The OF Blog

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Short reviews of five books

Below are short, paragraph-length reviews of 2014 releases that I've read but for one reason or another did not have the time nor the desire to pad it out to 600-1000 word-length full reviews.  Many of these books are anthologies or short story collections, and most, if not all, I would recommend with some reservations to readers.  In short, these are the works that most likely will not be featured prominently in my Best of 2014 retrospective posts next month, but some may be worthy of reader attention.

David Hutchinson, Europe in Autumn

Europe in Autumn is a near-future thriller set in a post-EU Europe in which the international quasi-state has fragmented into balkanized mini-states similar to that of the seventeeth century post-Treaty of Westphalia Holy Roman Empire.  Rudi, a courier (someone who conducts semi-legal transnational transports; think a combination of message boy and spy), conducts a series of missions, each of which ultimately delve further into the tangled web of politics and business that has arisen with the demise of the EU.  Hutchinson's strongest with setting and plot, as he deftly weaves interesting situations with vividly-detailed environs.  The characterizations, while solid, are not as successful.  Europe in Autumn is a strong, solid thriller, albeit one that breaks no real new narrative ground.

Richard Thomas (ed.), The New Black:  A Neo-Noir Anthology

The New Black is a reprint anthology of twenty tales from several of my favorite authors, including Brian Evenson, Roxane Gay, Kyle Minor, and Matt Bell, among others.  I had mixed reactions to the stories included in here, however.  It's not so much that the vast majority of them weren't good or excellent (they were), it was more that the sum felt less than the component parts, as there wasn't much to unify them.  The concept of "noir," especially in its connotation of dark, rough, off-the-cuff style of writing, is not really explored much beyond what each writer chooses to explore; there could have been a stronger editorial direction given that would have allowed readers to make easier, stronger connections between themes found in these diverse stories.  As a sampler of the short fiction of several outstanding literary and genre writers, it is excellent, but it is merely a mediocre themed anthology due to this perceived lack of connecting threads between these strong stories.

Antonya Nelson, Funny Once

I had the pleasure of hearing Nelson read a section from the closing novella to her latest collection, Funny Once, at the 2014 Southern Festival of Books in Nashville this past October.  That story, "Three Wishes," was a sharp, penetrating look at relationships, familial and failed romantic, as seen through the prism of a creative writing course and two students in that class.  I remember laughing several times at scenes she read aloud; this largely occurred also when reading this and the other stories in print.  Funny Once is a very strong collection:  I could point out several stories as being excellent written, plotted, and executed.  I've spent nearly a month trying to decide how to go about describing this collection.  Perhaps I should just say that it is a uniformly good collection, with some shining moments, that will appeal to literary fiction readers who enjoy witty dialogue to go along with some poignant scenes.

Gail Giles, Girls Like Us

Girl Like Us, longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, follows the struggles of two soon-to-be-high school graduates, Biddy and Quincy, as they are about to be exited from their special education program.  Each of the girls has her own issues (Biddy cannot read nor write and had to give up a child for adoption due to her circumstances; Quincy was brain-damaged as a young child and is angry at the world, including at times Biddy) and it is their battles, accentuated by Giles' short, staccato bursts of narrative seen through each girl's PoV, that makes this a good read.  If anything, the story could have been even longer, to allow certain situations to unfold less rapidly, but this is a minor quibble to what is otherwise a very solid work of YA fiction.

Kalyan Ray, No Country

No Country is a tale that spans five generations and three continents.  Beginning with the life-altering decisions of two 19th century Irish boys, Padraig and Brendan, and the effects those choices have on descendents, biological or adopted, of the two as they move back and forth across Europe, North America, and India.  It is an ambitious family saga, one that touches upon the issue of the ultimate shallowness of national identity, and for much of the novel Ray manages to craft a narrative structure worthy of exploring such complex, complicated themes and plot developments.  However, there were times that the story lagged a bit, making No Country merely a flawed yet solid effort that will mostly reward those readers willing to devote the necessary time to processing what all is transpiring over the course of these generations and continents.

I'll likely write another set of 5-10 mini-reviews sometime over the holiday weekend.  Hopefully some of these stories/collections have piqued your interest.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Things to do (maybe) this weekend

This month has been a complete trainwreck when it comes to completing any reviewing goals, as I've reviewed only 10 books so far this month.  Much of the blame goes to the kidney stone pain and surgery prep/recovery, as there were several days where I didn't have the energy to do anything other than make short blog posts like this one.  Currently, I'm battling a slight viral infection, likely due to a weakened immune system after the past week's surgery and medications, that has sapped me of energy (I've actually slept more than 8 hours each of the past two days - about 1.5-2 hours more than usual - and I am still more tired than usual).

I have managed, however, to read 140 of the 161 books I have listed on the Upcoming 2014 Releases I Want to Read.  I have few worries about reading every book listed there (might add a handful to the list, but that's uncertain).  However, I still have 51 reviews to write if I'm going to review every one of those books.  That might prove to be unmanageable.  Won't know for another couple of weeks.  If so, I might just write summary-style reviews of the majority of those and traditional reviews of the rest.  I'm undecided on that right now.  What I do know is that I have two hardcover books that arrived today (Brian Francis Slattery's The Family Hightower and Lin Enger's The High Divide) that I plan on reading this weekend.  Maybe reviews will follow shortly.  Depends on my recovery speed from this virus, which has left me with flu-like symptoms, minus the fever.

As with everything these days, time will tell.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A couple of early Best of 2014 lists

Although it's only November, some publications are already starting to list their Best of 2014 selections.  Below are a couple of such lists:

Amazon's Editors' Top 100

Kirkus Reviews Best of 2014

I've read/own about a quarter of the books on each list of 100.  Several selections I agree with, a few I don't, but that's par for the course.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

2014 National Book Award winners

The 2014 National Book Award winners have just been announced.  Pleased to see that I've already read/reviewed three out of the four winners.  Each of the ones read were excellent.

Fiction: Phil Klay, Redeployment

Non-Fiction:  Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition:  Chasing Fortune, Truth, & Faith in the New China

Poetry:  Louise Glück, Faithful and Virtuous Night

Young People's Literature:  Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ranking the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction Finalists

The 2014 National Book Awards will be announced on Wednesday, November 19.  I haven't read all of the finalists for Young People's Literature, Non-Fiction (zero here, in fact), or Poetry yet, but I have read all 5 of the Fiction finalists (and 9/10 of the longlist), so I feel comfortable listing my personal favorites out of that list even before I write my review of Marilynne Robinson's Lila Wednesday morning.  Mind you, in the past, those I've liked the most ended up not winning at all and those I liked least have won it, so take this with the appropriate grains of salt:

1.  Phil Klay, Redeployment 

2.  Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

3.  Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman

4.  Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

5.  Marilynne Robinson, Lila

The difference between the first three is minuscule.  Even Robinson's work, which I think suffers for me not having read other related novels, is well-written and worth reading.  But if I were to factor in the longlist, it'd go like this (leaving aside Jane Smiley's Some Luck, which I won't have time to read before the announcement Wednesday):

1.  Klay

2.  Doerr

3.  John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van

4.  Alameddine

5.  Richard Powers, Orfeo

6.  St. John Mandel

7.  Elizabeth McCracken, Thunderstruck & Other Stories

8.  Molly Antopol, The UnAmericans

9.  Robinson

Again, little differentiates the books on this list; I enjoyed reading the 9 I've read so far quite a bit.  I just happen to prefer some just a tiny bit more than others.  Multiple ones from this list will make my year-end Top 25, after all, maybe as many as 5-6.  It will be interesting to see how many, if any, from the longlist/finalists make the upcoming National Book Critics Circle Award or the Pulitzer Prize.  I suspect there'll be a bit of overlap, but not too much, as there are certainly dozens of worthy contenders that didn't make this particular list.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Phil Klay, Redeployment

We shot dogs.  Not by accident.  We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby.  I'm a dog person, so I thought about that a lot.

First time was instinct.  I hear O'Leary go, "Jesus," and there's a skinny brown dog lapping up blood the same way he'd lap up water from a bowl.  It wasn't American blood, but still, there's that dog, lapping it up.   And that's the last straw, I guess, and then it's open season on dogs.

At the time, you don't think about it.  You're thinking about who's in that house, what's he armed with, how's he gonna kill you, your buddies.  You're going block by block, fighting with rifles good to 550 meters, and you're killing people at five in a concrete box. ("Redeployment," p. 1)
For as long as the United States has existed as a nation, nearly two hundred and forty years, its wars and literature have been inextricably intertwined.  From Thomas Paine's "The Crisis" to Francis Scott Key's "The Star-Spangled Banner" to the soldier letters and memoirs from the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the Civil War; to the accounts of the Spanish-American War and the searing novels by the likes of John Dos Passos and Dalton Trumbo on World War I, soldier voices have been heard in one form or another.  Kilroy was there in World War II; before Apocalypse Now, so many found madness in the killing fields of Vietnam and somehow managed to express it in letters, memoirs, and novels.  It is little surprise that eleven years after "Mission Accomplished" was declared, that veteran voices of the plains of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan are now clamoring to be heard.

The Iraq-Afghanistan postwar/war novels have grown in number and popularity over the past five years, ever since troops began to be withdrawn from Iraq.  Some, like Kevin Powers' 2012 National Book Award-nominated novel The Yellow Birds, were written by Iraq War veterans.  One of the latest to emerge (itself a 2014 finalist for the National Book Award) is Phil Klay's debut collection, Redeployment.  In the twelve stories that comprise this collection, Klay manages to explore various facets of the war experience in Iraq and postwar life in ways that shine more insight on soldier experiences in this war.  It is a powerful collection, one that easily holds its own with Three Soldiers and The Naked and the Dead in regards to the power of the narrative and Catch-22 for exploring the ridiculousness of it all.

The eponymous opening story begins with soldiers shooting dogs.  Told in terse prose, the reader is immediately jolted from her comfort zone.  Why dogs?  Why shoot creatures often valued as much (if not more) than many human beings?  There is a purpose behind this, one beyond showing stereotypical desensitization of the soldiers.  If anything, there is a greater sensitization that is transpiring, as seen in this passage:

So I'm thinking about that.  And I'm seeing the retard, and the girl, and the wall Eicholtz died on.  But here's the thing.  I'm thinking a lot, and I mean a lot, about those fucking dogs.

And I'm thinking about my dog.  Vicar.  About the shelter we'd got him from, where Cheryl said we had to get an older dog because nobody takes older dogs.  How we could never teach him anything.  How he'd throw up shit he shouldn't have eaten in the first place.  How he'd slink away all guilty, tail down and head low and back legs crouched.  How his fur started turning gray two years after we got him, and he so many white hairs on his face that it looked like a mustache.

So there it was.  Vicar and Operation Scooby, all the way home. (p. 3)

"Redeployment" is a somber tale, one of readjusting to home life after returning from a deployment, but it is also a merging of the war with one of the toughest things any pet owner has faced, that of their pet suffering from terminal disease and choosing to end that life there instead of paying another to do it.  In re-reading it just now, I remember when I was 8 and our dog of roughly a year, Bo, came down with an illness that even today I don't know if it was rabies or a paralyzing sort of distemper.  What I remember is my dad, himself a Vietnam War vet, taking out his shotgun that he rarely used and telling us not to look outside.  I didn't.  But even tonight, I remember the shotgun blast.  It still reverberates within me, as I can imagine it doing in the narrator's mind after the story's end.  The responsibility for a life, even a dog's life, weighs heavily on those forced to choose to end it.

Yet not all the stories in Redeployment are as somber as the first one.  Some, like "In Vietnam They Had Whores," are full of the type of baudy humor one might expect from young soldiers full of lust and life.  Others, like "Psychological Operations," contain a sort of macabre humor alongside a tale of cultural misunderstandings that underscore so much of what transpired in Iraq during the war and its bloody aftermath.  "War Stories" takes some of the motifs of Vietnam war stories and warp them, make them into something more applicable to the situation in Iraq a generation later.  When I read part of this aloud to my dad on Friday when we were on our way to the urology clinic for my kidney stone surgery, he grunted a bit at some of the biting humor, something that I partially got and I suspect he understood more than he let on.  Some things, after all, do transcend specific wars and are shared grounds for veterans, I suppose.

By the time that I finished reading the final story, "Ten Kliks South," I felt as though I had read something both familiar and strange at once.  The twelve stories in this collection showed a wide range of soldier experiences, from horror to dazed bemusement to a callous attitude toward civilians to something hard to define, and each were presented in such a way that civilians such as myself could understand much of what was transpiring.  Yet there was enough of a sense of something being left unstated, something whose silence was even louder than the powerful passages contained within, that I suspect would say even more to those who were there, those who do not need to put voice to what they experienced.  Even more, there are elements in common with the wartime classics that I mentioned above that I suspect will make Redeployment not just one of the best Iraq-Afghanistan war fictions, but also will enshrine it in a rich national history of war of literature.  Redeployment is my favorite out of a strong 2014 National Book Award for Fiction finalist slate.

Warning: Graphic photo of surgical stent

If anyone, most especially myself, ever needed motivation to stop drinking sodas and drink copious amounts of water (and reduce salt intake), then this picture of the urethral stent that I removed this morning following my outpatient surgery three days ago should be motivation enough.  I'll put in a jump break for RSS readers who might not want such a warning (sorry for others who might be squeamish, but this is to give readers an idea of just what I suffered on Friday):
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