Friday, September 13, 2013

Book Review: "Wigrum" by Daniel Canty

Wigrum is not a novel in the traditional sense; rather, it's a collection of objects and descriptions of those objects that the main character collected and kept. Canty originally published Wigrum in 2011, in French, and will be released this fall as an English translation by Oana Avasilichioaei.

Sebastian Wigrum, the protagonist who only appears once at the very beginning of the novel, spent his life collecting small pieces of people's lives: hazelnuts, pieces of string, keys, and the like. Upon his disappearance in October of 1994, Wigrum's collection is documented and published, following his last request. The result is a glimpse into the ordinary, everyday things that gave meaning to people's lives, blurring the line between fiction and reality.

The book is arranged as a catalog, alphabetically, featuring items that Wigrum kept in separate groupings. There are sketches and footnotes to go along with each item's history, featuring a unique layout to the book that won Canty the 2011 Grand Prize in the Quebec Graphic Design Competition Grafika.

The individual items don't have a connection to Wigrum himself. Instead, they're more like flash fiction pieces, each telling a meaningful story that could easily be either fact or fiction. Some of my favorite objects in the collection are a bundle of love letters never sent, a bottle full of Chinese fortunes, and a cosmonaut pocket watch. Many of the objects reference things like missiles, and one particular reference to bananas at the beginning of the book, hint that Canty may have been heavily been influenced by Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Unlike Pynchon's writing though, Wigrum is much easier to read in short bursts because of the book's innovative format.

If you're ready for a new kind of novel that blends the line between reality and fiction in small ways that are nonetheless important, if you like flash fiction, or if you want a peek into the lives of random, ordinary people who have extraordinary stories to tell, pick up a copy of Wigrum by Daniel Canty. It will be released in English in October of this year, and is presently available in French.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

While You're Waiting....

Many genres, particularly ones that fall under the SpecFic umbrella, have in recent years really begun to embrace the idea of more unconventional gender and sexual orientations in literature. If you're interested in exploring more from that area of SpecFic, I highly recommend a blog called Parallel Worlds, where you'll find lots of great, informative book reviews. Nearly all of the books there will feature non-normative gender or gender roles, and minimal sexual content. Check it out while you're waiting for the next review here!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Book Review: "Guests on Earth" by Lee Smith

Lee Smith's latest novel is a story of unexpected comradery and self-discovery in a mental hospital. Evalina Toussaint, our protagonist, grew up in New Orleans with her beautiful, vibrant mother whom Evalina adores. They are happy together, and life just seems to get better when her mother becomes pregnant. The father moves them all to a nice house in the suburbs, but shortly after Evalina's baby brother is born he sickens and dies. Evalina's mother, once so full of hope and life, soon follows.

The father, wracked with guilt, brings Evalina home to live with his other family - including a wife and other children. That works about as well as one would expect, and overcome by grief and her new hostile environment, Evalina finds herself shipped off to Highland Hospital in Asheland, North Carolina. It is one of the most defining moments of her entire life, and possibly one of the best things to ever happen to her.

The year is 1936. As she quickly recovers from her depression at Highland, Evalina soon makes friends with both fellow patients and with staff memebers. Notable among these are Mrs. Carroll, who encourages Evalina's natural talent for the piano, and the mercurial but fascinating Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of the famous writer. Both of these women take Evalina under their wings, in their own separate ways, to teach her lessons about life, loss, and love.

Thanks to her talent for piano and much encouragement from all of her fellows, Evalina eventually leaves Hillcrest to attend music school. She eventually ventures abroad to perform, but her career stutters and collapses after a series of personal tragedies. Evalina finds herself once more a patient at Hillcrest, perhaps the only place where she has ever really felt at home. She reconnects with Zelda and eventually finds herself more staff member than patient as she slowly recovers from her loss. Hillcrest remains her home until the fateful night when it burned down, taking many patients along with it.

Smith paints a beautiful protagonist who acknowledges the flaws in her own point of view as a narrator, but still strives to show ups, the reader, the beauty she found in a life that was not what society said she "should" want or be a part of. I also strongly identified with Smith's portrayal of the people who had been committed to Hillcrest, not as madly frothing lunatics but as normal, feeling people with demons and challenges, who needed help and encouragement to overcome their problems and who worked hard to do so. Evalina and her fellow patients have a lot of fun in each other's company and get into more than a little mischief on occasion.

One of my favorite parts is when Evalina begins to acknowledge Zelda's shortcomings and troubles underneath her manic vibrancy and energy, recognizing the person as well as the presence. Another of my favorite moments was the Christmas scene, when Evalina finds herself in kind of a trance with the piano, as though continuing to play it will allow her to clearly see the whispers on the edge of her consciousness of what happened to her when she left Highland.

The sentiments of pain, healing, and accepting that what the societal ideal of "healthy" and "happy" are isn't necessarily what's best for a given person are very sweet and give the reader a subtle message of self-acceptance and serenity in spite of - maybe because of - the human condition.

If you liked The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow or other stories of quiet, graceful struggle and eventual self-discovery, set against a backdrop of beautifully described scenery and memorable characters, pick up a copy of Guests on Earth by Lee Smith. It's available starting October 15th at your local independently-owned bookstore.