The OF Blog

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Richard House, The Kills

'Monkey, Paul.  Think monkey.  Change the codes, those codes are yours, no one else will notice.  That's the first step.  Second – and this is important – I want you to erase all of the personnel information you have on Stephen Sutler, anything non-financial, anything extra-curricular, private emails, anything like that, and when he comes in tomorrow, I want you to follow his instructions and divide the funds marked for his project into four new operational accounts.  Sutler has the details for the new accounts.  He has it all worked out.  Do exactly what he asks.  Make those transfers, and make sure the full amount assigned to HOSCO for the Massive leaves your holdings.  Divide it however he tells you into the four new accounts:  one, two, three, four.  Load them up.  In addition, he has a secured junk account, and I want you to attach that junk account to your dummy highway project.  Fatten it up with two-fifty, let him see the amount.  Show him the transfer.  That's five accounts, Paul.  Four accounts attached to Stephen Sutler, and one to the highways.  I want all five of them loaded.  Do you understand me?' (p. 11)

Richard House's 2013 Booker Prize-longlisted The Kills (2014 US release) is a strange sort of book.  It walks (struts?) like a thriller, has a few non-quack-like staccato bursts like one, yet it is something more and less than the sum of its four book-length parts.  It is a tale of a series of shady operations that take place in Iraq after the American occupation and there are a number of mini-mysteries that transpire over its 1000+ pages.  Yet the order of the presentation of these four parts can have an affect on how the reader understands what exactly is happening behind (and in front of) the scenes.

The Kills centers around a man who is now known as Stephen Sutler.  Receiving codes that will provide him access to over $50 million, he manages to elude discovery by law enforcement and those with whom he had conducted some shady business.  Just who is/was Sutler?  How was this heist pulled off and just who has an interest in finding him, dead or alive?

At first, these questions would seem to lie at the heart of an expansive thriller, yet House makes some curious decisions that undermines this premise.  His four narrative parts play fast and loose with narrative time and character presentation.  On the whole, his jumpstart, flashback, seen through another camera lens/angle approach makes the reader pause in her consideration of what she has just read.  His layering of perspectives does add to the character depth, although for those readers who expect a more "traditional" thriller that requires little more than just anticipating ahead a handful of pages instead of digesting what might not have really happened a hundred before, it initially can be a rough adjustment.  Yet by the end of the fourth part, if read in order that is (House has constructed this book so readers can read any of the four sections in an order of their choosing), there are some intriguing revelations...and more than a handful of continued mysteries.

Structurally, I was reminded of Roberto Bolaño's 2666, not just in the number of interconnected sections, but also in how some of these parts interact with each other.  From Russian gangsters to a more stylized look at Sutler's character, to a fictitious book, also called "The Kill," from which a movie has been derived, there are layers of commentary on contemporary society and its pop cultures that House explores to some depth.  For the most part, these commentaries heighten the narrative's pull, making it easier to read through the sometimes dense descriptions, as the reader wants to learn more about these possible connections between the book/movie and Sutler's actions/motives.  However, there are times where it felt a bit convoluted, as though House had constructed things so intricately that the narrative begins to flag in places due to the weight of its many moving parts.

Yet despite these occasional structural flaws, The Kills was an enjoyable novel to read.  There is a suitable amount of action for those who enjoy thriller-type stories, while the characterizations and ancillary social commentaries were for the most part integrated well within these four distinct sections.  One of the better action-oriented books I've read this year.

Monday, October 20, 2014


I literally have only two minutes before I have to leave for work, so I'll edit this post tonight to reflect my take on this.  But for now, presented without comment:

Apologies and Finality

The Things That We Do:  On Mistakes, On Apologies


Words are cheap unless there is a continual effort of repentance here. While these apologies sound good, it'll be a long time for many to forgive her actions. But in reading this, I couldn't help but think of those times that I might have helped enabled this behavior. I did at the time two years ago think her acerbic reviews were a nice, bracing counter to the "cult of niceness," but I did become uncomfortable at seeing the personal attacks, however at the time I was either silent or maybe slightly complicit in the verbal abuse. I regretted and still regret this and that is something I should note before commenting at all on this matter.

 So in reading this past week all of these posts on the RH matter, I saw a lot of hurt and anger on display. Words alone will not heal these griefs. Hopefully those who were friends before this can find it in themselves to reconcile. Those injured relationships and betrayed trusts are the worst casualties of this. So yeah, she has a lot to do to redress all of these hurts. If she'll do this, then things will improve. But if it's just one more way to deflect ultimate responsibility and to leave open a recurrence of this hateful behavior, then all of these words will not just be in vain, but they'll just be one more dagger to the hearts of those willing to trust. Time will tell. This is all I have to say on this, as anything else would risk continuing the arguments I've seen elsewhere over the past week.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Feeling a bit under the weather tonight

Not going to be able to post any reviews tonight, but hopefully when I wake up in the morning this vague nausea will have passed and that I'll have time to write a review of Emily St. John Mandel's National Book Award-shortlisted Station Eleven.  Ideally, I'll try to write one post in the early afternoons and another when I return from work this week, so I can catch up on the backlog of books awaiting some discussion.

Until then, I am at the mercy of the squirrels, as always.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Going to write several short reviews over the next few days

I've fallen behind in my reviewing and there are several books that I read months ago that I haven't yet reviewed.  Since some of my specific impressions have faded over time (and dozens of books, if not 100+, read in the interim), I think I'll write a few 2-3 paragraph reviews in order to provide at least a record of my general, lingering thoughts in advance of the late December Best of 2014 reads.

Just because some of the upcoming reviews will be shorter does not necessarily mean that these are lesser books; the majority I did enjoy in some form or fashion.  It also will make it easier for me to cover some of the Italian and French-language award finalists if I do so.  Also this doesn't mean I won't be writing longer reviews as well, but those will depend upon several factors.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Wondering what 2014 releases I've missed out on reading so far

I'm going to be adding to my 2014 Releases/Reviews post this weekend, as I hope to get over 90% of the listed books reviewed (and 100% read) by Christmas, so I can have a good year-end Best of 2014 series of commentaries on the best of these books.  But doubtless I've missed whole swathes of literary genres, many of which almost certainly have produced some excellent books.

Care to suggest works that might be considered among the year's best that I do not have listed in my post?  I do plan on buying some more books next month after I finish catching up on bill payments related to my recent time off work due to a lower back injury.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A few quotes from books I've been browsing through recently

Interesting how a few of them can be connected thematically:

It is not that religion is delusional by nature, nor that the individual, beyond present-day religion, rediscovers his most suspect psychological origins.  But religious delusion is a function of the secularization of culture:  religion may be the object of delusional belief insofar as the culture of a group no longer permits the assimilation of religious or mystical beliefs in the present context of experience.

– Michel Foucault (1962), Mental Illness and Psychology, p. 81, used as an epigraph for Religion and culture, edited by Jeremy R. Carrette

Once inside the house again I remembered to try not to listen to the sound of the machines so long as all those others so I would be smarter when I got older and less hurt inside for certain whiles about the way things went on without me in the daily organism, though as that went on too I began to feel too I wasn't changing and anyway the effect of our inbred-from-Adam-and-Eve origins were beginning more and more to make effect in all of us.  Some days inside the house the days inside the house went on so long and still the digits on the machines' clocks would not blink; I could feel inside me, as the time stayed like that sometimes for some great lengths, the old National Anthem squirting through my organs into the surrounding furniture and glass, sucked out of my teeth and face in all its daily iterations of ads and silent thinking and holy money, into the house where then the house would chew it up; soon each time the house would kill the Anthem into a silence longer than all my cells lined up one after another in a queue inside my wanting and that silence was the new Anthem and that was warm.

– Blake Butler, 300,000,000 (pp. 10-11)

Life became severe for Marius; eating his clothes and his watch was nothing, but he also went through that indescribable course which is called "chewing the cud."  This is a horrible thing which contains days without bread, nights without sleep, evenings without candle, a house without fire, weeks without work, a future without hope, a threadbare coat, an old hat at which the girls laugh, the door which you find locked at night because you have not paid your rent, the insolence of the porter and the eating-house keeper, the grins of neighbors, humiliations, dignity trampled under foot, any work taken, disgust, bitterness, and desperation.  Marius learned how all this is devoured, and how it is often the only thing which a man has to eat.  At that moment of life when a man requires pride because he requires love, he felt himself derided because he was meanly dressed, and ridiculous because he was poor.  At the age when youth swells the heart with an imperial pride, he looked down more than once at his worn-out boots, and knew the unjust shame and the burning blushes of wretchedness.  It is an admirable and terrible trial, from which the weak come forth infamous and the strong sublime.  It is the crucible into which destiny throws a man whenever it wishes to have a scoundrel or a demi-god.

– Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, Part III, Book V, Chapter I

My grandmother tells us
it's the way of the South.  Colored folks used to stay
where they were told that they belonged.  But
times are changing.
And people are itching to go where they want.

This evening, though,
I am happy to belong
to Nicholtown.

– From "at the end of the day," Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming (p. 54)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Richard Flanagan wins 2014 Man Booker Prize, I rank the Booker finalists, and the National Book Awards shortlists

Lots of literary news over the past 24 hours to cover briefly.  Yesterday afternoon, Australian writer Richard Flanagan won the 2014 Man Booker Prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North.  It is a very good novel, one that is well-deserving of this honor, but having read 11/13 of the longlist (still have The Dog and Us to read; the latter hasn't yet been released in the US) and 6/6 of the shortlist, it wasn't my personal favorite.  This is not to say that I didn't like it quite a bit, because I did, but there were some other outstanding books on those lists that appealed to me just a tiny bit more.  So for those of you who like lists and rankings, if I had to file a preferential voting system ballot for the Booker Prize shortlist, it would have gone like this:

1.  Ali Smith, How to be Both 

2.  Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North 

3.  Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 

4.  Neel Mukherjee, The Lives of Others

5.  Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

6.  Howard Jacobson, J 

If I were to employ star/number rating systems, the difference between the Smith and the Jacobson would be somewhere between .5 and 1, as I do consider the Jacobson to be well above the average, if not quite outstanding or excellent.  All in all, while I would have considered several other books instead of/in addition to these, this was an enjoyable shortlist (and by extension, longlist) to read.

Earlier today, the National Book Awards released their five book shortlists for Young People's Literature, Poetry, Non-Fiction, and Fiction.  I own/have reviewed some of the YPL, Poetry, and Fiction finalists and will try to review as many of these over the next month as possible.

Young People's Literature:

Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming (currently reading; excellent so far)

John Corey Whaley, Noggin

Steve Sheinkin, The Port Chicago 50

Deborah Wiles, Revolution

Eliot Schrefer, Threatened


Claudia Rankine, Citizen

Louise Glück, Faithful and Virtuous Night 

Fred Moten, The Feel Trio

Fanny Howe, Second Childhood

Maureen N. McClane, This Blue


Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition:  Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China

Roz Chast, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Edward O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence 

Anand Gopal, No Good Men Among the Living:  America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes

John Lahr, Tennessee Williams:  Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh


Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See 

Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman 

Marilynne Robinson, Lila

Phil Klay, Redeployment 

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

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