Book Review: Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

I’m not really the type of guy who walks into a bookstore and just browses. I usually have a mental list of authors I’m looking for and rarely go for random books that catch my eye. The last time I did that for new books was maybe 2012. The book was The Orphan Master’s Son. And I loved it from the first page. So, when I saw he had a new book out, I just had to get it.

Fortune Smiles, winner of the 2015 National Book Award (making Johnson one of the very few to win both this and the Pulitzer for consecutive books), is a collection of six long short stories (or novellas). Most are set in present day, with a few exceptions going a few years into the future or a few years back. Topics range from child molesters to North Korean defectors. All are a bit depressing.

Here are descriptions of the stories:

Nirvana: A young man struggles to help his bedridden wife who has an autoimmune disease. At the same time, he creates a hologram of a recently assassinated president in order to give himself comfort that turns out to be a hit with the general populace.

Hurricane Anonymous: A UPS driver working near New Orleans soon after Katrina is suddenly left to care for his child with no way to contact the mother. In addition, he must deal with his girlfriend who wants to run away with him and his estranged father near death as he figures out his life.

Interesting Facts: A postmodern story. Narrated by a woman suffering from breast cancer and married to a man who suspiciously resembles Johnson himself, she must also cope with her sickness, her jealousy stemming from her husband’s writing successes (she once had dreams of being an author), and his possible attraction to other women.

George Orwell was a Friend of Mine: The retired warden of an infamous prison in East Germany fails to assimilate to life in reunited Germany. His family life is in shambles. The prison he once worked at is now a museum, and he begins going back, taunting tour groups and offering his own version of events.

Fortune Smiles: Two North Koreans escape and try to live in South Korea. But adapting to life in the South is difficult, even as they befriend other escapees and take pleasure in small things, like fast food chains and lottery tickets.

Dark Meadows: A computer savvy pedophile helps fix the tech of other pedophiles while also leaving a code that makes it easier to track them. Contacted by both the police, who want him to help them catch these men, and a former acquaintance who tries to pull him back into the underworld, the narrator is forced to choose which side to go along with. This story could easily have failed: make the main character too messed up and any sympathy instantly disappears, but Johnson expertly pulls it off.

While not as great as The Orphan Master’s Son, this collection cements him as a major writer of our time. He has been compared to both George Saunders and Kurt Vonnegut and fans of both would do well to check him out. As for those who like neither of those two authors, I’m not too big on them either and still really enjoy Johnson.

A Young William Gibson

Wouldn’t it be great to knock the ball out of the park with your first novel? Write a revolutionary novel that goes on to become a classic? That’s the dream. And while some writers do cement themselves with their first book, their number must rank in the decimal percentages. And it’s nowhere as easy as that infinitesimal number might make it appear.

William Gibson is one such writer. After falling into writing almost by accident and a few acclaimed short stories, he wrote NEUROMANCER, a novel that changed scifi and brought about the cyberpunk subgenre; while Gibson has written a lot of other novels, it was this one that secured his legacy. And it’s not just his first published novel: it was his first attempt at a novel.

But in reality it wasn’t such a straight line to success.

As with any good writer, Gibson spent a lot of his childhood and teenage years reading: J.G. Ballard, Henry Miller, the Beats, science fiction pulps. He lost his father in childhood, and after his mother died when he was 18, he decided to dodge the draft and travel to Europe and Canada, where he would eventually settle. There, he suffered weeks of homelessness before scraping together a living from working at a hippie drug store and appearing in a documentary film, with his little extra cash going mostly towards psychedelic drugs. And it was there that he met his future wife, with whom he again traveled to Europe.

She had a teaching position. Gibson, rather than get a real job, first went to thrift stores trying to find items marked way below their value and then selling them, before returning to college as he felt maintaining a high enough GPA to qualify for rich student loans was easier than work. Here he took a class on science fiction and wrote a short story in lieu of a final paper. This turned into his first published story, FRAGMENTS OF A HOLOGRAM ROSE, which saw publication in 1977.

His next story got published in 1981, but during those years he was still working: JOHNNY MNEMONIC was started the same year as FoaHR. Not too mention the inevitable false starts and stories that didn’t measure up. A few more well-received stories flowed from his pen, earning Hugo and Nebula award nominations, and eventually he was commissioned into doing a novel. And rather than summarize the unease and anxiety Gibson felt while writing this, I’ll let him do it for me.

The best writing advice I ever heard was to go out and see the world. If you stay indoors reading and writing all day, you’ll eventually become a great writer but have nothing to write about. Gibson embodies this principle: a well-traveled homeless hippie. No wonder most of his work deals with those rejected by society. It took him a bunch of years to try writing, and a bit of encouragement and practice after that to really get the ball rolling, but once he was ready, there was no shortage of material for him.

So remember, as the weather grows warmer, to put down your books and pens and get out of the house. The inspiration for that break out story might be one block’s walk away.

Book Review: Facing the Bridge by Yoko Tawada

In recent years Haruki Murakami has become THE Japanese writer. Everyone knows him, everyone reads him. His fiction, with its loneliness and surrealism, has found an audience all across the world. Which is why I am annoyed Yoko Tawada has not caught on. She can be uneven. She can be too out there. She can be too vague, too obscure, too unsatisfactory in her endings, but when she is on point, she does what Murakami does, but even better. Her novellas and novels, often depicting outsiders lost in foreign landscapes with few if any landlines, are also riddled with loneliness, and while Murakami dips into odd scenarios, Tawada is like Kobo Abe turned up to 11.

This is one of her better books available in English. It consists of three novellas. The first tells in parallel stories about a European slave stolen away from Africa who finds himself sponsored to study and become a professor, and a Japanese student living abroad in Germany. The second stars a German resident (formerly from Japan) who spontaneously decides to go on a trip to Vietnam and feels her sense of identity slip away. As for the third, before I go into it I should explain what I’ve heard about Tawada.

I saw her give a performance in Boston and while there I talked to a professor who explained that Tawada thinks of herself as a literary DJ, taking old stories and remixing them. Some of her stories that follow this format can be enjoyed without knowledge of the other work, but for some, it is vital. The third story here, about a translator on an island off the coast of Africa trying to do some work, is a retelling of the story of St. George and the Dragon and falls somewhere in between. It can be a pleasant read with no knowledge of St. George, but if you’re familiar with the original, it adds a whole new dimension to the Tawada.

Some biographical material might also help: Tawada was originally from Japan before moving to Germany after university, where she has lived ever since. She writes in the languages of both countries, sometimes flipping back and forth during a draft, and language is an important theme that runs through all of her works.

Her endings don’t always work, but these stories taken as a whole are haunting. They read almost like fables that spiral out of control.

Any fan of authors like Borges or Kobo Abe (or Haruki Murakami) will find a great new author here. After reading a few of her books, I think either this or her collection THE BRIDEGROOM WAS A DOG are the best places to start with her. If you choose the other collection, be warned: the title story is…quite lacking, but the other two novellas more than make up for it.

Book Review: The Sellout by Paul Beatty

THE SELLOUT is a daring book. This biting satire has an African American attempt to resegregate his city (yes, you read that right) to improve his neighborhood while also owning a slave. This, unsurprisingly, ends up getting him into a bit of trouble, and as the novel starts his case is being heard by the Supreme Court. From there, the unnamed narrator (even in his court case’s title, he is referred to as “me”) describes his unorthodox childhood and his bizarre father and how he came to own a slave.

This could easily have failed. Beatty walks a tightrope every single page between being too vague or mild or offending everyone. Luckily, he pulls it off. There are serious discussions about what it means to be African American in here, but almost every paragraph contains some humor, keeping the plot light.

The book is a bit uneven. I found myself ready to put it down after a few pages of the prologue, but I persevered and found it picked up almost immediately afterwards. Certain other sections also weren’t as strong as they could have been, but at least with them I never considered giving up on the book. This is also a problem with some of the humor. Beatty tries to make jokes about nearly everything he describes in the book, and as a consequence for this prolificness, not all hit the mark. Some attempts at humor will have you rolling your eyes or sighing and wishing Beatty would hurry up and advance the plot. Other times he’s on a roll and it’s nonstop laughs for the next few pages.

For example, his slave is the biggest star in the city: as a boy, he was a stand in for the African American member of the Little Rascals. The absurdity of the racist things allowed on television in the 30s is enormous and provides plenty of laughs.

THE SELLOUT may not be the best novel of the year, but it certainly must rank among the funniest. I haven’t laughed as hard at a book since A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES. It might not be for everyone, but if the synopsis interests you, it should not be missed. I’ve heard of a few who were unable to make it through the prologue. If you’re struggling and can’t push your way through, just skip it: most of the information given there you can pick up on later in the story.

Also, just last night it was announced THE SELLOUT had won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Past winners include Roberto Bolano, Junot Diaz, and Cormac McCarthy, and Paul Beatty does not seem out of place joining their ranks.

Book Review: The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

Anthony Marra shot to literary acclaim with his 2013 debut novel, A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA, based on the situation in Chechnya. Can he keep the momentum going with his next book (also based in Chechnya and Russia)?

Billed as a collection of short stories, THE TSAR OF LOVE AND TECHNO is shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and receiving rave reviews. It also has one of the best titles I’ve heard of in a while. Do not listen to the marketing though: it is a novel in the same vein as LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, GOON SQUAD, or OLIVE KITTERIDGE, that is, each chapter follows a different character with a story arc that could stand alone as a short, but as various connections appear, it becomes clear that there is a bigger story that only slowly takes shape and ultimately the whole is better than the sum of the parts.

The main plot focuses on two different sets of brothers: a censor and his activist brother in the 1930s, and a student and his soldier sibling set in modern day. Other characters involve the brothers’ lovers, descendants, friends, and others, all vaguely connected by a painting. Each is sympathetic, memorable, three-dimensional.

But, if there is a flaw with the novel, it is also with the characters. Sometimes they come across as caricatures, the drunk and drug addicted depressives that Americans have come to stereotype Russians as. Though each character has a well-developed backstory explaining how they got to where they are, it is difficult to overlook how almost every single one follows this pattern.

Also, although saying the chapters are uneven would be too much, some are definitely better than others. At best, they rank among some of the finest stories published in recent years; at worst, they are memorable but average.

Other than these quibbles, however, the book is great. I won’t lie, I have not read too many American books published last year (only three…), but of those three, this is by far the best (and the other two, FORTUNE SMILES and THE SELLOUT—reviews coming soon—are no slouches either).

This book, my first Marra, convinced me not only to pick up his earlier novel but also that he has it in him to one day write a masterpiece. Although not perfect, THE TSAR OF LOVE AND TECHNO is not to be missed. And if short stories are not your thing, please do not be put off by the misleading marketing; this is really a novel.

A Young Donna Tartt

I like to post articles on here about famous writers when they were still struggling artists for motivation. Unfortunately for me, today’s subject, Donna Tartt, likes her privacy, so there’s not too much information on her early life.

Long before THE GOLDFINCH, her Pulitzer, writing THE book of 2013, before her other novels that also brought her awards and acclaim and put her on bestsellers lists, she was a freshman at the University of Mississippi. That year she enrolled in a creative writing class where her pieces caught her professor’s eye. He recommended she enroll in Barry Hannah’s graduate level writing class while still 18 years old. It’s tough to say just how much she had read and written before this but it must have been a large amount to win a professor’s admiration so early on.

Following more recommendations from her writing professors, she decided to transfer in 1982 to Bennington College, where her friend group included other writers such as Bret Easton Ellis and Jonathan Lethem. In fact, she actually briefly dated Ellis; the two shared drafts of what would become LESS THAN ZERO and THE SECRET HISTORY. The former would be published in 1985 to general acclaim and great sales. The latter would receive similar reception in…1992 when she was 29?

Fans of Donna Tartt should know she takes her time with novels; a 10 years wait for her next work has come to be the norm. While Ellis was enjoying literary fame, Tartt quietly labored over her book. The latest she could have started it was in college. Since Ellis published his work at the age of 21, they must have traded drafts during their sophomore or early junior year.

THE SECRET HISTORY, then, is clearly no exception to the 10 year turnaround time, but that period of time must have felt a lot different to her than the composition periods of her other books. For those years she was at work on her first book, she did not know if it would be published, she had no deals, no bestsellers. It would not be a stretch to say that what got her to keep working on her novel was pure perseverance.

Tartt has put in her hours. Before she even started her first published novel, she had enough experience to impress her professors, and even then it took another ten years before she was published. Remember that next time you feel like quitting. Though there might be luck and coincidences in Tartt’s plots, in her own life story, there is just hard work.

Book Review: Life and Death are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan

Soon after they come into power in China, the Communists killed numerous landowners. Ximen Nao is a fictional landowner based off of those condemned. Through sheer stubbornness, he manages to convince the Lord of the Underworld, Lord Yama, to grant him another chance at life, which Yama agrees to but with a twist: Ximen Nao is reincarnated as a donkey. The novel follows him and others from his town through most post-1950 Chinese events.

The first section features Ximen Nao as a donkey, but he doesn’t stay in this form for long. Each part has Nao reincarnated from various animals, from a dog to a bigheaded baby. And although he provides the crux of the novel, he is not the only narrator: the son of Nao’s former servant also has a voice. The narration style has been criticized as being hard to follow at times, but I never thought this was the case. At first it is not clear to whom the narrators are telling these stories, but it never hampers the narrative and after a few chapters it becomes obvious.

Out of the books I’ve read by Mo Yan, this is by far my favorite (although it is by no means perfect). There is hardly a dull moment in the 550+ page book. His satiric pen is on full display here (parodying some of the odder moments in China’s Communist chapter, such as the Great Sparrow Campaign), as is his unrestrained prose style. For those who think less is more or enjoy the terse styles of Camus or Hemingway, this probably is not the right book for you; for those who enjoy Faulkner or Marquez’s verbosity, you will find more of what you love in Mo Yan.

Actually, the comparisons to those latter two writers run deeper than just on the writing level. Mo Yan was influenced by both of them. The various techniques Faulkner uses throughout his own pieces are present in LIFE AND DEATH. The family chronicle as Mo Yan depicts it here seem to me reminiscent of the one Marquez wrote in ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE.

But, as I said, this is not a perfect novel. Towards the end, during one of Ximen Nao’s last reincarnations (the monkey), it is almost like Mo Yan realized he needed to wrap up the book quickly and speeds through. As a result, it seems unfinished and unsatisfying. A lot more could have come from this bit or it could have been edited out. In this half-assed form, it just doesn’t work.

Aside from that, there are few problems with the text. The first time I read THE GARLIC BALLADS, I knew Mo Yan had it in him to write something truly great; to me, this is him fulfilling that. A great work of not just Chinese but world literature.

(Fun fact: Mo Yan wrote this in 42 days when he was suffering from bad insomnia. I can find nothing about how much editing took place afterward, but knowing Mo Yan and how prolific he is, it would not surprise me if there was only a minimal amount. Another fun fact: though the title in English is a mouthful, it is probably the best possible rendering of the literal Chinese title, which translates directly into something like “Life-Death Fatigue.”)

Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

After sweeping the tech Oscar awards, it should come as no surprise that MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is a technical marvel. It almost makes you glad it was in development hell for almost 20 years, as some of the stunts and CGI could not have been done (or at least not done as well) had it been made back then. But beyond these technical aspects, is the movie good?

Max is a loner in a post apocalyptic world covered by desert. Getting around without vehicles is practically impossible. There are still spots where people can manage to live, and warlord Immortan Joe rules over one particular area, secluded in mountains with drills to access water deep below, with an iron hand. Max is captured by his forces to be used as “blood bag” to help heal Immortan Joe’s soldiers. When Imperator Furiosa, one of the ruler’s top commanders, deserts with five of his wives in tow to find a better life, a chase begins and Max is brought along. A giant sandstorm separates Max and the soldier he is hooked up to from the rest of Immortan Joe’s forces, and he joins Imperator Furiosa in her quest for the “green land” she remembers from her childhood.

The film does an excellent job at world building. There are no awkward info dumps, the viewer is just thrust into the world and slowly gets a sense of the planet in these characters’ time. Unfortunately, the plot is a little lacking. Other than a predictable twist, there is not much more to it than the synopsis above. For what it is, the story does work, but in such a rich world it seems a waste to not do more for the plot.

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD knows what it is (that is, a thrill-fest) and does that incredibly well. Cinephiles might come a while disappointed, as this is a far cry from Tarkovsky or PTA, and there is not much beyond the surface. As for others, the simple plot does not hold up upon second viewings as well as one would hope, but again, director George Miller knew what he wanted to do with this movie and he checked every box on his chart, and first watches are bound to blow away many viewers.

Looking back over the technical side, it’s hard to imagine a better film from the past year. If it had not competed with THE REVENANT for best cinematography, it would have been a strong contender for that category.

All in all, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is worth at least a watch from even the snobbiest of moviegoers and will be regarded as a masterpiece of science fiction. And while I would hesitate to rank it with, say, Wong Kar Wai or Kubrick, it is definitely on the next tier. The technical aspects alone ensure that it will be remembered and perhaps even studied for some time to come. Even if it is not your usual type of film, give it a try.

Book Review: Hiroshima Notes by Kenzaburo Oe

This is an incredibly Japanese book. At times it makes statements few outside of Japan can relate to, like saying the atomic bombs and their aftermath were worse than the Holocaust (it’s not a pain Olympics, guys). It also dedicates about 1/3 of its size to Japanese conferences on the A-bomb back in the 60s and the factions behind it splitting up, something I don’t think many people nowadays have an interest in. A lot of the other sections feature Oe throwing around vague terms like “dignity” and “courage” liberally; to his credit he does try to define them and the reader does get a sense of what he means by these terms, but the explanations are never truly satisfactory (though Oe himself also admits this).

Still, the sheer power and intensity of these essays outshine those problems. After some talk about the conferences, the rest focuses on the victims and doctors of Hiroshima who struggle to go on living everyday existences, and provides glimpses at those who fail to look past the horror of their condition and those who succeed. It’s very moving, and those who know Oe’s biography know the effect meeting with these people had on him, a feeling Oe manages to condense down on to the paper and transfer to readers.

I wonder how much is lost in translation. At one point, Oe, while highlighting how odd the Japanese word for “dignity” is, writes, “That boy is full of dignity,” noting how odd it sounds in his language and how it sounds translated from a western one. And, reading this book in a western one, it really doesn’t sound too out there. Oe is known for messing with syntax and producing sentences that appear as though they’ve been translated from some European tongue. While translators have been able to reproduce his knotty style with great success in novels like A PERSONAL MATTER or THE SILENT CRY, here the translators attempted no such feats and in the introduction admit that whenever something sounded weird and western in the original they opted for a simple version of the sentence. Too bad, I wonder how this book read in Japanese.

I’m a bit disappointed so few of his essays are available in English. Oe’s role as a spokesman for the new generation in 60s Japan was apparently more for his essays than his fiction. All we have are three small books: this one, a collection of magazine pieces about life with his son, and a short collection of lectures, including the one he gave at the Nobel ceremony. While the beginning of this one is bound in time to the 60s and as a result a bit dated, the middle and end transcend time and are a must read for any one who can get their hands on the collection.

If I remember correctly, Oe once said this was his most important book, and it’s not hard to see why. A must-read for anyone, but power through the first third if you’re not digging it.