Tag Archives: New York

On Lee Kelly’s “City of Savages”

10 Mar

City of Savages [2015] by Lee Kelly (Photo from "Goodreads")

City of Savages [2015] by Lee Kelly (Photo from “Goodreads“)

Katniss Everdeen is a household name and the Divergent film adaptations made a young star out of Shailene Woodley, all thanks to a rising subgenre among young adult readership. New author and resident New Yorker Lee Kelly is jumping aboard late on the post-apocalyptic YA funtimes wagon, but her debut novel City of Savages might be one of the better installations of this popular topic. (I’m not sure what it says about our youth today that this depressing, morbid genre is all the rage, but at least we’re past the “vampire-werewolf-love-triangle” genre, so I can’t complain.) Despite a few discrepancies in logic and some predictability in the plot, City of Savages tells a fantastic story about the grey areas between good and evil, and the strength of bonds between loved ones.

Two decades after World War III decimated New York City, sisters Skyler and Phoenix navigate the  wasteland of Manhattan with their mother Sarah. The entire island is a massive POW camp, regulated by the loose and distant hand of the Red Allies. The Miller family has the freedom to spend the warm summer months hunting wild peacocks and squirrels for their dinners and camping out in an abandoned penthouse overlooking Battery Park.

It's hard to imagine Manhattan devoid of its constant, urban roar. Empty of its residents, the island is one long, concrete tomb. (Photo by "Elizabeth Haslam")

It’s hard to imagine Manhattan devoid of its constant, urban roar. Empty of its residents, the island is one long, concrete tomb. (Photo from “Elizabeth Haslam“)

In the winter, the three women seek shelter in Central Park under the harsh but protective hand of the prison warden Rolladin. Rolladin is herself a prisoner, but as the Red Allies take less and less of an interest in the few hundred surviving residents of Manhattan, Rolladin assumes more and more power. She and her “overlords” keep residents in line and enforce strict schedules of manual labor to help the tight community survive.

The younger sister Phoenix, or “Phee,” seems to fit in with the survivor-mode lifestyle of the island, but her older sister Skyler immerses herself in books and the remnants of a previous culture, one where people weren’t forced to the limits of humanity and beyond to stay alive. Sky dreams of another world, a better one the the savage hierarchy enforced by the heartless Rolladin. Phee’s fighting skills and spunk earns her Rolladin’s attention, though, and the distance between sisters grows. When the girls discover their mother’s old journal, they steal chances to read it whenever they can, careful to keep it hidden from their secretive mother, and begin to unravel the truth of their ruined world and deeper, family secrets–secrets that threaten to tear sister from sister and child from mother. The final straw is the arrival of handful of strangers with strange accents–four men who claim they sailed in from the outside and come bearing news. The girls commit an act of treason to help the strangers evade the wrath of Rolladin, but their escape leads them through the subway tunnels, and the danger awaiting them there could be worse than anything Rolladin could cook up.

I love subway tunnels. I love the crush of human bodies, I love the buskers, and I love the comforting, earthy smell. But you bet your ass I wouldn't love them if they were filled with Lee Kelly's "feeders." (Photo by "Genial 23")

I love subway tunnels. I love the crush of human bodies, I love the buskers, and I love the comforting, earthy smell. But you can bet your rosy bottom I wouldn’t love them if they were filled with Lee Kelly’s “feeders.” (Photo from “Genial 23“)

The plot that ensues from there is nothing new in the literary world: familial bonds are tested by distrust, a little love triangle forms, things aren’t what they seem, conflict, climax, resolution. Kelly doesn’t stretch for the unfamiliar either in story line or setting, though that doesn’t stop her from creating a perfectly entertaining novel, thanks to the several fresh elements she uses throughout the book. Kelly creates well-paced, textured narrative by alternating chapters of the cocky, angst-ridden voice of Phoenix; the self-doubting, speculative voice of Skyler; and Sarah Miller’s journal, which slowly reveals the secrets of her past. The layers of the three narrative styles balances our slowly growing understanding of the past with the quickly moving actions of the characters’ present. Kelly also examines different forms of dictatorships: Rolladin’s power of brute force and rigid hierarchy, and the more subversive, covert power of theocracy. I have to believe that, were she not writing a young adult book, Kelly would have given the exploration of these methods a little more page time and maybe cut down on the time her two protagonists spend mooning over boys.

Phee and Skyler themselves are little better than formulaic female protagonists, representing two polar archetypes: the tough girl who cracks jokes and doesn’t care what people think about her, and the quiet, bookish one who doesn’t really know how beautiful she is. I appreciate the equal representation here, and I think young readers will benefit from knowing there’s no single way to be the kick-ass hero of the story. In fact, you could have two kick-ass heroes and they can be complete opposites of each other. But the real show-stealers here are the young Sarah Miller of the journal entries and the twisted, cold-hearted Rolladin, who comes with secrets of her own. Rolladin takes the crown when it comes to compelling charcters. She is a villain who inspires some wonderfully conflicted feelings because of what she represents: the cautionary tale of what happens when obsessive love turns into something ugly.

Through all the sloppy logic and predictability, City of Savages is a fine way to spend a few hours of your life and a stellar debut by an exciting new author on the young adult scene. You may think the post-apocalyptic genre is overdone and as saturated as a pre-teen’s Instagram stream, but this story of sisters, war, and tragic family secrets was nothing but a joy to read.

“I guess who needs a voice of reason when you have a partner in crime?”

And lord help the sister

And lord help the sister who comes between me and my man.

Read It: Whether you’re an angsty teen looking for some new grey-scale, post-apocalyptic morbidity to gobble down or you’re a full-blown adult who just needs a little escapism that’s easy on the literary interpretation faculties, you will find City of Savages a pleasure to read. Lee Kelly succeeds at crafting an entertaining story in complex yet relatable landscape. The novel also contains a fun, queer subplot, so be on the look out!

Don’t Read It: All you sticklers out there–you critics of highly predictable plots or surveyors of plot holes–be warned. This is not the book for you. I have high hopes, though, since this is Kelly’s first novel, and she’s already planning another; these things will only improve! Some plot elements may be too intense for readers under 18. Not only are the scenes of physical brutality quite frequent, but themes of cannibalism and sexual abuse take large roles in this darkened setting. If you are a parent looking for something acceptable for your young one to read, make a note: if you wouldn’t let your child watch The Walking Dead then you may want to think twice before buying or checking out City of Savages.

Similar Books: Of course I’m going to tell you to go read Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games for another book about a young female lead who is beyond capable in a depressing future America, but I hope to God you have already done that. You probably haven’t read the lovely novella Wild Girls by Ursula K. Le Guin, and I urge you to jump on that with both feet. Wild Girls is a short fantasy about two sisters navigating a world of slavery and harsh class structure. Le Guin’s writing blows me away every time I read it, and this short but powerful piece will convert you if you aren’t already an acolyte.

Lee Kelly (Photo from "Goodreads")

Lee Kelly (Photo from “Goodreads“)

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On Paul Auster’s “The New York Trilogy”

28 Dec
Do you love mysteries? Do you not love mysteries? Either way, start your 2014 with quality reading and pick up Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy.

Do you love mysteries? Do you not love mysteries? It doesn’t matter. Start your 2014 with quality reading and pick up Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy.

It’s never more apparent how brilliant Paul Auster is when you start reading him just after you have finished a mediocre novel. The New York Trilogy is one of Auster’s most renowned works of fiction, and–you guessed correctly!–it’s actually three separate novels. In New York, where all magical things happen, several mysteries are being investigated by several characters, some metaphysical shit goes down, people talk a lot about people talking or not talking, excuse me, my name is Peter Stillman. But all that aside, TNYT is a mystery of mysteries. It is the meta-mystery. It transcends. Best to read it while either completely high or sleep deprived.

City of Glass

The first book of TNYT, City of Glass, follows the story of a writer of mystery novels named Daniel Quinn. The writer answers a call from a wrong number, beginning his adventures as an unlikely private detective who is hired to protect Peter Stillman from a potential murderer. Peter Stillman lived most of his life locked in a pitch black room and being beaten into utter silence. His potential murderer is the father who locked him in the room and beat him. As Quinn investigates the case and tracks Stillman Senior through the streets of Manhattan, he takes on multiple identities, slowly losing himself to his various fictitious selves and falling into the void of the Stillman’s mysterious story.

The first in The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster's City of Glass takes mystery to a new level.

The first in The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster’s City of Glass takes mystery to a new, meta, super level.

Auster’s narrative breaches the fourth wall again and again, wrapping the reader into the absurd plot, too. Along for the ride, you will feel Quinn’s growing panic as his meticulous notes gradually lose meaning and as his life becomes increasingly isolated, distilling to a narrow view of the world of only two entities–Quinn and Stillman–and then eventually just one entity. Eerie but infinitely gripping, City of Glass kicks off the trilogy with a strong start. I don’t know how anyone could stop at just one book the The New York Trilogy.

“For our words no longer correspond to the world. When things were whole, we felt confident our words could express them. But little by little these things have broken apart, shattered, collapsed into chaos. And yet our words have remained the same. They have not adapted themselves to the new reality.” –City of Glass

Ghosts

The second installation opens with an actual private detective. Blue has just inherited sole ownership of his agency from his retiring mentor, Brown. Blue’s first client is a man named White who comes to him, obviously in disguise, to hire Blue to shadow a man named Black. Taking up the case, Blue spends days, then weeks, then months watching Black do nothing but sit at his desk writing. The reports Blue writes to White start telling more the story of Blue’s life than Black’s the line between their lives begins to blur. (Yeah, blurred lines. I said, and now the song will you be stuck in your head like it’s stuck in mine.) But can the two of them continue to exist as essentially the same person in two different places?

The second installation, Ghosts, tells the story of a private detective, Blue, who has been hired by White to shadow Black.

The second installation, Ghosts, tells the story of a private detective, Blue, who has been hired by White to shadow Black. The question is, where was Burgundy this whole time?!

Auster drops some of the character development and detail of the first novel to introduce more themes of the trilogy–namely, the grey area between author and character. It’s the chicken and the egg conundrum: the author and his character. Which came first? Which is more real? Which one survives the other? The New York Trilogy explores these questions over and over again, from different angles and with different names, but the story is the same. A man stands watching another man who watches back. They tell each other’s stories and therefore tell there own. In Ghosts, Auster gets to the nitty gritty, and maybe that means he’s lost some entertainment value, but by this time I was thoroughly hooked.

“This isn’t the story of my life, after all, he says. I’m supposed to be writing about him, not myself.” –Ghosts

The Locked Room

Auster’s final installation is The Locked Room, a title that references both earlier novels in the trilogy, describing a place of solitude, birth, and demise. In TLR, the protagonist speaks from his own perspective for the first time. His childhood friend Fanshawe has disappeared, leaving behind a wife, child, and boxes of brilliant writing. The narrator steps in to publish Fanshawe’s work for him, making a splash in the publishing community, and begins to take care of the missing author’s abandoned family. Fanshawe has both blessed and cursed the narrator’s life. Our protagonist becomes obsessed with finding Fanshawe and ending the curse.

The Locked Room finishes the trilogy with the story a man searching for his missing friend, who abandoned his family and critically acclaimed writing and disappeared into thin air.

The Locked Room finishes the trilogy with the story of a man searching for his missing friend, who abandoned his family and critically acclaimed writing and disappeared into thin air.

“Then I hauled the two suitcases slowly down the stairs and onto the street. Together, they were as heavy as a man.” –The Locked Room

All three novels bring forward the same conundrum: who writes whom? Does the author birth the character or vice versa? Who is allowed to live in the end? It’s a fascinating question. It’s a fascinating plot that Auster can base three novels–and three entertaining novels, at that–on a mystery that is never really solved, and I suppose that’s the point. There isn’t an answer. There is only the question. Well, that’s kind of cheating, but since it’s Paul Auster I guess I’ll let it slide. Now I will need to pick up a copy of Paul Karasik’s and David Mazzucchelli’s graphic novel adaptation of City of Glass, as should you.

Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli adapted Auster's City of Glass as a graphic novel.

Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli adapted Auster’s City of Glass as a graphic novel.

On Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho”

12 Dec
Bret Easton Ellis's novel American Psycho is a modern classic, and arguably one of the best American novels written in the 21st Century. Agree? Disagree? When I'm done dry heaving, I'll let you know what I think.

Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho is a modern classic, and arguably one of the best American novels written in the 21st Century. Agree? Disagree? When I’m done dry heaving, I’ll let you know what I think.

The horrific smile and psychopathic caper of Patrick Bateman is a cultural icon, thanks in part to Mary Harron’s film adaptation starring the inimitable Christian Bale, and in this rare case, American Psycho the movie comes close to working just as well as American Psycho the novel. Fight me all you want, people! but I’m standing by this statement. Not to say that there aren’t differences, and not to say that the book can’t achieve some goals where film falls horrifically short. Harron’s film certainly leaves imprints of her gory images on the insides of your eyelids, so thanks for that, but Bret Easton Ellis’s novel drives home the horror of the nation’s favorite psycho in a way that only literature can: with slow, torturous, written repetition (and without the restrictive water wings of the MPAA). 

Patrick Bateman is just your typical trust-funded, Harvard-graduated, Hampton-holidaying, Armani-wearing Wall Street workaholic, pulling in a massive salary for doing nothing in a time in the U.S. where there was too much money to know what to do with. He spends his mornings working out and perfecting his tan. He spends his afternoon guzzling cocktails with his pals and having his secretary screen his calls. He spends his evenings buying dinner in the hottest restaurants with his AmEx Platinum and snorting cocaine in the hippest clubs. He spends his nights hiring call girls and dismembering them. Alright, so Bateman isn’t entirely typical.

Patrick Bateman tries to fit in, but how well can one hide a sociopathic personality and a psychopathic compulsion to mutilate every living thing around you? It's the question all the kids were asking in the '90s.

Patrick Bateman tries to fit in, but how well can one hide a sociopathic personality and a psychopathic compulsion to mutilate every living thing around you? It’s the question all the kids were asking in the ’90s.

Ellis deftly and seamlessly alternates between Bateman’s mundane day-to-day life and his terrifying night time hobbies. The daily routine of Ellis’s devilish protagonist is mind-bogglingly surreal: scenes of Bateman and his friends poring over their Zagat guides for hours, looking for a place to eat, only to end up at the same restaurant they always go to; repetitive instances where Bateman is confused for a number of other built, tan, well-dressed look alikes; dates with every valium-saturated woman but his girlfriend. For pages and pages, Bateman does nothing but analyze his peers’ outfits (two or three or four buttons on the cotton suit, turtle shell or faux wood Oliver Peoples glasses, suspenders or belts, etc.), or catalogue his drink orders (Bellinis and J&Bs and Absolut martinis and Cristal), or reel off in-depth reviews on Whitney Houston’s entire musical career. The absurdity of this version of America and the petulance extreme wealth creates in these characters are laughable. American Psycho is a funny book. And then the next thing you know, this laughable man is playing in the remains of dead hookers (they were “call girls,” but they’re “hookers” when they’re dead). I won’t go into too much detail, because why spoil the fun? but there are nail guns, chainsaws, hangers, rusty butter knives, and little rodents involved. Oh, and an axe.

Patrick Bateman is a psychopathic, homicidal, concrete jungle American–a man whose attempts at fitting in with the norm turn into an obsession of erasing his identity. Eventually, the stress pushes him over the brink of sanity. Ellis, in turn, pushes the readers’ understanding of American wealth and American excess, and more so pushes readers’ understanding of what evil looks like. I experienced as much revulsion toward Bateman’s rich living style as I did in the graphic descriptions of his torture sessions with his victims, because Ellis bludgeons away with imagery of both. In the end, Bateman is a deranged mess, barely holding onto reality, his identity scraped raw under the pressures of his socialite life and murderous urges. And in the end, I was horrified by that socialite life and desensitized to those murderous urges.

You can add "nail gun" to the things I'm crossing off of my list for all of eternity because of this book. On that list, you can also find, "chainsaw, matches, pliers, wire hangers, acid, The Patty Winters Show, and rats."

You can add “nail gun” to the things I’m crossing off of my list for all of eternity because of this book. On that list, you can also find, “chainsaws, matches, pliers, wire hangers, acid, The Patty Winters Show, and rats.”

The world of American Psycho is more American than American and more New Yorker than New York. I can’t say I’m proud to be an American after having read this novel. I can’t say that I truly enjoyed it either. I respect Bret Easton Ellis and think him a brilliant author. The novel truly moved me (toward the toilet to retch) and made a lasting impression, but I’m not sure I would read this again, and I’ll think carefully before I loan it to any of my friends. One thing is for sure, I’ll never look at a rat or a man in an Armani suit the same way again.

I recommend this book to readers who like

a lot of mindless gore (just kidding, it’s not mindless), social commentary, psychopathic murderers

OR

books written by Chuck Palahniuk, Don DeLillo, or Roberto Bolaño.

On Thomas Pynchon’s “Bleeding Edge”

2 Oct
Even though I had lukewarm feelings about Bleeding Edge, I would still recommend reading it. Check it out from your library. Hard core Pynchon fans, I know you've already bought your copy.

Even though I had lukewarm feelings about Bleeding Edge, I would still recommend reading it. Check it out from your library. Hard core Pynchon fans, I know you’ve already bought your copy. (Photo from NYTimes)

On September 17, I rushed to grab Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, but I needed two full weeks to finish it. Maybe blame it on the fact that I started a new video game, but I will honestly say that this newest novel by one of the most acclaimed living writers in our country didn’t grip my attention the way I thought it would. Bleeding Edge is a story of mystery and intrigue surrounding tech startups in New York City during the summer and fall of 2001. Yes, it’s a 9/11 book.

These days, I give props to any author with the steely enough loins to tackle the subject of 9/11, and in this case I think Pynchon does a fairly decent job of it. The reason why is Pynchon’s myriad of Pynchonesque characters: Horst, the ex-husband obsessed with biopics; Driscoll, the Zuma-drinking programmer and Jennifer Anniston look-alike; Reg, the documentary filmmaker who captures the wrong thing at the wrong time; Igor, the former Spetsnav operative with a heart and an obsession with quality ice cream; March, the left wing prophet/oracle; Mr. Ice, the mostly evil startup-exec-turned-billionaire; a host of questionable venture capitalists; and, of course, Maxine herself, the fast-talking, criminal-but-moral, Jewish fraud investigator. Although, maybe Pynchon goes a little over the top with his characterizations …

Because

Because I just wanted Maxi to start saying, “yada yada,” since I imagined all the characters in this book being portrayed by the cast of “Seinfeld.”

Or, better yet,

Or, better yet, Maxi is played by 1968 Barbara Streisand singing the new hit number “Don’t Sting Me with Your FIM-92 Stinger, Mr. Windust.”

Maxine Loeffler is on the case of Gabriel Ice and his powerhouse company “hashslingrz.” What starts out as a regular fraud case turns into a sketchy game of cat and mouse in the underbelly of New York City’s Silicon Alley, where Russian gangsters, billionaire goons, nameless agency assassins, and nerds of the new millennium are just of a few of Maxi’s problems. (Thankfully, Maxine’s quasi-ex-husband and two sons conveniently disappear to the Midwest for half the book, leaving our heroine free to indulge in the dangerous, sexualized activiities of a single, childless maiden warrior. [Yes, that’s a technical genre of woman.])

This is the kind of plot I go for: I want a kick-ass protagonist with a darker side, some scum-of-the-earth villain I won’t mind hating, sidekicks to root for, and a couple of big guns here and there. But, unfortunately for me, Bleeding Edge seems to be about venture capitalism. Oh, and bludgeoning the reader with pop culture references trying to instill that heart pang of nostalgia. “Pre-9/11 New York. This is what it was like, remember, kids? The good old days.” Only New York has always been and will always be kind of a foreign country for me. I grew up in Eastern Oregon where I woke up smelling processed potatoes and cow dung, where our idea of fun was a trip to the Wal-Mart Supercenter or aiming for gopher heads on the driving range. New York is a city that has its own culture, separate from the rest of America, because it’s hyper-American, and because of that, I can’t feel nostalgic for Pynchon’s New York. And because I can’t feel nostalgic, I can’t appreciate the bludgeoning.

New York was and is a city of legend. Even after visiting it, I could only think, "This is how I knew it must be."

New York was and is a city of legend. Even after visiting it, I could only think, “This is how I knew it must be.” And here’s Bleednig Edge: more New Yorker than a Woody Allen movie. Maybe.

As Maxine follows a trail through hashslingrz–involving Canadian hackers, Italian mobsters, a whole lot of WASPs, and plenty more colorful characters–she comes closer to what looks like government conspiracy. The company’s financial lines seem to be pointing toward the Mideast, and the CEO’s bulldozing ways don’t exactly improve the startup’s image any. Some of Maxine’s wanderings take her into Deep Web, a place more harrowing and creepy than the seedier sides of New York she visits. All this is leading up that ticking time bomb we know is there. Summer winds down for Maxine, and it’s nerve wracking as reader knowing what’s going to happen next.

This is a day that will haunt all Americans alive during that time.

This is a day that will haunt all Americans alive during that time, but Pynchon’s characters are less haunted than slowly deteriorating.

Pynchon’s treatment of September 11 was different than what I’m used to. This wasn’t Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, pummeling the reader with image of the tower, and the death, and symbols of chaos over and over again (“Pow! Right in the kisser!”). Pynchon’s September 11 itself is the long, harsh deterioration of reality into the absurd. Maxine notices the world changing afterwards. America tries to grow up, but instead its adults become childish and its children take the world in their hands. The Internet loses its grip on virtual reality. Maxine’s kids’ English teacher bans fiction. Pynchon tries to display the massive shift in culture, in our lives, that happened almost immediately after 9/11, but I’m not sure he succeeds. His post-9/11 world simultaneously drags on and isn’t complete enough. The final chapters of Bleeding Edge left me straining for more, like when someone turns away from you just as he was finishing his sentence. Bleeding Edge isn’t an easy book to read. I wouldn’t suggest it for your beach vacation. But I’m just the kind of person who will read Thomas Pynchon as long as he keeps writing.