Ring (Book Review)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, ANd Views Are My Game. Continue reading


Glorious, Buffalo Trail & Silver City (Book Review)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game. Continue reading

Boy, Snow, Bird (Book Review)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Don’t you just hate it when adaptations of beloved stories take huge liberties with their source material? No? Well, some people must, because critics everywhere went nuts over the fact that the subject of today’s review, Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird, a supposed re-telling of the Snow White story, didn’t follow the plot of the original fairy tale. But, here’s the thing: if you actually read this book, you realize that it’s not really Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Sure, it’s got elements of the Snow White mythos in it–there’s a “wicked” stepmother who dislikes her beautiful, fair-skinned step-daughter, and frequent references to mirrors and apples–but it is ultimately its own animal. It’s got its own story, its own universe, and its own resolution. I honestly think that the only reason it got marketed as a Snow White re-telling is that the publishers didn’t know what to make of this surreal, highly original work, and decided to give potential buyers a categorization they could understand.

But, all that aside, you’re probably wondering what this book is about, and more importantly, if it’s any good. Well, concerning plot, the novel begins with a young blonde white woman named Boy–trust me, the color of her hair and skin are actually important–running away from her abusive father in New York, and moving up to a small town in New England. There she meets Arturo, a jewelry maker with a daughter from a previous marriage, they court, fall in love, and get married. Everything seems hunky dory until Boy has their baby, a little girl named bird, who is born Black. Boy doesn’t know what to make of this until Arturo explains to her that he and his whole family are actually fair-skinned African Americans who have been passing for White in order to avoid discrimination. This whole story takes place back in the 1960s, so race is a huge deal here. Now, at this point, you’d think the story is going to be about Boy overcoming her prejudices, and learning to love her husband and step-daughter, Snow, who, like her father, is White passing. BUt it isn’t. We just jump ahead 12 years, and find ourselves being told the story from the perspective of Bird. Apparently, Boy sent Snow away to live with her Black family, and Bird doesn’t know her sister because her mother doesn’t let Snow come back. All this seems like good material for conflict–maybe Bird will run away to be with her sister, maybe Snow will come back and kill Boy–but, once again, the author does nothing with it. We just read some of Bird’s diary entries, as well as some letters she and Snow exchange, and then the narration switches back to Boy, who explains that Snow is living with them again, and that she and her step-daughter have made up. But what is perhaps the most infuriating about this novel, besides its wasted dramatic potential, is the last fifteen pages. They throw in a brand new story element that, while it does, admittedly, explain some weird aspects from earlier in the book, changes the tone and themes of the novel completely. Imagine if you were reading a book that, up until the last ten pages, seemed like a straightforward murder-mystery, but then, in the very last section, was revealed to actually be an Alien invasion thriller. If you can imagine the amount of shock and frustration you’d feel at something like that, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of how nonplused I was at the end of “Boy, Snow, Bird,” because that’s basically what the author, Helen Oyeyemi, did. She took a seemingly straight-forward drama about race and identity, and just flipped it on its head.

Now, before I go any further, I just want to be clear and say that I don’t think this novel is all bad. The characters are interesting, and you get to know the three women of the title pretty well. In addition to this, Oyeyemi has a unique and quirky voice that I find very enjoyable to read. The problem is that, very often, it feels like she is focused more on showing us how quirky, off beat and original she is than telling a story that makes logical sense. For instance, there are several scenes in the novel where characters describe not being able to see their reflections in the mirror, as well as conversations they had with spiders. (I’m not kidding about that latter part.) And while you could make the argument that the mirror bit is in keeping with the overall theme of identity being a fluid concept that isn’t always clear, the spider part contributes nothing to the overall narrative, and never gets explained. So, when you combine these odd, unexplained story elements, with the completely out-of-left-field ending, you get a novel that is entertaining to read, but ultimately frustrating.

For that reason, I have decided to give Boy, Snow, Bird a 6 out of 10. It’s not the best thing out there, but it isn’t half bad either. If you can accept the strangeness, you’ll probably like it. If you can’t, well, do your best to avoid it.

American Gods (Book Review)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

And if you’re like me, you probably grew up reading Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson And The Olympians series. The epic story of a 12-year-old boy who discovers that he is actually the son of the Greek god Poseidon, the books are exciting, funny, filled with likable characters, and have introduced the people and places of Greek mythology to pre-teens everywhere. I loved them when I first read them, and they still hold a special place in my heart. One of my favorite aspects of the books is the whole idea that the old gods are still alive, and here in America. It’s a brilliant premise, and an extremely original one to boot.

Or is it? See, I recently discovered that, back in 2000, a whole five years before the release of the first Percy Jackson book, British graphic novelist Neil Gaiman wrote a story about the gods of old still being alive, and in this country. When I heard this, I knew that I had to give this earlier novel, American Gods, a look. Well, I did that, and today, I’d like to share my thoughts on it with you all.

So, for those of you who haven’t read it, American Gods is the story of Shadow, an ex-con who finds work running errands for the Norse god Odin, or Mr Wednesday, as he likes to be called. The novel’s basic premise is that, when people immigrate to the United States, they bring they’re beliefs and customs with them. As such, the mythological figures from these immigrants’ homelands follow them across the sea to the New World, and exist here as well. Now, however, the descendants of these first immigrants have stopped believing in the old gods, and, as a result, they’ve become frail and weak. Instead, new gods–ones of television, internet, and big business–have sprung up, and are looking to exterminate the old timers.

This is an extremely interesting idea–a war between new and old gods with our world as the battleground–and Gaiman develops some really good characters. His prose is also very conversational, and easy to get into. So, why am I not as crazy about American Gods as I am about Percy Jackson?

Well, one reason could be the fact that certain characters, and plot lines, feel either unnecessary, or out of place. For instance, there’s a character that Shadow gives a ride to named Sam Black Crow, who shows up a few more times in the book, has several pages devoted to her life and backstory‚Ķand she serves absolutely no purpose. Seriously. It’s not like she’s his love interest, or helper. She never really contributes to the main storyline–that being Shadow and Odin traveling across the continental United States, recruiting Old Gods to fight in the war against the New ones. She just shows up from time to time, talks to him, and in one scene, kisses him. And that’s it. And it’s not even like the kiss she gives him is out of attraction–Gaiman establishes pretty early on that she’s a lesbian–so she really doesn’t serve any purpose. The only reason I can think he’d bring her up more than once is the fact that she lives in this small town that Shadow hides in for a period. And speaking of, the whole section where Shadow hides in the small town of Lakeside Michigan feels completely out of place. When I was reading that section, I thought I’d picked up a completely different novel, a David Lynch-type murder mystery, instead of the epic fantasy adventure I was promised.

And that’s the other thing I didn’t like about American Gods–its inability to keep focus on one story. The Percy Jackson series has just one protagonist, who is also the narrator. You therefore see everything from his perspective, and never leave his side. This, in turn, makes the story as a whole easier to follow. American Gods does have a protagonist, Shadow, but Gaiman has several chapters and interludes where he’s not even mentioned. I guess the reason Gaiman did this was to build a universe, to weave a complete tapestry . But, in the end, these cutaways and interludes ultimately prove distracting. And remember how I mentioned that the small town section felt really out of place? Well, it does, and its distracting too. If you’ve ever read the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, you know that Frodo destroying the ring isn’t the end. There’s a whole section after that where he, Sam, Merry and Pippin go back to the Shire, find that it’s been taken over by Saruman, and organize a Hobbit uprising. This section always felt completely out of place to me, and I’m honestly quite glad that Peter Jackson chose to leave it out of his film adaptation. It felt like a totally new novel, one that had just been tacked on as an after-thought to a previous one. The reason I bring this up is that American Gods has a similar situation. There’s a big climactic battle between the new gods and the old ones, and when it’s over, you think the story’s finished. But it isn’t. The book doesn’t end there. Shadow then goes back to the annoying town from earlier, and picks up a plot-thread that had been introduced, but no one had really cared about. As I was reading it, I kept asking myself, “Why is this here? Why is this here? The main story is the war between the old and the new gods, which is done. So, why is this here?” All I can say is that, if Gaiman hadn’t spent so much time on universe-building interludes, and just kept the focus on one story, the book would have been a lot better.

But, as I said before, this isn’t a bad book. The characters are well-rounded and likable, the world is interesting, and the prose itself is easy to get in to, and enjoyable to read. So, as many gripes as I might have with this novel, I can’t really give it a bad review. It’s a 7 out of 10. If you do read it, feel free to skip the sections with Sam and the small town.

In The Miso Soup (Book Review)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

How are you all this jolly January day? Are you comfortable? Are you warm? Are you snuggled up in bed with someone you love? If so, you might want to stop reading this review right now, because it’ll likely make you feel cold and empty inside. That’s certainly how I felt after I finished reading today’s novel. “What novel is that?” you ask. Why In The Miso Soup, a horror story from Japanese author Ryu Murakami.

Now, I’m just going to put it out there, I really, really, REALLY didn’t like this book. It’s dark, twisted, sexist, and thoroughly xenophobic. I feel that it’s my civic duty to warn you all about it. But, before I go any further, I feel I should provide some background.

So, for those of you who don’t know, the author of this book, Ryu Murakami, is fairly famous, or infamous, in his native Japan. His 1976 debut novel, Almost Transparent Blue, was a huge critical and commercial success, even winning that year’s Akutagawa Prize; the Japanese equivalent to the Pulitzer. It dealt with disillusionment, drug use, promiscuity, and the influence of Rock and Roll on young people. And even though it lacked a clear narrative, the book was praised for capturing the spirit of the time, and Murakami was hailed as a counterculture hero, and even likened to figures like Jack Kerouac and Hunter S Thompson.

As time went on, however, his writings grew consistently darker and less accessible. Novels like Piercing, Audition, Coin Locker Babies, and Popular Hits Of The Showa Era were either trashed by critics, or became lightning rods for controversy due to their extremely graphic violence and bizarre content. People also started to notice trends in his writing, like the fact that all the female characters in his books are either prostitutes, psycho, or both. In this respect, Murakami is not unlike the American comic book writer Frank Miller, who won tons of critical praise in the 70s and 80s for returning characters like Batman to their darker roots, but is now lambasted by most people for sexist portrayals of women, and excessive amounts of violence in his work.

But perhaps no single book encapsulates everything that Mr Murakami is, or was, than his 1997 novel, In The Miso Soup. It’s got sex. It’s got violence. It’s got characters whining about how messed up Japan is. It’s the story of Kenji, a 20-something Japanese man who takes foreigners on night tours through Tokyo’s red light district, and follows the same basic premise as the movie Collateral. There’s a guy who takes people to various places in the big city, no questions asked, one night he gets a client whom he finds suspicious, things start to get violent and crazy, and the story becomes one of survival, as the main character tries to get away from this dangerous individual. In the case of In The Miso Soup, the dangerous client is a fat American man named Frank, whom it is later revealed is a serial killer, occultist, rapist, and necrophile. How charming. And what makes this even worse is the fact that Frank, an absolute monster, is not the most disgusting character in the novel. See, you don’t really like Kenji, the main character and narrator, because it’s revealed early on in the book that he’s dating a 16-year-old girl. And while you could make the argument that he’s not a pedophile, because maybe the age of consent is different in Japan, he’s still really annoying and xenophobic. Every few pages he’ll stop and whine about how Japanese people are like robots, how, since the economic boom, they’ve lost all interest in things that are real, that they’re all lonely, walking corpses, blah, blah blah. He also talks about foreigners in a really condescending, bigoted manner. He says that the Chinese are stupid and dirty, that all Americans are naive, greedy assholes, and so on. He also uses the term gaijin, a fairly xenophobic slur, to refer to foreigners. (Sigh).

Look, I’ve read tons of books that are critical of America before, but none of them made me angry like this one. Maybe it’s because, more often than not, those other books are written BY AMERICANS. And even if they aren’t, like the last book I reviewed on this blog, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, they usually try to provide a more balanced portrayal of the US. The Reluctant Fundamentalist shows good Americans, and bad Americans. When you read it, you can tell that the author had actually visited, and maybe even lived in, the United States. In The Miso Soup doesn’t have any of that. Frank, a fat, sadistic, corpse-raping serial killer is the only American we get to see in the entire story. It’s clear when you read this book that Murakami has never visited the US, and doesn’t care who he offends. Looking back on this novel, I feel reminded of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu series from the 1920s, books that are so casually racist and ignorant of fact that its not even funny. The only different here is that it’s the Asian people stereotyping Whites, instead of the other way around.

All I can say is that, unless you want to read a book where every woman is either a prostitute or a bitch, the main character is a xenophobic pedophile, and the antagonist is the most vile and disgusting American stereotype imaginable, don’t buy this novel. It’s a 4 out of 10. I hated it, and feel ashamed for having read it. Be smarter than I was, and avoid it like the plague.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Book Review)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

How are you all this fine May morning? Really? That’s wonderful! As for me, I’m feeling a wee bit uneasy. Why? Well, I can’t say for certain, but I’m pretty sure it has something to do with the fact that I just finished reading Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. What? You’ve never heard of it before? Well, I personally found it to be one of the most entertaining and profound pieces of literature ever published. If you’d like, I could tell you about it. You would? Oh capital! Well now, let’s see. Where to begin?

I suppose what I found most charming about the novel was its ambiguity. I can’t even begin to describe to you how frustrating it is to open up a book and know within the first five pages the kind of plot, characters, and settings you’re going to encounter. The best stories are , in my opinion, the ones that aren’t obvious, that leave room for individual interpretations as to the meaning of their content. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if we knew which of the narrator’s accounts was true. Lois Lowry’s The Giver was made far more powerful by the fact that we didn’t know for certain if the protagonists got away, or if they simply died in their attempt. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a study in ambiguous characters and story-telling, even if it doesn’t look like that on the surface. When I first started reading it, I thought I was going to get a predictable, “don’t discriminate against people because of where they come from or what they look like” books. And I won’t deny, there were several points in the story where I felt like that was what I was reading. I mean really, what else are you supposed to think when the opening line of the novel is “Do not be frightened by my beard; I am a lover of America.” And yet, as I read further, I became less and less certain of the direction which the novel would take, and let me tell you, I was seriously grateful for that unexpected turn of events.

The whole story is basically just one long conversation between two men–one Pakistani, one American–in a restaurant in Lahore. The Pakistani, a man named Changez, tells the American about his time in the States, studying at Princeton, working for a consultancy firm as an analyst, and dating a beautiful, brilliant, but broken young novelist named Erica. The American, for his part, never reveals who he is, what he does for a living or why he’s in Pakistan. The author drops hints here and there as to his true identity–he’s extremely fit, he’s a former soldier, he has a gun-shaped bulge under his shirt–but you’re never told outright, “he’s a CIA operative who’s been sent to kill Changez.” Actually, come to think of it, you’re never really led to believe that he’s been sent to kill Changez. If anything, you get more of a feeling that Changez is the one whose been sent to kill him. How? Well, as the story progresses, the pleasant Lahore marketplace where the two are sharing their meal becomes darker and more foreboding. The lights dim, the other guests leave, and all that we are left with is Changez telling an increasingly morbid and hate-filled tale. See, after 9-11, he felt more and more unwelcome in the States, partly because of increased police and Homeland Security scrutiny, but mostly because of Erica’s apparent suicide and his own sense of guilt at serving a nation that subjugates and exploits people in the Third World. He likens himself to a Janissary–a Christian youth taken in by the Sultan to serve the Ottoman Empire–and discusses how, after losing his job and working visa, he returned to Lahore, where he taught economics, and anti-American rhetoric, to University students. (I personally find it kind of ironic that he would use the Janissaries as the metaphor for how he feels. After all, being a Janissary was considered a great honor among Ottoman Christians. Boys who were taken in by the Sultan would often go on to become Generals or Politicians; people with wealth and influence. Many Muslim families would actually lie about their children’s’ faith in the hopes that they too might be granted this lofty position. Not all that different, if you think about it, than white parents these days claiming that their kids are part latino or Native American in order to get them into good schools.)

Anyway, I don’t want to say too much else, for fear of spoiling the story, but I will say this, the way the book ends left me positively drowning in questions. What happens to Changez? What happens to the AMerican? Who was Changez, really? Who was the American? Was any of what Changez said actually true? And so on. Yes, the novel came off as preachy at times, but the totally ambiguous cliff-hanger of an ending more than made up for it. And you know what, I feel like that was actually the perfect way to write a book about terrorism. I mean, after all, we live in a dangerous, ambiguous world. Anybody can be a terrorist; a prince or a pauper; a pet-walker or a PhD. You can never be certain who would like to help you and who would like to see you dead. The Reluctant Fundamentalist captures that uncertainty perfectly, and carries it through the story until the last, tension-filled page.

So, to sum it all up, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist is highly enjoyable, easy to read, thought-provoking about the causes and catalysts for terrorism and, best of all, isn’t too long. A solid 8.5 out of 10, if you ask me. Check it out if you’ve got the time.