Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a quiet little masterpiece of a memoir. The book, centered around a year of the author’s life when she finds herself bedridden with a debilitating illness, takes us deep within an introspective, spiraling path that echoes the pattern of her small friend’s shell. The life of a small woodland snail unexpectedly frames and obsesses Bailey’s vision of her limited world, leading her to learn all she can about its unique life, senses, and consciousness. Peppered with quotations from 19th century naturalists, Bailey’s narrative is, like a snail, meditative, humble, lovely, and downright amazing. Beware: reading this book will almost inevitably lead to a sudden uptick in the desire to keep a snail of your own.
An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King explores a timely, absorbing speculative premise: if the continued effects of China’s One Child Policy and preference for male children continues along its current path, what cultural reactions will occur because of the millions of “excess” unmarriageable male citizens? The writing itself is a little unwieldy and uneven. Shen simultaneously develops the rise of a governmental conspiracy on a large level alongside the more intimate drama of a family trying to make their lives work within an oppressive polygamous social structure. Ultimately, neither one reaches a fully realized state… overly easy tie-ups are definitely at play in the plot. The ideas within the novel, though, were forceful enough to give me pause, wondering how closely King’s vision will match up with the future.
In Reservation Blues, Sherman Alexie blends blues lyrics, a Faustian deal with the devil, anachronistic historical figures, and a group of Native American musician characters with a need for life-changing music. This book is a masterful example of magical realism: the plot is at turns impossibly insane and off-puttingly real. It’s safe to say that readers who “don’t do” magical realism won’t enjoy or understand its beauty. Those who are up for the challenge will be vastly rewarded by its mysticism, straight talk, sorrow, and groove. In case you needed more proof that Sherman Alexie was born to set things on fire with his words, in case you forgot that the world is exactly as bizarre as you thought it was, in case you thought that justice could be manufactured cheaply or that real music could be born for free, please read Reservation Blues.
In My Favorite Thing is Monsters, Emil Ferris creates a visual atmosphere that places this 400-page beast of a graphic novel into some truly special territory. As she weaves dual narratives of a young girl living on a tough side of the tracks in late 1960s Chicago and the abusive past of a woman coming of age under the Nazi regime in Germany, Ferris makes absolute magic on the page, serving a whole lot of sorrow and mystery on a zany, frenetic, cartoony plate. This volume (the first of a two-part series) showcases the author’s artistic virtuosity as she blends styles of 1960’s pulp horror artwork, traditional cartooning, caricature, classical fine art, and everything in-between. The story itself is demanding—it does not shy away from pain or inner demons, and in fact goes out of its way to help us understand how the world takes easy advantage of children without the means to defend themselves. And yet, the heroine’s voice is humorous, plucky, and determined: a trustworthy guide on a gritty voyage. The book can definitely hold its own with other masterworks of the graphic novel genre—Ferris’ visual voice is an important one, and I’m so glad that she decided to publish her first graphic novel in her fifties. It is a gift.
In a broad pool of dystopian stories, Dan Vyleta’s Smoke stands out as unique. The story is profoundly dark; an alternative early 1900s London provides the backdrop for a culture where virtue and vice determine social status. And vice is particularly easy to spot, since people literally give off smoke whenever they commit–or even consider–a sin. This dazzling concept propels Vyleta’s slowly unfolding tale of three young people who get tangled up in the political and moral battles that govern this world of smoke, which is (as you might guess) not exactly what it seems to be. While the shifting point of view that Vyleta employs was at times disorienting or unnecessary, I enjoyed this book. The main thing to be impressed by here? The imagery is insane. The imagined particulars of this world are fresh, deliciously disturbing things to consider. Vyleta also succeeds at creating opportunities to consider moral quandaries without leading to an oversimplified righteous path–there’s social commentary present, but zero assumptions made, other than that of an intelligent reader. I always appreciate that. Another cool touch: there’s much homage to Dickens. The quotes from Charles Dickens and other authors of his era that precede each section of Smoke really add a nice extra dose of gravity to each turn of this soot-soaked story.