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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Currently reading

The Deptford Trilogy
Robertson Davies
Life on Mars
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The Family Under the Bridge
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Review: Continental Drift

Continental Drift - Russell Banks

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

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

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

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

Review: Katalin Street

Katalin Street - Magda Szabó

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

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

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

Review: Out Stealing Horses

Out Stealing Horses - Per Petterson, Anne Born

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Review: The Shepherd of the Hills

The Shepherd of the Hills - Harold Bell Wright

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Asymmetry

Asymmetry - Lisa Halliday

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Review: Heart Berries

Heart Berries - Terese Marie Mailhot

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

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

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

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.