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chrisblocker

Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Currently reading

Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia, 1992-1995
Joe Sacco, Christopher Hitchens
Katalin Street
Magda Szabó
Life on Mars
Jennifer Brown
The Family Under the Bridge
Natalie Savage Carlson

My 2018 Reading Plan

The Tsar of Love and Techno: Stories - Anthony Marra Not Without Laughter - Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou The Bone People - Keri Hulme Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight - Margaret Lazarus Dean The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration - Isabel Wilkerson This Side of Brightness - Colum McCann The Grass is Singing - Doris Lessing Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman - Cathy Wilkerson The Sky Unwashed - Irene Zabytko Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath - Paul Ham

 

Every year, I like to set a few reading goals for myself: number of books, specific titles, and so forth. Because my whims change with the days and new books always catch my attention, I have yet to have one year where I complete my intended goals. So, I've decided that this year I'm going to keep it simple. I intend to read less, to slow down and really focus on and enjoy what I'm reading.

 

...But I love lists too much. And I cannot resist the urge to make a list of books I “will” complete this year. It's a practice I began in 2012—to identify ten books that will be read by the end of the year. Guess what? I've never read all ten in a year. I still have four holdouts from 2017, plus two others from farther back. So my only concrete goal this year is to complete my 2018 list in its entirety and to read the books from prior years. Other than that, my only goal is to enjoy what I'm reading. I'll set a reading challenge of so many books like I always do, but I'll keep it low so I don't become consumed with it.

 

So what will I be reading in 2018? These are the ten books that I am committing to. I think I'll be able to complete my challenge this year, assuming the world doesn't go up in smoke first. This year's list has more non-fiction than any prior list because I've had a desire to read more non-fiction lately. I mostly read fiction and I'd like to branch out some.

 

The Bone People cover

 

The Bone People by Keri Hulme

My interest in New Zealand and its literature goes back many years. I've made it a point to read more works by New Zealanders, but despite good intentions, I have avoided this Man Booker winner. I'm expecting good things from this one.

 

Flying Close to the Sun coverFlying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman by Cathy Wilkerson

In undergrad, I watched the documentary about The Weatherman Organization and was very intrigued. I told myself I'd learn more about them and would possibly write a novel focused on them. I've been saving these Weatherman memoirs until I began researching for that novel, but now I'm not sure I'll ever tackle that project. Project or no project, I've decided to stop putting it off.

 

The Grass Is Singing cover

 

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

I really want to like Doris Lessing, but my first and only experience with her so far (The Cleft) was so off-putting that I've avoided her for more than a decade. I never want to judge any author by one book, so I'm making a point to read her debut novel in 2018. I'm hoping for better results.

 

 

Hiroshima Nagasaki coverHiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath by Paul Ham

I have a strong interest in the WWII destruction of Japan, particularly the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I've read some of these historical accounts before and will likely come across much of the same information in this large volume, but it's time to brush up on the subject.

 

Leaving Orbit coverLeaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight by Margaret Lazarus Dean

Dean's previous work was a novel about a girl's obsession with spaceflight during the days surrounding the Challenger disaster. Her second book is this exploration of the rise and fall of NASA. I've had this one on the top of my to-read pile since its publication in 2015, but haven't made time for it.

 

Not Without LaughterNot Without Laughter by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes is one of the more notable authors to have resided in my part of the world. I've always had the best intentions of reading local authors, especially those who were pioneers and helped shape the way for others, but I've never read more than the occasional poem by Hughes.

 

The Sky Unwashed coverThe Sky Unwashed by Irene Zabytko

When I first started working at the library more than ten years ago, I saw this book on the shelf and was attracted to its sepia cover, its gorgeous title, and its intriguing description. It was one of the very first books to be added to my to-read list at my new job. Ten years later I still work at the library and I still haven't read this short novel about the Chernobyl accident.

 

 

The Tsar of Love and Techno coverThe Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

We loved A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, didn't we? Yet I, like many readers apparently, did not transition well to Marra's follow up two years later, this collection of short stories. Even though I absolutely loved his debut novel, I just wasn't interested in this volume. Adding it to my list will force my hand, I figure.

 

The Warmth of Other SunsThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

There's been so much praise heaped on this book. It's time I give this historical gem a try.

 

This Side of Brightness coverThis Side of Brightness by Colum McCann

Last year, I read and absolutely loved McCann's Letters to a Young Writer. I'd spent some time with the author previously, but it was this slim volume about writing that made a big fan out of me. I told myself I'd make it a point to return to the author as soon as possible. And I figured I might as well start with the novel that launched his career.

 

And my unfinished books from prior years:

The Counterfeiters by Andre Gide

The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies

Demons by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Mama Day by Gloria Naylor

Union Dues by John Sayles

Weeds by Edith Summers Kelley

 

Seeing all sixteen of these listed, I'm already feeling overwhelmed. I've learned the key to completing my list is to not put off the list to the middle of the year. I really need to be checking off one or two of these titles every month. Intention set.

 

While I'm making an already long post longer, here are some of the top titles, old and new, I hope to get around to in 2018: The Temple of the Dawn by Yukio Mishima, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton, Erasure by Percival Everett, The Road Through the Wall by Shirley Jackson, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro, Winter by Ali Smith, Parnucklian for Chocolate by B.H. James, 1996 by Gloria Naylor, Hot Pink by Adam Levin, and... I can keep going forever. See how I get myself in trouble?

 

Do you set reading goals for your year? Do you find it helpful to do so, or imposing? What do you look forward to reading in 2018?

 

Review: Reservoir 13

Reservoir 13: A Novel - Jon McGregor

Imagine you're going to a party. Maybe parties aren't your thing, but come along anyway. It's a social gathering, mostly just standing around, drink in hand, talking with one another. You're new to town. You know no one. The host grabs ahold of you and introduces you to the other guests. Most of the town is there. Your host, we'll just call him Jon, drags you to a group standing in the kitchen. “This is Jane,” he might say, “she's the vicar at our local church. And this is Su, she and her husband Andrew are expecting twins.” Jon will introduce you to each guest that's present. Some he'll spend a few minutes talking with, others he'll quickly introduce you to and move on. Some will talk about other residents who are missing from the party. At the end of the evening, you'll have been given the names of forty or more villagers and brief stories about each. How much will you remember the following day? What was it that Martin did for a profession? What had Mr. Wilson said? What do you remember?

If you're like me, you probably only remember two or three things from that party. I would likely recall one or two of the most interesting people. I might recall the story one of them told me. I might remember the name of an attractive face. And I'd remember the host. Outside of these things, I will remember none of the details. So when Jon calls the next evening and tells me about what happened between James and Liam, Jones, Miss Dale, whomever, I will have no idea who he's talking about.

That is the structure of Reservoir 13 and part of the problem for readers such as myself. Sure, there are those who go to a party and can recall eighty or ninety percent of what they've been told. They never forget a name or a face. Those people will probably have a much easier time with this story. Me, I was struggling chapter by chapter trying to remember anything about the person from the previous chapters.

Reservoir 13 is without a primary character. It's a story about a town, and I love that. But in each chapter, representing another year passed, we're only given a couple sentences or a few paragraphs about each character. I couldn't keep it straight. And so, while a few remained in my memory from chapter one, others may have not made an impact until I got to know them better around chapter seven or eight. Others never made an impact, and though they were important throughout the novel, by the book's final chapter I honestly had no idea who they were. This can obviously make for a very frustrating read.

Reservoir 13 is a beautiful depiction of a village and all that happens around it. Perhaps the only character of relevance to this story is the town itself. There's some really great writing throughout, but those looking for a thread of a story or of characters they can bond with will struggle to make it all the way through. I struggled through to the end, recognizing the intelligence and beauty of this story and I wish I could've loved it, but I merely appreciate it for the talent shown. In a matter of weeks, I'll have forgotten all but what I remember from that party the very first night. It's not the fault of the host or of the town. It's my own. But one cannot discount that there are many others such as myself at the party and amongst the readers.

Review: The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner is simply the most American foreign novel I've ever read. For those who aren't clear on this, that's not a good thing. We'll come back to this...

As a story, The Kite Runner starts a bit slow. I wasn't engaged as a reader until eighty to a hundred pages in. There was just considerable information to process and not much emotional weight to the story. The narrative jumped around quite a bit and it was difficult to follow. Then the tension began to rise. Amir, Hassan, and Baba became real. I was pulled into the narrative and I began to see how this story might actually warrant all the praise it has received. The characters were interesting and the plot was riveting.

For a chunk of this book somewhere in the middle, the story is quite good. There's the divisive heartrending story of the past that haunts our protagonist. His journey into adulthood, marriage, and immigration is insightful and honest. When the time comes for Amir to go back to Afghanistan, I expected the book to reach a satisfying conclusion, quietly observing Amir's past from his new position and providing Amir an opportunity to redeem himself for his past mistakes.

Then Khaled Hosseini did two things to crap all over any hopes I had for this book.

First, he found the cutest little ribbon he could, wrapped it around his story and tied it up so prettily. No, it doesn't end there. He found another cute ribbon. And he wrapped it around the story and the first bow. Then he found another. And another. There are no bloody kite strings in this novel. Those are the most ornate, gaudy ribbons the author could find because he wants you to see all of them. See this pretty ribbon here? Here's how I tie it all together. See this plot line here? Here's how I conveniently finish it off? Didn't see it? Well, let me explain it to you. There's redemption and there's soap opera drama needlessly orchestrated from page one. The Kite Runner is very much the second.

Second, and this is what really offends me, the intention of The Kite Runner is clear: to be a foreign novel that makes Americans happy that they're Americans. It justifies the superiority complex while convincing the reader that they're culturally aware. The western belief that Muslim nations are evil and that they need our salvation is abundant in the later half of this book. The Taliban is painted as a childish, hypocritical caricature with no need for sympathy. The only redeemable Muslim characters are those who reject any expression of faith and embrace western ideas and imagery. But it's all written by an Afghan, so it must be the way things are, right? Yes, The Kite Runner is a book that lets you feel cultured and entirely justified in bombing those bastards overseas.

I know many people love this book. I know that I've probably just stepped on many of their toes. They may think I'm calling them out as an “ignorant westerner.” I'm not. This book perpetuates these ideas, but falling for a good story while missing the underlying colonial notions can happen to the best of us, especially when the author is “one of them.” I do wish I'd read a book from Afghanistan that better represented the nation and its people. Hopefully, someday I'll get back around to it.

Review: Hurt People

Hurt People: A Novel - Cote Smith

Here's what works really well about Hurt People:
The child's perspective.
The narrative of Hurt People is told by an eight-year old boy. His view of the world is eye opening and arguably very accurate for a child. At times the author may get away from the voice to make the story clear for the reader, but I believe he does so sparingly and for good reason. For the most part, our narrator is a very average eight-year old:

But in this world, under these trees, I sat down and cried. Softly, as if I might waken the woods. I pulled my knees to my face and sobbed, louder this time, not caring who heard. When my eyes were spent, I lifted my head from my legs. The wet I left behind was a blob on my bony knee. I let my mind play the cloud game and tried to make a shape. Something that would cheer me up, replace my sea story. Something that would tell me to get on my feet, to keep moving. All I could think of, though, was the shape the chalk kid had drawn what seemed long ago. Before I learned the secrets of the Stranger. Before the kid and mom's apartment was robbed. Before Sandy and Rick, my dad, my mom, and everything else.



As I type this passage, I notice and question a couple details. Would this child use an astute phrase such as “waken the woods”? Maybe not, but it could easily be the kind of phrase that only a poet or a child could come up with. The other is “my eyes were spent.” This is a little harder for me to grasp. The overwhelming majority of eight year olds would not use “spent” to illustrate the end of weeping and it is my believe that the narrator of Hurt People would fall into the majority. And it's little things like this that pull me out of the otherwise flawlessly told paragraph.

Still, there's so much in this paragraph alone that I love. “The wet I left behind was a blob on my bony knee.” The wet, a blob... This is such a great sentence and totally believable. Then immediately, from a child who is sobbing uncontrollably, we get “I let my mind play the cloud game and tried to make a shape.” It's not unlike people to quickly let their logical mind take hold of a terrible situation and begin to make shapes out of nothing. It's even more indicative of a child. This detail is perfect and this story is filled with them.

Here's what doesn't work so well with Hurt People:
The adults. Now we're seeing everything through a child's lens, so that may play a role here. Even so, the actions of the adults seem grossly absurd. Honestly, these are the single worst parents I've ever read about who were not on trial or condemned for their poor parenting. These are parents who constantly put their children in danger and do not think twice about it. And they're incredibly dumb to boot. The list of offenses is far too long, but a few that come to mind include good old policeman dad abandoning the boys at night to go to the bar and responding to an emergency call of a prowler, leaving the kids in his cruiser while he investigates. Mom leaves the children completely unattended every day, lets her son run into an apartment building that could collapse at any moment, and is dating a man who verbally and physically abuses the children in front of her.

It's not just the parents who lack believability. Everything about the town seems exaggerated. The promise of a tornado sends this Kansas town into a frenzy. I've lived in Kansas all my life and I promise you, most people treat such storms as either routine or as an event to be viewed with awe, what I call "the double rainbow effect." Leavenworth itself is treated as a Podunk town, but no one ever acknowledges that it is a part of the Kansas City metropolitan area. Sure, it's on the very edge and at the time this novel is based there would've been a good fifteen miles separating it from the nearest place of interest, but you'd think these people had never seen a skyscraper or been anywhere with a crowd. I promise you most of Leavenworth probably makes a semi-regular journey to KC. Yet, it's as though the author wanted to convince you they were a thousand miles from civilization.

And this is where I want to go back to the perspective of a child. Overall, Hurt People seems lazy and sloppy. Exaggerations and characterizations are on every other page. Frankly, the story of a prison escapee and the appearance of the new friend, Chris, make no sense. It was enough to annoy and anger me as a reader. Half way through this story all the way through the end I was irritated by the absurdity. I finished the novel and slapped a generous three-star rating on it and wondered how I could approach this review. A little distance has convinced me that maybe—and I'm not entirely sold on this possibility—Smith's debut is better than I initially thought.

I still think there are mistakes in perspective and that the story could've been tighter and more logical while in the mind of an eight-year old narrator, but I have to give Smith the benefit of the doubt: how would an eight year old tell this story? Would his childhood fear during a tornado merge onto the faces of other residents? Would his lack of life experience topped by a prison escape cause him to feel isolated? Would he paint his parents as perfect even though they frankly should have lost custody of him? Did the rest of Leavenworth even know about his parents' poor choices or did they turn a blind eye to everything because the boys' father was a police officer? There's more to this story beneath the telling of this child and it's only by looking through the cracks that one cannot help but notice that a reader may begin to see the true story.

Hurt People is not a perfect book and it was certainly a difficult read in more than one way, but I'm beginning to see that some of the complaints leveled at the novel are probably the result of not getting into the mind of an eight year old narrator. Smith missed the marked himself occasionally, but I think he did much better than most of us could have and that is why most of us are missing the parts of this novel done right. I'm bumping this one up to four stars and am eager to see what perspective the author takes in his next novel.

Review: A Kind of Freedon

A Kind of Freedom: A Novel - Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

“The best time to start was yesterday...”

I believe that had I read Margaret Wilkerson Sexton's debut novel ten years ago—even five—I would've been ecstatic, in love. There's so much weight to this book, and with its finely drawn characters, A Kind of Freedom demands attention. It is a wonderful, multi-generational story. Each generation lives amongst devastation and beauty. Each generation gives voice to hope and resignation. And through the eyes of each generation, we see a city rise and fall.

Sexton's writing here reminds me most of Gloria Naylor's. A Kind of Freedom is an intense story of dreams deferred by discrimination and poverty. Sexton's vivid depiction addresses many social issues that together weave a tapestry of injustice. She delves into the psychology of this family and the city. Yet, like Naylor's stories, A Kind of Freedom does not lose sight of the story at the center of the novel. Add to this Sexton's stunning portrait of New Orleans; the setting may be considered an additional character.

“...the next best time is now.”

While I greatly enjoyed A Kind of Freedom, I didn't fall in love. And this is merely, or so I believe, because I hadn't read it sooner in life. The story has many qualities I love, but it doesn't surprise me, not does it capture my heart the same way other similar stories have. I think this may have most to do with characters who were not developed as fully as they could've been. Evelyn, Jackie, and T.C. are all great characters, but I know that I could've spent more time in the mind of each. That said, T.C. was nearly perfect and he was certainly the most unforgettable of the three. With the others, I felt more like an observer to their trials, but with T.C. I was there, inside.

A Kind of Freedom is a good novel that I think could've been made stronger with another hundred pages to flesh out some of these characters. New Orleans and T.C. are both very compelling, but there's something missing from the rest of the story that kept me distant. That something may be a generational connection (T.C. is my closest contemporary), but I think it has more to do with really delving into the soul of these characters. Keep in mind that I'm a very character-driven reader and that I place great emphasis on character development. As far as plot, A Kind of Freedom is a very tightly and neatly written story. Most readers looking for a captivating and insightful story will be greatly pleased with this one

Review: Home Fire

Home Fire: A Novel - Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire is one of those elusive novels that's difficult to review. The story is told in five parts, each from a different character's perspective, and though each part picks up where its predecessor left off, each change in narrative and style results in a distinctly different feel. It's almost as though one were reading five interconnected stories—though it doesn't feel like that in the slightest. See how confused I am already?

From the opening pages, I was very much invested in this story. Isma's trials at the airport and her perspective of her life at an American university were engaging. Even as her story shifted toward little more than a conservation between her and another character at a coffee shop, I was eager to see where this story was going. I was ready to go with Isma on her journey.

Then the story shifted and became Eamonn's, then Parvaiz's. There was absolutely nothing wrong with each shift and all put together the five narratives make a good story. It's just that some were more engaging than others. Some characters I wanted to be fleshed out more. Some—especially Isma (maybe Karamat)—deserved their very own novel. This is especially true since Isma dominates the first fifty-five pages and then drops back to be little more than a secondary character to the love and politics than envelop the remaining four. Home Fire deals heavily in the subjects of love—both romantic and familial—politics, and religion. That place in between these topics where all things get messy is where you find Home Fire.

Overall, Kamila Shamsie's latest is a stupendous novel and it's a shame that it did not make it on the Man Booker shortlist. It was one of my personal favorites from the longlist, it is both intelligently written and highly readable. The writing style is simple but effective. The story always moves forward. Yes, it is uneven. Also, some of the plot points lack a bit of believability at times, but I don't feel like the novel hinged on realism. I would've enjoyed the story more had it gone in a different direction or been handled a little differently, but I was not displeased at all. My interest in the author has been sparked and I hope to read more of her work soon.

Review: A People's History of the United States

A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present - Howard Zinn

In many ways, this is not my typical five-star review. The People's History of the United States is tedious, repetitive, and an overall slog to get through. Though so much of the information provided is wholly interesting, some of the Zinn's examples are merely empty fodder and these cause the already long book to slow. Zinn was anti-oppression, and this means that sometimes he seems pro-whatever-is-being-oppressed, though I don't think this is always the case. For instance, it's easy to surmise from the many examples that Zinn is pro-socialist, but I'm not entirely sure that's true. Certainly, he backed the socialist stance when it was the voice that was being oppressed. And certainly, of the major forms of government, Zinn likely felt the most affinity with socialism. But in later chapters as well as in the conclusion, it seems that Zinn acknowledges that socialism is also a broken system—a step forward, but not the solution. Additionally, Zinn's anti-oppression position means that he sometimes illustrates a part of history from an angle that obscures some bit of inconvenient truth. This is unfortunate, because it gives the naysayers cause to spit on this book and declare it “communist propaganda” (or whatever the taboo phrase of the day is). These moments are few and far between and majority of this book is quite historically accurate, in my layman's opinion.

The People's History of the United States was also difficult for me to get through because I've long studied this history and I already knew the more major events covered in this book. Perhaps many of those other narratives I've read owe their information to Zinn, but having come to this book later in my journey, I found much of the story to be old news. That's not to say Zinn doesn't provide considerable history I have not come across in my previous studies. In fact, what Zinn most convinced me of was how so many of these events that I thought were motivated by various reasons primarily (perhaps exclusively) came about because of money.

The reason The People's History of the United States deserves a five-star rating is because, though it's not an enjoyable read, it is such a immense labor of love and passion for the subject. Zinn put his heart and mind into every page of this book and it shows. Even so, I was tempted to slap four stars on this book and move on until I came to Zinn's afterword. Prior to this, Zinn had merely provided over six-hundred pages of dry facts without much commentary or call-to-action. Here, in these final pages, Zinn stirred my emotions. He took all the information he'd provided and agitated it within me and said, “now what are you going to do?” It was an effective challenge.

The People's History of the United States is the kind of book that is difficult to read straight through. Did I learn some things? Absolutely. But so much of what I learned has already sifted straight through my brain. This is the sort of book one who is passionate about the subject should own. It is the kind of book one should keep handy in case someone is eager to argue about the perfection of the state. It is the kind of book that should be picked up from time to time and serve as a reminder to the people of their history and the vicious circle that has been built up around them, keeping them caged for over five hundred years.

Review: Brass

Brass: A Novel - Xhenet Aliu

There's a strong possibility you haven't heard of Xhenet Aliu... yet. She published a little known collection four years ago, Domesticated Wild Things and Other Stories. Personally, I think it is one of the best, most well-rounded collections I've had the pleasure of reading (see my review here). Her stories were dark, yet hopeful, poetic, still simple, specific and universal—so much of what I love. So I was excited when I learned Aliu would soon publish her first novel, Brass.

Naturally, I was a little concerned if Aliu's style—so incredibly effective in short form—could be stretched out over three hundred pages. It does and it doesn't. There's a punch to Aliu's shorter stories that I looked forward to in Brass, but it never came. That's okay. Honestly, there aren't too many novels that have packed that punch, nor need to. Novels are a much more subtle form of writing and it takes an extremely dedicated and talented novelist to surprise a reader and to adequately manipulate their emotions over the length of a novel (Kazuo Ishiguro, I'm talking about you). In every other way, Brass is every bit as powerful as the stories in Aliu's collection. First and foremost, the language is simple, yet always somehow evokes higher emotions—excitement, dread, sympathy:

"...Isn't that what you want?"

I couldn't make my head move up and down in agreement, so I just rested it against his chest, listening to his heart in case it was giving anything away. It sounded like it was beating uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh, the droning pulse of a dirge, and that made me feel a little better. That dread was the same kind I felt the first time I saw Bashkim, the same kind I felt when I listened to the best minor-key ballads, and that inspired the kind of love that was easier to nurture than kudzu. It didn't even need light to grow.



For anyone who has read my reviews long enough, you know voice and character development are what matter most to me, as a reader. This is perhaps what I love most about Aliu's writing. She is adept at crafting a wonderful, memorable voice and in providing characters who are extremely realistic, yet never boring. The characters in Aliu's story are incredibly real. I felt as though I were prying into their private lives. Brass uses alternating viewpoints. The first is Elsie's. Hers is written in the first person and takes place during the 1980s. The second is Luljeta's, Elsie's daughter. Her story occurs in recent years and is written in the second person. I, like many readers, am not a big fan of second person narratives, but in this case it's done well and is only occasionally noticeable. What purpose does the second-person narration serve? I'm not sure. In a story where both mother and daughter live similar lives in like environments, it's difficult at time to keep their stories straight and these perspective do perhaps aid in differentiating the two. Also, I think what it does initially is to help the reader feel closer to Luljeta. Although her mother's story begins the novel and is vitally important, Brass is really Luljeta's story. As Elsie's story builds and becomes more interesting than Luljeta's in middle chapters, the reader has already grown close to Luljeta, so her mother's story does not surpass her own.

Brass possesses so much honesty—it's incredibly believable but that doesn't keep it from being interesting and beautiful. Aliu is a master of taking the everyday world and finding a story in its darkest most-well-lit places. She doesn't need to reshape or glamorize what she finds, she merely looks at it from a different perspective and is able to put it into words with great skill. Aliu is such a terrific writer and Brass is just the story that will introduce many new readers to her work.

Review: Fresh Complaint

Fresh Complaint: Stories - Jeffrey Eugenides

I have a complaint: Jeffrey Eugenides doesn't write enough.

Eugenides's first novel was published in 1993. Since then he's written two more novels and this, Fresh Complaint, his collection of short stories. There have been exactly nine years between each novel. So I was excited when, after reading his third novel in 2011, I read in an interview with Eugenides where he said he would not take the normal nine years to publish his next work (I tried to find that article, but was unable to do so). So it only took six years, but if this is the product of six years I am sorely disappointed and genuinely hope that it is not another nine years before the next novel.

That's not to say Fresh Complaint is a bad book. It isn't. There are some good stories in this collection. Also, there are some forgettable stories. The culmination of these creates just another “good” story collection. And being merely another “good” collection in an industry where there are many similar “good” collections means Fresh Complaint fails to stand out.

What's interesting about the stories in this collection is that they run the length of Eugenides' writing career, from 1988 to the present. I continually looked for growth or distinction between the stories from different eras, but what I discovered is that Eugenides is a consistent writer. His oldest works hold up to his newest. This is a huge compliment. All these are strong in character, language, and dialogue. He constructs such vivid and realistic stories. Strong, vivid, and realistic—these stories are not necessarily achingly beautiful, they do not transcend what we've come to expect from the short story. In fact, they're pretty average amongst the award-winning short story writers of the last century. Average isn't bad at all, but it's not great. Still,Fresh Complaint gave me a sampling of one of my favorite contemporary authors. Fingers are crossed that it's only three or four years until his next novel, but I'm not going to get my hopes up yet.

Personal favorites: “Fresh Complaint,” “Early Music,” and “Great Experiment.”

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.