Paul's Picks: July 2008

It’s time to highlight a few paperbacks that are unlikely to receive much national attention. Some are published by small publishers, which can’t buy expensive lunches for the New York Times reviewers. Others have been out of print for a while and are being republished on the chance that they might find their audience on the second go-round. At any rate they are books I love and would hate to see disappear from bookstore shelves.

Mister Sandman by Barbara Gowdy was published first in 1996 and never found a market. Gowdy is one of Canada’s great writers and Mister Sandman features a cartoony dysfunctional family from the days when dysfunctional was not a word (mid-fifties). Each character carries a shame with them that they hide fiercely. Joan, the youngest child, is albino, mute, and musically and artistically gifted. Today we’d call her autistic. She stays up at night and watches her peculiar family and one by one becomes aware of the secrets they hide. Gowdy is a very funny writer who is capable of breaking your heart in a few sentences. The song “Mr. Sandman” seems always to be playing in the background like the movie “Brazil” seems to throb with its title song, throughout. A book of rare sensitivity and humor. Keep it in print.

Finnish children’s writer, Tove Jansson, author of the famous Moomintroll series, wrote wonderful books for adults. The Summer Book, first published in 1974 and long out of print, is a lovely grandmother/granddaughter novel reprinted by The New York Review of Books. Six-year-old Sophia visits her grandmother, over the short Scandinavian summer. Grandmother lives on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland and the two form a world of their own. The reader and the grandmother suspect what Sophia has no way of knowing — that this might be their last summer together. If you have grandchildren as I do you might weep through most of Jansson’s exquisitely brief novel. It’s good crying. The best kind.

Israeli writer Etgar Keret spent one fall in Iowa City as a part of the International Writing Program. He is a master of the short story and has published three volumes of them in the States. His current collection is called The Girl on the Fridge and features VERY short stories. The first one is called “Asthma Attack” and goes like this:

When you have an asthma attack, you can’t breathe. When you can’t breathe, you can hardly talk. To make a sentence all you get is the air in your lungs. Which isn’t much. Three to six words if that. You learn the value of words. You rummage through the jumble in your head. Choose the crucial ones — those cost you too. Let healthy people toss out whatever comes to mind, the way you throw out the garbage. When an asthmatic says “I love you” and when an asthmatic says “I love you madly” there’s a difference. The difference of a word. A word’s a lot. It could be stop, or inhaler. It could even be ambulance.

End of story. Keret’s stories are all this good, though some of them are a page or two longer.

Courageous publishers who believe in fine literature have given us a chance to read these books. They’re all paperbacks under $15.