The Cellist of Sarajevo

Not long ago, in earlier 2015, I attended a writing festival where I ran into and met the author of this novel (Steven Galloway).  Now, I kind of knew him from before.  I go to a university which he teaches at, where I’ve taken many creative writing courses, so I’ve had my fair share of close encounters with him.  But I had never actually spoken to him.  In fact, the closest encounter we had as two people dialoguing was when Steven sent me an email praising my work for being so beautiful and wanting to pay me to let him mentor me rejecting my sorry ass from the Creative Writing major at the university I go to/he teaches at.

But I digress.

At this writing festival in earlier 2015 there were writing workshops in the day followed by a gala in the evening.  Steven was one of the guest readers at the gala (he did a fantastic reading).  After the workshops, a friend and I headed to the theatre the gala was to take place in, and spotted Steven standing in the lobby looking confused.  We said hi and after a short conversation learned that he was trying to get into the theatre for soundcheck.  He sped off quickly after that short exchange to figure things out, leaving my friend and me to wait for the theatre doors to open for the audience.  We had a while to wait.

And there was a liquor store nearby.

So needless to say we got hammered for the gala (cue a montage of shotgunning beers in bathroom stalls and mixing vodka into green tea from a vending machine).  Moving onwards, though.

The gala began, and Steven’s reading was near the beginning.  We sat in the back and listened intently.  He was reading the prologue of his book: “The Cellist of Sarajevo,” and part way through reading the curtains pulled back to reveal a cellist playing Albinoni’s Adagio (I’ll talk about later), which complimented Steven’s reading beautifully.  The whole affair was quite moving.  I remember sitting there, not even listening to the actual words themselves, but just the sounds of them, as dictated by Steven, being carried by the swelling of the cello.  If I were to make a metaphor, I would talk about a dock on an ocean, with the rhythmic, punctuating creaking of the wood rising and falling with the waves being the words and the general sounds of water rolling in and softly falling against the sand as the cello.  Very complimentary to each other.  Very beautiful.  And I sat there silent and still until the words stopped, and the ocean threw one last wave against the shore then faded to nothing.

Then I took a sip of my vodka-infused green tea and everything went back to normal.

At the intermission we spotted Steven sitting a few rows up and, as two belligerently drunk youths are prone to do, approached him and probably, overbearingly so, talked at him far too aggressively.  I think we may have spooked him a little, to be honest.  We were excited to chat with him though, and we were both spouting slightly incoherent things that, when said together, became extremely incoherent to him.  I remember him being very taken aback, probably completely unprepared for the situation we put him in.  But he tried his best to answer our questions, and even signed two books my friend had brought.

And for that, I respect Steven.  I don’t know if he respects us or even likes us in the slightest, or if we just creeped him out.  Probably the latter.  But he seemed like a very nice and genuine dude, and judging by that prologue, an amazing writer too.  So I finally decided that I needed to actually read something from him.

Skip ahead half a year and I finally get around to reading it.

“The Cellist of Sarajevo” follows the lives of three characters living in war-torn Sarajevo during a specific, small time period.  Sarajevo is under siege, nobody can leave and nobody can enter (for the most part).  Electricity isn’t dependable, clean water can only be accessed from a few locations, food is scarce and expensive and, worst of all, the hills around Sarajevo are infested with snipers and at any moment a civilian of the city could be crossing a street then just fall down dead with a bullet through the head.  Mortars rain from the sky almost endlessly.

There is one man, a cellist, who spends his days playing music to try and hold onto hope.  One day, as starving citizens line up to buy bread from a market just outside his apartment, a mortar falls, killing 22 people and wounding over 70 others.  Every day for the next 22 days the Cellist walks out to the crater in the street where the mortar fell, at 4 PM, and plays Albinoni’s Adagio, one day for each civilian who died in that line.

The cellist is not one of the three protagonists, however he is a symbol and an idea and provokes thought to all three of them, and his days of playing in the street set the time period for the narrative.

The three protagonists are: Kenan, a father and husband who needs to get water for his family; Dragan, an old man who works at a bakery to supply food; Arrow, a sniper in Sarajevo trying to repel the snipers on the hill.  And that’s where I stop talking about the plot.

Each of these characters has their own struggles.  Their external struggles to survive, but also their internal struggles to define who they are to themselves and what Sarajevo is to them.  The cellist is the factor that spurs them to rethink a lot of things and by the end of the novel each character has changed their outlook, each character is filled with a little more hope and a little more definition in who they are and what Sarajevo means to them.  To this end, the narrative becomes a dissection and analysis of these characters’ thoughts, emotions, and actions, as well as those of the civilians in Sarajevo around them.  At it’s core, this novel is that.  This novel is an examination of the human spirit in bleak times, such as a siege where you could literally die at any moment.  It shows how people can falter, but it also shows how people can defy expectations and rise above their innate fears to do what is important to them.

And risk the consequences for doing so.

Now, I specifically used the words “dissect” and “analysis” and “examination” because those clinical terms are in themselves descriptive of the writing style used in this novel.

Which carries some pros and cons.

The writing style is perfect for the prologue.  It works well to quickly paint a scene in my mind of war-torn Sarajevo, and sets up the cellist character.  However, I was not expecting that style to continue through the entire novel.  But it did.  While not entirely bad, I find the style failed to connect me with the characters.  If any of the three protagonists suddenly died, I wouldn’t miss them in the least.  The prose always kept me cleanly distanced from them.  The cellist i didn’t want to die simply because of what he represented to the people, and Arrow I wanted to live based solely on the fact that she possessed skills that could greatly assist the defenders.  But other than that, I did not feel very much specific empathy for the characters.

And yet I wouldn’t want the prose changed.  It achieves what I believe it set out to do, to dissect and examine and assess and rationalize the human spirit, to understand it.  Plus, despite not being attached to the protagonists, the prose was beautifully executed and the rhythm and sound of it carried me through.  I couldn’t put it down.  I wasn’t attached to the characters, but I was interested in their next move, their next thought, and what they had to say.

One of my favourite set of lines comes on page 183, a set which succinctly and effectively represents the beauty of Steven’s writing style in this novel:

“In the hills behind him a shell falls.  He hears the rattle of automatic gunfire, and then another shell falls.  It’s a language, a conversation of violence.”

Take from it what you will.

As beautiful as the prose is, there are a few places where it steps into ugly territory.  Specifically, instances where a character did something, thought something, or said something, and a line immediately followed saying “Arrow was surprised by what she did/thought/said.”  I don’t like it when characters get surprised by their own thoughts even once, but these people are getting surprised left, right, and centre.  It’s as if the characters are each really two entities, the body being it’s own and acting on its own, and their consciousness just kind of there, watching their bodies like a movie.

And I hate lines like that.  They’re just unnecessary, mostly untrue, and it makes me think of really badly written genre fiction.  Yes, you can do something that surprises yourself, especially an action, such as a reflex you didn’t think you’d have, and perhaps you can say things you didn’t intend to, and you can daydream then suddenly realize how far your mind has wandered, but how often does it happen where you’re literally surprised by all those things as if all those things are not you and you are a consciousness separate from your body and your thoughts.  People don’t stop every 5 steps while walking down a sidewalk, totally aghast at what they started thinking.

Perhaps this is just a pet peeve, but I hate that in writing.  I hate a character “being surprised by something they themselves just did.”  If anything, be more specific.  Maybe say they are proud they said something so intelligent, or they regret having let their mind wander to that thought.

Not surprised.

STFU with surprised.

I don’t know if this specific thing in writing as been named, but I’m going to call it the Avatar Complex from now on.  People are really only characters in a video game and their consciousness is the player sitting behind the screen.  They only have so much agency in the avatar’s actions and no matter what they do in-game, the avatar may do something in a cutscene they did not know or think he/she could do and their consciousness, the players, are surprised.

Therefore: Avatar Complex.

And FUCK the Avatar Complex.

Aside from that the prose strayed into some pretty cliche descriptions.  One in particular I see all the time in bad fantasy:

“A teenage boy who isn’t old enough to shave.”

That’s an extremely ambiguous description and I think a very arbitrary point of reference.  This guy could be anywhere from 10 to well over 20 years old.  It’s not like every boy in existence just wakes up on their 16th birthday with a full beard and moustache and that marks them as “old enough to shave.”  Some people (like me) had to start shaving in grade 8.  Others didn’t need to shave until years after high school.  It’s a very cliche description and just not apt at all.

While we’re on the note of bad fantasy, if you read this book, pay attention to the first chapter with Arrow.  It describes her and sets her up as an OP character in much the same way a bad fantasy novel sets up the “toughest mercenary in the land” type shit.  Not terrible, but I had a laugh while reading it.

Aside from the occasional poorly chosen descriptions, and the excessive surprise characters feel of themselves, though, this novel is amazing.  I read it all in two sittings.  The writing is beautiful and for the most part intelligent.  There are some very tense moments where Steven portrays danger to the characters in very real, very visceral ways.  It’s in those few moments that he really pulls the reader into the character and for those short times I felt complete empathy for the characters.  And the whole thing just flows so organically.

If you’re a fan of the kind of literary fiction that isn’t excessively introspective and ends up just dragging it’s feet to every little plot point or realization, but a fan of intelligent, well-written fiction nonetheless, then I would recommend this book.

overall score would have to be 8/10.  the few hiccups in the writing I mentioned above are where it lost marks, everything else was great.

As always, thanks for reading 🙂

Good Omens

Here we go, another book I really liked.  I feel like I’m betraying the “cynicism” aspect I tried to sell myself as, but lately I’ve just been consuming things I like.  And that’s mostly because lately I haven’t been reading the current (mostly) YA novels that the masses gush about (like John Green books or all those dystopian hunger games/divergent/matched series), and neither have I been reading shitty boring fantasy that the entire internet defines as the finest fantasy ever written (Brandon Sanderson books, Patrick Rothfuss – side note, Patrick Rothfuss is one of my nemeses* and it is one of my dreams to publicly roast him).  Don’t get me wrong, I love fantasy and YA books (I DID enjoy Abundance of Katherines by John Green for example).  In fact, the only genre I’m biased against is the Mystery genre simply because I find the narrative is told in such a contrived fashion to withhold information and try to force the reader to keep reading to reveal secrets, rather than just being a compelling narrative – especially if there is a reveal at the end that ensues with a 50 page long explanation by the villain of how every detail in his plan came to fruition except where these specific things got in his way to the main character.  However, a lot of the genre books that become supremely popular, not all but a lot, I find are terribly written excuses of literature and so my cynicism grows from a distrust of the general population’s consensus on “good books”.  So, now that I’ve defended my cynicism, let’s move on to me talking about how much I love Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman these days.

*All my nemeses are as follows:

– Patrick Rothfuss

– Harry Potter fangirls**

– 3/4 length sleeves

**I actually like the Harry Potter books, but the fanbase sickens me.

Terry Pratchett was an amazing writer.  He died fairly recently, but before that he managed to thrust out a legion of books, most based in his fantasy land called “Discworld” (about 40 novels in that setting).  his books are well known for their dry humour, constant wit, and, formwise, using footnotes in his work as an extra source of humour, but used well in a way that spoke to the reader and added to the narrative.  If you have not read him, most any book in his Discworld series is a good place to start.  My first was “Going Postal,” and I loved it, so potentially pick up that one as your first.

Neil Gaiman is another amazing writer, well-known for his graphic novel series “Sandman,” and for his novels such as “American Gods.”  His works tend to incorporate a lot of biblical and mythological aspects.  He spins gods and angels and demons into interesting, human characters.  My first read of his was “American Gods” and I would say it’s a good place to start if you have not read him before.  Another good place to start would be going straight for “Sandman.”

Good Omens was released 25 years ago.  Yikes, I’m a little late to this party, but hey, a party is a party and being late still means going.

The eponymous book of this review grew out of a 6-page or so short story that Neil wrote and sent to Terry claiming he “could not figure out how to end it.  A year later, Terry brought that story back up saying he didn’t know how to end it, but knew what would happen next.  From there they worked together, adding more and more, sharing, discussing, writing.  And so a brilliant novel was born.

The plot centers around a slew of characters facing the possible End Times of the world, the Armageddon.  An angel and a demon discuss the nature of good and evil and whether it is intrinsic or not, and both come to the conclusion they prefer the mix of both (human) over the absolute of either.  They don’t want the human world to end.  The AntiChrist is born and on his 11th birthday destined to bring about Armageddon and initiate the war between Heaven and Hell.  Anathema, a descendant of a seer from hundreds of years ago is trying to decode the prophecies left to her family and prevent the end of the world.

There are a slew of other characters, some with practically no impact on the plot, some carrying a more central role.  But the gist of the plot is that Armageddon is coming, and both Terry and Neil have twisted this biblical event into something very modern, and very new.

The plot is not very heavy in the book, actually.  When you think of tightly-woven stories where everything happening makes sense or was foreshadowed or lead into, this book does not capture the definition.  There were a few plot moments that didn’t make any sense to me.  The story is more centered on the characters, though, and how they grow and change and act.  Most fantasies will find a way to have every element, every character, be essential to the climax.  This book does not care for that.  It care’s for the characters and the humour, and not so much an epic plot.  For example, one character, a witchfinder whose purpose in life is to find and exterminate witches and demons, and one point encounters the main Angel character.  Thinking he is a demon, the witchfinder approaches the angel.  At one pivotal moment, while the witchfinder is pointing his fingers at the angel, the angel accidentally steps into a heavenly light that pulls him back to heaven.  For the rest of the novel, the witchfinder thinks his hand is the ultimate weapon against demons and that by pointing at them he can defeat them.

In an epic fantasy novel, that would probably turn out true and in the climax he’d face the Devil himself and use his hand to defeat the Devil.

In Good Omens, although he thinks he is going to fight and defeat the Devil with his hands, that encounter never happens and he doesn’t get a chance to use his “power” ever again.

He’s still prevalent in the plot, he’s still present, but that one pivotal moment, which changes how he sees the world and changes a little how he acts, does not transcend into a larger resolution in the climax.

And that in itself is spinning genre tropes on their heads.

The characters are all strongly written and, if not essential to the plot, are essential to the narrative.  Essential to the humour and the commentary on the book’s subject.

See, this book is a good example that writing far outweighs plot.  Plots are a dime a dozen.  You can be Brandon Sanderson and think up the most convoluted plot and world with the most mind-melting climaxes that twists everything together in unexpected, unprecedented ways, but nobody is going to enjoy it if the writing is shit.

Or, you can be Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman and have a basic premise, a plot that kinda falls flat on its own, but is filled with such creative ideas, humour, and good writing that the plot doesn’t even matter.  The characters and the story come to the forefront.

Overall, I’d say this is a definite read before the world actually ends, so get on it ASAP if you haven’t read it before.  Of course, if you haven’t read both the authors before, it’s still a great novel, but I would suggest reading at least one book from each author first, to give you a sense of their styles, before you see them combined.

Thanks, as always, for reading 🙂

Bojack Horseman

I have a confession: the past 6 hours were spent in bed, crushing the entire second season of the netflix original Bojack Horseman.

I’m not much of a TV junkie, but I do have a handful of shows which manage to coax a “season-crushing marathon” out of me.  Actually, there are only a handful of shows that catch my attention long enough to get me to keep watching these days.

I used to watch TV all the time.  I devoured episode after episode, found new shows, watched everything it had to offer, then moved onto the next.  And this was only a couple years ago; I watched Archer, Bob’s Burgers, Breaking Bad, Big Bang Theory, Merlin, Doctor Who, Sherlock… all shows I got into late and had multiple seasons to watch to catch up.

Hell, Breaking Bad I never watched until the entire show had wrapped up, and I marathonned the entire thing from beginning to end in a single week, skipping school in the process.  That week was simultaneously one of my proudest achievements and biggest regrets.  I love that I did that, that I can say that, but I felt like utter shit by the end of the week.

Then I started to get disillusioned from TV shows.  I finished Breaking Bad.  I stopped watching Bob’s Burgers and Doctor Who, I hate the Big Bang Theory now, Archer got boring, and Merlin had too many filler episodes but I managed to finish it.  It’s not that I hate TV shows, but my patience and taste for them has become more refined.  As in only a current handful can hold my attention these days.

Orange is the New Black, Twin Peaks (I’m late to that party, but I love Lynch and am currently watching those at a rate of about two episodes per week), and Bojack Horseman.  I haven’t really gotten invested in anything else for the last year and a bit more.

Anyways, enough of that unnecessarily protracted backstory Brief Aside, onto the meat of this post.

Bojack Horseman debuted last summer and quickly took the mantle of My Favourite TV Show (Netflix Original, but it’s episodic so it’s a TV Show to me), and there is an abundance of reasons for that.

If I were to give one of those one-line reviews you see flashing on trailers for new movies and shows, it would read “Gut-wrenching hilarity with startling moments of depth and sophisticated dark humour.” or something along those lines.

Bojack Horseman (Hereon referred to as BJ for BoJack and for fun) is a very well-written, solid show which does a lot of things right.  For one, it has no “filler episodes.”  If a show has “filler episodes” it probably means that show has terrible writing and the plot isn’t as concise as it should be.  Every scene shown fulfills a purpose of advancing the plot, or else being entertaining, and those that have no relation to the plot are generally 2-3 second clips of the show playing with it’s world.  Otherwise the entire thing is very driven, the characters rich and real, emotionally charged, and perfectly balances the adult themes of depression and commitment and whatnot with silly jokes.

The world it takes place in is a parody of our own where animals are anthropomorphic and live right alongside humans as, well, basically humans with fur and animal heads.  People acknowledge each other for what they are – BJ is a horse, and people call him a horse – and the animals adopt a lot of characteristics of the animals they’re based off of, but they live as people with people and even date/breed with humans.  The fact that animals are people is just an accepted fact in the show, and allows for a lot of small jokes.  There will be a short clip of a bird woman leaning over her stroller, puking into the mouth of her bird baby here, or a short clip of pidgeon people flapping their arms and flying there.  But the animal-people jokes aren’t just contained in short 3 second clips.  Characteristics of the animal side permeate into the character.  For example, BJ, at one point in season 1, explains that because he is a horse, he has to drink way more than any human male could drink just to get tipsy.  And consistently throughout the show you see him drinking far more than a human could handle.

As the show goes on they play with that world they’ve built more and more, and in the second season an entire episode deals with the difference between “people animals” and “food animals,” but I won’t go into that.

The main theme of BJ is, in my opinion, happiness, and how to attain it.  BJ struggles to be happy.  Other characters – Diane, Princess Karoline – have similar struggles.  Other people who have their dream job are happy.  At th end of the first season, BJ just landed a movie role to play his role model growing up, Secretariat, a race horse, and yet he’s still not happy.  But why not?

The show touches on many reasons, from his upbringing to choices he made in the past, but probably more importantly choices he still makes in the present that just exacerbate his situation and drive him deeper into his hole of wallowing in self-loathing.

The first episode of season 2 is particularly troubling.  BJs mother tells him near the end, “You were born broken; it is your birthright,” and being broken becomes a theme that resurfaces throughout.  He was born broken, so how can he become whole?  And that’s the important struggle in the season, to become whole, to find that happiness despite what’s already in his past, despite what’s still in his present.  It’s a very relatable struggle, I think, and if not than written well enough that the average watcher can pity BJ and root for him.  And even if the more serious under-and-overtones of the show don’t attract certain watchers, the comedy of BJ still could.  There’s a wide breadth of characters, all very defined in their personalities and actions, all fleshed out with their own struggles and they all bring a topic, be it serious or silly, something to talk about, to bring to the table.

I’m going to stop now because after six hours of watching a TV and another hour of staring at my laptop screen my eyes are getting pretty strained.  It’s a great day to flee from my shackles of technology to the outdoors, maybe read a little, maybe ruminate further on BJ.  Who knows, but I gotta get out of here.

Thanks again for reading, expect a book review from me in about two weeks tops 🙂

A Marker to Measure Drift

Or rather, as the author Alexander Maksik titled it, “a marker to measure drift.”  Notice the lack of capitalization.

You just know this book is gonna be literary as fuck.

First off I just wanna say that I’m really not used to blogging or keeping consistent with posts.  I was hoping to be able to have a first review up within a week of the intro, but things didn’t work out, and I doubt they will work out that well for a while.  It may take a bit for blogging to (hopefully) become a weekly routine.  Anyways.

I had a lot of thoughts while reading “a marker to measure drift” (here on referred to as ‘marker’).  Not all quite pertaining to the novel or really anything about the novel, but then probably just as many spun directly from ‘maker’s narrative.

‘marker’ is the second novel by fairly new author Maksik, whose debut novel ‘You Deserve Nothing’ is one of my more favourite recent reads (within the last two years).  Overall, both novels of his share some similarities in beautifully crafted and masterfully rendered prose, but there are some stark differences, mainly in the type of story (‘Nothing’ as a concept is a topic that pervades our society’s conversations often, whereas ‘marker’ tackles more ambitious material) and execution.

To be blunt, ‘marker’ suffered in the execution department.

Not to spoil too much, ‘marker’ tells the tale of a Liberian refugee, homeless and utterly alone and starving.  She’s ‘living’ in a cave just off the shore of a very touristy Greek Island.  In the beginning she has absolutely nothing to her name and we know nothing of her past, but through her actions and interactions we begin to learn of the kind of person she is.

First and foremost, that homelessness and the terrible loss in her past constantly hinted at throughout have not stripped her of her dignity.  She is very careful about how she appears in the eyes of the others.  She is afraid of losing and makes the choice to lie about her life rather than face the pity and mercy of tourists and residents of the island, or face the condescension of her parents* and a particular Black Dude who she has a few encounters with.

*Although she’s alone, right off the bat the protag is having visions of her mother and her father and her sister, talking to her, giving her advice, and whatnot.

As the story progresses, we begin to learn more about her past, through specific details and interactions with her hallucinated family.  In fact, as the novel wears on, the fabric between reality and the past seen in the protag’s head unravels and she starts to relive more and more of her past in between lines of dialogue with another character, or even just in between moments of loneliness.

Overall I quite enjoyed this book.  The beginning was strong, it pulled me right into the character and the narrative.  However I think around ten percent in Maksik dropped the ball a little and whatever effect he was going for was lost on me.  A lot of the language felt almost too contrived, like maybe he wrote something beautiful, proofread his work, decided “this shit isn’t artsy-as-fuck enough,” and then rewrote a lot of passages with the intention being for ‘literary poetic writing’ (or something) instead of actually grounding the reader into the character’s world, or at least the characters head.

In other words, I found his language began to alienate the actual narrative at hand and I found myself drifting off into thoughts about other things in life completely unrelated to the book while my eyes continued to shift down page after page.  Then I’d stop, realize I took in literally nothing, and reread the past ten pages and find it all seemed like new material to me.

Still I pushed through.  I enjoyed his first novel so much that I just can’t imagine a world where I haven’t read all of the novels he puts out, so on that basis, I pushed through.

And I’m very glad I pushed through.  The book is divided into four parts, one and three being the girthiest, most substantial parts, whereas part 2 is kind of a transitory section leading into the second main arc of the story and part four is the revelation, the climax, the part where all hints of the first three parts culminates into the answers we have been waiting for.

While part one became the trudge I described above, part two began to really hook me back in and by part three I was engrossed.  Couldn’t stop reading.

I was at work and I neglected a day of work duties to finish this book.

The second half was overall a better experience because a lot of the bullshit language from before had subsided.  Everything seemed more grounded in the narrative.  Things were happening and tension was rising, both in the external narrative and the internal memories.  Part three was the strong point of the novel and what made reading it worth it.  By this time, the protag had been interacting with her hallucinated parents so much that the mother and father had coyly slithered into my empathies as real, living characters, but now they were getting more fleshed out themselves, their faults and their problems began to pervade the memories and short scenes were shown that left me with a deep dread about the revelation of the protag’s past I knew we were coming to.  The execution that Maksik seemed to be missing for the first hundred-ish pages was back in full attention.  Some scenes of only a page length were so powerful on their own they riled certain emotions in me I wasn’t sure could be riled in such a short time.

But then the ending came, the revelation came, and all that execution that was beautifully, 100% present in ‘You Deserve Nothing’ and had just made a triumphant comeback kinda dissipated, really quickly.  The tone of the book pulled a one-eighty.  I was actually pretty baffled by what occurred.  Considering how much effort he must have put in to create “as fucking literary as possible” for the first half of the book, I was pretty shocked that the ending of the book slipped in the complete opposite direction.

That direction being “melodramatic mystery novel” wherein the evil character explains all of the carefully constructed plots and mysteries and backstabbings to the main detective character before trying to kill him.

Seriously it felt like the ending to a Harry Potter book or some shit.  And I’d know, since I literally just finished reading the Harry Potter series (for the first time, mind you) a week before starting ‘marker’.

In this case the protag finally decides to share her story to a resident of this island.  I think the effect Maksik was going for was that, after all her experiences and her mind slowly cracking, the protag settles down and develops a somewhat trusting relationship with a waiter at a restaurant and finally feels ready to get her story off her chest.

That attempt was hamfisted, however, and it came off more as Maksik suddenly throwing all nuance aside to stuff The Truth down our throats, all the while the narrator commenting on the protag feeling power over this naive girl she’s telling the story to because she has a past that, just hearing about, is terrible and harmful.  And that just seemed completely out of sync with the protag’s character so far.

The story had been full of subtle revelations and powerful scenes beforehand.  To have everything suddenly explained in excruciating detail served only to undermine the magic worked beforehand and circumvent any empathy for the character or her story I had developed so far.  Based on the material, I should have felt more devastated.  

But no.

I didn’t.  I was completely thrown out of the narrative and decided to trudge through only because of my iron-hard resolution to read all of Maksik’s novels.

Honestly I’m pretty pissed Maksik, his editors, and his publishers allowed the book to get out with that crippling wound of an ending.  Having everything explained is the cliche’d way to end a novel dripping with mystery and suspense.  But the mystery and suspense heretofore was always subtle, nuanced, and secondary to what I thought was the higher purpose of the novel – leave the reader stranded in the protagonist’s scattered mind.  Instead Maksik exploits the real life uprising against President Taylor of Liberia and the tragedy surrounding it** to try to force empathy and desolation down his reader’s throats.

** The protagonist was raised in Liberia during the time period of President Taylor’s reign.

For some reason the conclusion became more about that political event than the character’s current place and mental deterioration as the whole first ninety percent of the book seemed to be about.

It was a quick and easy attempt to create an ending, I think, to appease the need for resolution, the desire for the explanation all the previous hints alluded to.

But it was not what this book should have included or should have been about.  I was hoping that maybe he’d subvert that expectation, maybe he’d leave the reader as isolated from reality as the protagonist was from her previous life.  Maybe he’d offer more scenes of memory that, somebody who took the time to think about it, could stitch together into the true story of her past.  Instead he took the lazy way out.

With all of that considered, this book is still a fantastic read.  And I would recommend it.  The third part by itself makes the whole read worth it, and if anything, stopping at the close of the third part is more along the lines of the ending I was expecting.  Mostly unresolved but still pointing the reader to the possibility that the protagonist would be alright in the future.

In closing, I’ll rate ‘marker to measure drift’ three good parts out of four.  I know I gave the first part beef, but it was still good.  It just wasn’t exceptional.  I’d suggest you just tear the fourth part out and throw it in a fire before you begin reading so that the novel ends in a decent place.  Or, if you really want to know the protagonist’s past, tear out the fourth part and store it somewhere else.  That way you can finish the novel as a decent novel, then afterwards read the fourth part as a separate piece, a companion story of sorts, to learn about her past.

It’s doesn’t belong in the book though.  Read it separately.

Born from Cynicism and Criticism

When I was younger, I used to read.  A lot.  Every day at school we had a “reading break” where for 30-45 minutes the teacher expected absolute silence except the crunch of turning pages as 30-odd students read their current book.

I was the one who always had the big-kid books that you could use to knock someone out with just the first quarter of pages.  Or if I read a smaller book, I’d have a different one by the next day because I just blasted through them.

Once the reading break was over, the teacher would call the students’ attentions and ask the books be put away, pay attention to me and the board now, we’re gonna talk about multiplication tables now.

As all the students shut their books, slipped them into the little cubbies hanging beneath the desks, and pulled out a piece of paper and pencil to copy down what the teacher was writing up on the board, I would just turn to the next page.

The teacher would be ten minutes into her lesson when finally she would sweep her gaze across the class and spot me, the only one with a book open, the only one not looking up at her.  Then I’d hear it.

“Blerrn”.

I was so consumed by the book that when she called my name it was just a distant, muffled noise.  It wasn’t until the teacher walked down the aisle of desks, stood beside me and said my name again right in my ear that I’d look up from those pages and into her somewhat amused, mostly exasperated face.

“Reading ended ten minutes ago,” she told me.

“Oops,” I said.

And then I’d pull out a piece of paper, a pencil, quickly copy down what was on the board and, as soon as her back was turned, look back at the pages of the book.

Only this time I’d read a couple sentences, look back up, keep it discreet.  Y’know?

Anyways, I was that kid.  Doctors called it being a fucking basket case being a healthy child with a functional level of ADHD.

Really I just didn’t care about school and what we were learning.  It’s not that I had troubles focusing.  My trouble was that I focused on the wrong things.

Like books.  And reading.

Anyways, my point is, I really loved stories as a young ‘un, from observing them through books and shows to creating my own through lego pieces and imagination.  And then eventually through writing.

As I grew up I started to become more and more interested in the actual craft behind telling stories through different mediums.  I started learning what makes for good writing and what doesn’t, and started noticing inexcusable writing crimes in books I read.  I became cynical and critical.

This blog is all about that.  That cynicism and criticism, in my journey to continue learning good craft from bad craft through close analyses, to pinpoint exact wrongdoings and articulate my feelings about them.

It is that and it is also an exercise in reviewing story items I have completed.  It is a way for me to organize my own thoughts about what I have just experienced and to go over the good, the bad, and the ugly of it in the hope that it improves my own writing.

And finally, it is an excuse to keep my fingers active on the keyboard.

My goal is to write a review for as many things I can, as often as possible.  Every book I read, every movie I watch, and so on.

Of course, goals are meant to be pursued, but not exactly obtained.  I’ll try my darnedest, but sometimes my darnedest ain’t darned enough, and sometimes there’s just too much going on to review everything.

But I just won’t talk about what I don’t review.  Nobody needs to know I’m slacking off.  A fundamental skill in life is to seem like you’re on top of your game.  Not actually be on it, but appear so.  What do you think facebook is for?  It’s to filter the bad from your life and make a comprehensive catalogue of the good in your life, and make it seem like that is your whole life.

Everything everyone ever does is a facade.  Remember that.

And on that note, let’s start looking on top of our game.  Let’s get to some darned reviews.

Next week.

When I’ve consumed something that I can regurgitate in your faces.

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy what is to come.

🙂