BOOK REVIEW: All Talk by Bartosz Sztybor

All TalkAll Talk by Bartosz Sztybor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: March 14, 2023

This is the tragedy of a young man, Rahim, whose need to feel esteemed and empowered leads him ever deeper into the gangster life. But in that vicious world, his desire to be seen as powerful and his inability to tolerate insult is a threat not only to his life, but to all those close to him – even those who are more emotionally mature than he. There are a couple characters that provide contrast by showing an ability to navigate that life of youth amidst inner city poverty. The reader hopes Rahim will bend their way but fears he will pull them down with him.

This is a straightforward story but is still emotionally rousing. It’s a little like watching a car crash in slow motion, one knows what will go wrong well before it does, just by virtue of the fact that it’s all been set inexorably in motion. And yet one can’t look away.

If you enjoy a modern-day tragedy, you may want to look into this one.


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BOOK REVIEW: Philosophy in the Bedroom by Marquis de Sade

Philosophy in the BoudoirPhilosophy in the Boudoir by Marquis de Sade
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This seven-part dialogue tells the story of a young woman’s education in libertinage (“libertine” shouldn’t be confused with liberal or libertarian.) The book mixes action sequences of a pornographic nature with philosophical discussions on ethics, law, governance, relationships, and religion. A young woman, Eugenie, is sent (without objection) by her father into the care of Madame de Saint-Ange, though another character, Dolmance, serves as both the girl’s primary philosophy lecturer as well as the choreographer of the orgiastic sexual activities that take place throughout book.

Overall, the philosophy is weak, but not altogether lacking compelling ideas, at least in the context of its time – i.e. late Age of Enlightenment. Setting aside the controversial and broadly reviled nature of Sade’s philosophy, I criticize it primarily on the grounds that it misunderstands its own foundations and frequently contradicts itself. The foundations I’m referring to are the workings of the natural world. Libertine philosophy is an offshoot of Enlightenment thinking, and as such attempts to replace the superstition and the arbitrary morals of religion. The question becomes with what one replaces religion-driven bases for determining action. Sade’s argument is that we should see ourselves as part of nature and behave in synch with it. It could be argued that using natural principles as one’s guide is as fine an idea as any, but the problem is Sade doesn’t have an accurate picture of how nature really works. Ironically, he seems to have the same unsophisticated view of nature that his opponents held – i.e. that nature is always and everywhere a brutal and chaotic hellscape. [The main difference is that Sade assumed that one must surrender to this hellscape while his opponents proposed that one must subdue it.] The fact of the matter is promiscuity and intraspecies killing aren’t universal in nature, and cooperation does exist alongside competition in the natural world. (To be clear, interspecies killing is universal for many species and intraspecies killing occurs, but consider venomous snakes of a given species that wrestle for dominance while not using their poison or infantrymen who only pretend to shoot their weapons in combat. Also, I don’t mean to suggest monogamy is the rule [besides in birds, where it is,] but Sade seems to believe there is no order to mating in the natural world.) In sum, nature does not tell us to default to the most savage behavior in all situations, and while animals can be ferocious, they generally don’t go around being jerks for the sake of being a jerk.

Since I also criticized the book’s philosophy for inconsistency, I will give one example to demonstrate a more widespread problem. Dolmance tells us that humans should live checked only as nature would check us (as opposed to by religious dictates,) but tells Eugenie to not listen to the voice of nature that tells her to not behave fiendishly.

I also said this philosophy wasn’t without compelling points. Setting aside the many ideas that were well-addressed by more mainstream philosophers long before Sade entered the picture (e.g. the need to separate the activities of religion from those of government,) Sade’s arguments for seeing a purpose for sexual activity beyond procreation, against seeing the making of more humans as a grand and necessary virtue, and against attaching stigmas to nonprocreative sex are all ideas that have gained traction since the turn of the 19th century and arguably could be furthered to positive ends.

Speaking briefly to the non-philosophical side of the book, I will say that – excepting Dialogue VII (the final one) – this book was much less disturbing than some other of the Marquis’s books (e.g. 120 Days of Sodom or Justine,) Prior to the last section, the book involves consensual activities that aren’t dialed up to the maximum level of shock value. That said, Dialogue VII is as cringeworthy as they come. Also, I didn’t understand how all the orgy choreography could work, but that might be attributable to my lack of imagination.

This book will obviously not be everyone’s cup of tea (too much orgy sex for some, too much philosophy for others, and to much of both for most) but as the Marquis de Sade’s books go, it does delve most deeply into philosophy and is moderately less disturbing than some others.


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BOOK REVIEW: Eastbound Maylis de Kerangal

EastboundEastbound by Maylis de Kerangal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release of Paperback Edition: February 7, 2023

This novella is translated from French but set in Russia. The story is short and simple, yet evocative. It’s about the attempt of its two main characters to conduct very different plans of escape. Aliocha is a soldier who’s traveling by train to a remote assignment in the East when he decides to desert. Aliocha’s desertion plan ends up hinging on the assistance of a foreign woman, Hélène, a French woman who – as it happens – is fleeing a failed relationship. For whatever reason, but perhaps because she knows the intense need to break free, Hélène decides to shelter Aliocha in her cabin until he can make clean getaway.

This is a quick but intense read. The lack of common language between the two escapees makes for an austere telling, one that adds to the emotional tone of the story. I recommend it for readers of literature in translation.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the RyeThe Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book will be familiar to most Americans as high school required reading. It’s about a teenager, Holden Caulfield, who’s just been expelled from a boarding school and who goes on the adolescent version of a bender – which involves some drinking but is more a mix of attempted escape and soul-searching. At first, it seems that Holden just wants to put off having to see his parents (this not being the first school at which he’s failed,) but then it seems like he might try to escape the transition to adult life altogether.

The core premise is that Caulfield can’t adapt to adult life. This is interesting in that, in some ways, he’s preternaturally mature. The character has an unusually accurate perception of his own nature, even when that nature is petty, childish, or lazy. He doesn’t rationalize his failures but recognizes them. Ultimately, Caulfield can’t cope with the false masks required of adult living and the ever-changing nature of adult life.

Like many, I did a shoddy (at best) job of reading this book in high school. It’s not exactly an action-packed romp, and the major happenings (e.g. a fight at school, being shaken down by a pimp on behalf of prostitute whom Caulfield had paid but hadn’t had sex with, and an unwelcomed [possibly sexual] advance from a former teacher) are few, far between, and somewhat anticlimactic. That said, as literary fiction the book is readable, makes bold choices with language, builds a fascinating character, and offers plenty of interesting psychology to ponder.

I’d highly recommend this book for readers of literary fiction (or a re-read for those who half-assed it in school.)


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BOOK REVIEW: The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & NocturnesThe Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In this, the first, eight-issue volume of Sandman, we’re introduced to Morpheus / Dream – the king of dreams & nightmares and one of the seven Endless – when he’s captured by an amateur occultist who was trying to kidnap Death [the (not-so Grim) Reaper and also Dream’s sister.] The story told in “Preludes and Nocturnes” is one of Dream’s captivity, escape, and the subsequent missions to reacquire three magic artifacts that were stolen from him when he was captured (i.e. his bag of sand, helmet, and ruby-like jewel.) That last sentence makes it sound like a far-out fantasy, but it’s really a relatable and human set of stories.

This imaginative and compelling opening volume is at its best with “24 Hours” (as well as “Passengers,” the issue that precedes “24 Hours” and sets up its story.) In “24 Hours,” escaped villain, John Dee, torments the occupants of a smalltown diner by manipulating their reality (a capability he achieved when he came into possession of Dream’s “ruby.”) It’s a story that’s both horrifying and thought-provoking as Dee forces the diners to shed the masks of polite society and get to know the uncensored versions of each other.

Another favorite is the concluding issue, “The Sound of Her Wings,” which is really more of an epilogue, given the story has been brought to a successful and satisfying conclusion with the penultimate issue. “The Sound of Her Wings” introduces us to Death (the kinder, more charismatic, and more articulate Gaiman-version of the Grim Reaper) and shows us interaction between Dream and Death as Dream learns a crucial lesson from his sister.

“Sandman” is an excellent series, and the volume where it all began is no exception. I’d highly recommend it for readers in general.


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BOOK REVIEW: Punishment of a Hunter by Yulia Yakovleva

Punishment of a Hunter: A Leningrad Confidential (The Leningrad Confidential Series Book 1)Punishment of a Hunter: A Leningrad Confidential by Yulia Yakovleva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is “Seven” meets “1984” — i.e. an American-style work of crime fiction where an obsessive and deceptively savvy detective attempts to solve a string of bizarre murders but set under a totalitarian regime in which the powers that be are more concerned about quashing liberties that might bloom into insurrection than solving the odd murder. Yakovleva isn’t the first to do such a fish out of water crime novel, but she does a fine job of it. The mash-up does spin things around a bit vis-a-vis the genre’s usual conventions and mechanisms. In the typical American version, the police detective teeters on roguishness, but in the Soviet Union, “going rogue” has an entirely different meaning and set of consequences. I enjoyed the psychology that plays out in this story.

This book does demand attentive reading. There are quick and dirty transitions that can make the book read in a disjoint fashion, and – if you blink – you may miss something crucial to the story. That said, it’s not a murder mystery precisely, and so it’s not like one is engaged in a clue hunt. The story has a fascinating premise and I enjoyed reading it tremendously.


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BOOK REVIEW: Ahiahia the Orphan by Levi Illuitok

Ahiahia the OrphanAhiahia the Orphan by Levi Illuitok
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: April 11, 2023

This is a brief and action-packed graphic novelization of a traditional story of the Inuit people of Kugaaruk. That said, it’s probably too brief and action-packed for its own good. The story revolves around a man, Ahiahia, who is orphaned when members of the tribe kill his parents, and then when he comes of age the same contingent have it out for him. While one can imagine any number of internecine conflicts that could lead to the murder of his parents, the fact that we have no clue of the attackers’ motivation makes the whole thing feel gratuitous.

Ahiahia’s grandmother takes the boy in and goes to great lengths to see that he will be safe in the face of whatever familial rivalry led to his parent’s murder. Her actions blend the magical with the practical (e.g. chanting incantations over the bow and arrows she makes for him.) For me, the moral of the story can be seen in this blending. We don’t know how much of Ahiahia’s successes are due to the practical versus the magical, but one feels they worked together and that one without the other would probably not have fared as well.

At the end, there’s a scene that may be disturbing for those who have strong feelings about patriarchal subjugation of women, but it’s hard to argue that it’s not authentic.

This is a very quick read and has sufficient action to keep it engaging. However, it can also feel a bit purposeless.


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BOOK REVIEW: Rivers of Babylon by Peter Pišťanek

Rivers of Babylon (Rivers of Babylon, #1)Rivers of Babylon by Peter Pišťanek
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a Horatio Alger story (rags-to-riches) done Slovak style, which is to say it’s decidedly more edgy and gritty than the typical American version would be. The protagonist’s success is not solely the result of hard work and determination, but also a nasty temper, a capacity for brutality, and an unstudied skill for reading and manipulating people (despite a lack of education or intellectual acumen.)

Rácz (the story’s lead) returns home to his village from military service believing that he has a modest inheritance coming his way, only to discover that some members of his extended family absconded with his deceased parent’s savings. The father of Rácz’s sweetheart recommends that Rácz go to the big city [Bratislava] to earn some quick cash because the father can’t very well marry his daughter off to a destitute young farmer. Rácz does go to Bratislava and happens to sit down in a dinner next to an old man who is looking for his own replacement to run the central heating system for a block that is dominated by a high-end hotel catering to foreign visitors as well as some mostly luxury shops and businesses. It’s not a prestigious job, essentially a furnace stoker, but the pay is not bad and most people treat the stoker pretty well because they’re scared of having their heat go out in the winter – except the hotel manager, who is a bully. Rácz has his “Falling Down” moment after being tormented by the Manager, and his burst of anger — and the realization that he can control the hotel and all that’s around it by blackmailing everyone to keep the heat working — starts him down a path that will result in his rise to gangster-king status.

The book is humorous throughout, though it’s largely black humor. As for trigger warnings: the book includes acts of rape and kidnapping. Rácz does have a kind of moral compass, and one does see where his limits lie and the ethical rules he applies, but that moral compass is wildly off-kilter in comparison to most of society. I found the psychology of Rácz and other main characters (e.g. Video Urban, a character who is far more street smart than Rácz, but not as capable of brutality) to be intriguing, and the book offers a vision of what made the Soviet leader’s tick. [The era seems to straddle the fall of Communism as a shift to privatization takes place in the book’s latter half.]

If you’re interested in Slovak literature or gangster literature or both, I’d highly recommend this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Last Chairlift by John Irving

The Last ChairliftThe Last Chairlift by John Irving
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The latest (and quite possibly last) novel of John Irving is a fine work of literary fiction. It’s not “A Prayer for Owen Meany” good, but it’s alright. Whereas “Owen Meany” was masterfully plotted with continuous points of tension and well-timed reveals, Irving’s new book meanders through the latter half of the twentieth century, presenting fascinating characters and the occasional powerful and poignant event.

In varied outlets, I’ve seen this referred to as a book about skiing and a book about ghosts. It’s neither of those things, though they both figure in the book. I would say it’s mostly about sexual identity and sexual politics in America. The story follows the life of Adam Brewster and his unconventional extended family of a lesbian mother who marries Adam’s father figure (Elliot Barlow, a man at the time who subsequently transitions to female) and has a simultaneous long-term committed relationship with another woman. Other major characters include his lesbian cousin and her committed partner, the partner, Em, being Adam’s lifelong crush.) At some point in reading, it occurred to me that this group was thick as thieves and there was really no ingroup dissent or conflict among them, and I wondered why that worked [instead of being painfully boring,] and I think it’s because they’re faced with so much outgroup [or edge of group, e.g. Adam’s aunts and – later – wife / ex-wife] pressure that it forces them to be closer in all ways.

Earlier I said that the book meanders through the second half of the twentieth century, but it actually continues through almost to the present-day. The biggest criticism I would offer is that the last twenty-ish years are rushed through and the author frequently seems to forget that there are characters that should have interesting life events. Instead, the book engages in long strings of “as-you-know-Bob” exposition on American politics, and when it’s not ranting about politics, the end reads a bit like a family Christmas letter. After what is the novel’s undisputed most moving moment, an event masterfully imagined and articulated, it’s kind of a slog to the end. [Which is, unfortunately, the last twenty percent of the book or so (at least it feels that way.)] Putting it another way, Elliot Barlow (aka. “the snowshoer” / “the pretty English teacher” / “the little wrestling coach”) is arguably the most likeable and compelling character in the book, and very little of interest occurs after she is out of the picture.

I enjoyed reading this book, but – as I say – it can be a slog compared to many of Irving’s earlier works. It’s worth noting that this book features multiple writer characters and an editor character, and still would have benefited from a heavy-handed editor. It does have a couple chapters that read as screenplays, and they are intriguing and make for a nice pace change. If you’re an Irving fan, you need to read this book. If you’re not yet familiar with his work, start elsewhere.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Dreaming, Vol. 1: Pathways & Emanations by Simon Spurrier

Pathways and Emanations (The Dreaming, #1)Pathways and Emanations by Simon Spurrier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This title is part of the “Sandman extended universe” that was spurred by the success of Neil Gaiman’s comic about the lord of dream realm –“the Dreaming” being said realm of dreams and nightmares. The Dreaming is usually presided over by Dream of the Endless, one of seven siblings commanding various domains. In this story, Dream is gone, no one knows where. Readers of Sandman will remember that in the original run Dream is kidnapped and imprisoned for 70 years. This isn’t the same disappearance (it’s not even the same “Dream,” but as he’s not a major figure in this book, there’s no need to elaborate.) While this may seem like a rehash, the Sandman story was focused on the character of Dream and mostly took place in our world, occasionally visiting the Dreaming as relevant to Dream’s story. This story is all about what happens within the Dreaming when the master is away, allowing decay, internal treachery, and the potential for invasion.

The story heavily focuses on three characters: Lucien, Mervyn, and Dora. One of the things this story does well is to build a tension between Lucien and Mervyn, a tension that is relatable and contributes substantially to the turmoil within the story. Lucien is ordinarily the librarian, and he’s a scholarly fellow who is an excellent librarian but is in over his head running the Dreaming (especially as he’s trying to keep it a secret that Dream has vanished so as to avoid panic or invite attacks.) Mervyn (Pumpkin-head) is like the head of maintenance, a blue-collar stiff who doesn’t know Dream is gone and thinks Lucien is making a powerplay and has bitten off more than he can chew. Dora is a mysterious rogue of a character who we don’t know much about other than that she’s not from the Dreaming (but lives there with Dream’s permission,) she’s quite powerful, and she does her own thing — which often runs her afoul of the staff of the Dreaming.

I felt this volume offered an entertaining story and resolved it nicely, while setting up for continued chaos in additional volumes. If you enjoyed the Sandman comics, this book is definitely worth a read.


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