REVIEW: Per Petterson’s Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes: Stories

Though he’s known primarily for Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson’s first publication Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes: Stories is something special.

It’s reminiscent of Winnie the Pooh for me; I’d always thought of that bear as a little old lady, thoughtful and sweet, but detached from the pains of reality as a child might be. Both Winnie and this book are able to be read by older children and adults; they’re both a little look into psychology and events that work as living memories, told through the brightness of youth.

Petterson in recent years.

Arvid, the young boy who narrates the stories, is just like this. We don’t get his age, but it’s clear he’s no more than around eight years old. Petterson works an ambivalent melancholy into his vignettes; while Arvid is a fairly optimistic, frank kid, he’s also fully aware of the significance of the events he bears witness to: his grandfather’s death, his neighbor Fatso’s addictions, his parents’ marital strife. The author does well explaining the in-between; that is, the place where coming of age has already been in the works, but the details are maybe a little vague yet. Somehow the strange, unmolded stage that Arvid occupies has its own grace.

Luckily, Petterson avoids getting too trope-y with how he approaches The Big Subjects (which are too often the same types of scenarios, barely altered by a group of tired storylines). There is no apparent theme or timeline to his stories, like some proposed common biological clock: falling in love, getting a job, having kids, death. I liked the focus he has on a single, small section of one kid’s life. This doesn’t distract the reader with looking for predetermined developments key to coming of age. Instead it is reflective of how a lot comes into semi-clarity all at once while we’re young.

My favorite of the stories (though it could probably be argued we’re meant to take the book as one cohesive story) is the sixth, called “Fatso.” It’s a sad sort of endearing to note how similar the two are, in their gentler, considerate side. In the movies, they would’ve been friends, like Tripper and Rudy in Meatballs. But here, Fatso is the town laughing stock, not a cool camp counselor. Arvid instead ignores the newfound respect Fatso has for him after they talk a bit, and it made me wonder whether there comes a time when the voice of others rings truer than one’s own.

It’s hard to say whether Petterson distorts the reality of childhood at a level that is indefensible. Anytime an adult author writes behind the eyes of a child, they are wont to add some literary character to them; a thoughtfulness that doesn’t organically spring forth from most kids. Otherwise, they simplify their thoughts past realistic limits, and the story is no longer interesting to read. Arvid is comfortably in between these two, shown to have independence but with the source of it mostly originating with his parents’ often lax attitude towards his adventuresome will.

Check out this and other books by Per Petterson via online book merchants, or at your local library.

REVIEW: The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires

After finishing this book, my first horror/thriller novel, I can firmly say that I will never read another one. Not because it was bad, but because Grady Hendrix wrote it so well that I was thoroughly terrified. My palms were sweating profusely while reading certain scenes, and I had to frequently take breaks from reading because the story was so intense. I won’t spoil the plot, but I’m going to explain exactly what made this book so chilling to me–and what made it so good.

The title gives away that the “monster” in the story is a vampire, so I expected a certain level of blood, gore, and other classic vampire-related themes. Hendrix delivered on all of those. What he also incorporated into the horror of this story were psychological spooks and very relevant political issues. Yes, the vampire figure is making children disappear, but what made the vampire figure so scary was that you could replace it with literally any white man (think Ted Bundy, to whom the main character, Patricia, frequently compared the vampire figure) and the entire story would still be intact.

The actual plot started out kind of slow. It was only until a third of the way through the book that the thriller action really started to pick up. The first third of the plot was dedicated to meticulously crafting a world in which the reader’s attention was drawn to all of the problems within it, without explicitly stating them in the text. It laid the groundwork for truly horrific things to take place later on in the story. For this, I applaud Hendrix.

Patricia is made aware of the first child disappearances when she visits the woman who takes care of her mother-in-law, Mrs. Greene. Mrs. Greene lives in a predominantly black neighborhood, where everyone is scared that their child will be the next to disappear. Naturally, anyone would be scared, but Mrs. Greene’s neighbors are particularly distressed because their children are black and the police don’t seem to care. On one of my breaks from the story, I was looking at Goodreads reviews, and someone said that they thought the story was tone-deaf to make the only children targeted by the predator black, and that it was wrong to create a neighborhood of poor black people and have an exclusively rich, white suburb. I feelthat this reviewer missed the entire point of the author drawing our attention to race in the story. Hendrix casually dropped little details regarding race throughout the exposition. It was this attention to detail that made me realize how good of a writer Hendrix is–part of the horror of his novel was the revelation of how black people were treated in the 90s, when the story takes place, and even more scary is that Hendrix allows his readers to recognize that America still has the same issues today. The vampire figure was able to keep using black children as his victims because nobody in a position of power would care. Patricia, who knew what was happening, was able to retreat back into her normal life and ignore the problem because it wasn’t directly affecting her or anyone in her rich white neighborhood. I don’t believe it’s tone-deaf to present race in this way, especially because the book takes place in the South. It’s both important to the plot and the construction of its horror genre.

Like the issue of race, Hendrix weaved other really important and relevant topics into the horror elements of his novel: gaslighting, drug abuse, sexual assault, friendship/betrayal, disease stigma, and MORE. I was impressed with how well Hendrix created his story. I fear that including any more details would spoil the novel, because the details are so integral to the thriller plot. However, one major issue I did have with the book was the ending. It was wrapped up very neatly, with an imaginary “we’re all safe” bow on top. While it calmed me as a (terrified) reader, I don’t think the ending holds the same value as the rest of the book. It almost felt like Hendrix didn’t want to write that ending, but was running out of time, so he wrote down the words he thought would please his readers rather than continuing to rattle them to their core. Overall, I encourage anyone and everyone to read The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, even if they don’t typically reach for horror/thriller novels. It’s written *that* well.



Who would’ve thought New York City’s socialites’ children would have so much in common with Tolstoy’s tragedy set in Imperial Russia?

Jenny Lee, it seems. In her new book, released March 3rd, “Anna K”, TV writer Lee takes on the immense task of modernizing Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” into a fresh, clever, and yes, frivolous, new novel. Welcome to the world of our Anna: daughter of a rich Korean businessman, Anna is NYC teen royalty. It doesn’t hurt that her boyfriend, Alexander, happens to be the well-respected “Greenwich OG”. Every private school, trust-fund teenager knows her for her charm, maturity, and her “endgame goals” beaux. Her life is perfect; until Alexia “Count” Vronsky steals her heart on the train from Greenwich into the city. With all eyes on her, Anna navigates a messy and uncensored love affair with the boy she truly loves in an attempt to go after what she wants, instead of what others prescribe for her.

It doesn’t help that the people closest to Anna seem to be trying to figure out their own romantic lives; Steven, Anna’s brother, unknowingly executes Anna’s initial run-in with Vronsky when he begs her to come home to soothe his enraged girlfriend Lolly who has just discovered Steven’s infidelity. Lolly’s younger sister, Kimmie, is unfortunately also head-over-heels for Vronsky, despite Steven’s friend and tutor, Dustin’s multiple attempts to win her affection. And we can’t forget Dustin’s brother Nicholas, newly released from rehab again, and his desire to find and pursue the woman of his dreams that he met in his rehab facility. The teenagers’ lives intertwine and untangle themselves again and again, with alarming speed and dexterity on the part of Mrs. Lee’s.

When I first started reading the novel, my roommates found a lot of joy in teasing me about my choice of genre. Anna K. fulfills a deeply guilty pleasure of mine. There’s just something about rich tweens and teens of NYC that makes great entertainment; “Gossip Girl”, “The Clique”, and now, “Anna K”. But it isn’t just its frivolity that makes it such a good read; Lee has a habit of sneaking in plain, poignant nuggets about the heart of humanity and love right next to what could be taken as the superficial. Lee places mundanity and phenomena next to each other to see if the audience can spot the difference; rather, in hopes that they can, but also perhaps because the two are not as different as we might generally interpret them to be. What is so lovely about Lee’s “Anna K” is how deeply and unapologetically she lets her young characters feel. It’s worth reminding any would-be readers of the first time they fell in love; how deeply we all fall and how catastrophic it is to our lives the first time we feel it with nothing else to compare it to!

In times like these, a light read about teenagers being well, teenagers, was a much-needed break. For those of you who have read Tolstoy’s novel, (SPOILER ALERT!) you know it doesn’t end well for the parties involved. Jenny Lee diverts from the original ending and fate of Anna for an ending, that while some may argue could be too “cliche”, I found to be very moving.

“[Love] gives us purpose and strength.” Hiding underneath the glitter and maybe one too many uses of the modern teenage colloquialisms, is a novel worth reading.

REVIEW: Luzinterruptus: “Literature vs. Traffic”

After hundreds of volunteer spent hours putting lights into 10,000 used and discarded books, the books found their way onto the aptly-chosen Liberty St., paving a section of the road with the illuminated written word demonstrating the power of free thought.

Unfortunately, I missed the actual art installment of the books opened up, peacefully resting on the road. By the time I arrived, a giant crowd of people was pushing their way through the street that was blocked off, on a giant Easter egg hunt for used books. I think it is interesting to think about the installment and how it went from a project people admired from a distance to one they actually got to bring home with them, taking a piece of this major art installation with them to read and remember forever, or until the the words fade from memory, if the words even get read in the first place. Many people walked away with armful of new books ready to be read. I wonder how many people will actually read every book they picked up.

This art installment made me rethink our interaction with art and how we engage with it. As a volunteer who spent three hours taping the lights into the books and having fun looking at all the books floating through my hands, it was kind of painful watching people trample over the open, illuminated books carelessly as they searched for a book that appealed to them. The event title “Literature vs. Traffic” seems very appropriate. People would pick up an open book, look at the title, and then throw it back down onto the ground. While the installation demonstrated the power of the written word, it also showed that some words are valued more than others.

I’m sure seeing the books untouched and just chilling on Liberty St. was a powerful and cool thing to witness. And I’m glad people got to enjoy the wide variety of books that was donated for this project and give them to new eyes. However, I definitely think I got more out of this project by volunteering than by walking through the streets, and I thank Luzinterruptus and the University of Michigan Humanities department for bringing this to Ann Arbor.

PREVIEW: Voices of the Middle West

Image courtesy of Midwestern Gothic

Calling all book lovers, readers, publishers, bagel eaters, robots, Midwesterners4Life…whoever you are, you have a VOICE! And we want to hear it!

One year later after its debut, the Voices of the Middle West Literary Festival is a new annual event, created in partnership by local literary mag Midwestern Gothic and UM’s Residential College. From the Midwestern Gothic website, Voices of the Middle West is “a festival celebrating writers from all walks of life as well as independent presses and journals that consider the Midwestern United States their home.”

The event, set up in the East Quad Main Concourse, will be all day starting at 10 am-6pm, available for you to wend your way through tables of books to buy (including ones from Literati Bookstore), freshly-printed campus publications to peruse, publishers and editors and visionary students to chat about the future of the industry in an electronic world, and some very famous authors to brush shoulders with!

Throughout the day will be many panels featuring authors such as Matt Bell, Alissa Nutting, and Anne Valente, on different topics about the Midwest. There’s a chance to hear (or perform) poems and prose at the Open Mic, a great way to support your fellow writers on campus. And don’t miss the very special keynote speaker, Stuart Dybek, who will discuss his own take on publishing, writing, being successful, and of course, living in the Midwest.

I believe everyday should be a day to celebrate books! But Midwestern Gothic and the Residential College have put their heads together to make Voices of the Middle West a celebration that immerses you in Midwestern pride and literary splendor. Indeed- Voices is a unique “book holiday” that is too good to pass up. (Party hats optional. Love of books required)

What: Voices of the Middle West

Where: East Quad, University of Michigan Central Campus

When: Saturday, March 21 from 10-6

How Much?: FREE!!! … unless you choose to buy a book! Which I mean, how could you not??? 🙂

For more information on the schedule of events, check out




REVIEW: The Kerrytown Bookfest

The Kerrytown Bookfest

You’ve seen it as a farmers market, an artisans market, a music stage, and a food cart hang out, but have you ever seen it as a bookstore? The Kerrytown Market hosted the 11th Annual Kerrytown Bookfest at the beginning of the month (when it was still hot outside!). From rare books, to handmade journals, to cookbooks, to comic books, to children’s stories, the stalls were packed with pages and pages. Though I did not see or participate, the event also included activities and lectures for book collectors and avid readers. I strolled through with a friend, rather overwhelmed by the many odd jackets and titles. It was a lovely townie event, but to be honest with you, I had misinterpreted the intention of the festival and was slightly disappointed: I imagined more hand bound crafted books, rather than simply used copies of ordinary titles. Despite my slight misconception however, I had an aching urge to buy something  so I bargained for a book called “Wicca in the Kitchen.” I thought it was going to be about witchcraft and magical recipes, but turns it is was a hokie commentary of vegetal properties. You win some you lose some. To stay up to date on Kerrytown market events, click here. See you next time!