Mapping the Interior by Stephen Gram Jones – A Book Review

Most of my recent reads come from a list of recommendations by Literary Hub’s “The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Under 200 Pages.” Mapping the Interior is from among those many wonderful books.

Written by Stephen Graham Jones, Mapping the Interior is a concise 107 pages. It’s told from the perspective of a Native American boy nearing his teens. His mother moved he and his little brother–who seems to have some health challenges–off of their reservation and into a lackluster trailer. The boy reveals his father died some time ago, so no one is more surprised than he when that very same father appears in their home. Their real father is dead and buried, though. This is something … different.

For such a slim book, Mapping the Interior dives into some rather poignant issues such as poverty, racism, violence, alcoholism, bullying, brotherly love, motherly love, disabled family members, and absentee fathers. Running throughout all of these themes, however, is a sense of dread as a monster seems to persistently lurk.

At times surreal, Mapping the Interior plays with the reader a bit as it teases fantasy while dealing very much in reality. Those two genres eventually merge and it becomes difficult to separate fact versus fiction as our narrator may or may not be totally reliable. There were several moments in the book when I had to read a paragraph over to be certain I read it correctly, but this wasn’t a bad thing. Mapping the Interior demands your engagement.

My only criticism of the book pertains to the ending. It managed a consistent, fast-moving pace until the very end, when the pace suddenly hit lightspeed. I understand the point Jones wanted to make about fathers and sons, but the last ten pages of the book were frustratingly rushed. In all honestly, the last ten pages should have been given another hundred pages if not an entire follow-up book.

If you like thoughtful, brief works that aren’t afraid to dabble in horror, I highly recommend Mapping the Interior.

Grief Is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter – A Book Review

I once again must thank Literary Hub’s “The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Under 200 Pages” for suggesting yet another novella, this time the book called Grief Is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter.

At just 114 pages, this novella is a series of paragraphs and stanzas exploring the utter heartbreak of a man after losing his young wife. He must now raise their two boys alone, and he hasn’t a clue how to do so. A crow appears to guide the man through his grief, comfort the children, and help out in any possible way. However, Crow’s also there to encourage chaos, to promote carnage, and to spout madness.

Crow is a complicated figure in this book, especially because I’m not convinced he was ever really there at all. Or perhaps he was grief personified. Or maybe he represented the delicate balance between tranquility and turmoil that exists perpetually within our daily lives. It would also make sense if he was death. Maybe he was just a crow? Like I said–complicated.

As I mentioned, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers is a quick read due to its unconventional formatting. Somewhere between prose and poem, the novella flies by for the invested reader.

That being said, I had a hard time making the time to read it. I found myself a little disinterested throughout, though, I will admit, the last few pages were strikingly emotional.

I think everyone who reads Grief Is the Thing With Feathers will have a different encounter. The material is both universal and very specific, yet everyone will connect with it in some capacity. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the book, but I do admit that it’s a book every reader should experience for themselves.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson – A Book Review

I’ve enjoyed short novellas all summer that were recommended by Literary Hub’s “The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Under 200 Pages.” I just finished my favorite one yet – Train Dreams by Denis Johnson.

I find it very hard to believe this book is only 116 pages. Though I flew through it, I literally felt as though I had lived a lifetime alongside the protagonist, Robert Grainer.

Set at the turn of the 20th Century, Grainer is an outdoorsman accustomed to working on bridges, in the woods, with animals, and under consistently harsh conditions. He ranges throughout the northwest during his early life but does indeed eventually settle down as circumstances dictate. Grainer is an unassuming man, a capable man, and a man who wants to be moral even while acknowledging he sometimes isn’t. Grainer suffers horrific tragedy throughout his life, yet he persists.

As I said, though the book is only 116 pages, we experience flashes of Grainer’s life in potent, concise, brilliantly constructed vignettes. “Epic” seems an improbable word to use in describing such a brief work, but I can’t help admitting that “epic” is the first word that comes to mind while trying to describe Train Dreams.

Sometimes surreal, oftentimes brutally realistic, Train Dreams is easily counted among my favorite reads of late. I look forward to finding more works by Denis Johnson.

Winter In the Blood by James Welch – A Book Review

Once again, I must give Literary Hub’s “The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Under 200 Pages” credit for helping me find yet another substantial read. This time, it is the novella Winter In the Blood by James Welch. At just 138 pages, it is indeed a brief, yet potent, experience.

Though it’s a provocative, expertly executed book, I must admit that I didn’t find it all that engaging. This could be due to the author’s intent. Welch wrote the book in such a way that its slow, simmering plot mirrors the personality of the narrator.

By my estimation, our narrator is in his early thirties living on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana at some point during the 1960s. A woman, possibly a new wife, has stolen his gun and electric razor and he decides to reclaim his two most prized possessions. During his meandering quest, we get a sense of his poverty, the difficulties of life surrounding his area, the aimlessness of his adulthood, but also the joy and camaraderie he experienced during his youth. Those smarter than I could perhaps argue the existence of an extended metaphor throughout the novella, but I’ll attempt no such thing.

Though we never learn the narrator’s name, we learn that alcohol is a prevalent constant amongst his friends, family, and he, and it seems responsible for many hardships he endures throughout the book. (Obviously those hardships are ultimately due to the mistreatment of tribes across the continent throughout the last several centuries, but I’m speaking in a more immediate sense.) At times, those hardships feel almost surreal. I never quite decided if that was a result of the alcohol or the author employing a fluid style. By story’s end, we’ve learned a lot about the narrator, especially due to a major revelation concerning his heritage.

The execution of Winter In the Blood was quite interesting, but, as I said, I never connected with the book. Sometimes this is no fault of a work. Sometimes the demands of life can impair the enjoyment of reading, and sometimes those demands can enhance the joy of reading. Whatever the case may be, while I appreciate a great deal about Winter in the Blood, at this point, I can’t personally say I’d recommend it. Because it’s so short, though, if it sounds remotely interesting to you, you should give it a try. It won’t take up much of your time.

Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine – A Book Review

Though Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine is one of the wackiest books that I’ve ever read, it has burrowed into my heart and will stay there for quite some time.

It won’t reside in my heart because it’s sentimental to me or because it imparted upon me some important life lesson. No, it’s special to me because it is so bold, so outlandish, so concise, and so awkwardly funny.

The story revolves around an unnamed and incredibly unreliable narrator who is in her early twenties. She’s decided to use the classic novel Treasure Island as her “how-to” guide in life. However, the book doesn’t really delve into Treasure Island as much as you might think.

Rather, we witness our narrator steamroll her way through life while mistreating her sister, mother, father, boyfriend, boss, friend, and former friend. She would fit right in among the characters of Seinfeld, but she would be the one without even a hint of self-awareness or morality.

As the book progresses, Sara Levine, the author, keeps upping the stakes in terms of ridiculousness. At times, Treasure Island!!! is laugh out loud funny, yet it never crosses over into the impossible. Absurd? Definitely. Unlikely? Maybe. Possible in real life? Yes!

Part of what makes Treasure Island!!! so charming is its brevity. This a short book–a novella. Truthfully, I don’t think I could spend more than 172 pages with this narrator; she would overstay her welcome. However, because it’s such a quick read, the narrator manages to worm her way into your heart before you can become totally disgusted by her antics.

I applaud Sara Levine for creating such a character. Despite all of her unlikable traits, the narrator is quite charismatic, and though the story is borderline ludicrous, it manages the balancing act well enough to be an enticing read.

As you can plainly see, I recommend Treasure Island!!! as your next read.