2529 Followers
67 Following
chrisblocker

Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Currently reading

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within
Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron
Home Fire: A Novel
Kamila Shamsie
A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present
Howard Zinn

Review: A Natural

A Natural: A Novel - Ross Raisin

Let's get something out of the way. I don't always like the rules. I think all of us can agree that sometimes the rules are stupid. I don't always play by the rules, but sometimes I do. And sometimes I just dance around the issue discussing the rules instead of getting to the point... I was raised in the States and so, we have a little sport we call soccer. Growing up, I believed that's what its name was until, later in life, I learned that much of the rest of the world calls it football. That makes sense. I like that name better. I'm not much into sports, but when my kids started to play competitive “soccer,” I started to follow the sport minimally. And man, can some people get upset about the name. Okay, I agree it shouldn't be called soccer, but it is what it is. That said, I believe I'm mostly writing for an American audience, so I'm going to use the term “soccer.” Some of you may get upset about this. Given the comments I've come across online from time to time, some of you may really get upset about this. But let me tell you why none of this matters:

Because this book isn't about soccer (or football).

Yes, the protagonist is a semi-professional soccer player (footballer). Yes, the supporting cast is almost entirely made up of fellow or former soccer players. And there are certainly many scenes that take place on the field (pitch). In fact, I imagine a semi-comprehensive knowledge of the sport is significant in understanding what is going on with the action of the story. But such knowledge is not required: soccer is merely the conduit through which the story is presented. At its heart, A Natural is a story that skillfully tackles questions of gender roles and sexuality.

A Natural is an excellent blend of literature with sports. The last and only time I enjoyed a sporty story was for a similarly named book, Bernard Malamud's The Natural. Despite the similarities in name, the two books share little in common, aside from the sports theme and an exploration of the influence of others on ones fears and desires. Yet, without clear indication as to why, Raisin has named his book A Natural—is this a nod to the everyman role of Malamud's protagonist Roy Hobbs? I see the potential, but I don't have any solid answers.

Tom Pearman is the Roy Hobbs of A Natural. At nineteen years old, Tom is on the fence that separates tomorrow's bright young stars from the never-quite-did-make-it duds of yesterday. Tom himself is unsure of who he is and struggles to find his place amongst the competition, both on and off the field. Pearman and his fellow players are a wonderful cast. Though they many times fall into the stereotypes of professional players, they are not limited to this role.

I tore through this book. This may have just been a result of having the time to read, or it could've been that the story pulled me in. Either way, I was far from uninterested. I do feel that Raisin could've spent more time in the minds of the players and less on the pitch. The action sometimes takes over, and though it is important, it wouldn't have hurt the story by any means. My biggest disappointment with the novel came in the concluding scenes. Overall, the conclusion felt rushed. While the rest of the novel kept me fully engaged, it was in the final pages that my mind finally began to wander some. Having already made the comparison to The Natural, this is surely the biggest difference between the two novels. The greatest moment in Malamud's novel comes in those final pages, where we see Hobbs' decision play out. “Say it ain't so.” I expected something of equal weight with this one, but it just didn't play out that way, which was fine, but it was a mildly disappointing ending to an otherwise stellar story.

A Natural is probably one of the greatest novels I've read that deals with sexuality. It addresses the subject of men who do not conform to standard roles of masculinity and heterosexuality, but it approaches the subject from many different angles. It feels genuine and never relies on authorial manipulation. You see, you can define a man, slap a label on him, and expect him to play by the rules. But sometimes, people just don't play by the rules. Some of us watch football, some watch soccer, and some just play a different game all together. That's the core of this novel. A Natural is a novel written not only for the GLBT community, but for all who step out of societal norms, and maybe, just maybe, even for soccer fans (regardless of what they call themselves.)

Review: The History of Vegas

The History of Vegas - Jodi Angel

Jodi Angel's first collection of stories, The History of Vegas, is full of grit, surprise, and exceptional talent. That's all great, but there's a problem with writing such shocking stories in such a skillful manner: the reader begins to expect it.

The History of Vegas begins with one bang, then another. These are stories that pull you in and then punch you in the gut. At first, an unexpected reader may open their eyes wide with shock, go back and reread a passage or an entire page or two. These are fabulous stories that are original and memorable.

Seriously, the only problem with this collection, assuming you don't have extremely conservative leanings in which everything about this collection is a problem, the only problem is that awe becomes an expectation after two or three stories. You may not know what will happen, but you know that something forceful is coming, and this blunts the impact significantly. Also, some readers may not care for the abrupt ending many of these stories have, but I found that trait to be important to the jolt of the ending.

I look forward to reading Angel's second collection, but I think I may give it a little time so that maybe my expectations lower a bit for the first couple stories. By that time, I'll be ready for another gut-punch.

Review: God Emperor of Dune

God Emperor of Dune  - Frank Herbert, Brian Herbert

I make a lot of reading promises. You want me to read your favorite book? Sure, I'd love to. Let me add it to my list and I'll probably get around to it sometime in the next decade. I have the best intentions, but when it comes to books, I get easily distracted.

Thus the promise I made to my brother-in-law to read seven Dune novels may have been overly ambitious. This was ten-plus years ago. And to get through all seven required slogging through some terrible writing at times and some monotonous babble at others. First, as he'd suggested, I made my way through the Dune prequels written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. House Atreides and House Harkonnen in 2008, followed by House Corrino in 2012. There was some great story in these three novels, moments that were extremely vivid and haunting—scenes I remember to this day. But the writing left so much to be desired: it was repetitive, filled with juvenile symbolism and minimal character development. In 2013, I got around to the original book that started the series, Frank Herbert's Dune. The writing in this classic was better, but I struggled quite a bit with these futuristic feudal clashes with swords while spaceships roamed the galaxy and women were subject to male approval. Could the future really be so medieval? Later that year I read Dune Messiah and in 2015 I read the third of the originals, Children of Dune. I found much the same in them, only not as exciting.

All along, my brother-in-law told me that I needed to make it to God Emperor of Dune, that while the fourth book was one of the least popular in the original series, he believed I would enjoy it the most. So I say all that to say this: there was some anticipation going into what would be my seventh Dune novel, but there was considerable apprehension. Would God Emperor of Dune actually be my favorite in the series? Would it continue to blast me with an arduous and unbelievable future? In short, yes and yes.

God Emperor of Dune is the most cohesive and intelligently written novel in the series. While earlier books jump from one plot point to another, God Emperor... is focused. This is the story of the penultimate act of the Emperor Leto II's reign. There are some other threads floating around, but they ravel around this main focus. Following a 3500 year reign, Leto has a few thoughts on power and government. As such, this book repeatedly tackles these subjects. This Dunenovel isn't like its predecessors, all action and dialogue. In fact, there isn't much action in this entire volume. This is a story full of philosophical discourse, but one which never stops feeling like a story. This is one worm-man reflecting on 30,000 years of human existence, but the plot works around this person. And while he has some backward ideas regarding gender and homosexuality, he's nevertheless an interesting mind to behold. If this doesn't sound like your kind of thing—and obviously it's not for many—then this may be the most difficult book in the series to make it through.

God Emperor... does become a bit tedious in the second half. Philosophical musings become repetitive rants. And the fabulously crafted revolution led by Siona fizzles into bland familial melodrama. Still, most of the characters actions and inactions feel more organic in this story—you sense, occasionally, that they and not the author are in control of their lives, a vast departure from the earlier volumes.

So I made it. Will I ever read another novel from the Dune universe? Unlikely, but certainly within the realm of possibility. If I do, it'll most assuredly be the final two chapters from the original series. But that may be some years down the road. In the meantime, I've got a dozen other promises to keep.

Review: Malagash

Malagash - Joey Comeau

I'd never heard of Joey Comeau or his latest book, Malagash. Generally, I don't go for small books—I like 'em thick. But one look at the premise and I knew this was a story I wanted to read: Sunday's father is dying of cancer … She's started recording everything her father says … Because Sunday is writing a computer virus. A computer virus that will live secretly on the hard drives of millions … A computer virus that will think her father's thoughts and say her father's words … Her father is going to live forever.

BAM! I was sold.

Malagash is a strong novel (it may border on being novella length). It has an original premise, is full of believable characters, and is such a quick read. Despite my inclination to favor larger books, I think the brevity works for this story. Could I have spent more time with Sunday's family? Yes, they were enjoyable company, but I think we get to know enough of them to understand their abundant intrigues and quirks. This understanding of the characters comes from an experienced handling of the family's interactions with one another—each filled with meaning and subtlety.

At one point during the story, we are treated to a magic trick and, whether it was Comeau's intention or not, I believe Malagash is in itself a bit of a magic trick. An illusion. Look here at this thing in my right hand, the author seems to be saying, while I manipulate reality with my left. The magic is in the premise—a dying father's voice living forever through a computer virus—anyone reading this story is probably doing so for the promised magic of that description. But while you weren't looking, something more significant happened in the life of Sunday, our protagonist, particularly in regards to her relationship with her brother. The magic of this story isn't in Sunday's computer virus or even in the life and death of her father, but in the burgeoning interactions of those left behind.

Malagash is a story about death, but it is more so a snapshot of life in motion. It is concise, but never abrupt. It is heartbreaking, but never for a second does it lose its spirit, the tremendous spirit of an inspirational and exceptional family.

Review: Solar Bones

Solar Bones - Mike McCormack

if a tree falls
if a tree falls
in the forest and no one is present
does it make a sound
and if a string of words
has no end punctuation
is it a sentence
these are questions void of question marks posed by a reading of Solar Bones questions of purpose why make a novel out of one sentence—if one may call it that—and why make it stream of consciousness and are either of these labels being placed on this novel accurate
no
not at all
because this book is neither stream of consciousness or one sentence but that doesn't mean it fails, it is not stream of conscious truly because no one—or so I believe, maybe just very few—think in such complete complex thoughts we are creatures whose minds bounce around from one incomplete thought to another rarely stopping to return to—what was I saying—this novel is better classified as a slightly rambling experiment in form, a term that is as muddied as it sounds, perhaps it's better to call it interior monologue lacking grammatical accuracy, which is often confused with stream of consciousness, neither is this novel one sentence because, as I hope we've established by now, if you've made it this far and actually are understanding this rambling experiment in form that I call a review, a sentence isn't a sentence without the 
tangy taste of
Miracle Whip
that comes in the form of
end punctuation of some kind
but Solar Bones doesn't fail in story which is important since I guess you could say the point of a story is to tell a story or something, this gets confusing and the fact that Mike McCormack could write like this for more than two-hundred pages shows that he's either really skilled or that once you start a bad habit it's easy to stick with it, like
what if McCormack's intention wasn't to create something experimental, but what if he's just a bad typist
the fact I'm going off on tangents may lead a reader to believe that I am writing in stream of consciousness but I'm not
I'm just rambling
stream of consciousness would look more like, squirrel this is
nuts how did McCormack write for 224 pages like this but
once again I stray from the review at hand
which is difficult because all I want to talk about in this review is style and the definition of stream of consciousness and pointing out that a string of words without end punctuation is merely a string of words, all this should indicate how significant style is to this work and it begs questions like
why did McCormack elect to use this style
I can only venture a guess that it's because our narrator is a spirit, a fact that I don't think was made clear enough in the opening pages and that this lack of proper grammatical sentences is a case of I-don't-give-a-fuck by our ghost friend which speaking of language
reminds me how lilting the language is throughout this story, it's poetic haunting and crass, initially it's a little hard to get into the style and 
I'll be honest here, I'm probably not doing it justice, but once you get used to the voice, it sort of flows easily but take too long of a break, a day or two spent in another book and
the rhythm is thrown completely off, you have to get back into the book relearn the rhythm that is the voice of Marcus Conway, spirit
if you actually read all of this review, I wish I could buy you a cup of coffee but digital coffee sucks and I'm poor, but I hope you enjoyed it and if you didn't because you found the style irritating then you may not like this book because it is written in a similar manner though it truly does grow on the reader after ten pages or so but
if for some reason it doesn't Solar Bones may drive you
may drive you
may drive you nuts

Review: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer - Mark Twain, Frank Conroy

I've returned to the river.



A year ago I spent a weekend on the Missouri River attending a Writers Workshop. In typical Chris Blocker fashion, I thought it prudent to read something riverish. I selected Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi (my review). Thus a new association was born and once I decided I was returning to the river, one of my first considerations was what Mark Twain book I'd read this year.

I was hesitant to get into the Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn story-arc. I had a feeling I'd be underwhelmed or offended. I was leaning toward a different selection, but at the last minute, I decided to go with a classic. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer wasn't that bad—not as bad as I imagined it could be—but it certainly didn't impress me too much. Part of the issue is that Tom Sawyer feels slightly underdeveloped—ideas are used seemingly haphazardly and are recycled throughout the story. And part of the issue is that some of the novels better moments have become cliché. I recognize that Twain was likely the originator of some of these ideas—at least he was probably the prominent figure who introduced them into the American narrative. But I've seen enough Our Gang to know that children who play pirates will find treasure, children who fake death will convince everyone, and that little boys will always win a kiss from the girl of their dreams. It's not Twain's fault that his story has been resurrected repeatedly, but the familiarity minimized any sense of wonder and adventure I might have had had I come across this book 130 years ago.

In a different time, this book may have had a much different impact on me. This is a strong story of adventure from a unique child-like perspective. Those who enjoy a little swashbuckling or hijinx will likely eat this story up like blackberry pie. (Why blackberry pie? I don't know. It just feels like something I'd expect from these characters.) With a different person, there would've been different results: I'm not one for adventure; I was never a child. It's a good, simple story, very much plot-driven, but I didn't see much else to it.

Sadly, this book didn't hold to the river like I thought it would. There are a few mentions, a few explorations, but I have the notion that Huckleberry Finn is the more river-centric of the two. Will I explore the river someday with Huck? I don't know. I probably should, but I have the same hesitance I did with Tom Sawyer. Maybe I'll leave it up to the river. If it's able to pull me back another time, I'll consider it.

Review: The Pastures of Heaven

The Pastures of Heaven - James Nagel, John Steinbeck

In 1919, Sherwood Anderson published a collection of short stories centering around a town. The book was called Winesburg, Ohio. It remained popular into the 1930s. Around this time, a young journalist named Elizabeth Ingels developed an idea of interconnected stories similar to Anderson's work, but based in California. She mentioned the idea to a young writer named John Steinbeck. At the time, Steinbeck was struggling with his first novel (the later published To a God Unknown) and had managed to publish his second (the cringe-worthy Cup of Gold). He had yet to find his voice and his readers. So he did what any young, unappreciated artist has at least struggled with—he borrowed a good idea.

Now I've heard the argument from some of Steinbeck's devoted fans and scholars: Steinbeck's idea was unique from Ingels' original concept... Ingels wasn't ever going to do anything with the idea anyway... whatever. It doesn't matter and here's why: this book kind of sucks (relatively speaking, anyway). No, some people love it. Many do in fact. I didn't. I consider this one of the author's worsts. This is the twenty-second book I've read of Steinbeck's and, well, personally,Burning Bright made a bigger impact on me. Burning Bright? The experimental one about circus clowns and farmers and sailors? Yes, that one.

What the casual reader of Steinbeck may not know is that the author's earliest works are often far from the realism that Steinbeck is generally known for. The author repeatedly tried to separate himself from this label, a categorization that was cemented with works such as In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath. This spiritual, magical Steinbeck is most evident in the author's earliest books and latest books. Sometimes these subtle elements of magic worked for the author, other times they didn't; largely, they're either missed or ignored.

The Pastures of Heaven holds some of this early Steinbeck magic. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn't. Either way, the collection as a whole has a rather absurd feel to it. Curses, gnomes, and sex-dealing proprietors of a Mexican restaurant who take “buy one, get one free” to a new level... yet, it's all Steinbeck. The author didn't spend as much time with the setting as he did in later works, but his signature style of laying out the scenery and breathing life into it is intact.

But where The Pastures of Heaven succeeds most is in its characters. I would argue that, amongst Steinbeck's earliest works, this is one of his most character-centric books. These are brief character studies of the people who populate the valley. In these short pieces, no character is given the time to be developed fully, however. Aside from some of the characters, and a couple stories, there's nothing horribly exciting about this collection. Compared to Steinbeck's greatest works, nothing in these stories stands out. Compared to the town of Winesburg, Ohio, however, Las Pasturas del Cielo, California, is much more spellbinding.

Review: Gather the Daughters

Gather the Daughters: A Novel - Jennie Melamed

I read Gather the Daughters more than a month ago and, regrettably, I'm only now getting to the review. (It's been a busy season for me.) It'd be easier to let my five-star rating speak for itself and move on to books fresher in my mind, but I do not want my praises for this novel to be unheard. So I'm trying my hardest, reaching back through time, back to the experience I had while reading Gather the Daughters. Unfortunately, I know I won't give justice to this wonderful dystopian debut, but I hope my attempt is not completely in vain.

So to start, let's play the comparison game: everyone else is doing it. The publisher is saying that Gather the Daughters is “NEVER LET ME GO meets THE GIVER.” Other reviewers have drawn comparisons to Lord of the FliesKindred, and, most notably, The Handmaid's Tale. Personally, I have only read one of these novels: Never Let Me Go. There's no reason I haven't read the others—I just haven't gotten around to them yet. I believe the comparison to Ishiguro's amazing work is one of atmosphere: Gather the Daughters carries with it a hint of the repressive day-to-day living of Hailsham, the boarding school setting of Never Let Me Go. There is a similar burden pressing down on our teenage characters here. And in both books there is a desire to explore past the boundaries of these societies. The comparisons end there.

As far as the other books go, I haven't read them, so I don't know, but I do sense that readers are perhaps a bit too harsh in their judgment. You see, I've come across several reviews on social media that lambaste this story for being too much like some of these others. Don't get me wrong, I agree wholeheartedly that when something is a flat-out copy of another, there is an issue. But I don't think anyone is arguing Gather the Daughters is a direct rip of Atwood's famous novel. One may conclude that the issue is that both novels are addressing a similar theme of a repressed society from a feminist perspective. Is there not room for both on this island? It seems to me that those readers who argue for “it has already been done, so any other attempts are worthless” are rather selective. What story hasn't been done a thousand times? Why didn't these same reviewers come out and attack other stories that were more obvious copies? The Hunger GamesWater for Elephants?

So, let's put all comparisons aside and talk about this book, shall we? Gather the Daughters is an amazingly constructed tale that takes the reader into a puritanical, patriarchal society. From the opening pages, I was pulled into the steadily unraveling story told through the perspective of these young teenage girls. Each has a unique voice and view, and I believed their stories entirely. Though I could never keep their names straight—they all have rather common names—once I was a few sentences in, I recalled every detail of the character's earlier chapters. The world these characters inhabit is vivid and realistic. Melamed's language is lush, but not overly ornate.

Despite my positive feelings, as the book progressed, I recognized I was growing a bit apprehensive. Melamed was tackling some very troubling subjects and, as yet, this society seemed to be entirely polarized. Men were abusive and entirely disgusting. Women were innocent victims. Fortunately, around the time that I began to feel annoyed by this, the novelist added some gray to the story. The result is a story that is that much more real and frightening. This no longer felt like a distant tale of propaganda disguised as science fiction, but a speculative story of what could happen given the right formula. 

Gather the Daughters is not an easy tale to read. It is brutal and sickening. The most significant abuse is often implied, and when it is shown, it's never in graphic detail. That said, the implications are enough to turn the stomach of many readers; those still struggling from a history of abuse (particularly sexual) may wish to avoid this book for the time being. Otherwise, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to my fellow readers. It's such an incredibly compulsive read.

I said I was done with comparisons, but I changed my mind. I thought of a comparison I like: Gather the Daughters is like a packaged pre-peeled orange. Stripped of its natural layer, it's given a glossy fresh seal, but everyone can see it's just an orange, right? You can ridicule the people who came up with the packaging and those who slapped the labels on the outside. You can say it's a simple orange and refuse to buy into the hype. But put all preconceived notions aside, close your eyes, and take a bite; you'll find the familiar but distinct flavor of an orange unlike any other. How often do two oranges really taste the same?

Take a bite of Gather the Daughters and you'll undoubtedly notice a similarity to other “oranges”. Savor the flavor and you'll begin to notice the differences. And the difference between one good orange and another is all in the flavor.

Thoughts on the Eve of the 2017 Man Booker Shortlist

Home Fire: A Novel - Kamila Shamsie Exit West - Mohsin Hamid Days Without End - Sebastian Barry Autumn: A Novel - Ali Smith The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead Solar Bones - Mike McCormack History of Wolves - Emily Fridlund

The Man Booker Prize shortlist announcement is hours away and I've been working hard to read my way through the list. Despite my best intentions, I was only able to completely read seven of this year's nominees as well as three others in part. That leaves three novels that are at this point a complete mystery to me, so I cannot speak on them. Here are some thoughts on who might make the list tomorrow.

I think Home Fire, Exit West, and Days Without End are the three strongest contenders from the ten I've read. I will be surprised if these three do not make the shortlist. I'll be really surprised if none of the three do.

Personally, I didn't enjoy The Underground Railroad much, but I think it also stands a good chance of being shortlisted. I'll be annoyed if wins the Prize given how much attention it has garnered this year, but a shortlist nomination would be accepted.

Rounding out the list is difficult. Autumn and Solar Bones are possible contenders.

I'd love to see History of Wolves on the list as it has been a personal favorite, so far. I know many readers had a very different reaction to this novel, however, so it's a long shot to make the list. (And it has zero chance of winning the Prize.)

If I had to put money on six and only six titles, they'd be
1. Home Fire
2. Days Without End
3. Exit West
4. The Underground Railroad
5. Autumn

6. History of Wolves (anything's possible, right?)

Have you been reading the Man Booker nominees? Have any thoughts on who might be shortlisted?

Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo is all about structure. It's sold as a novel, but if publishers could make money from the selling of scripts, you know it would've been sold as such. It alternates between snippets of “historical” quotations and dialogue. Some readers will find this clever. Others will find it distracting. Either way, it's the one thing most readers will likely first recall anytime they think about this story.

George Saunders' latest is also known for its huge cast of characters. Despite having a cast of hundreds, this is really the narrative of Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III. Reverend Thomas apparently had considerable “page time” as well, but I barely remember him as a character. Someone remind me, what was significant about Thomas? So Vollman and Bevins—that's where the bulk of the story is. Of course the story is in many ways about Abraham Lincoln.

Given its structure, the book has a rather fragmented feel, and this can require some adjusting for the reader. Eventually, I got used to it and it was fine. What bothered me, however, was why the dialogue of some characters was spoken by others. For instance, in one passage where Bevins, Vollman, and Thomas are present, Vollman says, “Strange here, he said. Not strange, said Mr. Bevins. … One gets used to it, said the Reverend. …” It goes on. That's all Vollman. This sort of exchange happens repeatedly. It really threw me and I could find no consistency as to why one character is speaking for another. In a story where dialogue is everything, why put words into the mouths of others? Unless what seems to be dialogue is not truly dialogue, but is merely the written word. So all these “ghosts” are collaborating on a book together? If so, it's a huge clusterfuck.

Honestly, I don't know exactly how I feel about this book days after finishing it. Initially, I sort of liked it, but the more I think about it, the less sure I am. There are interesting stories within the larger story. And I really liked the historical perspective. While some of the quotations are author-invented, they are mixed with enough factual quotes to paint a fairly accurate portrait of Lincoln and his presidency at the time of Willie's death. Opinions at the time were ones of both disdain and adoration. Not at all different from our modern political leanings, but it does give an entirely different perspective of the Lincoln presidency than most modern accounts. Also, in a book about dead people conversing, you'd think there might be more retrospection or insight to the afterlife. Instead, we have characters who pretty much are the same as they were when they were alive, all their defects on full display in complete ignorance.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a strong book in that it takes an original idea, shows ample research, and presents these in a way that is unique and certainly a selling point for some readers. It's also a book that's not going to work for everyone. I'm on the fence about it overall, though I do respect the effort.


Man Booker Prize 2017:
This one might go on to the shortlist. But I think it has as good of a chance of not going. I think it'll sort of depend on whether some of the titles I haven't gotten around to yet—particularly Reservoir 13 and Elmet—are stronger contenders. Even if it makes the shortlist, I'll be surprised if it takes the Prize.

Review: Days Without End

Days Without End - Sebastian Barry

The following review contains a few potential minor spoilers. In my opinion, these details do not spoil much and are established fairly early in the narrative, but I feel it's only fair to mention their inclusion for readers who desire a clean slate.

...
Initially, I struggled with believing a word of this novel. Told from the perspective of Thomas McNulty, Days Without End illustrates the setting and period in a manner that feels extremely authentic. The problem had to do with the story itself: two gay men, one who commonly wears dresses, along with their daughter, fight in the biggest American battles of the 1850s and 60s, and are generally well liked. It sounds ludicrous, does it not? Because, frankly, how many such people could there have been in those years? The more I thought about it and the deeper I read, the more I began to question my original doubt. It's not at all ludicrous. Even the part about being well liked seemed accurate as I got to know these characters. This is the biggest compliment I can give Sebastian Barry and his most recent novel—Barry took a very hard-to-sell story and made it not only convincing, but enjoyable.

Evocative of Cormac McCarthy in its blend of lyrical prose and brutal western themes, Days Without End is a different kind of story all together. It's an improbable historical novel of epic proportions in a small package. Its blend of a less-educated vernacular with gorgeous and insightful passages is hard to believe at times, but like the story itself, it works surprisingly well. Perhaps it is exactly because of the implausibility of language and story that this novel excels. Without the unique perspective and the powerful lyricism, this novel would likely be just another addition to the long list of fictional accounts of the American Civil War without anything to set it apart.

Days Without End is constantly immersed in tales of war and of family. The “war” in the novel perhaps drags on a big too much, especially considering the brevity of the novel. For my benign tastes, there were a few too many conflicts. By the time I arrived at the fourth or fifth major conflict, I didn't much care about the results. I suspected the outcome would be similar to all those that preceded it. I'd have preferred a little more time spent on the family aspect, though surely the two overlap considerably. Another reader may have hoped for the opposite.

Days Without End is one of those novels that seems so simple in so many ways that you can imagine the author whipped it out in a matter of weeks and didn't need to look back. It's short and it's straight-forward. But you can also imagine the author spent considerable time with each and every sentence. They're painstakingly beautiful, yet they smack of the language of the time and place. Whether Barry labored over the making of Days Without End or not, the talent is obvious. Here is a story that glosses over some of the rough edges of mid-nineteenth century America, but sharpens others. The result is a gritty but beautiful novel, a fable where uncertainty melts away one page at a time.


Man Booker Prize 2017:
Days Without End stands a good chance of making the shortlist, in my opinion. It's an excellent contender with a strong historical narrative. Though some readers may be turned off by its implausible themes, it is because of the superb handling of these themes that this book rises above other well-written Civil War novels. Perhaps the greatest deterrent for shortlisting Days Without End is that it is yet another book about America in a year where perhaps there are too many nominees about the American experience. I feel confident that Days Without End will be shortlisted and will be an excellent contender for the top award, but I have doubts that Barry will bring home the prize this year.

Review: History of Wolves

History of Wolves - Emily Fridlund

I get why some readers do not like Emily Fridlund's History of Wolves. I totally do. There are two primary stories being told in this novel; the narrative jumps back and forth between the two and also fills the reader in on backstory. The connection between these various threads is vague. If you're not paying close attention, you may not see any connection at all. Even if you see how everything is related, you may not care. The thread that binds everything is a mental one, and those looking for a concrete link will be thoroughly disappointed. I recognize all that, so I'm not surprised that this novel has its fair share of haters.

I loved it. Early on, I could tell that this novel was going to require some thought. I don't recall what the clue was, but there was something off-kilter about the narrator and I suspected that close attention was needed. So I slowed my reading down. I listened to the nuances of the narrator's speech. I looked for clues in the text. A few times, I flipped back and compared. And while such functions should not be required of a reader, I'm glad I did, because I enjoyed the story immensely more as I took more time with it.

There's an atmospheric quality that is beautiful in History of Wolves. It's lyrical and thought-provoking, but it's dark and impossible to trust. You can feel the shadow of the forest, the creak of the trees, the crunch of snow beneath your soles and you want to stay here, but there's also a need to rush home and never look back. The same is true with the story's narrator. “Linda” is completely believable as a young teenage girl, charming as a storyteller, but you sense she is not a trustworthy person. Yet, I really liked her. She seemed so much more real than most of what I encounter in fiction.

The conclusion I'd been anticipating was not as big and dramatic as I'd work out it would be. I expected something really huge and the final acts were far from that, but they worked. The conclusion tied most of the threads together. I say most, because I'm not sure how some of the backstory with the cult fit in. Also, I didn't grasp how all this tied in with Madeline's wolf project. I suspect this is something I simply missed or was too daft to understand. A second read would probably clear these matters up, but it's rare that I ever return to a book, even when I have loved it.

I'm really glad History of Wolves was nominated for this year's Man Booker Prize. Prior to its nomination, I hadn't heard of the novel or its author; I doubt it ever would've crossed my path. It is such a gorgeous work in so many ways. It was difficult, you could say elusive, but part of what I liked most was the hunt for the heart of the story. It's in there and if you can put your finger on it, you'll feel the pulse that really brings this story to life.


Man Booker Prize 2017:
History of Wolves is this year's biggest underdog. Personally, I think it stands no chance of winning the prize. I'd venture to guess that it won't make the shortlist either, but it does share some of the gothic atmosphere of last year's Eileen—it made the shortlist. While I think History of Wolves is a stellar novel (and some of the judges must agree since it made the longlist), it does not strike me as a Man Booker winner (though of the five nominees I've read so far, it's easily myfavorite).

Review: Exit West

Exit West - Mohsin Hamid

Exit West is an impressively rendered, sensitive and timely novel. It tackles the issue of the refugee crisis in a way that feels remarkably current. There's a freshness to this story that is often lacking in other stories of this style. Given its subject and the ways it's skillfully depicted, I think this novel has a decent-to-good chance of taking this year's Man Booker Prize. But, in my opinion, it's lacking something, a result of taking a few shortcuts and arriving at its destination posthaste.

Exit West is the shortest of this year's nominees. Unfortunately, I think this is its greatest flaw. While the settings and language are all written in vivid detail, the characters and relationships suffer from the novel's brevity. Despite their strong potential as characters, Saeed and Nadia never seemed fully developed to me. There could've been another fifty pages exploring these characters, a hundred pages developing their stories; instead, their journey is presented in a story that takes only a few hours to read. The further their journey took Saeed and Nadia, the more distant I felt from them.

There's also a bit of disconnect in Hamid's device of using magical doors to journey from one country into another. I see the potential in the story for such a device. I see how it could also free up the author some. I'm not going to argue against the author's choice to use it. Personally, it just added a second level of disconnect. The stakes were not high enough. There was a sense that anytime things were about to get really bad, they could hop on a magical door and journey to some place that was a little better. If only this were true.

In most ways, I think Exit West was a great novel. Unfortunately, where it was lacking was perhaps the most significant: it was light on heart. I was mesmerized by the language, entranced by the scenery, and stimulated by the questions implied, but I never felt much for the characters themselves. And for a story which promises to be a love story, I'm not convinced they felt much for one another. 


Man Booker Prize 2017:
Though this will not be my favorite amongst this year's nominees, I see Exit West as a potential winner. Its presentation of the migrant issue tied with its gorgeous prose and fast-moving plot make it a very strong contender. Of the book's I've read so far, this one has, in my opinion, the greatest likelihood of going all the way. I'll be surprised if it doesn't make the shortlist, but I've been surprised before.

Review: Mothers and Other Strangers

Mothers and Other Strangers - Gina Sorell

In writing programs and publications, everyone talks about first lines. They're important. Attract the reader with a stellar first sentence. Give them a solid few pages and you've got them hooked. Gina Sorell and her publisher clearly know about first lines. Not only does Mothers and Other Strangers begin with a wonderful and interesting first sentence, it's even an integral part of the book blurb: My father proposed to my mother at gunpoint when she was nineteen, and knowing that she was already pregnant with a dead man's child, she accepted. I decided to repeat it and write it in bold to give the author one final promotion before I tear this book apart.

I liked the line. It showed intelligence and it piqued my interest. The paragraphs that followed in the prologue were good, too. Five pages of great writing. And then, chapter one.

With chapter one, and every page that followed, the story lost credibility. The characters and their interactions were not believable. There's the sexy ex-husband stuck in a dead-end marriage. The apartment's concierge who's always friendly, full of advice, and apparently never leaves his post. The cat who chases away burglars and eats pea soup. The owner of the vegan cafe who happens to keep non-vegan options readily available in the event a sane person with taste wanders into his restaurant. You may believe these wooden characters and you're entitled to, but I didn't. Every setting, every character, and every action was an obvious ploy to advance the plot. But the plot itself becomes a mess. While you'd expect Elsie to unravel the big secrets promised in the opener, she spends more time talking about the existence of big secrets than making efforts to solve them. 

Then there are the things that really piss me off, like the disturbing sexuality of the novel. It's one thing if you're writing a psychological piece about a girl with a hyperactive and confused sex life; it's another to just throw it in haphazardly. Elsie is a messed-up girl, undoubtedly, but her actions are not explained, nor are they conducive to the plot—they were added for the sake of tension. Is it okay to include a character who believes that she asked to be raped and should remain silent out of embarrassment? Yes. Absolutely. Let's not shy away from the way some people truly think. But should we perpetuate those myths without further exploration or without the least bit of retrospection? Should we normalize such behaviors? Ugggh. Last book I read that I disliked this much was Fates and Furies, but everyone loved that one and I was clearly wrong about my disdain for that story, so I must be wrong about this well-liked story as well.

Honestly, there are some good ideas in this novel and those are probably what kept me going. Unfortunately, the implementation felt completely wrong to me. What Mothers and Other Strangers reminded me of was a screenplay for a Lifetime movie. I've enjoyed a few Lifetime movies in my years, but I recognize the overacting, the convenient story line, and the sprinkling of big issues for what it is. Mothers and Other Strangers would make a decent made-for-tv movie where such devices are expected. But if I'm to believe the recommendations on the cover of the novel, Sorell's debut fails as an “absorbing,” “stunning [2x],” “delightful,” “brilliant,” and “sensitive (???)” novel.

Oh, by the way, that first sentence is totally misleading... 

Not really her father. Also not at gunpoint, at least not the way that's implied. The author is pulling a fast one over on the readers, so I'm calling it out. But at least I have the decency to put it between spoiler tags

(show spoiler)

You're welcome.

Review: 4 3 2 1

4 3 2 1 - Paul Auster

Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is the Goliath nominee of this year's Man Booker Prize. At nearly 900 pages, it is not only long, it is unnecessarily long. Though Auster has quite a lustrous career behind him, he takes this opportunity to write a novel that sounds like an undergraduate's wet dream project: a “what if” in the life of a young man; four tellings of the same protagonist in the same setting, but with four different outcomes. It's an ambitious project and though its premise sounds a bit juvenile, I think it could've been done well if done differently. Surely, Auster's skill with weaving words has lifted 4 3 2 1 far above being a mere adolescent traipse through history. Sadly, though written with love and precision, it doesn't rise far above this status.

Contrary to what one might expect, there are no catalysts for the detours in young Archie Ferguson's lives. In the opening passages, I was looking for one and was sort of disappointed to miss it. The fact is, the world is simply different for Archie. In one world he lives with his mother and father, in another he's with his mother and step-father. These differences are not presented as being the outcome of choices a young Ferguson made, they just are. And so, one might assume, there are differences in each of the worlds surrounding the four Fergusons, but no the only difference is Ferguson and those he touches. It's as though the world revolves around Ferguson. That's a lot of pressure on a young man. And so, the 1950s and, to a larger extent, the 1960s roll by one time, two times, three times, and four, all without hitch or pause. Though Archie's life has changed drastically, nothing else has: Korea, Kennedy, Vietnam, Nixon, King. Ironically, despite the four different paths that vary, Ferguson ends up okay in each one. I mean, you'd expect one of the Archie's to be a raging racist or something, but no, Ferguson always has the foresight to be a proponent of civil rights and that makes him swell. If you can't tell, I guess I'm not that big of a fan of Ferguson. I mean, I spent 900 pages with Archie-Alpha, -Beta, -Gamma, and -Delta—you'd think I'd like the guy a bit more. But Ferguson didn't challenge me or evoke any feeling from me. He was sort of a whiny, privileged kid (even when he wasn't so privileged).

The writing was fine. Before I started to feel bitter about the novel, I felt pulled in to the presentation. I could see myself enjoying a shorter, more focused Auster novel. But at some point, I began to realize this was more of a meandering mess than I cared to wrap myself in. There's so much detail about the lives of the four Fergusons. One begins to wonder if it isn't a bit much, especially when Auster goes on a twelve-page summary of fourteen-year-old Ferguson's short story about talking shoes called "Sole Mates." Was the story important to 4 3 2 1? Yes. Did we need a full summary of the story? Absolutely not. A standard sized paragraph would've been more than was needed. But twelve long pages? Later, Ferguson ponders British actors that starred in Hollywood films. He makes a list in his notebook. And we're blessed with the complete list, all seventy names. These are the sort of things that make this book 900 pages and there was absolutely no need for it.

It may sound like I hated this book and wish to destroy its happiness. I didn't hate it. 4 3 2 1 is a competent epic and it surely has an audience. Personally, I tend to love large books because of the complete stories they often tell. But 4 3 2 1doesn't tell a complete story. Most of the novel covers the lives of the Fergusons in the sixties. And when you divide this by four storylines, you're really only getting four average sized novels rehashing the same decade. And really, what was the point of it all? You expect there to be a catalyst or some revelation in the end that ties the four lines together. But no. JFK is still shot. Students are still murdered on college campuses. But Archie Ferguson gets to decide if he wants to climb a tree or not.

Sadly, the longer this novel went on, the less I liked it. I just didn't buy Ferguson's lack of freewill. It's obvious that his social and political stances are being shaped by the author. Despite leading four very different lives, young Ferguson can choose who he wants to fall in love with, but doesn't get to choose which side of politics to be on.

Recently, Auster admitted that he struggles with ideas these days: “I used to have a backlog of stories, but a few years ago I found the drawers were empty. I guess I’m getting to the point where I tell myself if I can’t write another book it’s not a tragedy.” I think he was grasping for an idea with this one. And though it obviously caught the attention of the Man Booker judges, I was not impressed. That said, my interest in Auster has been piqued and I definitely would love to read some of his earlier, shorter works. Just think, perhaps in another life I thought this was the greatest book ever written.


Man Booker Prize 2017:
I'll be a little surprised if this one makes it to the shortlist. It's not particularly relevant right now. It's not enjoyable to a mainstream audience. It's not all that original or brilliant. It's competent and capable, which is why I think it was fine to be included on the longlist, but it doesn't strike me as an eventual winner. Frankly, it feels a bit too much like the old, east coast white male perspective that has dominated literature for decades. I hope these authors continue to write their stories and that we continue to read and enjoy them, but their time of being celebrated as “the best” has come to a close. It's time to honor fresh ideas, styles, and perspectives.

Review: Autumn

Autumn: A Novel - Ali Smith

Autumn is a little crazy, but wholly beautiful. By a little crazy, I mean that to the average reader, it is a disjointed mess. By being beautiful, I mean that Smith has a way with weaving gorgeous prose. I haven't read enough Ali Smith to know if this is just her style—it is my third—but I'm beginning to think it may be. And while Autumn is definitely more humorous, poignant, and breathtaking than other works I've read from the author, it's such an incredibly broken story (structurally speaking) that I'm hesitant to heap too much praise on it.

Autumn is the story of Elisabeth and her relationship with her mother. It is the story of Daniel, a centenarian who has been mentor and friend to Elisabeth. It is a story about bureaucracy and the results of Brexit, a tale of acceptance and prejudice. It is a story as old as Keats and as 'contemporary' as Trump. And it is the tragedy of Pauline Boty, 1960s British pop artist. It's Boty's story that really pulls the reader in. Despite the wonderfully written sentences and the joys of watching Elisabeth apply for a passport, nothing stuck with me in this story more than the tale of Boty.

I hadn't heard of Boty prior to reading this novel. I doubt many readers will have. I wondered whether she was even a real person or merely a fictional creation of the author's, so I hopped on over to my local search engine and began a research project that ended hours later. 
Being a relatively little known but successful artist and actress during her brief life, it is a wonder Boty is not better known today. The fact that she's not, paired with the story of her tragic death (...and her husband's … and their daughter's), makes her story all the more interesting. It's a family tragedy that draws comparisons to the BrontÈ…'s. You can feel, in this novel, that Smith was getting sucked into the story of Boty, whether that was her original intention with the novel or not. In turn, the reader, attracted by that passion, is easily pulled in too.

Elisabeth is a wonderful character. She is funny in her moments of desperation; she inspires during her more reflective moments. The whole cast is fine. The story is jumbled, but it's certainly not bad. The language is, as I mentioned, phenomenal. The scenes are drawn with skill. Autumn is a very capable novel, but what sticks with me in the end is the story of Boty. But Boty is only a fragment of what this novel is about. It's about so many things. That lack of focus kept me from loving this novel as much as I might have otherwise.


Man Booker Prize 2017:
Although I had planned on reading this novel eventually, I was spurred to read it sooner as an attempt to make it through the 2017 Man Booker longlist. I may revise my thoughts on Smith's chances of winning after I've completed more of the books on this year's list, but I think Autumnstands a fair chance to make it to the shortlist. It's intelligent, beautiful, and extremely poignant, and those are three factors that tend to play into the Man Booker Prize. Not having read enough of the other nominees at this point, I can't attest to Autumn's overall chances of taking the prize, but I think there have got to be better candidates amongst this year's nominees. I will not be shocked if Autumn makes it to the shortlist; neither will I be shocked if it is cut.