Tuesday, December 30, 2008

End of Year Wrap-Up

Well, it's the end of December, with 2009 looming, inescapable and inevitable. So what better time to compile a list of my favorite books from 2008 than right. this. moment. All of these were read during this year, but not necessarily published this year. I try to keep up on the new releases, but there are so many great (and, let's admit it, mediocre) books from years past that it's hard to keep up with everything.

Out of 64 books read in '08, here are my top 10:

1) PAINT IT BLACK by Janet Fitch -- see the review to find out what all the fuss is about.

2) OUT STEALING HORSES by Per Petterson, translated by Ann Born -- again, check out the review.

3) MAN IN THE DARK by Paul Auster -- masterfully written, an author in full command of his voice and his craft. The ending is a bit of a disappointment, but the whole package is terrific.

4) INDIGNATION by Philip Roth -- it's been a while since I've liked a new Roth novel, but this one was a return to form. Read the review for more.

5) LEAVING PICO by Frank X. Gaspar -- mainly known for his poetry, this first novel is full of rich, stunning details and a story that avoids potential cliches and instead gives truthful, real moments that culminate in a journey well worth taking.

6) THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Diaz -- not sure it was worth the Pulitzer, but a terrific read. Check my review for more.

7) THE HOUSE OF PAPER by Carlos Maria Dominguez, with wonderful illustrations by Peter Sis and translated by Nick Caistor -- check out the short review.

8) MAKING A LITERARY LIFE: ADVICE FOR WRITERS AND OTHER DREAMERS by Carolyn See -- a must-read for anyone attempting to make a life as a writer. Top-notch advice from someone who really knows her stuff.

9) TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW FOR SURE by Dorothy Allison -- heartwrenching, disturbing and raw, this autobiography from the author of BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA is ultimately an uplifting and motivational read.

10) ELECTION by Tom Perrotta -- A really quick read, full of sharp dialogue and four different narrative points-of-view, all handled brilliantly by the author of LITTLE CHILDREN, one of my favorite novels.

I also liked quite a few of the novels I had to read for UCLA, including SUMMER by Edith Wharton, TARZAN OF THE APES by Edgar Rice Burroughs, THE PROFESSOR'S HOUSE by Willa Cather and GOD'S LITTLE ACRE by Erskine Caldwell. THE SUN ALSO RISES by Ernest Hemingway was also a tremendous read, my second go at his first novel. And lastly, I also really loved the writing style, if not the book as a whole, of DAS KAPITAL: A NOVEL OF LOVE AND MONEY MARKETS by Viken Berberian (check out the review).

For 2009, I'm looking forward to reading:

Janet Fitch's first novel, a young adult tale called KICKS
More stuff by Paul Auster, including TRAVELS IN THE SCRIPTORIUM & THE NEW YORK TRILOGY
Richard Price's LUSH LIFE
The first novel by my friend Alia Yunis, THE NIGHT COUNTER (coming out in July)
David Ebershoff's THE 19TH WIFE
Gayle Brandeis' SELF STORAGE

and anything else that crosses my path or excites my frontal lobe.

HAVE A GREAT 2009!!!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I'm Published Again!

So, I'm still tapping away toward the 50,000 word goal (a little over two weeks to go) in the NaNoWriMo deal, in addition to doing rewrites and polishes of short stories to submit to the M.F.A. programs over the next few months. So, creatively, very busy these days.

Also, my short story, SHATTERED BELIEFS has just been published in Verdad Magazine, and it was honored as the Editors' Choice. I'm very thrilled. Hope you can give it a read.

All for now -- more book reviews are forthcoming and maybe a few other surprises. Keep watching this space!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


Just finished Philip Roth's latest and wanted to post my review here as soon as possible. If you haven't read a novel by the author, you owe it to yourself to pick one up and see what all the hype is about. Personally, I'd recommend for first-timers THE DYING ANIMAL, THE GHOST WRITER or his first, GOODBYE, COLUMBUS, a novel with 5 short stories added. The new one is also pretty good, too. Read on.


indignation / n : anger aroused by something unjust, unworthy, or mean.

Philip Roth’s 29th book (and the 15th of his I’ve read) is the best of the last few, similarly short, novels he’s produced. I thought EVERYMAN was a total waste of time, and saw EXIT GHOST as an interesting but not wholly successful follow-up to THE GHOST WRITER, but his newest really worked for me. The first-person narrator, Marcus Messner, possesses a voice that is equal parts brilliant, precocious, antagonistic and innocent. The time is 1951, the place is a small Ohio college, where this kosher butcher’s son from Newark has just transferred as a sophomore. The university is Winesburg -- an allusion to Sherwood Anderson’s fictional town and novel about rural town grotesques -- that is pure, Christian-valued, Americana. Of course, it’s the perfect place for a Jewish genius to get in touch with his intolerance, test his social and sexual mores, and escape the seemingly endless march of young American soldiers into the Korean War.

The plot revolves around Marcus’ attempts to separate himself, both physically and emotionally, from his suddenly tyrannical father, who has grown paranoid and distrustful, convinced of his son’s impending death at the hands of the big, bad world. Marcus rebels in the only way he knows how, by escaping five hundred miles away to a Gentile-filled campus where he blends in by disappearing altogether. He attends class, argues with his roommates, and focuses all of his prioritized energies on getting straight A’s and achieving the rank of school valedictorian. Complications, big and small, arise, leading the main character into a questionable romance with a labyrinthine girl, a number of confrontations with the soberingly thoughtful yet condescending Dean of Men, as well as a slew of other pursuits both intellectual and emotional.

The main conceit of the novel, beyond Marcus’ desire to avoid the war and distance himself from his father’s madness, is something I won’t reveal here, allowing the surprise and climactic discovery to remain a genuine twist for the reader to ponder and enjoy. Beyond Roth’s main hat trick, there are plenty of wonderful scenes and characters to revel in, with their compelling thematic thrustings and morally ambigiuous ramifications supplied to attack and dazzle the senses. The novel, like his earlier works, is about youth and the hope for understanding and the wish to be understood. Marcus is at once the polar opposite and a carbon copy of Alexander Portnoy, whose complaints were as important and vital to his being as Marcus’ indignation is to him. It’s been almost 40 years since Roth’s scandalous novel was published, and his newest proves that he still has the literary and controversial chops he had back then.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Actual

Time for another book review, this a novella from 1997 that I read in a few short hours.


In this novella by Pulitzer Prize- and Nobel Prize-winning author Saul Bellow, obsession and denial are key ideas that inhabit a story without much forward momentum or plot. Harry Trellman, the first-person narrator, is Jewish but looks Chinese – a detail of his appearance that is revisited again and again for no truly discernable reason other than to illustrate how much of an outsider Harry is to everyone around him, including himself. In fact, physical appearance takes up much of the non-dialogue description, with every one of the sparse number of characters identified repititiously by similar, if not exactly replicated, specifics of physiognomy. It happens so frequently, in a barely-hundred-page book, that it seems Bellow must be after some deeper meaning, must have some compelling reason to continuously describe his spare cast. Whatever the reason, I think I missed it, so instead of striking my reader’s eye as profound, the technique became distracting, and finally irritating at a certain point.

The book starts out strongly, introducing a fairly enigmatic character in Harry, and even pretends for a moment to have an intriguing story at the point the narrator meets billionaire Sigmund Adletsky for a wary, suspicion-bent tete-a-tete. But by page seventeen, Harry’s association with the old moneybags is done and the focus shifts to Amy Wustrin, whose story carries practically the next third of the novel. She is an old flame of Harry’s, a woman he has never forgotten and who he continues to pine over, to the point of creating daily conversations with her in his much-too-sharp, currently-unchallenged mind. The obsession slant is nice, but it never really develops further than fantasy and backstory, with a scene of confession that comes late and fails to deliver anything dramatic or climactic.

In all, there is nothing very exciting or tantalizing in the book, despite attempts to delve into Philip Roth-style, sexually-graphic-prose territory that ultimately comes off as feeble and unimaginative. This is the first book of Bellow’s that I have read -- and I do plan to read more, despite my extremely lukewarm reaction to this short work -- and far be it from me to slam a multiple-award winner, but the book as a whole struck me as a dud. The shift from Harry’s p.o.v. to a sloppily constructed, and ill-advised narrative avenue into Amy’s mind was Bellow’s first misstep, followed by his abandonment of Harry’s direct relationship with Adletsky’s “brain trust” and finally, the excessive, mind-numbing attention paid to Amy’s ex-husband’s burial arrangements. The book takes off like a well-crafted and perfectly aimed bullet, careens into blunt storytelling practices, then ricochets irresponsibly off poorly constructed firmaments, managing to completely shred the narrative terrain. The bullet does its damage, then loses momentum and wedges into an endless scene between Amy and Harry that curtails its projected force prematurely, all without ever managing to hit its intended target.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Born Standing Up

It's been awhile since I've posted a book review, so this one's some time coming. I have read quite a few books in the past few months, just haven't written anything on them. Hope to change that in the coming months. For now, here's Steve Martin's latest, a memoir about his stand-up career.


Steve Martin, the star and writer of “The Jerk” and “Roxanne” -- before he sold out to Disney in order to churn out stale, unfunny junk like “Father of The Bride II” and “Bringing Down the House” -- remains one of the funniest stand-up comedians ever. Richard Pryor has him beat by just thismuch, and Robin Williams in his prime was lightning in a bottle, but Martin was the first comic I ever deified. In the mid-70s I listened to all of his albums -- again and again and again -- and memorized his routines, cajoled my mother to let me stay up for his appearances on SNL, and even got a hold of a Playboy just to read his interview (really!).

Reading his memoir, BORN STANDING UP: A COMIC’S LIFE, transported me back to that little kid in me, the one who thought an arrow through the head and “Well, excuuuuuse meeeee!” were two of the funniest things in the world. The book is rich with routines from his stand-up past, the visual gags I missed by only listening to him on the album, as well as all of the nonsensical and philosophical bits he performed so masterly live and on vinyl. All the hits are here (the wild and crazy guy, King Tut, Ramblin’ Man, cat juggling), which make those sections of the book a nostalgic walk into a time when “happy feet” were both funny and just plain silly.

Martin doesn’t begin at his peak, however. He begins at the beginning, recalling his difficult childhood in Orange County and the evolution of a life-damaging, conflicted relationship with his father. As the comedian explains, he never understood why Glenn Martin hated his young son, only that he did, and continued to belittle and denegrate him even when Martin had become a bona fide success. The cliché goes that behind every clown is a little boy crying on the inside, and it holds true for Martin, the pain within fueling his drive for success and his mastery at buffoonery. As the author writes, in prose that is alarmingly simple and inelegant, “I have heard it said that a complicated childhood can lead to a life in the arts. I tell you this story of my father and me to let you know I am qualified to be a comedian.”

The quote above serves as good representation of the kind of language Martin uses throughout – direct and factual, yet slightly awkward and lacking any literary flair. From the man who wrote beautifully lyrical sentences in SHOPGIRL and concocted a sophisticated sequence of scenes in the play PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE, the prose in his memoir is suprisingly flat and uninteresting. The stories are filled with terrific details and moments of true insight, but the writing itself feels unpolished and rushed. It’s hard to fathom why his prose is so bland, but perhaps he was attempting to write for a “mass audience” and felt that elevated language would detract from the life story and that to “keep it simple, stupid” was the best and most audience-friendly way to go. Whatever the reason, it was oft-putting to me and felt sloppy rather than inclusive or inviting.

The writing style aside, there is a lot to like in this book, from his early magician days at Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm, to his writing staff positions on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour” with Bob (“Super Dave” Osborne) Einstein, all the way into his struggles as the derided opening act to finally playing headliner to tens of thousands of slavish fans. Martin shares the moments of despair, joke sets that confound Johnny Carson and the talk-show circuit, as well as his moments of triumph and being “the funniest [he] ever was.” It is a journey of failed gigs and insurmountable heights, inner turmoil and outer lunacy, full of silly props, stunning wordplay and, oh yes, that always-present banjo. Because, sometimes, what we really need is a little “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” to put it all into perspective.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


In remembrance of the dropping of two A-bombs, Fat Man and Little Boy, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I submit this review of John Hersey's groundbreaking non-fiction account of the aftermath of that fateful day in the small Japanese town, 63 years ago today.


Journalist John Hersey’s non-fiction account of the atomic bomb blast on Hiroshima, Japan, was originally published in the August 31, 1946 edition of The New Yorker magazine, before becoming a best-selling book. In four chapters, Hersey covers a year in the life of six people—five natural-born Japanese and one German national—who survived the American attack on their beloved city. Chapter One, A Noiseless Flash, begins with the detonation of the bomb, “At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time” and ends moments later, shortly before the city catches on fire. The principal witnesses to the destruction are introduced: Miss Toshiko Susaki, “a clerk”; Masakazu Fujii, a doctor who works in a private hospital; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a widow with three children; Dr. Terufumi Susaki (unrelated to the clerk), who is on the staff of the Red Cross Hospital; Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a Methodist; and Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a Jesuit priest of Germany, which was an ally to Japan in World War II.

The book begins without any setup other than the time, place, and central—real-life—characters. The background to the conflict is conspicuously absent, as are facts regarding political, military or geographical concerns surrounding WWII. Hersey assumes the reader has lived through the war, is current on all the pertinent details of the air- and ground-battle, so he wastes no printed space on the world leaders, generals, or military brigades in favor of devoting all of his energy to the civilians. In particular, the innocent victims of the end-game move by American president Harry Truman are who most concern the writer, and the book gathers their personal, eyes-on-the-ground experiences into a compelling narrative that encompasses not only six people, but an entire city.

Each eyewitness has a distinct personality, a specific lifestyle before the blast, and a horrific story to tell of its aftermath. In the three chapters following the introductory chapter, their six individual odysseys for survival and understanding converge and overlap. The interlacing narrative structure gives the reader a full perspective of the days and months after the atomic attack on Hiroshima, with six varying viewpoints organized into one fluid tale.

Hersey takes the reader through the city’s “clouded air…giving off a thick, dreadful miasma” primarily through the subjective lens of those who saw it first-hand, but he doesn’t limit his reporting to that narrow scope. He also offers many objectively reported facts and provides a larger perspective on the situation throughout the book, revealing details that the denizens of the devastated city were never privvy to, but which expand the reader’s understanding of their closed narrative. When the reader learns that, directly following the atomic blast, sixty-five of a hundred and fifty doctors died instantly, and that the majority of the remaining M.D.s were wounded, the story takes on a heightened sense of dread that would be missing without that information. The plight of the survivors becomes even more grim for the reader at this point, and the drama of their personal journeys becomes more immediate and emotionally wrenching.

The narrative voice of the author is extremely matter-of-fact, without any “commenting” on the actions or thoughts of the six people, nor any subjective commentary on those responsible for the dropping of a bomb that killed over a hundred thousand Japanese and injured thirty-seven thousand more. He lets the experiences of those who were there speak for themselves, and despite the occasional contextual bit of information, Hersey depends solely on their testimonies to tell the story.

The details are often graphic, with physical descriptions of burned and bloody corpses, vomiting children, maimed and ravaged survivors, as well as drowned and bloated dead. The tone has a somberness throughout, with a sense of compassion for those who suffered this ordeal felt within the narrative. The gruesome facts are given in an unflinching manner, yet there is temperance shown by Hersey, with the focus not so much on the devastation, but on the selflessness and hope the people of Hiroshima display in the face of chaos and confusion. They suffer physical pain, emotional hardships, yet all emerge somehow more closely attached to their community and to their fellow human beings. As Hersey writes near the end of the book, “One thing that they (the six people) did seem to share…was a kind of elated community spirit…a pride in the way they and their fellow-survivors had stood up to a dreadful ordeal.” When the reader reaches the final page of this short yet powerful book, that dreadful ordeal has been illuminated, humanized, and masterfully realized by a writer whose personal agenda seems only to be the reporting of the untold truth.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Out Stealing Horses

One of the finest books I've read this year, Per Petterson's novel (translated by Ann Born) is newly out in paperback and worth picking up. Here's my review.


A finalist for the 2008 L.A. Times’ Book Prize, this complex yet wholly accessible story about youth and age, secrets and discovery, is thoroughly enjoyable. Told in the first-person voice of 67-yr.-old Trond Sander, the tale of life in Norway near the Sweden border is full of compassion and sadness, fueled by the recollections of the narrator when he was a 15-yr.-old boy in the summer of 1948. The novel jumps back and forth between the older Trond, at the brink of a new millennium, and his younger self, enamored with his unreadable father and desperate to understand his world.

The writing style is simple, lyrical almost; understated yet bursting with Hemingway-esque emotion buried under the objective narrative front. Trond is a man damaged by his past, searching for peace and solace in his new forest home, yet unable to escape the events of his youth that transformed him into a man and stripped him of his trusting nature and innocent outlook. He is a man plagued by doubts of his own worth, and simply awaiting his own, inescapable, demise.

The novel is built around a few specific “events” that illuminate young Trond’s summer of devastation, and aids the reader in unraveling the emotionless stance of the older narrator. It unfolds like a carefully constructed mystery, with clues doled out slowly yet at the perfect moments, aiding to the effect of a heightened resonance and meaning with each truth revealed. The writing is always effective, always crisp and engaging. The final passage of the novel is a bit unsatisfactory, ending with a whimper that feels like there are a few strands left unresolved, but the overall experience of the novel is one of engagement and discovery. A definite recommend.

Miss Lonelyhearts

A quick review of a book I read very recently.


Published in 1933, this short work by the author of THE DAY OF THE LOCUST shares a strikingly similar tone of despair and desperation with its Hollywood-focused counterpart, yet has its own unique voice, as well. The protagonist, referred to only by the name of his newspaper column, Miss Lonelyhearts, is drawn by Nathanael West as a pathetic yet endearingly earnest man, who strives to uplift the world of others as an attempt to improve the fortune of his own life. Unfortunately, he fails at every endeavor, presented as an educated, almost erudite man with scholarly thought, who cannot quite find his place or connect with those around him. He is full of impotent rage, repressed sexual drives, and a need to destroy everything that comes in contact with him.

The literary language is always interesting and unique, striving for heights of elegance, absurdity and truth. Miss Lonelyhearts’s boss and rival, Shrike, has the most entertaining dialogue, full of bluster and imagination, satire and insight. The book is a modernist’s dream, filled with desperate characters, awkward dramatic events, and a bleak, hopeless ending. Worth a read, despite (or because of) its savage, unrelenting nature.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Last Night At The Lobster

Time again for another book review, this one still in hardcover. It's LAST NIGHT AT THE LOBSTER by Stewart O'Nan, a writer I knew only as Stephen King's co-author of FAITHFUL, a non-fiction book about the Boston Red Sox and the pennant race to the 2004 World Series. I may someday read that, but until then, I'll have to be content with reviewing his latest work. Here it is.


O’Nan’s short novel, a finalist for the 2008 L.A. Times’ Book Prize, is a brisk read that manages to run out of dramatic steam a little more than halfway into its story. The set-up is simple: Darden Restaurants, Inc., the corporate owner of Red Lobster and Olive Garden, has decided to close its still-fairly successful Red Lobster in New Britain, Connecticut, five days before Christmas. Manny DeLeon, the general manager, is in charge of motivating his outgoing staff and staying open through a lunch and dinner service before shuttering the doors forever. Waitresses, a bartender, a hostess, and a kitchen staff full of shady loners all come together on this last day of operation, seen through Manny’s p.o.v. A sub-plot revolving around Manny’s infatuation with ex-lover and current employee Jacquie fills the gaps of action on the serving floor, and serves as the predictable denouement, as well.

There is a lot to like in this book, especially O’Nan’s rapid-fire delivery of character quirks and the realistic snap of his dialogue. Told in present-tense, there is an immediacy to every moment, unfolding in its undetermined way, hinting that anything can happen during this snow-covered day at the New England Red Lobster located across from the big shopping mall.

The problem, however, with this kind of a “concept” novel is that once the characters have been established and the ever-changing ticking-clock scenario is set in motion, there is really nothing left to compel the reader to finish the book. Yes, the Manny character has complexities, but they’re just not interesting enough to sustain even 146 pages. By a third of the way into the novel, the reader gets that Manny is devoted to the restaurant while simultaneously feeling betrayed by the company that employs him; that EVERY old person who comes into the place reminds Manny of his dead abuelita; that he has a baby on the way, but not with the woman he obsessively desires; that some of the employees will stay until the end of their shift, while others will leave before the night is over; and that the night will end and The Olive Garden will be Manny’s new professional home. So, knowing all of this early on, it becomes difficult to become very invested in the rest of the novel, particularly when all it really does is repeat these same dramatic and emotional beats over and over until the last page.

O'Nan's details of how a restaurant runs, from the back of the walk-in freezer to the front of the house, are amazingly accurate and real. If you’ve ever spent any time in food service, there are moments that will definitely resonate. Whether it’s the waitresses dealing with overbearing, oblivious customers, or the bartender lifting top shelf booze bottles and stashing them by the dumpsters when the manager isn’t looking, those of us who have worked in restaurants will recognize these people, these attitudes and these stories instantly. Perhaps the recognition will even be accompanied by the same bit of nostalgia that Manny displays for a job that kind of sucks, a support staff that is less than supportive, and a corporate boss who is only looking at its bottom line. Those warm fuzzy feelings are of course patently false, psychotic and illogical, yet are unmistakable and unavoidable, if you’ve ever set up your own station or had to yell, “Order up!” Whatever its faults (and there are more than a few), this book captures that twisted reality, in all its grease, grime and gratuities.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Paint It Black

My first review of a fairly new novel (there will be more, I promise), written by one of my favorite contemporary authors, Janet Fitch.


Janet Fitch, the author of WHITE OLEANDER, is a mistress of poetic prose and conductor of the wrenching, heartfelt emotional toil that she flourishes on her female characters. Her dialogue is so believable, rich and staggeringly real that it is hard to imagine that these characters exist only on the page and not out in the world. The Los Angeles she envisions in her novels is bruised and dented; a new model car with the paint already chipped and the interior gutted, but the radio is still intact and it’s playing nothing but memories.

Her second novel takes place in this L.A., shortly after the tragic killing of John Lennon in the New York of 1980. Josie Tyrell is a punker, a transplant from Bakersfield with a level of self-loathing that rivals any of Carl Jung’s most debased patients. A part-time nude model and occasional student-film actress, Josie lives the life of a free spirit, a young woman tied down by nothing other than her own limitations. When her boyfriend kills himself in a Twentynine Palms motel room, the fragility and aimlessness of her life is exposed, leading to a journey of self-examination and eventual transformation.

Her underground world of clubs and unabashed excess collides with the world of piano recitals and cultured restraint when she meets Michael Faraday, a painter with a complicated past. That past he shrouds in misdirection and half-answers, exposing an intimate yet ultimately falsified version of himself to the trusting, loving Josie. It is only upon his death, and after his depressed, suffering girlfriend enmeshes herself into the lives of Michael’s family, that new versions replace the old. Secrets are revealed, lies are unmasked, half-truths are shoved under the hot white glare of full exposure.

The most intriguing aspect of the novel is the complicated, oftentimes nasty and violent relationship between the two most grief-stricken survivors Michael leaves behind. From the venomous phone call Michael’s mother, Meredith, has with Josie shortly after the young man’s suicide, to the co-dependent relationship they cultivate as short-term roommates, every interaction between the two women is heady and filled with danger.

Meredith Loewy, concert pianist and possible psychopath, is one of the richest, most compelling and intriguing antagonists I’ve read since John Steinbeck’s Cathy Ames in EAST OF EDEN. She is at once sympathetic and completely despicable, a woman with more pain to bear than she is capable of carrying on her own. Josie becomes her crutch, as well as a substitute child, there to simultaneously remind Meredith of the son she once had and the son she no longer possesses. This description of her, from halfway through the novel, illustrates the majesty of her beauty, as well as the crushing magnitude of her affliction:

“The green eyes, their huge startled expression, the length and curl of the lashes, the slow flick of wide eyelid. The ache of loss, profound as if someone had gone into her bones and scooped out the marrow.”

The novel is filled with this same amazing detail and language, rhythm and mood. The overall tone is a tad bleak -- which is unavoidable when dealing with suicide and its effects on those left behind as its subject -- and at times I found it difficult to emerge from the haze of depression and disillusionment that permeates the novel. That said, it was very much an experiential read for me, sucking me straight into the inner torment of Josie and her struggles to make sense of Michael’s death and her own, out of control, life.

“She had to stay in the icy place, the numb place, and their warmth threatened to melt her just when she needed the cold” is a perfect example of this depth of sorrow and feeling that drives Fitch’s novel. At times, Josie’s suffering is almost unbearable to the reader. But I think that may just be the point. It forces you to engage, rather then look away, challenges you to walk four hundred pages in the combat boots of a girl most people would normally ignore on the street. Josie is a force to be reckoned with, and one to be compassionate towards, to find empathy for.

In this particular passage, a favorite of mine, there are echoes of Virginia Woolf’s TO THE LIGHTHOUSE:

“Nobody knew anyone else’s private world. In the end, they were all alone as inmates on death row, side by side. Sometimes you could get a look at one another with a little pocket mirror, cell to cell, but that was all.”

What Fitch manages to do in this novel is give us a look into the private worlds of Josie Tyrell and Meredith Loewy (and even, to some degree, Michael Faraday) with a tool much more powerful than a mere pocket mirror. She illuminates their interiors with a klieg light, offering us an effulgent gaze into their very essence, while being mindful to pull back a little – just a little – in order to allow the characters to remain at their heightened level of verisimilitude. Leaving their realism intact. And their resonance alive.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Paper & Ashes

My favorite simile of the day comes courtesy of PAINT IT BLACK:

"Birds flew across the windshield like a page of music."

Janet Fitch's second novel will be the next book review I post, but until then, here are two short, older reviews of books I count among my favorites.


The BEST book I have ever read. An amazing, overwhelmingly emotional and masterful story of a young man's impoverished, hard and oppressive life. Tracking the author's life from the age of 2 to 17, memoirist and Pulitzer-Prize winning Frank McCourt brings us directly into this world, face-to-face with the dirt, the poverty and the struggle of a family trying to survive. What's so stunning about this book is not that the author survived such a traumatic upbringing to actually tell his tale, but that he remembers and relates the episodes of his childhood from the perspective of a child. So even though we "hear" the adults bitching and moaning about their lots in life, and see McCourt's drunken father as he drinks away the family's food money, we "live" the experiences through the wonder and magic and innocence of a boy who knows pain but also the simple joys of living.

One minute the book brings you to the verge of tears -- the next, you're laughing out loud from McCourt's playful, marvelously funny prose. If you've only seen the movie (which I haven't, but hear is terrible), don't hold it against the book. My favorite book and one I recommend to everyone who cares to listen.


A little gem of a book, revolving around love not only of the written word, but of the compact, paper-bound package that it comes in. Written by Carlos Maria Dominguez in Spanish and translated into English, the tale explores the various stages of love, obsession, mystery and heartbreak that accompany a life devoted to the collection of books.

The first-person narrator's academic colleague and part-time lover has been tragically run over by a car while carrying a book of Emily Dickinson poems, an event that triggers an odyssey of sorts and leads the narrator and reader both into a world of literary delight and compulsion.

A short but sweet ride, from a writer who obviously holds a lot of appreciation for the lives of novel readers, as well as a bit of ambivalence concerning the acquisition and collection that goes into creating the abundant personal libraries so many of us have in our homes. The care and feeding of these physical housings of imagination and knowledge tread the fine line, Dominguez posits, between respectful, loving adoration and obsessive compulsion. There are also a number of really interesting, evocative drawings by Peter Sis that accompany the text and adorn the front and back cover of this book about dreams and nightmares.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Postcards and Corduroy

My favorite simile of the day, this one from Junot Diaz' new novel, THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO:

"For Oscar, high school was the equivalent of a medieval spectacle, like being put in the stocks and forced to endure the peltings and outrages of a mob of deranged half-wits..."

Since the tone (so far that I've read) of Diaz' novel is comic, I figured I'd post a couple of reviews of books I found particularly amusing, even outright fall-on-my-face funny. Both reviews are from books I read in 2004 and painstakingly re-created here for your own amusement.


Another terrific slew of non-fiction essays by Mr. NPR himself, David Sedaris. Unlike his last book, "Me Talk Pretty One Day" -- which only spent half the book on his family (the other half on Paris and his boyfriend Hugh) -- this one is almost all about the Sedaris family, from Mom & Pop to Paul, Amy, Lisa, Gretchen and Tiffany. Culled from his contributions to Esquire, GQ, The New Yorker and "This American Life," the collection of 22 essays is a quick, satisfying read.

The first two pieces, "Us & Them" & "Let It Snow" get the raucous laughter flowing immediately. "Full House" is pervy but fun, reminding me a bit of A.M. Homes's style of writing and subject matter. "Slumus Lordicus" & "The Girl Next Door" are both serious departures for the writer, and they both strike a somber, unforgettable note. "The End of the Affair" is a sweet little morsel of a tale about Hugh & David seeing the Neil Jordan film in Paris.

A few of the siblings get starring roles in a few of the stories, all of which are very fun and tell us a lot about why Sedaris possesses that particular temperament and twisted sense of humor -- Lisa in "Repeat After Me"; Paul in 2 stories, "Rooster at the Hitchin' Post" & "Baby Einstein"; and his completely wacked out younger sister Tiffany in "Put a Lid On It."

A definite recommend and a summer fave.


Carrie Fisher's first novel is a fun, quick read, full of the actress's trademark wit, charm and bluster. The story of Suzanne Vale, a thinly "veiled" (Valed?) version of Fisher herself, starts in a rehab facility, shortly after she's had her stomach pumped. Journal entries tell her tale, then share space with Alex's "running monologue in his head" -- a TV writer with a bad cocaine habit who finally goes over the edge one night doing coke, ecstasy AND heroin. His portion of the book is manic, frantic and fall-down funny. Once Vale gets out of the center, the narrative shifts to a strictly dialogue section, as Suzanne gets involved with a Hollywood producer and sex-addict who can't find time for commitment, only sex and movies.

The last shift in narration comes as Suzanne starts fiming a "B" action/comedy flick, and the story of her life is told in third-person. Here the dialogue starts to feel too "clever" and "glib," but the emotional resonancy climbs up a notch and the book sails through to a satisfying ending. Not as brilliant as her second book, "Surrender The Pink" (one of my favorite books), but well worth the time.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Lush Trains on the Mystic River

I’d like to start this one off with my favorite simile of the day, from Richard Price’s new novel, LUSH LIFE:

Directly inside, one of the Yemeni brothers, Nazir, tall and bony with an Adam’s apple like a tomahawk, was playing cashier-doorman…

Now, two more book reviews -- one you've probably heard of and seen the movie version, the other probably not so much. Both books I read back in 2003 and 2004, respectively, but they seem to fit in with Price and his street-savvy, crisply written style. Dennis Lehane's MYSTIC RIVER is up first, followed by Pete Dexter's TRAIN. Both reviews are fairly short and painless.


A pretty involving book, from beginning to end. Lehane's writing is lean, crisp and very readable. The three main characters are very distinct, even though Sean does lose a bit of his "voice" going from boy (in the prologue) to man (as a cop in the mystery). I figured out the two main "mysteries" solutions earlier than I would have liked, which gave the last third of the book a bit of a predictable nature, but overall I enjoyed the book. A lot darker than I expected, more raw and gritty than I would have been led to believe, based on the overwhelmingly positive reactions I got from (mostly) older women who had read it and saw me with the book throughout the week.

SPOLIER ALERT! If you haven't read the book or seen the movie yet, you may not want to go on with this review.

I love that Jimmy starts off a brutal, wicked guy and, try as he might, never quite becomes redeemable or even that particularly likeable. Even with the compassion built-in with the death of his daughter (a great device that Lehane uses to all kinds of wonderful effect, both story-wise and character-wise), Jimmy still can't escape his own evil nature and he slinks back to join the slime he came from by the end.

Dave is a terrific character, although the whole "Boy" thing isn't explored as much as I thought it could have, but his demise is played out very nicely. For a few pages, there's the idea that he may not get whacked, but then the brutal nature of the antagonist comes shining through and Dave feeds Mystic River with his body and soul.

Depressing stuff, but the best scene in the book has to be the tense, violence-in-the-air conversation between Jimmy and father-in-law Savage at his daughter's wake. Great stuff there. The wrap-up scene at the parade is also nicely played, leaving all kinds of doors open for another book.


One of the most terrific opening hundred or so pages of a book I've read in a while. The main characters, Packard and Train, are more real and true than any literary creations I've come across in some time. The prose and tone reminded me of James Ellroy mixed with Elmore Leonard, but with more heft, more grounded reality to the characters and the situations.

Unfortunately, about halfway through the novel, things start to fall apart. The situations that were set up early already begin to pay off, with nothing majorly interesting set up in their place. Then the whole thing meanders. Packard is never explored enough for empathy to build or interest to last about him, so whenever he's around, I wished to be in Train's world instead. The writing, no doubt, is fantastic, and I would definitely read another of Dexter's book, most likely "Paris Trout" but I thought this would be the best book I'd read in a while -- instead, it turned out to be only half a great book. Which, by all accounts, ain't half bad.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Gonzo & Howl

Making up for lost time here on The Spot. Two reviews, one on Hunter S. Thompson's obscure book, SCREWJACK, and the other on Allen Ginsberg's classic beat poem, HOWL. The first is short and sweet. The second, like the long poem, is a bit more, shall we say...involved.

Hope you dig 'em.


The gonzo journalist himself, also known as Raoul Duke, Thompson sees his 1991 collector copy pressing of three short pieces released into the mainstream by Simon & Schuster for 2000. Made up of one whacked-out introduction, followed by the journalistic, stream-of-consciousness-heavy "Mescalito" from 1969, and two 90s-era short fiction stories -- "Death of A Poet" & "Screwjack" -- this slim volume is packed full of outrageous lunacy and demented wordplay.

The first selection is by far the best, capturing the rat-a-tat approach that Thompson made famous in his "Fear and Loathing" books and in magazine pieces like "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved." Checked into an eleventh-floor room at the Continental Hotel on the Sunset Strip, Thompson strolls out onto the balcony to chit-chat with hippies, witness police brutality and listen to the cacophonous street sounds of L.A. in the late 60s. And then things get interesting, when he runs out of time, money and dexedrine and decides to reject the Ritalin in favor of mescaline mixed with speed. The wild drug trip that follows, faithfully recorded by the madman himself on a stolen typewriter, is mesmerizing, terrifying and exhilarating. A moment in time, an experience seen firsthand in a stream-of-consciousness, second-by-second blow that has much of the same power of prose that Tom Wolfe displayed in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" and that Ken Kesey channeled for The Chief's opening narrative rant in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

The other two pieces are both fictional and lack the immediacy and brazen truth that his journalistic work overflows with. "Screwjack" is particularly disturbing, but for all the wrong reasons. The whole book is a fun ride, though, despite the clunky second half. "Hell's Angels" or "The Rum Diary" will probably be my next foray into Thompson territory.


"Seeking Jazz or Sex or Soup"

While Allen Ginsberg’s three-part, long poem "Howl" is borne of a particular moment in American history -- the Joseph McCarthy congressional witch hunts; the cold war with Russia (which includes, to a degree, the Korean War); social and racial unrest -- it is still possible to read and appreciate the work without the context of the time. The staccato beats of the stanzas, the raw and potent language, as well as the cross-country travels in the poem are all worth exploring in detail outside of the realm of Ginsberg’s cultural experience. With powerful imagery, specific American locales, and references to John Milton, William Blake, Neal Cassady and The Bible, the 1956 poem ushered in not only the age of Beat poetry, but a lasting piece of fury, compassion and madness.

The opening line, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness” sets in motion a seemingly endless list of unnamed, but mostly male, people whom the narrator apparently knew who lost their sanity in the streets, subways, back alleys and bars of America. Written as a single, run-on sentence, the rhythm scheme is structured as mini-tales, each passage of a new, mind-blowing experience beginning simply with “who,” connecting back to that first line of the poem. The sense of dislocation within familiar terrain is the theme repeated throughout, with places in the heartland like Laredo, Texas and Arkansas as sinister and terrifying as Chicago and New York City. The people of the narrator’s generation come from and travel to all points on the U.S. map, but share the common states of sorrow and confusion, unable to feel grounded within landscapes that no longer hold the same security and dependency that they once did. When the “angelheaded hipsters […] / […] bare their brains to Heaven under the El” and “[drink] turpentine in Paradise Alley,” while others “whore through Colorado in myriad stolen night-cars,” the America that once made sense is transformed into a jumble of seedy and depressed places where screaming at God, poisoning oneself, and having meaningless sex for an almighty, capitalistic dollar is the current norm.

Time, space, eternity, the universe and Plato are invoked throughout the narrator’s journey across America, allowing Ginsberg to delve into the big questions asked by man, albeit without attempting to directly answer any of them. He is ambitious in his reachings, detailing the concerns and experiences of an entire generation, his only judgments coming in the form of labeling the various acts performed as the actions of an insane group of people. He then follows the list of his generation’s misdeeds with a section devoted to Moloch, invoking the biblical Canaanite who also shows himself in poems by Coleridge and Milton.

The third and final section addresses Carl Solomon, a real-life friend to Ginsberg, to whom the poem is dedicated. It continues the societal course of madness to its logical conclusion, with Solomon in a Rockland, N.Y. mental hospital receiving treatment for the destruction of his, the best, mind.

First Blog (finally!)

Hi All --

Well, let's hope the future of my stint here on Blogspot is more positive than its beginning. I actually created this site on March 20th, but was quickly shut down for "potentially being a spammer." The request to get my blog open and operable took OVER 3 WEEKS. Frustrating is the nicest euphemism I can use to express my feelings about it.

Anyway, wipe the slate clean. Here's my intro:

I'm a writer and undergraduate student at UCLA, with a current blog going at MySpace (www.myspace.com/justinmcfarr) that details my family life, school life and writing life. Here at Controlled Chaos, I plan to focus on books and writing. Reviews of books I've read, pieces of my own raw, experimental work, and an occasional rant or rave. Essentially, a sophisticated dumping ground for my thoughts, feelings, ideas, and current preoccupations.

Here's hoping you check in periodically. I'll do my best to keep it fresh and worth your eyeballs' time.

First off, a review of Viken Berberian's DAS KAPITAL: A NOVEL OF LOVE AND MONEY MARKETS, which I read in January:

The title of the novel is a direct play on the Marx/Engels non-fiction analysis on capitalism and its critical applications in society and on the laboring man. Berberian, who has written for the NY & LA Times, as well as for The Financial Times, knows his way around global markets and hedge fund traders, which he exploits to the fullest here.

The action takes place from Manhattan's Wall Street to Marseille's mean streets, revolving around three main players: trader Wayne, architecture student Alix, and the mysterious Corsican. Global economies, terrorism and e-mail connect the three players, cocooned in a literary style that is at once cold and calculating while managing to also be very lyrical and haunting.

It reminded me of a book from the capitalistic 80s that was never written (something that McInerney or Easton Ellis would have written if they weren't so solipsistic) and had tones of narrative structure and tenseness that Alex Garland achieved in the wonderful "The Tesseract."

Ultimately, all of the pieces don't quite come together in the way the author intends, and I was left a little hollower when I finished than when I began... but the writing is tremendous, the juxtaposition between poetic language and stock-trading terminology a near-to-masterful feat. I was never really invested in the characters, yet I followed the author's lead regardless, and let the stellar writing carry me through to the story's conclusion.