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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Review: Solanin

Solanin - Inio Asano

It took a little while for Solanin to grow on me. Initially, the story, the characters, and the art felt a little too juvenile for my taste. By the end, I'd still agree there were certainly a few immature elements to the novel, but for the most part, Solanin is surprisingly mature.

Ultimately, this is a great story about what it means to be a young adult, journeying from a future of certainty into the world of reality. These characters face anxieties they couldn't have imagined only a year or two earlier. For the most part, Asano's depiction is painfully realistic. The reader truly gets the sense that these characters have very limited options, and that what options they do have are narrowing drastically by the day.

Like most Japanese narratives I've encountered (mostly speaking of anime here), the story jumps around in time without explanation. I appreciate that the creators of these works trust their audience to figure things out. That said, Solanin's occasional jumps in time may be confusing for some readers.

Lastly, I thought the ending was bit too dry, but it was fitting for a novel about average twenty-somethings living out their average lives. Solanin does not end on that note that leaves you wanting more, but it leaves you with an understanding that is not easy to ignore.

Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale: A Novel - Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale gets off to a great start. Right away, Katherine Arden transports the reader to the frigid Russian landscape. The setting is breathtaking, to think back on any moment of this novel brings forth a recollection of seeing my own breath. That's how wonderfully the author draws the setting. And nowhere in these three hundred pages does she relent. This is a story that will have you reaching for an extra blanket.

Arden also excels in creating characters with as much color and character as the setting. Vasya, Pyotr, and Sasha are all endearing and intriguing in their own ways. Even the characters that could easily fall into stereotypes are given some depth, characters like Konstantin, the village priest, and Anna, the stepmother who is perceived as being insane. These are not the clichés you often find in the genre.

Arden builds upon the fairy tales and magical realism she establishes early in the story until it begins to steer the story. And this is where perhaps my own particular biases kept me from fully enjoying this story. I like a little magic in any story, but I only go so far with it. Fantasy is not, nor has ever been, my thing. When the plot began to be driven by more fantastic elements, I became a bit bored. Mythical creatures fighting in a forest—yawn—haven't I seen this all before?

Certainly, The Bear and the Nightingale brought to mind The Chronicles of Narnia series. While C.S. Lewis's series was intended for a younger audience and was based on a Christian perspective, Arden's novel is much more mature and is focused on mythic traditions and an affinity for nature. The beauty of Arden’s framework and of her prose is unparalleled, however. I look forward to reading the next book in the series.

Review: The Counterfeiters

The Counterfeiters - André Gide

Steinbeck made me do it.

Years ago, while working on my thesis for my master's degree, I learned everything there was to know about East of Eden. One bit of information I learned was the books that had influenced Steinbeck, particularly in his writing of EoE. There were titles I'd heard of: Moby-Dick and Don Quixote. And there was this: The Counterfeiters. Because I loved all things East of Eden, I made it a point to read these influential books.

Now that I've read The Counterfeiters, I see how it influenced Steinbeck. The Counterfeiters is an intelligent and imaginative novel. And it is perhaps the earliest example of post-modernist metafiction I've encountered. Here is a novel called The Counterfeiters, a novel which includes a character who is an author writing a book named The Counterfeiters. And as the character in the novel shapes the story, so changes the story in the reader's hands. Lovely. I thoroughly enjoy works like this. (Steinbeck's original draft of East of Eden featured some similar metafictional elements, but many of these were toned down at the instance of Steinbeck's editor and publisher.)

Also groundbreaking was Gide's approach to sexuality. The majority of the characters in the novel are either gay or bisexual. Their relationships are presented realistically—in both positive and negative light—just like you'd expect from any heterosexual relationship. Published in 1925, this display of authentic, non-sensationalized homosexual relationships was surely an original take.

So The Counterfeiters was definitely a groundbreaking novel, but oh, is it void of anything enjoyable. It's intelligent and creative, but there's not much of a story. It is art for the sake of art. And it's so incredibly hard to follow. The Counterfeitershas a cast of characters that rivals War and Peace; the difference is that The Counterfeiters introduces these character in a third of the space Tolstoy allowed for his characters to develop. Another big difference, War and Peacewas vastly interesting.

While trying to follow this novel, I stumbled upon the following graphic. I think it nicely illustrates one of the problems I had with The Counterfeiters.

graphic by Morn the Gorn
What you see here is the cast of characters, and their convoluted relationships. It's not unlike a graphic you might find for War and Peace. Halfway through this novel, though, I couldn't honestly tell you more than one or two details about no more than two or three of these characters. Many of the others were recognizable by name only. Looking at this diagram should have made the story easier to read, but it didn't, and that's purely because Gide made a much too tangled mess of a novel. Honestly, and I hate admitting this, it got so bad that I began to skim pages and skip entire passages. I just didn't enjoy anything about this story.

To Gide's credit, however, this novel was definitely groundbreaking. For me, the way it shattered the confines of story and sexuality were the only redeeming qualities. I'm glad he wrote it, if for no other reason than it changed the landscape of the modern novel, but I have no desire to read this novel ever again.

Review: Friday Black

Friday Black - Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Short story collections are always a mixed bag. Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah's debut collection Friday Black is no exception. Some of these stories are entirely passable; however, the very best stories make up for these flat ones. They are brutally honest and visceral. They primarily tackle issues of racism and consumerism (hence the title), but do so while mixing the horror of Shirley Jackson with equal parts science fiction and cutting-edge contemporary fiction. The pieces that shine in this collection do so with such vibrance and originality that one cannot easily deny Adjei-Brenyah's future as an accomplished writer.


Review: My Year of Rest and Relaxation

My Year of Rest and Relaxation - Ottessa Moshfegh

No doubt this book is a tough sell. Well what's it about? It's about a young woman, living in NYC in 2000, and she's depressed, so she takes a lot of drugs and sleeps a lot. Then what happens? She takes more drugs and sleeps even more. Then? Well, she takes more drugs, but has trouble sleeping. Okay, let's jump past all the drugs and sleeping, what happens after all that? She wakes up, I guess. That's it? Well, there's also this whole obsession with Whoopi Goldberg. That's pretty interesting.

So my love of Whoopi began with Star Trek: The Next Generation. For those who do not know, she played Guinan, the ship's bartender.

Despite her secondary role, Guinan was my favorite character from that series. So already I was impressed with My Year of Rest and Relaxation for the unnamed narrator's fascination with Goldberg. But when I found out her obsession began with Guinan—oh, Ottessa, you have captured my heart. I digress...

And I still haven't sold you on this book, have I?

Okay, Moshfegh has a way of making a simple story semi-interesting. No, My Year... is certainly not riveting, but the beauty of the language and the inner workings of the narrator's mind are engaging. Perhaps this novel reached a point about two-thirds of the way through when it began to feel like the idea had run its course, but that final third wasn't a drag by any means. Part of why this book succeeds is, I think, because Moshfegh is in no way heavy-handed with the connections she makes to an apathetic people, a dying art scene, and a wake-up call. The few characters who revolve around our narrator's world are unlikable and played for humor, which worked, but didn't allow me to grow close to any of them. This leaves only the narrator who is over-privileged and despicable in her own ways, but at least she understands a love of Guinan. (Sometimes all you need is Whoopi.)

It's not easy to convince anyone to read a book about a woman who sleeps. And that's okay, because many readers probably won't love My Year of Rest and Relaxation. At times, it's slow, dry, and depressing. I think with all things Moshfegh writes, it either subtly grows on you, or it doesn't.

Review: My Boyfriend Is a Bear

My Boyfriend Is a Bear - Pamela Ribon, Cat Farris

My Boyfriend Is a Bear is the story of an unlikely romance between a woman and her bear. This is a sweet graphic novel that is not as perverse as the title may imply. Ribon provides a romance with all the elements you expect: an unlikely couple, a chance encounter, and the mistrust and pressure to evolve for a partner that causes division. Farris’s art is a simple and colorful comic style, but it fits the subject. One way this graphic novel stands out is in its lack of sentimentality. This is a sweet story, but it’s not cloying. It parallels a realistic relationship without losing its heart or trying too hard. Lots to grah here.

Review: The Library Book

The Library Book - Susan Orlean

Prior to the arrival of this book, I was unfamiliar with the Los Angeles library fire of 1986. I'd never noticed journalist and author Susan Orlean before. When I read the description for The Library Book, however, I was intrigued. This sounded like a fabulous, riveting book. Here was the story of a great library on fire, and the investigation of how that fire started.

But that's only about thirty percent of the book. The other seventy percent is the story of individual librarians, the history of arson, personal reflections about the evolution of libraries, and whatever else the author wishes to discuss. The book is bogged down with so much behind-the-scene details of your average library that I was bored. Now I should mention that I have worked at a library for over eleven years. I love being a librarian. It's easily the best job I've ever had that I've been paid for doing. This connection was part of my initial interest in this book. And I imagine that some of The Library Book's biggest supporters are librarians. Finally, here is a book that champions what we, as librarians, do daily.

Despite Susan Orlean's expertise in writing, however, I don't think she does the subject justice. Ultimately, her story is about Libraries in general, but often she uses the Los Angeles Public Library staff as her example. Without a doubt, LAPL does many great things. They've been behind some wonderful initiatives. But Orlean's portrayal of librarians perpetuates so many of the stereotypes that I caught myself rolling my eyes frequently. Imagine, shushing librarians chastising a patron for eating a bag of chips!!! The horror.

Even while propagating the image of these old-fashioned librarians, Orlean is trying to convince the reader how cool libraries are because the librarians have tattoos, and because they're filling a hole in social services and have embraced modern technology, and because librarians have tattoos (seriously, I don't know how many times she mentions this). She makes some good points throughout, but I couldn't help but wonder, who cares? Is this why readers picked up this book? So they could get a behind-the-scenes look at a library's shipping and receiving department? So they could hear about what one library's user policies are from its security staff? So they could read an entire chapter on Overdrive? Maybe library users are hungry for this info, but as someone living it day-to-day, I found it tedious.

What I'd personally wanted from this book was a specific story: the story of the Los Angeles Public Library fire. I'd wanted the harrowing account of the fire itself, as well as the aftermath. I'd wanted to hear about the crime and criminal who set the fire. And that story is here, but in limited detail. In fact, even that story is incomplete, because while the beginning of the book leads the reader to believe there are definitive answers to the LAPL fire, Orlean eventually convinces the reader that it's largely speculation.

I do want to add here that some of the tangential information is interesting. I don't want a reader of this review to think that everything about that other 70 percent of the book is a drag, because it isn't. There are stories about the city's first female City Librarian, Mary Foy, the expansion of the library system under the direction of Mary L. Jones, and her subsequent ousting that put the eccentric and controversial Charles Lummis in charge. Parts of these histories, as well as others, are interesting and sometimes relevant to the story. The vast majority of this book, however, is trivia for the sake of trivia. It's rambling and probably not all that interesting to the ordinary reader. (Boy, that 4.19 average rating seems to disagree with me, however.)

No doubt Orlean is a wonderful writer and skilled researcher, but the story of “the Los Angeles Public Library fire” just isn't here. I wonder if she embarked on this journey unaware of where it might lead, and had to settle for a thinly veiled textbook about libraries in general. Maybe this was her story all along. If you haven't been to a library in ages, you may read this book and say to yourself, “Wow, libraries are cool.” Then again, as one Goodreads reviewer summed up in her one-star review, "If you didn't think libraries were boring before reading this book- you will now."

Review: Then We Came to the End

Then We Came To The End - Joshua Ferris


I want to talk about Joshua Ferris's wonderful novel Then We Came to the End in a little bit. But first, I want to talk about something I just learned because I read this book. I want to talk about abridgment.


I've always avoided abridged works. As an author, I would feel insulted having my work butchered AFTER it had been chopped to pieces for years and deemed publishable. If a work needs further editing, this should be done before publication. I get it: the publisher knows a work is too large or too difficult to attain mass appeal, so they simplify it and sell more copies. It's all about sales.


Now for years, I had it in my head that abridgment nixed unnecessary words and scenes, that it was a fairly gentle process that remedied an author's diarrhea of the pen. I still didn't agree with the process of abridging a work, but I didn't see how it could cause that much harm. Then I downloaded an audio copy of Then We Came to the End.


Something didn't seem right about my newly downloaded copy of Ferris's novel. The runtime showed as six hours. There was no way this 400-page book could be read in less time than an average night of sleep. I looked a little deeper and discovered that naughty word: ABRIDGED. Fortunately, I had a copy of the print book on hand, so I wasn't worried. Then I had an idea: What if I listened to the abridged audio as I read along? I would finally know what “abridged” really meant. So that's what I did.


What did I learn? Abridgment is not the deletion of “unnecessary words and scenes.” Abridgment is straight up altering an author's work to be more palatable. Characters are completely removed from the book. Riveting scenes are cut. Chronology is changed. The theme is lost. In Then We Came to the End, dynamics were completely changed when one or two characters were completely removed from a scene. Dialogue that is important to the story is stripped from the mouth of a character who has been eliminated only to be placed willy-nilly into the mouth of another. What were some of the things lost to abridgment in Then We Came to the End? The office shooting. Old Brizz and the totem. Martin's blindfolding of Lynn—the single act of which propels a dislikable character into a decent human being. Carl Garbedian. Any and all mention of these things, amongst many others, was stripped from the abridged version. The result is a disjointed office novel entirely about Lynn Mason's cancer. This isn't mere omission—it's blatant alteration.


So I say all that to say this. Abridgment is wack. If you read this novel, don't read the abridged version. You'll be missing out on some of this novel's best parts. If you've read this novel and don't have any idea what I'm talking about when I mention the office shooting, then you were probably bamboozled by an abridged copy, and I'm sorry.

Let's put all that mess behind us now...


Then We Came to the End is not an easy novel. For so much of its opening third, it seems like nothing more than ridiculous vignettes of office satire. It's not all that brilliant, or eye-opening, or even coherent. There are some laughs and some eye rolls, but it all feels strangely genuine.


It's easy to give up on Then We Came to the End. It can feel like it's going nowhere, and while there are fun and games in the first half, imagining a whole book with nothing else to offer can be a deterrent. For some readers, giving up would be a mistake. In my opinion, TWCttE is worth the initial investment. I do, however, recognize that this book is definitely not for all readers. Some will find the novel tedious and pointless regardless of its redeeming qualities.


The absurdity that carries the story in the first half gives way to a thread of sadness that grows thicker as the end nears. TWCttE becomes a somewhat dark book, enshrouded in absurdity, but bursting with feeling. Despite whatever annoyances you may have for these characters in the beginning, there's a strong chance that by the end, you'll be rooting for them. It's almost as though Ferris has in this novel created a parallel to the actual office experience. Sure, you can't stand most of your coworkers, but after being in a tight space with them for years, you may begin to sympathize with them (well, some of them, anyway).


From the midpoint forward, Then We Came to the End delivers both captivating and touching moments. Most importantly, through everything, it feels truly genuine. This is particularly true in the novel's conclusion. Then We Came to the End isn't an easy read and it's definitely not a read everyone will enjoy, but it will certainly reward some of those who stick with it—that is, assuming they're reading the unabridged novel.


Review: Severance

Severance  - Ling Ma

Severance is one of those stories that is hard to nail down. It's largely post-apocalyptic, yet it has a very contemporary feel to it. It's dark and yet it's darkly comic. It's painted as a straight-forward dystopian tale, yet it may be an allegory for the way we live. It's meandering while focused. It's terrifying, it's sleep inducing. It's great and it's really not all that good.

For all the positive things I can say about this novel, I think the reason I'm also ambivalent toward it is due to the unevenness of the book. Perhaps there is some filler where there should have been more character development. I didn't really feel invested in these characters, and some of them were little more than tropes. When dealing with characters who are facing life and death, it's important for a reader to believe in what's at stake. For the most part, I didn't. The purpose of these characters was largely to move the plot forward.

Where the novel succeeds, however, is in its world building and its larger story. The parallels that are drawn between the capitalist world of Candance's past with that of her plague-infested present are brilliant. The pandemic that sweeps the world in Severance causes its victims to repeat menial tasks without thought. This continues until they finally expire. Thus an avid reader may turn the pages of her favorite book without reading a word for days. A taxi driver may drive his same route, even picking up passengers, but all without a thought or care, day and night, until his body just gives out. And that's where this story wonderfully elicits questions of how allegorical this whole story is.

My opinion of this slim novel swayed throughout. I really liked parts of it—thought it was brilliant at times. Other parts were just a bit too unsophisticated. In the end, I guess I feel so-so about it. It certainly didn't help that the final third of this novel came across as rushed and formulaic. This was the part of the story where I felt any decent author of dystopian fiction could've stepped in and done an equally commendable job. It's an ending that should satisfy readers of the genre looking for a piece of action that is familiar, but as a reader looking for something original or thought-provoking, I felt it was a let down.

Severance is an easy read and one that I would recommend to readers of dystopian fiction. Other readers could probably adopt a take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward this one and be fine.

Review: There There

There There - Tommy Orange

“That's what I'm trying to get out of this whole thing. All put together, all our stories. Because all we got right now are reservation stories, and shitty versions from outdated history textbooks.”

In terms of narrative device, structure, pacing, and plot, Tommy Orange does nothing new with his debut There There. In many ways, this novel is the plot-driven, multi-voiced narrative we have come to expect from the lot of best-selling book club selections. It falls into the trend that seemed wholly fun and still original ten years ago, but has since perhaps become cloying. This presentation is still effective and often successful, it's just that it feels too familiar.

So what makes There There one of the best books of 2018? Sure, the story is interesting. The characters are well rounded. The pacing, the setting... All that jazz. What I loved about There There was the way it turned my expectation of Native American literature on its head. Through his characters and his own authorial intrusions, Orange asks some stellar questions about the story of Indigenous people. Can a story be true to Native American traditions and still be modern?

The problem with Indigenous art in general is that it's stuck in the past. The catch, or the double bind, about the whole thing is this: If it isn't pulling from tradition, how is it Indigenous? And if it is stuck in tradition, in the past, how can it be relevant to other Indigenous people living now, how can it be modern?

Orange accomplishes this by including a diverse cast. Yes, they're all Native Americans, but no two are alike. And certainly none of them fulfill all of the tropes most readers have come to expect from an Indigenous character. They're young and old, thugs and nerds, focused and lost. The story also utilizes varied components, from a pow-wow and a beer bottle to a drone and a 3-d printed gun. This is far from just another “reservation story.”

I'm willing to bet that were a few titles published in 2018 that could surpass this one in my opinion, but I have yet to read those. For all the books I did read this past year, There There was the most riveting, wonderfully drawn, and surprising. I look forward to seeing what Orange does next.

Review: Union Dues

Union Dues - John Sayles

John Sayles is so fabulous at capturing the history of a people and making its politics tangible. His most recent work, the epic A Moment in the Sun, pulled me in completely with its focus on the dawn of the 20th century. In this earlier work, Union Dues, Sayles captures so much of the time-specific visuals he rendered in A Moment…, but moves it nearly seventy years later, to the radical 1960s. 

Union Dues tackles labor and revolution. As someone who is deeply interested in the 1960s group known as the Weathermen, I enjoyed this book's nods to the group. Though Sayles used the fictitious Third Way, a group that aims to be less radical than other revolutionary groups (e.g. The Weathermen), he captures the inner workings and sentiments in a way that is convincing. Between the dialogue and the action, Sayles forms a story that is quite believable and breathes naturally.

Wrestling with politics, class, and generational issues, Union Dues asks some tough questions. It lacks the scope, the sheer brilliance of A Moment in the Sun, and perhaps some of its organic growth, but it is an excellent story on its own, particularly for those interested in the era.

Review: The Long Take

The Long Take - Robin Robertson

There are always one or two Man Booker nominees that are all about the form, excessively so. That's not a bad thing, because sometimes those books still have substance, or maybe just a beauty that astonishes. But it's not uncommon for some of these books to lack all but form. Enter this year's novel in verse, The Long Take.

What's great about The Long Take? There are some gorgeous passages that read in their poetic form with pure delight:

The view from the window was west, over to Russian Hill,
and the bay, and the Golden Gate.
He doesn't deserve this city,
its play of height and depth, this
changing sift of color and weather.
The water held in it a shimmy of light
and the days were warming through June and July
and the road that threads through the hem of the Highlands
would now be decked with wild stock, lupins and apple blossom
all the way to Chéticamp and Pleasant Bay.
She will be wearing her sleeveless dress, cornflower blue
and walking away.
He could not call her back to his life: which is a horror,
which is the dead calf in the bank-head field, a black flap
bubbling with maggots,
ugly and wrong.
Her clean eyes could not see this,
what he has become.

And there are passages that when put into verse drag and drag, particularly the lists Robertson likes to utilize throughout this work:

This afternoon there was a film-shoot going –
all the regular stuff, generators, cables, lights on tripod,
camera tracks, grip stands, hangers, wardrobe rails –
and there was Cornel Wilde having a smoke,
talking to this short guy, so they all strolled over, friendly like,
to say hello. Rennert wanted to talk about Leave Her to Heaven
and Gene Tierney, so he did,
and the actor was smiling and nodding,
so Walked turned to the other guy,
who said: 'Hi, I'm Joe.'
'Are you in the picture?' Walker said.
'Nah,' he smiled. 'I'm just making it.'
Then it clicked. He'd seen his face in Photoplay.
This was the man who shot Deadly Is the Female –
Gun Crazy
, as it came to be.
This was Joseph H. Lewis.
'How did you shoot that sequence, eh?' he was asking, suddenly,
'Y'know, from the back of that getaway car?'
'Well, son, I'll tell you –
if you tell me a decent bar on Main Street
near the Banner Theater. We're there tonight.'
'Easy. The King Eddy's on the very same block, east of 5th.'

The Long Take vacillates between these two extremes: poems that are not allowed to breathe in the confines of the larger narrative; a narrative that is broken into verse purely for the sake of being verse.

Once I began to treat each brief section as a single poem linked to a larger collection, once I began to read them aloud, or imagine them being read aloud, I started to enjoy this “novel” much more. Still, the lack of narrative and story, paired with the inconsistency of the verses, did not make a very favorable impression on me. The promise of a story about a veteran dealing with PTSD fell flat. There are some good moments in The Long Take, but sometimes it takes far too long to find them.

Review: The Dollhouse Murders

The Dollhouse Murders - Betty Ren Wright

When you work at a library, it's not uncommon for discussion to center around books. So imagine, one day, my colleagues and I are discussing the juvenile classics of the 80s. (By the way, this conversation was birthed while browsing the pages of Paperback Crush by Gabrielle Moss.) From this conversation came a call to read The Dollhouse Murders. I said, sure, why not. Immediately I regretted this. I had far too many books already on my to-read pile. It was Man Booker season, and I really didn't have time for a juvenile mystery about a dollhouse. But I checked out the book anyway.

Fortunately, the copy my library had was the original 1983 hardback. Why was this a good thing? Because it transported me to a very different time. How different? Let's take a look at the novel's description from the flap:

Each time Amy goes up to the attic in the middle of the night, the dollhouse is filled with a ghostly light and the dolls have moved from where she last left them. Even though Amy's terrified, she knows the dolls are trying to tell her something. But what? Could their movements be connected to the grisly murders that took place years before?
Amy becomes increasingly alarmed when her aunt Clare, who owns the dollhouse, grows angry at her questions.
In a spine-chilling climax, Amy and her retarded sister unravel the mystery and liberate their aunt from a terrible burden of guilt. [emphasis mine]

That was the 1980s for you. Amy's sister didn't even have a name. (Fortunately, Betty Ren Wright was much more sensitive to Amy's sister than whomever wrote that copy at her publisher's. Amy's sister is named Louann by the way.) I cringed as I cracked the cover.

I admit my expectations were low. I can be a little bit of a book snob, and The Dollhouse Murders clearly wasn't going to be “my thing.” What more can I say? I was sucked right in. Taking into consideration the intended juvenile audience, The Dollhouse Murders presents an interesting cast of characters, as well as a story that is chilling and riveting. Sure, it's an absurd plot about dolls reenacting a murder, but it's well-written and compelling. It's a mildly scary mystery, not all that different from your average Stephen King story. Sure, for every part King there's one part Judy Blume, but I consider that an asset. For one thing, Blume is far better at creating believable, multi-dimensional characters than King ever was. No different here. Though The Dollhouse Murders was certainly little more than juvenile escapist lit, it was a very entertaining read.

Also a plus, the original author photo:

BAM! Check that out. Make no mistake about that cat's expression: he or she is the real writer here.

Review: The Girl Who Smiled Beads

The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After - Clemantine Wamariya

From the opening pages of The Girl Who Smiled Beads, Clemantine Wamariya creates an image of being the most privileged refugee to have come out of Rwanda. I knew I was being judgmental, but it bothered me that even in this—genocide—it is the privileged who are given the opportunity to tell their stories. I tried to shake this animosity. Good for her, I told myself, though I wasn't sure I completely believed it. But the more I read, the “better” her situation became. Wamariya left Rwanda too young to really comprehend what was going on; by the end of the book, she has told the reader all about her extravagant shopping sprees, her acceptance to Yale, and her appearance on The Oprah Show. It was frustrating, because I had wanted to hear the story of a refugee sans celebrity status.

And still, mixed in with all the examples of extravagance are times when it's clear that Wamariya is your “everyday” refugee. The moment this first became clear to me was nearly 100 pages in, when Wamariya examines the word genocide. “The word genocide cannot articulate the one-person experience—the real experience of each of the millions it purports to describe.” As she tears apart the word over the next two pages, I understood that even though she was a very small child, even though the trauma may be significantly different than it was for those much older, the brutality must have touched her. Throughout the book there are these moments of insight, padded by tales of extravagance. I was torn, both by the heartache and by my true feelings about this book.

To her credit, Wamariya never denies the extraordinary outcome of her situation. She knows she is an exception and this is refreshing. Because she accepts this, there's some degree of humility in her narrative. Add to this her introspection, so articulately rendering the horrors of mass murder, that one may assume she understood more than her age might have let on.

Weeks after finishing this book, I still have these mixed feelings. On one hand, here is a voice of the conflict in Rwanda, a small child who flees to become a young woman who's handed the so-called “American Dream,” and I think, why does it have to be her? On the other hand, here is a refugee whose entire childhood was torn apart by a ridiculous war, a young woman who is trying to make something of her life while battling these demons, and I think to myself, why did it have to be her?

Millions of lives were torn apart by the short-lived, but brutal conflict in Rwanda. The Girl Who Smiled Beads may not offer the most common of these stories, but it does present one voice of the millions. And despite her age, despite her distance from the most brutal moments of the genocide, and despite being placed in a very affluent situation while still young, Wamariya has not escaped the struggles. This is a story of girl who was given a piece of the world, but who had peace of mind ripped away from her. It, too, is an important story. I'm glad she told it.

Review: And the Ocean Was Our Sky

And The Ocean Was Our Sky - Rovina Cai, Patrick Ness

Apparently this Patrick Ness guy is pretty big amongst readers of Young Adult books. This is the first time I've read any of his work. Ness, in an obvious attempt to hook me as a reader, decided to put a finely illustrated whale on the cover. Seriously, every well drawn whale cover ends up on my to-read pile. I'm a sucker for blubber. Here I must apologize to the other whale books on my to-read list that have been there far longer than And the Ocean Was Our Sky. (I'll get around to you all soon.)

If you haven't already heard, And the Ocean Was Our Sky is Moby Dick turned upside down. (Literally, as kids today might say.) Told by the whales, we quickly learn that the whales perceive their ocean as being above the sky, and they descend to reach the surface where the human ships are. Cool idea. I like it. Then it gets a tad hokey...

The whales, believers of prophecy, sail in ships of their own construction. They hunt humans, using “their bones for tallow and soaps, their skin for sails, their meat … as bait for the vast shoals of prey...” They speak to one another and can, if taught, speak to humans in proper English. So basically the whales are human, the humans are human, up is down and down is up. Make sense? But you can breath a sigh of relief, because there isn't a whale in this book named Moby Dick. So who do the whales hunt? The illusive human with “a rump like he know nil,*” Toby Wick. Yes, Toby Wick, ladies and gentlemen. See what I'm saying, it's kind of hokey.

What saves And the Ocean Was Our Sky is a good overall concept, brevity, and the wonderful illustrations of Rovina Cai. They're simple drawings, but they work well to convey the mood of the piece. If only Ness had made more subtle allusions to Moby Dick and kept the whales whales, I probably would've loved this novel. After all, there's so much great writing in this morality about our eagerness to build devils. (Also, the author refrained from placing the whales in little sailor uniforms, so kudos for that.)

*Not an actual quote from this novel, but I couldn't refrain from including it.

Review: Life on Mars

Life on Mars - Jennifer Brown

I was looking for a story to read my youngest when I stumbled upon Life on Mars. I'm not much for juvenile lit; I am selective. I have the same overall expectations for juvenile stories as I do for adult literature. Too often, I'm disappointed, as most children's stories are plot heavy, and I tire from stories that depend on plot. Life on Mars sounded promising, and to its credit, it served up a tale that focused as much on character development as it did moving the story forward. But there were some surprises, good and bad.

The good is that this story does not shy away from being real. In the beginning, it's easy to imagine how things will work out for young Arcturus (Arty), a child who has clearly never experienced much adversity. Up against a move that will forever “ruin his life,” Arty is in a position and a genre where you know that even if events don't go as he hopes, they'll work out for the best. And it feels like this is going to be the story for quite some time, but then Jennifer Brown throws the story into an unexpected direction. She piles the burden on. These are the kind of variations that can help a children's story rise above the rest.

Also wonderful are the characters themselves. Yes, they're a bit dimensionally thin, but they're well crafted. Aside from Cash, not much is really revealed about any of the characters. Vega obsesses over her boyfriend, who eats and speaks in monosyllables. Cassi has let her new love of cheerleading overshadow her appreciation for astronomy. Priya is the cute Indian girl next door. And Tripp trips. But they’re wonderful characters for a middle-grade novel with dialogue that matches each.

What didn't work so well throughout Life on Mars, something else I hadn’t expected, was the saccharine laden details of the story. In an attempt to make every pun possible about space, the novel dips too often into little witticisms that are lost on small children, and not all that funny to those who understand. The fact that this family names all their offspring after stars is cloying. Are we really to believe that every sibling and every cousin for at least three generations is on board with this space obsession? Highly unlikely. Also grating was all the childish talk of zombies and all that. If they’re kidding around, sure, it works. But I got the impression that Arty was genuinely scared, especially when he was without his friends, so for all his thoughts about brain-eaters, I was annoyed. Children’s books do not have to be so juvenile.

Okay, I admit it. I’m an old fart. So what? I still liked the novel. I just wish it hadn't been quite so... childish, at times. For being childish, however, this is a children's book with some maturity.