book review: Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

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FRIDAY BLACK by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
★★★☆☆
Mariner Books, 2018

 

Like most short story collections, Friday Black has its highs and its lows, and on the whole I’d say it lands somewhere in the middle. But that’s not to dismiss Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s skill at dark, grotesque speculative fiction, which is on full display in a number of these stories, from the harrowing opener The Finkelstein 5 (a man brutally murders 5 black children with a chainsaw and claims self-defense) to the devastating Zimmer Land (a Westworld-style themepark where participants play out fantasies in which they defend their families by murdering intruders).

However, from an opening that promised thematic cohesion (at least where the first three stories were concerned – all playing with the tension between inward identity and outward emotion), it started to flounder a bit. The Hospital Where introduces huge ideas and never really follows through. Three stories make the exact same point about consumerism, begging the question of why they were all necessary to include. The final story, Through the Flash, drags on and on while getting less interesting the further it goes.

My average rating for these 12 stories is 3.25, so 3 stars it is, but I do want to stress that I did enjoy this collection. I think Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is one of the most exciting, daring new voices I’ve read in fiction all year. This is a searing, unapologetic collection about violence and black identity and capitalism, and how inextricable those themes are. I’d ultimately recommend giving this collection a shot if it interests you, but if you’re just interested in reading one story from it, make it The Finkelstein 5.


You can pick up a copy of Friday Black here on Book Depository.

book review: Heavy by Kiese Laymon

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HEAVY: AN AMERICAN MEMOIR by Kiese Laymon
★★★★☆
Scribner, 2018

 

This is one of the hardest reviews I’ve ever attempted to write. Probably because, as my friend Hannah so aptly put it in her own review, this book was not written for me. But that’s what was so admirable about it. Kiese Laymon states clearly in the prologue to his memoir that he has no intention of writing a sanitized, palatable version of events; it’s almost painful in its honesty but it’s for this reason that I think this book is so crucial and necessary (especially for non-black readers).

Heavy is Laymon’s visceral and fearless attempt at reckoning with a number of issues that have plagued him his entire life – his relationship with his mother whose uncompromising expectations for her son often resulted in abuse, his fraught relationship with his own body, addiction, trauma, poverty, education, masculinity, and ultimately what it means to be black in America. The honesty and nuance with which he examines anecdotes from his childhood, even more than the anecdotes themselves, make this an unforgettable read.

(4 stars instead of 5 because ratings are subjective and I never ever end up connecting with audiobooks as well as when I’m reading printed text, which isn’t to say that Kiese Laymon did a bad job with the narration – on the contrary he was a joy to listen to – but I’m just not an auditory person. Anyway, this was brilliant.)

book review: Cherry by Nico Walker

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CHERRY by Nico Walker
★★★★☆
Jonathan Cape, 2018

 

Nico Walker is currently serving time in prison for bank robbery; his debut novel Cherry is essentially his fictionalized autobiography, in which the unnamed narrator dispassionately recounts dropping out of college, enlisting in the army, shipping out to Iraq, serving as an army medic, returning home, and developing PTSD as well as an opioid addiction.

Cherry is a deeply uncomfortable book to read on just about every level. The war scenes and depictions of drug abuse are graphic, the language is relentlessly profane, the narrator’s pervasive misogyny goes unchallenged. This is not a book about redemption or remorse or lessons learned or new beginnings; it’s about waste and abuse and mutually destructive relationships and squandered potential. This narrator hits rock bottom so many times that ‘rock bottom’ loses all meaning, and as he isn’t guided by any kind of recognizable moral compass you aren’t even sure if you should be rooting for him in the first place. You’re just kind of along for this ride that figuratively culminates in a train wreck.

Probably the most noteworthy thing about this book aside from the author’s background is its unique narrative voice – Walker blends his disaffected staccato with an urgency that keeps you turning pages, devouring the horror and humor and unexpected moments of tenderness. This is the kind of book that you feel a bit guilty for loving but at the same time you can’t deny that there’s something special about it.

book review: The Maze at Windermere by Gregory Blake Smith

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THE MAZE AT WINDERMERE
by Gregory Blake Smith
★★★★☆
2018, Viking

 

On the whole I was so impressed by The Maze at Windermere that I can’t help but to forgive the moments where it failed to captivate me. Gregory Blake Smith has created something that’s an absolute masterclass of storytelling – he weaves together seemingly unrelated plotlines (all centered in Newport Rhode Island) from 2011, 1896, 1863, 1778 and 1692 in ways both subtle and forthright, and the precision with which he manages this is feat is undeniable.

But the stories themselves from each timeline vary in the level of engagement they offer. To my surprise, I fell head over heels in love with the 2011 plot, which follows the strange friendship between a nearly retired tennis pro, Sandy, and an heiress with cerebral palsy. This unconventional socialite, Alice, has to be one of the most vivid characters I have ever read; I couldn’t get her out of my head when I was reading this book and I still can’t now that I’ve finished. I loved everything about their odd dynamic and tumultuous, melodramatic, tragic relationship. This motivations of a secondary character in this storyline also provides the book with one of its greatest sources of intrigue which goes on to feed into a positively spectacular ambiguous ending that I can’t talk about without spoiling. But, it was perfection.

Unfortunately, all of the past timelines paled in comparison. 1896 follows a gay man who’s attempting to marry into high society; 1863 follows a fictionalization of Henry James, an overt nod to the thematic parallels to Daisy Miller that litter the different narratives; 1778 follows a British officer during the American Revolution (I found him the most tiresome); and 1692 follows a newly orphaned Quaker girl. Each of these narratives had moments of searing brilliance, but at the same time, none of them was able to offer the same emotional draw as the present-day storyline.

That said, the structure of this book is nothing short of a delight for readers who enjoy riddles and puzzles and similar literary exercises. I’m almost definitely going to want to re-read this at some point after I’ve read Daisy Miller, because I feel like I’ve only barely scratched the surface.

book review: The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose

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THE MUSEUM OF MODERN LOVE by Heather Rose
★★★★☆
Algonquin Books, 2018

 

The Museum of Modern Love is a tender and thought-provoking book. Fusing fact and fiction, it centers around a real piece of performance art that was showcased at the MOMA in 2010 – The Artist is Present by the Serbian artist Marina Abramović. It then weaves together the narratives of several fictional characters, all of whom attend the performance and become so captivated by it that they attempt to use Marina’s art as a way to process the grief in their own lives.

As someone who adores contemporary art and performance art, I find the highly controversial Marina Abramović to be a fascinating figure. The love and respect that Heather Rose has for Marina (to whom this novel is dedicated) can be felt on every page and it made it a joy to read. The parts of the novel that focused on Marina were the highlights for me – they helped give me such a clear picture of this piece of art and where it fit in with the rest of Marina’s career

Unfortunately this did naturally mean that Rose’s fictional creations, Arky and Jane, paled in comparison for me. I never fully believed Jane’s character – she seemed too poised and too articulate for the role that she was supposed to be playing in the story. Arky on the other hand I did find more interesting, though he resisted my emotional engagement rather strongly and consequently I never felt particularly compelled by his narrative. But for its thoughtful portrayal of Marina and its tender exploration of grief and its wonderful depiction of the contemporary art world, I just loved this.

book review: Severance by Ling Ma

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SEVERANCE by Ling Ma
★★★★☆
Farrar, Strous, and Giroux, 2018

 

There are a lot of elements from Severance that we’ve all seen before – the global pandemic which brings an abrupt halt to civilization as we know it, the few survivors trying to forge ahead in the absence of a structured society, the juxtaposition of before and after narratives. But the similarities to Station Eleven or Bird Box end there, because what Ling Ma does with Severance is fuse the post-apocalyptic survival genre with anti-capitalist satire, and it works almost startlingly well.

Both wry and meditative, Severance offers a positively haunting commentary on corporate greed and what that means for the individual, and that awful paradox of being trapped inside a system that you feel guilty having any part of. The fictional Shen Fever was pretty awful; rather than offering a quick death it would essentially turn people into zombies who performed rote tasks ad infinitum – it’s heavy-handed but it works – but the most horrifying part of this novel was probably how much of the directionless millennial narrative resonated, and the amount of decisions these characters had to make at the detriment of their happiness just to survive, both before and after.

I did think the book’s structure could have been more cohesive as a whole, and I felt like Ling Ma didn’t really know what she wanted to do with the ending, but ultimately I loved this strong and unexpected debut. I can’t wait to see what Ling Ma does next.

book review: The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories

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THE PENGUIN BOOK OF JAPANESE SHORT STORIES edited by Jay Rubin and introduced by Haruki Murakami
★★★☆
Penguin Classics, 2018

 

I spent a while with this collection and I think on the whole it’s stronger than the sum of its parts. Apparently my average rating for these 34 stories was 3.35 stars, but it still feels like a 4-star collection to me, because it absolutely got its job done: introducing me to a number of authors whose work I’m interested in exploring further.

Curated by Jay Rubin and introduced by Murakami, this collection is arranged thematically rather than chronologically: there’s a section on natural and man-made disasters, a section whose stories are unified by the theme of dread, and a section on the values of Japanese soldiers, among others. Jay Rubin writes in his forward that he wanted this collection to reflect his personal taste rather than serving as a more generic primer to Japanese lit, and for better or worse I think that shows: I didn’t understand why every single one of these stories was chosen, but I did feel like I got a clear sense of Rubin as a reader, and why shouldn’t an anthology say something about its editor?

There were three main standouts for me:

(1) Dreams of Love, Etc by Kawakami Mieko: A woman is invited into her neighbor’s house, and her neighbor confesses that although she loves playing the piano, she’s unable to play a certain piece straight through when someone is watching, and she entreats the protagonist to sit with her until she’s able to play the piece perfectly. Compelling, sensual, and subtle, but still rewarding.

(2) Hell Screen by Akutagawa Ryunosuke: The talented but contemptible painter Yoshihide is commissioned to create a folding screen that depicts Buddhist hell. As he’s unable to paint an image that he hasn’t seen firsthand, he inflicts torture on his apprentices. The climax, though it’s easy to see it coming from a mile away, still somehow manages to shock, with horrifying imagery that isn’t easily forgotten.

(3) Insects by Seirai Yuichi: Set against the backdrop of the bombing of Nagasaki, Insects follows an elderly woman whose lifelong love had died fifteen years ago, after having been married to another woman. Brutal and tender all at once.

There are a handful of other noteworthy stories worth mentioning. The story that opens the collection, Tanizaki Jun’ichiro’s The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga reads like a film noir mystery but ultimately takes a philosophical turn, ruminating on the conflicting values of the East and the West. Factory Town by Betsayaku Minoru is wry and clever and achieves a lot with its brevity. American Hijiki by Nasaka Akiyuki provides a frighteningly honest look at Japanese post-war psychology. And of course, Mishima Yukio’s Patriotism and its graphic, visceral depiction of seppuku will probably haunt me to my dying day.

But I have two main criticisms of this collection: one about its composition and one about its selection. While I enjoyed the thematic arrangement, why oh why weren’t the stories’ publication dates readily accessible?! All the dates were listed somewhere in Murakami’s introduction, but it took a lot of flipping back and forth and I would have liked the date listed alongside the title, author, and translator. The second and larger criticism is that only 9 of these 34 stories are by women, so needless to say we can do better than a mere 26%.

Still, I found this to be a really solid introductory collection for anyone looking to expand their horizons and discover some new favorite Japanese writers, some seminal and some more obscure.

Thanks so much to Penguin for the copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: There There by Tommy Orange

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THERE THERE by Tommy Orange
★★★☆☆
Knopf, 2018

 

Powerful but uneven. It’s easy to see why There There has been one of 2018’s most beloved books – it provides a much-needed look at the urban Native American experience, which Orange takes pains to remind us is a rich and varied culture that has endured unspeakable violence and hardship, and which our contemporary American society is still ready to stereotype and dismiss. The sheer breadth of voices here speaks to Orange’s vision with this novel, as do the flawlessly written prologue and interlude, which provide the reader with a brief but succinct idea of the cultural context in which Orange is writing.

But the tapestry of perspectives that Orange attempts to weave doesn’t fully come together for me – I think there were a few too many POVs shoehorned in at the detriment of plot and character development. Keeping track of the threads between the characters became a bit of a chore – apparently a character needs only be mentioned once for them to have a significant role in the narrative that we should remember 75 pages down the line – and the ways in which some of their stories converged was beyond contrived. I would have been happier to read about ten different characters’ disparate lives in a sort of thematically connected short story collection and been spared the awkward attempt to braid their lives together. For example, one character finds out that he has fathered not one but TWO children he hadn’t known about, and these two individuals happen to be friends with one another… I’m happy for a novel to employ this sort of narrative device when fate is being used as a prominent theme, but in There There it just felt like unnecessary coincidence. And I unapologetically love a bit of melodrama, so the novel’s conclusion didn’t bother me for its theatricality as much as the fact that it felt like a rather hastily drawn attempt to tie up a bunch of narratives that hadn’t organically run their course. Maybe that was the point, I don’t know. But I think this should have been longer – its denouement could have used some more room to breathe.

Nonetheless, it’s an impressive debut. Orange ruminates with a surprising amount of depth not only on Native identity, but also on themes like alcoholism, domestic violence, and sexual assault. It’s a short book that packs a powerful punch and I’ll definitely be interested in reading whatever Tommy Orange writes next. There There just felt like a rough draft of something that had the potential to be even more hard-hitting.

book review: The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman

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THE ITALIAN TEACHER by Tom Rachman
★★★★★
Riverrun, 2018

 

“‘Because there’s no malice in Dad. He’s just that way. Like a huge ship, powering forward on his mission, and nobody can stop it.’

‘I see,’ Natalie notes, ‘that you’re still very engaged with Bear.’

He looks to the restaurant clock, irritated. Nobody likes to be understood without warning.”

My goodness, was The Italian Teacher ever my kind of book. I didn’t love it from the very first page – admittedly with a book about characters called Bear and Pinch I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to look past my hatred of quirky names long enough to actually pay attention to what I was reading – but once over that hurdle I settled into this easily and could not put it down.

The Italian Teacher follows the life of Charles ‘Pinch’ Bavinsky, the son of a renowned contemporary American artist, from infancy to adulthood. Pinch is a character who manages to be sympathetic, pitiable, and contemptible at all once, and it’s interesting to watch this transition; at what point do we stop feeling for this neglected child and start hating the spineless man he becomes? Rachman never really answers that question and I love this novel all the more for that; this book is all about the sins of the father and the complicated, lasting, ugly effect they have on the son. Pinch idolizes his father, who the reader easily recognizes as arrogant and misogynistic, but Pinch is consumed with Bear’s renown in the art world; likewise, he pities and fears becoming his luckless mother Natalie. To Pinch, Bear is success and Natalie is failure.

But the influence of Natalie can strongly be felt throughout the novel – in fact, she’s the only one who calls Pinch by his nickname rather than his real name, Charles, but still he is ‘Pinch’ in the third-person narration. His mother is his sole confidante and only friend throughout his childhood, but still he abandons her as soon as he is able, driven by his tunnel vision to live a life worthy of his father’s legacy. As he navigates life in his father’s shadow, there’s a wealth of commentary on art vs. the artist, and the cost of creative genius, that make this book a clever, entertaining, and deeply sad read.

Frankly I just loved everything about this. (Other than the characters’ names.) I loved the setting in the first section of 1950s Rome because I used to live in Italy, I loved Rachman’s clear knowledge of 20th century art because I studied the same thing in college and I cannot tell you how much I adored it, I loved that Pinch’s favorite artist was Caravaggio because my favorite artist is Caravaggio, I loved these characters’ complexity because I would choose depth over likability any day, I loved the sharp writing and wonderfully entertaining storytelling and the insight into the many themes that Rachman so expertly explored. This isn’t going to be for everyone – namely, I’d advise you to avoid if you can’t abide terrible, self-involved characters and you find discussions of art tedious – but this was just the perfect storm of everything I could want in a book, and I was so captivated by it.

book review: The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg

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THE THIRD HOTEL by Laura van den Berg
★★☆☆☆
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018

 

The Third Hotel follows a newly widowed woman named Clare, trying to come to terms with the death of her husband and the illness of her father, while attending a film festival in Cuba. One day in Havana she thinks she sees her husband standing outside a museum and she decides to follow him. Much surrealism and existential angst ensues.

I think my biggest issue with The Third Hotel was that I did not feel the slightest emotional connection to this story. I really don’t need to feel an emotional pull to every single thing I read – I am happy for something to appeal to me on a more intellectual level if that’s what the author is trying to achieve – but when a book is about something as intensely personal as grief, I want to feel… something? Sad or unsettled or moved in some way? Anything other than bored.

But this book’s darkly sardonic and disaffected tone just left me cold, and didn’t give me enough to chew on that I put it down feeling intellectually stimulated enough to compensate for the emotional hollowness. Laura van den Berg certainly has some interesting ideas, but unfortunately none of them are developed past their infancy. The ruminations on the role of the traveler and the tension between the internal and external selves in particular had the potential to be intriguing – and I also liked the commentary on horror films – but I’m sorry to say that for the most part this was just tedious and lacking in focus.