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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

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?

 

Review: Reservoir 13

Reservoir 13: A Novel - Jon McGregor

Imagine you're going to a party. Maybe parties aren't your thing, but come along anyway. It's a social gathering, mostly just standing around, drink in hand, talking with one another. You're new to town. You know no one. The host grabs ahold of you and introduces you to the other guests. Most of the town is there. Your host, we'll just call him Jon, drags you to a group standing in the kitchen. “This is Jane,” he might say, “she's the vicar at our local church. And this is Su, she and her husband Andrew are expecting twins.” Jon will introduce you to each guest that's present. Some he'll spend a few minutes talking with, others he'll quickly introduce you to and move on. Some will talk about other residents who are missing from the party. At the end of the evening, you'll have been given the names of forty or more villagers and brief stories about each. How much will you remember the following day? What was it that Martin did for a profession? What had Mr. Wilson said? What do you remember?

If you're like me, you probably only remember two or three things from that party. I would likely recall one or two of the most interesting people. I might recall the story one of them told me. I might remember the name of an attractive face. And I'd remember the host. Outside of these things, I will remember none of the details. So when Jon calls the next evening and tells me about what happened between James and Liam, Jones, Miss Dale, whomever, I will have no idea who he's talking about.

That is the structure of Reservoir 13 and part of the problem for readers such as myself. Sure, there are those who go to a party and can recall eighty or ninety percent of what they've been told. They never forget a name or a face. Those people will probably have a much easier time with this story. Me, I was struggling chapter by chapter trying to remember anything about the person from the previous chapters.

Reservoir 13 is without a primary character. It's a story about a town, and I love that. But in each chapter, representing another year passed, we're only given a couple sentences or a few paragraphs about each character. I couldn't keep it straight. And so, while a few remained in my memory from chapter one, others may have not made an impact until I got to know them better around chapter seven or eight. Others never made an impact, and though they were important throughout the novel, by the book's final chapter I honestly had no idea who they were. This can obviously make for a very frustrating read.

Reservoir 13 is a beautiful depiction of a village and all that happens around it. Perhaps the only character of relevance to this story is the town itself. There's some really great writing throughout, but those looking for a thread of a story or of characters they can bond with will struggle to make it all the way through. I struggled through to the end, recognizing the intelligence and beauty of this story and I wish I could've loved it, but I merely appreciate it for the talent shown. In a matter of weeks, I'll have forgotten all but what I remember from that party the very first night. It's not the fault of the host or of the town. It's my own. But one cannot discount that there are many others such as myself at the party and amongst the readers.

Review: The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner is simply the most American foreign novel I've ever read. For those who aren't clear on this, that's not a good thing. We'll come back to this...

As a story, The Kite Runner starts a bit slow. I wasn't engaged as a reader until eighty to a hundred pages in. There was just considerable information to process and not much emotional weight to the story. The narrative jumped around quite a bit and it was difficult to follow. Then the tension began to rise. Amir, Hassan, and Baba became real. I was pulled into the narrative and I began to see how this story might actually warrant all the praise it has received. The characters were interesting and the plot was riveting.

For a chunk of this book somewhere in the middle, the story is quite good. There's the divisive heartrending story of the past that haunts our protagonist. His journey into adulthood, marriage, and immigration is insightful and honest. When the time comes for Amir to go back to Afghanistan, I expected the book to reach a satisfying conclusion, quietly observing Amir's past from his new position and providing Amir an opportunity to redeem himself for his past mistakes.

Then Khaled Hosseini did two things to crap all over any hopes I had for this book.

First, he found the cutest little ribbon he could, wrapped it around his story and tied it up so prettily. No, it doesn't end there. He found another cute ribbon. And he wrapped it around the story and the first bow. Then he found another. And another. There are no bloody kite strings in this novel. Those are the most ornate, gaudy ribbons the author could find because he wants you to see all of them. See this pretty ribbon here? Here's how I tie it all together. See this plot line here? Here's how I conveniently finish it off? Didn't see it? Well, let me explain it to you. There's redemption and there's soap opera drama needlessly orchestrated from page one. The Kite Runner is very much the second.

Second, and this is what really offends me, the intention of The Kite Runner is clear: to be a foreign novel that makes Americans happy that they're Americans. It justifies the superiority complex while convincing the reader that they're culturally aware. The western belief that Muslim nations are evil and that they need our salvation is abundant in the later half of this book. The Taliban is painted as a childish, hypocritical caricature with no need for sympathy. The only redeemable Muslim characters are those who reject any expression of faith and embrace western ideas and imagery. But it's all written by an Afghan, so it must be the way things are, right? Yes, The Kite Runner is a book that lets you feel cultured and entirely justified in bombing those bastards overseas.

I know many people love this book. I know that I've probably just stepped on many of their toes. They may think I'm calling them out as an “ignorant westerner.” I'm not. This book perpetuates these ideas, but falling for a good story while missing the underlying colonial notions can happen to the best of us, especially when the author is “one of them.” I do wish I'd read a book from Afghanistan that better represented the nation and its people. Hopefully, someday I'll get back around to it.

Review: Hurt People

Hurt People: A Novel - Cote Smith

Here's what works really well about Hurt People:
The child's perspective.
The narrative of Hurt People is told by an eight-year old boy. His view of the world is eye opening and arguably very accurate for a child. At times the author may get away from the voice to make the story clear for the reader, but I believe he does so sparingly and for good reason. For the most part, our narrator is a very average eight-year old:

But in this world, under these trees, I sat down and cried. Softly, as if I might waken the woods. I pulled my knees to my face and sobbed, louder this time, not caring who heard. When my eyes were spent, I lifted my head from my legs. The wet I left behind was a blob on my bony knee. I let my mind play the cloud game and tried to make a shape. Something that would cheer me up, replace my sea story. Something that would tell me to get on my feet, to keep moving. All I could think of, though, was the shape the chalk kid had drawn what seemed long ago. Before I learned the secrets of the Stranger. Before the kid and mom's apartment was robbed. Before Sandy and Rick, my dad, my mom, and everything else.



As I type this passage, I notice and question a couple details. Would this child use an astute phrase such as “waken the woods”? Maybe not, but it could easily be the kind of phrase that only a poet or a child could come up with. The other is “my eyes were spent.” This is a little harder for me to grasp. The overwhelming majority of eight year olds would not use “spent” to illustrate the end of weeping and it is my believe that the narrator of Hurt People would fall into the majority. And it's little things like this that pull me out of the otherwise flawlessly told paragraph.

Still, there's so much in this paragraph alone that I love. “The wet I left behind was a blob on my bony knee.” The wet, a blob... This is such a great sentence and totally believable. Then immediately, from a child who is sobbing uncontrollably, we get “I let my mind play the cloud game and tried to make a shape.” It's not unlike people to quickly let their logical mind take hold of a terrible situation and begin to make shapes out of nothing. It's even more indicative of a child. This detail is perfect and this story is filled with them.

Here's what doesn't work so well with Hurt People:
The adults. Now we're seeing everything through a child's lens, so that may play a role here. Even so, the actions of the adults seem grossly absurd. Honestly, these are the single worst parents I've ever read about who were not on trial or condemned for their poor parenting. These are parents who constantly put their children in danger and do not think twice about it. And they're incredibly dumb to boot. The list of offenses is far too long, but a few that come to mind include good old policeman dad abandoning the boys at night to go to the bar and responding to an emergency call of a prowler, leaving the kids in his cruiser while he investigates. Mom leaves the children completely unattended every day, lets her son run into an apartment building that could collapse at any moment, and is dating a man who verbally and physically abuses the children in front of her.

It's not just the parents who lack believability. Everything about the town seems exaggerated. The promise of a tornado sends this Kansas town into a frenzy. I've lived in Kansas all my life and I promise you, most people treat such storms as either routine or as an event to be viewed with awe, what I call "the double rainbow effect." Leavenworth itself is treated as a Podunk town, but no one ever acknowledges that it is a part of the Kansas City metropolitan area. Sure, it's on the very edge and at the time this novel is based there would've been a good fifteen miles separating it from the nearest place of interest, but you'd think these people had never seen a skyscraper or been anywhere with a crowd. I promise you most of Leavenworth probably makes a semi-regular journey to KC. Yet, it's as though the author wanted to convince you they were a thousand miles from civilization.

And this is where I want to go back to the perspective of a child. Overall, Hurt People seems lazy and sloppy. Exaggerations and characterizations are on every other page. Frankly, the story of a prison escapee and the appearance of the new friend, Chris, make no sense. It was enough to annoy and anger me as a reader. Half way through this story all the way through the end I was irritated by the absurdity. I finished the novel and slapped a generous three-star rating on it and wondered how I could approach this review. A little distance has convinced me that maybe—and I'm not entirely sold on this possibility—Smith's debut is better than I initially thought.

I still think there are mistakes in perspective and that the story could've been tighter and more logical while in the mind of an eight-year old narrator, but I have to give Smith the benefit of the doubt: how would an eight year old tell this story? Would his childhood fear during a tornado merge onto the faces of other residents? Would his lack of life experience topped by a prison escape cause him to feel isolated? Would he paint his parents as perfect even though they frankly should have lost custody of him? Did the rest of Leavenworth even know about his parents' poor choices or did they turn a blind eye to everything because the boys' father was a police officer? There's more to this story beneath the telling of this child and it's only by looking through the cracks that one cannot help but notice that a reader may begin to see the true story.

Hurt People is not a perfect book and it was certainly a difficult read in more than one way, but I'm beginning to see that some of the complaints leveled at the novel are probably the result of not getting into the mind of an eight year old narrator. Smith missed the marked himself occasionally, but I think he did much better than most of us could have and that is why most of us are missing the parts of this novel done right. I'm bumping this one up to four stars and am eager to see what perspective the author takes in his next novel.

Review: A Kind of Freedon

A Kind of Freedom: A Novel - Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

“The best time to start was yesterday...”

I believe that had I read Margaret Wilkerson Sexton's debut novel ten years ago—even five—I would've been ecstatic, in love. There's so much weight to this book, and with its finely drawn characters, A Kind of Freedom demands attention. It is a wonderful, multi-generational story. Each generation lives amongst devastation and beauty. Each generation gives voice to hope and resignation. And through the eyes of each generation, we see a city rise and fall.

Sexton's writing here reminds me most of Gloria Naylor's. A Kind of Freedom is an intense story of dreams deferred by discrimination and poverty. Sexton's vivid depiction addresses many social issues that together weave a tapestry of injustice. She delves into the psychology of this family and the city. Yet, like Naylor's stories, A Kind of Freedom does not lose sight of the story at the center of the novel. Add to this Sexton's stunning portrait of New Orleans; the setting may be considered an additional character.

“...the next best time is now.”

While I greatly enjoyed A Kind of Freedom, I didn't fall in love. And this is merely, or so I believe, because I hadn't read it sooner in life. The story has many qualities I love, but it doesn't surprise me, not does it capture my heart the same way other similar stories have. I think this may have most to do with characters who were not developed as fully as they could've been. Evelyn, Jackie, and T.C. are all great characters, but I know that I could've spent more time in the mind of each. That said, T.C. was nearly perfect and he was certainly the most unforgettable of the three. With the others, I felt more like an observer to their trials, but with T.C. I was there, inside.

A Kind of Freedom is a good novel that I think could've been made stronger with another hundred pages to flesh out some of these characters. New Orleans and T.C. are both very compelling, but there's something missing from the rest of the story that kept me distant. That something may be a generational connection (T.C. is my closest contemporary), but I think it has more to do with really delving into the soul of these characters. Keep in mind that I'm a very character-driven reader and that I place great emphasis on character development. As far as plot, A Kind of Freedom is a very tightly and neatly written story. Most readers looking for a captivating and insightful story will be greatly pleased with this one

Review: Home Fire

Home Fire: A Novel - Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire is one of those elusive novels that's difficult to review. The story is told in five parts, each from a different character's perspective, and though each part picks up where its predecessor left off, each change in narrative and style results in a distinctly different feel. It's almost as though one were reading five interconnected stories—though it doesn't feel like that in the slightest. See how confused I am already?

From the opening pages, I was very much invested in this story. Isma's trials at the airport and her perspective of her life at an American university were engaging. Even as her story shifted toward little more than a conservation between her and another character at a coffee shop, I was eager to see where this story was going. I was ready to go with Isma on her journey.

Then the story shifted and became Eamonn's, then Parvaiz's. There was absolutely nothing wrong with each shift and all put together the five narratives make a good story. It's just that some were more engaging than others. Some characters I wanted to be fleshed out more. Some—especially Isma (maybe Karamat)—deserved their very own novel. This is especially true since Isma dominates the first fifty-five pages and then drops back to be little more than a secondary character to the love and politics than envelop the remaining four. Home Fire deals heavily in the subjects of love—both romantic and familial—politics, and religion. That place in between these topics where all things get messy is where you find Home Fire.

Overall, Kamila Shamsie's latest is a stupendous novel and it's a shame that it did not make it on the Man Booker shortlist. It was one of my personal favorites from the longlist, it is both intelligently written and highly readable. The writing style is simple but effective. The story always moves forward. Yes, it is uneven. Also, some of the plot points lack a bit of believability at times, but I don't feel like the novel hinged on realism. I would've enjoyed the story more had it gone in a different direction or been handled a little differently, but I was not displeased at all. My interest in the author has been sparked and I hope to read more of her work soon.