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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Currently reading

Shades of Milk and Honey
Mary Robinette Kowal
Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down: A Novel
Anne Valente

Review: Juneteenth

Juneteenth - Ralph Ellison

Sometimes the story about the story is much more interesting than the tale itself. Take for example the story of Ralph Ellison's second novel. Following his award-winning debut, Invisible Man, there was undoubtedly intense pressure on Ellison to triumph. Before he'd even finished Invisible Man in 1952, Ellison was working on his second novel. He hoped to create an intense and epic story, one he imagined would be a thousand pages, possibly split into three volumes. He worked on this second novel throughout much of the next decade. The contract with his publisher stipulated a completion date in 1967. Though he was behind, Ellison had much of the novel completed, but his manuscript was the victim of a house fire that same year. Some of the manuscript survived (perhaps Ellison had a copy or it was at a different location), but nearly four hundred pages had been destroyed. Immediately, Ellison set to work, trying to put the broken pieces back together. Decade after decade, he worked on his second novel, but he never finished the task. For whatever reason, Ellison was unable to recreate the work he'd once nearly finished.

By the time of his death in 1994, Ellison had amassed thousands of pages of the manuscript, notes, and various scraps of paper. Though a heavily daunting task, it was only a matter of time before someone tried to put these pieces together and posthumously publish Ellison's much anticipated second novel. The first attempt came in 1999, just five years after Ellison's death, with Juneteenth. Juneteenth encompasses the few hundred pages of Ellison's novel that were most intact. The second attempt, published in 2010, entitled Three Days Before the Shooting..., was intended to be a more complete work, borrowing from Ellison's notes, trying to build the novel that he'd intended to create.

As with any posthumous work, it's difficult to have an opinion about Juneteenth. In part, I did not want to read it as I hated to tarnish my strong feelings for Ellison's literary reputation. Yet, I was curious. Curious enough that I promised myself I would read both adaptations before the year's end.

Juneteenth is a meandering mess of stream of conciousness. While Ellison certainly dabbled with the form in Invisible Man, the influence of Faulkner and company saturate the pages of Juneteenth. It's difficult to follow. And yet, there's the possibility of so much brilliance beneath the confusing string of words. With a complete novel as Ellison intended, or tougher editing, perhaps the poetry and inventiveness of thought would've been abundantly clear. Unfortunately, as presented here, it's not. There are so many layers in this selection, and without the full picture, these layers add to the mess. It's never quite clear where Ellison intended to go with his creature and how it might have been orchestrated.

It's unfortunate that fire destroyed Ellison's novel, yet one has to wonder if Ellison wasn't privately struggling before the disastrous event. Surely, one can imagine a world where fire did not destroy the original manuscript, but the author still combated with self in his attempt to create perfection. Invisible Man may have been impossible to follow. Though I offer no rating for this posthumous work by an author I greatly admire, let it be known that I struggled greatly with this novel. It is not a pleasant or memorable read. Even so, I still intend to follow through with my promise to read Three Days Before the Shooting.... Given the extra time and resources, it's possible a hint of Ellison's intentions will be evident.

Review: The Book of My Lives

The Book of My Lives - Aleksandar Hemon

Dear Sasha,

May I even still call you by you that name? Perhaps we should stick with more formal titles. I hope I may still call you Aleksandar. Surely, our relationship is not so torn that we have to refer to one another by our surnames.

We've known each other for some years. At least I've known of you. I first encountered your words eight years ago now. From across a room, your gorgeous prose seduced my ears. They were words spoken with grace. The selection was read during a lecture on word choice entitled “Knocking the World Askew...”. The lecturer was Amy Hassinger, my first MFA mentor. I credit her with introducing the two of us.

Admittedly, I was enamored. I pretended that the language did not somehow arouse and haunt me simultaneously. I wrote your name at the margin of my notebook. I wrote it again on my suggested reading list for the semester. I casually mentioned my desire to read “something of this Hemon guy” to my peers. I strolled through these early days of knowing you as though my heart had not been stirred. I'd hoped my feelings were not evident to everyone. Secretly, I couldn't wait to crack open one of your novels, but I waited, desperate to not seem too eager.

And then you wrote to me. No, I couldn't wait too long, but I did wait until the end of that semester to make my first selection. Four long months of waiting for your words. Your letter was aptly titled, Love and Obstacles. Indeed. I found more of the words I'd fallen in love months earlier, though I was disappointed with the stories themselves. I called you an “average storyteller,” but raved to all my friends about your brilliance with the English language. I showered your prose with words that paled in comparison to your own: original, gorgeous, extravagant. And yet, I was slightly disappointed. There was so much beauty but I felt that, for whatever reason, you and I didn't connect. Yet there were so many more opportunities to win me over.

Our next outing came in the shape of The Lazarus Project. Oh, how part of me died with that novel. I had so much hope and it was dashed completely. Such a great idea and such careful orchestration, but all for naught. The language was of course wonderful as always, but I just failed to see your vision for this very personal project. At the time, I thought your words almost felt stilted, as though you were holding something back from me. Were you? Now, I cannot help but think you were. And yet, I had continued to hope. In my response to The Lazarus Project I wrote, “Nevertheless, I look forward to my next meeting with Aleksandar Hemon. I have no doubts it will be a delight.”

If only it were true. Aleksandar, you have failed me time and time again. Or perhaps, I have failed you. When two forces fail to connect, is one more to blame than the other? It's easy to cast blame on you, but I recognize my own faults. Perhaps I romanticized your words far too much. Perhaps they weren't meant for me. Perhaps I am just too shallow and ignorant to truly understand your brilliance.

As you may know, next came The Question of Bruno. Some amends were made for the previous letter, but I admit that it was then that I began to wonder about us. I had trouble finding the beauty of the Bruno affair. I didn't hesitate to blame myself. “Perhaps I’m way too lazy,” I said, “or I’ve grown too familiar with Hemon’s style of writing and didn’t notice” the musicality of the words. And though publicly I expressed hope for the one Hemon book that “knocks me off my feet,” inwardly, I doubted that day would ever come.

In the sea of your letters, this last one had finally arrived. I'd left it unopened for some time. The days of peeling back the pages and leaning into the words are long gone. Nevertheless, I hoped. I thought if ever I would fall in love again with the words, it would be in the letter of your life, The Book of My Lives. Oh how I wanted it to be true. I read the pages voraciously, but carefully, yearning for a semblance of what I knew must not be. There were tales of drunkenness and orgies, tales of escapades. And I felt you pulling away, not even a shadow of the person I thought you were. Suddenly, the words began to feel dirty in my hands. I never knew this side of you; I never even imagined it as a possibility. It's not that I expected you to be a saint, by any means, Aleksandar. It's only that I felt there was a grace beneath those words that I thought might make me a better person. I'd hoped for someone who was benevolent and romantic. You lacked sobriety. You were a crass teenager who happened to have a way with words. And yet, you are so much more. I see it in the words you sacrifice in memory of your daughter, the words you end this volume with. In these concluding words, I saw so much potential. I thought to myself, here it comes, the moment I have been waiting for. There was so much beauty in your tribute to Isabel. And all of that was brushed aside to fulfill some rant about religion. It was in this moment, I fell out of love forever.

Dearest Aleksandar, I do not want you to get the wrong idea. I do love your words. There are times in your letters that I am swept away to that moment when I first heard your words spoken. I did think less of The Lazarus Project, but I recognized the beauty. I praised the rest of your letters, but with some apprehension. I wish this were not so. Not for your sake, but my own. The fact is, the more I get to know you, the more I realize you are not the writer I fell in love with eight years ago. I took one passage from afar and shaped into a gorgeous creature that benefited my needs, but this creature was alien to you. It was not you. And yet, I cannot help but think maybe it is you, an alien creature within you that you yourself have yet to face. And perhaps I continue still to this day to hope that is the truth. Maybe I am still projecting my own desires.

I believe in you. I believe there is a beautiful writer in there with words that can change the world. I don't know if you want to be that writer, only you can decide that, but that's what I believe and it's what I hope for. There are letters from your past I have yet to open and I assure you I will open them when I am ready. When new letters from you arrive at my doorstep, I will read them. It's not that I don't love your work (as I hope is evident from the many four-star reviews), it's that I had wanted so much more.

Love is like that sometimes, as I'm sure you know. There's that moment you see her across the room and immediately know, she's the one. You learn all you can about her, you study her from a distance, and the more you learn, the more you are sure. You meet, your infatuation gets in the way, but there is no denying the spark. But the more you get to know her, the more you see: she is beautiful, but there's some disconnect between you. How much you wish it wasn't true. How much you want to fall in love again. And at some point, you may have to choose to let go.

I am letting go. I hope we can still be friends. As I said and I hope you believe, I will not give up on you. I will continue to read your work with great zeal. But it will be as a casual reader who loves to read. It will be as a student of writing who has much to learn and who recognizes your talent. It will be with a closed heart and some apprehension. And if ever again I hear your words spoken across a room by a dazzling voice, I will stop and I will feel, but I will not turn around.

Chris Blocker, reader

Review: We, the Drowned

We, the Drowned - Emma Ryder, Liz Jensen, Charlotte Barslund, Carsten Jensen

I went into my reading of We, the Drowned with certain expectations. Not only was I anticipating an epic, gorgeously written story, but I was expecting a journey on the seas with one character to all ends of the earth. I don't know where I picked up this impression that We, the Drowned was largely about Albert, who searches the world for his lost father—even the novel's blurb alludes to a story much larger than Laurids and Albert—but that was what I expected nonetheless.

Because it wasn't what I wanted, I was disappointed in We, the Drowned. Now how petty is that? At least I'm honest. The story I wanted was nearly seven-hundred pages of a son searching for his father. There would be wonderful character building and a quest that would captivate me until its resolution. Also, there would be monsters and flying ships and unexplained occurrences because not only was I confused about the plot, but somehow I had it in mind that this was heavy in magical realism. Hmmmm. Expectations be damned. Let's just throw my expectations out and start over.

We, the Drowned is structured more like a novel in stories than a traditional novel. There's the episode of Laurids who nearly dies in battle, but miraculously survives unscathed. There is the story of his son, Albert, and his upbringing without a father who mysteriously disappeared. Then there is Albert's adventurous journey on the sea in search for his father. And then there are five hundred more pages. What I thought was the entire subject of the book is resolved in under two hundred pages. There's much more to this book than Laurids and even Albert. Each subsequent story is loosely tied into the stories that preceded it, but they span time and the globe. The thread that unites these stories have more to do with the town of Marstal and the oceans than they do with a singular event or character.

With its fragmented nature, We, the Drowned fails to be the huge epic I imagined, but that does not mean it doesn't succeed in other ways. Jensen's novel utilizes place and object how I expected it to use character and story. Not only are all these tales connected to Marstal, a town which inhabits the story as much as its characters inhabit it, but they're connected to the sea and the professional of seafaring. These are more vital to the story than any character. Once one has forgotten the names of Laurids and Albert, Klara, Knud Erik, Sophie, Herman, one still will recall the name of Marstal. They'll remember the journeys even if they've forgotten which crew sailed on them. And they'll recall the objects—the shrunken head, the boots, the vision of a bird—that outlast all but terrain itself.

It is the vivid settings and strange objects that truly occupy We, the Drowned and take the reader on an adventure. This isn't the timeless quest of a man looking for a father, it is the story of a town that strives to survive and a professional that is as old as time itself.

Review: Burning Bright

Burning Bright: A Play in Story Form - John Steinbeck

Burning Bright Playbill

John Steinbeck is universally known for his gritty tales of realism. Most people associate Steinbeck's name with The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. Some know the author's family epic, East of Eden, while others relish in his humorous tales of drunken exploits, Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat... Few seem to recognize Steinbeck for his vast trove of work, not only in print, but on screen and on stage. Throughout his career, from beginning to end, Steinbeck refused to grow stagnant by merely reinventing his most famous work. From Cup of Gold and To a God Unknown, through Viva Zapata and The Wayward Bus, and concluding with The Winter of Our Discontent, Steinbeck dabbled in many styles and mediums. Although he was very frustrated with the outcomes of his work in film and theatre, he never gave up. In the middle of all this was one experimental play full of potential, but which flopped and has largely been forgotten.

Burning Bright may be the most strange remnant of Steinbeck's existing work. The story itself is fairly straight-forward, but the approach in setting and dialogue are experimental. In his hope to create a modern morality play, Steinbeck utilized language in a tone that bore similarity to the Greek tragedy. With a cast of only four characters, the play is simple, yet in an attempt to make the story universal (implied by Steinbeck's original title “Everyman”), these four characters are transplanted from the transient life of circus workers to a farm and then out to the sea. There is no explanation for these shifts, and though they are out of place, I don't think an explanation is needed.

Burning Bright cast

As a play, particularly one written by John Steinbeck, produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein, enacted by a stellar cast briefly on Broadway, Burning Bright was a failure. Steinbeck was overambitious and this may have come across to many as pretentiousness. In no time after the play had opened and quickly folded, Steinbeck issued an apology in which he addressed the response the play garnered and expressed his own disappointment. He concludes the apology

I have had fun with my work and I shall insist on continuing to have fun with it. And it has been my great good fortune in the past, as I hope it will be in the future, to find enough people to go along with me to the extent of buying books, so that I may eat and continue to have fun. I do not believe that I can much endanger or embellish the great structure of English literature.

Indeed, there are those who were and continue to be disappointed with Steinbeck's desire to have fun; they want the serious author whose entire focus is on migrant workers. And there were and continue to be those who point to works such as Burning Bright and say, “Steinbeck was immensely overrated—look at this drivel!” Steinbeck, just wanted to have a little fun. And though the subject of Burning Bright is rather dark and dramatic, the presentation allowed the author certain freedoms that must have been amusing.

Burning Bright is clearly not Steinbeck's best moment, but it is not a bad work at all. Its ambitions and charm make up for its showy appearance. And yet, despite its exaggerated delivery, it is such a simple play, devoid of any extra ornamentation, which deals with questions of love and sacrifice. So that whether you're a circus clown, a farmer, or a ship's captain, you may be drawn into this universal and poetic tale.

Review: Human Acts

Human Acts - Han Kang

Like many of the readers who have read or are currently reading this novel, I was intrigued by Han Kang's earlier novel, The Vegetarian. The Vegetarian elicited many different, strongly-held views from its readers. Many were haunted or captivated. Some were horrified. Others were simply confused. Although Human Acts is a very different story told in a wholly different manner, it is likely to garner may of the same feelings as its predecessor.

Human Acts is gorgeously written and achingly tender. Though one must recognize that translation plays a part in Kang's novels, the words here have a rhythm and beauty. There is strength in these sentences and they stand together to build a solid piece of literature. The story itself, centering on the 1980 failed student revolution in South Korea, is heartbreaking and its concise packaging aids in keeping the reader's interest. Minor details make the story very real. The characters carry traits that really bring them to life.

Yet, like The Vegetarian, there are omissions and vague descriptions in Human Acts that make the story dream-like. Most of the story is told in the second person. All these vague “you”s mold a more poetic text, but alienate the reader. New characters are introduced every chapter, but it takes pages (or an entire chapter) to determine who this new character is. Sometimes, at the end of a chapter, I continued to struggle with how the selection into the larger story. Much of this confusion is caused by the method of telling the story. The “you” was inconsistent; sometimes it was the subject of the chapter, other times it was another character the narrator of the chapter was talking to. And yet, the ethereal quality evoked by these vague components is part of the beauty and draw of Kang's works.

Though Human Acts is nearly as surreal in terms of language and delivery as The Vegetarian, its more concrete subject manner will likely make the novel more relatable for an American audience. It is not nearly as strange and memorable as The Vegetarian, but it is remarkable in its own ways.

My 2017 To-Read Shortlist

These are ten of the titles I WILL, barring catastrophe, read in 2017. I make this yearly list to ensure I'm not completely distracted by all the shiny new books. This list is one way to make sure I read some books that I've been putting off.


For details, follow the link to my website.


The Book of My Lives – Aleksandar Hemon

The Sirens of Titan – Kurt Vonnegut

Weeds – Edith Summers Kelley

Borderline – Mishell Baker

Demons – Fyodor Dostoevsky

Writing Down the Bones – Natalie Goldberg

All the Living – C.E. Morgan

Mama Day – Gloria Naylor

Union Dues – John Sayles

A People’s History of the United States – Howard Zinn

Review: John Steinbeck, Writer

John Steinbeck, Writer - Jackson J. Benson

This book is a beast. With over a thousand pages detailing the life of a very private man, this biography truly tells one everything they could possibly know about John Steinbeck. Perhaps a more accurate title would've been: John Steinbeck, Writer, Reader, Lover, Joker, Explorer, Worrier, Drinker, Traveler, Inventor, Researcher, Father, Sailor, Eater....

As a writer with a great love for Steinbeck's work, I was interested in the man behind the pages. As I haven't quite finished Steinbeck's entire bibliography (I'm at 66%), I felt some hesitation about reading this tome. Would knowing the inner life of Steinbeck alter my perspective of his creative work? I don't think it did, positively or negatively. My feelings about the works I've read remained unchanged, but my desire to read those I haven't yet read was greatly increased. (In the coming months, expect a considerable amount of Steinbeck in my feed.)

The sheer amount of work Benson must have put into this biography is impressive. It is with little doubt that I say this is the most extensive biography that will ever be written about Steinbeck. The research and the interviews are comprehensive. Having read John Steinbeck, Writer, I have few remaining questions about its subject, but many about its biographer. What kind of person sets out to write such a thorough work about an author? How long did he obsess over the subject? Does he have any regrets about how he spent his years? Does he dream about the Salinas Valley? Does he confuse events in the life of Steinbeck with his own? Was he sick of all things Steinbeck by the time of publication?

Some readers will perhaps be irritated with the length of John Steinbeck, Writer. Personally, though the work was longer than it needed to be, I was happy that Benson included as much as he did, allowing the reader to decide what facts are and are not important. What I appreciated less about this volume was the intrusion of Benson, the author (ironically, Steinbeck was sometimes criticized for intrusions, especially in later works). John Steinbeck, Writer is marred by the opinions of its author. Benson criticizes the critics, agents, editors, and publishers who continually begged Steinbeck to rehash The Grapes of Wrath; they were annoyed that the writer always wanted to try his hand at something new. Despite his criticism of these literary elites, Benson falls into the same trap, declaring The Grapes... as Steinbeck's masterpiece and declaring all subsequent works as inferior mistakes (the only possible exception being Travels with Charley). This is Benson's opinion and certainly unwanted. (Besides, these days we all know that East of Eden was Steinbeck's true masterpiece and y'all were just too close-minded to recognize it in the first forty years after its publication.) Less directly, it seems that maybe Benson has glossed over some known facts to paint Steinbeck in the most positive light possible. The picture painted here is of a genius who, because of fame and pressure, became slightly out of touch with his fellow man. I would argue that Steinbeck, especially after winning that cursed Nobel prize, was so incredibly far from the imaginative writer he set out to be forty years earlier that he probably wouldn't have recognized himself. At the hands of Steinbeck himself, Steinbeck probably would've been more honest about his mistakes than Benson was. And while Steinbeck toyed with the idea of writing an autobiography of sorts, a fact I learned from this work, he never got around to it. Thus, aside from what we can garner from Steinbeck's own writing, the most complete picture we have of the author comes from John Steinbeck, Writer, (because Steinbeck didn't use Facebook and you've always wanted to know what was on his dinner plate—and Benson went to great trouble to find out for you.)

Review: Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility  - Jane Austen

I'm familiar with many Jane Austen stories, but this is the first time I've successfully read one of her novels. Years ago, surely eight or nine years now, I made a very lackluster attempt to read Mansfield Park, but I gave up within a mere ten pages. My heart just wasn't in it at the time. More so than that of many of her contemporaries, the language Austen uses can be a chore to get through and I struggled to understand what I was reading (and why). The time has come, however, to give Austen another try.

Judging by the stories that have survived and remain in our hearts—from Shakespeare to Austen to Dickens to...—there really wasn't much difference in British drama for three hundreds years. Through the quirky interactions of memorable characters, these authors provide entertaining romps through sentimentality with a satirical edge. And yet, I would argue that Austen's stories were more realistic than those of her contemporaries. Certainly, Austen dwelt a bit heavily on the “woes” of the higher class, but the characters' wants and needs transcend status. Unlike many of the two-dimensional characters in the stories of the time, Austen's primary characters are individuals with ever-changing perspectives (secondary characters, not so much). Of course realism from a much more humble point-of-view was just a generation away with authors such as Anne Bronte being born in this era, but clearly Austen had her finger on the pulse of humanity.

And yet these stories lack realism. How anyone can be so oblivious is beyond me. Can two people carry on a conversation for so long without realizing they're talking about two very different things? Sure, it's humorous, but it's not believable. So are these stories meant to be believable, or not? Does love ever come so easily in the end? How is it that the destitute daughters of these tales always find the one descent human in the aristocracy? I think that's the magic of Austen and it certainly works well in Sense and Sensibility. These are characters that are human and though their situations may be very different from our own, they are very much like us. Through struggles and the embrace of all that is “good” and “right,” they enter the fairy tale that so many of us envy. These are the stories that capture the heart of the romantic.

Sense and Sensibility is double the romance. The characters are engaging. The wit is on point. The story is entertaining. And it's all so clever—there's an excellent word for the work of Jane Austen: clever.

Review: At the Mouth of the River of Bees

At the Mouth of the River of Bees: Stories - Kij Johnson

At the Mouth of the River of Bees is an interesting and varied pack of stories. Although many of the stories in this collection could easily be labeled as Fantasy, many others escape such simple labeling. Spanning the genres, each stories is unique; while some are more strait-laced fantasy, fairy tales replete with talking animals and beasts of all sizes, others are more contemporary and literary in nature. This wide variety gives the reader many chances to fall for Johnson's stories, but may make this collection seem uneven. Some are extremely brief while others could probably be considered novellas. Some are powerfully shocking, others are simplistically quiet. The fact is, this is quite a mix to come from one author. You may read two or three stories before you find one you like. You may love all of them. Likely, there's something in this collection for most of us.

My personal favorites were “Spar,” “Wolf Trapping,” and “At the Mouth of the River of Bees.” “Ponies” was also a good story, but I'd heard so much about it over the years that I expected something more chilling; in fact, it felt to me like a tamer version of a Shirley Jackson story. For me, “Spar” was the truly haunting story that remains with me like no other one in this collection

Review: When Marnie Was There

When Marnie Was There - Joan G. Robinson I didn't grow up with a great love of reading like many of my contemporary readers and writers. I read for fun as a child, but not voraciously. The books I read were not the classic adventures you may have read. Mostly, I read Garfield and Choose Your Own Adventure. I did read one or two Judy Blumes, but that was as close as I got to “good literature” until I was much older. Once I had children, my curiosity about children's literature grew. Had I missed much? I began to explore some of the titles I'd heard others rave about, some old and some new. Frankly, I wasn't impressed. Though the stories were good, every one was guilty of being a story and little more. The authors of children's tales clearly knew nothing about creating round characters who develop or using language to further the plot; perhaps they knew and just refused to utilize them. Perhaps they were out there and I just couldn't find them. Either way, book after book, I was disappointed with the action-begets-conflict-leading-to-more-action plot. Was I missing something, some basic trait in myself that made deficient my understanding of a good story? When I first saw the trailer for Studio Ghibli's newest film, When Marnie Was There, I knew I'd found our newest family read. Prior to this, I'd never heard of the title or its author, Joan G. Robinson. The trailer looked fantastic, however, and I thought it would be fun to read the book to the kiddos before we watched the movie. Yet I worried this children's story would be just like the rest. When Marnie Was There is such a fantastic read. For some children, it may be much too slow. It's true, not much happens, but it is an enchanting tale. This is the story of a girl, Anna, who is a bit of an outcast and who finds a friend in an unexpected place. There are some strange happenings and some drama, but largely, it's about Anna and her struggles. But man, oh man, is this novel wonderfully paced and charactered. Robinson fantastically doled out the mystery surrounding Anna's friend, Marnie, at just the right speed to keep things interesting without giving much away. At the end of every chapter or two, we as a family would theorize what was going on. No other book we'd read together had prompted so many questions. Once the truth of the story draws near, it hits hard. I was quite choked up. I had to step away from my reading of the text for a few minutes to compose myself. That is a power I never would've expected from a children's novel. I don't know how I would've felt about this novel as a child. Maybe it would've bored me. Maybe it would've resonated with me then as it does now. My own children seemed to enjoy it thoroughly. What I do know, or am beginning to realize, is that it is all so incredibly subjective: tastes, feelings, responses. In When Marnie Was There, Anna is on the outside, looking in, wondering how to fit in, all the while oblivious to the connections that surround her. Likewise, it may be that I was looking for identity in the wrong place. It's okay that others love the books they love—perhaps what others need is a story, a purpose, a sense of action—while what I need is a sense of identity and connection. Stories resonate with each of us differently. That said, I personally loved When Marnie Was There. I love it so much that someday, I may read it again... perhaps to my grandchildren.

Review: Marzi

Marzi: A memoir - Marzena Sowa

In my quest to explore graphic novels, I came across this beauty. I loved the cover, a bitter child clutching her stuffed rabbit in full color while a group of soldiers cluster in the gray behind. I expected a book full of such contradiction, a book that would tug at my heart. Despite the implications of the cover, Marzi isn't that kind of book. It's tiny slivers in the life of one little girl who just happens to live in Poland during the fall of Soviet communism.

This is my first experience with a graphic novel illustrated by someone other than the author and I didn't like that. The illustrations and text felt disconnected at times. The pacing was off. Given the serial nature of the book, each vignette needed to occupy a full page or set of full pages and, as such, some were rushed while others lingered. I liked Marzi. Her perspective was astute and in line with how children thin. Some of her stories were very interesting, but this “novel” felt so much like a comic strip that I was overwhelmed by the presentation.

This is the kind of graphic novel that is probably best read in short segments. Although the illustrations are attractive and the stories interesting and multifaceted, its slice-of-life presentation bears more in common with a newspaper comic than with what I have come to recognize as a graphic novel.

Review: The Cellist of Sarajevo

The Cellist of Sarajevo - Steven Galloway

The Cellist of Sarajevo came highly recommended, but I had my reservations. How could a thirty-two year old professor from Canada give any sort of justice to the Bosnian War, and do so in a mere 200 pages? The conflict is much too recent to easily dismiss any inaccuracies in the text. And it's difficult to ignore the obvious differences in growing up in Kamloops versus getting by in Sarajevo. Surely, it cannot be done. The problem was, I was imagining that Galloway's novel would be like nearly every other war novel, when in fact, The Cellist of Sarajevo breaks most of the rules of “war stories” and largely succeeds.

Galloway takes the four year siege and narrows the focus to such a tiny sliver. Although the book blurb conveys that this novel is about “four strangers,” the fourth being the titular cellist, it really centers on three. The cellist is little more than a device to tell the story and unite the others. (The “cellist” is based on a real person, Vedran Smailovic; his inclusion caused significant drama: "Out of the war, into a book and in a rage".) These three characters are so unlike any other I have encountered in a war novel that it is shocking. Two of the three are merely men walking the streets with purpose. The third is a female sniper. All three are afraid, but only the sniper is doing something about it. The two men cower behind buildings and struggle with reconciling the past with the present.

Aside from the reversed war-time gender roles, I found it interesting how the characters most crippled by fear were the ones actually moving. It was the active participant, the sniper, who hid in the shadows and rarely moved. Such focus allows the characters to rise above the war that surrounds them and become closer to universal. It is by giving such a narrow scope—a family man in search of water who cannot stand up to his cantankerous neighbor, an elderly baker who seeks invisibility, and a sharp-shooter with a vendetta—that Galloway succeeds in putting the siege of Sarajevo on paper. I wish The Cellist of Sarajevo had made a bigger impact on me, but I think had Galloway tried to craft a more epic tale of war, he would've stepped into territory that would've been too foreign. As it is, The Cellist of Sarajevo gives those of us who didn't experience the war a glimpse of what it may have been like.

Review: Public Library and Other Stories

Public Library and Other Stories - Ali Smith

Aside from this collection, the only work of Ali Smith's I've read is a novel, How to be both. With so little knowledge of the author, it may be premature for me to make assumptions about her writing, but I think it's safe to say that Smith is a very talented writer who speaks in thunderous whispers. What I mean by that is that her stories are decorated in gorgeous language, yet they're unassuming. They are often peopled by strong characters experiencing some small personal growth. There may not be much in the way of story. And while the stories may be affecting, they are not necessarily the most memorable.

It can be difficult to make strong opinions about this style of writing. Many of us belong to a society that is far too fast paced for such stories. While part of me wants to celebrate everything Smith and her ilk write, I must acknowledge that sometimes the stories may be a bit too unassuming. In her latest collection, Smith pairs her stories with brief reflections on public libraries. For the most part, the stories have little to do with libraries, though some touch momentarily on research or reading. Though a couple of the stories appealed to me, the strongest moments come from the library vignettes. These little reflections are often poignant. Overall, the collection has a nice rhythm and certainly captures the beauty of language, but it doesn't possess enough substance or heart as a whole to motivate a more enthusiastic response from me. Public Library and Other Stories aside, I do look forward to reading more of Smith's writing.

Review: The North Water

The North Water: A Novel - Ian McGuire

I don't know why I have such a particular affinity for these whaling tales, but recently I recognized that I gravitated toward them. And being that authors are continually revisiting the subject, it's obvious I am not alone in my appreciation. The North Water bears many similarities to the classic whaling tale, but probably has more in common with the writing of Jack London and Cormac McCarthy than Melville. Aside from some wonderfully drawn characters and explorations of psychology, this is an adventurous novel filled with an abundance of grisly scenes of violence toward man and animal.

Perhaps it was just me and my aforementioned appreciation for whaling stories, but I did feel that the second half of this novel—largely taking place away from whaling—was considerably less appealing than the first half. So much action and intrigue develops in this second half, however, and so I was not horribly disappointed.

The North Water is a gruesome tale of man versus nature and man versus man—which of the two is more dangerous is a question you may ask yourself while reading this novel.

Review: Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"

Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery": The Authorized Graphic Adaptation - Miles Hyman

As I near the end of my year-long exploration of graphic novels, I come across my first adaptation: Shirley Jackson's “The Lottery” by Miles Hyman. It was without intention that I happened to read The Lottery and Other Stories immediately preceding this graphic retelling. Hyman's book was on my to-read list when, on a whim, I picked up Jackson's collection and began reading. I'd read Jackson's most famous story, “The Lottery,” a couple times in undergrad, but I was happy to have the refresher in mind as I tackled this adaptation.

As I suspected, it's not easy to take a classic, well-known work and make it into anything special by attaching pictures to it. There's nothing exciting or new here. It's Jackson's story, made visual. I understand that maybe the goal is to reach a new audience, a crowd that would be more likely to read Hyman's adaptation, but it's not like Jackson's short story is difficult to read. Whatever.

I might have been more annoyed by this idea had Hyman himself not been the grandson of Shirley Jackson. I might also be annoyed had it seemed Hyman was trying to establish himself by using his grandmother's name, but it seems he is already well established. And so, I really have nothing to be annoyed about. This is a fine rendition of “The Lottery,” it keeps the story simple as it was meant to be. Although most of the illustrations aren't particularly grand, there's something to be said about the colors and angles that effectively capture the mood of the story.

Review: The Lottery and Other Stories

The Lottery and Other Stories - Shirley Jackson

The Lottery and Other Stories is an uneven collection. If you've read any of my reviews about a collection of short stories, you've probably heard this before. “Uneven” sums up my feelings for every short story collection I've ever read. There are different levels of uneven, but it's only natural that some stories will resonate powerfully and others will simply be okay. Consistent writing is not an easy task for a writer of short stories, anymore than it is for a novelist. Creative ventures in any medium are going to fluctuate and people will have differing opinions about them (personally, I loved The Casual Vacancy).

The “problem” with this collection is that it's unevenness is on fully display. This is like watching a team of all-stars face off against a team of one superstar and a bunch of novices who barely know the rules of the game. This is like watching a bulky grown man on a teeter-totter with a toddler, adorable, but not carrying her weight. This is a collection of some of Jackson's best stories opposite of some that you could say are lacking (with “The Lottery” thrown in at the end). Keep in mind, that when I say these stories are “lacking,” some are quite alright. It's Shirley Jackson, so there's no such thing as a horrendous story. But her greatest moments of insight, development, and storytelling are there at the beginning to entice the reader. And her most famous story, “The Lottery,” is at the end to keep a reader going. Personally, were I to compile such a collection, I'd mix it up. Otherwise, a reader is given false hopes for an amazing second half and what follows is grueling. Throw in some of the less wonderful stories between great stories and the reader will be more forgiving, if they notice at all. And so this collection ends on a low note (especially if you've already read “The Lottery” several times before).

Jackson is most famous for her paranormal tales that explore dark aspects of human nature. The majority of the tales in The Lottery... contain no elements of horror or oddity, but they do largely explore human nature. I have previously read two of Jackson's more famous novels, We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House, but what really struck me about this collection is how deeply Jackson delved into the psychology of her characters. She was a wonderful explorer of what drives the human brain and how we react to changes in our environment. Though many of the stories in this collection lack a significant plot, always the story moves because of the actions and reactions of the characters.

Although I do wish The Lottery and Other Stories had been structured differently, it is still a collection of the highest caliber. Readers looking for stories with highly-engaging plots will likely grow bored with Jackson, in general; for those hoping for great characters and character development, Jackson is a treat. Already, I am eager to read more of her great work.