Book Review: Hystopia by David Means

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3/5 Stars.

Hystopia is one of those books that’s hard for me to rate, because I appreciate it more than I actually enjoyed reading it. It’s a complex, mindfuck of a novel that pays homage to some of the most memorable works of postmodernist fiction from the late 20th century.

Here’s where I try to tell you what it’s about. Okay, so it’s the late 1960s, the Vietnam War is raging on, and Kennedy is about to enter his third term in office. In this revisionist history, the U.S. government has created a federal agency called Psych Corps tasked with addressing the mental health crisis that plagues returning veterans. This treatment is pretty much Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for war veterans: they administer a drug combined with immersive therapy that, when successful, erases their memories.

Hystopia follows two separate by related plot lines, destined to converge: In one plot line, Rake, a disturbed veteran who resisted treatment, kidnaps a mentally ill woman named Meg and takes her along with him on a deranged killing spree. Meanwhile, two Psych Corps agents — one of whom underwent the treatment himself — fall in love and find themselves on a mission to track down Rake.

But the strangest thing is that the story might not actually be about what we think it’s about — because, as we find out right up front, Hystopia is actually a story within a story, written by a veteran named Eugene trying to process his own grief.

Sound weird yet? It definitely is. As I was reading it, I kept thinking to myself, “I really hope this all comes together in a satisfying way.” It’s a very challenging book, so as a reader, you kind of need that satisfaction to justify the effort. Luckily, it delivered.

I can’t say that I fully understand what I just read, but I can tell you that it evoked all sorts of deep emotions in me anyway. When it comes down to it, it’s a sad story that confronts heavy, important themes — from war trauma and mental illness to grief and love — leaving us to question the depths of our own resilience.

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Book Review: The North Water by Ian McGuire (Man Booker longlist 2016)

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4/5 Stars.

Another one from the Man Booker longlist…

“Their world is hard and raw enough, they think, without the added burden of moral convolution.”

This bleak, brutal, vile novel about a doomed whaling expedition in frigid Arctic waters and the men aboard the ship reads like a cross between Cormac McCarthy and Joseph Conrad.

At the heart of the story are two men: Patrick Sumner, an ex-army surgeon with a shameful past who finds himself accompanying the whalers as their medic, and Henry Drax, an embodiment of pure evil.

Both men operate in a state of perpetual nihilism, though it manifests differently in each of them. Sumner recognizes the cruel indifference of the world and views people as nothing more than flesh and blood, while Drax’s amorality guides him toward senseless violence.

Inevitably, the two men are destined to clash, and much of the story is fueled by this tension, as well as the palpable dread that underlies the expedition from the very beginning.

What’s most impressive is that it succeed as a character study and a compelling narrative — up to a certain point. Unfortunately, the pacing slows in the final third, and the denouement feels rushed and shallow compared to the thoughtfulness that precedes it.

But damn, some of the prose. It’s easy to forgive McGuire for the narrative shortcomings when the writing is that good.

“What does it matter, he thinks, if he is surrounded by savages, by moral baboons? The world will continue on as it wants to anyway, as it always has, with or without his approval.”

Book Review: Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves (Man Booker longlist 2016)

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4.5/5 Stars.

Continuing with the Man Booker nominees…

What defines a man? Is it his vocation? The worst thing he’s ever done? His guilt? His redemption?

These are the questions at the heart of this somber, poignant little novel about Roscoe T Martin, an electrician at the turn of the 20th century who ends up in prison for his indirect involvement in the death of a man.

It should have been simple: Roscoe came up with a seemingly harmless way to steal negligible amounts of electricity from the nearby city to power his family’s struggling farm. It should have salvaged his marriage and his relationship with his young son. But then a man stumbled upon Roscoe’s illegal lines and was electrocuted, and Roscoe’s life was forever changed.

Work Like Any Other is a quiet, understated story about a man who loses everything, about the consequences that can follow even the most well-intentioned actions. There’s so much heart-breaking poignancy packed into this novel, but most powerful of all is the feeling of senselessness throughout.

At one point, Roscoe laments that all of this is happening simply “because George Haskins was ignorant enough to get himself killed on the transformers I’d so carefully built to run current to a dying farm.”

In Work Like Any Other, Reeves confronts us with this sense of life’s futility and unfairness, but she doesn’t strand us there in the darkness. Instead, she offers a glimmer of hard-earned hope.

Book Review: The Sellout by Paul Beatty (Man Booker longlist 2016)

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3/5 Stars.

Another one from the  Man Booker Longlist!

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so supremely uncomfortable reading a book. Beatty hits the ground running, dropping you right smack in the middle of his world without any warning or preparation. I saw this book described elsewhere as “a slap in the face,” and that’s a perfect description. It’s literally about a black man who reinstates slavery and segregation to save his community.

Every single page is filled with razor sharp commentary on racial identity and racism in America, but this isn’t the careful solemnity of, say, Ta-Nehisi Coates. No, The Sellout is irreverent, absurd, caustic satire — almost to the point of exhaustion. It’s also brilliant and hilarious. It’s an uncomfortable, jarring read, but it should be, because we ought to be uncomfortable and jarred when we think about race in 21st century America.

One scene in particular that had me laughing out loud involved one of the characters rewriting and renaming Huckleberry Finn: “The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protege, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit.”

Beatty is one of those writers who is WAY smarter than most of us will ever be, and trying to keep up with him and live in his world for 288 pages is a challenge that readers will either find rewarding or tiring — or perhaps, like me, a combination of both. As compelling as Beatty’s writing is, parts of the second half seemed to really drag, and as much as this book deserves to be read and talked about, I think it could have benefited from some more focused editing.

Book Review: Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (Man Booker longlist 2016)

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4.5/5 Stars.

What a strange and wonderful book this was. The absurd, dreamlike narrative won’t be for everyone, but it was most definitely for me. Of the four books on the Man Booker longlist that I’ve read so far, this is the one that rises above.

Sofia is a young anthropology student who has spent her life taking care of her mother, Rose, who suffers from a mysterious and unexplainable illness that’s arguably psychosomatic. The two of them move to a hot coastal community in Spain where Rose can attend a local clinic run by a peculiar doctor who may be her last hope.

Throughout her life Sofia has struggled to forge an identity for herself, inextricably linked to her mother in an unhealthy bond, to the point where Sofia even begins to mirror some of Rose’s symptoms. But while her mother is under the care of this new doctor, Sofia has the opportunity to detach and become her own person.

What follows is a complex, provocative, unusual story about desire, sexuality and identity, as Sofia toes the fine line between independence and familial responsibility. Hot Milk is a dysfunctional family novel unlike any other. The prose is at once taut and mesmerizing, wry and powerful — the kind that demands to be savored. This was my first time reading Deborah Levy, and it certainly won’t be my last.

Book Review: The Many by Wyl Menmuir

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3/5 Stars.

I’m trying to make my way through some of the titles on the just released Man Booker longlist and this one is only 160 pages and looked pretty intriguing, so I figured I’d give it a try.

It was okay, but I didn’t love it. It’s about a man named Timothy who moves to a mysterious seaside village whose inhabitants are still recovering from a recent tragedy. The thing is, no one will discuss the tragedy. And strange things keep happening, seemingly brought on by Timothy’s arrival. What is this place? And why is he there?

I often enjoy abstract and enigmatic books — Jesse Ball’s A Cure for Suicide, which made the National Book Award longlist last year, comes to mind — but The Many fell short for me. I was content with the resolution and fully on board with the themes (grief, sorrow, loss) but I had to push myself to get there.

Definitely not a bad read, and perhaps one that will linger with me, but I think its inclusion on the Man Booker longlist set my expectations too high.