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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Review: Visible Empire

Visible Empire - Hannah Pittard

There are times when I’m reading Hannah Pittard’s work that I am enthralled. I’m pulled into the language, the atmosphere, and the emotion. I’m feeling everything and it’s unrelenting. During these moments, the characters are alive. The story becomes all that matters. There’s no escape. And I’m glad, because regardless of how difficult the subject matter is, the fact is, I’m feeling something strong, and that’s what I want out of a good book: to feel. I want the rage and the sorrow unabated (though it must be genuine and true to the story).

Then there are times when I’m reading Pittard’s work and I feel nothing. The language is stilted. The characters become caricatures of their former selves. And the story drowns in melodrama.

I like to think of any artist as they are at their best. Every artist has made a stinker or two, or ten. No artist is consistently amazing. At her best, Pittard is brilliant, and I continue to sing her praises. Hannah Pittard is a truly fabulous writer. The difference between her and many of the other authors I admire, however, is that Pittard doesn’t have that one stellar work, nor does she have those which are entirely without merit. Each and every one of her books shows both the artist’s greatest skills and her weaknesses. Visible Empire is perhaps the best example of this, as it swings most widely from one extreme to the other.

Visible Empire purports to be a novel about the 1962 Air France flight that crashed during take-off, killing all 122 passengers. At the time, it was the deadliest single-aircraft disaster. Most of the passengers were from Atlanta's upper society and were patrons of the Arts. But the crash is only the catalyst for the rest of the novel. Visible Empire is more about those left behind, a commentary on grief, affluence, and race. Primarily, the narrative focuses on four or five characters, though others are included as needed to fill in the gaps. Some of these stories work together and build upon one another; others don't seem to add much, but do provide a little more variety.

In particular, the first couple hundred pages of Visible Empireare really the strongest. Pittard's description of the crash itself and of the character's in the first stages of grief were phenomenal. But by the end, the story really dips into made-for-tv melodrama. At the conclusion, I didn't feel all the pieces connected in a satisfying manner.

If you can look past these flaws, I think Pittard is a wonderful author who has so much to offer. And maybe I shouldn't think of them as flaws; perhaps this is exactly how Pittard intends to write. The problem with this style is that I think it must be tough to find the right audience: it's too literary for the Hallmark crowd, too sensationalized for the New York Times crowd. Whatever side of the aisle Pittard eventually sits in, I'll keep turning to her work, looking for those moments of brilliance.

Review: After Tupac and D Foster

After Tupac and D Foster - Jacqueline Woodson

1994 was a huge year for me. I was fifteen and, looking back, I feel like that was the year I broke free from my cocoon of childhood. Music played a large part. I had two older brothers. We watched a lot of MTV. I distinctly remember the moments that stirred my emotions on several occasions that year: seeing for the first time Nas's “The World Is Yours,” Ahmad's “Back in the Day,” and Wu-Tang Clan's “C.R.E.A.M.” '94 was also the year I began to take notice of 2Pac. 2Pac's music hadn't hit me hard all of a sudden like the others; however, by the following year, no other rapper compared.

I expected to find some of the nostalgia of those years in Jacqueline Woodson's After Tupac and D Foster. Here's a novel set during that period, a young adult novel that uses Tupac Shakur as a central image. I expected something from this novel—something very poetic and edgy, something contemporary, something like the feeling of emergence, something familiar—but what I got instead was something else entirely.

If this novel reminded me of anything, it was of that time prior to emergence. It reminded me of playing with friends on the school playground, running around the neighborhood, and of my elementary school library. It reminded me of Judy Blue. Not the nostalgia of Yo! MTV RapsFresh, or even Skee-Lo. No—Judy-freakin-Blume. Now on the surface, this may seem like a poor comparison. Any time Blume is mentioned, my first thought has always gone to the hilarious Fudge. But Blume wasn't always so humorous. Ignore that hilarity from Blume for a moment and what do you have? Socially conscious fiction. Subjects considered taboo for children. And at its core, a tale of friendship. All things you find in After Tupac and D Foster.

Now, I haven't read a lot of Blume. And this is the first work I've read from Woodson. So I wondered if the comparison was way off. I turned to Google: Woodson cites Blume as a major influence; Blume and Woodson were both born on February 12 (astrology everyone!); Blume is actually Woodson's mother (okay, I made that one up). Maybe not enough to convince the masses, but I'm sticking by it.

So with the Blume comparison in mind, I’m a little shook by this Young Adult label. With its largely simple plot, its focus on friendship and skipping rope, this novel brings to mind the books a ten or eleven year old would read. But I guess this label probably has to do more with content. After Tupac...may be a little too edgy for your average school librarian. Still, despite my opinion that this book is rather juvenile, it does have a little bit of depth to it and is certainly not an entirely light read.

As a fan of Shakur, I turned to this book hoping to find something I'd left in my teenage years. It's not in here. Frankly, I feel the Shakur connection to the novel is weak. It adds a few parallels for the story of D Foster, but largely I think it detracts from the novel. The characters try to convince me that they are passionate about Shakur and his life, but their dialogue around him feels more like a Wikipedia entry, not someone closely following his status. Then it hit me: Woodson, born in 1963, an author from a generation before Tupac, is writing to a generation that came after. Perhaps the stilted references to Shakur were a lack of generational understanding on the author’s part (though I don’t think this is entirely true of Woodson), or they could’ve been an attempt to speak to a generation that wouldn’t relate to the passion. For someone who was especially shaped by those years, such as myself, the sentiment is misplaced.

Still, I liked this book and I think it has so much to do with that earlier nostalgia, that of reading Judy Blume for the first time. It's refreshing to see that a new author has been handed the torch and is carrying on the legacy. Who would I recommend this book to? That’s a tricky one. The content, the maturity, the scope, the literary merit—they’re all over the place and point to different audiences. Looking at everything, I think After Tupac and D Foster can appeal to readers in several groups, but would probably be most appreciated by those very mature readers in upper elementary or middle school. And if Judy Blume herself hasn't read this book yet, I think she should.

Review: As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling

As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling - Anne Serling

“The writer's role is to menace the public's conscience. He must have a position, a point of view. He must see the arts as a vehicle of social criticism and he must focus on the issues of his time.” -Rod Serling

The First Attempt

More than a week ago, I wrote a review for this book. I was about to post it. In fact, it was when I pressed Control-C that something went wrong with the program. It crashed. Of course, I write my reviews in a document program and I regularly save them, so no worries. But when I tried to reopen the file, something was wrong. There was nothing there. I inspected the file—it had been reduced to 4 kilobytes. I tried to bring it up on another computer, but the file had been replaced with nothingness. My initial reaction was, “screw that—I'm not rewriting that review.” It's not that it was a great review by any means, but it was rather lengthy and I have other things to do with my time. The lack of a review weighed on me, however.

One of the many things I learned about Serling from this book was that he was a very hard worker. He made it in the business because he refused to give up. I give up too easily. So even though it's just a silly review for a book, a review that a handful of people will read, I'd decided to channel some of that Serling energy and make it happen. Perhaps it was for that lesson that my computer crashed in the first place. Wouldn't that put a whole Twilight Zone spin to it?


The Second Attempt

About a week ago, I made second attempt. Nothing crashed. But everything about the review felt wrong. I failed miserably. And at this point, I have to wonder, what is the point of this rambling? Does anyone wanting to read a review about As I Knew Him really care about my difficulties writing this review? Probably not. But still I press on.

….
The Third Attempt

What is the reason I'm struggling with this review? Sure, the first was out of my hands, but I hadn't been happy with it. Perhaps my disgust for the second attempt was coupled with the frustration caused by the first failure. Maybe I'm just going about this review all wrong and the fates are trying to tell me something. What could I do different?

I'm going to avoid talking about the details of this book. If you're interested in Serling or his works, or in the life of a famous person who still resembled a decent human being, then you should consider reading all the details yourself. Also I'm not going to go into the “what works” and “doesn't works” of the book. I'm going to skip over all that and jump to the end.

I really enjoyed As I Knew Him. I've always been attracted to something in the character of Serling, and now that I've read this intimate, heartfelt memoir written by his daughter, I think I get it: Serling really was something special. At a time when so many people turned a blind eye to injustice, Serling battled harder than many of his contemporaries to get his stories told. When he was censored, he sought ways to get around the censors, an action which resulted in his most notable work. But Serling was also a family man, an artist who put his work second only to his family. And these two characteristics were exceptional in a man who couldn't walk down the street without being recognized.

I find inspiration in this. I want to put my family first, my art second, and make sure that there's little room for anything else in my biography.

This is nothing like my original review, the one that possibly exists only in another dimension. Or my second review, the one that never gelled. They're both gone. What's left is this. I'm not even sure if you could call this a review, but it's all I'd had left to offer… It's time I move on.

Review: The Best We Could Do

The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir - Thi Bui

When I first saw the cover and description for Bui Thi’s graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do, I immediately added it to my list of future reads. It looked like the kind of graphic novel that would move me and leave me wanting more. And while there’s a good story in here somewhere, this book didn’t resonate with me like I’d hoped.

The story at the center of The Best We Could Do, the story of a family emigrating from Viet Nam, is a good story. It includes a lot of dramatic turns and is often heartfelt. The characters were interesting, especially those closest to the author-narrator. The art was only okay, but this isn’t ever a huge factor in my opinion of a graphic novel.

I think the problem I had connecting with the story had to do with presentation: the pacing, the chronology, the details shared and those left hidden. You can tell that this is a very, very personal book for the artist and I feel that perhaps Bui was too close to the story to have an appropriately objective view. The story was a part of Bui and where events were clear in her mind, the way they’re presented are unclear to the reader. On every page it was evident that the story meant something to this family, but it never meant anything to me, as the reader. An unfortunate result for a story with much potential.

Review: The Gunners

The Gunners - Rebecca Kauffman

Rebecca Kauffman’s latest novel The Gunners is a skillfully crafted, character-driven novel with one noticeable flaw: it’s a bit uneven. That’s not to say it’s an extreme case of the horrible mixed with delightful; the difference is between great and merely “good enough.” When The Gunners is at its best, it really moves. It is brilliant and compelling. The characters are complex. And then there are times when the novel feels a little light. It takes the route through easy storytelling and simple plot devices. These are the moments that might bore more literary readers, but the readers of commercial fiction will likely not notice. I recommend this novel for readers of both camps, particularly those who love wonderfully drawn characters, but I suspect some readers will similarly notice this patch of roughness

Review: Barracoon

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” - Zora Neale Hurston

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” is immensely important because it presents a first-hand narrative of the last-known survivor of the transatlantic shipment of Africans to the Americas and because it gifts the reading world with a lost work of Zora Neale Hurston's. Barracoon is an important work as any historical record, particularly one that lacked an abundance of first-hand narratives, should be. But Barracoon is just that: a historical record. Sure, it is written in the dialect, but it's ultimately the record of the life of Oluale Kossola (renamed Cudjo Lewis; I prefer to use the subject's given name).

Most readers are probably eager to hear Kossola's perspective on his life in Africa and his forced journey to America. This was my primary want from this narrative. Unfortunately, it becomes clear far too soon that Kossola is an old man trying to resurrect memories that are seventy years old. His memory of slavery in America is more than sixty years old. I've only lived half as long as Kossola did, but already my childhood memories have begun to jumble and I cannot help but question some of what I clearly recall. I have no doubt that Kossola's recollection was accurate in some regards, but surely some of those memories had grown fragile and corrupted with time. It's also too evident that he views his upbringing through a lens of Christian teaching, which casts much of it in a negative light.

Much of this narrative is about Kossola's life post-slavery. And while this is important and interesting, it presents little new to anyone who's familiar with life in the South for former slaves. Perhaps most interesting are Kossola's records of the Clotilda and some of the finer details of living in Africatown. Barracoon is not the eye-opening riveting story I hoped for, but I'm still glad that it was published and that I had the opportunity to read it.

Review: The Long Walk

The Long Walk - Stephen King

I haven't quite made up my mind about Stephen King. Part of me is repelled by his trendiness; that part also recognizes an author with flaws of dialogue and resolution and an author who needs to better listen to his editor (or find a new editor). And yet the guy can craft a really riveting, well-told story, ie “The Body.” No work better displays both sides of King than The Stand, a wonderfully constructed tale that suffers woefully from diarrhea of the pen.

But I keep coming back because there is a draw. After a year or two away, something about King's works calls to me. Sometimes I'm glad I returned. Other times, I'm like “eh.” This time around, I am truly, genuinely surprised.

I wasn't expecting a whole lot out of The Long Walk. It's not one of the author's more notable works. The summary of the book brought to mind ideas of a potentially strong story, but greater likelihood of cheesiness. And knowing that King would have to maintain an entire novel of teenagers talking with one another frightened me.

But this novel really, truly worked. First, The Long Walk is believably scary. This isn't about killer clowns or murderous cars, it's about a society that encourages and delights in the sacrifice of its youth. Once a year, one hundred teenage boys begin walking. They cannot stop until there is only one left. What happens if they stop or walk too slowly? They receive a warning. After three warnings, they're killed. That's it. So simply terrifying. And the walk goes on day after day, because when your only choice is to live or to stop and rest, you find the will to keep going (or maybe you don't.)

But this isn't really a story about a dystopian society in love with the long walk, now is it? This is the story of war. Boys on the verge of manhood being sent on some ridiculous quest. They're spurred on by the words of a general shouting encouragement at them. They're cheered on by the patriotic fervor of the crowds that watch from the sideline, but never join the walk. They're shell-shocked and unsure why they'd even started walking in the first place. Published in 1979,The Long Walk likely was inspired by the war in Vietnam, but it could easily be about any war.

One of the things that almost doesn't work but ends up working spectacularly in this novel is the dialogue. Some of these conversations are so brilliant. Others are completely asinine. Who would believe that these individuals would have the conversations they do right after watching their neighbor being gunned down. But isn't that exactly how it is in war? Don't these soldiers become so immune to it all that while they may from time to time philosophize about life and death, they're just as likely to talk about Saturday morning cartoons? At times, the raging hormones of these one hundred became a bit over the top for my tastes, but largely I believed this group's actions and discussions.

The only area where I would've liked to have seen change was in the contemporary setting. King places these kids sometime in the sixties or seventies, I'm never quite sure. Again, this probably alludes to Vietnam, but it dates the story horribly. The boys discuss the music, the cars, and the babes of the era. In 2018, it makes an otherwise universal story sound a bit hokey at times. This was a problem thatThe Stand suffered from as well.

I was really pulled into this novel and I must say that while I've read relatively little of King's complete bibliography, this has been my favorite so far. There are some really wonderful passages here and the overall story is quite engaging. The Long Walk truly made me hungry for more of King's writing.
 

Review: West

West - Carys Davies

West begins with a wonderful premise, a good cast of characters, and some lovely language. Then it ends. And I'm not sure how I feel about that. Part of me thinks, I could've stayed with these characters for a full 300 pages. I would've endured the journey wherever it took me. Surely this story could've gone on longer. Then again, I'm not sure. There's such a thing as a story stretched too thin, and I think Westcould've been a victim of this had it been much longer. Perhaps it is too long as it is. Maybe West isn't too short for a novel, but too long for a short story. The final fourth of this novella does wane a bit. I'm not sure what side of the fence I fall on, but something feels off about it and I think it has to do with length.

Overall, West is a wonderfully quick and entertaining read. The premise really sells this book. In the early 1800s, a father goes on a quest to find monstrous beasts whose bones have recently been unearthed. He leaves his daughter behind to begin her own quest into womanhood. It's a wonderful idea and I think Carys Davies pulls it off exceptionally well. I'm curious to see what else Davies can do, long or short.

Review: Outline

Outline - Rachel Cusk

 

I picked up Outline because and only because I've heard Cusk's name being dropped as a potential Man Booker Prize contender this year. If she is nominated, it will be for her newest novel, Kudos; but as her newest is the third in a trilogy, I did not want to find myself already two books behind when the longlist drops. So I thought I'd get a head start... just in case.

 

Man Booker Prize nominated books can come in many varieties, but it's not uncommon for the list to have several titles that are intelligent and/or relatively dry. The latter can be difficult for some, but more often than not, I enjoy them despite being slow. I cannot speak for Kudos as I have yet to read it, but man, oh man isOutline boring. I can see why some might think Cusk would be a welcome nominee. If Kudos were nominated, I'd read it, as I didn't dislike Outline or the style Cusk used to bring her story together—it was just abysmally dry.

 

Outline is the story of stories. It's about an author interacting with people in Athens, and telling their stories. But her stories are more like an outline of these characters. There's not much to them. They're not the most interesting stories, but I'm sure they're some kind of a reflection of the author herself. Who am I kidding? This book was so uneventful. There's beauty of words and a certain strong realism to the dialogue, but it lacks plot and character. Still, some people love it. LOVE IT. And I say kudos to them. Personally, I think I missed something, but I'd be willing to give it another go.

 

Review: Safe Area Goražde

Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia, 1992-1995 - Joe Sacco, Christopher Hitchens

Safe Area Goražde gets four stars because it covers a war that doesn't get enough attention. It earns its four stars for giving voice to many who would not have otherwise been heard. It gets four stars for not shying away from the horror of the war. And it gets four stars for trying to educate a people.

As an annal of the Bosnian War as told through graphic novel, Safe Area Goražde succeeds. It could be better. It tells about only a fragment of the conflict, but this is to be expected, I guess, in a work of journalism by a solo observer. But, Sacco does not remain an impartial observer as one would expect from this style of journalism. My complaints about Sacco do not end there.

Sacco's gross misrepresentation of self was horribly distracting. It's not that Sacco is a fabulous artist, particularly in regards to the human face, but no character is portrayed as cartoonish and malformed as Sacco's own. Having finished the book, I did a search for the author's photo, half expecting to find a monstrous facsimile of the Sacco character. Nope, Sacco's a pretty normal looking guy.

Perhaps this is a reflection of his character, which is also unappealing. Sacco comes off as sort of an invasive creeper, in my opinion. I could not trust the guys intentions. And if this is how the author himself presents his character, I have to wonder how much worse it might have truly been.
Safe Area Goražde is a good graphic novel almost entirely because of its subject. The authorial intrusion was unnecessary though. Was Sacco's character needed at all? Sure, it helps place the journalist in the conflict, but I would've been more invested in the story at the heart of the book with his inclusion kept to an absolute minimum. It's the promise of his presence in his other works of journalism that will likely keep me away.

Review: Continental Drift

Continental Drift - Russell Banks

When I went to graduate school for writing, I learned that there are grad school books and authors. These are the authors or titles you likely have never heard of before entering an MFA program, but you're going to hear about them before they let you leave. During my two years there, no unknown name came up more than Russell Banks. Three of my four mentors highly pushed his work to me. Each pushing a different title (one mentor recommended two or three different titles). At the time, I did read The Sweet Hereafter, which I enjoyed somewhat, but Banks didn't grasp my attention enough to completely reel me in. It has been eight years since I read that novel, so I felt it was time to give Banks another shot. This time he certainly reeled me in.

I had to look back on my review of The Sweet Hereafter to recall why I didn't love it. Apparently, I thought Banks was ineffective at accurately giving voice to his characters. I find this surprising, because this was certainly not a problem in Continental Drift. I actually thought Banks did a marvelous job giving voice to his characters. Maybe that was the case with my first outing with Banks. Maybe I'm just a much different reader now.

Continental Drift is one of the most—if not the single most—American novel I've ever read. It's the story of people from different backgrounds who are struggling to get ahead. Each believes there is hope in a dream that is unequivocally American. The strength of these characters and the believability Banks lends to their situations are two of the largest components to this novel's excellence. These are characters who genuinely believe they're good people despite the evidence to the contrary. This is the heart and soul of America.

This is a novel that can be disgusting, depressing, or offensive to its reader. It puts on display a cross-section of the American people, their selfish justification and their pompous dream. I've never heard Continental Drift among the list of contenders for the title of the Great American Novel, but I certainly believe there are few novels more American than this. Banks is an author I will assuredly return to.

Review: Katalin Street

Katalin Street - Magda Szabó

"...no one had told them that the most frightening thing of all about the loss of youth is not what is taken away but what is granted in exchange. Not wisdom. Not security. Not sound judgment or tranquility. Only the awareness of universal disintegration."

"...they had learned that is everyone's life there is only one person whose name can be cried out in the moment of death."

Katalin Street has a enchanting start (though it is sort of confusing). With each subsequent chapter, the novel becomes slightly less mesmerizing and affecting (and less confusing). In the end, I cannot say that I really enjoyed or even fully appreciated this novel. It certainly has some powerful prose and a wonderfully conceived story, but it does grow a bit tiresome. A very solid effort from Magda Szabó, but I do wish it had been polished more

Review: Out Stealing Horses

Out Stealing Horses - Per Petterson, Anne Born

If you actually read my reviews regularly (hi mom), you may have noticed that I'm not writing reviews regularly. I've been finding it difficult lately. You see, more than five years ago I began working part-time so that I could focus on being a writer. At the time I had a nearly completed novel and dozens of stories that I intended to publish. Also, I thought I could use all my spare time to keep the house immaculate and also solve the world's problems. Five years later I can say I did a pretty good job at keeping up with the dishes and laundry. You see, having all the time in the world did not work for this writer. And so, I decided (very grudgingly) to go back to work full-time. I figured I couldn't be any less productive of a writer.

The thing is, I'm having a really tough time adjusting. I don't remember how I did it before. And so, I've been slacking on everything. While I continue to read—I do work at a library, after all—my reviews keep pilling up. Seeing all the books I have yet to write something about is almost too stressful.

Apparently, I read this novel, Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson sometime earlier this year. Of everything that stood out about the novel, here's what I remember: 1) the protagonist is an elderly gentleman looking back on his life in Norway; 2) the narrative is completely non-linear; 3) there are some gorgeous passages through this novel.

1) Trond is the nearly seventy -year-old man who is reflecting on his life. He takes his time getting around to all the details of his life (see 2), but does so with enthralling description (see 3). Some of Trond's reflections are quite tragic, and these are the stories that really make the plot interesting. Largely, Trond's narrative lacks much in the way of action.

2) I learned while reading Out Stealing Horses that Per Petterson is a writer who plans nothing. He begins a story without a plan and just writes. This is what we call writing by the seat of your pants. That explains why this narrative is all over the place, but it doesn't make it any less difficult to follow. Personally, I find the style makes for a less-than-pleasant read and that the final payoff on this particular novel was lacking.

3) Out Stealing Horses is a language-driven story. I realize that it has been translated from the Norwegian, so my judgment in regards to its mastery of language is based entirely on the English translation. The sentences in this novel are quite simple, as you'd expect from a character such as Trond, but that doesn't keep them from carrying a certain rhythm and depth that really stand out. Take, for example, this passage:

There was a smell of roasting meat and coffee in the air, and the smell of smoke, and timber and heather and sun-warmed stones and some special scent I had not noticed anywhere else than by this river, and I did not know what it was made of if not a combination of all that was there; a common denominator, a sum, and if I left and did not return I would never be able to experience it again.



For what it's worth, that's what I remember all this time later of Out Stealing Horses. This is far from a thorough or wonderfully written review, but I'm slacking. (If you think this is bad, you should see the state of the dishes in my kitchen right now.)

Review: The Shepherd of the Hills

The Shepherd of the Hills - Harold Bell Wright

The year was 1999. Most of my friends at the time were in their late teens. I was twenty. We were a group obsessed with music, we all knew we were destined for a future in the auditory arts. A couple are still involved in making music; most of us gave it up a decade or more ago. We all had a faith in God, though I think that's largely been shaken at this point. Most of the time we hung out, we discussed music, movies, books, and theology. That year, we fell under the tutelage of a much older mentor. He challenged us in many ways. He inspired us to think outside of the conventions of faith and brotherhood. We loved him and we believed he loved us. He ended up being a creeper in the end, but that's a story for another time.

Every time my friends and I discussed lit, our mentor would chime in with his favorite author: Harold Bell Wright. None of us had heard of him. Wright was an author of a different time who'd largely been left behind. Our mentor swore by the brilliance and majesty ofThe Shepherd of the Hills. One by one, my friends read it and brought their opinions of the book back, and before long entire nights were spent discussing The Shepherd of the Hills. I planned on reading it back then, but life took me slightly on the outside of the group and I hadn't returned to the idea in the two decades since.

The Shepherd of the Hills was a widely successful book in its day: 1907. I can see why. It’s a gripping tale that toes some of the era’s conventions without stepping over any lines. The Shepherd of the Hills features the same kind of blend of mystery and adventure that made Mark Twain what he was, but in place of Twain’s signature witticism, Wright inserts spirituality. And this spirituality is interesting, because on one hand it feels very orthodox Christian, but on the other it is full of a mysticism that I would've imagined not accepted by people of faith at the time. Likewise, the novel has progressive thoughts regarding marriage, gender roles, and other things while at the same time remaining firmly rooted in a very conservative soil.

The Shepherd of the Hills is in part an adventure story, but it is just as much a love letter. It is a love letter to the Ozark hills of Missouri and an allegory for the love letter of Jesus. Surprisingly, considering that the author could've written a very cloying Jesus-loves-you tale without alienating his audience, Wright was cautious in laying the religious allegory on too thick. Even so, I thought the tale dragged on a bit too long for my tastes. The longer it goes, the more the plot is replaced with introspection, and the more Wright’s spiritually intriguing story is pushed aside for a traditional sermon. I think Harold Bell Wright’s story is still read today because it is just different enough and it is mechanically sound, but I do have doubts that it’ll persevere through the next generation or two. There are other authors that I believe better captured the time and they will be the ones who will be remembered in the future.

I think that if I had I read this novel in 1999, along with most of my friends, I probably would’ve “agreed” with our mentor that it was a fabulous book. That’s what you do when you’re young and under the influence of another. I might've even enjoyed it some, but in reality, I wouldn't have loved it all that much. Twenty years late to the party, I can only say that it was a fine read, certainly a good example of the twentieth century’s first decade, but it didn’t grab me the same way it grabbed him. For my former mentor, this was the book to end all books. I’m sure he had his personal reasons why this book touched him so and they probably had to do with the person he was at the moment he first read it. That’s the subjectiveness of reading. Our impression of the written word is a greater reflection of the person we are at the moment we read it than of the work itself. So all that said, if you read my review because you wanted his opinion, then by all means this a five-star book.

Review: Asymmetry

Asymmetry - Lisa Halliday

"As soon as you are born the sand starts falling and only by demanding to be remembered do you stand a chance of it being upturned again and again."

I think Asymmetry may have a tough time finding its audience. It’s a difficult book for the casual reader in some ways: the prose is simple enough, but the structure is entirely a different matter. I think most readers are going to say “what the hell was that about?” while other more astute but critical readers will say “that was hella pretentious.”

The “problem” rests in that Asymmetry is three very distinct stories tied together by the thinnest of threads. “But there’s no thread at all,” many readers will say. There is and there isn’t. You see, it’s all very metafictional and I’m all about the meta. In Part I we have a young woman, Alice, from Massachusetts who works as an editor, dreams of living in Europe, and develops a romantic relationship with a much older National-Book-Award-winning author. The author of Asymmetry, Lisa Halliday, is herself a former editor from Massachusetts who now lives in Italy. Whether truly based on the author's personal experiences or not, it is logical for a reader to assume that Alice is autobiographical. And therein lies the brilliance of Asymmetry because we do not really know Lisa Halliday’s story, we only make assumptions based on the few facts we do know. But then Halliday goes in the opposite direction. In a time when we too often question the writer’s ability to write from any other perspective than their own, Halliday turns the book on its head and writes a very different story.

A young friend of mine has written a rather surprising little novel about this, in its way. About the extent to which we’re able to penetrate the looking-glass and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own. It’s a novel that on the surface would seem to have nothing to do with its author, but in fact is a kind of veiled portrait of someone determined to transcend her provenance, her privilege, her naiveté.


In Part II, we’re introduced to Amar, an Iraqi-American man who is detained by immigration officers for an entire weekend. He reflects on his back and forth relationship with Iraq and America and with his family, caught between two worlds. It’s natural for the reader to expect some sort of connection to exist between Amar’s story and Alice’s. The reader is busy looking for it and any direct connection that exists is so thin the reader is most likely to miss it: at the end of Amar’s story, we briefly see a woman who may or may not be Alice. That’s it. But the connection goes beyond that, because if that woman is Alice, then she’ll go on to be the writer who writes Amar’s story.

Halliday nails the voice of Amar, proving that a privileged woman from Massachusetts can write from a perspective that she has no first-hand experience with. That's not to say Halliday doesn't understand Amar. Her story is reflected in Alice's as it is in Amar's.

...even someone who imagines for a living is forever bound by the ultimate constraint: she can hold her mirror up to whatever subject she chooses, at whatever angle she likes—she can even hold it such that she herself remains outside its frame, the better to de-narcissize the view—but there's no getting around the fact that she's always the one holding the mirror. And just because you can't see yourself in a reflection doesn't mean no one can.


Yet Asymmetry is so meta that I'm wondering if there's not more to it. For instance, in the opening pages, the young editor is reading a book that itself bears similarity to the novel of Part II, a novel “made up almost exclusively of long paragraphs, and no quotation marks whatsoever, and what is the point of a book, thought Alice, that does not have quotation marks?” So is Alice reading the book that she herself has yet to write? Or is Alice not the author? Is the fictional Alice perhaps reading the book that her own creator Lisa Halliday wrote? Only now, as I write this, am I drawing the connection between “Alice” and her “looking-glass.” Am I looking too much into this? I'll just leave it at this and let the reader infer their own conclusion.

As I read this novel, I occasionally caught glimpses of other works and authors I have read, all of them Man Booker nominees: Eleanor Catton, Kamila Shamsie, Ian McEwan, Ali Smith… There’s a strong similarity in the tone and structure of the works. I will not be the least surprised if Asymmetry is not on the longlist to be announced in a few months. It's not a perfect book and it may fail in conveying its message to the vast majority of readers, but Asymmetry is such an intelligently written and relevant book that I'm sure someone will take notice.

Review: Heart Berries

Heart Berries - Terese Marie Mailhot

I don't know if there's ever been a book I've hated disliking as much as I hated disliking Heart Berries. This is such an honest, heartrending memoir. Written by a First Peoples woman battling mental illness, it is a very important and unique work. The prose is gorgeous though not always easy to follow: Mailhot takes a stream of conscious approach that may leave a reader feeling disoriented. I think the style works well as it gives the impression of the mental and political struggles Mailhot faces throughout these pages.

For these reasons, Heart Berries is a stellar read. But…

Mailhot has some reason to be angry. I understand. She’s been through several toxic relationships and many difficult situations. But her answer is to perpetuate stereotypes and justify her own toxic response. It’s all very honest, but it doesn’t give me much hope for the future. Though it’s beautifully written and very heartfelt on one hand, on the other, Heart Berries is little more than a highly intelligent Fuck Off note. Rather than respond with my own vitriol, I’m just going to stuff it back into the pages of this book and move onto the next.