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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

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.

Review: Freshwater

Freshwater - Akwaeke Emezi

I had a really tough time getting into this book initially. There's no doubt that the voice of the narrative is interesting, but that doesn't mean it is not confusing. Trust me, it is. Told by the voices in Ada's head—are they personalities indicative of a mental illness or spiritual beings that battle for her attention—Freshwater does not stop to answer questions. This commitment to voice is good for the end result, because it really adds credibility to the narrative, but it does make for a somewhat difficult beginning.

In her debut novel, Akwaeke Emezi crafts a journey that is devastating and empowering. There is much in this story that can break a heart or turn a reader in disgust. Those avoiding difficult subjects in their reads should skip this one. Ultimately, however, Freshwater is a very spiritual tale, a battle for one soul. Despite the many dark moments, it becomes a display of strength and fulfillment. Through lyrical prose and the unrelenting voices, Freshwater explores what it is to be between two worlds—living and dead, Africa and America, Allah and Yeshua, peace and rage.

Review: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

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

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration is epic indeed. What's most amazing about this book is the sheer amount of research that must have gone into it. Despite focusing largely on only three migrants, Isabel Wilkerson interviewed nearly two hundred individuals in addition to gathering information from nearly eighty organizations. The result is a story that provides a relatively complete picture of the “Great Migration” that started during World War I and lasted into the 1970s. The Warmth of Other Suns is as vast as it is important.

The book's only flaw comes from a lack of editing (though it could've been a conscious choice of style). The Warmth of Other Suns is unnecessarily repetitive. Every few chapters, the reader is reminded of what happened ten or twenty pages earlier. Now, this may be intentional. When telling a narrative with three different story lines, it's understandable that the author may feel the need to reiterate. Perhaps she didn't trust her readers to remember. Perhaps she thought they'd welcome the reminder. Certainly, I wouldn't have been opposed to a little of this courtesy, but it does exceed necessity.

Though the repetition keeps this book from being the riveting narrative it could be, it is not any less important of a story of an often overlooked historical event. The Warmth of Other Suns is the right blend of voice and historical detail, a telling so rich that one expects it may be remembered for a long time.

Review: Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight

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

"...I have come to feel that the end of the space shuttle is going to be the ending of a story, the story of one of the truly great things my country has accomplished, and that I want to be the one to tell it."

For some reason, I associate spaceflight with the month of February. I'm not sure why. I tried to unpack this reasoning as I read Leaving Orbit, but I cannot say there is any cause for my association. Perhaps it is because when I think of spaceflight, I think of Challenger. I was only six at the time of the explosion. We didn't watch the launch in my first grade classroom—I recall little talk of it beforehand—though neighboring, older classes were watching that day. I remember a teacher from one of those classes came into the room, whispered to my teacher who responded with a gasp. She cautiously announced the accident to the class. We watched this strange adult behavior with awe for only a couple minutes, then returned to coloring our paper coins copper and silver. By the time I unpacked and processed what had happened during the January launch it may have been February. Perhaps this is the reason for my association. Maybe none of this matters, but each February since this book has been published, I have set it on my reading table only to put it off for one more year. 

I don't have the same love for spaceflight that Margaret Lazarus Dean does. I am amazed by the cosmos. I appreciate the beauty of the universe and of stars and planets. It is the majesty of space that I love. Space vehicles in and of themselves do nothing to excite me. That said, I always thought the shuttle was a majestic vehicle. Unlike the rockets before it which ripped apart the sky and penetrated the exosphere, the shuttle was a graceful and beautiful bird that merely skirted space. Unlike the gruff military men of 1960s spaceflight, the astronauts of the shuttle were men and women of the sciences and engineering. Apollo delivered gray lifeless stones. The shuttles set into motion the objects that sent back images of distant galaxies, images that far exceeded our expectations.

So I may not be the target audience for this book. Certainly, I have a greater appreciation for the shuttle than perhaps the average person, but I have no strong opinion about the likes of Aldrin. Even so, I really enjoyed Leaving Orbit. Dean gorgeously unpacks the history of spaceflight throughout this book. It's a wonderful blend of expert research and personal reflection. Leaving Orbit is the story of spaceflight, but it is also the story of Dean's love for spaceflight. This is unlike any work of non-fiction I've read before because it's clear that the author pours her heart into every page. She is incredibly passionate about the topic. Leaving Orbit is a eulogy for not only the shuttle, but modern spaceflight in general, and it is written by someone who knew and loved the deceased very much.

Dean's love for all-things NASA is so great that it could easily be called a religion. She makes pilgrimages, studies the holy works, and offers sacrifices. But Leaving Orbit's appeal wanes in those moments when the author becomes overly evangelical. When she attempts to explain away the doubters, the book becomes less about the glorious experience of spaceflight and more about the argument. Look, I've had doubts about the feasibility of humans traveling 240,000 miles in a metal cone with a twelve-foot diameter and a computer with less memory than the flash drive in my pocket. Even more unbelievable is the fact that without any previous experience, truly accurate data or test runs, they were able to get off the surface of the moon and return to earth. Honestly, it would be much more believable if the first two or three missions failed to return. It's natural for any intelligent person to question. All religion asks us to do is move a mountain from time to time. We either have the faith to believe in the impossible or we do not. Apollo is no different from any other god.

Despite these few hiccups, Leaving Orbit is such a stupendous read. Even though it is bursting with so many marvelous facts, I wanted more. I watched the launch videos. I read the official reports. I developed a greater appreciation for spaceflight in general. And it wasn't enough. My heart was broken for those who've invested their lives into the space program, and I hope against hope that one day the program will soar again.

Review: Back Talk

Back Talk - Danielle Lazarin

Even the best of short story collections are uneven. I used to find this odd—how could a writer who wrote such a fabulous story follow it with such a crap story? I realize now that it makes sense. I mean, after all, if you look at any author's complete body of works, you'll find great works and ho-hum works. No writer is one-hundred percent consistent. The difference is in presentation. We think of a collection of short stories as a complete work. A novelist's whole career is not held under the same scrutiny.

Danielle Lazarin's Back Talk is no different. There are stories I really enjoyed. And stories I could've done without. The difference was the grouping of these stories. Normally, a collection starts with one or two good stories and follows it with a dud, then another good story and several duds. Depending on the total number of stories in the collection and the ratio of good stories, all this may vary, of course, but often the middle contains several lackluster stories that lead into a final one or two good stories.

So when I started reading Back Talk and found that the first several stories barely held my attention, I assumed the whole collection was not for me. Midway, the stories really started to improve however. In fact, story after story was quite wonderful. At this point, I questioned whether it was me: perhaps some preconceived notion I had about the collection, or some blockage in my personal life. I decided that, when finished, I'd go back and read one of the first few stories that I found to be far from special.

On a second reading, the story I selected was slightly more enjoyable, but I still didn't love it. So maybe this collection is oddly uneven, but it does contain several wonderful stories. The best of these stories really get into the minds of their protagonists. They're quiet stories about everyday events, but they're full of heart. In these character-driven stories, I think it ultimately comes down to connection. I was pulled into the mind of some of these characters, not into the minds of others. Readers of character-centric short fiction should give Back Talk a try.

Review: Peach

Peach - Emma Glass

Ah, sweet, sweet, sweet Peach. So short. So sweet. So blunted. So cloying. Maybe it's an acquired taste.

Emma Glass's very original novella Peach is truly unlike anything I've read before. On one hand, it is rich, full of alliteration and word play. The use of language is done with great skill. This is a very poetic story, but unlike some other works of “prose” I've read that felt more like poetry than prose, Peach is merely a very poetic story. From the publisher's description and the opening pages, I expected something along these lines. What I did not expect was the intense surrealism and the black comedy. This is a strange book with some very uncomfortable moments. At times I think it works. At other times, I'm not convinced.

One thing that was very difficult for me to accept was the depiction of characters as objects. Most of these characters are foods including a man made of sausage. Mr. Custard, for instance, truly takes the shape of custard: he is a gelatinous mass of sweetness who must pick himself up from the floor occasionally and take shape. Spud is a giant potato who rolls everywhere. Peach, Sandy, Spud, Mr. Custard, Hair Netty, Green... At first I imagined these characters as Glass described them, but eventually, they took a new shape. I couldn't help but think of Mr. Men and Little Miss and once the image was in my head, there was no replacing it. So imagine Mr. Bump and Little Miss Star, driving around in Murakami-inspired cars with sushi rolls for wheels. That is how I will remember Peach.
Characters from Roger Hargreaves' Mr. Men and Little Miss series

Peach is also disturbing. Imagine Mr. Tickle and Little Miss Contrary slashing at one another, trouncing one another, devouring one another in all its visceral cartoonishness. Which leaves me with some questions. Is the surrealist style meant to soften the blow of the violence? Does this ridiculous presentation dull too much the impact of serious subjects? Peach is an uncomfortable story, but how much more uncomfortable could it have been had Glass refrained from her otherwise Saturday morning vibe? It's this presentation that ultimately makes Peach forgettable, a story beautifully rendered, but void of so much potential anguish.

Review: An American Marriage

An American Marriage - Tayari Jones

There may be something in the fact that this book is called An American Marriage and that it made me so incredibly angry at times. Part of my anger was directed at the injustices that were on full display throughout the novel. This is a story of a black man, wrongfully convicted of a crime, who loses so much. But most of my anger was directed at the characters at the center of this story—how they could be so despicable and unfair to one another.

Celestial and Roy's marriage is based on passionate love and selfish gain. They want the best their spouse has to offer and when that isn't good enough, they have no qualms with wounding one another. Ultimately, it's all about their individual wants and needs. Both Celestial and Roy have their fair share of flaws. Add best friend Andre into the mix and you have three horrible people, each justifying their actions as moral and necessary.

Repeatedly, I found myself taking sides. Roy would do something beyond forgiveness and I'd side with Celestial. Then Celestial would one up Roy. Back and forth, these two characters along with Andre elicited strong emotions from this reader. That's good writing, but it's infuriating. So while I wanted to throw the book in the trash on more than one occasion, I couldn't fault the novel or the author for this intense displeasure.

What's most impressive about An American Marriage is how much happens in such a tight space. The story itself has enough content to fill another couple hundred pages. Jones uses the space most effectively, weaving tight sentences and keeping the story focused. Also, the novel tackles themes of not only injustice, but loyalty and betrayal, love and marriage, dreams and realities, pride and human frailty.

An excellent, balanced depiction of how injustice can harm, An American Marriage is a riveting story that's biggest flaw is that it fizzles at the end. Many readers say “the ending disappoints” about a great many books. I guess we have an idea of how we want a book to end and when it doesn't shape our predetermined mold, we like to express that we could've done better. I try not to raise this complaint often as I do recognize that it is trite. I have no desire to say “I could've done it better,” as I doubt I could have; regardless of the direction Jones decides to go, I felt that she tried to wrap up the story much too quickly. It's all so neatly packaged up to a point, then it feels like a bow is haphazardly thrown on the whole thing so it could meet that magic 300 page limit. It's a great novel overall, but I really hoped for more weight in those concluding chapters.

I've been meaning to read more of Tayari Jones' work ever since she first made an impression on me with her contributions to The Secret Miracle. I strongly agreed with several of the answers she provided about her writing practices and beliefs. I'm glad the release of this novel pressured me to return to her work. With the imprint left behind by An American Marriage, I am hopeful that I will get around to her first two novels before she publishes her next.

Review: Broken April

Broken April - Ismail Kadaré

Last year, I made a goal of “reading around the world,” an effort to read at least one book from every country. I'm not working down the list regionally or alphabetically. I'm not oversaturating my reading list all at once with these titles. I'm just making a conscious effort to explore the world through books as I'm able.

Broken April is perhaps the most eye-opening view of a world I knew nothing about. Set in mountains of Albania, Broken April is the story of a man bound to an extremely strict set of rules called the Kanun. The Kanun is a “code of conduct” that focuses on honor and hospitality, dictating the everyday actions of a person. It makes the American west of the 1800s seem very tame, the Levitical law lenient. Once one has become ensnared by the rules of the Kanun, there is no escape.

Initially, I imagined that these rules were a product of the author's imagination. If nothing else, they had to have been exaggerated. No group of people would willingly live under such rigorous regulations century upon century. Sadly, they're all true. Though I hate to knock on the beliefs and cultures of another group, these rules are ridiculous and very dangerous. It's a wonder that those who subscribe to the Kanun as a rule for life have not gone extinct by now.

As far as a novel goes, Broken April is a bit uneven. When the story focuses on Gjorg, it is riveting and breathtaking. I felt his anxiety. He is a marked man and though the reader must know it's impossible for him to escape, you hope there is a way. Also, I was enraptured with Diana, a newlywed who does not live under the Kanun, but who is similarly held captive by the authority of her husband. But the novel spends far too much time on the boring, ridiculous Bessian and on characters such as Mark, who merely provided a different visual perspective. Without these interruptions, I likely would've made my way through this novel in very little time; unfortunately, I felt too much of what Diana must've felt: God, I wish Bessian would just shut up.

There is a haunting atmosphere to Broken April, especially as we follow Gjorg around. It reminds me of John Steinbeck's time in Mexico. There is a similarity in theme and setting to both “Flight” and The Pearl, though there is a feeling of timelessness in Broken April. It is this timelessness, this sense that these rules will continue until everyone is finally dead, that give this novel its most grievous quality.

Review: White Tears

White Tears - Hari Kunzru

“So tell me, was that a black thing or a white thing? No, that was music.”

Whoever knew that record collecting could be so violent? White Tears is a haunting novel that revolves around record collecting, cultural appropriation, and the ownership of music. It is a very dark tale that gives voice to the ghosts of obsession, racism, and exploitation. At the center of the novel is a piece of blues music: a song that may or may not exist by a remnant of a man who may have been invented.

White Tears is a strange and terrifying tale that pulls off the amazing feet of getting to the soul of American racism. It is a story that begins with and maintains a high level of realism then shifts, becomes part horror with elements of the supernatural. It may seem the book goes off the rails at this point, because the continuity differs from what the reader has come to expect, and it certainly takes a while to feel like it's back “on track.” In the end, the pieces all come together and make a solid portrait of obsession and vengeance. Despite the instability this abrupt midpoint change may cause, the book never loses its cadence or brilliance.

And it is brilliantly written. It works on several levels and the more one contemplates it, the more one may find. For instance, it just dawned on me right now that throughout the novel, there's an obsession with “What's on the B side?” of this mysterious song. The book is similarly divided. The first half is straight-forward and audible. But the second half—that's the unknown. 

Hari Kunzru's latest is unique and breathtaking in a sea of books that often mimic one another. It takes some flexibility from a reader and certainly demands one's full attention, but it's worth the effort.

 

Review: Thrust

Thrust: Poems - Heather Derr-Smith

Thrust

verb

1. to push forcibly; shove; put or drive with force...


Heather Derr-Smith's latest collection of poetry is aptly titled. There is considerable force behind every poem in this collection. These are not docile poems about a girl and her pet chicken. These are poems that contain throbbing, shivering, cutting, ripping, crushing, knocking, tasting, bleeding, sparring, breaking, sucking, and, most notably, thrusting. The result is a collection of poems that are very visceral, but which quickly lose their shock.

I'm not a big fan of the meandering style or the crass depictions displayed in Thrust, but its the repetitiveness of it that really distanced me. They lost their punch. Readers of poetry who appreciate an author that doesn't ever let up, however, will likely love the weight of this collection.

Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player One - Ernest Cline

I wasn't very interested in Ready Player One when it was first published and in the years that followed. I'd known several readers who gave it very high praise, but I wasn't convinced. The reasons they supplied rested primarily on nostalgia. It sounded like the kind of story I'd love to snub, but, I admit, I was curious. I figured I might pick it up if I made it through the books I really wanted to read. (But that day would nevercome.)

One might imagine that the turning point came as a result of the forthcoming film adaptation of Ready Player One. The movie trailer has been quite popular in recent months. Many are picking up the novel for the first time. For me, it wasn't the movie trailer. My reason: my library is currently doing a community read of the novel and as I passed by a table filled with a hundred copies, I went with a whim. (Rather spontaneous of me.) I picked it up and started reading.

And I hated it.

Seriously, I. HATED. IT.

I don't abandon books often, but I was freakishly close to abandoning Ready Player One. I was seventy or eighty pages in. Not only was I bored, but I was angered. This was terrible writing. The plot was contrived. A flurry of action was followed by ten pages of info-dropping. Our protagonist goes on an endless rant about religion that has nothing to do with the plot. Why? Because clearly the author wants us to know how he feels about religion. Irrelevant. The world building was chaotic—oh yeah, it's the future, so much has changed, but only things that relate directly to the plot—everything else has remained the same. Apparently, we as a society have reached the height of interactive virtual reality, but still deal in basic ATMs, message boards, YouTube, laptops, and parcels and pizzas delivered by humans. Lazy. Uninspired. The story was unbelievable. No one could do the things these characters were doing. We're supposed to believe that people in their early twenties could tear through every bit of significant pop entertainment of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and somehow have time to scour over much of it hundreds of more times. No world that is in such desperate need for energy is going to waste such vast amounts of energy playing 8-bit video games. Somehow, this is supposed to save the world? Ready Player One sells itself as some brilliant vision of the future, but in reality it is a preposterous, self-absorbed fantasy by a nostalgic author with a major fetish for the 80s. Ugggghhhh.

I was so close to abandoning this novel. Why didn't I? One reason: I didn't have anything readily available to read in its place. I told myself I'd pick up another book next chance I got, but in the meantime I'd read another chapter to two, just to have something to read.

And then the bastard of a book pulled me in.

How sucked in was I? I'm almost embarrassed to say that I tore through this book. Like the next 300 pages in 24 hours. Does this mean the story became more plausible? That some deep meaning was unearthed in the OASIS? The juvenile writing improved? No. It means that I, a literary snob, was pulled into the... the... action of the story. Dare I say, the action was riveting. The story was... fun.

But it was fun the same way eating an entire package of pre-packaged cookies is. You know you can do better as far as taste. You know you should do better in regards to nutrition. But you can't stop. Your fat cells are screaming for more and it's all you have in the way of sweets. Okay, maybe that's a bad analogy. A more apt analogy might be... it's like a video game. Or binge watching your favorite series. You know there are a million ways you can better spend your time. You know that when you reach the end of your life, you're probably not going to say, “Dang, I wish I'd played more Dig Dug.” But you're enjoying yourself; what's the harm in that, right? Maybe.

That's what it is to read Ready Player One. It's low on substance, but it's a good action story. I wanted more from it and, had I known how it would turn out, I probably wouldn't have read it in the first place. But I don't regret reading it. It was enjoyable in its own way (but now I need to go on a reading diet).

Before I close, I'd like to take a moment to address one final thing about Ready Player One. While Cline may have had the best intentions in heart, his inclusion of a “heavyset African American” lesbian left me very uncomfortable. Why? It felt horribly, horribly forced. To me, this seems an example of someone trying to be inclusive who just doesn't get it. Whether the author was trying to be all-embracing out of the goodness of his own heart, or merely satisfying political correctness hoping it would find him readers, I cannot say for sure, but the portrayal is insensitive at best. The attempted message seems to be “look at the character, not the skin,” but how it's delivered is more of a message of “isn't technology great? Finally, everyone can be a thin straight white male!” Ugh. Like I said earlier in my review, the future is completely different, but it sure does look an awfully lot like 2011 to me: people live in stacked trailers, the world has run out of fuel, virtual reality reigns in the OASIS, there are only six Star Wars movies, one Blade Runner movie, and too many people just don't get it.

Ready Player One is a novel that I would normally award no more than two stars to. It failed in regards to the characters, the setting, the plot, and the prose—all lacked exceptionality. But I had so much fun. And I guess that should count as something.

Review: Elmet

Elmet - Fiona Mozley

When the Man Booker Prize judges name an unknown debut novelist, it's advisable to take notice. And when the named novel makes the shortlist, you can know you've found a new author worth paying attention to.

Fiona Mozley's Elmet is a finely-crafted moody story. The tale focuses on a father and his two children, Cathy and Daniel. The story is told from Daniel's perspective which is an excellent choice for a narrator. Daniel is unique and interesting; although he is central to the story, he exists largely as an observer. It's what happens to those closest to Daniel that truly propels the story.

Mozley wonderfully draws the rugged Yorkshire setting. The language throughout this novel is beautiful and vivid, but keeps with the atmosphere of the rural setting. Whether the characters occupy the surrounding woods or their own living room, the descriptions are always organic, yet crushing (like the forest).

[Daddy] led Cathy and me by our hands through the narrow corridors of our school. The ceilings were low and lit by halogen strip bulbs that flickered and shone the same colour as the magnolia pain on the walls, making it appear as if the light were emanating from the plaster. The only windows were long and thing and tucked just beneath the ceiling, well above the heads of the children who walked up and down these corridors so that when they looked up and out into the world beyond all they could see was the sky. On that day the sky was a mesh of criss-crossed grey and white cords being ripped and tugged and frayed by colliding winds.


Elmet may feel a bit light in the middle as the bulk of the story rests on the opening chapters and the ever-expected conclusion. Once the story comes full circle, one can see the necessity for the slow build in the middle. This is a story that doesn't rely heavily on being overly ornate or on the use of tricks. It hits hard at times, but not at the risk of losing its heart or voice.

Fans of Winter's Bone and His Bloody Project may appreciate the dark atmosphere of Elmet. The author gifts the reader with a bit more sensitivity than you might find in other similar tales, but that should not be a deterrent to any reader searching for a contemporary tragedy. This is a dark tale, but one that doesn't lose sight of its themes, love, honor, and devotion.

Review: Writing Down the Bones

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within - Julia Cameron, Natalie Goldberg

“You're a writer? Don't you just love Writing Down the Bones?”

This is one of those books that people just assume you've read when you have an MFA in writing. I had heard quite a bit about it, but I hadn't actually read it until now. But since this book has clearly been highly praised and circulated within the writing community since the 1980s, it's no surprise that I've come across so much of Goldberg's sage advice throughout the years.

The problem with a book like this is that I have heard it all before. It's a testament to what Goldberg had to say on the subject of writing, but my mind was certainly not blown by reading this. And so I'm not sure if my overall lack of love for this book is indicative of an overpraised lackluster book, or a wonderfully brilliant book that has been dulled by its successors. Frankly, I think it is both.

Some of Goldberg's ideas are golden. She's very much into the “let go” mentality of writing. She has really great advice for how to achieve this. Many of her thoughts on mindfulness are the words I have heard and appreciated over and again. But when you look at the whole of this book, you find that that really is the summation of the author's advice. Sure, she has a small exercise here and a tidbit of non-zen based advice there, but so much of this book is about writing mindfully. Writing mindfully is exactly what I need, but reading this book thirty-two years after its original publication, it is mostly stuff I've heard before.

Writing Down the Bones is excellent for the beginning writer or the writer who wants to approach their work more naturally. It should probably be required reading in undergrad writing programs. But for a broader, more modern perspective of the writing craft or for solid inspiration, I'd look elsewhere. Personally, I loved McCann's Letters to a Young Writer. It's a slim volume and McCann surely will not teach you “everything you need to know about writing” or even come close to doing so, but it features a great mix of topics that are 100% inspiring (though many of those ideas were probably inspired by Goldberg's book).

Review: An Artist of the Floating World

An Artist of the Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro

Writing a review of a Kazuo Ishiguro book is like reading a Kazuo Ishiguro book: it's the same thing as the last time. What can I say different in this review? It's mostly the same: Ishiguro is a brilliant author with a gorgeous understanding of the language; he drops that displaced unreliable narrator right into the middle of your living room to win your affection and confuse the hell out of you; then he pulls the thread holding everything together and it all crumples. It always works, sometimes better than others. This is my fifth outing with Ishiguro and it's always similar. Each time, the primary departure from the previous story is a variation in time and place.

What makes An Artist of the Floating World different? Well, in this one the time and place is post-WWII Japan. The story centers on Ono, an imperialist who is trying to find his place in a Japan dominated by the politics and culture of its American occupiers. The story has obviously wonderful dynamics and Ishiguro's outsider status—he hadn't seen Japan since he was five years old—lends emotional strength and believability to the plight of Ono.

How does it compare to other works of Ishiguro's? This one falls right in the middle for me. It has a much more interesting and well-built story than the author's first and his most recent, A Pale View of the Hills and The Buried Giantrespectively. Also, Ono's narrative is thoroughly engaging. The novel does not, however, have nearly the emotional weight that Ishiguro's two most famous novel have. The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go both carry such an unexpected punch that I found it difficult to distance myself from them afterwards. Ono's unreliability is established so early and mentioned so frequently that I think it's hard for the reader to ever fall completely under his spell. In the end, you're not quite sure what the truth is. With Remains...'s Stevens and Never Let Me Go's Kathy, the truth was painfully clear to everyone but the narrators themselves. An Artist of the Floating World lacks this subtle brutality, but it is still a wonderful story that effectively addresses the changing views of Japanese art and culture during reconstruction.

Review: Borderline

Borderline (The Arcadia Project) - Mishell Baker

I'm not into Fantasy. Nor do I go for investigative mysteries. And I generally don't care much for series. So it's probably a bit of a surprise for everyone that I'd pick up a novel that has every bit of these traits. There are two reasons I did so. One, I want to venture into new reading grounds. I figured that with this wonderful cover and description, Borderline held more promise than most books in the genre. Two, as someone diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, I take a particular interest in books that tackle the subject. Here, our protagonist, Millie, suffers from BPD. My curiosity was piqued.

As a complete novel, Borderline did not impress me as much as my four stars may imply. I didn't buy into Millie or her diagnosis. At the novel's opening, she is under psychiatric watch after a botched suicide attempt—not the kind of safeand careful suicide attempts that characterize much of a Borderline's life, but the final “I truly do not care anymore” attempt. We're to believe Millie has hit rock bottom. By the end of this novel, I would celebrate if Millie had done no more than drag herself out of bed and make her own breakfast. That would certainly be more believable. While I'd like that story, the average genre reader probably wouldn't. Instead, Millie picks up the pieces rather quickly—broken pieces, yes, but she gathers them nonetheless—and begins a journey of self-discovery and supernatural crime fighting.

Maybe this novel and the resulting series of books is really an allegory for the mental health journey. Maybe it's not expected to be realistic—it is Fantasy, after all. But I personally would've been in Millie's corner much more if she'd resembled a person living with BPD, not just a normal person who battles with BPD symptoms when it's convenient to the plot. And I think this is true of all the characters. I liked many of the characters and Baker does a fabulous job of creating a memorable and interesting cast. But these are people who are supposedly some of the craziest, yet they can function and most often do. In this story, I wanted to see paranormal detectives who struggled with the decision of “do I stop evil from infesting the world” or “do I pull the covers back over my head and hope my death is as pathetic as I am”?

Obviously, I had my personal qualms, but as far as Mystery-Fantasy hybrid series go, this was fairly entertaining. Now, I'd originally intended to read the whole series, but I just wasn't that into this first installment, so I don't think I will. It's just not my thing and there are so many other books I'd rather spend my days with. But as a non-reader of the style, I must say that while I didn't enjoy this book as it was intended, I also didn't dislike it. And strong dislike is my normal response to stories that start throwing around magical incantations and fairies and what not.

So my four star rating does not mean “Borderline was as wonderful as the last Toni Morrison novel I read.” There's no comparison. But it is meant to show that it is a pretty good novel for its style. With a little better characterization and some toning down of the action, I might've not stopped at four stars, but I don't want the reader of this review to think I'm growing too soft. If you're into Fantasy Mysteries, I think this is a great choice, but clearly I'm no expert.

My 2018 Reading Plan

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Bone People cover

 

The Bone People by Keri Hulme

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

 

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

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

 

The Grass Is Singing cover

 

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

Not Without LaughterNot Without Laughter by Langston Hughes

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

 

The Sky Unwashed coverThe Sky Unwashed by Irene Zabytko

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

This Side of Brightness coverThis Side of Brightness by Colum McCann

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

 

And my unfinished books from prior years:

The Counterfeiters by Andre Gide

The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies

Demons by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Mama Day by Gloria Naylor

Union Dues by John Sayles

Weeds by Edith Summers Kelley

 

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

 

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

 

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