Book Review: "Census" by Jesse Ball

Written in a minimal, sparse style, this is a book that I couldn't put down. The story concerns a man, dying, who is on a journey through his fictional country to collect data for the census. Accompanied by his son who has Down syndrome, questions abound concerning the census: What information is being collected? What is the purpose of the census? Is the government benevolent or malevolent?

The journey of taking the census, it seems, functions as a metaphor for the journey of life itself. Each town is named after a letter in the alphabet, starting with A, and just as the pair approach Z, so too does the narrator approach his own end. The towns and the characters inhabiting them vary wildly. Many of these people have stories to tell or food for thought to offer, and how they interact with the protagonists, in particular, how they treat the boy with a developmental disability, reveal a lot about them. The receptions that the protagonists receive, both warm and hostile, reflect society's at-times incomplete understanding of such disabilities, and the need for progress. 

Often philosophical, part plot and part musing about one thing or another, the story is told in a dark, haunting style. Every single word felt like it mattered.  Mysterious and expansive, this book is highly thoughtful. It left a strong impression on this reader. In all, I would have to give it a very high recommendation indeed. 

9/10 

Book Review: "Tender is the Night" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The French Riveria. A movie star. A couple in love who host the most marvelous parties. What could be better?

Fitzgerald anticipated that this novel would be his supreme achievement. I don't necessarily know how I feel about that, but I definitely enjoyed reading it. Watching Dick Diver steadily decline into alcoholism, with multiple affairs transpiring on both sides of a marriage, it would be easy to get bummed out by the tragedy. But the beauty of the language, the humanity of the characters, and the vividness of the setting, all come together to create something that has a certain spark of magic to it. 

Much like Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises", this novel involves expatriates in Europe being social and exceptional. Their affluence and privilege is palpable to the reader. Yet, as not-relatable as that may be, there was something about these characters, DIck the ambitious psychiatrist, Rosemary the blossoming movie star, that made me want to care about them. In all, the novel was an enjoyable escape into a slice of reality other than that which I am accustomed to. Though the ending is by no means uplifting, the drama, and the powerhouse-level prose of Fitzgerald, are truly sights to behold.   

Score: 8.5/10

Book Review: "Sing, Unburied, Sing" by Jesmyn Ward

A novel that has had much praise heaped upon it, I picked this book up with high hopes that I was in for an exciting reading experience. All things considered, I was not entirely disappointed. In the tradition of William Faulkner and Toni Morrison, this story concerns a deteriorating family through multiple lenses. On the one hand, there are metaphorical ghosts that haunt the story: economic oppression, racism, injustice, drug abuse, and communal alienation all working to keep the story's family down. But, there are also other, more literal, ghosts that appear to Leonie and her family. As she heads off on a road trip with her children and friend to be reunited with her boyfriend freshly out of jail, the reader observes the presence of ghosts of characters who inform the family mythology, one that is fraught with struggle and hurt.

The prose of the story, in my mind, oscillated between being quite poetic and then more straightforward. There are many passages worth highlighting, that make the heart leap. Yet the dialogue comes off as simple. Such an oscillation was a sore point for me. To commit either to a more abstract, poetic writing voice at large, or, to a more spartan, minimal narrative style, in my opinion, could have made the story that much more impactful. Like Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying", the chapter titles contain the name of the character who will narrate them. It didn't feel to me that, at any moment, the particular character narrating seemed to really matter. Whether it was JoJo, the son, or Leonie, the mother, or Richie, one of the ghosts, talking, the story seems to possess the same, uniform voice, which gave it a flat quality.

That being said, there is certainly some gorgeous writing to behold here. Whether it's descriptions of the bleak, desolate Mississippi landscape, or simply the emotive interactions between characters struggling to understand each other, there is certainly an undeniable haunting effect that this novel has on the reader. This is a story that views death and life, and the doorways between them, all at once, lucidly. 

7.5/10 

Reflection

It has been an emotional week for me. The sense of joy and pride I feel in having seen my project through has been great indeed. But more so, what has excited me about the release of "The Year of Oceans" has been the way in which it has brought me closer to my community. Friends, family, and co-workers have been so supportive of the book! All I can do is render my deepest appreciation. 

A bit more than six years ago I was sitting in my dorm room at the University of Washington, writing a story. Originally a Social Work major, I experienced a moment while writing when I realized I wanted to major in English. That story I was working on would become "A Lively Garden", my first novel. Highly experimental and autobiographical, it was a bit of a mess, but it holds a place in my heart nonetheless, for it was the first step forward. 

During grad school I worked on "Under the Sun", a fantasy novel that told the story of two brothers and their adventures on an island. After my wife encouraged me to explore realism, I wrote "Gray and Bright", a deeply personal novel about a depressed college kid on a family vacation. I think this was my first novel that had good moments to it, but it wasn't where things would end. 

Eventually, I found the inspiration to write "The Year of Oceans", a novel that was about my struggle with grief, but also about more than that. It is the story of Hugo Larson, his life, his struggles.

Honestly, though people were there to encourage me and read what I wrote, nobody ever told me I was going to get published. The last six years have been a story of me slowly developing my craft, buckling down, and just plain working as hard as I can. I recognize this sounds pompous, so I will balance it by saying that there is still so much I have to learn, and that, truly, I couldn't have gotten here without the encouragement and support of my friends, family, and co-workers. Now you are a part of this story! 

Faith and Art

It goes back way before me. Put simply, people have been imbuing their art with religious faith,  representing all faiths and traditions and even spiritual orientations marked by a gap in faith, for many, many years. I identify as a Christian, so how does my faith shape what I write about? Did I seek with "The Year of Oceans" to bring the reader to my own faith? I would say no. Did I seek to represent my faith in a positive light? Inevitably and unconsciously. Make sure to read the next 2 sentences. Did I seek to also represent the challenges and doubt that accompany my faith with this book? Absolutely I did. If I believe in something, and If I feel strongly about it, then I think it is only natural that I would want to share some of what compels me about it, both good and bad, with an audience. But to try and proselytize is a whole separate matter. 

What I was interested in with this project, to be specific, are the questions and concerns that are universal, that apply in some capacity to every person on this earth. Questions about death, the creation of meaning, and living a full life are the things that preoccupied me. Though I offer some answers to these questions with a Christian approach, I preferred to let the protagonist of the story engage with uncertainty, skepticism, and doubt. I am not the first Christian to make art that explores doubt. An example comes to mind. Sufjan Stevens has been making music that basks in the melancholic and uncertain through a Christian lens for many years and albums. His song, "Casimir Pulaski Day" points to a distant God who takes and takes and takes in the face of a the death of a friend/lover. It describes prayers that are not answered. Put differently, Sufjan offers a voice for everyone: for those who believe in and follow God, for those who would like to but struggle to do so, and even those who are not interested in doing so. My hope, and prayer, is that my story, which concerns death and loss, would reach a similarly large audience, that it would lead to conversations and discussions, and that it would touch the reader in some way.

Sean  

A Different Approach

Limits intrigue me. The idea that installing parameters into one's creative method, intentionally, to get richer or more compelling results is something that captivated me while creating this book. Put differently, I was working with the hypothesis that writing under limits would yield more in terms of what I was able to create.

But what do I mean when I keep using the word "limit"? I am talking about word limits. "The Year of Oceans" constitutes one year in Hugo's life. Each chapter is a month. Each month is divided into sections, which are numbered and may be mistaken for chapters by some. Deciding I wanted to try and place a firm limit on things, and that I wanted to simulate the passage of time as one reads through a year, I came up with a number, a word count for all the months, and the subdivided sections had to equal or get pretty darn close to that number. If "March" had three sections, together, they had to approximate that number. If July only had one section, then it, too, needed to get close to that number. This led to all the months, more or less, being the same length.

Rather than perceive such a strict framework to be constricting to my creativity, I found it to be liberating. Many of the sections and plot lines were written quite quickly, and I was very pleased with the results. Moral of the story: creating within limits can be a good thing indeed! 

Sean

Why I Wrote This Book

I forget where I heard it, but I recall noting a writer say that all serious fiction deals, somehow, in some capacity, with death. Compelled by this notion, I set out to write a story that would deal with and confront death head-on. In my head a character began to take form: a retired accountant, on the grouchy side, living in Seattle, tasked with grieving the loss of his wife. I wanted to craft a portrait of a man suffering through grief, in every stage, in all its raw ugliness. I wanted to ask the big questions: What is death? What happens after we die? Is there a God? How could God, if He exists, allow something as awful as death to be in the first place? Clearly, my stakes were not small. Like I said, I wanted to paint a portrait of this man, named Hugo, as his life spanned an interval of time, a year. I wanted to capture his development, his progress as well as his setbacks. I wanted to tell stories using his relationships. This, then, formed the basis for my novel.

As I worked on the story, things began to take on a deeply personal resonance. Having lost my own mother a little more than ten years ago, I wanted to explore my own grief through Hugo's. I wanted to explore, to ask questions, to dwell in the space of uncertainty for a moment. Really, I wanted to create something that would stand as a tribute to my mother and who she was, and so I dedicated the novel in her memory. 

Spirituality plays a large role in the book, as Hugo questions and navigates his loss. I won't say much about the ending of the story at this point, because that would be kinda silly, but I will simply state that this book is intended for all readers, regardless of spiritual orientation, that it does not seek to convert, and that, in the story, there are characters who model many different spiritual traditions, including the non-spiritual. For those of you who read the first, self-published edition of this book, know that I rewrote the ending, though I won't say how or to what degree things changed. 

These are just some of my thoughts regarding my motivation behind the book. I look forward to allowing you to experience it firsthand very soon. 

Sean

First Post

Hello! Welcome to my blog. Check back here for new posts regarding the book, its composition, and the world behind it. 

Sean