Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Three Brief Reviews

Feeling uninspired to write lengthy comments yet not wanting to forego commenting completely, here are brief thoughts on three recent books I have read.

A Better Angel by Chris Adrian
Hyped by all of the Best of 2008 lists, I picked up this collection of short fiction a couple of weeks ago and was pleasantly surprised by the contents. Adrian’s writing often has an element of magical realism that cap
tures the essence of wonder in me. The title story was the true standout for me, telling about a young doctor addicted to all sorts of things as he struggles with his father’s waning health and deals at the same time with a guardian angel that doesn’t like him. Many of the pieces are told from the viewpoint of children, typical for short fiction, but said characters are abnormally intelligent and/or mature, making them not seem so much like children as small adults. This is a bit distracting, but I really enjoyed the collection and will read The Children’s Hospital in the near future.

Nowhere Man by Aleksandar Hemon
I’m working my way through the fiction of this Bosnian-American writer, and his first novel centers on a character introduced in a novella in The Question of Bruno. Though that novella wasn’t a favorite, Hemon managed to write a strange and fascinating story that centers around Jozef Pronek yet is never told from his point of view. Instead, the story is told through various narrators who all have some sort of relationship with him. But even through all this, there is a sort of mystical nature surrounding Pronek that left me not feeling that I really know who he is at all. This among several works I have read recently that center on Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and it is a solid work that will help inform how we as Westerners look historically at the people who were involved in the Yugoslavian conflict of the early 1990s.

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain
Discovering that Fountain lives in Texas and writes about Cuba and Haiti intrigued me enough to pick up this collection. His short fiction is overtly political, yet he doesn’t put his postcolonial before the story; he reminds me a lot of Tom Bissell, though the politics are different. But what really makes this collection stand out is that it feels authentic and fresh in a way that most short fiction coming out of MFA programs just doesn’t seem to be anymore. Even though one often knows where the stories are ultimately leading, the prose and construction are such that it is a joy to read anyway. Interestingly, the two pieces that are set in the US and not in third world situations were the weakest in the book. He is supposedly releasing a novel next year, and I will be picking that up when it debuts.

I kind of like the short, mildly substantial review, especially for collections of short fiction. Perhaps you will see this more often as I continue to write about more than just book reviews.

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