Monthly Archives: February 2014

Book Review: Get Katja

Katja decides that things can’t get anymore f*cked up. Of course, she’d had thought the same thought not long ago — before the mad surgeon, the sweaty cop, and the gang of hoodlum transvestites — so what did she know? 

Get Katja by Simon Logan is a science-fiction punk rock story. Logan is the author of the short story collections I-ORohypnol Brides, and Nothing is Inflammable. He has also written the industrial fiction novels Pretty Little Things To Fill Up the Void, and the previous Katja book Katja From The Punk Band.

Get Katja is a wild ride in a day in the life of punk band guitarist and vocalist Katja. Katja is pretty clueless about what is happening. Lady Delicious wants the money the band owes her from a loan band mate Nikolai. Katja is not surprised as Nikolai is a drug addict and that’s the reason he’s not in the band anymore. Lady Delicious wants her money and doesn’t care because the loan is made in the band’s name. She takes Katja guitar as collateral until the band is paid for that night’s gig. Irritated but unable to do anything else Katja leaves planning to return that night.

DeBoer is a detective who is a bad gambler and ends up owing Frank money. Unable to come up with the money he finds out that Katja is wanted and decides to capture her as part of his debt payment. DeBoer has a run in with a pink haired nurse after capturing Katja that leaves him passed out on the pavement. Katja wakes up strapped to a hospital bed.

Get Katja is fast moving, interesting, confusing, and a book you do not want to put down. It can best be described as a novelization of a graphic novel. It has that type of story line and feel. Get Katja moves back and forth in time. When one chapter ends, a new one starts from a different character’s perspective. All the characters’ stories intertwine with the other characters. There is an intricate maze of connections throughout the book. Everyone wants Katja and Katja just wants to play music.

Get Katja is a fun weekend read. It provides plenty of escape and a heavily caffeinated story. It will never be classic literature, but it is one hell of a ride.

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Book Review: Failure to Thrive

Failure to Thrive by Suzannah Showler is her first collection of poetry. Showler holds a MA in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto and has had her work published in literary magazines. 

Failure to Thrive is one of the poetry collections that I tried really hard to fully appreciate. Perhaps my mind is a little old and I suffer from a poetry version of “your music.” We all have heard it from our parents, “I just don’t understand your music.” As much as we swear we will never think that way about our children’s music, we do. Perhaps this is where I am at with this collection. 

Poetry has gotten pretty free lately and things I would never thought to be poems are poems. I would call them poetic, but not poetry. Not that I by any means can call things “real poetry” but, personally, I know it when I see it. Showler does provide an interesting collection of thoughts, some lyrical and others seemingly stream of consciousness. 

From the poem “Jeopardy”:
Where are the blind leading the blind? What is a
dissociative fugue?
What is a proof of purchase?
Where is the last place you look?

From “Pretty Good Time at the Olfactory Factory”

A Scratch ‘n Sniff sticker with all the good stuff scratched out of it.

Bike lock in winter coaxe open with a creme brulee torch

From “Whale Fall”

So, a whale dies and sinks down into the dark–
a hundred and fifty tonne lipid sack
scrawling and uneven Z as it falls.
It is going down wearing its original skin, taut to
near-split from gasses put off
by the decompositional stink
getting its brew on inside.

Showler has an excellent feel for creating mood, sense, and imagery. She has the skill of a great writer. Perhaps it is my eye/ear that is not in tuned to some modern poetry. I like what I read, very much so. I just struggle with it as poetry. Perhaps too rebellious for my defined taste. It is very visual, sensory, and poetic. Showler does beautiful things with words.

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Book Review: The Gifts of The State: New Afghan Writing

The Gifts of The State: New Afghan Writing edited by Adam Klein is a collection of short stories from the writing workshop Klein ran in Kabul. Klein is the author of Tiny Ladies and the short story collection The Medicine Burns. He earned his MA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University and his MFA from The New School. Klein was a Peace Corps volunteer in Bangladesh, Fulbright lecturer in India, and is currently an assistant professor of English at the American University of Afghanistan. 

This collection of short stories represents the new, younger Afghan population. Those who remember the war with the Soviets, or at least stories of the war, the rise of the Taliban, and the American invasion. These stories bring together many aspects of Afghan life and seem to reflect on the one thing that has been missing from these people’s lives: Peace. There has been some form of turmoil in the country since the 1970s. Like most other people, Afghans just wish to be left alone. 

The stories show how wearing jeans can produce a huge public argument. Villagers, in one story, believe that Soviet’s had attacked America on 9/11 because America and the Soviet Union have always been fighting each other. What possible effect would 9/11 have on Afghanistan asks one child. “The Taste of Cake” shows the brutality and depravity of those who hold power. “Hard Boiled” is an interesting story of a man who dresses as a member of the Taliban, but runs an illegal comic book store. Since there are no movies or music in Taliban run Afghanistan, comics provide some sort of an escape. The writer pictures himself a bit of a Mike Hammer fan and similarly falls for a woman needing assistance. 

The writing is very good in all the stories and the writers’ command of English is also impressive. It is not so much the writing that makes this book great, but the first hand insight into a country that is still a mystery to most Americans. I would venture to say that most Americans only know Afghanistan for the Taliban, Osama Bin Laden, and mountain bunkers. The Gifts of the State gives a personal look into the country and the people. It is this intimate look at the culture that makes this a great book. The main limiting factor is that the students are attending an American school where English a requirement to attend. I again would make a guess that most of these students come from the privileged class of Afghanistan. With that being said, I will give the benefit of the doubt to the writer’s perspective and their vision; it is the best look into the country that we have. 

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Book Review: Lungs Full of Noise

Lungs Full of Noise by Tessa Mellas is a collection of twelve short stories. Mellas grew up in Northern New York and earned her BA from St Lawrence University. She earned her MFA from Bowling Green State University and her PhD from the University of Cincinnati. In 2013 She was awarded the Iowa Short Fiction Award. She currently lives in Columbus, Ohio and enjoys a vegan lifestyle.

Since I started reviewing books, I have had some hurdles to clear. Many publishers seem to want to box reviewers into little boxes. I imagine there is a note next to my name, saying this guy is good with World War I, Vietnam, and Poetry… Reject all other requests. I requested a Virginia Woolf biography from another publisher and was rejected because it was supposedly from the feminist perspective and well I am a guy. Luckily, the very nice people at University of Iowa Press gave me auto-approval for their publications.

What attracted me to Lungs Full of Noise was, to be honest, the weirdness. A girl with a hermaphrodite roommate from Jupiter (the planet, not the city) with greenish skin. The roommate, although very different, is taken no differently than someone from Nepal. There is no science fiction sense to the story, it’s just accepted. In another story, a woman has a child with plant tendrils and flowers growing from his head. Again, people think it’s a little odd, but nothing too far fetched. There is a story about girls being sent to a camp to learn to be quiet, and another story of the sky turning white. These are stories where very odd things happen and people simply accept them as normal.

There is, however, a catch with all these stories above the oddness taken for normal. There is an underlying message to each story. Mellas writes some extreme stories where the reader will immediately know the story is fiction, because it is fairly outrageous. What the careful reader will notice is there is something equally outrageous in our own society, that we as members totally ignore. Sometimes the message is very blunt and (maybe) crude as in “Dye Job”, and other times it is a bit more hidden. Sometimes it is very plain.

The opening story “Mariposa Club” girls forgo using ice skates and screw the blades directly to their feet. They find that this improvement allows the completion for more advanced skating techniques. Furthermore, they shaved off all their body hair and performed naked. They eventually needed to paint tights on their body to match the permanent frostbite on their bodies. The girls who did not want to make the sacrifice moved to other rinks or took up other or less demanding activities like ballet. The Mariposa Girls rise to fame until there is an accident and injury and suddenly the injured girl is just bald, naked, and unknown. The message is clear enough to me, and pretty shocking, yet, it happens everyday.

I found Lungs Full of Noise to be a book with a powerful message. It has been the most influential of the twenty books I have read this year and in the top three of the two hundred books I read last year. I picked this book up looking for some bizarre short stories and found much, much more than that. I think, this year, I will be hard pressed to find a book to beat this one. Really an amazing book.

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Book Review — Arauco: A Novel

Arauco: A Novel by John Caviglia is a work of historical fiction taking place during the Spanish conquest of South America from 1539-1553. Caviglia was born in Chile and, for the most part, raised in the United States. He has been a professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature. He has also taught martial arts and pottery. Caviglia earned his BA in English and French Language and Literature from Wabash College and attended the University of Toulouse as a Fulbright scholar. Before earning his PhD in Comparative Literature from Indiana University, Bloomington, he studied English Literature at Yale.

As an undergraduate in history, I spend a great deal of time studying Latin America. My studies of Chile, for the most part, started with Bernardo O’Higgins, moved the “guano wars”, and ended with Pinochet. Arauco, begins well before this time and starts in 1539 before the conquest of Chile. The novel uses real history and relies on historical people for all the Spanish characters (with the exception of two minor characters). The Spanish characters of Pedro, Juan, Ines provide an interesting contrast in the main story.

Pedro Gomez de San Benito, fits the mold of the warrior. He is the rough, tough, wine drinking, pork eating, womanizing man of uniform.

No one had ever fought Pedro and lived… save Jaun, who was his student in the knife, that subtle, arduous art.

Juan, raised by a priest, provides the innocent eyes to the story. Although an adult or near enough, he begins the story with a very simple outlook. His view reminded me of my outlook in Catholic grade school. He believed in miracles, devout, naive, but with a willingness to prove himself. Juan also knew how to read and write — a rarity for a conquistador. He seems the most interesting character to watch grow and develop in the book. His innocent outlook provides a sharp contrast to Pedro’s (and the other Spanish soldiers’ and leadership’s) view of the Indians. One can almost cast him as a detached witness in the story. He seems to look at the more human side of events and people rather than Spanish vs Mapuche Indians.

Ines de Suarez provides another role. She is the strong female character. She is an organizer, a nurse, and a moving force in Valdivia’s effort to invade what is now Chile. She was one of the original twelve to march south. Ines is a very strong character in a time when women had very little say. Juan looks up to her in much the same way he does to Pedro.

The Mapuche Indians are also represented in detail. Namku is the principal character for the Mapuche; he is a shaman. Here, too, is a huge difference between the two forces. The Mapuche mysticism compared to the Spanish Catholicism. When the people on both sides, meet some interesting questions of religion are played out. The Mapuche, to at times, seemed more advanced than the Spanish. They knew how to fix head wounds by relieving pressure; they also seemed to question and think independently than the dogmatic Spanish.

As much as anything, this is a book that compares two cultures and their beliefs without the expect good guys vs the bad guys. There are good and bad in the book and they exist on both sides. The Spanish are almost as absorbed in treachery against themselves as they are in war, but between the two cultures things seemed balanced. The farther a Spaniard got from Spain, the more their behavior took a turn for the worse, and Chile was about as far from Spain as one could get. The Indians seem to take pleasure in guerilla warfare, knowing that this is more successful than face to face confrontation against steel and gunpowder.

A word or two of warning for the reader. Caviglia uses many native words in the book. If you are reading this on a Kindle you may want to print the glossary from the author’s web page. There is a glossary at the end of the book, but it would be tedious jumping back and forth. This should not be a problem with a paper copy of the book. Most of the Spanish is explained in the book and what is not can be readily translated by your Kindle. Secondly, this book is almost seven hundred pages. Make sure you allow yourself plenty of time. Although there is plenty of action and intrigue in the book, it will take longer than expected to read. For most readers, myself included, there is a great deal of unfamiliar information. There are two different cultures and languages to contend with and historical context and geography. None of the points I brought up take away from the reading, rather they enhance it.

Reading Arauco took me back to my undergraduate days. It has been some time since I read about Latin America in a historical sense. Although Arauco is a work of fiction, it is based on real people and events. There is much more balanced coverage between the two peoples than I let on in my review. Much of the history I learned was based on the Spanish so I naturally dug a little deeper into the history looking for some type of flaw or historical inaccuracy; I found none. Arauco is historical fiction with a serious focus on historical. A very well written and researched book. I don’t mean to be cliche with the reference, but this book would fit nicely next to Jennings’ Aztec on anyone’s bookshelf. Although I am very stingy with stars, Arauco earns a very rare five star review.

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