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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Review: Life on Mars

Life on Mars - Jennifer Brown

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Deptford Trilogy

The Deptford Trilogy - Robertson Davies

The Deptford Trilogy is comprised of three books. (Go figure!) They are Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders. This is my first outing with the author, Robertson Davies, but apparently he was big on trilogies. He wrote all of his novels as part of a cycle comprised of three books. The Deptford Trilogy, finished in 1975, was his second.

Generally, I do not read multi-volume works (I want the credit for having read each book after all), but in the case of Davies, it seemed appropriate. From the moment I first heard of this book, I thought of The Deptford Trilogy as one complete novel. And maybe that's a mistake, because while the three novels that make up this trilogy tell one complete story, each is done in such a differing manner that thoughts and opinions on each novel vary widely. So let's briefly take a look at each novel...

Fifth Business is superb. Davies created some wonderful characters and placed them in a story that is always moving. This first one is narrated by Dunstan Ramsay, a character who is close to the story and grows with it. Overall, the pace is great, though it drags a little in the second half. So much happens in this first novel. Other than the lack of a fully satisfying conclusion, Fifth Business easily stands on its own as a novel.

The second novel, The Manticore, slows everything down. The narrative switches to a character on the fringe of the story, the son of Boy Staunton. David Staunton, a tiresome attorney, relays the details of his life to his therapist. Doesn't sound that exciting, does it? It's not. Largely, this second book is not needed for the larger story. Sure, it adds some questions about the subjectivity of Ramsay's story, and gives the reader a different perspective. As David is just a priggish bore, however, The Manticore lacks the drive of the first novel.

World of Wonders returns the narrative to Ramsay, but as a channel through which Paul Dempster tells his story. This trilogy is all about the relationship between Dunstan, Boy, and Dempster, so it's nice that it returns to focus on these three in the third book. This final volume is not as riveting as the first, but it adds some dimension to it in providing a perspective previously unseen. World of Wonders is a satisfying conclusion to a story that has its high points and low points.

Looking at The Deptford Trilogy as a whole, what's startling to me looking back is the simplicity of the story. After over 800 pages, I realize this story is really all about the snowball that is thrown on page 2. Sure, it's also a story about myth, madness, and magic, but it's all wrapped up in that snow-covered stone. That single toss of a snowball has a dramatic effect on these characters, and Davies does a fabulous job of allowing that one act to haunt the rest of the story. This is an excellent display of storytelling. I will assuredly have a go at another of Davies’ trilogies, though whether I read it as one volume or as three has yet to be decided

Review: Washington Black

Washington Black - Esi Edugyan

Washington Black is an imaginative novel that crosses boundaries, boundaries that exist in the story and boundaries that tend to hem in literature. It is a novel that is not easily classifiable, because it is very literary, but it also shows traits of fantasy and adventure. It is historical in setting, but does not allow this to confine its reach. A story of self discovery, Washington Black explores the topics of suffering and rebirth. It sounds like a fantastic novel, and the opening chapters prove this. What a perfect beginning! At 35 pages in, I knew I'd found the best novel of the year, an easy five-star rating. So what happened?

The fact is, Washington Black does little to sustain the wonder created in the opening chapters. The first several chapters are perfect. They're brutal, intelligent, and imaginative. I truly couldn't ask for more. The story opens with an amazingly drawn cast of characters, slaves and plantation owners on an estate in Barbados. We see the plight of the other slaves, as well as the conflicting natures of the plantation owner with his abolitionist-minded brother, through the eyes of young Washington Black—called Wash. The brutality of this particular plantation and the wonders set in motion by the brother, Titch, a scientist, create such a wonderful contrast. It's easy to imagine where this story might be going when Titch takes Wash under his wing, but it's a place that you, as the reader, want the story to go. It's magical, heartwarming, and full of imagery so palpable you can't deny its existence: a Vernes-esque journey around the world with a kindhearted scientist and his assistant, a child freed from slavery.

Unfortunately, this novel just can't maintain the forward movement it needs to claim its potential. The characters, while starting off great, did little to keep me invested in their stories. Sure, their adventure is wonderful, but their actions are wooden and their decisions based on inexplicable coincidences. They failed to carry me along on their adventure. The longer the story went on, the less I believed the magic the story was built on, the less I cared about the narrative.

In the end, I was left with too many questions, but not enough desire to find answers. What was really going on here? In a novel largely based on realism, it is easy to pick out the fantastical elements and analyze them. What was with the allusions to the spiritual personas of our characters: others that roam free of their selves? The existence of these “others” makes me wonder. Who was Washington Black? Was he a spirit of the self that existed in the opening chapters, a spirit making his way back to Dahomey? Was he reborn in the child Titch finds in Morocco? At the conclusion of Washington Black, I don't have any answers, only speculations. These questions display the intelligence of this novel and its author, but highlight the problem that it doesn't go far enough to provide answers or the will to learn the truth.

Washington Black is a powerful and imaginative story with so many great pieces. The writing is exceptionally powerful at times. It just doesn't keep it going, however, and the result is a firework that fizzles out long before the end. I recommend this novel to others, but with the caveat not to build your expectations too high in the beginning. Perhaps if I'd not done so, I would've walked away with warmer feelings regarding this story.


Thanks to the publisher, Knopf Publishing Group, for providing me early access to this title through NetGalley.

Review: The Call of the Wild

The Call of the Wild - Jack London

When I see a dog turn a phrase far better than I can and wax philosophical about matters I've barely pondered, I can't help but think that modern public schooling has failed me. Buck, protagonist of The Call of the Wild, is one smart dog. He's smarter than me. Just think of what a cat could create.

I remember that once upon a time I was fascinated by Jack London. I was that age—probably 9 or 10 or thereabout. I had a copy of The Call of the Wild, maybe White Fang. I'm pretty sure I saw a movie or two, but I don't recall now what London titles they may have been. I think I tried to give The Call of the Wild a read, but I honestly wasn't much of a classics reader at that time in my life. I enjoyed reading, but only simple books that pulled me in. Looking back, I can see why it's unlikely I made it past page ten—this book is full of dense exposition and vocabulary that even a dictionary wouldn't have helped illuminate when I was that age.

These days, my forays into reading are largely planned out far in advance. I have to-read lists and schedules, titles I plan on reading during certain times of the year. Books I must finish before I read others. I'm not obsessive with too many things in life, but I can be that way when it comes to books. Slowly, I'm trying to add a little spontaneity to my reading. That's exactly how my engagement with The Call of the Wild came about. I woke one morning without the slightest intention of getting around to this novel in this lifetime, and by evening I was halfway through it.

I don't know that I really have much to say about this novel. It's difficult to articulate my feelings about a story that's best quality is my own personal nostalgia. Would I have loved this story had I never encountered it before? Probably not. It's adventure-based, dense, and it holds some archaic thoughts that are off-putting regarding the treatment of animals, as well as various stereotypes humans held of one another at the time. Further, it certainly doesn't help that in my adulthood, I've realized I am much more of a cat person. Perhaps my greatest barrier to truly enjoying this story is the animal perspective. Chalk that one up to my own lack of imagination; it's a struggle for me to get behind a non-human narrator with a human-like perspective.

Even so, I enjoyed this novel. The transformation of Buck may be obvious from the first chapter, but seeing it play out is captivating. This is a classic adventure. It has enthralled many, particularly children, for over a hundred years. In the same way that the lamppost in the forest of Narnia pulls me completely into that novel, so does Buck bounding back to John Thornton. Its simple nostalgia, but its something I cannot ignore.

Review: The Mars Room

The Mars Room - Rachel Kushner

At the time Rachel Kushner's second novel, The Flamethrowers, was released, I was very much interested in the story. Before it had even hit shelves, I was enticed by the cover and the promise of a thrilling tale within. Well, curse the infinite to-read list. While I've held the best intentions of reading Kushner's work all this time, it took a Man Booker Prize nomination to finally make the commitment, a commitment to read her following novel, The Mars Room.

The Mars Room is the story of Romy Hall and her fellow prisoners at Stanville Women's Correctional Facility. Though I have nothing more than a reader's perspective of what prison might be like, Kushner's story carries significant believability. This is a prison novel that seems wrapped in precision and one might assume, with the flood of details from both inside and outside of the prison walls, that the author has done her research. An article published in The New Yorker points to this attention to detail (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/20...). According to the article, this precision is indicative of her work. In each of her three novels, Kushner has immersed herself in the details of the story. For The Mars Room, Kushner began visiting prisons in 2014 and has utilized the help of consultants who've given her information that only an insider could possess, stories that are rendered in the novel with little alteration.

Some may argue that The Mars Room isn't strictly a prison novel as much of the action happens outside of the prison gates, but I get the impression that Kushner is painting the outside as a sort of prison, as well. Outside, there are a set of rules that restrict one from pursuing true freedom. Many of these characters were set on a path, some at birth, some because of something completely outside of their control, that had only one outcome. It's possible to get a sense that Kushner was hoping to establish a connection between the American prison system and the “Great American Dream.”

Outside of the vivid detail, what's most impressive are the characters. It's clear that Kushner spent some time with them. She knows them well, giving each a very developed voice and perspective. These characters go beyond Romy and the other prisoners of Stanville. Kushner tells the story of prison's teacher, of a corrupt cop, of a trans woman in a men's prison. Each of these stories carries with it a whole other world, completely rendered and discerning.

And this is perhaps where The Mars Room turns a bit sour. While these extra characters certainly show Kushner's great ability to work inside the minds' of a myriad of possible characters, their connection to the larger story is in some cases weak or entirely nonexistent. Some of the novel's best scenes certainly come from these diversions, but they detract from what is an otherwise solid narrative. When it becomes clear toward the end that these many threads are not necessarily joined, The Mars Room loses something of its believability in its loss of continuity. While there is a complete novel in here, it is joined by stories that are merely connected by theme.

Certainly, it didn't help that in the end, the story moves in a direction that deviates some from the overarching sense of realism. The conclusion isn't absurd, by any means, but it did strike me as slightly inauthentic. In fact, I'd say this ending would've been sufficient in the work of many less skilled authors, but coming from the author who'd established 300 pages of piercing authenticity, it had a bit too much of the made-for-tv-movie effect.

I will not be surprised or offended to see The Mars Room make this year's shortlist. There are probably too many strikes against it to take home the prize—primarily, or so I believe, that an American author cannot win a third year in a row. In a year when the longlist has been particularly sub par, in my opinion, I think Kushner has a decent chance of being invited to London this October.

Review: Sabrina

Sabrina - Nick Drnaso

Everyone who follows the Man Booker seems to have an opinion regarding the inclusion of Sabrina on the longlist. The rules of the Man Booker Prize state that a work must be “unified and substantial” and “written originally in English.” By this definition, Nick Drnaso's Sabrina, a graphic novel, qualifies. Traditionally, the Prize does not make exceptions, so when it does, these extensions throw readers into the path of confusion. In my personal opinion, it should not have been included. I also think 2016's All That Man Isshould not have been a contender. Though it was billed as a novel, no one was tricked; it was a short story collection unified only by theme. Sabrina's inclusion is a bit more gray.

But I want to judge the work without the Man Booker in mind, though I will come back to the Prize in the end.

Sabrina starts with a slow build up. The groundwork is placed and a quietness is established. The problem in these opening pages is not with the story, but with the illustrations. They leave much to be desired. I had great difficulty in identifying the characters or their ages, as the artist portrays all people as stocky and plain faced. By appearance, this novel aligns more with the idea of “comics” than of what some of us have come to expect from “graphic novels.” (It irritates me a little that this will be the first graphic novel experience for many readers. For those interested in the form, I recommend Craig Thompson's Habibi for an amazing blend of story and art.)

The story picks up toward the middle as answers are unexpectedly provided. The following pages tell a riveting tale that very much asks questions of cultural relevance. That's where the story is. It's not in the mystery of a missing woman; it's in how American society handles tragedy. It's a story that could've been told in another form, possibly, but I'm not convinced it could've been done so well. And it doesn't matter, because it was Drnaso's story and this is his media. I wish the art had been better rendered, but the vision of how the story was meant to be lain out was perfect. Overall, I really enjoyed this story. It will stick with me for year's to come.

I do want to return to the Man Booker briefly and say that I'm a little hurt by Drnaso's response to being longlisted. This is a huge honor, but Drnaso's never heard of the Prize and seems irritated that it has interfered with his art and his day-to-day life (http://www.vulture.com/2018/07/nick-d...). Forget the Pulitzer, the Nobel, and even Employee of the Month—I want a Man Booker nomination. I really liked this work and hope that it finds some fans amongst a tough crowd, but given his irritation at the nomination, let's help Drnaso is not further inconvenienced by being shortlisted.

Review: A Small Place

A Small Place - Jamaica Kincaid

I've heard of Jamaica Kincaid for years, but I've never read her work until now. Of the titles she's written, A Small Place is not one I recall ever having been mentioned. It's a short book. It's non-fiction. It's brutally honest. And for these reasons, I think it's often skipped over. Regardless of how great her fiction is or is not, skipping this brief history of Antigua is a mistake.

A Small Place is a powerful exploration of Kincaid's home, the island of Antigua. Colonized by the British in 1632, and left in the hands of tourists and a corrupt government, Antigua is portrayed as a land of damaged beauty. A Small Place is an indictment against colonialism, capitalism, complacency, and so much more. Kincaid spares no punches; her lens is wide, but exact. Her outrage and rhythmic exploration of the island make this impassioned essay searing with pride and indignation. A Small Place is a Caribbean answer to Baldwin'sThe Fire Next Time; Kincaid's prose rises with a voice that rivals Baldwin's. While Baldwin offered hope and solutions, however, Kincaid largely focuses on the sources of the many problems.

I don't know what to expect from Kincaid's more popular fiction, but if it's anything like this, it will be incredibly poetic and powerful. I look forward to it.

Review: From a Low and Quiet Sea

From a Low and Quiet Sea - Donal Ryan

Man, oh man, what a rough start to my Man Booker Prize year. Snap and Warlight were both terribly difficult to get through. Snap just wasn't Man Booker material; Warlight was a sleepy, emotionless read. But when I started in on From a Low and Quiet Sea, I saw brilliance and beauty and I knew that Man Booker season had taken a turn for the better. Hallelujah! And then, it took a turn, and another turn, and another. In the end I was so confused and lost. I don't know what happened. Let's go back to the beginning...

From a Low and Quiet Sea starts great. There's a beautiful meditation about the connectedness of trees. This serves as a metaphor for the story that follows—how we're all connected, how when one tree ails, others send nutrients through the soil. What follows are three seemingly unrelated stories that come together in the end. The first of these stories is about Farouk, a Syrian refugee struggling to provide a new life for this family. It's a common theme as of late, particularly in European literature, and there's nothing that feels fresh about this particular story, but it's done with great empathy and care. It was just enough to give me hope for a satisfying novel.

The second story was fine and in some way superior to the first, but in a book billed as a novel, a reader expects some connection to the first story. It's in no way evident. What we're given is the story of Lampy, an attendant at a care home. This story largely revolves around some mishaps Lampy has while driving these elderly people to their various appointments. This second story was as riveting as the first, but it felt more authentic.

And then, I don't know what happened. There's a third story, but the details of it felt disjointed. A religious man, John, clearing his conscious—lots of back story about the unexpected death of a sibling, an abusive sister, his own abuses, politics. I lost the story here. Unfortunately, I never found it again.

The final section attempts to connect all these threads, but it does so not in a direct manner, but by bringing in other perspectives. Attempts of cleverness are made by not naming characters immediately, but by referring to them. Other characters are introduced and blur with these primary characters. I didn't know what was going on anymore and I didn't care. This may have been a result of my own daftness, but I suspect it had more to do with the author being closer to the material than his reader. Whatever the reason, I didn't understand what the point was, or why so much effort was placed on putting these characters together.

In the end, I felt tricked. This wasn't a novel. It was a collection of three stories with some coincidental connection in the final pages. A connection that felt forced. A connection I still struggle to understand. But From a Low and Quiet Sea is still more of a novel than 2016 nominee, All That Man Is, so there's that.

I'm sure that I'll come across more works of Ryan's in the future, and I'm okay with that, because I liked his writing style and when this “novel” was strong, it was strong. It just lost something along the way and, in turn, it succeeded in losing me.

Review: Warlight

Warlight - Michael Ondaatje

What a revelatory follow-up to fellow Man Booker nominee Snap:Warlight that is. Suddenly I understand just how much Yankees love their cop dramas and Brits love their espionage. And I'm hoping these are the two worst this year's long list has to offer.

In my review of Snap, I ranted a bit about my dislike for the modern crime novel. Mysteries in general are very boring to me. I don't care about the crime. Well, guess what? Spy stories are a chore too. But I won't bore you with more on that...

I was looking forward to Warlight. Aside from a poetry collection, I haven't read the work of Michael Ondaatje before. I expected good things. But from page one, I found this novel lacking. The novel is split into two part: before “revelation” and after. The two parts felt like two different stories stylistically. The first part was a bit more coming-of-age story and I was curious where it was going. But I never quite felt invested in the story. I failed to understand Nathaniel, our protagonist. I never developed a connection with him, who seemed more like a means to tell the story than as a character in it. This is especially true in the second half as the story follows Nathaniel into adulthood, but never gives a clear picture of who Nathaniel is at this point. The story is painfully non-chronological, which is necessary for the storyline, but jarring for the reader. Further, Nathaniel as narrator becomes lost in the story. Suddenly, his story opens up to include details and perspectives he could not know. Have we switched to an omniscient narrator? Are these just possibilities Nathaniel is considering? It's not quite clear and this, along with a time line that's all over the place, makes for a novel that was not pleasurable to read.

And then there's all the espionage talk. Slog.

On a positive note, there are some wonderful scenes and finely crafted moments, particularly in the first half of the novel. I didn't care for Nathaniel as a character, but I did appreciate his relationship with Rachel, his relationship with The Darter and with Agnes. Nathaniel has a gentle and unique perspective of others, but this perspective doesn't translate to the larger story. The result is a rather dry narrative.

I'd expected more from my first real outing with Ondaatje, but I'll certainly return to the author. As for this novel, I wasn't impressed. The characters largely failed to pull me in and the plot wasn't strong enough to lift this plot-driven tale.

Review: Snap

Snap - Belinda Bauer

I try not to be close-minded about reading, but the very thought of the Mystery genre leaves me running. While I, having been raised in America on a television diet that consisted almost entirely of Perry MasonHill Street Blues, and countless other cop dramas, am expected to live and breathe police procedurals and courtroom dramas, I in fact abhor them. I still look back on those shows I once watched every night with some nostalgia. I'd consider an In the Heat of the Night marathon if presented with one. But sometime, in the early 90s, I lost interest in ever seriously revisiting the genre in any way again. 

So I shouldn't have read Snap. And normally, I wouldn't have. But this year, someone thought it would be a good idea to nominate it for the Man Booker Prize. Before we get into my feelings for the novel, let's talk about this Man Booker longlisting. It was a mistake. Though I wouldn't say this is the worst novel I have ever read to be nominated—there have been a few that were painfully boring or pretentious—Snap is easily the most undeserved novel I have ever read on the list. Why is this? Because this is the Man Booker Prize; I expect to read some dry, cerebral novels; I don't have to like them to respect the craft that went into them. But Snap is entirely different because it's not a crafty play on words, or a fascinating literary treatise on the state of world affairs, or an intelligently drawn exploration of a character's psychology. Snap is your run-of-the-mill mystery and it frankly has no place on the list of traditional Man Booker nominees.

Now let's put the Man Booker nomination aside and consider Snap on its own merits. I thought Bauer's novel started well. In regards to pure story, I actually thought Snap was superior to the average modern mystery for two-thirds of the novel. It wasn't anything special, but I enjoyed some of the characters, found glimmers of beautifully drawn sentences here and there, and was curious what direction the story might go. There were problems with conveniences made for the plot, and cliches ran amok, but I'd expected worse. I had hopes that the author would pull off a decent crime novel, but the final third destroyed any hopes I'd had. The story hadn't been built on much of a foundation and it fell apart. In addition to the problems this novel had from page one, it suffered from preposterous character actions, nonsensical plot points and reveals, and threads left loose by its conclusion.

It wouldn't have surprised me to see Snap nominated for a prize awarding crime novels. Though I can't realistically compare it to others since I read so few, it seemed like a decent (though not award-winning) mystery. But to be nominated for the Man Booker Prize—well, that's alarming. And for the prize to continue without harsher criticism or a demand for transparency, Snap must not be shortlisted.

Review: The Wayward Bus

The Wayward Bus - John Steinbeck, Gary Scharnhorst

I've probably said it before, but John Steinbeck was not the writer most of us thought he was. By that I mean that many of us think of Steinbeck rather narrowly. Even I, having read almost everything he has written, tend to think of Steinbeck as a writer of realist fiction of downtrodden farmers and paisanos. But from To a God Unknown to Burning Bright, Steinbeck's style has never been quite so easy to nail down.

The Wayward Bus is one of the novels that defies our perception of Steinbeck. This is most evident in the way the story is told, a continually roving character study. The narrative jumps from character to character as they prepare, then embark on a bus journey during a potentially dangerous rainstorm. Steinbeck rarely spends as much as two pages on any particular character before he's moving down the line, giving the perspective of the next character, then the next. Never do I recall in a work of Steinbeck any such character roulette. And it works magnificently for this book with its strangers-on-a-journey motif.

And these are great characters with so much potential. Characters who act contrary to their beliefs. Characters who put on airs. Characters who are so realistic because each one tries to convey their insignificance while unconsciously acting on the knowledge that they are the center of the universe.

The Wayward Bus was well on its way to being one of my all-time favorite Steinbeck reads, but toward the end, the book itself modeled the journey: it lost traction and went off the road. The problem is that the end is rushed. The reader spends so much time getting to know these characters and all their quirks, that once the characters face their greatest challenge, it's time for the story to conclude. The conflict you anticipate for a couple hundred pages fizzles. Also, I was personally disappointed that the story never returned to Alice, the only significant character who is not a passenger on the bus. Overall, I thought the resolution was poor.

Unfortunately, The Wayward Bus is sort of forgettable. So much time is spent with each character's thoughts that little action occurs. Normally, I like stories like this when there is a pay-off, but the conclusion is flat. Still, I liked The Wayward Bus if for no reason other than the build-up. Steinbeck was on to something with this style, but he might have lost interest in the project before he finished, or maybe he was just unable to translate his idea for the conclusion to the page. Whatever the reason, The Wayward Bus is every bit a Steinbeck tale, but parallel to none other.

Review: Let's Pretend This Never Happened

Let's Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) - Jenny Lawson

Imagine if you will a guy who works at a library. He enjoys reading. He loves the scent and feel of books. He mostly reads literature, but he's not a snob. Okay, he's a snob, but he'll try something slightly out of his comfort zone. One day, one of his coworkers says to him, “Would you be interested in leading one of our book groups? I'm thinking of passing it on.” “Sure,” he says. Here's a chance to get paid just talking about a book every other month. He's all ready. He's going to be a great leader. The books are all planned out through January of the following year. His first meeting will be in August. He looks at the schedule to see what inspirational and brilliant work of literature they're going to read in August. Oh boy, he thinks. How am I ever going to explain this to my friends on social media?

The preceding story is true. I'm sure, because it happened to me. Let's Pretend This Never Happened purports to be a true story, but I really doubt most of it. The other difference between Lawson and Blocker: Jenny Lawson is apparently hysterical. I am not. Except, I don't think Lawson is funny. Not. One. Bit. Like, you may not believe me, but I didn't laugh once. Not once. I didn't even smile. As I neared the end of the book, I actually forced a smile, thinking that maybe the physical action would help me find the humor. It didn't work. There were a few times when I thought, oh, that was wee bit witty. But only a wee bit. And not even then, I was just trying really hard to find the positive.

I'm truly, honestly really glad that people love this book. Because they do love it. I'm glad people can laugh until they can no longer breathe (assuming it's temporary). I want people to be happy and apparently Let's Pretend This Never Happened makes them really happy. I don't get it. It's not that I'm completely incapable of humor. It's difficult to get a laugh out of me, but I do find some things funny, things that no one else finds funny. I'm entitled to my own brand of humor, but I do wonder if part of my distaste is that Lawson, her mania, her mood swings, and her ridiculous stories remind me of a girl I once dated. I lived the “mostly true,” but not true stories for several years and let me tell you, it's exhausting and, over time, it's no longer the least bit funny. I'm glad that Lawson found a way to turn her mania into something she can be successful with and that so many people can enjoy. I'm glad she didn't choose a more destructive path. But reading this makes me manic. And that's not a good thing for any of us.

So I hated Let's Pretend This Never Happened. There's one reason to read this book, and that's because of the humor. If you don't find it funny, there really isn't a point to it, is there? I didn't find it the least bit funny. I went to book club knowing that someone else would agree. Since it was my first time leading the group, I didn't want to sway anyone. I'd wait for someone to mention how the book really wasn't funny, then I'd pounce. Surely, someone would say it. No one did. They all thought it was hysterical—a nice change of pace. So I smiled, nodded my head, and mostly remained quiet. I asked a few questions that I hoped would elicit some underlying disdain, but no, they genuinely loved it.

So again, I'm glad everyone else in the world is wildly entertained with this “memoir.” It just wasn't for me. And if ever I'm asked to read a book like this again, I'll know I can just fake it by saying, “oh yeah, that was hilarious.”

Let's just pretend that this never happened.

Review: This Side of Brightness

This Side of Brightness - Colum McCann

Colum McCann is the newest addition to my list of authors whose bibliography I'd like to read in its entirety. This Side of Brightness seemed a good choice: I prefer to start with the author's earlier works, I had easy accessibility to a copy, and the blurb for the novel sounded right up my alley. So here it is.

I largely had a positive opinion of McCann's second novel. The premise is strong. The writing is solid. The story takes place in a tunnel beneath New York City—one part follows a member of the crew constructing the subway tunnel, the other focuses on a homeless man who lives in the tunnel three generations later. McCann handles both time lines with equal precision and care. And he ties it all together quite wonderfully in the end. I have no complaints...

but I never quite connected with the story. It's possible this was my own blockage: perhaps it just wasn't the right time for me to read this novel. Or there may have been some level of disconnect in the text: a slight gap in character development, perhaps, or too much authorial involvement. Either way, I appreciated the novel, recognized the workmanship, but just didn't invest in it in a way that felt satisfactory to me.

Review: The Family Under the Bridge

The Family Under the Bridge - Natalie Savage Carlson

Sort of sweet. Sort of cloying. I appreciated that the book didn't take a turn toward the end that might have ruined it: a little red herring with your croissant. Far, far too many oh la las.

Review: Visible Empire

Visible Empire - Hannah Pittard

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: After Tupac and D Foster

After Tupac and D Foster - Jacqueline Woodson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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