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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Review: Broken Places & Outer Spaces

Broken Places & Outer Spaces - Nnedi Okorafor

I'm sure the intended audience of Broken Places & Outer Spaces is fans of Nnedi Okorafor's fiction. Though Okorafor is one of many authors whose work I hope to get around to, I have yet to make that journey with her. So perhaps, by not being familiar with her work prior to reading this short volume, I have missed out on something I might have otherwise enjoyed. If only one could know these things ahead of time...

I decided to read Broken Places & Outer Spaces because I thought it would be an inspirational and eye-opening look at the creative process. I was looking for something to spark my own creativity. Unfortunately, Broken Places & Outer Spaces doesn't offer much in this regard. Instead, what it offers is a very honest and articulate look at Okorafor's struggles related to a surgery that left her paralyzed for some time, a paralysis that detoured her from the path she had chosen, to that of being a writer.

Okorafor's ordeal is written about with such painful candor and splendid prose. It's a very well-written account of this time in her life, and in that regard, the book succeeds. But as anything else, it falls flat. If other parts of Okorafor's life had been explored, or if she'd put as much heart and soul into her transformation as a writer, I think this book would've worked for me. It's a wonderful account of the loss and grief one experiences from a life-changing event, but it's only one chapter in the author's life and Broken Places & Outer Spaces feels like only one long chapter in a much bigger book.

Review: How to Be an Antiracist

How to Be an Antiracist - Ibram X. Kendi

I've a longstanding interest in Malcolm X. There were many aspects of his character that fascinate me. One is the transformation he made in the final year of his life—his second awakening, the birth of el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. In these days, el-Shabazz embraced the idea that there were other factors that went into making one “a devil,” not merely one's ethnicity. His overnight change of heart opened up considerable possibilities, a movement with a more unified front. I always wondered where el-Shabazz would've taken us had he been given the chance. I imagine he'd have taught us a few things, even if most of us would've been unwilling to listen.

It may be presumptuous of me to make such a comparison, but I see a lot of el-Shabazz in Ibram X. Kendi. Kendi is a brilliant, open-minded scholar who, unlike many of his contemporaries, fesses up to a history of hatred. Too many well-intentioned people deny ever having (or being capable of) a racist thought; by acknowledging his own racist past, Kendi puts himself on equal footing with those he's trying to instruct in the ways of anti-racism. The approach makes all the difference. Guaranteed, some will read (or glance at) this book and see nothing but another black man who hates white people—these are the same people who knew this would be the case before even turning the cover. I imagine they're not the ones Kendi wrote this book for.

In his previous book, Stamped from the Beginning, Kendi tackled the history of racism from its relatively unknown beginning, presenting a thorough and scholarly exploration; in How to Be an Antiracist he breaks it down into a contemporary format, highlighting the complete spectrum of racial hatred, addressing the question of what it means to be truly anti-racist. By presenting his own personal story, Kendi puts his victimization and vulnerabilities in full view, a move that makes him infinitely more accessible to the reader. The result is a book that is incredibly inspiring. 

How could a book about racism be inspiring? By being informative, hopeful, and prescriptive. By not hiding behind platitudes. By keeping the tone instructive, not reactive and not incensed. Kendi shows that he has a very strong grasp of the subject—and though readers may disagree with a point or two of his from time to time—no one is dissecting the issue quite as thoroughly, and certainly no one is presenting a means to dismantle the racist system one mind at a time, as Kendi strives to do here.

All the time, I read reviews where people say “everyone needs to read this.” We have our personal interests and biases—one man's treasured book is another's kindling. So take my recommendation for what it's worth: I believe that every open-minded individual, whether they blatantly embrace racist thought, hide behind “not racism,” or strive to be anti-racist, can benefit from reading How to Be an Antiracist. Maybe you won't be as touched by this book as I was. Maybe you won't underline nearly as many passages as I did (something I never do, by the way, emphasizing how much this book impacted me). But I do think most of us will get something worthwhile out of it.

Review: Lanny

Lanny - Max Porter

Lanny is an intriguing, brilliantly constructed little novel. It starts off with a poeticism that really grabs the reader, pulls them into the pace of this village, the voices of the individuals as well as the hum of the hive. It's lyrical without pretentiousness. The imaginative range of the narrative is both ominous and magical.

As far as story, the first two-thirds of Lanny are wonderful. I was pulled into this village, and into the mind of the mythical creature known as Dead Papa Toothwort. The third part of the story lost me though, enough so I disappointingly felt the need to drop a star. I lost the thread of the story and the rhythm of its telling. Those with a more substantial attention span than I have may have a better appreciation for this section. I didn't follow.

Lanny is oh so comparable in subject and tone to several previous Booker Prize nominees. I don't know if that means it's more or less likely to receive a nod this July, but I won't be surprised if it's on the long list.

Review: The Alienist

The Alienist - Caleb Carr

Detective stories are not, have never been, and never will be “my thing;” however, I don't want to grow stagnant as a reader, guilty of not trying to branch out from time to time. The Alienist came with high marks from many friends, so I thought it might be worth venturing into this uncomfortable territory. As my opinions on mysteries are probably not worth paying much attention to, I'm just going to quickly highlight what I liked and what I didn't.

What I liked:
1) Caleb Carr clearly put ample research into the period and the setting. The details are an impressive collection.
2) Carr introduces some wonderful characters who fall into some stereotypes, defy others, but never fail to be interesting.
3) The introduction of historical figures I was unfamiliar with (e.g., Jesse Pomeroy), forcing me to conduct some good old-fashioned research (i.e., Google).
4) When the plot moves, it's very fast paced.
5) It's more psychological and cerebral than I expected.

What I didn't like:
1) Well researched—yes, but painfully so. The story is bogged down by the inclusion of so many details.
2) Carr ignores the best characters for the majority of the novel. Though they're major players, the bulk of the second half of this novel focuses on Moore and Kreizler—fine characters, but lacking magic.
3) The shoehorning of historical figures (e.g.,Theodore Roosevelt) that I could've done without.
4) It's far too long. When the pacing slows, it really slows.
5) It's still a plot-based mystery and well... as we've established, that's “not my thing.”

At its best, The Alienist exceeded my expectations—and I must give it credit for that—but too often it was mediocre at best, largely the result of too much detail, too many pages, and not enough of knowing when to quit.

Review: Erasure

Erasure: A Novel / Percival Everett. - Percival Everett

Raise your hand if you've heard of Percival Everett.

I imagine a few hands raise. Only a few. By no means is Everett a well-known or widely-read author. Why is this? We'll get to that shortly.

If you're one of the many not yet familiar with Everett, let me introduce you: Percival Everett is the award-winning author of more than thirty books. His first was published in 1983—his most recent 2017. Throughout his career, he's received dozens of honors for his work. What does Everett write about? Whatever he feels like—whatever has captured his attention. He's covered mythology and westerns on several occasions, with stops to explore poetry, baseball, and even philosophy as told by a four year old. The Washington Postlabeled him as “one of the most adventurously experimental of modern American novelists.”

So that's Percival Everett. Also, it's important to note for the sake of discussing Erasure that Everett is black.

Now let me introduce you to this phenomenal work of literature. The protagonist, Thelonious Ellison, is a brilliant and acclaimed author who is having trouble selling his most recent novel. There have been complaints from the publishers that Ellison's writing is not “black enough.” Ellison writes about a wide range of topics—one of his favorite subjects is mythology. Frustrated with the remarkable success of a novel titled We's Lives In Da Ghetto, Ellison scribbles an angry response, a parody that is thoroughly embraced by the literary world.

So why is Everett largely unknown? I think Erasure addresses that question. As a reader, I cannot say how much of this novel is truly biographical, but I don't think I'm completely off by drawing a comparison here. As an author of tremendous talent, Everett's frustration after twenty years of relative obscurity surely must parallel that of Thelonious Ellison. If only these authors would write something about what it means to be black, they'd find success.

In this one novel, Everett tackles the duplicity of the publishing industry. Though more authors of color are being published in recent years, there still exists some degree of expectation that these authors “stick to what they know,” even if it's not actually indicative of their experience. Erasure addresses this hypocrisy in a way that is both comical and heartbreaking in equal measures. It is a brilliant exploration of identity, a multi-layered look at what makes a person. Joining Ellison on this journey—a mother suffering from Alzheimer's, a brother discovering his sexuality, and a sister firmly committed to her pro-choice convictions.

Whatever the subject, Everett is an intelligent author with astounding insight and a knack for language. His work may not have achieved the status it deserves, but I believe that day will come. I know that I will be revisiting his work sooner than later.

Review: Mistakes Were Made

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made - Stephan Pastis

Mistakes Were Made is not the sort of book I'd normally pay much attention to. I'm not a huge fan of children's lit and this one looked a bit too juvenile for me (not that I'm not very childish at heart). I picked up this novel for one reason: Tom McCarthy, genius behind such movie gems as The Station AgentWin Win, and Up, is adapting the novel to film. McCarthy isn't a filmmaker who deals in adaptations, so I was intrigued with what this book was all about.

Frankly, I'm a bit surprised that McCarthy has taken on this project. It's quirky, which is right up McCarthy's alley, but it has a different tone than McCarthy's usual “quirky with heavy underlying dramatic weight.” But enough about a film that doesn't even exist yet.

This is a hilarious book. The humor is fresh and often unexpected—even though Timmy's lack of common sense is established early, the disconnect is so absurd and finely drawn that I laughed out loud every time he reached a conclusion. This is the kind of humor that can be understood by children and adults alike, but may at times be lost on some children.

The narrative was great and the plot worked fine for the style. I was very much engaged for the bulk of the story. At the point where the story begins to wrap, however, the plot sort of fizzled. The conclusion was very rushed and not all that entertaining. For a novel which spent so much time setting up the dynamics of the narrative and the setting, as well as introducing us to a myriad of wonderful characters, I guess there just wasn't enough room to build a satisfactory ending. Hopefully, now that the stage is set, the following books in the series provide a stronger story arc. (And, yes, I do plan on continuing this series.)

The Timmy Failure movie is schedule for release in 2020. I'm sure given McCarthy's handling, it'll be a fabulous movie—though one cannot forget (and maybe not forgive) The Cobbler.

Review: Duma Key

Duma Key - Stephen King

Know when you're finished, and when you are, put your pencil or your paintbrush down.
- Stephen King Duma Key

I may not be your average Stephen King reader. I'm not enamored with the author, but I have thoroughly enjoyed some of his tales. Others have left me cold. The stories I tend to like are not the ones most of his readers go for—the only two I thought worthy of five stars were “The Body” and The Long Walk. Despite what some in the literati might say, King has some talent. He also writes to sell. That's a combination that can bring very mixed results.

Duma Key shows the author at his best and his worst. Well, maybe not his absolute best and worst—the complete, unedited version of The Stand did that. Duma Key shows the King who is a masterful storyteller and who can get in the mind of a broken man, as well as the King who has no internal editor (seemingly, no editor at all) and no understanding of how humans speak to one another.

The first two-thirds of this novel are not bad. The dialogue from Wireman is continually cringy, but otherwise, the tale of broken people finding a new life on an island in the Florida keys is satisfactory. Most of this novel is based on some version of reality. Sure, there's a little bit of strangeness, but it feels more like magic realism than King's signature paranormal horror. It works. It's not the author's most gripping or well-written tale by any means, but I think had it ended earlier, been given an ending where the magic had some beauty or relevance, I would've been happier.

Instead, King steers the final hundred-plus pages into the horror-filled paranormal. I know, it's Stephen King: it's to be expected. I just didn't think it worked for this book. It's in these pages that King loses any connection with reality. Suddenly, characters are able to pull the most outlandish conclusions from the sky. Terrible events occur that should emotionally destroy these characters, but they jump right up, quoting movies and attempting to outwit one another. Characters in a story should not act like characters in a story, unless we're talking metafiction (sadly, I somehow got the idea that this was King's foray into metafiction and I was disappointed with its exclusion). Finally, the “scary stuff” just wasn't all the interesting. For a Stephen King novel, that's damning.

I was excited to start Duma Key, but I must say I'm very disappointed in the end. There's just not much here in these 600 pages that made an impact. And yet, because I know King is so hit and miss, at least for me he is, I'll pull another one of his novels off the shelf in two or three years, and I'll find a sloppy narrative, some juvenile dialogue, and the possibility of a very engaging story.

Review: Bel Canto

Bel Canto - Ann Patchett

This novel is as lyrical, engaging, and wonderfully charactered as you've heard. The epilogue is also as terrible as you've heard. (You have my permission to skip it.)

 

I have nothing to add, other than I would've loved to have seen more internal strife within the group and within the characters than we were provided after the initial set up. Some complacency is expected, but I thought this was a bit too relaxed.

 

Review: Light from Other Stars

Light from Other Stars - Erika Swyler

Sometimes you go into a story with a certain expectation. I approached Light from Other Stars this way. Somewhere I'd gotten the impression that this was novel was going be the mind-bending what-the-hell-just-happened I found in James Renner's The Man from Primrose Lane (if you want your mind blown, read that novel.) Light from Other Stars isn't what I expected, but it's still intriguing, intelligent, and sometimes a little fun.

Light from Other Stars takes place largely in Florida in the days after the space shuttle Challenger explosion. Eleven-year-old Nedda's father is a scientist working on an entropy experiment at the time of the accident. Enter science. Science was never one of my stronger subjects in school, so consider my ignorance when I say that for me this was big-s Science fiction. The narrative occasionally switches to a space craft in the future, but I'll just leave that part a mystery.

Even though Light from Other Stars is heavy on the science, it's also a very effective in showing the human condition. Love, grief, birth, mortality, individuality, and family are all explored in quite some depth. The characters and the plot both show expert craftsmanship, but they probably do get a bit lost in the technical jargon. That said, Swyler is not an author who talks down to her readers. The explanations for the more scientific elements of the story are done in a largely organic way.

The one thing that I think would've made this book stand out more is if the big reveal (don't worry, no spoilers here) had been less obvious earlier in the novel. Now we're dipping into questions of Authorial Intention versus Reader's Interpretation. Perhaps Swyler was not seeking a big reveal. Maybe she wanted it to be obvious from page one. That's a possibility, but she also never comes right out and says it, so it gives the impression that she's trying to hide something. This results in high expectations for what will be a letdown for many.

Light from Other Stars is certainly one of the more imaginative Literary novels I've read in recent times. I would've gladly embraced some more surprise in these pages, but the exploration of time and the human heart made for an excellent journey.

Review: Zoo Nebraska

Zoo Nebraska - Carson Vaughan

Zoo Nebraska is the captivating story of a zoo in Royal, Nebraska (pop.81 75 59), a town likely forever associated with the zoo and the events that led to its downfall and eventual liquidation. It is the story of a dream impeded. It is the story of a community with bonds stronger than travesty, and prejudices harder than stone.

More than any of that, Zoo Nebraska is the story of Dick Haskin’s passion, and that is what makes this book so fascinating. Author Carson Vaughan does an amazing job of displaying Haskin’s passion from the beginning. Even though there are aspects of Haskin one may not like, it's difficult not to root for him. Here’s a guy on the fringe of society who truly has a noble idea in mind, an animal lover who compromises and compromises until little of his original intent exists. Out of a big heart set into motion in the 1980s comes a heartbreaking disaster twenty years later. What a great story!

Somewhere in the middle, Zoo Nebraska does get bogged down by the minutiae. Haskin’s role is reduced, and in comes a parade of incompetent leaders, all fighting for small threads of power. (It probably sounds more interesting than it is.) As each character grabs ahold of and pulls on their respective threads, the fabric of Haskin's dream, and the pride of a community, is unraveled.

Wonderfully researched and expertly told, Zoo Nebraska is the kind of story that almost seems better off as fiction. It's hard to believe this zoo really existed, let alone was the center of the stories that followed. I'm glad this story has been told, and that it has been told in a way that seems to respect the vision without delighting in the crimes.

Review: The Girl in the Tower

The Girl in the Tower - Katherine Arden

I’ll say this, The Girl in the Tower nears perfection.

The Bear and the Nightingale was a fine novel, but I felt it was laying the groundwork for the setting and the characters. Whimsical magic was on full display, immersing the reader in a world that was likely very foreign to them, but it may have been too much. The result was a good story, but it didn’t quite have the cohesion that this follow-up does.

I’m not a big fan of Fantasy, but Arden sells me completely with The Girl in the Tower. The setting is as gorgeous as it was in the first book; the author really brings this frigid landscape to life. The characters are well defined. I especially love how Arden displays her protagonist as a strong woman, but one who still has some flaws. The language is engaging and navigable. The plot moves along at a great pace. With the characters well defined, the fairy tale established, and the story evolved, The Girl in the Tower is given the room to just be fabulous. It really does come close to being perfect.

Now here's where I deviate from the mainstream: I find action incredibly boring. I generally enjoy stories for their characters and their dialogue, sometimes their language or devices, but almost never for their action. When a fight breaks out, I tune out. (Strange, right?) That's exactly what happened when I reached the climax of this novel—my attention waned considerably. I stopped caring. It’s no fault of Arden or this novel—I’m the abnormal one—but its inclusion did leave me wanting. And if you’ve read either of the first two books in this series, then you likely know action plays a big part.

Even considering this one hiccup—something most readers would probably embrace—I felt The Girl in the Tower was one of the better stories I’ve read in the last few years. I cannot think of one Fantasy novel I’ve ever enjoyed nearly as much as this one. I’m already anticipating the third, but I may have to wait—novels such as these are best enjoyed when the windows are frost-touched.

Review: Bangkok Wakes to Rain

Bangkok Wakes to Rain - Pitchaya Sudbanthad

Three stories into Bangkok Wakes to Rain, I had a bad feeling about the “novel.” You see, there's been this trend in publishing lately where “novel” can mean many things. David Szalay's Booker nominated All That Man Is is an excellent example. It's a collection of short stories. (Publisher: No, it's a novel.) It may center on a theme, but that doesn’t make it a novel; it’s still just a collection of short stories. But short story collections do not sell as well as novels, nor do they get nominated for the Booker Prize, so I guess the publisher was (deceptively) smart.

Initially, it appears that Sudbanthad is going down the same path with Bangkok Wakes to Rain. Here are stories that have absolutely nothing to do with one another other than their connection to the setting. The first story focuses on a missionary in the 19th century. The second deals with a jazz pianist in the post-Vietnam-war era. The third of a photographer who’d emigrated to the U.S. And so on… Represented as circles with shared similarities, each story looks a little something like this.

I liked the writing, but again I felt duped and disappointed because this was not a novel.

Then a wonderful thing happens—one of the stories overlaps another. I held onto hope there’d be more. Then there is another connection. Slowly, the connections begin to build upon one another so that some stories are only lightly connected to one another, but others share so much. It could look something like this.

I was intrigued. It became a fun exercise searching for all the connections. It reminded me of a device David Mitchell might employ. This association with Mitchell was even more so made concrete by the fact that the book stretches from the colonial era into a future where cities are under water and AI plays a large role in daily living.

The writing is superb and the characters are memorable and well designed. Sudbanthad is a wonderful author who has earned a spot on my growing list of authors I will invest in in the future. Bangkok Wakes to Rain is an intriguing and intelligent novel overall, but the implementation is a bit off. Using such a device is tricky, and while I think Sudbanthad pulls it off well, it is not solid enough to sustain itself. It's close and an admirable effort, but it just doesn't quite gel. Nonetheless, I look very much look forward to the author's sophomore effort. Here is an author who knows how to use language, plot, character, and setting to form a nearly perfect novel or collection—call it what you want.

Review: We Were Eight Years in Power

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy - Ta-Nehisi Coates

Essays aren't really my thing, and political essays are definitely not, so this wasn't the best choice for me.

We Were Eight Years in Power is collection of essays Coates wrote, one from each year of the Obama presidency, a time which paralleled Coates's own rise from novice columnist to acclaimed and authoritative author. Not every essay in this collection is political, but many of them are. Coates is a tremendous writer regardless of the topic he tackles, but he best holds my attention when the subject is more societal or historical.

As a complete collection, We Were Eight Years in Power is a bit too wandering and repetitive. This is like an album which purports to be a collection of the artists “most loved songs,” but leaves out some of the true “greatest hits.” A thoughtful collection overall, but one best suited for lovers of government
.

Review: Bloom

Bloom - Kevin Panetta, Savanna Ganucheau

It was the cover of Bloom that reeled me in: the subtle but finely drawn art with the equally hushed blue. I imagined a graphic novel that was intelligent and touching. The final product was much lighter than I expected it to be, definitely one written for a younger audience, or for those who prefer simple storytelling.

There just isn't much depth to the plot—and that's okay. What's perhaps less forgiving is the same lack of depth in the characters. The reader never gets much more than a surface impression of Ari and Hector, even less of their respective friends. I think this is the story's greatest failing. With a story such as this one, the characters have to be more than cute or fun—they have to engage a reader.

What this novel did well? The buildup is good. You know where the story is going—it's obvious—but the author saves that component so that the story moves at a natural pace. It never felt rushed or unnatural. Also, the illustrations were good. They were simple, but convincing, never scrimping on the details of backgrounds and textures.

Overall, Bloom is a very simple, but well rendered love story. I recommend it for fans of graphic novels who prefer simple stories, love displays of affection, or who think in emoticons.

Fortunately, the Milk

Fortunately, the Milk - Neil Gaiman, Skottie Young

Yes, this is my first Neil Gaiman. What can I say about it? It was a little fun and a little quirky, but it was really just an okay story. Probably one that is best for established Neil Gaiman fans.

 

Review: The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan - Patricia Castelao, Katherine Applegate

The One and Only Ivan is a wonderful story that takes place on a farm called the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. On this farm, animals of different species are able to communicate with one another, though they can't talk to humans. One of these animals is Charlotte, an old elephant full of considerable wisdom. And there is Ruby, a curious pig who seeks companionship from the other animals, but is quickly dismissed by all but Charlotte. Charlotte takes Ruby into her care. When the other animals realize that Ruby is being raised for the slaughter, they rally to save her. Eventually, Charlotte reaches the end of her life, so she magically transfers all her wisdom to a silverback gorilla named Ivan. Ivan is very talented: he can spin a web that spans the globe as though he were a giant spider. Despite being an ape who talks with geese, bears, and sheep, Ivan cannot speak to the humans, so he uses the worldwide web to express his concern for Ruby. 'TERRIFIC,' he writes in one. 'HOME PIG,' he writes in another… I’ll stop there to avoid spoiling the story.

In addition to the main characters, there’s a dog named Templeton who obsesses over eating… or was it sleeping? He’s there mostly to give a few chuckles to a mostly sad story. Also, there’s a little girl named Julia… or was it Fern? And there are some sheep and a parrot that are mostly in the background, providing a little dialogue or comedy when needed… though it may have been a sun bear and a goose… I get confused.

The One and Only Ivan is a wholly original story unlike any other. I liked it.