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Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

Paperback, Reissue, 256 pages
Published February 6th 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1952)

“…that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption…there was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgment because there wasn’t the first two. Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar…”

Wise Blood is the story of Hazel Motes, a recently discharged twenty-something war vet who returns home to Tennessee to find the town abandoned and his childhood home dilapidated and deserted. So, he leaves the town behind and takes a train to Taulkinham, where he meets the crude, ignorant and possibly OCD/mentally ill Enoch Emery. Together, they encounter a blind preacher turned sometimes street beggar, Asa Hawks, and his 15-year-old daughter, Sabbath (her name in itself an ironic play on the themes of this novel). Motes becomes entangled with the Hawks’ as he embarks on the notion of atheism and—fully embracing it partially out of resistance to Asa Hawks’ idea that Motes needs to repent for his sins—starts his own church, the Church Without Christ. As he starts preaching his message of salvation through truth from the nose of his old car, he encounters a street-preaching swindler, Hoover Shoats, who steals Motes’ idea of the Church Without Christ and uses it to get rich, also preaching a varied version of that message on the streets, which effectively pushes Motes out of his own market and idea. When he finds out that Asa Hawks is also a crook, he takes up with his daughter, who proclaims of him:“I said look at those pee-can eyes and go crazy, girl! That innocent look don’t hide a thing, he’s just pure filthy right down to the guts, like me. The only difference is I like being that way and he don’t.Soon after, Motes’ disillusionment starts its descent into completeness, as a series of events pushes him to enraged murder and finally to self-mutilization and recluseness. Meanwhile, Enoch Emery’s story line branches off into him becoming enamored with, and then literally turning into, a gorilla, which came off as a little slapstick in its presentation and fell flat for me as a whole.

Wise Blood seemed to hit the ground running toward something definite and profound from the very first page. Rushing toward an abandoned home in Tennessee, then rushing toward Hazel Motes’ warped coming-of-age prophecy of atheism and a “new jesus” (yes, lowercase). O’Connor hit on salient, hard-hitting moments of ironic verity and outright cultural authenticity in true Southern Gothic fashion: Christianity versus atheism in the post-war South, Christian hypocrisy, redemption, isolation, and coming of age. In that way, it had its moments of dazzling literary insight. The characters were, for the most part, well realized, each offering a necessary ingredient to this Gothic tradition. And yet.

A little-known fact of this this novel is that it was originally not a novel at all but a collection of short stories (published in various publications). The first chapter of Wise Blood was an expanded version of Flannery O’Connor’s Master’s thesis, and several of the other chapters were reworked versions that she revised so that they could all fit together as a novel. Hence, Wise Blood was born, but the thing is, it didn’t work 100% as a fluid work of literature. For the most part, it did. For the most part, this novel read as a cohesive story with fully realized narrative arcs and satirical if not poignant realizations throughout. Yet, Enoch Emery’s character dragged down the latter part of the novel, because the short story that he derived from, “Enoch and the Gorilla,” did not fit with the theme of the rest of the novel. It felt disparate, like it didn’t belong, which, of course, is true since it was originally a separate short story, but it should not have felt that way to the reader.

O’Connor’s use of vernacular was spectacular.

The sense of setting was complete.

And yet, though we make a habit of saying here in the South, “One monkey don’t stop no show,” in this case, it certainly did. 3.5 stars ***

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In Sunlight or in Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper by Lawrence Block

Hardcover, 288 pages
Expected publication: December 6th 2016 by Pegasus Books

Short stories hold a power that longer works of fiction do not have the advantage of: they can pack a hard punch that’ll knock your socks off in mere minutes, spilling uplifting joy, heart-wrenching pain or newly provoked thought from readers all in one fell swoop. This, of course, is because they are so much more concentrated than their longer counterparts, doing away with excess prose and condensing the narrative arc into a matter of pages rather than chapters. For this reason, some of my favorite reads—the most thought-provoking and resonating reads—of all time have been short stories, and I sought this out here, within this collection, to continue that tradition for me. However, In Sunlight or in Shadow seemed prepared to offer up nothing but the latter, with the few glimmers of entertainment here so weak and sporadic that it was like the sun never quite pushed through the blinds.

Story after story were mind-numbingly dull and unmemorable. In reading through this anthology centered around the paintings of Edward Hopper (also featured within these pages before the start of each story written around them), I often felt like I was trudging through thick mud in search of that jewel that would glimmer brightly from beneath the sludge. It took me longer to finish this than it should have—than it could have—because I didn’t really want to pick it back up. But, alas, that is the magic with short story collections, isn’t it? You always feel that just around the next corner, with the next turn of the page, the next story might be the one. The next story might be enough to carry the entire collection—and so, you read on. But I never found anything magical in this compilation.

To be fair, Stephen King and Nicholas Christopher lightly touched on a literary nerve, and had this collection been filled with stories such as those, In Sunlight or in Shadow would’ve earned itself a far stronger rating from me indeed. But nothing truly moved or inspired me here. In truth, most of these stories took themselves far too seriously, as if the author’s identity or the mere fact that they’d proffered literary prose (rather than commercial plot lines) would alone carry the read, make me love it, make me keep turning pages. Well, Block, it wasn’t enough! Not by a long shot. I found most of these stories to be tedious and stuffy at best. No doubt, some teacher will find this collection and force it upon her high school English students, because it seems to exude the literary seriousness—gravitas, shall we say—requisite to be considered great. And no doubt the students will likely feel as I did.

My life has not been changed in reading this. Neither has my mind been stretched nor my imagination tested, my joy for reading stoked or my heart rate even quickened. In fact, the only thing that changed in reading this collection was my willingness to ever pick up anything else that Lawrence Block has ever laid a finger on. Will I dare? We shall see.

This collection has managed to earn the first 1.5 star review I’ve ever given—I could barely finish it, but somehow Stephen King’s “The Music Room” and Nicholas Christopher’s “Rooms by the Sea” saved it from complete engulfment by the yawning abyss. I have nothing else to even say about this collection, except that I need a good palette cleanser to start anew on something else. *

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Pegasus Books, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

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Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine by Sarah Lohman

Hardcover, 304 pages
Expected publication: December 6th 2016 by Simon & Schuster

I was given a copy of this book by the publisher, Simon & Schuster, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

Sarah Lohman’s Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine offers an eclectic and thought-provoking survey into American culinary culture and palettes. She traces our culinary roots and, through professional and personal experience, as well as meticulous research, offers up the history of eight spices that can be found in modern American kitchens today. But where did these spices come from, and how did they become so commonly used in our culture? These are the questions that Lohman probes and explores, pointing out their place in our contemporary palettes as she goes.

Lohman diversifies the research she offers up with anecdotes of her own history with food—including the summers that she worked in an outdoor historical museum, making historically accurate dishes for audiences. With that, there’s something for everyone here in this survey on the American palette. Included within this book are also a slew of recipes so that readers can step back into history themselves, making this read as interactive as it is entertaining and informative. From historical unearthments to 200-year-old recipes heaped in historic truth, Lohman’s Eight Flavors is a read for true foodies and novice culinary explorers alike. 4 stars ****

 

 

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The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Random House, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

It’s funny how novels are often published in waves—we’ll see a flood of multi-cultural books, an influx of war novels or a deluge of high-school-centric reads at once, proving for those who don’t believe it already that books come in trends much like shoes. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth instantly reminded me Everything I Never Told You (which I loved and rated highly) and of another new-release competitor and recent review, Everything You Want Me to Be see my review of it here, which will be published around the same time by a different publisher. But I’ll resist squaring them off in a boxing-like match and stick to Lindsey Lee Johnson’s debut novel.

If The Most Dangerous Place on Earth had anything going for it, it was bite. Set outside of San Francisco, it was a setting that was like every chicly suburban town we’ve ever heard of—a town that reeks of wealth and privilege, kale smoothies and European SUVs. It is a place where teenagers wreck their BMWs and are utterly confused at the idea of poverty in Rwanda. In that way, Lindsey Lee Johnson used this setting as a springboard to explore the culture of privileged teens today, but also as the occasional trigger for insightful nuggets.

The format is a unique crossroad between short story collection and full-length novel, where Johnson takes turns telling the kids’ stories in 3rd person vignettes meant to give us glimpses inside their minds. Each vignette-type chapter tells part of one larger story, of which they are all a part of, and is then tempered by a chapter from the POV of Molly Nicholls, the 23-year-old 1st-year teacher who has the self-altering experience of teaching them all in English. This device can, of course, be great for offering us depth and insight, but here proved to be bad for readers who want to intimately know each character.

Why, you may ask?

Because you only get each student’s perspective for one chapter, never to hear from their voice or see their outlook again (hence the earlier comparison to a short story collection). At first I thought the novel would follow just the teacher into this dangerous habitat, or perhaps even the first student spotlighted in this book. That we’d follow them and settle into seeing and learning the world around them through their eyes. But the multi-vignette approach turned the tables on my expectations—not, in itself, a bad thing. Yet, I ended up torn on my opinion to this narrative tool: I loved being inside of all of their heads, seeing what they saw and feeling what they felt (some more so than others), but the page count would’ve been better expanded so that the reader could really get to know each of the students better, because without that, it just read as a tease.

Likewise, the page count of this novel also proved to me something else: that too much of a good thing can, indeed, be bad. In that regard, I’m talking about Johnson’s narrative prose.

Don’t get me wrong: the descriptive prose of Lindsey Lee Johnson’s debut novel is lovely. But there is so much of it within this relatively small page count of 260 pages that the novel feels consumed by it, and the action feels slow-coming after the first few chapters, so much so that I found myself skimming past long descriptions of bus rides and in-home décor to get to the good stuff. Truly, the endless pages of descriptive prose would’ve been better placed in a longer book, in a book that had the room for such descriptions. But with only this many pages in which to get this story across—more than enough room to do it well; we’ve all seen it done before—it was allowed to take over and edge out insight and layer peeling, leaving me feeling that something was missing.

And then, of course, there’s that resonating feeling that all readers long to be left with. For some of us, it’s “feels,” for others “insight.” In reading The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, it always seemed that Johnson was on the verge of something great, brushing up against really thoughtful writing set against a sharp and intuitive peep into this teenage realm. She was almost there, but it never quite made it. Long chapters stretch out before you only to end with no kick, no umph or truly thoughtful nugget to hold on to. In the end, each chapter was just that, viewing the world through a high-schooler’s eyes (albeit, entertaining ones) with enough of a changed personality to be detectable, just the smallest dab of irony as to be discernible, but not a lot more than that.

Lindsey Lee Johnson offered up a sharp glimpse at this lifestyle, this culture, but then failed to really do much with it after that. With the short page count coupled with the fact that there was no zeroing in on any particular character—instead, a kaleidoscope of vignettes with brief connections and overlays with one another like criss-crossing tree branches in a breeze—I never really felt for any of these characters the way that I’d hoped. Maybe, with the better chapters, I felt that I understood them, if not knew them, because I’d just read a 30-40 page spread about them. But because I’d never see them again this intimately for the rest of the novel, I found that I didn’t really care about them or feel invested in their outcomes as I could have. The plot this author offered was a 10, yet the execution fell short of expectations, leaving The Most Dangerous Place on Earth an above-average read, that didn’t quite push far enough to gain 4 stars. 3.5 stars. ***