The New Yorker,Dog Run Moon” by Callahan Wink is a rapid paced story that takes the reader through a night of terror and exposure across the desert rock.

I enjoyed reading “Dog Run Moon” for its fast pace, deft scenes, and colorful characters.  However, the characters, Montana Bob and Charlie Chaplin, cross the line into caricature.  They are funny.  They are over the top.  Are they believable?  Not really.  Montana Bob seems written in the vein of Yosemite Sam and Charlie Chaplin is a small, hard man with the speaking ability of Silent Bob.

Moreover, the action of the story revolves around Sid stealing Montana Bob’s dog and running away from his failed relationship.  There will always be stories of people running away from failed relationships.  How does Callahan Wink take a different spin on this theme?  For the most part, he doesn’t.  Sid drives past his ex’s house.  Sid muses over what he would have told her, if he could have.  Things take a small turn in that Sid is actually running away, totally naked and bleeding, in the middle of the night.

It’s a fun take on the failed relationship story.  How do people feel when they get dumped?  They are tired, exposed, seeking escape, and hurt.  The story starts with Sid fleeing naked over the desert rock.  He’s alone, he’s pushed to the limit, and at the breaking point.  Everything that happens mirrors his inner life.

What adds to this story is how well Wink manages scenes.  He gives enough information, but holds back.  It propels the reader into the next scene and a little more story is uncovered.  The writing is also quite strong.  The harsh landscape is captured as it cuts and rips at Sid’s body.  There’s an eye for detail and a dynamic use of language.

Someone looking at this story from the academic lit world might want to pick it apart, but not all stories need to be weighty explorations of the human condition.  Overall, “Dog Run Moon” is exciting, well written, and immensely enjoyable.

Interview with Callahan Wink from the Book Bench.

Review: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – Carson McCullers

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers is a novel about communication and belonging.  It takes place in Georgia before the onset of World War II.  Tensions between blacks and whites thread the novel, along with greater tensions as Hitler consolidates power overseas.

The focus of the novel is a character named, Singer, who is deaf and mute.  Singer has a deep friendship with another man who is also deaf and mute, Spiros Antonapoulos.  During the years of their friendship, the two passed largely unnoticed in the town.  It’s when Antonapoulos is sent to an asylum that Singer begins to change.  He paces the town at all hours.  He takes all of his meals at the New York Cafe.  Through a change in behavior he is now accessible to the townspeople, even though he cannot speak nor hear.

The perspective of the novel widens to include four characters, all of whom project themselves onto Singer.  Each of the four characters meet with Singer on a weekly basis and empty themselves of thoughts and emotions.  They talk and talk, but never engage with Singer.  Singer becomes a receptacle for them and while they believe their friendship is deep, Singer finds it puzzling, because he does not understand them as intimately as they think.

Another layer to this theme is that Singer has a similar relationship with Antonapoulos, who clearly suffers from some cognitive impairment.  Is Singer’s relationship with Antonapoulos any different from the other four character’s relationship with Singer?  How can Singer be blind to this possibility?  Ultimately, how well does the reader know Singer?  Even though the novel is about him, it’s rarely from his perspective.  Just like the other characters, the reader projects onto Singer and establishes a relationship that is largely one-sided.

Carson McCullers explores what it means to be isolated through physical impairment, race, family, poverty, and political beliefs.  It’s an interesting technique and one that largely works.  Among the four characters who are friends with Singer, none of them are able to identify with the other.  They are all outcast or isolated in someway, yet are unable to find solace in one another.

Review: Starlight – Ann Beattie

Ann Beattie‘s short story “Starlight“, published in the September 19th, 2011 issue of The New Yorker imaginatively uses the last official picture of the Nixon‘s as the basis for a story from Pat Nixon’s perspective.

I want to hear from other readers who enjoyed this story, because I found it difficult to get into.  What worked for you? What did you love?  What parts stand out for you?

I love the idea behind this story and am trying to discover why I was not receptive to the content.

Read Q&A with Ann Beattie on TNY blog, Book Bench.

Craft: An Anonymous Island – Yi Mun-Yol

Yi Mun-yol‘s short story, “An Anonymous Island,” published in the September 12, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, explores anonymity, but loses focus of that concept as the story plays out.  In the overpopulation of cities, how well can we know our neighbors?  For that matter, how well do we know those in smaller communities or even those closest to us?

Yi Mun-yol sets this up in the first scene.  The narrator’s husband watches TV and complains about people’s unfaithfulness.  He references anonymity and speaks about his childhood growing up in a rural village with only one clan.

“‘We all knew each other,’ he’ll say nostalgically. ‘It was like looking down into the water at your own reflection…Most of the people were blood relations, so it was practically unthinkable for a woman to be unfaithful. Once in a while someone went off to a nearby village for that sort of thing, but sooner or later it was found out.'”

Whenever the narrator’s husband speaks like this, the narrator dwells on a moment in her past, before the two were married.  She feels guilt and shame.  The rest of the story is all flashback.  We step back to when the narrator was a recent college graduate and moves to a remote village to teach.

The first person she sees is Ggaecheol, seemingly an idiot who drifts around the village.  Ggaecheol is rude and shiftless, yet the village supports.  He rotates whose house he visits and demands food and a place to sleep.  These are given and the narrator observes it all with wonder.  He is not a blood relative, so why do the villagers tolerate him?  Through overheard conversations and some pointed questions it becomes obvious.  The village tolerates him, because he is not a blood relative.  They tolerate him, because women can have sex with Ggaecheol without committing incest.  They tolerate Ggaecheol, but do not speak of his role in the village.

This all plays back to the naiveté of the narrator’s husband.  How well did he really understand his village?  How can an outsider see things differently?  The story is apologetic regarding affairs, or puts them in a context that doesn’t involve love, but animal need.  Ggaecheol is not breaking up families; he is providing a service, one which the whole village is aware.

While anonymity is a theme of the story, the message is lost through the situation.  The idea of the village and Ggaecheol’s role within it takes precedence.  It overshadows everything else.  Is the first scene necessary?  What is the tension between anonymity and Ggaecheol’s story?  Without the first scene, the story loses a layer.  It becomes a kinky story about a village.  With the first scene though it becomes a larger commentary, which is especially interesting since this story is placed in The New Yorker‘s 9/11 issue.

In the end, the reader is left with an unsettling story.  It has a Twilight Zone feel to it.  The narrator moves on and another young woman takes her place.

“Instead of warning her about Ggaecheol, whose eyes clung to her almost hatefully, I shot him a cool look. he met my gaze with the same coolness. I might have been mistaken, but at that moment I thought I saw a faint laughter in his eyes. Just a glimmer. Then he turned his head toward the village and the paddy fields stretching out on the slopes below. There was not a piece of land or a fistful of dirt that he could call his own—or a house or a room where he could lay his head without the owner’s consent—yet he gazed out over that land like a great man, the possessor of everything, an emperor.”

The story never returns to the present.  And really, why should it?  Nothing has changed for the narrator.  She will never tell her husband this story.  It will anonymously exist inside of her with only Ggaecheol knowing the truth.

Additional reading: The Book Bench.

Excerpt: Town of Cats – Haruki Murakami

At this point, I feel like Haruki Murakami often rewrites the same narrative.  There’s a man.  The man’s alone.  He’s disconnected, either from society, himself, or both.  A woman is mixed up in the man’s life and she’s probably left him.  There are cats.  Sometimes, just one cat, other times, there are many cats.  The man does not have to answer to the demands of a job or other people.  If he does, then the story takes place while he has time to escape.  Now, which story or novel am I talking about?

Published in the September 5th, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, “Town of Cats” is an empty excerpt from Haruki Murakami‘s latest novel, 1Q84.  I hope the novel works far better than this excerpt, because I found this piece of writing to be heavy handed and unoriginal.  The town of cats is from a short story that the main character, Tengo, is reading while on the train to visit his aging father.  Tengo decides to visit his father, whom he hates, on a whim.  It’s the first visit in two years and his father lives in a retirement home.

The writing takes on new urgency when Murakami is telling the story of the town of cats.  It seems like that is where his interest is.  Once the story moves back into reality, the energy dissipates.  Why not just write something truly fantastic?  Why try to tie the fantastic back into the mundane again and again?  In this case, the town of cats is a simple metaphor for the main character and his father.  I say simple, because Murakami spells it out for the reader.

Tengo reads the story to his father and his father blithely asks questions regarding the town.  Did the cats have TV?  Did they make the city?  Did they live there because people left?  When Tengo has no answers, his father says, “When a vacuum forms, something has to come along to fill it.  That’s what everybody does.”  This seems like a conversation about the well from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.  If a writer creates a metaphor and then uses a paint-by-numbers approach to get it across to his or her readers, it doesn’t work.  Moreover, the ending of this excerpt builds a town in the land of sentimentality.  Single teardrops should only be used by the Disney Corporation and even then, they should be used sparingly.

Tengo’s father is right.  There is a vacuum and something needs to come along and fill it.  I’m hopeful that the novel is good, because often, these excerpts don’t work as stand alone pieces.  Skip this excerpt and wait for the novel.  Just because The New Yorker prints a piece doesn’t mean it’s good or you should read it.  There is a vacuum, but don’t worry, there’s an editor and a publicist trying to fill the void.

Short Story: El Morro – David Means






Writing is about choices.  That may sound simplistic, but the decisions a writer makes will change the landscape of a story.  When does the story begin?  When does it end?  Time doesn’t stop just because the reader hit the end of the pages.  Time didn’t start on page one.  The writer chose the time frame.

In David Means‘ story “El Morro,” published in the August 29th, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, we are introduced to a young woman who is driving through the southwest with a dodgy guy.  All we know of the woman is that she was originally from the outskirts of Springfield, Illinois, her father was a farmer, he tossed her out of the house, the dodgy guy picked her up in California, he and the young woman occasionally have sex.  When she tries to tell more about herself, the man says, “Don’t say another word…Don’t say anything else.  That’s all I need to hear.  I’ll take the story from there.  I really mean it.  Not another word.  I’d rather fill in the blanks.”  Why do we meet the woman at this point in her life?  What does it mean for the man to make up her story?

Another decision involves characters.  Who are the people in the story?  Why are they in the story?  What is the point of their existence?  Characters can become dead weight if they don’t have a role to play in the story.  The young woman’s role in this story is to give us a view of the man, and later, to act as a third wheel.  I inadvertently brought up point of view, but in this case it ties into character.  The woman’s view of the man is not flattering.  She’s stuck with him, because she doesn’t have many options.  Or, maybe she does, but in this moment, he’s her best option.  The man is a rambling, inconsiderate, drug-addled, know-it-all.  He’s also a bullshit artist.  Means does such a good job of making this character unlikable that it’s hard to read the story.  Why do that?  What’s the writer trying to achieve?  Could this be accomplished in a way that’s less dissonant to the reader?

In an interesting transition the point of view shifts to a park ranger at the end of the story.  It’s interesting, because video cameras are used in the transition.  The characters are at the national monument, El Morro.  Circumstances changed as the man picked up another woman and is focused on her.  A park ranger watches the body language of the man and the new woman.  He provides another reference point, one in which the man does not speak.  There’s an overlap of time; we know what’s being said.  The young woman is left behind and the park ranger swoops in.

The park ranger, Russell, is of the Zuni Pueblo.  Not only does he give the reader a new view of the dodgy guy, but he also acts as a foil in terms of setting the record straight.  Throughout the drive, the dodgy guy spun stories about the Zuni.  He made the stories up.  He tried to impress the women with his non-stop talking about different tribes and spiritualism.  Through Russell’s view-point all of that drops away.  The dodgy guy is portrayed as an empty drifter who cannot see the young woman properly.

On a deeper level, Means is addressing story telling.  Whose stories do we tell?  Why do we tell stories?  What’s the importance of story telling?  The dodgy guy is a story-teller with no thought of his audience.  He’s trying to impress people and inflate his ego.  On the other hand, Russell, tells his wife the story of what happened, because “he knew he was getting to his wife’s heart by telling a good-deed story.  She liked it when he told stories that put him in a kind light.”  Russell also thinks about telling a different story to cover for the girl after she defaced the monument.  It will put him at odds with the archaeologists from Santa Fe, but whose monument is it, and whose story is it to tell?