Like a lot of you, I filled up on library books for the closures and hunkering down. My library announced that not only are they closing, that fines are waived, and nothing is due until the end of March, that also their dropboxes are closed. Who knows what that means, but for me it likely means I will read all the books I got, instead of sorting through and figuring it out one by one. Anyway, here’s my first chunk of reviews from all of this.
Gyo – 3/5 Stars!
My wife looked over at my reading of this book and said “Well, that doesn’t look like a nice book.” The picture she was homing in on was a woman, taken over by some sort of Eldritch horror, latched on to a set of mechanical legs with tubes sticking out of her mouth. She’s right — this isn’t a very nice novel.
But it’s deeply disturbing and fascinating too! The world doesn’t end with a bang, but with an invasion of sharks and fish and octopuses and whales on tiny metal skeletal horror legs and invading Okinawa — to paraphrase TS Eliot. While scuba diving, a young man from Okinawa causes an explosion in a wreck and unleashes a plague of horror creatures, most notable for their horrifying stench onto his Okinawan town. The book is heavily detailed, super fast paced, intense, disgusting, and would make an excellent movie or anime. I can’t say much more about it than that other than to say it was exciting and gross and not a very nice book.
Actually, what I will say is that this would be a tremendous video game. It shares a lot of the same themes, motifs, and other tropes of say a survival horror game, and the dripping, corroded, overgrown with seaweed and barnacle horrors of say, Pirates of the Caribbean or Resident Evil 7, would be a perfect kind of atmospheric game. It’s also super super bleak, which can definitely be a great choice (a real choice as my wife says) to play through.
Uzumaki – 4/5 Stars
Another not nice book. I don’t know if you play video games, but like I mentioned with Gyo, this is a book that feels like it draws influence or creates influence for a lot of different video games I’ve played through. This is a novel about dominant visual motifs, and some implied textures. In a game I’ve been playing, Sekiro, which takes place in slightly post-medieval Japan with a huge dose of myth, magic, and fantasy mixed in, we find ourselves awash in some very different kinds of textures. You end up fighting leprous creatures in a dungeon, creatures on fire, living undead decapitated ogres in the bottoms of moats and lakes, Eldritch water creatures, lightning creatures, poison swamps, headless apes with immortal centipedes inside them. Anyway, it’s a whole thing.
This novel feels very similar to this. In a small foggy town coastal town, a teen girl finds her boyfriend’s father cowering in an alley obsessed with a spiral shape on wall. This opens up the book to show us spirals in everything (and I mean everything) as the town gets slowly sucked down cosmic, water, wind, and other elemental vortices. Everything is a vortex! It’s another visually disturbing, dreary, nihilistic cosmic horror of a book that like Gyu feels very very very upsetting. A fat sweaty classmate gets turned into a snail! A snail!
The Test – 3/5 Stars
The test is one of those short novellas that would make for a good, but highly disturbing movies. It’s also, I guess, a lot like a Black Mirror episode — I don’t mean a specific one, but in the format of a Black Mirror episode. We begin with a man applying for citizenship to the UK. The man is from a Middle Eastern country and has shown up at the testing center with his family. They are there to take the British Values Test, and soon learn that only one of them has to take it. The man elects himself and soon begins testing. He’s there with other non-citizens, a man from Russia, a pushy man with a hat, and he’s made aware of his presence in the room with all of the other people, and generally just feels very aware of his surroundings. Suddenly, a group of terrorists, white men with guns, burst into the room and immediately kill one of the test taker. Our protagonist rushes to aid the dying man and is singled out by the lead terrorist as a “helper”. He then is prompted to keep taking the test by the terrorist who sardonically mocks him and helps with the question. Soon this becomes a game in which the man must decide who the terrorists plan on killing each 15 minutes. I won’t tell you what happens from here because it is in fact engaging, but like I said, it’s like a Black Mirror episode, and written by a sci fi writer so you know SOMETHING’S up, right? Anyway, this book most reminded of the newish John Lanchester novel The Wall, which I really liked as well as some connection to exile/migrant/refugee novels and memoirs of the last 30 years or so, the kinds of books that come out of forever wars, as opposed to acute conflicts. I think Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, most comes to mind.
The Hero – 1/5 Stars
A kind of throwaway and weak book that provides no real research, much thought, and ultimately feels like a very vanity press kind of document, except for the fact that it’s published by the Times Literary Supplement. Lee Child, well known and thoroughly well published author, waxes….waxily? about the notion of the hero in literature without much depth, rigor, or creativity. And then charges libraries (because who else could possibly be buying this thing) $10 for the pleasure.
This might be more interesting if it wasn’t an unresearched arrogant foray into the history and anthropology of storytelling and psychology and more about the ways in which Lee Child, a well known and prolific writer, approached the creation and portrayal of his hero and heroes. But no.
Classic Krakauer – 3/5 Stars
This is a relatively short collection of odds and ends of Jon Krauer’s magazine and long journalism pieces from about 1990 on. He published his first book, prior to Into the Wild, in the late 1980s of a similar kind of collection, and these are the leftover pieces. I’ve only ever read Into the Wild and his response to Three Cups of Tea prior to this collection, and because of the activist bent to a lot of his journalism, I’ve found these pieces to be relatively divisive as a whole. Some of very good, some of nothing special, and some are perfectly fine. It amount to nothing special of a book, and perhaps he’s kind of an inverse David Grann (whose longer works are much weaker than his shorter works) in that the book-length material is more focused, cohesive, and stronger — giving him more space and time to develop ideas. In the short works, he tends to feel underbaked.
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? – 3/5 Stars
This is a short novel by Lorrie Moore who is mostly known for her short stories. A previous novel of hers that I read, Anagrams, had a kind of gimmicky restructuring of the story every single chapter, so it was constantly remixed. It was interesting and audacious, but not very satisfying. This book is much more straightforward and the only playing around is with the knowledge base of the narrator, who knows the whole story from the very beginning and doles out the important information as she goes. So there’s a constant sense not only of a story slowly unfolding, but that it’s being unfolded in a careful way. The story involves girlhood, adolescence, and young adulthood in an upstate New York border town, local amusement park, summer camp, and various schools. It’s a novel about the fragile dangers of this life — sex, drugs, potential violence — all just in the normal runs of life. It’s a carefully crafted and well-told novel and speaks to a lot of skill and care. What it most feels like to me is the kind of slice of life abstraction that you get in a lot of contemporary short stories expanded out to book length (and relatively short book length too). And for those of you who might need to know, the title of the book refers to the “frog hospital” the girls (whose friendship is the center of everything in this book) set up to try to repairs the damage local boys do to the frogs they shoot with BB guns. There’s a line that says something like “most of the frogs died anyway” and that becomes a kind of metaphor for everything in the book. There’s also some regionalism in this novel (and I don’t intend this comment to be limiting) at play here too as upstate New York is oft-mentioned, but relatively alien to anyone who’s never lived up there. It’s weird, to be sure.
Upright Women Wanted – 2/5 Stars
What if we made it The Handmaid’s Tale but way too silly? I keep going back to my reading of Magic for Liars and how pretty good I thought it was. Then I read one of the hippo books, and then this book, and really didn’t like them. This book takes places in a kind of future United States where there’s a fractured and divided society now broken into several microstates (similar to something like Into the Badlands or House of the Scorpion) and we have reverted to something ala the Wild West. So fa so good. And there’s an underground network of librarians moving people through society in a kind of underground railroad. Ok, still ok, but getting a little weird. And then the tone and execution is hokum-filled Wild West with a bunch of “Well, hey there a’pardner”. Oh god. This was what I had been worried about. This was the big issue with the hippo books. The tone was supposed to be fun, but didn’t make any sense for the book itself. I guess I needed more actual danger and less cartoonishness. And honestly more than anything, this book needed time to explore. It’s novella, and maybe there’s more on the way, but there’s too much world here to be contained in a single book. It’s an inventive book to be sure, but needs more exploration of the central conceit.