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Quick Take On A Short Book: Comfort Me with Apples by Catherynne M. Valente

During a recent trip to the library, I picked up a couple of intriguing short works of fiction.  I finished the first, Comfort Me with Apples by Catherynne M. Valente.


Sophia was made for him. Her perfect husband. She can feel it in her bones. He is perfect. Their home together in Arcadia Gardens is perfect. Everything is perfect.

It’s just that he’s away so much. So often. He works so hard. She misses him. And he misses her. He says he does, so it must be true. He is the perfect husband and everything is perfect.

But sometimes Sophia wonders about things. Strange things. Dark things. The look on her husband’s face when he comes back from a long business trip. The questions he will not answer. The locked basement she is never allowed to enter. And whenever she asks the neighbors, they can’t quite meet her gaze…

But everything is perfect. Isn’t it?

My quick take

I enjoyed it for the odd novella that it was but, like many, wondered if it delivered on its promise.

It was creepy and atmospheric in some ways; a sense of building panic, of something wrong just off page. Not sure I would call it horror or even a thriller (the book cover says “terrifying new thriller”). And the language and prose is wonderful in that unique Valente style. But the mystical feminist or anti-men ending with its Biblical language and imagery was both weird and a little unclear.

I read it in one sitting. Can’t imagine buying a copy unless I was a big time Valente fan, but I did find it an interesting diversion on a cold Monday night.

For me the quickness of the read, and the fact that I checked it out from the library made it a low risk.  Others have reacted differently. Check out Goodreads to get a flavor.

For other reviews see below.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

I picked up Train Dreams by Denis Johnson at the local Friends of the Library sale, looking for short readable books. Lately, I have been struggling to enjoy longer tomes for some reason. Needing some bedtime reading I started it this week.

It turned out to be evocative and haunting portrait of the Rocky Mountain west in the early 20th century. An example of why novellas can be such a joy to read when done right. In the course of a very well done review in the Sunday Book Review, Anthony Doerr offers a nice plot summation:

The story concerns the life of Robert Grainier, a fictional orphan shipped by train in 1893 into the woods of the Idaho panhandle. He grows up, works on logging gangs, falls in love, and loses his wife and baby daughter to a particularly pernicious wildfire. What Johnson builds from the ashes of Grainier’s life is a tender, lonesome and riveting story, an American epic writ small, in which Grainier drives a horse cart, flies in a biplane, takes part in occasionally hilarious exchanges and goes maybe 42 percent crazy.

It’s a love story, a hermit’s story and a refashioning of age-old wolf-based folklore like “Little Red Cap.” It’s also a small masterpiece. You look up from the thing dazed, slightly changed.

Later in the review, I think Doerr is right when he credits “persuasive” atmosphere with playing a big part in the power of this novella. It reads like a memoir/travelogue, a true piece of history, despite its fiction and even magical realism aspects.

Doerr also hits on another aspect that is so effective:

The novella also accumulates power because Johnson is as skilled as ever at balancing menace against ecstasy, civilization against wilderness. His prose tiptoes a tightrope between peace and calamity, and beneath all of the novella’s best moments, Johnson runs twin strains of tenderness and the threat of violence.

It is at once unsettling and yet calming or perhaps perfectly balanced between the two. Which is what life in that time and place, and perhaps all times and places, was like.

Train Dreams was just what I needed this week, a short read that captures your imagination and allows you to enter another world for a while. I’ll give Publishers Weekly the last word:

An ode to the vanished West that captures the splendor of the Rockies as much as the small human mysteries that pass through them, this svelte stand-alone has the virtue of being a gem in itself, and, for the uninitiated, a perfect introduction to Johnson. 

The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough

I stumbled on The Language of Dying at Half Price Books and put it on a list of books I would like to read.  I was really taken by one particular blurb:

“A beautiful story, honestly told.”—Neil Gaiman

Isn’t that what every reader is looking for?

Well, I finally managed to request it from the library and read it.

It is an artful yet rather depressing novella about a family dealing with the pending death of their father. The grief brings out both love and a difficult past. The tension ratchets up the conflicts and relationships.

I felt like it was well done, but hard to say you “enjoy” a book like this.

The Kirkus review captures some of the problems:

Through flashbacks, Pinborough reveals important parts of the family’s history: the day their mother left, the day one of the twins began doing drugs, the abusive former marriage of the narrator. But this back story proves to be the book’s weakness; it offers little in terms of actual perspective on the characters and instead feels somewhat clichéd. Perhaps this is the point: this family could represent, and does represent, all of us as we deal with death. But at the same time the author has created these pasts for the characters for a reason, and they could have been more unusual. The other weakness is the writing itself: the sentences lack true lyricism, and the use of second-person narration is jarring. The one thing that elevates it is the strange and inexplicable vision that awaits the narrator at the moment of her father’s death. She waits to revisit something she has seen before at times of great emotional change, and the meaning of that vision, while ambiguous, is also full of life, violence, and wild beauty.

Moments of strange fantasy make this meditation on loss both unexpected and meaningful.

I found the writing moody and atmospheric but, yeah, there did seem to be an element of the cliche in there too. But the mix of fantasy and harsh reality, combined with family dynamics, makes it a worthwhile short read.

Review: Jack in the Green by Charles de Lint

Jack in the Green
Jack in the Green by Charles de Lint
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
View all my reviews


Quick Take:

I stumbled upon Jack in the Green at a local library. Given my penchant for short reworkings of mythology, fairy tales, etc. this seem like a good fit.

But while this retelling of Robin Hood has its moments, it came off very one dimensional. It is interesting to explore what justice, even if it is of the vigilante sort, might look like in the barrio where power is corrupt and the wealthy gate themselves off from everyone else. What does law and morality mean in a world where the economy and the law is stacked against the poor and less fortunate? This could be fertile g

But too much of this novella comes off flat and obvious. Everything feels like a caricature; even if the setting is the American Southwest instead of England. The only scene I found all that compelling was the interaction between the gang and the bottle witch.

Even the resolution was too simple. Maria comes back to life, Jack defeats the bad guys (in a rather dark and cruel scene that nonetheless came off equally flat), and they live happily ever after. This came off as a sketch of a story rather than a flushed out one. Even short stories pack more punch than this.

Perhaps my expectations were too high but I came away disappointed.

The House of Paper by Carlos María Domínguez

I am a sucker for short books with interesting illustrations so when I stumbled upon The House of Paper, illustrated by Peter Sis, at a local library sale I couldn’t resist picking it up for a dollar.  But it ended up shelved with a number of other short works and never read.

Recently I was in a bit of a reading funk, however, and pulled it down and decided to read it.

dominguez_final.inddBluma Lennon, distinguished professor of Latin American literature at Cambridge, is hit by a car while crossing the street, immersed in a volume of Emily Dickinson’s poems. Several months after her untimely demise, a package arrives for her from Argentina-a copy of a Conrad novel, encrusted in cement and inscribed with a mysterious dedication. Bluma’s successor in the department (and a former lover) travels to Buenos Aires to track down the sender, one Carlos Brauer, who turns out to have disappeared.

The last thing known is that he moved to a remote stretch of the Uruguayan coastline and built himself a house out of his enormous and valuable library. How he got there, and why, is the subject of this seductive novel-part mystery, part social comedy, and part examination of all the many forms of bibliomania.

It turned out to an odd novella about the obsession that reading and book collecting can become.

While it was a quick, quirky and largely enjoyable read, it was also odd and ephemeral. Perhaps if you were more plugged into classical and international literature, or more obsessed with formal book collecting, the references and name dropping would mean more or deepen the story.

I know little to anything about Jorge Luis Borges or South American literature. And am not really knowledgeable about magical realism, particularly the South American variety. So references, homage, jokes and or attempts at capturing a particular style or voice were lost on me.

It was an interesting story to some degree but it felt like it never quite went anywhere.  The tension and mystery never really led to something or connected for me. The story just kind of ended.

Those more in tune with the above topics might find something more but it felt flat to me.  Here are two somewhat contrasting opinions:

Publisher’s Weekly:

It is amiable and sincere in its desire to add its voice to the master’s by revisiting some of his settings (including Buenos Aires) and subjects (Quixote, collecting, love, time and death). But it falls short of Borges’s own takes and is thus hard to read as more than a love letter. With 11 two-color illustrations by Peter Sís, the book is fun and sad in the right spots, but one never gets a fiendish enough sense of Domínguez’s own obsessions or his desire to plot them.

Interestingly enough, School Library Journal found it a good assignment for teen readers:

Its very brevity allows bright and biblioholic teen readers the opportunity to see a literary joke through–which is not to say a slight or insubstantial bit of literary twaddle–from setup to close. Dominguez references a variety of authors with whom college-prep students will be familiar and shows off a sprightly interpretation of South American magical realism. This would make an excellent suggestion for formal summer reading.

Perhaps I am too far past my “college-prep” years because I missed most of the references …

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