Book Review: Shadow’s Bliss

June 15, 2008

Shadow’s Bliss

By Darren Smith

Published April 2006

300 pp.

ISBN 0-595-38528-1

Date reviewed: March 20, 2007

Originally published at:

Can an actor make it in the real world? This is a question Darren Smith tries to answer in two ways in his latest novel “Shadow’s Bliss.”

Daniel Bliss is, like most New York City actors, struggling to make ends meet with a combination of off-Broadway shows and waiting tables. A chance encounter in a bar leads him to try out a new market: real-life roles, playing significant other to a host of image-conscious New Yorkers for $1,000 a day plus expenses.

Smith, a Hell’s Kitchen native, is clearly familiar with his subject – the book contains several horror stories of auditions and part-time jobs – but the book’s main flaw is he lets this familiarity replace what could have been a dramatic tale. Bliss’ real-life acting is pushed to the side in favor of dealing with New York life, centered on his crew of neurotic one-dimensional friends. The divorce from the plot is further enhanced by chapters written in the form of acting lectures, which make the book seem less like a novel and more a guide for struggling actors.

This pace drags on through the book so much that when the plot eventually changes, introducing seduction of a friend’s ex-girlfriend and an entanglement with the Russian Mafia, it feels like Smith himself got bored with the story and decided to switch gears. Unfortunately, the move to thriller does not blend with the rest of the story, as Daniel shows no personal growth from one act to the other beyond fear at being in over his head.

Smith does manage to create a reasonable conclusion to the book, but its tying up of loose ends isn’t enough to fix the sense of disconnect its change of pace leaves.

At one point in the book, Bliss complains about films “where the premise alone gets you through the door, but the end product is more than disappointing” – a line that fits the feeling of the book perfectly. “Shadow’s Bliss” may find a following among New York actors who recognize their own issues mirrored, but the majority of readers will lose interest by the halfway point.


Review: What is the What

June 15, 2008

What is the What

By Dave Eggers

Published October 2006


475 pp.

ISBN 1-932-41664-1

Date reviewed: May 8, 2007

Originally published in: The Daily Cardinal

When future generations pass judgment on this century, the harshest grade will most likely fall on the genocide in Africa. Decades of civil war have exterminated millions of people, reduced villages to ashen outlines and pushed entire native populations into different countries. The devastation is so vast, so all-encompassing that it is almost impossible for the human mind to conceive.

The reality is so massive that the only way to understand it is to break it down to the individual human level – which is exactly what Dave Eggers has done in his nonfiction novel “What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng.” Through the voice of a Sudanese refugee who escaped the conflict, Eggers creates a stirring, vibrant and ultimately human story of survival against the odds.

Eggers traces Valentino’s path as one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” – children who were displaced by the Sudanese civil war where both the government and rebel populations are willing to kill at the slightest mistake. Valentino and his fellow villagers march through Ethiopia and Kenya, seeking what little food and shelter is available in villages and refugee camps. Obstacles include predatory lions, starvation and the accompanying disease, and the feelings of loss that come from seeing everyone else die.

A lesser author would have turned Valentino’s story into a stereotype of heroism and determination, but Eggers – a noted journalist and author of award-winning novels such as “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” – is much better than that. Told in first-person narration, the entire novel feels like Valentino is sitting down across from the reader and detailing each struggle in a quietly introspective tone.

This personal voice is an ideal way to tell the story, as the language is unencumbered by self-important language or elaborate figures of speech. When Valentino describes his childhood experiences, he describes the thoughts that came to his mind at that moment – the first white men he sees are “the absence of a man” and the boys he travels with are mirrors for his own health.

Beyond their straightforwardness, the novel is fascinating for the humanity of Valentino. His refuge camp stories are not without hope, as he discusses his efforts to make himself useful to his various host families or to save the lives of others on the road. He can even be funny on occasion, with scenarios such as a rebel commander who always wears an absurd belt buckle or a whole classroom of Lost Boys overwhelmed by an attractive teacher – moments that are almost tragicomic when seen in the broader picture.

Valentino is not only human for the way he lightens up his stories, but for his honesty in describing his own problems and occasional ventures to the “precipice of self-loathing.” Once he has immigrated to America he is filled with guilt for seeing problems instead of praising his good fortune, and he is continually truthful about his struggles with culture shock. Even after everything he has survived, he believes ill fortune pursued him to America and perhaps spreads to others.

But despite all of his misfortunes and the horrors he has seen in his life, Valentino is never entirely broken. He wants to stay alive, wants to keep moving to tell these stories – and Eggers deserves tremendous credit for retelling them so eloquently. The world of Africa’s misfortune may be one the public has spent years ignoring, but after seeing it through Valentino Achak Deng’s perspective it is one a reader will be unable to forget.

Review: Rant

June 11, 2008

Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey

By Chuck Palahniuk

Published May 2007

Doubleday Publishing Group

336 pp.

ISBN 0-385-51787-4

Date reviewed: April 15, 2007

Originally published in: The Daily Cardinal

Chuck Palahniuk may well be the most divisive writer in contemporary fiction – in fact, calling him a nouveau William S. Burroughs would not be inappropriate. The minimalist style and social commentary of his novels “Fight Club” and “Choke” has inspired a legion of young writers, while the gruesome language typified in his story collection “Haunted” has sent audiences at his readings scampering to the doors.

His latest novel “Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey” does little to settle this debate – it will rally his fans more than any other title, and push away detractors with its schizophrenic format. Palahniuk is pulling out all of his considerable tools, blending scientific fact and science fiction to create a startling piece of literature.

“Rant’s” title comes from its main character, the recently deceased Buster “Rant” Casey. Taking the form of an oral biography, each chapter of the book is presented as a series of interviews with those who knew Rant in life. A small-town boy with a passion for insect bites and rare coins, Rant is drawn into the world of Party Crashing – demolition derbies played out on late-night city streets where each crash feels like a split second of immortality.

Burroughs once said of Ernest Hemingway that he was a prisoner of his own style, and “Rant” makes it clear that Palahniuk, for better or worse, inhabits that same prison. Once again, his main character is a pariah who rejects society’s vision of reality, while his love interest is a woman who defies moral taboos on a daily basis. Even the oral biography format can’t change this tone – Rant’s acquaintances are each unique voices, but still sound like characters existing only in Palahniuk novels.

Half of the book could be seen as “Fight Club” with cars, but the second half is where things get interesting. Palahniuk transforms the novel into science fiction, splitting society into two castes based on night and day and implanting its members with entertainment-accessing ports in their heads. His world feels oddly realistic, most likely due to its basis on the very real themes of apathy and alienation.

More than these details, however, Palahniuk pushes the envelope with a focus on time travel to an extent not seen since Kurt Vonnegut. Going off Rant’s experimental/anarchistic views (“The future you have, tomorrow, won’t be the same one you had, yesterday”), the novel asks the serious question of just how subjective our place in the timeline is and just how easy it would be for us to change that.

It’s a highly complicated mix of topics, and it’s to Palahniuk’s credit that he can hold it all together. Regardless of opinions on style, Palahniuk is an immensely talented writer who supports his story with brilliant images and real-world research. Few other authors would come up with identifying STDs by taste in one chapter, offer a timeline of epidemics in the next and then debate the possibility of traveling through time simply by willing it.

No other author could have done what Palahniuk has done with “Rant,” and he deserves recognition for creating a book of this complexity. It may take multiple reads to interpret exactly what happens – and this may push away the more casual readers – but those who stick with it will be hit with something they’ve never seen before.

(Author’s note: I particularly like this one because I read the majority of the book and wrote the review in 24 hours. Might seem to make it rushed, but I still agree with my points in retrospect.)

Book Review: World War Z

June 11, 2008

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

By Max Brooks

Published September 2006

Crown Publishing Group

352 pp.

ISBN 0-307-34661-7

Date reviewed: February 5, 2007

Originally published in: The Daily Cardinal

It’s the same story in most every zombie film. Walking dead appear and begin to sweep across the world, joined by their freshly gnawed victims to form an unstoppable army. Small pockets of determined survivors band together to battle the horde, a few die in appropriately horrific style and in the end humanity survives reduced but changed for the better.

These conventions form the outline of Max Brooks’ “World War Z,” but there’s a key difference between the book and films: the book feels real. Brooks, who became the most prolific zombie author since H.P. Lovecraft with his wildly entertaining “Zombie Survival Guide,” has written a contemporary holocaust novel which could become the definitive undead novel.

Brooks maps the entire course of the “Zombie War,” beginning with scattered outbreaks in the Far East and spreading through tourists and refugees hiding infected zombie bites. The hordes push humans to isolated locations – South Pacific Islands, Rocky Mountains and aircraft carriers – where they begin to fight back with new weapons and tactics, preparing to defeat an enemy that feels no fear and needs decapitation to finally drop.

The structure Brooks takes for “World War Z” is a masterstroke. Rather than write in conventional novel format, he tells the story in the guise of a postwar researcher collecting interviews for the reformed United Nations. The book consists of interviews with over 40 different subjects, written as though they were taken verbatim off a tape recorder.

This interview format allows Brooks to create stories worth listening to, as he can use an endless supply of voices to tell how the world dealt with the calamity. Soldiers speak in a veteran tone with “G” and “Zack” to describe the enemy, children who grew up in the combat emotionlessly describe dead parents and government officials desperately try to justify being caught off guard.

There’s also some particularly entertaining individual stories, which will no doubt come in handy when Brad Pitt’s film company develops its promised adaptation. Vivid entries include a Japanese hacker climbing down an apartment building armed only with knowledge gathered online and a supply pilot shot down in the swamps of Louisiana, working to overgrown freeways for pickup.

What the stories do particularly well, however, is depict a postwar world that feels entirely plausible. Cuba, thanks to its geography and shrewd dealing with refugees, is now the world’s economic superpower, while a decimated Russia has reformed into a Holy Russian Empire. Iran is decimated by nuclear weapon use, Canada is deforested for fuel and North Korea’s entire population disappears into underground tunnels – with no clues if anyone is still alive.

This keen interpretation of politics is central to “World War Z,” not only to create a new world but to implement zombie satire in the style of George Romero. In Brooks’ world, Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War are only precursors to government incompetence – lying to avoid widespread panic, an impotent bureaucracy and an army devoid of volunteers all pitch in to hang bait signs on the average citizen.

By the end of the novel, Brooks will have his readers convinced that if zombies were to attack tomorrow, even with his guide no hope of survival is nil. It’s that tension, imagination and realism that keeps a reader completely gripped by “World War Z” – a book which establishes Brooks as one of the cleverest young authors out there and reanimates the zombie genre.

Review: A Strange Commonplace

June 11, 2008

A Strange Commonplace

By Gilbert Sorrentino

Published May 2006

Coffee House Press

154 pp.

ISBN 1-566-89182-5

Date reviewed: October 16, 2006

Originally published in: The Daily Cardinal

When author and essayist Gilbert Sorrentino passed away on May 18, 2006, it was a tragedy that didn’t even gather headlines outside the literary community. There were no accolades and praise of the kind that followed the deaths of Douglas Adams or Hunter S. Thompson, or that will surely salute the death of Kurt Vonnegut.

This lack of tribute is insulting, for Sorrentino has done as much with the English language as any of the more public authors. In over 30 collections of poetry and prose Sorrentino mastered the art of experimental fiction, with titles such as “Mulligan Stew” and “Odd Number” cutting a manic swathe of words in a way to make any creative writing major fall to their knees.

Thankfully, Sorrentino left a final masterpiece behind to seal his legacy: the harrowing and poignant novel “A Strange Commonplace.” Named for a William Carlos Williams poem, Sorrentino’s work replicates the poem’s image of “Long, deserted avenues with unrecognized names at the corners” with a dreamlike version of his native Brooklyn.

In the vein of his darkly entertaining “Little Casino,” “A Strange Commonplace” blends elements of poetry, short fiction and the novel to create a book that can be read all at once or in various intervals depending on mood. The book, split into two sections of 27 short chapters – each section using the same 27 titles – follows the private lives of adulterers, criminals and the disillusioned.

Human folly is Sorrentino’s medium, and he is unrelenting in how many snapshots he can take. In “Cold Supper” a woman bakes a gourmet meal and dresses in her best, then proceeds to lock her son outside and walk out the front door to never return. An old man decides to kill himself if he draws a flush in “An Apartment,” while three young men devour their meals and molest a waitress simultaneously in “In the Diner.”

Much like the cut-up surrealism of William S. Burroughs, Sorrentino has several recurring elements in each of his pieces. However, while Burroughs used sadistic doctors and rusted revolvers to show junk sickness, Sorrentino’s images are tied with heartbreak – a pearl-grey homburg hat, Worcestershire sauce, a children’s jungle story. These elements give the novel an odd sense of continuity, each possessed by a pained character.

Of course, not all readers will be entranced at the start by Sorrentino’s style, as the experimental prose requires a careful reading to obtain full understanding. Often, as in the ethereal “In Dreams,” his characters become unstuck in reality, the world changing the minute they look away. Additionally, the work’s dark tone leaves not a single character happy at the end, sucked into alcoholism and untimely death.

But happiness is not the image Sorrentino is trying to pull off in this book – these stories are 52 “magical route[s] to oblivion.” In many ways it fits the original meaning of commonplace, a book designed to compile all different forms of knowledge that capture the author’s interest – and at the very end of his life, Sorrentino was trying to compile the sense of “the man in the casket is the same … as the man at the casket.”

It is very depressing that Sorrentino is no longer around to write fiction of this caliber, but anyone who is sucked in by “A Strange Commonplace” can be comforted by the fact that he left a vast body of work behind to explore. As Sorrentino’s final work, “A Strange Commonplace” is like the last bite of an exotic dessert – not suited for every palate, but for those who acquire a taste for it indescribably delicious.

Review: Memories of My Melancholy Whores

June 11, 2008

Memories of My Melancholy Whores

By Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Published October 2005

Knopf Publishers

128 pp.

ISBN 1-400-04460-3

Date reviewed: February 10, 2006

Originally published in: The Daily Cardinal

The world of fiction has been a lot darker of a place over the last decade without the presence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Author of the epic “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and dozens of compelling short stories, Marquez was absent from his most famous medium in his recent career and focused instead on journalism and his autobiography.

Fortunately, Marquez was nowhere near done with the style that earned him a Nobel Prize in literature, returning to form with his new novel “Memories of My Melancholy Whores.” A compelling and concise piece of work, Marquez proves even after 15 books he still has the skill and the spirit to tell an unforgettable story.

Marquez doesn’t waste any time in his new work, summarizing all the action in the first sentence: “The year I turned 90, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.” His main character, a journalist and composer who has found little success in either profession, finds himself seeking one simple pleasure only to find himself so stunned by her beauty as she sleeps he cannot bring himself to wake her.

The book proceeds to chart the year following his birthday as he revisits his life, thinking about his writing, relationships with women (all paid for) and the reality of living his life completely alone. All through the year he continues a relationship with the nameless girl, where by never speaking or touching him she becomes the love of his life.

In all of his short stories Marquez feels like he uses fiction to cloak his poetic urges, and “Melancholy Whores” is no different, calling up multiple observations and tying them together with his fluid prose. With a main character suffering from an onset of senility Marquez is able to elaborate on any thought, as a character who feels “well compensated by the miracle of still being alive at my age” is inclined to drift on his own thoughts.

“Melancholy Whores” is not a supernatural story like Marquez’s earlier works “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” or “Sea of Lost Time,” but he still manages to fill it with the same magical sense. His relationship with the girl is one of the most touching romances in recent print, as by leaving her untouched he has elevated her to the role of a spirit. She exists more in his imagination than in real life, and his romance exists somewhere between dreams and reality.

Marquez may be 10 years younger than his nameless narrator, but there are clearly some autobiographical details worked into the story. His slight disdain for the younger staff at the newspaper he writes for likely displays some of his own attitudes, and his resigned comments about the effects of aging are too direct to not come from experience.

This connection, almost more than his other works, makes “Melancholy Whores” strike a personal chord with readers. By the time the novel winds to a close Marquez has formed a character who seems completely real, and whose regrets are ones that anyone approaching the end must feel. Marquez may have left a better legacy than his protagonist, but in his golden years he must certainly be sharing the same concerns.

“Melancholy Whores” is closer to his short stories than his novels in length – only 115 pages – but it is still a triumphant return for the master. Like a rare wine Marquez’s writing appears to get even better as the years go on, weaving a straight and detailed path towards one final satisfying breath. Hopefully, readers won’t have to wait until Marquez himself turns 90 for his next work.

Review: Kung Fu High School

June 10, 2008

Kung Fu High School

By Ryan Gattis

Published September 2005

Harcourt Books

288 pp.

ISBN 0-156-03036-6

Date reviewed: December 1, 2005

Originally reviewed in: The Daily Cardinal

Ryan Gattis’ debut novel “Kung Fu High School,” exploring the story of a high school split into gangs and controlled by a psychotic drug dealer, is as ambitious and fierce as any Jet Li film and even more of a ride. It’s a work of fiction that feels almost real, with long paragraphs of tight details putting every drop of blood on the page.

Kung Fu High’s relative piece is shattered when Jimmy Chang – cousin of two Wave gang members and a world champion fighter – comes to town after taking an oath never to fight again. This proves to be a mistake, as a brewing gang war leaves one of his relatives in the mud and opens up a power struggle on the scale of “Fight Club,” complete with seven rules vital to staying alive.

What makes “Kung Fu” such a fascinating read is that shadow of reality that hangs over the book, as Gattis has sketched out a dark atmosphere that could actually exist in an inner city. A lot of points are clearly exaggeration for (successful) effect, such as the vice principal hauling bundled corpses through the halls during lunch and drug dealers paying extra so their little brother can have a new theater to stage Shakespeare.

However, the concept of a school where freshmen have ribs and jaws kicked in the first day and chess strategies are needed for safe seats in class feels too strange to not have a grain of truth. Gattis adds to this realism by providing diagrams that look like they were scrawled in the back of textbooks, outlining how to stitching layers of beer cans into sweatshirts for body armor and weld knives together for maximum lethality.

And this lethality is everywhere in “Kung Fu.” From the first fight where Jimmy won’t defend against spiked gauntlets to a literal firefight in the chemistry lab, bones are broken and arteries opened almost every chapter. Gattis walks through every step of the combat with a sensei’s eye, picking up on every popped necks and misplaced fist that ends a fight.

Unfortunately, this emphasis on combat and strategies gives “Kung Fu High School” the same problem of countless action films: a lack of character development. Beyond one-word sentences and threats the book is relatively empty of dialogue, giving characters the feel of nameless henchmen and video game bosses. The narrator Jen never really feels right – such as when she cares more about blood on her civics essay than almost dying in a fight – and Jimmy is nothing more than a maelstrom of fists and legs.

“Kung Fu High School” is an interesting and compelling piece of work, a book that reads like the novelization of a martial arts film but comes closer to realism than most movies ever could. It’s an impressive start for Gattis, with plenty of personality in the description to make up for what the characters lack and enough blood to fill a high school auditorium.