Some people binge on food. They eat until they are going to burst and then just when they think they can’t fit another slice of anything into their already exploding belly, they eat some more. They stop just before they vomit and then they sit and percolate until there is the tiniest vacuum and they jump in for more. Some people struggle with this type of relationship with food. It is mostly beyond my ability to comprehend, mostly, but not entirely.
While the foodies are wiping grease and marshmallow clouds off their lips with the backs of their sleeves, I am doing the same with a book … although it’s different. I know people who sneak chocolate, hide it down the side of their couches, eat it while no one is looking in quite furtive bits. I sneak books. I confess. I do, I always have and I probably always will.
When I know I should be sleeping, when my brain is so exhausted from processing information that I am sure it is going to spontaneously combust, I can still muster the power to consume another page, a sentence, just a few more words. If you really want to drive me crazy, interrupt me in the middle of a book. Any book. If you see my eyes glaze over with love, my posture bending into the words on the page, you know I am gone, as though some Italian Romeo has swept me off my feet and sprinkled star dust in my eyes, whisked me off to some other planet when there is only soft pillows and mountains and mountains of words on pages.
So it is with much joy that I can announce that this week has been a book binging bonanza of the most brilliant kind. It started with Condon’s beauty which I reviewed here and I can hardly believe that that romance was so brief and over only a few short days ago. It continued with an unlikely find: Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes by Per Petterson and the grand finale was Fedler’s monumental and intensely emotional roller coaster, When Hungry, Eat.
Confession: I have no idea who Per Petterson is, where he lives, what he does when he isn’t writing lovely books like Ashes in My Mouth, and I don’t think I care. All I know is that when I last visited the library (love the library), I was desperate to immerse myself for half an hour in between the pages of a million new possibilities but there was no air conditioning and while I’m committed, I’m not entirely insane. So I raced through the aisles anxiously grabbing at things instead of pacing myself and perusing leisurely. I came home with a haphazard assortment and Petterson’s little gem was in the pile.
What can I tell you about this book? To start with it is quirky – in size and in subject matter and even, at times, in tone. It is only 120 pages and measures about a small hand span in size (I am small and it’s my hand that is spanning its height). The first chapter is entitled: “A Man Without Shoes”. I love the way Petterson introduces readers to his protagonist –
“Dad had a face that Arvid loved to watch, and at the same time made him nervous as it wasn’t just a face but also a rock in the forest with its furrows and hollows, at least if he squinted when he looked. Of course you can be a bit unsettled if you look at your dad and suddenly there is a large rock where his head used to be.”
– and it’s a translation! Seriously this man is a genius! Our young narrator continues: “But most of the time Dad was just Dad, someone that Arvid liked and dared to touch.”
This book is about a lot of things, but mostly, what struck me was the purity of Arvid’s relationship with his father. The adoration with which he could watch his Dad’s body move beneath his blue shirt, the intense attachment he felt to his family and the enormous volume of things that he just didn’t understand.
I loved everything about this book. It’s simplicity, the way it so resembled the landscape which formed its backdrop – a simple lack, large wooden houses, a barn – and the enormous weight of events like the death of a grandfather which teeter on the edge of a little boy’s notion of his world. I loved the way Arvid called his neighbour ‘FATSO’ in a rage of anger, which was true, because he was fat and everyone else called him Fatso, although not to his face, and I loved even more the fact that Fatso forgave him the way he couldn’t forgive himself, the way that he told Arvid it was ok it he wanted to keep using the nomenclature, and then, suddenly, it no longer tasted so good. There was so much to love about this book …
except the ending. I didn’t like the end. It left me … I’m not sure of the right word … unfulfilled. It could well be that this was Petterson’s motive, a captivating insight into the lives of ordinary people which are really incredibly mundane and uneventful. Perhaps. But the interjection of the reference to the war in the final page and Arvid’s placating ‘I know, I know’ didn’t ring true for me.
Despite this, I really loved this book. I read passages repeatedly to myself, playing the words over and over, I felt with Arvid, his fear, his wonder, his love.
Petterson is a magnificent story teller and I found myself reading this book and wishing that my writing could be more like his.