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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

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Review: The Gospel in Brief: The Life of Jesus

The Gospel in Brief: The Life of Jesus - Leo Tolstoy, Dustin Condren

Most people who know more than the most cursory information about Leo Tolstoy know that he was a bit obsessed with religion. While Tolstoy is most famous for his epic novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, it was shorter explorations of religion that took up most of his time. Though Tolstoy had great affection for the teachings of Jesus, he had considerable disdain for the organized church itself and much of what Christianity had become.

In an attempt to reconcile his belief with his conscious, Tolstoy set out to rewrite the gospels, focusing entirely on the teachings of Jesus without all the miraculous distractions. These includes the virgin birth, the resurrection, and the very divinity of Jesus. Theologically, The Gospel in Brief is a success. Much of Tolstoy's gospel is probably more indicative of the historical fact. Certainly, it allows the reader to see the compassionate, wise teacher that has been hidden under superstition and dogma. But strip Jesus of his miracles, force awkward phrases into this mouth that explain how being “the Son of God” merely means that he is enlightened, and his life becomes one boring and tedious story. One should not have to struggle with sleep while reading the gospels.

Those interested in anarcho-pacifist Jesus or religious studies in general will likely find this book noteworthy. It's a wonderful study, but definitely not a story. The Gospel in Brief was Tolstoy's mission to give the left side of his brain a much needed rest.

Review: The Most Dangerous Place on Earth

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth: A Novel - Lindsey Lee Johnson

There is some really vivid and powerful writing on display in Lindsey Lee Johnson's The Most Dangerous Place on Earth. Passages unfold with layers of beautifully constructed sentences that left me in awe. The opening chapter that is the impetus for the entire story that follows—wow. Tristan Bloch's journey will stay with me for some time.

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is an unsettling tale. It rotates through the lives of half-a-dozen over-privileged high school students (and one somewhat out-of-place teacher), each with a unique take on life. In this way, it has a sort of Breakfast Club feel to it. Set in the modern age of cyber-bullying, it carries a much darker tone than such a description implies. Although the students' individual stories gel into one cohesive novel, they could easily stand alone.

Overall, I really liked the writing and the storyline, but I did struggle a bit with some of the characters and their actions. The most glaring example occurs during one of those “only in the movies” parties where everyone's drinking, making out, dancing on tables. The problem is, everyone is at this party. Everyone. Outside of small town America, I can't imagine this happening in the real world. Not every kid in high school is going to want to go to such a party and they're certainly not going to be invited or allowed in the door. So why was Dave there? Or Cally? Or Cally's friends? There were moments like this that distracted me, but when I was able to ignore the absurdity of such moments, I was pulled right back into the story.

In some ways, it seemed Johnson was horribly out of touch with the complete high school experience. And yet, in others, she seemed to understand it better than any of us ever could. She really gets into the minds of these adolescent characters. If she fails sometimes with the social constructs, she makes up for it in her understanding of the psychology. It is for these moments that The Most Dangerous Place on Earth elicits the highest praise.

Review: Stories of Your Life and Others

Stories of Your Life: And Others - Ted Chiang

Count me among the many who'd never heard of Ted Chiang before 2016 and who read Stories of Your Life and Others because of a little movie called Arrival. (Hey, at least I read the story before seeing the movie.) Before I get into my thoughts on the book, I must say, “Well, done moviemakers. You did a fine job adapting what must have been a tough story to adapt.”

Stories of Your Life and Others is such a mixed collection. All the stories in here are very cerebral. At times, it feels more like a science journal than a work of fiction. And this is both the collection's BOOM and its whimper. While the analytical approach brought validity and uniqueness to some of the stories, especially the titular story, it made others feel dry and inaccessible. Though I strongly enjoyed “The Story of Your Life,” I struggled with many of the other stories and was on the verge of giving up. I'm glad I didn't as the second most enjoyable story in this collection was the last, "Liking What You See: A Documentary".

Like all story collections I've ever read, Stories of Your Life and Others is a mixed bag, but when Chiang pulls together a fresh story and the right voice, he writes a killer story. Those looking for more science in their science fiction should be pleased with this author.

Review: The Complete Chronicles of Narnia

The Complete Chronicles of Narnia (text only) by C. S. Lewis,P. Baynes - C.S. Lewis

Before I had children, I had this notion that I would read The Chronicles of Narnia to them one day. I don't know why exactly. I had no personal attachment to the series. A librarian read the first chapter of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe to our second grade class. Later, in the sixth grade, our class read a selection of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Because of my absurdly long “rat tail,” I was nicknamed Reepicheep, a moniker it took more than a decade to escape despite the fact my hair was cut the following year. I saw the recent rash of Narnia films. Though I appreciated a great many Narnian moments, none of these life events really inspired a great fondness for the story. So why I thought I needed to read these stories to my children, I have no idea. It was just something I wanted to do.

After my first son was born, I bought the hefty and beautiful The Complete Chronicles of Narnia with full color illustrations and maps. It was a gorgeous volume and it looked great on my shelf where it sat for the next ten years. Timing was everything. I was only reading the volume once, so I had to wait until my youngest was old enough to grasp the story and hopefully remember it years later, and for my eldests to not find the juvenile tale boring. Three years ago, as the Christmas season was upon us, I began reading The Magician's Nephew. We made it through the first couple tales rather quickly (given our busy and often conflicting schedules), but then it started to become a chore to read. Slowly we pushed through A Horse and His Boy and Prince Caspian and then, feeling over the hump, we picked up steam. Altogether, it took three years and four months to make it through these seven stories. Here are a few thoughts on each.

The Magician's Nephew - This is easily one of the best stories in the series. It lacks the strong connection to the rest of the series as it was meant to be a prequel, an explanation of the origins of Narnia. Because of this, however, it is really the only story here that can stand on its own. It's a simple story with a complete cycle, but it still holds all the magic that makes Narnia special.

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe - This is the story everyone familiar with Narnia knows and for good reason. It was the first glimpse at the characters and into the world that would become a classic. There are so many wonderfully drawn scenes here, but the one that always stands out to me is the light post in the snowy forest. I love this image. This, to me, is the image of Narnia.

A Horse and His Boy - Uggghh. Terrible. After writing the first four books in the Narnia series, C.S. Lewis went back and filled in the time between his original two stories with this gem. Is there anyone who's happy about this? Not only does the story seem alien to the Narnian story, it is horribly offensive with its blatantly obvious “Jesus is good, Allah is bad” routine. He could've at least tried to mask his obvious disdain.

Prince Caspian - Chapters upon chapters of backstory. Not much really happens here except a huge battle at the end. Now if you've watched the 2008 film, you may disagree. That's because they took the skeleton of this book, added considerable flesh to it, and actually made it into a decent story. While not the worst story in the series, it is the most disappointing.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - ...Dawn Treader is really the last good moment of this series. Even though the scope is limited and out of place to the Narnia the reader has come to expect, it has enough excitement and character building to sustain itself. The final moments in this novel really should have been the conclusion to the series. There are moments sprinkled throughout the following two books that are strong, but overall they lack to bring this series to a satisfying conclusion.

The Silver Chair - A decent story with some wonderful moments, but overall the action and story were a little dry. There's a darkness to The Silver Chair (much of the story takes place underground), that makes the magic seem less impressive and certainly less breathtaking.

The Last Battle - And it all ends here. Aslan is mad with the world. The battle between Christian and Muslim comes to a fart of a battle. Girls who are interested in makeup are not invited to the after world. And it all comes to a fiery end. It seems C.S. Lewis may have intended an epic ending, but it felt more like one big “piss off” to me.

Overall, this is how I'd rank the stories:
The Good (4 Stars)
The Magician's Nephew
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

The Mediocre (3 Stars)
The Silver Chair

The Bad (2 Stars)
The Final Battle
Prince Caspian

And The Horribly Ugly (1 Star)
A Horse and His Boy

Review: A Book of American Martyrs

A Book of American Martyrs - Joyce Carol Oates

Fact: There are some people in the world who make their ideology into a crusade. They believe they are right, even if they're presented with information that they are wrong. They stop at nothing to force their way of life onto others. They will resort to extreme measures if necessary.

Fiction: Everyone who shares that same belief or ideology also shares in the crusade. They all believe they are always right no matter the evidence against them. Everyone of a particular ideology charges ahead in the quest to convert the world to their way of thinking.

Joyce Carol Oates presents this “fiction” as a fact in her most recent novel, A Book of American Martyrs and it's troubling. The promise to present both sides of the abortion debate with empathy and an unbiased perspective is complete rot. On one side of the debate we have Augustus Voorhees, an abortion provider who is a community leader and a loving family man who is brilliant and well-spoken, a man who provides free abortions to women who cannot pay and does so because he is truly kind-hearted. Then there's Luther Dunphy. Dunphy is a Christian man who believes God is telling him to murder abortion doctors. Dunphy is ignorant. Dunphy is a common man who contributes nothing to society. Dunphy is a hypocrite who cheats on his wife and abuses his children. The Dunphys are against radio, television, movies, sex education, contraception, vaccinations, Tampax, alcohol, carbonated beverages, chewing gum, sugar, sugar substitutes, games like Monopoly, and a slew of other things. (No, I'm not making any of this up.) And all that is fine. There are men out there like Voorhees and there are men out there like Dunphy. The fact is, there are some people in the world who make their ideology into a crusade.

The problem comes in the blanketing stereotype of everyone. Every single pro-choice character is intelligent and wonderful, a model citizen. Every single pro-life character is a hypocritical and ignorant extremist. This is fiction. How is it that we open-minded individuals who have opposed these kind of blanketing statements now embrace them? Merely because the shoe is on the other foot? Come on, I expect more of us. If this book were making such statements about a marginalized group we've become accustomed to defending, we'd be up in arms about it. We'd call the author a bigot and demand a boycott. But simply because the group she attacks “deserves it,” we turn away and smile indignantly. I, for one, choose not to smile.

For the most part, A Book of American Martyrs fails for this very reason. It is fiction with an agenda. And it's not even masked in the slightest.

Luckily, the book gets away from Luther Dunphy and Augustus Voorhees. It becomes a novel about their children. And fortunately, for the sake of this story, Naomi and D.D. are much more rounded characters than their parents. They do not blindly follow the path that has been made for them. It's a much better and balanced novel in the last couple hundred pages, but that does not diminish the hatred of the first several hundred. The whole novel is well written and very Oatesian in all ways, but in the end, propaganda is propaganda, no matter how beautifully it is dressed.

This novel made me angry, but that can be a good thing: we need to talk about this. What worries me however is the direction we're going. Hatred and prejudice are wrong regardless of the recipient. Let's not lose sight of the truth.

Review: Why I Wake Early

Why I Wake Early: New Poems - Mary Oliver

I've heard a great number of Mary Oliver's poems throughout my years in creative writing programs. I have never heard one I didn't not love. I was enthusiastic to finally read a complete volume of her work and I picked Why I Wake Early for no reason whatsoever. It was just the first to grab my attention.

I didn't love this collection the way I'd hope I would. There are several possible reasons for this. Perhaps this isn't Oliver's best collection. Maybe I just wasn't in the right mood. Or maybe Oliver's work is best when read aloud. There were many great moments in Why I Wake Early, but there were also several times when I felt the imagery was cloying. At times I felt like I was reading a collection of Ruth Bell Graham, a poet who wrote some beautiful and inspiring poems, but who isn't particularly known for her innovative verse. And so I feel like I missed something. I blame myself. Nevertheless, Oliver's poetry was beautiful and certainly full of skill. I just didn't connect fully. Because I loved everything I'd heard before this and because I'm sure it was all my fault I didn't relate, I'm compromising on my rating and promising that I'll give Oliver another try someday in the near future.

Review: The Strays

The Strays - Emily Bitto

This is why I hate getting behind on reviews. On one hand, a little time to reflect on a book is great for processing. On the other, too much time is simply too much. It's been more than six weeks since I finished Emily Bitto's The Strays, and now I'm struggling to remember what I liked and didn't like. I guess what remains in my mind is what was most impactful, whether if provides a full assessment or not. So what do I remember...

I remember that I loved the atmosphere. There was a quaint tension underlying the entire story. It was a place where I as a reader wanted to physically go to, and yet I couldn't wait to leave. Something was wrong, yet I couldn't help but enjoy the stay. It reminded me of Ian McEwan's Atonement. In the first part of McEwan's novel, there is a celestial quality to the Tallis house and the grounds surrounding it that reminded me of innocence; yet underneath it all was this horrible feeling of dread. It was an intriguing place to find oneself. That same feeling populates The Strays in its entirety.

I remember that I didn't quite understand the relationship Lily had with her family. Did they really care so little that they would let their only child live completely apart from them? Was she so bored with her family that she so easily forgot about them? It was actually jarring when Lily's parents made an appearance: oh yes, she has a family, I almost forgot.

I remember anticipating the ending with great zeal. It was obvious that The Strays was building up to something big. The ominous present-day reflections, the increasing tension underlying the slowly building story, these contributed to several nights of going to bed long after my bedtime. This is a wonderful quality to have in a novel, but it can lead to a bit letdown. And despite the enjoyment I had reading The Strays, I did feel that the “big reveal” was anything but big. I remember the letdown, but I also remember the wonderful ride getting to the top.

That, for what it is worth, is what I remember about The Strays.

Review: Always Happy Hour

Always Happy Hour: Stories - Mary Miller

Mary Miller offers a brutal and honest look at one breed of contemporary young women in her collection, Always Happy Hour. With stark consideration, Miller pulls the veil back from these seemingly rough women and shows us the pain beneath the surface. These are stories that do not shy away from “bad behavior,” nor from feelings. There is a rawness to them that leaves the reader with the feeling of an intellectual rug burn: it hurts, but you can't help but admire it.

Each story shows a slice of a woman's life, a woman dependent on some relationship, and the seemingly bad choices she makes. There was maybe one exception, but for the most part these stories followed the same thread. Halfway through the collection, the expectation is established and the formula becomes somewhat trite. Even the self-deprecating thoughts of each protagonist were horribly similar. Contained in 256 pages, it works, though readers who balk at hints of depravity will likely cease reading before reaching the end.

Here's the thing about Always Happy Hour: the lack of variety may go on a bit too long, but it's largely a success. Yes, all the lead characters share a similarity from story to story. Yes, there is an obvious theme at play here. And as I was reading, I was reminded of Junot Díaz. It's clear that Díaz is going to have a hell of a time getting away from Yunior or any character that resembles him. If he ever does, I suspect critics will tear the work apart. Díaz has typecast himself because he had a great character and a wonderful theme and he was excited to stay in that world. Miller's protagonists remind me considerably of Yunior: they're crass, their actions can be repulsive, and yet you see their humanity and feel something for them. Many readers assume Yunior is a reflection of Díaz and it seems, from Díaz's interviews and appearances, that the two truly share little. Whether Miller is like or not like the characters of Always Happy Hour doesn't matter, but what might matter is how her readers view her. It's evident in the talent shown here that Miller is very close to these characters, but I can see how that might lead to similar results as Díaz has experienced with Yunior. Of course that means there may be a Pulitzer in the future for Miller, but I hope it's not at the risk of her boxing herself in first.

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.

Sincerely,
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.