Book Review: Hopscotch (Rayuela) by Julio Cortazar

This one is quite the read. Comprising over 150 chapters, the book can either be read one of two ways: 1.) The reader navigates the first 50 or so chapters in a linear fashion, and then stops, putting the book down. Or, 2.) The reader follows the prescribed order of chapters, which takes one through all the chapters in what may seem to be a random order, jumping from one chapter to another. You might read chapter 73, then, at the end of the chapter there might be the number 16, indicating to read that chapter next, and so on and so forth.

Highly experimental, the book follows a Mr. Oliveira as he lives his life with a group of bohemians in Paris. The second part of the book has him traveling home to Argentina to look for a lover, only to end up working for a circus and then at a mental institution. Still with me?

The novel is full of stream-of-consciousness writing, and is a doozy to read. Many of the “expendable” chapters reveal the author’s encyclopedic knowledge on a wide array of topics and fields, supplementing the primary text nicely. This book has actually been labeled a “counter-novel”, in that it challenges and subverts what a conventional novel proposes to be.

Written by the revered Argentine writer Julio Cortazar, it was a blast to read this novel while on vacation in Argentina. Though it is a challenging read, it was definitely rarely dull. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the intersection between world literature and experimental, post-modern literature.


The Year of The Year of Oceans

My word! It has been a year since “The Year of Oceans” was published! This book is very dear to me. I put a lot of myself into it, wrestling with personal demons, and making peace with my life in the process. Publishing a book was always a dream of mine, and so to realize that dream was a big deal for me. More importantly is the outpouring of support I have received from readers and bloggers. The connections I have made with other writers, bloggers, and readers, has been perhaps the richest part of this whole experience. But that’s not even the most staggering thing.

The most staggering thing about all this is how different I am as a person now compared with who I was a year ago. One year ago, I was brooding, prone to fits of gloominess. Life felt very heavy to me. In short, I was super serious. I may still partially be this way, but there is another, more light-hearted, whimsical side of me that is fast emerging.

After “The Year of Oceans” I wanted to keep writing, but I needed a reason to justify it. With “The Year of Oceans”, I was working through grief and exploring it up close. Having dedicated the book to my late mother’s memory, the book took on a profoundly personal sense of significance. So, the question persisted, what was my reason for writing now?

After numerous false starts, including a story about high school friends with names like Claude and Wilson (they were awful drafts), I decided to take things in a different direction. At this point, I can’t say a lot about the specifics of my new project, but I can say that the first draft is nearly complete, that there will be a process of revising and editing, and that I will be submitting it to the same publisher to navigate the review process.

What I can say about this project is that I think it’s going to surprise a lot of people, particularly those who read the last novel. This novel that I am working on is lighter, funnier, more whimsical and magical, celebrating what it means to be alive and to live fully. It is an affirmation of being human, and consequently, it is much more fun. There are still heady, existential moments (would it be a Sean Anderson novel without them?), but they are always counter-balanced with humor, lightness, and whimsy. To answer the earlier question: my reason for writing was to create something that celebrates life.

I absolutely can’t wait to share this project with the world, regardless of what the release ends up looking like. I am thankful for my readers, and particularly, for my number-one beta reader, Alex.

So, one year later, I feel very thankful. I am thankful for life and health, for friends and family, and for the opportunity to be writing. I’m looking on the brighter side of things. Life may be hard and full of challenges, but there is always light.

There is much to be thankful for, friends. More to come soon.

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. 


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. 



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.


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! 


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. 


First Post

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