Tag Archives: book reviews

Review: ‘The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq’, by Hassan Blasim

The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of IraqThe Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been reflecting quite a lot on this short but destructive collection of short stories by the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim, a writer The Guardian has called “perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive”. Taking it’s title from the title of the first story, ‘corpse exhibition’ feels like both a directly and subtly apt one. There are bodies littered everywhere, violence and death a never-ending haze that hangs over every sentence. There’s a stoic resolve present in the curation of these stories that reminds me of an art gallery, a sort of determination to let the art speak for itself without distraction — the prose is concise, brutally economic as it frames one portrait after another of madmen, soldiers, djinn, prophets, soccer coaches and wailing family members. While Blasim’s style lets these landscapes play out in a way unadorned, it’s a style that also refuses to cushion any blow or cringe at any mutilated body.

I really admired the artistic ambition throughout the collection, the author’s restraint to let the stories echo and haunt without any stilted prodding or winding up from the author’s visible hand. The cascade of savagely honest descriptions and portrayals of one atrocity after another would have cultivated a good amount of writerly capital that could’ve been spent on a more sentimental or politicized text, but these stories really kick the gut because this gesture has been resisted. This doesn’t mean the result is cold or lacking in criticism of nearly every actor in the long period of the US intervention, but Blasim has let the dark imagination of each story be its own best advocate. The result is a surprising, surreal, and necessary collection that will poltergeist around the mind of readers from any perspective.

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Review: ‘Walking the Black Cat’, by Charles Simic

Walking the Black CatWalking the Black Cat by Charles Simic
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this book Charles Simic is both maestro and ethnographer of one surreal geography after another alongside moments of the personal, sublime quotidian. The overall gesture of the book seems one as comfortable with the absurd as well as the pastoral, Simic constantly limning both everyday moments and nightmares at constant risk of becoming hilarious. While never quite cynical, the speaker of these poems feels slightly haggard with experience and knowing, a speaker that’s been around the block a few times — a block where razor blades are shuffled like cards, and Mary Magdalene dons shades and drives Jesus down Santa Monica Boulevard in a yellow convertible.

The heartbeat artistic tic of these poems are their stark images, moments of a dark, glamorous, almost cinematic quality. An ant raising a single charred straw onto it’s back, flies from a slaughterhouse pressing tiny bloody footprints across the pages of a book. As the poems oscillate between quieter scenes and parades of the ludicrous, these moments of imagery work both to magnetize tempo and the reader’s attention.

All of these poems are heavy with the human pang, nearly always looking outward from the self but the landscapes continually cast shadows back on the cave wall, the layers of imagery and metaphor becoming a subtle language that narrates a tremendous deal of emotion and introspection. As accessible as the poems are they should not be too easily considered simplistic or merely playful. This is a strange and forceful collection.

‘Blood Orange’

It looks so dark the end of the world may be near.
I believe it’s going to rain.
The birds in the park are silent.
Nothing is what it seems to be,
Nor are we.

There’s a tree on our street so big
We can all hide in its leaves.
We won’t need any clothes either.
I feel as old as a cockroach, you said.
In my head, I’m a passenger on a ghost ship.

Not even a sigh outdoors now.
If a child was left on our doorstep,
It must be asleep.
Everything is teetering on the edge of everything
With a polite smile.

It’s because there are things in this world
That just can’t be helped, you said.
Right then, I heard the blood orange
Roll off the table and with a thud
Lie cracked open on the floor.

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Review: ‘Ruins’, by Jeff Clark

RuinsRuins by Jeff Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been after this incredible chapbook for years, ever since Jeff Clark and his wife (the very talented poet Christine Hume) came to speak and give readings at Notre Dame while I was an MFA student there. By pure chance, Jeff Clark’s ‘Music and Suicides’ had been, years and years earlier, the first book of poetry I ever bought. It was strange and lovely to me how this bit of happenstance had come full circle. I was happy to share this little story with Jeff as I had him sign my copy. I was even more happy to hear him read from ‘Ruins’ — he and his wife are both stunning readers, very different in their performative styles but genuine and moving.

I fell in love with ‘Ruins’ that night, and though Jeff had several copies on hand to sell (a bit ahead of actual publication, shh) I was sad and frustrated to be without the money to grab it up at the time. Luckily several copies from Turtle Point Press are still available and I grabbed one up quickly. Jeff’s reputation as a book designer is apparent in the physicality of it — one of the only hardback chapbooks I think I’ve ever seen — the poems bookended by stark black-and-white photos, and the chapbook also contains a translation of Louis Aragon’s poem ‘Poem to Cry in Ruins’.

The work here is genuine and incredible, sparse personal poems that are deeply charged with remembering and nostalgia, loneliness and anger. Nearly every poem is looking to the past with a refusal to let go and frustration with the self that keeps refusing. Memory is a constant pull throughout, centered often on a grotesque and sad father figure that the speaker dwells on heavily with a mix of contempt and longing that speaks to the hold that the father still has, despite the intensely unpleasant portrait offered.

This small book is dark and thunderous, ironically doing the most work in its more quiet moments, where the storms of the past and present both remain as echoes and ringing in the ears. There’s such raw and rigorous longing for connection in the present and lamentations of the broken past that every line stings and reaches out and goes numb and starts again. The cohesion of all these effects is haunting, and leaves a surprisingly large impact for such a small book. If you can still find a copy floating about, buy it immediately.

‘Refuse Disciples’

You eat well and transcribe
You shit quickly in the morning
You only slander in self-defense
You manufacture affection
You get up, shower, and check your messages
You network, correspond, advance
You write preening, disposable statements
You wash come off quickly
You drink bottled water and monitor headlines
You check your money and messages
In sorrow you’re seductive, in catastrophe a fascist
You think precisely what you’ve read

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Review: ‘Shovel Ready’, by Adam Sternbergh

Shovel Ready: A NovelShovel Ready: A Novel by Adam Sternbergh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I will be honest and admit I wasn’t overly convinced of this novel right away; as a lover of William Gibson and Warren Ellis, the setting and premise felt a bit too familiar and overall the ground felt a bit well-tread. I knew right away I’d probably not be disappointed because this kind of gritty, noir speculative fiction is deeply in my wheelhouse, but I wasn’t sure it was going to live up to the expectations I had been building up for it for months.

In the end, I had really been swept up by this book, which manages to be more than the sum of its parts, which is not necessarily a knock on the parts. Adam Sternbergh has an obvious talent for pace and a heavily stylized narrative voice. The plot remains a bit well-worn, a heavy-drinking hitman anti-hero meandering about a dirty-bombed New York City full of shanty camp towns and the rich plugged into yet another flavor of a Matrix-like mass hallucinatory cyberspace bites off big on a strange job that only gets stranger. But Sternbergh is a fine storyteller and more than competently ushers along an engrossing tale. But the real strength here is in the frenetic tempo of the entire story, the way tension is elevated higher and higher and kept taut through the end.

The real danger of writing in a familiar genre is too easily falling into tired tropes and half-hearted style, and the book manages to mostly avoid it; the grit and noir are convincing and textured, rubbing the right away and making sure it burns. I really can’t commend enough Sternbergh’s risky approach to style, rapidly hammering one scene into the next with staccato, almost absurdly lean prose. The culminating effect feels like an action movie or graphic novel, with things getting hot early and never settling into any downtime.

I was happy to learn, as I suspected, that this isn’t a standalone debut but that at least one more ‘Spademan’ novel is in the works. I look forward to seeing how these characters and this refreshing approach to pace and structure bear out with more time. The world Sternbergh has created may not be as ultimately unique, but it’s an enjoyable nod to its predecessors and well worth spending your time in.

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The Temptations of Big Brother: ‘The Circle’, by Dave Eggers

The CircleThe Circle by Dave Eggers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot being said about Dave Eggers’ latest novel, including a fair amount of criticism about it’s flawed posturing as a kind of parable meant to terrify and jostle the reader out of social media complacency — essentially, that is, an Orwellian caution story for the time of millenials, Big Brother taking selfies.

Much of the criticism seems justified to me; as a story The Circle hits a few flat notes, with almost cartoonishly one-dimensional characters that too often show their hand as being Authorial Megaphones, Eggers almost stridently breaking the writerly cliche to show and not tell. The would-be moral lesson of The Circle would’ve come across just as well and perhaps with even greater weight if emboldened with nuance and complexity, chiefly with its cast of characters. Mae, our young female protagonist is the biggest disappointment here, a small-town girl a bit too easily swept away by the glamorous machinations of The Circle, a social media behemoth stand-in that isn’t so much symbolic of Facebook and Google as a future epitome of all social media efforts. While much of her near frictionless evolution into the poster child of The Circle’s grandest project–a person going entirely ‘transparent’, everything from their vital signs to every moment of their day-to-day activities freely recorded and broadcast–can be attributed to her youthful idealism and appreciation of a remarkable career and lifestyle opportunity, one can’t help but feel there could’ve been a great deal more to the story had she had more empathy with her parents and ex-boyfriend, Mercer, who sit on the other, skeptical side of The Circle’s efforts.

That all said, the story remains fairly compelling and the book is a satisfying read on the whole. It also demands consideration for what it does almost too well: it makes Big Brother look, well, rather wonderful. While many critics have categorized the book as a relatively simple and even heavy-handed warning against the increasing erosion of privacy in the name of digital connectedness that most seems to revolve around narcissism, I really found it to be far more than that. Eggers, to my mind, has gone to great and convincing lengths to capture the temptations of The Circle’s efforts. In a series of ‘lessons’ of a sort from one of The Circle’s ‘Three Wisemen’ leaders, Mae is told of all the ways society and individuals would lead improved lives through complete transparency, the codeword throughout the book for complete surveillance. Children, given tracking chips at birth, nearly eradicate all kidnappings. Complete transparency among adults will nearly eliminate all crime, Bentham’s Panopticon with unlimited technology and funding. A collective of medical data on all people on Earth leading to unprecedented advances in detection and cure rates. A disabled child in California can tune in as a dozen different advanced cameras track a climber advancing up Everest. It continues on and on like this, resonating most effectively in the realm of government, where the trend for politicians to ‘go transparent’ quickly becomes an overwhelming one and leads to the first truly transparent democracy the world has ever seen, corruption and lobbying disappearing seemingly overnight.

The idealistic hopes play out in the book rather frequently and easily — more criticism is justified here, too, but the effect remains, and is I believe the real brilliance of this book. Eggers isn’t just scaring us all into maybe backing off of Facebook for a while, or caring a bit more about just how much time and money Google is spending to know who we are by trawling every email. He’s playing devil’s advocate for his own warning, arguing emphatically in return that increased digital visibility will have potential positive effects on a global scale, and surely will have many convincing proponents for pushing for those advances.

Philosophically, The Circle isn’t as singleminded as it might at first appear. It isn’t only a cautionary tale from a social media luddite, condemning the age of digital access and monitoring with a heavy hand. It’s richer and more daunting to consider to the full weight of what closing The Circle would mean, and considering why it might, to more than a few, not appear like such a scary story. Eggers leaves it to the reader to feel out these possible futures, and wonder if we can take some of the progress on offer from some of them without the requisite totalitarianism. Here the line between dystopia and utopia is paper thin, and all the more frightening because of it.

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Misc. Reviews

Scarface — 5

Full Metal Jacket — 5

A Few Good Men — 3

The Wire (Season 1) — 4

The Wire (Season 2) — 4

The Wire (Season 3) — 5

Blue Jasmine — 5

5 Centimeters Per Second — 5

Google Talks: Salman Rushdie — 3

Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2013: David Simon, ‘Some People Are More Equal Than Others’ — 5

FODI 2013: Lawrence Krauss & Peter Rollins, ‘New Atheism vs. New Religion’ — 4

FODI 2013: Panel, ‘Death Gone Wrong’ — 3

‘this emotion was a little e-book’, Tao Lin — 4

Some more catching up on some movie classics I had somehow managed to miss until now. I definitely get what the big deal is about Scarface.

The Wire is a series I’ve been hearing about for years but hadn’t gotten around to yet, which is particularly shameful considering how much I’ve followed and admired creator David Simon’s various writings and public talks. The show really does live up to the hype, and is without a doubt some of the best criticism of the continued War on Drugs, for which the label ‘failed’ is an understatement of abysmal proportions. The characters and writing are brilliant, as is the overall pace and production. I actually surrendered all forms of self control and dignity a few days ago and marathoned the entirety of season 3 in a single day; it really is that good, the epitome of ‘just one more’ addiction. David Simon’s background as a journalist comes through very strong, and is the mechanism driving all the gritty and realistic minutiae that make the show truly singular.

Blue Jasmine was absolutely fantastic, the best Woody Allen in a long while and by far his best cast that I can remember. Cate Blanchett rightfully gets the lion’s share of praise for a perfectly affected portrayal of a genuine nervous breakdown of life-crumbling proportions. Baldwin and Louis CK are very enjoyable and the presence of Sally Hawkins (who I fell completely in love with in Happy-Go-Lucky) pushes the entire film over the top for me in the best ways possible.

5 Centimeters Per Second is easily the best animated film I’ve seen in years, visually pristine and aesthetically wealthy in all the ways needed to carry through to make what would in most hands a bland and cliche trio of vignettes.

I’d never quite say Salman Rushdie is disappointing as a speaker or reader, but he really does just..lose something, when off the page. The writing of his I know (not enough) is the real deal, he studies everything with a writer’s mind and imagination that is childlike yet with the matured patina of someone who has been the target of and answer to some of the most visceral anger and violence on offer in the modern world. His talk at Google about his memoir (that I loved) was all right but nothing terribly interesting to anyone who has read the book or even been enough a follower of his life to want to.

Been slowly working through all of the YouTube recordings of this past year’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas, which is always worth anyone’s time and always offers a genuinely complex range of topics. David Simon’s dark and only slightly hopeful critique of the lack of any social contract at all between America’s capitalistic balloonings of wealth and its people as a whole (i.e., the 99% vs. 1% dynamic) is thorough and emotional and uncomfortable, and I’m afraid that he’s almost certainly right in saying that, on the whole, it’s all going to get much worse before it gets better, and the turning point will be some kind of very real revolt, something along the lines of the Arab Spring meets Occupy Wall Street.

The ‘New Atheism vs. New Religion’ debate/discussion was all right but a bit flat. Lawrence Krauss is a fine speaker and getting better all the time, and represented himself well and did right by, I think, most anyone who could be called part of the ‘movement’. I had never seen Peter Rollins speak before and I get why he’s so popular — young, very charismatic, with a perfect sense for cadence and performance. Sadly, while markedly more enjoyable to listen to than Deepak Chopra, his pseudo-intellectual ramblings are equally hollow. Like Chopra he’s borrowed just enough jargon to weave together some admirable rhetorical stunt-pilotry that goes precisely nowhere — there’s just no there, there. His severely watered-down take on theology makes it so palatable even secularists might find it interesting, but it’s like popcorn, mostly air and quickly unsatisfying past his verbal theatrics.

Top 5 Books of 2013

Lin-credit-Noah-Kalina

I’m a couple of days late to the requisite end-of-year book list, but I read some true knockouts and really wanted to share them. Here in no particular order are my top 5 books I read this past year:

 

1. ‘Taipei‘, by Tao Lin

2. ‘Gross Ardor‘, by Bill Rasmovicz

3. ‘Invisible Cities‘, by Italo Calvino

4. ‘Little Brother‘, by Cory Doctorow

5. ‘i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together‘, by Mira Gonzalez

 

Review, “Dead Pig Collector” (Kindle Single), by Warren Ellis

Dead Pig CollectorDead Pig Collector by Warren Ellis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found this Kindle single, a bit to my surprise, thoroughly enjoyable. Ellis’s unique style is always incredibly satisfying to me, and it continues to work well even in this bite-sized variety. It’s probably a good thing when my biggest complaint is that it runs so short and I wanted to enjoy this peek of a very dark protagonist a great deal longer. It may be for the best, though, as the grotesque and compelling sheen might have worn off a bit with too much exposure.

Ellis made his name in graphic novels and it shows here; he’s an adept storyteller and knows how to write in a shorter, ready-to-be-serialized mode. One is tempted to ask when the graphic novel adaptation can be expected–I do think a series of vignettes (perhaps not of this exact character, but the world hinted at) would an extremely seductive volume.

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Review: “i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together’, by Mira Gonzalez

I will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful togetherI will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together by Mira Gonzalez
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I liked this book quite a lot; it’s spare and direct, but with associative leaps that explode, but quietly and in sun-faded colors. The writing bears many of the hallmarks of the ‘style’ usually associated with Tao Lin, but it does so in a way that felt earnest (one nickname among many for this style seems to be the ‘new sincerity’ movement, which seems bizarre). Emotionally charged but at a remove–the real resonance for me comes from all its strangeness and surprises, the odd and lonely scenes in each poem. The book engages with the paradox of loneliness and closeness better than most that try, as the speaker is constantly hyper self-aware not only in index-like cataloging of emotions and thoughts but even more so with physicality, with frequent lines about desiring to not just engage a physical body with her own but to occupy the exact same space, down to the empty space between each other’s atoms.

It’s an incredibly smart book, making deft and highly insightful gestures that are subtle and easily misunderstood to be simplistic or banal. There’s also a lot of nostalgia and retracing, time becoming an odd thing as past and present seem (like the speaker’s body) to occupy / want to occupy impossible spaces. With all this a constant self-reminder that emotional singularity is a lie, that everything felt has been felt before and almost nothing we ever experience is unique outside of our subjective existence. This tightens the emphasis on self, brings added scrutiny to interactions with others, how they perceive us, and how we act with that magnified gaze constantly feeding back.

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Christopher Hayes’, ‘The Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy’

Twilight of the Elites: America After MeritocracyTwilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hayes here produces erudition and insight with his hallmark fervor and tenacity that makes his work on MSNBC both so enjoyable as well as so intense. I often marvel at just how refreshing he is as a personality and an intellectual by way of his enthusiasm–he always manages to genuinely be the most passionate person in the room.

His analysis here not only of the recent failures of the pillar institutions of authority and progress in the United States is really only surpassed, to my mind, by his reflections on the core, painful reverberations that follow such failure in the trust of the citizenry. I’d comfortably hazard that his assessment of the kind of near-nihilistic ‘everything-is-broken-ism’ societal milieu will be terribly familiar to every reader.

One can already predict the hostile responses, both pat and substantive, that will surely follow Hayes’ critique of American meritocratic worship, but his conclusions and welcome suggestions are nuanced and deserve to be digested with openness and care. Meritocracy is still, I think Hayes believes, not only a great and admirable thing but the only conclusion of a modern society. His work here only concludes that in its current state it is not only untenable but hostile to any real civilized existence for our or any other society.

Meritocracy must be balanced by a believable sense of equality to begin with, and must be safeguarded by accountability of the most pristine order. To steal Hayes’ own metaphors, we might be well ensuring that the playing field is level, but too often some are sneaking in extra practice before the big game regardless, and the snowball effect inevitably comes to pass that the ‘winners’ can be counted upon to viciously make sure this continues to be the case. Hayes makes a stunningly effective case for the inevitability that also follows the meritocratic drive: it promotes cheating as much as anything else. Thus equality to begin with, thus safeguarding that is as wide-ranging as it is persistent.

The financial climate that looks to have a Wall Street all too eager to do it all again with the comfort of elite safety nets is all that needs to be said of a need for a new brand of accountability and consequence. A meritocracy is only truly such when those that fail are punished. Hayes’ work here recounts in a readable yet delving manner the price our country has paid for ignoring this problematic series of eruptions, and offers a way forward where we might navigate them more effectively. It might be only a first step, but it’s a hell of a good one.

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