Saturday, June 28, 2014

[Review] Submarine by Joe Dunthorne

Rating: 3.5 Stars
Genre: Contemporary fiction, YA
Summary: At once a self-styled social scientist, a spy in the baffling adult world, and a budding, hormone-driven emotional explorer, Oliver Tate is stealthily nosing his way forward through the murky and uniquely perilous waters of adolescence. His objectives? Uncovering the secrets behind his parents’ teetering marriage, unraveling the mystery that is his alluring and equally quirky classmate Jordana Bevan, and understanding where he fits in among the mystifying beings in his orbit. Struggling to buoy his parents’ wedded bliss, deep-six his own virginity, and sound the depths of heartache, happiness, and the business of being human, what’s a lad to do? Poised precariously on the cusp of innocence and experience, Oliver Tate aims to damn the torpedoes and take the plunge.

Definitely quirky and definitely not a book I would've picked up by normal means, but I'm glad I did. So I am a big Arctic Monkeys fan, and it is no surprise then that when I heard Alex Turner, the vocalist, also did solo work, so I quickly dug up his album Submarine, which is the soundtrack for the Submarine movie, which I watched and thought was pretty fantastic. I didn't even know there was book until I happened across it on goodreads, and when I saw it, I knew I had to read it.

Personally, I found the movie more enjoyable than the book (Is it because of the soundtrack? *cough* No way...), but the book does have its own merits. It's about a teenage boy named Oliver who is oddly--creepily obsessed with his parents, particularly their relationship to the point where he checks the dimmer switch in his parents' room to make sure that they're having enough sex every week. I have never heard of a fifteen year old teenager who worried about his or her parents' sex life to this extent. I know they are way more open about sex over in Europe (the story takes place in Wales specifically), but it still comes off as a tad bit obsessive. Seriously, he goes above and beyond to make sure that their marriage doesn't fail.

Sometimes it's funny, and then other times it's just plain messed up. For example:

"There is one option that they must avoid at all costs: a baby. Couples say this: 'We're staying together for the baby,' so, logically, the reverse is also true: 'A baby will glue us back together.' The last thing any of us wants is to go through childbirth. A placenta is terrible; it looks worse than jellied eels. A third-degree tear is a rip that may occur during labor--two holes become one. I do not trust them to take the appropriate action to fix their relationship. I will count the number of tampons my mother has left each month. There are currently eight. If she is not using them, I will intervene and suggest an abortion."

Wait what? That's not funny or quirky, that's freaky! Oliver definitely comes off as egotistical, stalkerish, obsessive, and extremely manipulative. Though you can't really help but forgive him most of the time because he means well, even if he deserves to be punched in the gut for some of the things he says or does (such as writing a short guide to the fat outcast in class on the unsaid social rules of bullying and how to not be a loser anymore, and thus not be bullied anymore). If I knew someone like him, I would avoid him at all costs. Personally, I didn't even really care if anything happened to him, but I was interested in what would happen to the other characters, which is why I didn't drop this book. Parts of it are quite smart, even if Oliver is occasionally an asshole.

I did enjoy the trivia in the book. Oliver loves memorizing words and their definitions. For example "Cotard's Syndrome is a branch of autism where people believe they are dead". I liked the odd narrative style of this novel. Parts of it are written in a diary form for his girlfriend to read, though the entries are sometimes completely fabricated for his girlfriend's entertainment so it keeps things interesting. His relationships are interesting, and I enjoyed his detached observations of his life and the life of others.

As an ending note, it's still definitely worth reading if you're into offbeat things. Also recommended is Alex Tuner's Submarine soundtrack!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

[Review] Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting

Rating: 5 Stars
Genre: Short Stories, Speculative Fiction, Bizarro Fiction, Horror
Summary: In this darkly hilarious debut collection, misfit women and girls in every strata of society are investigated through various ill-fated jobs. One is the main course of dinner, another the porn star contracted to copulate in space for a reality TV show. They become futuristic ant farms, get knocked up by the star high school quarterback and have secret abortions, use parakeets to reverse amputations, make love to garden gnomes, go into air conditioning ducts to confront their mother’s ghost, and do so in settings that range from Hell to the local white-supremacist bowling alley (from Goodreads).

This is a genre I've only discovered recently: Bizarro fiction. The closest thing I can think of that is similar is Chuck Palahniuk's stories. Two words: grotesque surrealism. The only difference between this collection and some of Chuck Palahniuk's works (don't get me wrong, I do love some of his works) is that it's not bile-inducing and actually enjoyable to read. More often than not, I would rather a book left me elevated, not nauseous. Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls is just that. It's the right amount of weird, morbid, gross, and bizarre, but without the sour aftertaste. The book is all kinds of amazing. I don't think I'm going to even write a review for it. I'll let these various quotations speak for themselves.

This is the first line of the first story: "I am boiling inside a kettle with five other people."

Intriguing. Do go on.

"Our limbs are bound and our intestines and mouths are stuffed with herbs and garlic, but we can still speak. We smell great despite the pain."

Sold. If you are a rather modest and conservative person who doesn't savor in uncleanliness, this is definitely not a book for you. For anyone else who, like me, has a rather twisted sense of humor, you will love these stories.

Here are some more quotations:

"My friend Gizmo who works at the funeral home occasionally smokes the hair of the embalmed dead. The smell does not bother him: he is used to horrible smells. He claims that after a few minutes of inhaling, moments form the corpses' lives flood his head like a movie."

From a story that takes place in Hell:

"I also found an intestine that had been suffocated with rat poison and fashioned into a noose. I decided to hang the whole thing from my chandelier. 'You're becoming more comfortable with entrails,' the devil commented. I liked the way he took notice of my growth."

Seriously, what's not to love? Aside from the bizarro shock factors, I really liked that all the female characters were all equally unique and compelling. Like the title suggests, this collection of short stories is about women, and sometimes girls, having to go through very unpleasant (to put it mildly) situations. It features women in all different walks of life and in all different types of relationship (familial, romantic, platonic, stalkerish, inhuman, symbiotic) from every setting imaginable--from falling love with the devil in the underworld to trying to find closure with a cryogenically frozen mother (frozen for being a murderous felon) in space. I can't even decide which of these stories are my favorite. Five stars hands down.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

[Review] Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

Rating: 4 stars
Genre: Short stories, Japanese Lit, Horror, Contemporary
Synopsis: Sinister forces draw together a cast of desperate characters in this eerie and absorbing novel from Yoko Ogawa.

An aspiring writer moves into a new apartment and discovers that her landlady has murdered her husband. Years later, the writer’s stepson reflects upon his stepmother and the strange stories she used to tell him. Meanwhile, a surgeon’s lover vows to kill him if he does not leave his wife. Before she can follow-through on her crime of passion, though, the surgeon will cross paths with another remarkable woman, a cabaret singer whose heart beats delicately outside of her body. But when the surgeon promises to repair her condition, he sparks the jealousy of another man who would like to preserve the heart in a custom tailored bag. Murderers and mourners, mothers and children, lovers and innocent bystanders—their fates converge in a darkly beautiful web that they are each powerless to escape.

Macabre, fiendishly clever, and with a touch of the supernatural, Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge creates a haunting tapestry of death—and the afterlife of the living.

So because I saw that they recently added it to Netflix, I rewatched Kill Bill. "Revenge is a dish best served cold" indeed. However, the book isn't really about revenge. Certainly there are characters that serve it up real cold, but the theme is really about all those dark emotions that tend to manifest in humanity: despair, resentment, cynicism, obsession with the macabre, etc, etc. The title Revenge makes it seem like some sort of action thriller Kill Bill Uma Thurman style when it's not.

I know when I finished reading the first story "Afternoon at the Bakery" (doesn't Murakami have a story titled similarly, I can't recall), I was like "Oh, this is pretty dark and awesome, but what does it have to do with revenge?" Hence, don't have your heart set out on vengeance. I don't know what's wrong with the publishers who worked on this book, but the title and the cover make no sense with the actual content and it drives me nuts. It's a huge pet peeve of mine. They did the same thing to another Japanese novel (which I will get around to reviewing soon). I'm sure the publishers did it so it would sell better, but it is completely unnecessary and actually quite distasteful.

Yoko Ogawa's writing has very little flourish. It's sparse and a little deadpan. The woman gets to the point. A game I played while reading through the short stories was trying to guess, before other characters in the story clue me in, whether the speaker is a male or a female. It's seriously not easy. Kudos Yoko Ogawa for your genderless writing style.

Each story connects to the others in some sort of way, though the stories can be read out of order or stand alone, the full creepy effect isn't achieved if you don't read the whole thing. Here's a quotation that sets the tone for the rest of the stories. From the first short "Afternoon at the Bakery" about a mother grieving over her murdered son:

"The door would not open no matter how hard you pushed, no matter how long you pounded on it. The screams no one heard. Darkness, hunger, pain. Slow suffocation. One day it occurred to me that I needed to experience the same suffering he I took a deep breath, curled myself into a ball, and slowly worked my way inside. As the door closed, all lights vanished. I could no longer tell whether my eyes were open or shut, and I realized it made no difference in here. The walls of the refrigerator were still cool. Where does death come from?"

Eerie right? There's a story about a woman who grows carrots that look like hands, a torture museum, a woman whose heart comes out of her chest, etc. It's all very unusual and a little unsettling. Overall I give it four stars. I think it is a splendid book that anyone interested in the macabre should definitely take a look at.