Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez

Things We Lost In The Fire by Mariana Enriquez was a unique reading experience. I distinctly recall being left somewhat disappointed by a number of the stories in this collection, especially the first few. They all would end with an explosion of nightmarish and violent imagery with complex supernatural elements, definitely following the end-with-a-bang mentality. And this endings would be a let down because Enriquez did such a good job building the atmosphere, sending the reader deeper into her characters’ nightmares, and you’d know that something horrifying was looming ever-closer. The endings just didn’t seem to add as much to the story as I had hoped, and took on the quality of a lot of shock and flash lacking substance. But at some point in the collection the complex themes and ideas of the stories started to align fantastically with the deeply disturbing imagery that Enriquez is so gifted at creating in every story.

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V. by Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon’s debut novel V. was published when he was twenty-six. V. is sprawling, overwhelmingly complex, and clocks in at a nimble 547 pages. I turned twenty-six this year, and what life’s work can I place next to Pynchon’s at the same age? Well, I’ve written a handful of messy and pretentious short stories, and many messy and pretentious book and film reviews, and only the latter was published by anyone other than myself, albeit on tiny websites. But enough with the existential crisis this is causing me, writing about this book will be challenging enough.

At twenty-six, Pynchon had a comprehensive knowledge of a staggering amount of historical and technical information, which he expressed through V., with some of the novel’s most significant examples being: the British intellectual and political communities in Egypt at the end of 19th century, espionage in Florence circa 1899, German expatriates in 1920s South Africa, the Herero wars, Malta in the midst of the Suez Crisis and under German bombardment in World War II, and, lastly, the bohemian scene of 1950s New York City (although Pynchon did see this first-hand).

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The Bridegroom Was A Dog by Yoko Tawada

The Bridegroom Was a Dog by Yoko Tawada is enormously strange and wonderfully perverse. Set in an Asian town that feels modern yet classical, the anonymity of the town is what makes the casually bizarre happenings of the story so easy to accept. There is this clash between the traditional value-focused mindsets of the community and the bizarre eccentricities of the central characters. Tawada captures something about human nature that is timeless and seems to have only gotten truer. We are so willing to accept people’s strange qualities, and in doing so pat ourselves on the back for being so open-minded, as long as those qualities remain at a distance, preferably out of sight, and don’t directly involve us. We love to humor belief in the out-of-the-ordinary and fantastic, imagine the world as an exciting and incredible place, but we want our own lives to remain simple and contained within our own determined boundaries. And this describes the various housewives’ reactions to Miss Kitamura and her strange new house guest. The housewives hear from their children about various quirks of Miss Kitamura’s, who is their day school teacher, and are morbidly fascinated by this strange woman, but as long as their children don’t seem negatively influenced by her sporadically strange behavior they are more than willing to explain it away as the product of their children’s active imaginations. But when quiet and pretty Miss Kitamura suddenly has a strange man living with her and seems unwilling and unable to explain her new situation, her strangeness becomes an alarming potential influence on their children.

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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

It is a special satisfaction to finally read a book that has been on your list for as long as you can remember. It’s an even special-er satisfaction when that book lives up to your expectations, as was the case with The Haunting of Hill House. However, now I am faced with the challenge of writing about a book that has been extensively written about by writers far more suited to the challenge than I am (Joyce Carol Oates, Laura Miller, Carmen Maria Machado, Neil Gaiman, etc). I’m going to give it a crack nonetheless, but will keep it brief and to the point.
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The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

With his debut novel, Colson Whitehead follows in the admirable and envy-inducing tradition of taking a subject of interest and creating a whole damn world around it. Whitehead’s topic is, broadly, elevators, and, more specifically, elevator maintenance. He creates a world where elevators aren’t just a convenient mode of transportation that we take for granted until the one we are on stalls for half a second and our entire life flashes before our eyes. No, in the world of The Intuitionist, the creation of elevators in placed comparably next to cars, and the people in charge of making them work are treated with the type of respect architects receive. And Whitehead embraces his story world concept with so much passion and invention that as I ride the elevator to and from my office each day I find my thoughts shifting from what meal I’ll eat next to being aware of just how incredible that box of machinery I’m riding truly is.

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Facing the Bridge by Yoko Tawada

Let me say right off the bat that I absolutely loved Yoko Tawada’s gloriously strange and perverse novella The Bridegroom Was A Dog. I have some specific thoughts on Bridegroom stored somewhere that I will post sometime in the future.

With that out of the way, I can now say that I got nothing out of Facing the Bridge. The three stories that make up the collection are meandering and gratingly abstract. Actually, that’s not exactly true. I quite liked “The Shadow Man” in spite of it’s jarringly abrupt ending that felt as if Tawada ended it simply because she ran out of steam with the narrative. It follows Amo, a young African boy who is kidnapped and brought to Europe and takes refuge in literature and eventually becomes a scholar. In a parallel story line centuries in the future Tamao is a foreign exchange student living in Europe and struggling to find any connection to his new surroundings. Their circumstances are vastly different, but the ways they are forced to manipulate their personalities in order to live in places where they are both physical and cultural outsiders is fascinating. But while Amo both ages and intellectually matures in his part of the narrative, Tamao drifts aimlessly and nothing much happens to him.

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The Curfew by Jesse Ball

It’s crazy to realize that I read Jesse Ball’s debut novel Samedi the Deafness a year ago. I remember reading it and being infected by his style. Finished it in three days (only that long because I read it during the work week), and on finishing it immediately wanted to go and write my own novel in the same style, and read the rest of his work one after the other.

Neither of those things happened. Not even slightly. I wrote no novels, and a year later I only just now read my second book by him – his third, The Curfew. Why did this happen? All I can say is that life never fails to get in the way of plans. Over the course of the year it took me to finally crack another book of his, Jesse Ball has been on my mind frequently. Originally I was going to read his second novel, The Way Through Doors, then I was going to jump ahead and read the book that seems to be considered his masterpiece, A Cure For Suicide. I even bought a copy of two Paris Review issues featuring short fiction of his, which reminds me that I did read his story “Archon LLC,” which I remember being short, fascinating, and very Kafkaesque. I didn’t ever read  “The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp & Carr” and I have no clue why not.

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