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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Currently reading

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

Review: The Sirens of Titan

The Sirens Of Titan - Kurt Vonnegut

I was one of those high school kids with zero direction in life. I picked classes based on factors such as likability of teacher, likelihood of cute girls in the class, and the way the class name sounded in my ear. This is how I ended up in a Contemporary Literature class my senior year. I was not yet a passionate reader—that would come years later—but I liked the teacher and figured it would be an easy A. (I don't recall, however, if there were any cute girls in the class.)

Contemporary Lit was where I first was introduced to Vonnegut. (We also read Kerouac, KosiƄski, maybe some others.) I wasn't impressed with any of them: I thought they were all a bunch of irrelevant weirdos who were anything but contemporary. The Vonnegut was of course Slaughterhouse-Five, a novel I was surprised to find had nothing to do with mass slayings by a deranged faceless killer. Instead there was a meandering plot and aliens described as looking like toilet plungers. I guffawed at the stupidity. For years, I'd tell people who hadn't read the book about the Tralfamadorians. But here's the thing about Slaughterhouse-Five: it stuck with me. I remember more about that novel than I do some novels I read three weeks ago. And so it goes.

Eventually I became a all-caps, italicized READER; I finally read that one work that convinced me the world of stories was a world I wanted to live in. And once I entered that world, the name of Vonnegut would pop up often: writer's workshops and Internet searches; book recommendations and some of my favorite hip-hop songs. Over and over, I found like-minded people loved Vonnegut, so I thought maybe I should too.

It has now been more than twenty years since I was first introduced to Vonnegut. Despite my intentions to explore the author in the last decade, I have failed until now. Every time I picked up any Vonnegut novel, I would find myself distracted with something shinier or more promising. I finally decided I'd read The Sirens of Titan because I have a fascination with Saturn's moon and because Vonnegut himself liked the novel (when grading his works years later, Vonnegut offered an 'A' to his sophomore novel: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palm_Su... ). Even then, it was some years before I finally read the damn book. But here I am, finally, at my destination.

Malachi Constant is also a man without direction. In a novel which promises to send the rich astronaut to Titan, he first makes prolonged stops to Mars, Mercury, and back to Earth. Along the way he loses his memory, loses his hope, and loses himself. I feel I can relate in some ways with Malachi Constant.

As with all classic novels of spaceflight, The Sirens of Titan is a horribly dated book. Unfortunately, it is more out of touch with its misogynist and prejudiced treatment of its characters than with the technology involved. The main female character—now that I think about it, she may have been the only female character—is reduced to serve as chattel, nameless for for too long. It doesn't feel so out-of-place in a science-fiction novel published in the 1950s, but it does sixty years later.

Let's just sidestep that issue and look at the book as a whole, shall we? Vonnegut doesn't give justice to any of his characters really. They're all rather shrewd and built on stereotypes, but it matters little as they're devoid of dimensions. Though this is only my second Vonnegut, I'm already beginning to see that characters and language take a back seat to plot, but that even plot is secondary to ingenuity. Vonnegut was a clever author. Vonnegut strikes me as a more modern and less showy Mark Twain: of course Twain largely wrote about history and his own world; whereas Vonnegut wrote about future and worlds other than his own. Vonnegut weaved wit with seemingly little effort and I think this is was makes his stories so likable. Though there are clever remarks and situations throughout The Sirens of Titan, the author did not jump in after every passage to say, “Did you see what I did there?” He trusted the reader to figure it out, or perhaps he figured if the reader didn't catch his humor, it wasn't worth his effort to explain it.

I walk away from The Sirens of Titan with similar, but more mature feelings as I did with Slaughterhouse-Five twenty years ago. I really wasn't that impressed. As a reader whose first love is characters and their development, I found The Sirens of Titan to be greatly lacking. While reading the novel, I was conscious of the fact that I found the story to be ridiculous if not outright cheesy. Yet, I continued to read with great interest. And, once again, here I am weeks later, remembering details of Constant's journey that I would've struggled to recall from parallel journeys written by other authors. So, I'm still not sure what I think about Vonnegut. I sort of liked this adventure. I sort of wondered what the hype was about. But I would give him another try. It could easily be another twenty years, but what is time in the world of Vonnegut?

Review: Tar Baby

Tar Baby - Toni Morrison

Let me start by saying, that's not at all what I expected. Yes, the quality of the writing was all Toni Morrison, but of the six novels of hers I have now read, this had the most contemporary of settings. I'd hate to say I had typecast Morrison as a historical novelist, but... I typecast Morrison as a historical novelist. So it took me a little while to get into the rhythm of Tar Baby. Even though I'd read the blurb and knew the setting was at least semi-contemporary, I couldn't shake the mention of hippies and Kotex in the opening chapter. My mind wanted to take this familiar tone of Morrison and plant it in more familiar ground.

Somewhere along the way, much too late I admit, it finally clicked—the rhythm felt right—and I became engaged in the story. I loved the characters and how they were placed on the stage. Valerian in the role of the powerful man who's indifferent to the wants of others, toying with hearts and relationships based on whims. Jadine, the young light-skinned black woman who is seen as a sellout by others—she doesn't act the way she “ought to”—but also is one of the few characters who seems to know who she is. The servants, Ondine and Sydney, Jadine's aunt and uncle, who walk a line between maintaining their strong voices and keeping their jobs. Margaret, Valerian's wife, a white woman who believes herself to be a friend of her black servants merely because she's earned the right by being “civil” with them. And Son, the stranger who arrives and throws all their pretentious role playing into disarray. He is a resilient, strong-willed man who may give one fuck, but never two.

Once it clicked, I enjoyed the story and the direction it was going. Everyone had something they wanted, yet it was often their own self in the way. The longer everyone struggled with themselves, the more the tension with one another built. Midway, the atmosphere is quite explosive. And I most certainly loved the language, a talent Morrison always has on display even when the characters or story don't follow. Morrison is a wordsmith, a weaver of phrases, a poet masquerading as a novelist.

Something about the conclusion just didn't work for me, though. Specifically, I'm talking about from the point of Jadine's return (Chapter 10) and on. I found my interests waning. Personally, I don't think it's where I would've taken the story. And somehow, to me, it didn't feel right. I won't go into detail, but I'll just say that despite the wonderfully written prose, I was underwhelmed with the direction of the story in these last thirty pages.

While I've read just over half of Morrison's complete catalog of novels, I stand by my previous assessment of the quality of Morrison's novels pre-Nobel and post-Nobel. While Tar Baby has been my least favorite of the pre-Nobel works, I do like it considerably better than those I've read published after 1993. I'm sure there will be an exception eventually and I'll be outed as the not-so-know-it-all pretentious literary snob that I am, but so far I really do like her earlier works better. With that in mind, Song of Solomon is next, and with that I'll have completed every novel Morrison published in her first twenty years of writing.

Postscript: What was with the phrase “blue-if-it's-a-boy blue”? Why was it repeated so many times? It grew tiresome and I didn't see that it added any significant meaning to the story to be repeated as often as it was. Anyone have any insight on this phrase or know if it holds extra significance I might have missed?

Review: Mother-Ghosts

Mother-Ghosts - Leah Sewell

Leah Sewell's Mother-Ghosts is a superbly crafted collection with emotional intensity. Each poem builds on an interconnected duality, two opposing thoughts bridged by a thread (perhaps a beam). These are poems about the lives we lead—the daily sights and sounds, the roles we play and are sometimes excluded from. They're full of heart and unease.

Throughout this collection, Sewell captures the world in such vivid detail. She alternates effectively between the concrete and the abstract, never getting lost in one or the other. Personally, these are my favorite kind of poets, those who are intelligent, insightful, and witty with their words, but who use those words largely as a way to add tone to the world we inhabit, those who add perspective to our seemingly one-dimensional relationships.

In “I Have Decided,” the poet discusses the uses of her two hands. One holds her children. She holds it high, lifting them above the crowds, giving them breadth to grow into the space. The other hand serves many purposes: clearing the path, providing relief to her sweat-drenched brow, welcoming the hand of another. As I turned the final page in this book, I imagined that each poem in this collection could easily fit in one hand or another, separated by outstretched arms, bridged only by the poet. This is what I mean by an interconnected duality. I see it throughout this collection: two hands, feverishly trying to out write the other, one mind behind them both, perhaps hoping that slyly she can eventually bring those hands together without anyone noticing. I may be way off, but that's the image that stuck with me after I finished Mother-Ghosts and I rather like it.

Review: The Rehearsal

The Rehearsal: A Novel (Reagan Arthur Books) - Eleanor Catton

Eleanor Catton's debut novel is a brilliant exploration of the arts, sexuality, and, most significantly, the line that separates truth from fiction. Written as her Master's thesis, The Rehearsal shows the natural talent of Catton, who writes as intelligently and maturely here as she did in her prize-winning follow-up, The Luminaries. While Catton's work is far from the most readable of young authors today, it's undoubtedly some of the most intelligent and finely woven fiction I have ever seen. Each word is chosen with such foresight and precision that it's a wonder to me how she produces novels as fast as she does (were I capable of producing a work such as The Luminaries, I imagine it would take a lifetime.)

Set in an arts school following a scandal—a teacher's affair with an underage student—The Rehearsal may sound like your average morality play or Lifetime movie. It's far from it. At times, with its ambiguously drawn scenes and dramatic play of various relationships, I was reminded of a tamer David Lynch. And at times, especially as I was pulled into the story of the drama school, I was reminded of the darkness and mindfuckery of 2010's Black Swan. Make no mistake, however, Catton's creation is all her own.

As The Rehearsal opens, it may be hard to follow as the dialogue is horribly pretentious, but once the reader realizes that some of the story (and in ways, all of it?) is acting, one may assume that this staged speech was the author's intent. Thus a big foray into false memory, lies, and truth unveils itself. It's all so expertly crafted with little clues here and there, sparks of witty dialogue that highlight the play within a play (and “all the world's a stage”). It's never clear—at least it wasn't to me—when you're reading the “truth” and when you're reading the “reenactment” of the “truth.” One can make assumptions such as that the truth opens the novel and everything that follows is a reinterpretation; or that all is fabrication that leads to the truth in the end; or that those scenes with the most pretentious dialogue are clearly staged and everything else is reality. But in the end, they're all assumptions. Only the author possibly knows the truth. For me, that's okay. From my many years of reviewing books, however, I've noticed that there are many readers who H A T E such ambiguity. I recall now another similar novel I loved that also blurred the lines without ever directly revealing the real truth: Heidi Julavits's The Uses of Enchantment. And guess how many one and two star ratings that novel has.

The Rehearsal is so multi-layered that it is on one hand confusing, on the other, brilliant. It's not the sort of novel that a reader should expect answers from; it's a novel that intends to confuse you and blow your mind. Despite its seemingly “light” plot synopsis, The Rehearsal is the foundation on which Catton is building her genius.

Catton's third novel, Birnam Wood, is scheduled to be published later this year: https://www.victoria.ac.nz/news/2017/...

Review: America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction

America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction - Jackson J. Benson, Susan Shillinglaw, John Steinbeck

America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction is two different books. One is Steinbeck's final book, a collection of essays published in 1966 entitled America and Americans. In this slender volume, Steinbeck's thoughts on the state of America were originally paired with photographs by acclaimed photographers such as Ansel Adams, Gordon Parks, and Alfred Eisenstaedt (these photos do not accompany later editions).

The other book here is the Selected Nonfiction. Many people are unaware that throughout Steinbeck's career, the author was a prolific writer of short pieces of nonfiction. He published several hundred essays on a wide variety of topics. America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction includes fifty four of these essays.

Together, all these various pieces feel disjointed. Part of the problem was Steinbeck himself. Despite persistent views that Steinbeck was this or was that, he was an individual who chose not to become any one thing. He did not subscribe to a particular ideology and all that came with it. So, while Steinbeck may have been extremely far left leaning in some areas, he was very conservative in others. While he may have been very cultured, he was also very domestic. While he could be secular, he was also religious. Steinbeck was no one particular thing. As such, he succeeded in being offensive to a very large percentage of the populace. The same man who complains about the evil capitalism of the American corporation praises the American military in Korea and Vietnam for being above reproach. From one essay to the next, the result can be dizzying.

Those who've read Steinbeck extensively as I have will recognize many of the pieces. Selections from some of Steinbeck's published books such as The Harvest GypsiesA Russian JournalOnce There Was a War, and The Log from the Sea of Cortez are present. Also here are a relatively small selection of those pieces Steinbeck published in various magazines from the 1930s through the 1960s.

There's nothing spectacular here, though there are moments here and there when Steinbeck shines. Particularly, I think of his chapter in America and Americans called “Created Equal” where he addressed the plight of the descendants of African slavery in a rather open-minded and forward-thinking way for a white man of his era. There's also nothing too surprising here, though, as I implied earlier, some of Steinbeck's views are jarring.

America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction is a Steinbeck book for the Steinbeck die hard. Casual readers of Steinbeck will likely grow bored of the book before reaching the end. Myself, I found some selections fascinating, some tedious, but most were little more than clever observations by an astute mind.

Review: The Sobbing School

The Sobbing School (National Poetry Series) - Joshua M. Bennett, Eugene Gloria

Joshua Bennett is a very intelligent and witty poet. His observations and metaphors are arresting and spot on. His perspective and the subject of many of these poems make him extremely relevant. I recognize the intelligence of these poems.

But these are the kind of poems that make you say, “Hmmmm.” These are poems that send you to Google to conduct research that somehow spirals out of control. These are not bad things, but I personally prefer poems that make me look inside myself, poems that make me ask the deeper questions than any search engine can provide answers to.

Once or twice I was moved while reading The Sobbing School, but mostly I thought, “nice play on words/ideas/etc.” My reaction reminds me of my views on hip-hop, which is relevant as several of the poems in this collection deal with hip-hop culture. I've heard it said that some of the greatest lyricist in hip-hop are those that have the cleverest and most inventive lyrics. MF Doom is one rapper that is often mentioned as one of the greats. Doom is clever, but he has nothing to say. His style is cartoonish and follows no logic. Now, I'm not trying to draw a direct parallel between Bennett and MF Doom, because, frankly, Bennett is clearly reaching for a space in between, where wit and relevance meet. Unfortunately, my mind was so tied up with the logic that I was not in the page emotionally. For better or worse, feeling is what I am looking for in hip-hop and in poetry.

Favorite poem in this collection: “Anthropophobia.” That's one I felt.

Review: Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng's sophomore effort, Little Fires Everywhere, is destined to be one of the hottest books in 2017. Great characters and an evenly paced plot come together in a novel that is sure to impress fans of the author and newcomers alike (maybe even Joyce Carol Oates herself). With its excellent pacing and riveting storyline, it is a quick read; with the many thought-provoking topics it addresses, it will be a leading selection for many book clubs; it's intelligent, it's commercial. Bam, and just like that, a literary star is made.

In many ways, Little Fires Everywhere has much in common with its predecessor. As with Everything I Never Told You, Ng's latest effort is a heartfelt, intelligently orchestrated story about the lack of understanding and empathy within a family. The novel is peopled with characters who are both beautiful and imperfect. And while I strongly believe that Little Fires Everywhere will be a larger success and a much better received book, I personally do not feel that it surpasses the gorgeously subtle brilliance of Everything....

Little Fires Everywhere succeeds unequivocally by most standards because of its formulaic plot. Naturally, this will also be the reason some readers feel the story to be disingenuous. Every turn of events relies on another that must be orchestrated perfectly. The results are the same again and again, a cascade of well-placed plot points that make the story one-hundred percent exciting, but also difficult to swallow. Yet this plotting is exactly what raises what would otherwise be academic reading to the ranks of a commercial success. Ng is an intelligent author with a strong grasp of language and of the craft, but she will not bore her readers. Those hoping for a more subtle telling will be disappointed by the obvious authorial manipulation, but it is this interference that frames an utterly unforgettable and engaging story where not one word is wasted.

While Everything... convinced me and moved me, Little Fires Everywhere pulled me in completely. It is a story I will not soon forget. Neither will you: I can almost guarantee you'll be hearing much about it in the coming months.

Review: So Much Blue

So Much Blue: A Novel - Percival Everett

From the opening pages, Percival Everett's So Much Blue is very much the cliché you hope it will not be. The artist, past the peak in his life and career, putting his all into one last great work. He wonders if it is his masterpiece, hoping no one ever lays eyes on it. The artist, reflecting back on his life, in particular, the affair he had in Paris with a young artist half his age. Of course the artist drinks far too much. Even the book acknowledges the clichés. As I read that first day, maybe two, I was distracted, wondering what I'd read after I finished (or gave up on) this dead, dead horse.

At some point, I began to tolerate the cliché. And then it seemed as if it became nothing more than a backdrop to an increasingly riveting story. Tied in with the present and the affair of ten years ago is a third period, the earliest, about the artist's trip to El Salvador during a time the country was descending into chaos. As the three periods grow more enmeshed, the story as a whole begins to coalesce. It never escapes the cliché completely, but it molds it and crafts a tale that somehow makes the banal elements work to its advantage. In the end, this novel questions the elusiveness of defining trust, love, and sacrifice, an undertaking as illusory as defining various gradients of color.

While I'd heard of Everett years ago, this is my first actual outing with the author. I've heard him described as one of the most underrated authors at present. Although I cannot attest to such an assertion based on one novel, I certainly see the possibility of such a truth. So Much Blue shows significant brilliance in craft and thought. I never fully escaped the constrictions of the cliché and this is the only reason I finally settled on four out of five stars; however, know that this is a very strong four star rating and I very much look forward to reading more from this author.

Review: All the Living

All the Living: A Novel - C. E. Morgan

Last year I had the great pleasure of reading C.E. Morgan's The Sport of Kings, an epic family saga that centers on horse racing. The Sport of Kings was my favorite read in 2016. It was so rich in language, character, and story. Once I finished it, I was eager to read Morgan's debut novel, a book that had been sitting on my bookshelf, largely unnoticed, for years.

At first appearance, All the Living is definitely a different sort of novel than The Sport of Kings. While The Sport... was a mammoth volume in weight and appearance, All the Living is a tiny thing, easily read in under six hours. The scope is much smaller, as well. While Morgan's second novel fills in backstory and spends considerable time with entire generations, All the Living jumps right in and most of the novel focuses on the couple, Aloma and Orren. Keeping that in mind, All the Living didn't have the punch that its successor had, but it had no problems standing on its own.

In such a small space, Morgan succeeds in forming a story that is full and enclosed in rich language. Despite the constraints, the story never feels rushed, neither does it feel incomplete or plain. I was surprised by how easily I was swept up into this tale with so little movement. Where the novel lacks, however, is in characters. These are great characters, but they're not as developed as I'd have liked them to have been. I don't really feel like I particularly understand either Orren or Aloma. When they make drastic choices, I'm not convinced that there actions are believable because I really do not understand the character. This is especially true with Aloma, a character that is extremely interesting, but not fully rounded. I'd have liked more time to get to know her and understand what she'd been through before page 1.

All the Living captures a distinct rhythm that was also present in Morgan's second novel. She builds worlds that you can see and feel, but also hear. Any well written book can transport the reader to another place, but with C.E. Morgan, it feels a little more vivid, as though maybe you'd actually been there. I look forward to visiting the next place she takes me.

Review: All the Pretty Horses

All the Pretty Horses - Cormac McCarthy

I am not what you would call the average Cormac McCarthy reader. Yes, I may fit the stereotype—white male with a beard in his thirties—but I defy most stereotypes and hope that someday I may be the poster child for “stereotypes be damned.” (It seems out of place to use quotes in a review of a McCarthy book, doesn't it?) Historically, grisly, romanticized westerns do little for me.

Like everyone else, I've read The Road. That was more than a decade ago and I thought, “eh, it's okay.” It was the first McCarthy I'd read and while I was open to the idea of returning to the author, he wasn't on the top of my list. Two weeks ago, I had no plans of returning to McCarthy anytime soon. I have a long list of books I really want to read, and between those and whatever randomly tempts me on the bookshelf, I have no time for outliers. But a strange thing happened: I wasn't in the mood for any of the books on my list. Nothing seemed right. I experienced something rare: I had no idea what I wanted to read. I spent more than an hour trying to decide what was next. I was tempted to just take a day or two away from reading. Then, as though some conscious entity grew tired of my fit, I picked up All the Pretty Horses and started reading. Divine intervention? Subconscious desire? Likely, I just wanted to surprise myself.

And was I surprised. Within an hour, I found that I was enjoying the story. Thoroughly. And for those who know me and my likes, this may be surprising. I'm an open-minded individual and will try things outside of my comfort zone, but there are some things that have burned me so many times that I expect to be displeased. A book that promises to be filled with horses and gunfights is prone to disappoint.All the Pretty Horses exceeded all my baseless expectations. Much of my appreciation was in the way the main characters, John Grady and Lacey Rawlins, converse. What pulled me in was those two, sitting around a fire and talking, riding through desolate terrain and talking. Oddly, I became very wrapped up in their simple conversation. Even though their relationship seemed unbalanced, even though Grady seemed like a contradiction, and even though I hate heat and horses, I was pulled in. And as others were added to the mix, the dynamics changed, but the conversation remained riveting.

Grady was a wonderful character, though I couldn't quite grasp how much faith I was willing to invest in his authenticity. Although I never thought of Grady as old, I had trouble shaping his image as a sixteen year old. He was far too wise and mature. The more I got to know him, the more I was convinced that such a wise teenager could exist. And, as the story developed, I began to see that underneath it all, he may have not been quite as wise as he seemed (though I'm still not sure). Multi-dimensional character: you've hooked me.

Ironically, it was only when the book picked up speed, reaching its climax, that my interest waned some. An old-fashioned shootout and the getaway on a horse: I find that a bit boring. Overall, this was such a small part of the novel that I wasn't too distracted by it.

Who'd have thought that cowboys sitting around talking would've been such a draw? Divine intervention? I'm a weird one, I guess. Now I'm actually excited to read the next book in the series.

Review: The Comfort of Strangers

The Comfort of Strangers - Ian McEwan

Every time I approach an Ian McEwan review—all but the first time, I guess—I feel some dread. McEwan is an author who garners such strong opinions, good and bad. Some think he is a hack writer, overly elaborate with his prose and plots, offensive to say the least. Others think he has incredible talent, that his stories brim with the kind of details that bring them to life. There's probably truth in both arguments, though in the end they're just opinions. Whatever the general views of McEwan and his stories, reviews of McEwan's work can lead to excessive raising of the eyebrows, eye rolling, and unfriending (though I could be exaggerating).

I throw myself in with those enamored with McEwan. That's not to say I love everything he's written, but I do find myself always thoroughly entertained. Having read some of McEwan's most popular and highly acclaimed works, I've made it a point to read the author's earliest books and work my way through his career. If you've read my reviews of McEwan's first two books, First Love, Last Rites or The Cement Garden, you probably know that old McEwan had a distinctly macabre style once upon a time. In fact, his earliest works remind me considerably of the kinds of stories Stephen King might have written.

The Comfort of Strangers, McEwan's second novel, continues this King comparison, but also shows a break from it. It's not as dark as his earlier efforts, but depravity is still present. The primary difference is that The Comfort of Strangers shows more of McEwan's elaborate style. There was a hint of the literary in McEwan's first books, but here it's strong. The descriptions in The Comfort of Strangers really evoke the setting, pulling the reader in. Even when the story began to disappoint, which it did for me, I wanted to keep reading. Even when I myself began to roll my eyes and recognize the signature overwrought plot, I was so engaged that I couldn't pull away. McEwan is guilty in this one of forcing the characters into the story. It is evident that they have no other path than the one the author makes for them. There's not even an illusion that they have free will. So, in the end, I was disappointed with this story, but there was never a moment I wasn't entertained. And that's something.

Review: Ceremony

Ceremony - Leslie Marmon Silko, Larry McMurtry

On one hand, Ceremony is a well-told tale and an intriguing story. It is the kind of story that hasn't been told enough and so needs to exist. On the other, Ceremony is a cerebral read that feels slightly inauthentic and is arranged in a jarring manner (flashbacks galore) that makes the story difficult to follow. This is one of those novels that I didn't always understand what was going on (or when in the story it was taking place), but it had a way of getting under my skin that I couldn't shake. Ceremony is intense and gritty, but not the easiest of reads.

Review: Letters to a Young Writer

Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice - Colum McCann

I could use more Colum McCann in my life. I'd shell out some money just to have a little Colum figure in my office that dispenses wisdom from time to time. Better yet, I'll make a nice comfy spot in the corner and perhaps the author can stop by once or twice a day and share a tidbit or two. What say you, Mr. McCann? I'll get you a nice desk and you can have half the room and I'll make the coffee the way you like. And if you like my half of the room better, I'll even trade you. I'm amiable and quiet and won't bother you at all. Just every once in a while, share a bit of advice. It's a good trade if you ask me.

I read one McCann novel eight years ago, Let the Great World Spin, and while I enjoyed it, I now realize I've ignored this author far too long. Letters to a Young Writer is the most inspirational book about writing I've ever had the pleasure of reading. Nearly every book I've read on the craft of writing has given me an inspirational moment or two, taught me quite a bit, or merely given me the impetus to prove the author wrong, but none has moved me as this one has. McCann doesn't talk down to his reader. He doesn't repeat warnings about how the young writer is never going to make it anyway and might as well accept their fate. Sure, it's a fact that making a life out of writing is very difficult and statistically improbable, but if writers wanted a sure thing, they probably wouldn't be writers. McCann refrains from these warnings that fill other authors' writing manifestos; he doesn't say, “you're not going to get there,” rather, he says, “it's a tough road, but when you get there, here's what it's going to be like.” That 'when' may not always be a reality, but for the first time ever, I feel like someone high in the publishing world believes in me. And that's just what I needed.

We all have our student styles. I see it in my own children who've fallen in love with soccer (they didn't inherit their love of sports from me). One kid crumples under a coach who's hard on his team. Another rises to the challenge of a coach like that. One thrives with encouragement and a guiding hand on the shoulder. Another grows lazy with the same guidance. Perhaps some writers need the hard-ass coach (Sol Stein: Stein on Writing - “You suck and you're never going to amount to anything”) and some need the realist coach (Elizabeth Gilbert: Big Magic - “You're beautiful and you have potential, but it's too hard, so stop dreaming”). Personally, I thrive under McCann's style. That's not to say I didn't learn much from my other coaches. I enjoyed my experience with the authors mentioned here, as well as many others. None of those other authors got me out of my rut, however. None of them changed my outlook. None of them encouraged me to go to my office, rearrange the furniture, and get down to business (I made a spot in the corner for you, Colum, just in case you decide to stop by).

And it wasn't just the coaching style that I loved about Letters to a Young Writer, it was McCann's stories and phrases. This isn't only an inspirational how-to for the writer, it's a gorgeously written volume. These little snippets of advice read almost like poetry. And so, I'm convinced, if I can't have the author in my office, I'll just have to find an audio version of this book and play a segment or two every day. Likely, I'll get sucked in from time to time, listen to the whole thing when I should be writing, but then McCann will gently remind me that time is ticking and that I cannot die until I finish the books that are within me. Thank you, Mr. McCann, for helping me rediscover my purpose.

Review: Habibi

Habibi - Craig Thompson

I wrote quite a lengthy review which delved into the many reasons I didn't feel Habibi was designed to be offensive. I illustrated the sensitivity Thompson showed the subject and the fantastic nature of the story. I talked about authorial intent and explored each of the complaints raised against Habibi, one by one. Then I decided to scrap it and start all over again.

I do believe Thompson empathized greatly with his Arabic and female characters. I believe his intentions were largely pure and made of love. I think he was striving to write a fairy tale about the depravity of humanity; setting it in an Arabic landscape may have given the impression that Thompson was dehumanizing Arabs, but I believe he would've given the same treatment to any people regardless of the setting. I also think that the abuse he subjected Dodola to throughout this novel was not meant to glorify rape and sexual trauma. As a reader, I felt Dodola's anguish and thought her very strong and wise. Of all the characters, she was the most humanized. Yet, others read her as a weak portrayal of women, a submissive character designed to embolden male lusts.

Habibi - It's misogynist, racist...

Rather than go into all my arguments again, I've decided it doesn't matter what I believe. The fact is, this novel, wonderful and nearly perfect in so many ways, also carries with it much hurt. One may see the hurt and say, “My heart bleeds for these characters. I want to help women who suffer from this kind of abuse.” Others will justify their own feelings of hatred and say, “Finally, an accurate depiction of those nasty Muslims.” And some may respond with hurt and say, “How dare he! Thompson is a misogynist and a racist!” None of these responses can be controlled and authorial intent doesn't matter when you're the one whose emotions have been stirred.

Habibi is an emotionally engaging book, as is indicated by the huge number of both five star and one star reviews this novel has garnered since it was published in 2011. Thompson's depictions of both the Middle East and of women can be troubling, depending on which lens you're viewing them with. Personally, I saw the hurt subjected by a depraved species; I did not see an object of hatred, but rather a letter written in love. Perhaps Thompson got some things wrong. Perhaps he would've done better to have stayed out of the Middle East. I'd be happy to share my more detailed thoughts with any who might be interested, but rather than add fuel to the argument and possibly cause more pain, I'll leave those thoughts out of my review proper.

Though I only began reading graphic novels a little over a year ago, I recognize the artistry and innovation of Habibi. It is the most well constructed and intelligent graphic novel I've read. It is lush with imagery that one could spend years dissecting. It blends worlds, periods, and ideologies, and does so without the reader even noticing. Yet, there could've been more. For such a lengthy book, I didn't feel I really got to understand Dodola or Zam. Giving us more about who they were might have made it easier to view them as more than simple victims and increased the empathy readers had for them.

Habibi is an epic story that bleed in black ink all over these 670 pages. It can be viewed as a gorgeous outpouring of emotion, or an embittered tirade against justice. One cannot deny, for better or worse, Craig Thompson has ushered in a new era in graphic novels.

Review: Bad Faith

Bad Faith - Theodore Wheeler

Theodore Wheeler's Bad Faith is an extraordinary collection. Each story is articulately rendered and full of simple wonder. Sentences are crafted with care, joining to form a sonorous selection of prose. With the exception of maybe only one title, each story is of equal caliber. Also, the way the first and last stories are connected, and each story in the collection is separated by a vignette that also fits into the larger story, keeps the reader invested in a way other collections sometimes fail to do.

If there's one complaint to be made about Bad Faith, it's the abruptness of the stories' conclusions. I'm not a reader who feels the need to wrap up a story, by any means, but even I felt that the endings could be a bit jarring. It's a small thing, but some readers will make it a big thing. If you don't mind open-ended stories, there's nothing less than stellar about this collection. Having a taste of what Wheeler is capable of, I look forward to his forthcoming novel, Kings of Broken Things, due to arrive in August.

Review: The Book of Joan

The Book of Joan: A Novel - Lidia Yuknavitch

The Book of Joan starts off as one of the most prophetic, imaginative, and thought-provoking novels of the social media era. It ends far away, a genre-bending, weird thriller that at least remains thought provoking. Throughout it all, the language is rich and the story is compelling. Although the incongruous final acts managed to alienate me as a reader, I was pulled in for so much of the story and enjoyed the experience.

A reimagining of sorts of Joan of Arc, The Book of Joan is a dystopian tale of what happens when a madman becomes the world's most powerful leader. As decisions to plunder the world for a profit turn disastrous, the earth chooses a hero, Joan. Really, does this future seem so far fetched? And do these characters' reflections on the dictator Jean de Men sound the least bit foreign?

...he overtook lives, his performances increasingly more violent in form. His is a journey from opportunistic showman, to worshiped celebrity, to billionaire, to fascistic power monger. What was left? When the Wars broke out, his transformation to sadistic military leader came as no surprise.

We are what happens when the seemingly unthinkable celebrity rises to power.

And again:

If we look at history—those of us who study it, who can remember it—we understand the reason why those who come to power swiftly, amid extreme national crises, are so dangerous: during such crises, we all turn into children aching for a good father. And the truth is, in our fear and despair, we'll take any father. Even if his furor is dangerous. It's as if humans can't understand how to function without a father. Perhaps especially then, we mistake heroic agency for its dark other.

In the first two parts of the novel, this is the story we get. It is a constant condemnation of many things, including commonly held notions of power, sexuality, and art, all told in vividly stunning passages. In this future, humans have begun a process of de-evolution. As humanity veers toward extinction, many of the remaining asexual population have become hypersexualized. They seek to recreate themselves through intricate grafts. Through two-thirds of this novel, the story is language driven, and characters and plot are merely devices to give body to the words. This is the creation story in reverse as told through the intricate weaving of words.

In the final part of The Book of Joan, the story got a bit messy for me, as I'm sure it will with many readers not so accustomed to hard sci-fi. The action is turned up and the threads become so knotted with one another and with techno-babble that it's difficult to discern what is going on. Add to that the final scenes, where oddity becomes normality and a particular plot device I've never been a fan of makes an appearance.

The big revelation is that a character (who in this review shall remain unnamed) is not who they have purported to be. The mask is removed and we're all suppose to gasp. Personally, I've never seen this done well in any novel and my reaction is to throw the book across the room.

(show spoiler)

What would've been a solid review for this novel was hurt some by this conclusion. What drew me into this book originally was the nearness of the events and the construction of language, but as everything drifted from what was familiar, I myself became untethered. And though I recognize that the story ends with the same strong commentary on power, sexuality, and art that it began with, it was a commentary addressed to a much different audience.


Book of Joan quote