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: Twain Illustrated: Three Stories by Mark Twain by Mark Twain [Ed. by Jerome Tiller]

Twain Illustrated: Three Stories by Mark TwainTwain Illustrated: Three Stories by Mark Twain by Mark Twain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This collection gathers three pieces of Twain’s short fiction and presents them in an edited and illustrated volume. The stories are edited from the original published editions. My understanding is that the editing was confined to making the volume more readable to a present-day audience (and probably to younger readers, specifically.) As far as I can tell, that’s the case.

The three stories have in common that Twain, himself, features as a character. [This is less explicit for the second story than for the first and third, it being merely written in first person while the others reference Twain by name.] The first story, “Emerson, Holmes, and Longfellow,” is essentially a roast of those three important 19th century American poets. The story is written as though Twain is traveling on walkabout and happens upon a miner’s household where, as luck would have it, the three titular poets had stopped in previously. Supposedly, this was first a speech given in Boston at a celebration for another poet, John Greenleaf Whittier, and it went down like a lead balloon.

The middle story, “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut,” is about a mysterious visitor who comes calling who seems to know about all the narrator’s misdeeds. It turns out that said visitor is the narrator’s conscience. This personification of conscience is a clever plot device and makes for a hilarious story.

The final story is entitled “Running for Governor,” and it shows that fake news is far from a new phenomenon in American politics. It imagines Twain running for governor of New York and the one news story after the next presenting outlandish, contrived claims that begin to stick as Twain ignores them. This reminded me of the Twain essay that disabused me of the popular notion that we are [at any given time] in uniquely contentiously partisan times for American politics.

I enjoyed this collection. I would probably have preferred an unedited text, but it’s readable, engaging, and humorous as is. The illustrations are line-drawn, and many are cartoonishly jocular while others are more realistic caricatures. It’s certainly an entertaining read.


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BOOK REVIEW: Opium and Other Stories by Géza Csáth

Opium and Other StoriesOpium and Other Stories by Géza Csáth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: December 13, 2022 [For the reviewed edition by Europa and translated by Kessler and Rogers]

Csáth was a Freudian who, in 1919 at the age of 31, murdered his wife before committing suicide. He was a brilliantly imaginative [if macabre-oriented] writer, and — as one might expect — this collection’s two dozen stories are dark, dreamy, and often detached from reality. The collection is full of hazy surreality and bleak obsessions, but it’s an intriguing and engaging read.

The book presents several recurring themes: mothers, murder, the murder of mothers, etc.; as well as repetition of surreal settings involving dreams, drugs, and demented minds. Therefore, I’ll only discuss a handful of my favorite stories in the hope they are a reasonable representation. In “Murder,” a man meets an acquaintance on the train and is told of the murder said acquaintance committed, told in a matter-of-fact tone. This prosaic approach to murder is a recurring element of Csáth’s stories as well, and it lends to both the surreal and eerie nature of the stories. “Little Emma” is about a “play hanging” committed by a group of kids. In “Young Lady,” a patient in an insane asylum tells his friend about his obsession with a young woman. “A Joseph in Egypt” is the story of a dream in which the dreamer engages in a tête-à-tête with a married woman. In “Toad” a man imagines he wakes up to find a monstrous toad in his bedroom, or so he believes. In “Matricide,” brothers attempting to rob their mother end up murdering her when she awakes during the crime. “Father, Son” is the story of a young man going to retrieve his father’s remains from the medical school that had come into possession of the body because his mother didn’t have the funds to afford a proper burial while the son was away overseas.

If you enjoy macabre and surreal stories, this collection is well worth reading. However, it will not be everyone’s cup of tea, owing to the dark tone and themes of the stories.


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BOOK REVIEW: Nights of Plague by Orhan Pamuk

Nights of PlagueNights of Plague by Orhan Pamuk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Too soon? I’m interested to see how this brilliant novel does, not because anyone will question that it’s a well-crafted story but because it’s definitely less escapist in the wake of the COVID pandemic. Ordinarily, it would have all the emotional distance of historical fiction. However, here we have a novel set around the turn of the twentieth century, and it features the conspiracy theorists, the science deniers, the pandemic opportunists, and those prone to whistle through the graveyard as a disease eats their community alive – i.e. characters with whom we are now all too familiar.

The novel takes place on the fictional island of Mingheria in the Aegean (Mediterranean) Sea between Turkey and Greece during the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. Given its geography, Mingheria is a potential powder keg under the best of circumstances, being about half Greek Christian and half Turkish Muslim, both of whom overwhelm a group who identify primarily as Mingherian and who want to establish their own state, reflecting a primacy of Mingherian identity. (Not unlike those Kashmiris who want an independent Kashmir because they see their problem not as being a Muslim – Hindu one, but rather an India – Pakistan one.) While the story is full of both Mingherian domestic and international politics, it’s the plague that drives everything, or – more accurately – fearful (and often ill-advised) responses to the plague.

At the heart of the story are Princess Pakize and her husband, Doctor Nuri. The couple is diverted to Mingheria while sailing to China. The reason the Sultan changes their itinerary is two-fold: first, to fight a worsening outbreak of bubonic plague, and, second, to learn who killed the last doctor sent to lead the quarantine response, Dr. Bonkowski. (Bonkowski was a well-regarded medical expert who is killed by unknown perpetrators in the early chapters of the book.) As Nuri is engaged in public health matters and the Princess is occupied by writing letters to her sister and contemplating Bonkowski’s demise, they are swept up in events that will ultimately lead to a revolution and coup d’état. When those who oppose the public health measures (e.g. prohibition of Muslim funerary bath rituals) gain control, the epidemic swells to horrific proportions. As in Pamuk’s excellent novel, Snow, the tension between modern / progressive forces and religious traditionalists is ever present (not unexpected given Turkey’s long history of conflict between reformers and fundamentalists.)

This book is compelling and, in the wake of the COVID pandemic, makes a profound commentary on how far we haven’t come.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Voices of Water by Tiziano Sclavi

The Voices of WaterThe Voices of Water by Tiziano Sclavi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: November 22, 2022

As the title suggests, this graphic novel is about a guy who hears voices, voices that he most often can’t quite make out, but only in the presence of moving water – i.e. rain, the shower, a sink, etc. Though the reader may read it more as a series of short fiction chapters with a vague vein of interconnectedness. A choice was made to keep the text sparse and to let the imagery do the heavy lifting. I’m not sure it worked out as well as intended, though there is wide variation throughout the book. There are a few chapters that can be read as clear and evocative standalone stories (e.g. “Revenge,” “In a Better World,” and “A Day of the Week: Tuesday,”) but there are others that leave one wondering whether one grasped what was intended (if anything was intended.)

The art is line-drawn (penciled style) monochrome. It works well for the tone of the book, and many of the frames feature old town European architecture that is both attractive and establishes an interesting setting.

This one is definitely high on atmospherics and feels a little disjoint because it’s not always clear that the protagonist, Stavros, is in the vicinity of the action, and – therefore – how the overarching narrative ties together. Overall, I think it works, and I’m glad I read it.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Closet, Vol. 1 by James Tynion IV

The ClosetThe Closet by James Tynion IV
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: October 18, 2022

The protagonist, Thom, is a stay-at-home dad whose four-year-old is having nightmares of a monster that resides in the closet and sits on his chest in the manner Fuseli’s “The Nightmare.” Thom is both someone that you want to shake and / or slap, and – yet, at the same time – he is every single one of us at some point in our lives. (i.e. He is completely overwhelmed and stuck in a fantasy that he can dig out from under the rubble of past mistakes and be born anew, and the fact that he can’t ever be free of the past and always has to deal with momentary reality just adds to his anger and frustration.) The thing is, Thom isn’t a bad guy, but you still want to slap him. That’s what I call excellent character development.

I don’t know where the overarching story is going, and don’t even know whether it’s truly speculative fiction or rather domestic realism, but I know it draws one in and is evocative.

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BOOK REVIEW: Slumber, Vol. 1 by Tyler Burton Smith

Slumber, Volume 1Slumber, Volume 1 by Tyler Burton Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: October 18, 2022

Stetson is a “dream eater.” She makes her living by entering the dreaming mind of clients and “killing” their nightmares. When a series of mysterious and highly irregular murders happen in the real world, the police develop a hunch that Stetson might be involved, or – at a minimum – know something they don’t. And it soon becomes clear that it’s not just a job for her; there’s some sort of personal stakes or vendetta driving her.

I got hooked on this book. The art is colorful and fun and plays well with the imaginative and amusing dream world. The story was well-crafted and offered a satisfying and pleasurable read. If you’re into surreal speculative fiction that deals in dreams and nightmares, it’s worth looking into this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Golem of Venice Beach Vol. 1 by Chanan Beizer

The Golem of Venice BeachThe Golem of Venice Beach by Chanan Beizer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: November 15, 2022

The title is the premise. The Golem of Prague is now living in Venice Beach, CA. However, the protagonist is a human hipster with a sunglass kiosk near the beach named Jake. Jake is a secular Jew with a penchant for all manner of drugs who falls in love with a neighbor who is some sort of chosen one for a Santa Muerte cult that’s protected by some drug-dealing gangbangers. The connection to the Golem is that Jake’s bloodline is protected by the Golem.

This is one of those titles that’s hard to rate. The art is well done. The character development is great. And it’s a compelling premise. (Though I think we may be experiencing a Golem zeitgeist as this is the second or third Golem story I’ve read recently. But, it could also be an anecdotal coincidence.) That all sound pretty good, but I have no idea whether the story is any good because it’s one of those one-story-arc-split-over-two volumes, and so the resolution-to-cliffhanger ratio is not good. [i.e. It ends all cliffhanger and with nothing having been resolved.] To be fair, the last line does promise to conclude the story in the second (next) volume. (i.e. As opposed to: “We’ll see if it’s popular and then string it out until there’s no hope of tying up all the loose ends.”) So, I guess it comes down to whether you’re a trusting soul. I don’t think I’ve read this author previously, and thus have no basis for drawing a conclusion.

So, my recommendation is…


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BOOK REVIEW: Lessons by Ian McEwan

LessonsLessons by Ian McEwan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Get Speechify to make any book an audiobook

This book not only shows the characters learning their lessons, it has a few teachings for the reader, as well. The story follows the protagonist, Roland Baines, as he receives a series of harsh life lessons, at the center of each is a woman. There is Miriam, his piano teacher at boarding school, a woman who enters into a manipulative sexual relationship with Roland while he’s still a minor. There is Alissa, the wife who abandons Roland and their seven-month-old child to pursue her writing career. Finally, when a woman, Daphne, comes along with whom he can at last have a healthy relationship with a dependable partner, he has difficulty embracing the relationship because of his earlier experiences. We also witness the intergenerational learning of Alissa, whose mother never made good on her own potential as a writer.

The lessons for the reader are profound. First, after developing an intense and visceral dislike for Alissa because she abandons a baby and seems so oblivious to the suffering her actions have caused (e.g. her husband being suspected of a murder that never happened,) we are reminded that disappearing dads are par for the course; we may think poorly of them, but we rarely have an intense emotional response to such situations. Second, we are offered insight into the “intentional fallacy” – i.e. thinking one knows the author’s intentions and subjective thought processes from what she writes.

I found this to be a powerful story that asks one to confront all manner of intriguing questions. (e.g. If an individual ditches her [or his] family for career, does it make a difference if that person is the best at what she does or if she’s mediocre or if she stinks?) I’d highly recommend this novel for readers of literary fiction.


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