Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Razorblade Tears, by S.A. Cosby: Gritty, Grimy, Glorious

Razorblade Tears, by S.A. Cosby, is a gritty, grimy, glorious crime novel, with a side of social commentary, and with a pretty inventive premise: Two ex cons, one Black, one White, team up to avenge the murder of their sons...who happened to be married to each other. The sons were both estranged from their fathers because their dads were less-than-accepting of them being gay. 

So this starts out as a buddy drama, but decidedly without the buddy. These two guys, Ike and Buddy Lee, have to overcome their aversion to each other before they can make any meaningful progress in finding out who killed their sons. Buddy Lee is your typical Southern Virginia hard-drinking, trailer-living, good 'ole boy — a smart ass with some less than modern views on race relations. Ike has turned his life around after a long stint in prison, started a landscaping company, and is now living the straight and narrow...if nearly completely humorless.

The only thing these two tough guys really have in common, other than each doing jail time, is that neither of their sons much liked them. But they agree to team up to honor their memory as they start to realize that maybe them not accepting their sons as they were may have contributed to their deaths. 

As they get into their own investigation, they run afoul of a murderous motorcycle gang with pretty obvious connections to the murder. The cat and mouse game begins, and the key becomes a missing woman named Tangerine who holds not just the answer to who killed their sons, but also has a secret that could destroy many other lives.

This has everything you want in a crime novel: Breakneck pace, over-the-top violence, wise cracking ex-cons with hearts of golds, some obvious plot holes and convenient coincidences (what crime novel doesn't?!), a motorcycle gang, and so much more. I loved it. I don't dip into crime fiction too frequently, but this one landed just right.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Crying In H Mart, by Michelle Zauner: A Sad, Sweet, Hip Memoir of Food, Identity, and Music

Memoirs are still all the rage these days, especially sad ones. And this one — Crying In H Mart, by Michelle Zauner — is especially sad. But it's also sweet and a little funny and pretty hip too. You may know Zauner as the frontwoman and songwriter behind the indie shoegaze band Japanese Breakfast. (If you don't, that's okay — I hadn't heard of her either, but I listened to a lot of Japanese Breakfast while reading this, and I love her!) 

This memoir is about Zauner's mother's sickness and death from cancer. But a major through-line is her connection to her Korean identity — her mother is Korean, her father American. (Here's a Daily Show interview that explains how she came up with Japanese Breakfast, despite being Korean.) Being half Korean was a liability in her mind as she grew up as a bit of a wild child in Eugene, Oregon, but a part of her she wishes she'd embraced more after her mother's death, especially given that her relationship with her mother wasn't always perfect.

Another thing I learned from this book right off the bat is that H Mart is a Korean grocery store. Food is one way Zauner learns to embrace her Korean heritage and remind herself of her mother. She writes about all the Korean food she loved growing up and begins learning to make her mother's dishes. This helps her appreciate food the way her mother did, and by extension, her identity. 

Zauner is a tremendously gifted, extremely self-aware writer. Of course, it was fascinating to read about her evolution as a writer, artist, and musician. But her relationship with her mother and her evolving notion of her own identity are on center stage here — and these are what make this a really great read.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Letting Go, by Philip Roth: A First Novel That'd Never Be Published Today

Shout out to the four people (and four may be overstating it) who will care about this review of a 630-page novel first published in 1962! 😂

I've read more Philip Roth than any other writer. So it was about time to read Letting Go, his first full-length novel (published in 1962, after his first actual published work, Goodbye, Columbus, a story collection and novella, published in 1959). All I could think all the way through these 630 pages is that, while I was mostly enjoying it, it sure didn't feel like a Philip Roth novel. Here, Roth characters spend a lot of time actually talking to each other (mostly arguing), and they do very little individual introspection. Odd, for Roth.

This story is basically about two couples living in mid-century Chicago. Narrators and perspectives shift to reveal each characters' skeletons in the closet, and why their current relationships are fraught. But what makes this a memorable, fascinating story is that all four of these characters are absolutely neurotic and medium-terrible people. They are unforgettable, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about all their problems with each other.

So if you think of this as a first novel, and not Philip Roth's first novel, it's an amazingly accomplished feat. It's a first novel that would NEVER get published today — or would at least be edited down to about 250 pages. Even though this novel deals with semi-dramatic issues, like disowned families, adoption, abortion, infidelity, and more, not a whole lot really happens. How Roth manages to keep you coming back for 630 pages is pretty amazing. So even though this is generally considered a minor Roth work, even though it's his debut novel, you still do get a sense of the talent that is about to unleash some of the best American literature to come over the next 50 years. And that's why I read it. It took almost a month, but I'm glad I did. 


Thursday, July 1, 2021

My 5 Favorite Books of 2021...So Far

Happy July! We're over halfway through 2021 already. Here are my five favorite books of the year...so far. Click on each link for the full review. 

5. Mary Jane, by Jessica Anya Blau — I am probably not the ideal reader for a novel narrated by a 14-year-old girl in the 1970s, but I loved this book nonetheless. Yes, the "Almost Famous" comparisons are apt, but also the coming-of-age aspect of this summery novel makes this a huge win. 

4. Every Day Is A Gift, by Tammy Duckworth — Duckworth's riveting memoir is this year's most inspiring read so far. Plus, it's often very, very funny. 

3. All Together Now, by Matthew Norman — A novel about a guy dying of pancreatic cancer shouldn't be this much fun. But this novel is summery fun at its best. Still, Norman does a fantastic job of portraying the slings and arrows of friendship here, especially as people grow up and change. 

2. Klara And The Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro — How much could you possibly care about a robot? How much could a robot teach us about caring for other people? A lot! This novel by Nobel winner Ishiguro tenderly and brilliantly shows us how to hope, love, and connect to others. 

1. The Night Always Comes, by Willy Vlautin — There are still a lot of great novels coming out in 2021 (hello, Franzen!), but it's going to take a herculean effort to knock this book off my "favorite of the year" pedestal. This book just blew me away. I honestly don't think I've ever read a such a short novel that affected me as much as this one did.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell: Absolutely Top-Tier Literary Fiction

So yeah, everyone is right: Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell is an unbelievably powerful piece of art  — top-tier literary fiction. 

I was sitting outside on my balcony reading the end of this novel, and the sun had gone behind the building across the street, and the temperature was dropping quickly, and with about five pages to go, I realized I was shivering uncontrollably, and I wasn't sure if it was because I was cold or if it was because the ending of this novel is so affecting, so finely rendered, so dramatically powerful. Either way, I couldn't move until it was over. 

But the rest of the novel that leads to this ending is brilliant, as well. This, as it's subtitled, is a novel of the plague — but specifically, it's about Shakespeare (who is never named as Shakespeare) and his wife, Agnes (Anne?) and their twins, Hamnet and Judith, one of whom dies of the plague.

We get alternating stories about "the Latin tutor" and his courtship of Agnes, and then the real-time story after they're married and one of the twins is dying. I loved the universality of this story. Of course, the pandemic aspect is pretty relatable these days. But also, this is a novel about family, parenthood, love and loyalty, and the inspiration behind great art. Again, the last scene in this novel, as Agnes is watching the play inspired by her son, is mesmerizing. I was reading as if in a trance. 

I can't recommend this book more highly.