Tag Archives: fiction

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: ‘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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BookRiot Asks: Who Are Your Favorite Writers of Color?



The ever noble folks over at BookRiot have written up a great post about how little diversity exists in the New York Times Bestseller List. Just how little diversity are we talking? Well, as they point out, only 3 authors out of the 124 to make the Top 10 in 2012 were people of color, and none were African American. In response to this BookRiot has asked readers to submit their 3 favorite authors of color, with the results being tallied by January 12th. This should offer many who want to broaden their reading a bit some fine suggestions.

For what it’s worth, my submitted authors, in no particular order:

1) Percival Everett

2) Haruki Murakami

3) Tao Lin


Review, ‘Liliane’s Balcony’, by Kelcey Parker

Liliane's BalconyLiliane’s Balcony by Kelcey Parker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Liliane’s Balcony Kelcey Parker continues in rich stride of her debut collection, For Sale by Owner, with a novella that is pristinely imagined and delicately constructed. This book manages the admirable ambition of balancing a mixture of history and liberties taken with it, taking an already compelling, emotionally complex story of domestic strife as one layered story among others. The cumulative effect feels enjoyably effortless, blending gestures both natural and meticulously constructed that intuit a thundering echo of the architecture of Fallingwater itself. Parker went to great lengths to research the details and moods present throughout, though I personally enjoyed more the array of present-day characters that Parker convincingly offers. Liliane’s Balcony is haunted by stories and strange gravities well worth falling into.

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Review: ‘Taipei’, by Tao Lin

TaipeiTaipei by Tao Lin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A blurb by Blake Butler on the back of this book reads, “A work of vision so relentless it forces most any reader to respond.” I think I read this blurb, for no particular reason, three or four times while reading this book and every time thought it said ‘restless’ instead of ‘relentless’, which I liked a lot because that’s exactly the feeling I had reading this book, and it feels accurate RE: how I’ve felt reading Tao Lin’s work in the past. There’s a staccato, jutting momentum that happens in this book, with an alternating rhythm of things happening / dialogue and the main character’s constant emotional and physical self-awareness and hyper self-analysis. This starting / stopping feeling as the ‘time’ inside the book repeatedly pauses creates this restless feeling for me, an effect that I felt causes a constant level of subtle anxiety, which isn’t a criticism but an appreciation for writing that can both create such an effect and create an effect so appropriate to what’s going on in the book.

This anxiety and kind of hyper-present in the moment framework was haunting to me, in that I felt like it constantly changes how my internal thought processes and inner monologue functioned for abstract lengths of time during / after reading this book for a while. I found myself stopping to think about what and why I was feeling, even during relatively trivial moments that I’d otherwise not have paid so much attention to, as if the main character was now in my head, narrating back to me as I went through my day, creating a bizarre but I think enjoyable kind of meta fan-fiction effect. Or something.

Something I thought repeatedly while reading this book was that Tao Lin is perhaps a master of the most genuine brand of ‘stream-of-consciousness’ writing ever done, that it was earnest and unadorned. I wondered if anyone who thought they liked books of that style would ever read this or one of his other books and decide maybe they didn’t like it so much without the conventions of other works, which to me would seem more obviously creative than before, which is to say possibly less honest, which is not a criticism–like the difference between a realist, dramatic movie constructed to compel certain emotions versus a documentary that insists on all the banal details.

I also thought a lot about how the relatively autobiographical nature mixed with the heavy drug use insists on such a clear lineage to writers like Hunter S. Thompson and others, and how both books like Taipei and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are both used in discussions about specific generations / time periods. It felt interesting how the drug use in Taipei isn’t ‘exciting’ or ‘glamorous’ so much as just factual, just another detail to note along the way; it creates an interesting balance where there’s no specific weight to the fact that the characters are taking lots of drugs all the time, it’s not the focus of the book necessarily, and the characters don’t act like crazed addicts.

I felt a great deal of empathy throughout the book for the feeling of a kind of meandering boredom, with emotional activity spikes toward both elation and lonely sadness, triggered at times by nothing or trivial causes; this empathy made the book fully enjoyable to me. I feel like I worry with each new book from Tao Lin I’m going to get bored and not want to read him anymore, as his style doesn’t change from book to book, but I keep enjoying them quite a bit. I still feel like Tao Lin’s poetry is more enjoyable, though, than his prose, which is just because I loved his earlier books so much, and I’d like to see him return to poetry again as well.

I think also this book has ‘something to offer’ even to those who don’t particularly enjoy reading it, which is probably the best any book can offer to do. It’s more than worth your money.

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Misc. Reviews

Lost in Translation — 5 

Man Push Cart — 5

The Red Balloon — 5

Louie (seasons 1-3) — 5

Breaking Bad (seasons 1-4) — 50 million

Insidious 2 — 3

Dexter finale — negative 17

Being John Malkovich — 5

Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell — 4


Had a good run lately, been stockpiling stuff I figured would be good and it’s all held up. Expected the Dexter finale to be horse shit and it was. Haven’t caught all the way up on Breaking Bad yet, and desperately trying to before major spoilers inevitably fly across one social media or another. Louis CK and Bill Murray are perfect human beings and desperately need to make a movie together. Every time George Orwell’s biographical self in ‘Down and Out’ had ‘tea and two slices’ I had to stop and go eat toast. Started von Trier’s ‘Melancholia’ but haven’t been able to finish it yet, I think it’s boring. Same with Jonathan Lethem’s ‘Dissident Gardens’ but I think it’ll get a lot better; eventually Lethem’s perfect weirdness will get rolling and that’s when he knocks things out of the park. Getting back to Tao Lin’s ‘Taipei’ which is singular and great.