Many of my reviews here are off the cuff riffs that inform reviews that I write for other publications, namely The Floating Library, my books column fMany of my reviews here are off the cuff riffs that inform reviews that I write for other publications, namely The Floating Library, my books column for San Diego CityBeat. Sometimes the review I post here is a cut and paste job from a published review. This one is neither. I've written my review and turned it in and I'm writing today to tell you that I'm disappointed in it, and in myself.
I generally don't read other reviews of books I'm reading until I've finished writing the review. I think that's standard practice. If I have a problem with a book I'm curious to see if others found it problematic, too; but I don't want my thinking about a book clouded by what other critics have written. When I finished American Innovations, there was a lot to read because it's the paperback edition of a follow up to a big debut novel that received a great deal of acclaim so all the major book reviewing outlets weighed in when it came out last spring and I discovered that my review wasn't all that different from the reviews I was reading, which was disappointing.
In the jacket copy and promo materials, the publisher teases the reader with the notion that the stories are contemporary retellings of canonical works of literature with all of the male protagonists replaced by modern women. The copy goes on to point out how this story references Gogol and that story riffs on Borges, etc. But the jacket copy only lists three stories. Did the publisher reveal the analogs to the other stories? Not as fas as I could tell. Did anyone bother to figure out what the rest of the stories might me referencing? It doesn't look like it. Instead, each and every review mentions the same handful of stories. And so did I.
I like these kinds of literary parlor tricks and I know other readers like them, too. But after reading this interview in Gawker I couldn't help but feel like I'd been conned. While Galchen is open about the influences, she says things that make me think that this conceit was cooked up after the fact as a marketing tool. Perhaps that's cynical. Galchen states that the idea for a collection of female protagonists began to cohere after 6-7 stories, but is much more vague about their antecedents. At one point in the interview she says that she's not much of a planner, which to my way of thinking flies in the face of the assertion of the book as a "project" that sets out to make use of other works.
What's so exasperating to me about all of this is that Galchen is a phenomenal writer with a very particular sense of humor that propels her stories to some very interesting places. Her characters are oddly vulnerable and strangely fearless. They seem to me like rare and special beings who process civil interaction and family dynamics in a way that's almost alien. If I had to choose a single word it would be "precious" even though doing so incurs the risk of negative connotations. I've never read stories like these before, stories that seem crafted to showcase a certain way of living in the world that is not quite but almost at odds with things that perhaps we put too much value on--possessions, spouses, family, even literature--if not in fiction then most certainly in real life.
I guess what I'm trying to say is I apologize for following the herd, for letting myself be led by the nose to sniff the hothouse flowers blooming in their pots when there is so much else out there to take in, celebrate and share. ...more
An exceptionally well written collection of stories. I was particularly drawn to the stories with historical settings. Makkai has a knack for bringingAn exceptionally well written collection of stories. I was particularly drawn to the stories with historical settings. Makkai has a knack for bringing the distant past lucidly to life. Maybe 4.5 stars for the stories with contemporary settings for the way themes and motifs are relentlessly hammered home, the repetition of which can drag on a narrative the way overuse of adjectives can slow down a sentence. But that's a minor quibble. Almost all the stories have strong plots and are good for a twist or turn I didn't see coming. Looking forward to reading more of her work. ...more
Fantastic collection of long short stories that explores life's twists and turns with humor, wit and a touch of strangeness. Short stories are shorterFantastic collection of long short stories that explores life's twists and turns with humor, wit and a touch of strangeness. Short stories are shorter than they were a decade ago; The Let Go bucks this trend with tales that are between 25 and 40 page but are deeply satisfying. I've been reading Gabriel's work for 20 years but all of these stories are new to me; an English tutor suffering from panic attacks falls for an the wife of a Korean scientist; a solider returns to Ohio from Desert Storm with an other than honorable discharge; a couple move into a house in the country only to discover that it sits above a miniature yet fully functioning factory. An outstanding read from start to finish. ...more
An episodic account of an affair that aspires to great love and collapses in alcoholic ruin. I like this book a great deal but it's a bit like admirinAn episodic account of an affair that aspires to great love and collapses in alcoholic ruin. I like this book a great deal but it's a bit like admiring the gleam in the eye of a vulture as it alights on road kill and picks through the stew. It's definitely not a book for squares, but if you've ever stared into the abyss and wondered if it has suites with ocean views, this book is for you. ...more
Outstanding collection of crime and mystery stories set in Ireland and inspired by Irish myths and legends. Some of the tales are bawdy, others comicOutstanding collection of crime and mystery stories set in Ireland and inspired by Irish myths and legends. Some of the tales are bawdy, others comic and others venture out into the realm of the speculative. Doesn't require man a vast knowledge of Irish geography, but it helps, especially with the stories set in the North. More to come... ...more
There's a weird disconnect with this book: it's content suggests that it's written with people like me in mind: middle aged people who played video gaThere's a weird disconnect with this book: it's content suggests that it's written with people like me in mind: middle aged people who played video games at the arcade, Dungeons & Dragons in the basement and text adventure games on the computer. So why does it read like it's written for children? ...more
Within a span of a month I met two people who had written books with the same title: this one is an autobiographical short novel by an Englishman thatWithin a span of a month I met two people who had written books with the same title: this one is an autobiographical short novel by an Englishman that I met in Prague; the other is a memoir written by American living in San Francisco that I met in Minnesota all of which sounds like a tantalizing prospect for a dual review....more
The set-up will be similar to many: a musician and artists lands in San Francisco with big dreams only to succumb in grisly fashion to heroin addictioThe set-up will be similar to many: a musician and artists lands in San Francisco with big dreams only to succumb in grisly fashion to heroin addiction. There were some sections early in the memoir in which Clifford riffs on Kerouac and the beats, even adapting the breathless, run-on style of spontaneous poetics in certain passages, but it's all a set-up for this: “You are not William Burroughs and it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference if Kurt Cobain was slumped over in an alleyway in Seattle the day that bleach came out. There is no junkie chic. This is not SoHo, and you are not Sid Vicious. You are not a drugstore cowboy and you are not spotting trains. You are not part of anything – no underground sect, no counter-culture movement, no music scene, nothing. You have just been released from jail and are walking down Mission Street and are alternating between taking a hit off a cigarette and puking, looking for coins on the ground so you can catch a bus as you shit yourself.” One of the strengths of Junkie Love is that every time the narrator appears on the verge of romanticizing his situation things go horrendously awry. Top-shelf prose but at times the non-linear presentation of the author's junkie days was occasionally confusing. Looking forward to reading more of Clifford's work.
Sunblind Almost Motorcrash is such a cool concept that it could only come from Spork: a book of "fake" reviews of records that don't exist coupled witSunblind Almost Motorcrash is such a cool concept that it could only come from Spork: a book of "fake" reviews of records that don't exist coupled with a cassette of songs inspired by the fake reviews. I haven't spent much time with the tape (Sorry, I'm working through an obsession with Belgian hardcore; it will pass) but there's something really funny and interesting about the project. It's a project about a project we don't think about as a project anymore, namely the attempt to use language to describe music (and our feelings about music). This brings me back to a time when I used to write a LOT of record reviews. I'd stay up late into the night drunk or high or gacked to the gills writing record reviews and in the morning I'd have no idea what I was trying to say (much less know what genre I was attempting to write in) These reviews are like if Kickboy Face and James Joyce wrote for Pitchfork. Sunblind Almost Motorcrash brought me back to a time when reviews were a form of personal correspondence between people who shared the same secret language. ...more
Hodson's short stimulating essay covers a lot of ground -- art, sex, desire -- yet isn't about these things so much as it tracks the author's perceptiHodson's short stimulating essay covers a lot of ground -- art, sex, desire -- yet isn't about these things so much as it tracks the author's perception of her body in relation to them. Written in a modular style that is both open and elliptical Pity the Animal is effortlessly thought provoking. ...more
Dewey Decimal, the hero of The Immune System is a stone-cold killer with a soft spot for people in a jam. He’s OCD, prone to seizures and lives in a sDewey Decimal, the hero of The Immune System is a stone-cold killer with a soft spot for people in a jam. He’s OCD, prone to seizures and lives in a secret chamber in the New York Public Library…. two years after the Valentine Occurrence wiped out all but one of Manhattan’s bridges and turned the island into a feudal war zone. Part Warriors part Third Man, The Immune System is fast-paced novel with a hero whose lips are always a step ahead of his wits. That’s the real star of the show: Dewey’s nonstop give no slack, take no smack chatter as he tries to stay one step ahead of the bad guys. You can call it neo-noir, retro pulp, hardboiled dystopian, postapocalyptic rock em sock em. I call it really fucking good. ...more
The Paper Man tells the story of a young man named Michael who leaves the relative comfort and ease of life on a coffee plantation for the big city. BThe Paper Man tells the story of a young man named Michael who leaves the relative comfort and ease of life on a coffee plantation for the big city. But this is no ordinary man or nor is it an ordinary city. On the verge of being occupied by the militarized north, Michael lacks the proper papers to work in the city, which is ironic because Michael is made out of paper. He falls in with a strange crew of artists, models, a mysterious figure out of the past and a dangerous one-eyed man who threaten to literally tear him apart. ...more
This is a story about a baseball player and a walrus. I love how when the baseball player hits the road there's a map of all the cities he goes to andThis is a story about a baseball player and a walrus. I love how when the baseball player hits the road there's a map of all the cities he goes to and San Diego isn't on the map because even a walrus knows that San Diego is a bush league baseball town. I wanted the end to slay me, but then I reminded myself that this is a book for children. The best book about a large flippered marine mammal you will read all summer. ...more
Andrew Roe has written a PRE-apocalyptic novel set in the heady days leading up to Y2K – remember that? – with doomsday cults and predictions of totalAndrew Roe has written a PRE-apocalyptic novel set in the heady days leading up to Y2K – remember that? – with doomsday cults and predictions of total destruction.
The Miracle Girl features a cast of lovable losers and fortune’s fools right out of a Nathaniel West novel. The book is set in El Portal, a fictional suburb in southeast L.A. somewhere between Norwalk, La Mirada and La Habra in a hard-to-find neighborhood where its instantly clear whether you belong there or not.
After a violent traffic accident, Annabelle Vincent has fallen into a coma-like state. The story follows the aftermath of this accident that has also wrecked the marriage of Annabelle’s parents, Karen and John.
But when visitors to Annabelle’s bedside start reporting strange and unexplainable phenomena like weeping statues and miraculous cures, people from all over the country hang their hopes and fears on this helpless little girl. ...more
Green on Blue refers to the killing of U.S. and coalition forces by Afghan troops, oftentimes by the very same men they helped train. Ackerman, a highGreen on Blue refers to the killing of U.S. and coalition forces by Afghan troops, oftentimes by the very same men they helped train. Ackerman, a highly decorated combat veteran, takes his readers into the shadowy world of Afghan militants who have been at war with the Soviets, the U.S., and with each other for over 30 years. If "All politics is local" the same holds true for these internecine skirmishes where the players shift allegiances as often as the seasons turn. It was fascinating to spend a week in the mind of an Afghan soldier as he navigates loyalties that are every bit as treacherous as the rugged mountain passes and dry desert wadis. ...more
Undermajordomo Minor begins where The Sisters Brothers leaves off: with a son saying goodbye to his mother. The title is a joke in The Sisters BrotherUndermajordomo Minor begins where The Sisters Brothers leaves off: with a son saying goodbye to his mother. The title is a joke in The Sisters Brother mold. Lucy Minor gets a job working for the Majordomo of a castle that has fallen into disrepair, which makes him the Undermajorodomo. It's a story filled with strange violence, vivid scenes and elegant language. If The Sister Brothers is like a Coen Brothers movie, then Undermajordomo Minor is akin to a Wes Anderson film. Or, better yet, Franz Kafka's The Castle written by Tom Stoppard and performed by the players of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Perhaps that's overselling it, as I love all of those things. The novel is set in a time that often feels medieval (there's no electric light or indoor plumbing), yet there are trains (a train). The way the characters speak to one another is mannered and breezy, and much of the novel's wit, humor and elan stems from odd, but never off-putting, loquaciousness of the locals. It just occurred to me that this would work very nicely as a play. It would be great fun to sit in a theater and listen to actors bounce these wonderful sentences around. ...more
A quiet book about a Japanese couple who become enamored with their neighbor's cat. On the surface, very simple and straightforward, but there are manA quiet book about a Japanese couple who become enamored with their neighbor's cat. On the surface, very simple and straightforward, but there are many layers here. The book works as a meditation on love and loss. The more we nurture something the more we feel it's loss when it's gone. That's a given. We all understand that. The author suggests this is a model way to live. But how does one come to cultivate a garden, for instance, when the things of this world are in a perpetual state of flux? The garden is made of things that will die, property that will be bought and sold, land that will go through many upheavals for many thousands of millennia. If this is the case, and it is, what is the point of a garden? We are all transients and custodians and only a fool would tend another person's garden, right?
Well, maybe not.
I really enjoyed the way the book cozies up to my experiences as an amateur pet-sitter. The care and feeding of creatures big and small that were not my own yet whose well-being I cared very deeply about. There are some light metafictional aspects where the author talks about how the book came to be put together that really drove home these shared experiences for me. There's a loving attention to descriptions of place that feels like a point of emphasis in a lot of Japanese fiction I've read. Where in a Western setting it might feel like the author was laboring over something of little consequence, here the descriptions of rooms, houses, gardens and roads and the way they intersect feels like much more than scene-setting: it's as if the author is saying, "This place is important," even if we're only going to be here for a little while.
A short handful of modern erotica in which the narrator recounts her adventures in casual fucking via the Tinder application. What was most interestinA short handful of modern erotica in which the narrator recounts her adventures in casual fucking via the Tinder application. What was most interesting to me is that while the app allowed the narrator to cut to the chase and skip most of the awkward rituals of courtship, there was no opting out of the awkwardness afterwards. Not to sound like a 21st century prude -- I can still remember a time when people thought it was strange that I went to the wedding of someone I'd only known through fantasy sports message boards -- but these stories make me grateful that I never had to navigate text messages, social media and apps to find my way into the bedroom. ...more
I think its telling that after spending 270 pages with the author I don't really have a sense of her as an artist, musician, or a person. I know a lotI think its telling that after spending 270 pages with the author I don't really have a sense of her as an artist, musician, or a person. I know a lot more about her projects and things that happened to her, but at the end of the book she remains a cipher. For someone who has accomplished so much the book feels thin, understandably disjointed, yet lacking in depth. It's also oddly humorless, but as many have remarked, the novel begins and ends with her break-up with Thurston Moore and it colors the whole novel in its sad tones. While Gordon is generous in her praise of Moore's artistry, musicianship and abilities as a father, one can't help but wonder what this book would be like if she'd let a bit more water flow under the bridge. The meat of the book describes her relationships with various artists and he circumstances under which Sonic Youth's records were produced. I loved learning about her friendship with the L.A. artist Mike Kelley and how she wrote an article for Artforum about him and Raymond Pettibon. She was also inspired by Black Flag house show in Hermosa Beach. This is really engaging stuff, I just wish there was more of it....more
Collection of personal essays that would have been perfect for Nerve.com back in the early 00s. Lots of gimmicky repetition and overlap of subject matCollection of personal essays that would have been perfect for Nerve.com back in the early 00s. Lots of gimmicky repetition and overlap of subject material. While I found the author's precociousness overbearing at first I came to appreciate the context the fuller picture provides. There was a time when this kind of essay would inspire me to revisit my own period of reckless, feckless sex and drug-taking back when I was in the Navy, but I empathized mostly with the protagonist's mother as I imagine this was a hard, challenging read for her. Portrait of the Book Reviewer as a Middle-Aged Parent. So it goes. ...more
I don't care about birds or riparian ecosystems or the sex lives of birdwatching ex-pats, but I loved reading Zink's sentences. A real savage, smirkinI don't care about birds or riparian ecosystems or the sex lives of birdwatching ex-pats, but I loved reading Zink's sentences. A real savage, smirking wit lurks in these pages that is both delightful and erotic. That's two five star reads in two days set (partially) in Switzerland. I'm off to write my erotic thriller set at James Joyce's grave......more
I blurbed this book: “Drew Andrews channels Kerouac on ketamine while singing from the treetops with Blake’s angels. The Shepherd’s Journals is a mystI blurbed this book: “Drew Andrews channels Kerouac on ketamine while singing from the treetops with Blake’s angels. The Shepherd’s Journals is a mystical trip filled with cracked visions powered by whiskey, women and God.”...more
Classic hardboiled detective fiction with a contemporary twist. Charlie Miner, a private detective with a heroin habit, wakes up on a slab in the L.A.Classic hardboiled detective fiction with a contemporary twist. Charlie Miner, a private detective with a heroin habit, wakes up on a slab in the L.A. county morgue. From this striking premise the story unfolds. I didn't love the first half of the book, but once the story connects Charlie's past with his unusual situation I couldn't put it down. A dark, gritty neo-noir. ...more