Friday, January 3, 2014

Two Yellow Books: Mr. Penumbra and Radiant Filmstrips

Even when it seems dark and cold, there's new growth.

Sunrise was at 7:58 am, sunset will be at 4:31 pm.  1 minute, 6 seconds more daylight since Solstice. A quiet, inside-voice YAWP goes here.  I am so looking forward to lighter skies when I get off the ferry, looking forward to wanting to stay away from my bed until at least 7 pm.

I love the coziness of Winter.  I turn all the tiny lights on, the Christmas lights that are up all year, the little lamps that cast small yellow glowing circles under their shades, the strings of lights along the walls.  No big lights for me this time of year, no, I like the wombiness of it all.  I just want to stay awake long enough to enjoy it!

I love to cook when it start to gets dark, standing at the window and watching the neighbors coming home to their own yellow lit doorways, their own little fenced yards, their warm dogs waiting on the other side of the door.  Our little street is strung in Christmas lights that stay up all year long and there are a few low street lights that make everything feel like something out of a Narnia story.  Everyone walking on the street has somewhere exciting to go, usually accompanied by a dog, although at a slower pace this time of year.

 I just finished reading a couple of books written for grown-ups that really have nothing in common except that they were amazingly good and the covers are yellow.  One glows in the dark. Most of you know that I prefer to read children's and young adult books so to find, read, and enjoy books for adult readers can be a real chore for me.  They don't move quickly enough or they are too introspective or weird...I don't know, I prefer the books on the edges of literary fiction, I guess - or things that can be shared with someone else because it is universal in its story.  Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan, and A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip, by Kevin Brockmeier, filled all my requirements for a good read on a dark day.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore was so much fun!  There's a little mystery, science fiction, a 24 hour bookstore in a big city, a secret cult dredging secrets for eternal life out of text, the merging of the computer worlds and paper book worlds, and, if I'd actually stopped reading long enough to make notes, a pretty good reading list, too!

MP24HB is the story of a young man, Clay, out of a web-design job who serendipitously finds work as an old-school (and I do mean OLD SCHOOL) bookseller on the graveyard shift at a 24 hour bookstore where no one seems to buy anything.  A very odd collection of customers find their way into the store, borrowing extremely weird and old books, most of which don't seem to be written in a language he is familiar with.  As Clay watches and starts to know his customers, and as interesting as these books might be, he starts to wonder what really goes on here.  Grabbing new and old friends to do a little investigating, they eventually find that the store is a front for a vast search for the secret of endless life.

MP24HB is funny and clever and a lovely look at the world of bookstores and books (can't really say bookselling since very little of that happens here) and the joy of knowledge and of friendship.  I loved how seamlessly Mr. Sloan combined the two sides of the book world, the paper and boards side with the downloadable and lit glass side.  Something we may well have to get much more comfortable with (sigh).  It was just a good romp and would be good for older teens as well as adults.  It just came out in paperback and, yes, the PB glows in the dark, too.  Well, the cover glows, the pages still need to be read in light.
(Farrar Straus and Giroux.  $15.00.  Ages 16 and up.)

I have no idea what made me pick this book up.  I don't think I've read anything else by him. The advance reading copy I have has only black type (title, author, etc.) on a bright yellow cardstock cover.  I usually don't read memoir or biography since I don't often know who they're about or care about the subject.  I think A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip may change my opinion about memoir, at least.

FSRF was absolutely enthralling. Maybe because, timewise, it is familiar and recognizable.  The music and the cultural references are things I'm familiar with and I'm now old enough to recognize them as artifacts of my youth, the book slides in to that space in my life like a CD into the only space left on the rack.  I was also a seventh grader, once, and all seventh graders go through the same kinds of things, only the packaging changes.

Kevin B. has, in this tiny volume, captured the universal feeling of what it means to be 12, all the fear, embarrassment, zits, wonder, and confusion that comes with being that age, but he uses such good words to share it!  Give this to a 12 year-old and they will see themselves in it (although they probably won't appreciate it), give this to someone my age and the memories will color and enhance the words on the page.  I was such a Kevin when I was that age.  Clumsy, so thoughtful that it backfired, friends who were loving and hateful at the same time, awkward, too tall, too big, too too too everything...

Kevin, looking back from the advantage of some number of decades, knows he is a boy on the edge of something big, he has no idea what it is, but he is ready to re-invent himself.  He longs for more, he longs for better friends who understand him, maybe he longs for a girlfriend, at least a kiss from someone other than his mom; he longs for something he doesn't even know he wants. But he still feels most comfortable playing and hanging out talking about books with a new friend.  He cries when his feelings are hurt, he wants to hug and be hugged. He's not quite sure what everyone's talking about. Over the course of the year he starts to find his way, as most of us eventually do.

This was a funny and poignant book, filled with lots of cringe-worthy scenes (most of which we'll identify with), good humor, and thoughtful writing.  It's hard to write a small book, it takes a lot fewer words and they have to be the exactly right ones.  Thank you, Kevin Brockmeier, for finding those words and sharing them with us!  (Pantheon Books.  Available April 2014. $24.95.)

No recompense received for these reviews.

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