The Book of Air and Shadows– review on Goodreads

The Book of Air and ShadowsThe Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the novel I wish I had read, a few weeks ago when I was binging and I read three books in one week, as opposed to taking almost two weeks to read this one book. It was good, and would have been better, I think, if I had torn into it and taken vicious sloppy bites instead of the nibbling I did, barely nutritious. Maybe I’ll get off my high horse and read it again someday. One can only hope.

Which as screeds go is not very compelling, I know: we live in a nation where propaganda decries/lionizes extremes, and books that are good are supposed to be so good that we can’t put them down (insert several sophomoric exclamation points here). So ask yourself if a work is separate from the viewer. My position in the past on the whole “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” thing has been that nothing exists that we don’t internalize, but let me temper that stance, as it were, by suggesting that self-awareness can warp the eye that beholds.

Look, what I’m trying to say is I really liked The Book of Air and Shadows. It’s part Da Vinci Code, part Maltese Falcon (one character won’t stop talking about how life is a movie, and makes many self-references to how what he’s going through is very Maltese Falcon– or Chinatown– like). It’s about a manuscript, and old letters, and book binding, and Shakespeare and scholarship. It’s not about books, per se, but the title can’t help remind one of Zafron’s The Shadow of the Wind, and there’s similarities there, too. Hell, toss in some similarities to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the research bits) and while you’re at it, The Name of the Rose.

This is not to say the book is a “tour de force,” no. I’m the one beholding all those other books in here, my own experiences and takes on them, and I’m not trying to say Michael Gruber was trying to cram them all into one novel. He’s basically written a mystery, a twisted plot, flawed heroes, femme fatales, Madonna figures, the mafia, and some existential angst in the guise of reformed religion and the meaning of art. It’s juicy stuff, I tell you. Please, don’t do what I did and take your time. Read it all at once.

The novel’s divided along three character lines: epistolary sections from a 17th century soldier-turned-spy, third-person narration over the shoulder of a book-shop clerk/wannabe filmmaker, and first-person narration of a philandering lawyer/weightlifter. There’s an intriguing mix of styles in there, including what I’ve come to call, lately, the Jonathan Franzen tell-don’t-show style (and that’s a compliment, by the way.) You know what I mean- the way people tell stories to each other without trying to get all poetic and descriptive. Actually, the last quarter of the novel takes on that mien almost to a fault, but like I said, I took too damn long to read the book, so maybe my beholding eye was just weary at that point.

And it turns out the writer is from Seattle. I have no idea of that sways your wanting to read this in the least—if it does, please ignore this last paragraph.

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My Uncle the Clown– fake book review, not on Goodreads

I didn’t finish any books this week, so no review. Not a real one, anyway. I think I’ll just go ahead and write a review for a book that doesn’t exist. I recently finished My Uncle the Clown, a zombie novel by Efram Kimbabwe. I don’t know what ethnicity Kimbabwe is, and I’m not even sure it matters. I do know that too often books are published because they have a certain ethnic voice, or a target ethnic audience, and they might be otherwise lacking in readability. Sort of an affirmative action for fiction, except instead of it being an attempt at giving people a chance to overcome centuries-old racial barriers, this is just an attempt at cashing in on itinerant chauvinism. As a middle aged middle class middle educated married white male with no children, I am only speaking from a position of jealousy and resentment.

And finally, a segue: jealousy and resentment are the main themes in My Uncle. What starts out to be simple survival-horror flipped on its head turns into a screed for how you don’t have to be molested to have a crappy childhood. I guess some people don’t know how good they’ve got it. Perhaps there’s a subtle message here, that they war between the haves and the have-nots was finally ended, with the haves getting what they’ve always had and the have-nots getting nothing but a voice. And so the language we all speak in is a language of deprivation. You can have all the comforts of a privileged life, you just can’t say you have it– you can only talk about what you don’t have.

Or something like that. I found myself glossing over the more philosophical sections of the book, trying to get to the juicy parts. I loved it when the main character stole his uncle’s clown uniform and dropped into the slave pens to look for his lost notebook. I accidentally read another review online that suggested this was an allusion to Daniel in the lion’s den. I don’t know anything about that. Daniel had something to do with the prophecy of the coming of Jesus, I think. And come to think of it, Kimbabwe does use the word “cross” a lot in that chapter, since the main character keeps moving around the slave pens, looking for his journal… and the whole time I was waiting for them to wake up, to go all Human on him, forcing him to go into zombie mode and eat one or two of them.

I won’t give away if he does or not. I’ll just say that it occurs to me now that more than one person has pointed out the whole Jesus/Zombie connection, and now I’m thinking I need to go back and re-read this book. But I probably won’t. I mean, even if it turns out to have been a work of utter genius, I don’t speak genius very well. Genius is seeing things that aren’t there anyway, right? And while I can read into things with the best of them, I went to Barnes and Noble today and took pictures with my cell phone of some books I’d like to sample, not to mention that I promised a friend I’d read Barney’s Version as way to apologize for making unfounded assumptions about the movie that was based on the book itself.

None of which has anything to do with whether you should read My Uncle the Clown or not. On the one hand, of course you should. Kimbabwe’s prose is a bit clumsy in places, like he was too eager to get his ideas down without bothering to take the time to properly contextualize what he was saying in a consistent manner– but not so often that it becomes a problem. It’s not a distraction, and you can sort of get used to it (not unlike what one character says about eating brains: you get used to it. You don’t learn to love it, but you get used to it).

On the other hand, no, of course you shouldn’t read it, the book doesn’t exist. I made it up as an excuse to write, a fake review, to get my 750 words done for the day. Kimbabwe might even be your favorite writer of all time, but you still shouldn’t read this book. Kimbabwe himself doesn’t even exist. I just took the name Efram Zimbalist, changed it to Zimbabwe, then changed that to Kimbabwe. Who was Efram Zimbalist? And actor, I think. I’m probably spelling his name wrong. I think his daughter or granddaughter was the other main character on that show Remington Steele.

Which reminds me: if you do read My Uncle the Clown, the scene with the zombie 007 is hilarious. 3/5 stars.

Implants Versus Zombies

fiction by Jason Edwards

Dear Barbara: as you know, I died last week, so you can imagine my surprise when I found myself a few days later, clawing my way out of the earth. I didn’t have much sense of self at the time, only an insatiable hunger, but I’m certain I looked a fright: clothes hanging off of me in states of accelerated disrepair, flesh ripped and torn in places, bones exposed, etc. Hair matted with dirt. Maggots and the like in evidence. A fright, I said? I must have looked a horror!

And that hunger I mentioned: terrible. Terrific, even. I didn’t know what I wanted until I saw it: a young woman running down the street, blonde, screaming. I chased her of course, and eventually realized there were others like me also chasing her. I use the word chase, but it was hardly that, as all we could manage was a rotting shuffle. It was maddening, and most of us, me included, moaned loudly as we pursued.

Somehow, we caught her. I mean she would disappear, we would follow her scent, then lose that and sort of just maintain momentum of direction, then she would reappear again. She’d hide behind a piece of cardboard, or on top of a roof. I vaguely remember a crowd of us pounding against the glass of a door at the mall, until finally it broke and we poured in, reaching, clawing, grasping. There were gunshots, and the firing of a shot gun. Heads exploded. It was rather exciting.

There were people other than the blonde, running this way and that as well, but many of us were focused only on the girl. Something about the way she ran. It was almost as ineffective as the way we ran. She seemed to fall down a lot. She sobbed more or less constantly. And I don’t know how to put this: she was not built appropriately. It’s hard to say how, though. She was top heavy? I mean, she was not fat, she was sort of skinny (when we finally got her, there wasn’t much to go around). But her chest was not the right shape for the rest of her body. No matter how she ran, or jumped, or fell and got back up, her chest didn’t really heave and bounce like it should have.

I know its cliché, Barbara, to say that in horror films the black guy always gets killed first, or in science fiction its always the red shirts. But the whole time I and the others were chasing her– and it seemed like days– there was this inevitability about it all. Like she deserved to die? I don’t know if that’s a very nice thing to say, but I’ve been dead for a week now, and have only had the one meal– the girl– and perhaps I’m a bit irritable, so forgive me. And I admit, it could have just been a kind of zealousness on my part that made me so confidant she’d be my dinner, eventually and soon. Such hunger! Another cliché, I’m afraid: it was a force of nature.

We kept at it, all of us; what else could we do. Some of us became the worse for wear. Clothes became more and more ripped to pieces, more and more of our graying flesh was torn from our bodies, black ichor pouring from open wounds, and so forth. Is a zebra a white horse with black stripes, or a black horse with white stripes? Where we bodies with skeletons exposed, or skeletons holding up dripping tufts of decaying muscle? But we never stopped shuffling.

A shotgun blast rang out in the night, and I don’t know if any of us had enough sense left to make anything of it, except that it meant something warm and delicious was nearby. We went after it. Through a wooden fence, hammered into splinters. Through a field thick with dead grass and desiccated bushes. Across a dried creek. Some fell—they continued to claw their way along. Eventually we came onto a scene, a camp fire almost burnt out, that woman on her knees, sobbing, shotgun in her lap, bruises rising on her cheeks and arms, shirt ripped half off. A man in front of her, pants pushed down to his thighs, a gigantic hole in his back that went straight through to where it had come from his chest. The smell was invigorating.

She obviously hadn’t seen us until we were right on top of her (despite our moaning). Some of us jumped on the blasted man, and the sounds of their ripping, gouging, chewing was nearly erotic– that is, erotic if your only emotion is hunger. I and a few others grabbed at the girl. She tried to run, but was blind in the night, tripped once again, and we had her. We had her, Barbara, we had every last morsel of her.

Turns out her breasts were fake, and you might have laughed when one of us bit into them and they deflated sadly. I ate mostly from her leg and buttocks. One fellow seemed keen to crack her skull and eat her brains. I’m tempted to make jokes about blondes and brains, but you’re a blonde, Barbara, I know, and never much appreciated that sort of thing.

And since we’re on the subject of you now, Barbara, I suppose I should get to the point of this letter. It’s been a few days since I fed, and even when I was eating that poor girl, my hunger was never slaked. Not even a little. If anything, I’m hungrier than ever. None of us has seen a living soul since that night, and so we’re left to wander around, to try and deal with our own brains rotting in our heads, decay robbing us of memory and reason.

But I still have some memories, and I remember you. I remember once thinking how delicious you would be if I ever had to eat you. And now I think I do. I have to eat you.

I’m coming to get you, Barbara.

Apathy and Other Small Victories — review on Goodreads

Apathy and Other Small VictoriesApathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have to apologize because this review will not be very good. Not that my other reviews are amazing– it’s just that I finished reading Apathy and Other Small Victories over a week ago, and I put off writing the review since I am only doing them weekly. It’s a stupid reason for putting it off, especially considering how good Apathy was. I need to check over my list of what I’ve read so far since January, but I’m pretty sure it’s the best thing I’ve read this year.

As far as I can tell it’s the Paul Neilan’s only published novel. Halfway through reading it I looked him up, found his website, and noted that the last update was 2008. Something about a new book coming soon, which seems to have been a damned dirty lie. Okay, not a lie, but I’m trying to express my frustration. Writers like this should write more. They have a duty. Even if it means self-publishing and earning nothing. Damn it.

The book is predicated on a kind of plot, one of those stories where the present action only goes for a few hours, but the main character spends a lot of the time reminiscing. That’s the first half, anyway. The second half picks up and takes this plot the rest of the way. I’m totally going to steal this structure.

And the writing is just so good. Just so good that I end up writing horrible sentences like “and the writing is just so good” to describe it. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, that wit that we usually only see in hard-boiled detective novels, snappy little sayings and brutally hilarious descriptions, comparisons, asides that don’t distract because that’s the whole reason we’re reading this thing.

All if it couched perfectly in a story about a regular guy doing his thing which is nothing at all and as little of it as possible. There’s a murder mystery, and a cast of eccentric characters to fill it all in. But don’t misread what I’m saying, don’t take this horrible review as an apt description of Apathy. This is not an absurd novel, or a farce. I don’t even want to call it a dark comedy. I don’t know what I want to call it.

I want to call it the first novel in a prolific writing career, is what I want to call it. I even wrote Neilan an email asking him to write more. That’s only the second time in my life I’ve written to a writer. Five stars is not enough.

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The Average American Male — review on Goodreads

The Average American MaleThe Average American Male by Chad Kultgen

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m curious about your opinion concerning brilliant people. Can brilliant people see art in places that the rest of us reject? Let’s say some brilliant professor decided to “teach” Twilight, for example. (I have not read that book myself, but I am basing this discussion on the popular opinion that it is not a good book. If you disagree– if you’re brilliant, or if you think we’re all being snobs, then substitute a different book into this discussion). Do you think that he could read in to it, find some theme, some thread, something that shows, through careful explication, some real depth and artistry?

I don’t know. I do believe that most self-named “scholars” do exactly the above, and if they were told that Twilight was actually written by Saul Bellow, they’d find a way to show you how brilliant they were by showing you how brilliant Twilight is. So it’s not a question of whether that happens, its just a question of whether you think beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. Or, is beauty truth and thus truth beauty.

I ask because I read The Average American Male and I found nothing much redeeming about it. Halfway through the book I was so ready to enjoy the main character’s punishment by the hoisting via a petard he’d made himself. A bed he’d built and now must sleep in. But he didn’t, and it’s not that I was dissatisfied, it was just that I didn’t see the point of it all. To call the main character a misogynist is like calling Orson Wells fat. It might be true, but it hardly describes him.

And yet, what else is he, this average American male, except someone who thinks about, has, or prepares to have sex during almost every waking moment. When he’s not getting some or trying to get some he’s either taking matters into his own hands, or thinking about doing so. If this is average, I am ashamed to say I never achieved that average of several ejaculations per day for weeks on end.

The book is set in L.A. and has almost but not quite the same tone as a Bret Easton Ellis in the 90s. The book is mostly about sex and has almost but not quite the same feel as a Nicholson Baker in the 90s. And this is where I’m curious about the whole “brilliant people see art everywhere” thing. I mean, I’m not saying I’m brilliant, I’m just wondering if there’s someone out there who is who can tell me “what you’ve gleaned re: Ellis and Baker is, actually, woefully off the mark, son. Maple-syrup soaked pancakes may have the same name as maple-cured bacon, but they don’t taste anything alike.”

I’m not sure who I could recommend this book too. Maybe people who think they like to read but secretly don’t, who want to hold up a weathered tome and try to defend it and fail but feel like they should at least get credit for trying. You know, people who don’t like being stereotyped but actually probably deserve to be. In other words: average American males.

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, review on Goodreads

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar ChildrenMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Last week I read and wrote about a children’s book, and wondered why we, adults, like to read them. This week I read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and I’m finding that line blurry once again. I don’t think Ransom Rigg’s novel is necessarily for adults—that’s the default, right? I saw the book on the new arrivals shelf at Barne’s & Noble, was intrigued by the cover, intrigued by the use of old photographs within the text, and once I read the sample on my e-reader, decided to keep going. Nowhere was there anything that made me think that this was a book for kids.

Until I was about halfway through it. The main character is a teenager, and the other characters are either adults seen from his perspective (unlikeable) or a bunch of little kids possessed of fascinating “peculiarities.” So it’s about kids, is quasi-fantastical, deals with time travel and a mysterious island and other tropes that seem to indicate: meant for younger readers.

Is it important to make the distinction? Maybe. If I’m going to speak to how well the book was written, or how well the writer’s ideas were executed, maybe I should say something like “teenagers will identify with Jacob’s struggles to balance his experience with adult incredulity, while adult readers will enjoy the return to innocence in this coming-of-age tale with a twist.” But I’m not writing back-of-the-dust-jacket blurbs here.

I’ll say this instead: it’s a quick read, interesting enough, sets itself up for sequels, and gets three stars because Riggs tells his story right without taking any real risks. That’s a poor review, actually, but the best I can do, for now. You see, Peculiar Children was not the book I expected, and I’m only just now realizing I don’t even know what my expectations were.

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