2019-01-06

Starting the year off right. With itty-bitty books.

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001) Thornhill by Pam Smy, finished January 2

What if I told you you could read an entire 500-page gothic novel in about an hour? And that it was good? Would you say yes?

I certainly hope so.

Thornhill has two parallel narratives: diary entries from 1982 and full-spread images from 2017. How these stories will come together is not clear for sometime. And when it finally does, the deliberate references to Jane Eyre, Secret Garden, and Rebecca all feel like red herrings. This tale is much more akin to Wurthering Heights. And how.

Sure, this is a "YA novel" with teenaged protagonists, blah blah blah. But I found it utterly compelling. I refused to let anything break its spell and read it in one go. I imagine you will too.

Smy did a fine job planning this---each page that has handlettered text passing across the spine is scheduled to appear in the middle of a signature. I wish more comics artists planned so well. I hate it when stuff gets lost, swallowed by the spine. Not here! We're in the hands of a generous professional.

i dunno maybe an hour


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002) How to Be Happy by Eleanor Davis, finished January 3

I've read at least two (I think three) of these stories before in Best American Comics. They are actually better surrounded by their compatriots. The title is perfect for the collection---each story, with the light of How to be Happy upon it, seems to tell us truths about our emotional lives. Some are essentially unchanged by the light, but some reveal facets that otherwise may have remained hidden.

Davis is a challenging artist. I just read another of her books last month, and this too is good at asking questions while resisting clear answers. These are stories that take a long time to digest. Cud them up all you like, they will still savor.

one day


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003) Arcadia by Tom Stoppard, finished Janaury 4

I first paid attention to this play at an AP Lit training I attended. The instructor teaches the play to her students and recommended it because of all the math and science as a way to get kids who prefer those subjects to invest deeper into its literature. Plus: Tom Stoppard.

I bought a copy two and a half years ago then almost immediately came across a free copy in a more convenient shape. I'm finally reading it now because a friend recommended the Shotgun's production out now and because she also recommended reading it first. Which was probably good advice, although I feel like my personal interests and the shape of common knowledge has developed such over the last twenty-five years that much of the heavy lifting in this play I have already done (ask me about heat death; I dare you).

Anyway, it does, of course, being Stoppard, do interesting things with space and time and the stage. I don't know that *I* want to teach this play, personally, but I would like to see it and seeing it could well change my mind. I usually read plays in class, but I think I would have to send this one home.

More than the math and science, however, the play takes its truest aim at history, with fun little shots off at class and culture and artists and poets and fads and etc etc. It's got a lot going on.
one day


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004) Third Wheel: Peculiar Stories of Mormon Women in Love by Melissa Leilani Larson, finished January 6

I've long since first read "Little Happy Secrets" which I published lo these many years ago. "Pilot Program" I knew about but had never read. "Little Happy Secrets" didn't feel quite as revolutionary as it did all those years ago, but it is still excellent. "Pilot Program" kept pushing deeper and deeper, but in unexpected (read: plain and realistic) ways. The plays make what feels like a necessary pairing, each directing its energy toward LDS sexual mores though at quite different angles.

Other notes:

Each play relies on a minimum of characters and setting.

Each play uses a single narrator welcoming us into her inner life.

Even with that onrunning soliloquy gluing the scenes together, the moments we see into characters most deeply are in the liminal, silent moments of conversation. Each play includes, as part of its production notes, this: "Sometimes silence is everything."

Each play ends on an unfinished, unsettled note that emphasizes the lived reality of these characters' lives.

I haven't seen either produced, but the intimacy of every moment of each play demands skilled actors, to be sure. Although, perhaps in contradiction, I also feel these plays would work quite well as impromptu readers theater among friends.

My favorite aspect of both plays is how, by the end, the characters' pain is my own, and I feel they are friends of mine and that I must be there for them. This sort of empathy may be what art is for. I pray we take it with us back into our relationships with the living.
a day for one play, a day of none, a day of one play


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005) Fox 8 by George Saunders, finished January 6

This is, I believe, only the second thing by George Saunders I've read (outside a couple on-writing things I've bumped into online). The other was a short story in The New Yorker which I liked and was surprised by. Surprised because Saunders is A BIG DEAL and usually that means, in my experience, Rothlike or Updikelike or something along those lines. But he was full of fun. Completely changed my level of attraction to his BIG DEAL novel. I now would like to read it. But this slim volume cut in line.

It's just a short story---small pages and big type and illustrations are what turn it into a book---originally published digitally only but, I assume, released now on paper to capitalize on the success of the BIG DEAL novel. And why not.

It's a letter from a Yuman-speaking fox to the Yumans. It's fun and larky for quite a while until a tragedy sends the fox's life swinging in a new direction. To get his life back on track, he needs some answers. That's it. That's the conceit.

The book has wit and our narrator's charming. His foxish mispellings have a delightful logic one step up from most misspelled fiction. In all, a fine read.
before and after a birthday party




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