Hardness and Healing: January Reading

The books: The Notebook by Agota Kristof, Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk and Grief is the thing with Feathers by Max Porter. Bonus Edit: Pers Petterson’s Ashes in my mouth, San in my shoes.

I managed to squeeze in three short books over the last few weeks.

I do love a dense novel from time to time, but often I would prefer something tighter and more targeted. There should be more short, intense books that deliver an emotional payload without the burden of having to be 450 pages. Most writers make their point by page 50, and finish ironing it out by 150 at the most — the rest is just fireworks.

With this in mind please feel to let me know about short, intense books that you’ve read a loved. They’re oddly hard to find!

All three books this month feature some kind of childhood memoir — albeit fictional. It’s a particularly good mode of writing for setting apart the absurdity of actual grown-up life and the world that the children perceive.

I read Max Porter’s Grief is the things with Feathers in December, but I am including it as it was the last and best book I read in 2015. It is a true depiction of the haunting of grief. Anyone who has lost someone close to them will find the book familiar, it expresses the rage that grief gifts and the power it takes away. Through it’s voices you find all sorts of madness and softness — there is bargaining and extreme acts of kindness. You can probably find tears in the book.

The feathers belong to the crow, who moves in to the family home when the widower, having moved past the perfunctory elements of his wife’s death, funeral and so on, finally lets grief take hold. The story is told through the three voices of the widower, the two children “Boys” and the crow. The boys offer up the deep sadness of the world not understanding the importance of their mother’s death. The father plays out all the stressful distances he feels now he is unmoored. The crow, most enjoyably, talks to the madness of grief — and the strengths that it gives those in it’s thrall.

The span of the book takes in their healing too — and how that healing sometimes looks like hardening.

Pygmy recounts the journal entries of a young spy sent from an unnamed ex-soviet republic to the US south. It is written in the broken, over-descriptive English of a child who has been through the mangle of a vicious system of brainwashing, training and brutality. The fun is in the satire of the American south through the distancing, over-describing language that comes from someone writing in a second language who is desperate to be exact. It’s gentle, and broadly expresses the warmth of that culture.

Describing the flowers in a mega-church (a dead mall lazarus’d into a place of faux-televangical Christian worship) as “plant genitals” still gets a chuckle from me. As does describing the wall-mart greeter as a “most venerated corpse” . The joy in reading it comes from these piecing together of the broken descriptions into particularly southern American scenes.

Our agent, and his fellow agents, are planning a disruptive and deadly event while also attempting to integrate themselves as a long term sleeper cell.

While it’s an interesting read for the language, it soon falls into traditional Chuck P territory of squishy over-sharing. It’s what I loved about him the first time I read Choke, or Invisible Monsters — but it has felt too familiar this time. Maybe I will come back to him one day.

The Notebook is a war diary of two twins ferried across the boarder to Switzerland from Hungary to live with their rural grandmother. Abandoned by their mother, they soon find that they are given chores and forced to sleep in the cold attic. They soon find a solution to their misery: to turn the experience into a set of exercises for understanding and enduring negative experiences. They lie still as if they were dead to practice in not moving. The fast to know the pain of hunger. The grandmother is an antagonist here, until they starts to apply their deviousness to her or to those around her.

This is a story of childhood coping. While they look upon the world with sometimes like amusement as they have learned to live outside it — as their grandmother has — and use their hardening against it. There is no healing here, but you can’t help but feel like you’re on their side — one which is fully from the point of view of childhood.

Whereas Grief is the things with Feathers show as way that childhood coping and hardening can lead to a normal life, in Kristof’s novel we explore the idea that you don’t have to leave the outsider view of childhood behind, if you’re ready to act on the brutality of it.

Bonus: Pers Petterson’s Ashes in my mouth, San in my shoes. This is a childhood memoir which covers the small sadnesses of childhood in a way the others don’t. It’s not filled with tragedy, but the interconnected short stories all put Arvid at the centre of small failings of a working class Norwegian family. It’s jolly and boy’s own in its way in terms of the plot, structure and activities Arvid finds himself involved in — but his internal feeling of sadness, weight, and fear for his father (because he is so strong), compliments the other books mentioned here.

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