Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Book Review: Bite sized Books

Sometimes, all you have time or patience for is a bite sized book. Or perhaps you haven't picked up a book in so long that even the prospect of settling into a long read just creates anxiety rather than relief. With these slim volumes, you'll be back on the reading track in no time! Moreover, you'll probably feel pretty satiated because even though these novels are slim, they each pack quite a literary punch.

I didn't plan to write a review about stellar novellas; I just realized I had very recently read a quartet of quality shorter works and so I had to share them with you. They have nothing in common, really, aside from their brevity. But sometimes an eclectic mix is better - no burning out on a genre or theme. 

I hope you choose to read at least one of these - let me know what you choose! 

Image result for brightfellow: a novelImage result for everything is teethImage result for now and at the hour of our death susana moreira marquesImage result for signs preceding the end of the world

1. Brightfellow by Rikki Ducornet
A slim book that somehow beguiled me into taking it home from the library. And once I opened the cover, I was enchanted; after all, how many stories begin with "The linoleum swells with stories."? And then we meet Stub, a small child, all alone with his thoughts, with his incredible capacity for creating worlds where the rest of us only see the pedantic properties of everyday life. He lives a solitary existence in a tiny rural cabin with his mother and dad. Neither seems to pay him much mind, and so his unschooling continues, rising within his wildfire imaginative mind and sent soaring through a combination of curiosity and little understood desperation. 

Time passes; circumstances change and for a short time Stub finds camaraderie with his caretaker, Jenny, but it doesn't last (although her personal obsession with the literary work of reclusive genius Verner Vanderloon will take root in Stub's own mind), and he soon strikes out in his own, embracing the campus of a small nearby college as his own. Stub's adventures there I'll leave for you to discover, but know that Ducornet imbues the world of this lonely Peter Pan man-child with an evanescent, lyrical beauty. As Stub cautiously flits in and out of the school faculty's social circle, he finds wonder, love, confusion and disenchantment in unexpected corners. 

Although the volume fills only 143 small pages, it exemplifies Salman Rushdie's adage: "To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world." The bright innocence of Stub's persona lands in your lap without warning time and again, and his ruminations on any number of topics - from the soul: "They say...they say we each have a bird within us. A bird of breath, a bird of fire. Longing for...release..." to loss of innocence: "It's as if he has seen angels tearing off one another's wings..." - will leave you satisfied that art and creativity continue to pilot our peculiar human existence. 

Ducornet's biggest achievement is that she manages to deliver this work without succumbing to pretension or preciousness. Truly a must read for anyone interested in ripe characters, a bit of introspection, or struggling with the privilege and pain of writing. It's a Holy wafer on the tongue of your overwhelming everyday life. 

2. Everything is Teeth by Evie Wyld
Evie Wyld's slip of a book illustrates why the graphic novel format at times truly outshines the traditional format. The main character finds herself obsessed with sharks as a young girl, drawn to and repelled by their mysterious, silent, lethal nature.  As the novel progresses, the shark becomes shorthand for Evie's anxieties and fears related to death and loss of safety - she moves through the world with trepidation, and at every turn, she sees danger potentially lurking. Literally, "everything is teeth." Hands down,this book offers the most vivid and moving illustration of what it's like to live with generalized anxiety disorder that I've ever found in print. 

That's not to say that the work is perfect. Wyld's work intrigued and surprised me, but ultimately left me disappointed. Too much brevity! I wanted more context, richer storytelling, some kind of acknowledgement or resolution of the underlying themes.  But that doesn't happen. This version almost seems like a storyboard for a future, much more developed piece of literature. All the same, its power is undeniable and the work deserves to be read. 

3. Now and at the Hour of Our Death by Susana Moreira Marques
"Our almost instinct almost true: what will survive of us is love." 

I like this publishing house, And Other Stories. They have off-beat, truly quirky and interesting books that you won't find anywhere else. This book is a perfect example. Writer Susana Moreira Marques traveled with a palliative care team to northern Portugal and visited rural patients and their families. Obviously, the book is about those who are dying, but it's much more: its a meditation on life and its legacies; a treasure trove of lives lived; ruminations on the everafter; a quiet window into the love and devotion within families. These themes play themselves out against the backdrop of a way of life that is coming to an end. 

There's an aching kind of beauty that permeates this book, and (especially in the first half) a sort of defiance that I really appreciated. It was almost as though the book created its own five stages of grief, to some degree - opening with defiance and anger ("it took an average of thirty-eight days for a person to die in their home...If you don't want to know the answer, don't ask the question"), urging readers to remember that Death is beyond what man can erase: "Man is not God. Man is not God...we should scrawl this in notebooks, filling page after page. We should be punished for thinking we can control everything, even death...", then moving into a bracing attempt to create a lasting memory of the patients she comes to know through documentation of their lives, and closing with hope: "rather than believe the world ends with each death, believe that, with each birth, the world begins anew." All in all, a wide-ranging, challenging and peripatetic approach to illuminating death and dying. 

4. Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yurri Herrera
I am the first person to admit that my geographical and historical blind spots fall squarely within the purview of Latin and South America. I know the basics, of course, and the native history, but never spent time on the modern histories and cultures of the region. My understanding of Mexican writer Yurri Herrera's powerful slip of a book, then, may be completely off base. But "[y]ou can't dictate how people are going to react to the books you write. It depends on what they're bringing to it when they open it." (Anonymous)

Herrera opens the book with Mexican teenager Makina poised on the precipice of a yawning sinkhole, the end of the world. As she draws back from that edge, she soon finds herself in another uncomfortable position: she is tasked with crossing the border to find her brother in America, and cannot do so successfully without the assistance of the local drug lords. 

The crossing of the border is not only physical, but also spiritual, linguistic, cultural. Confident that she can traverse readily between two very different worlds, Makina sets forth with few supplies and plenty of confidence - or at least bravado.  The resultant journey quickly takes on the aspects of the Odyssey. She descends into the darkness, is raised to light, plunges forth again. The America she encounters is dark, garish, grim - yet also strikingly familiar. And there's that incessant feeling that once you've crossed over into the true Underworld, there's no turning back...

In 107 pages, Herrera fascinates, educates, and titillates his audience. He gives us much more than a griping, precise narrative - there are layers upon layers here, and the end of the world as Makina knows it certainly seems to creep towards her from every direction; darkness (and a brittle brilliance) lapping at her feet even as she finally pads across the good, soft earth to an unknown fate in the final pages of the book. 

This is worth an hour or two of your time; reading it and considering the various possibilities and subtleties left me with a new set of perspectives and ideas. That Herrera is able to tie together themes of love, loss, family, imperialism, and (not) belonging in a profound yet casual approach. Be sure to read the translator's note before you dive in. 

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