Finished: Right after Thanksgiving

Grade: A

For children, life can be confusing. They’re still learning how the world works. The line between imagination and reality is blurry, and they have no clear concept of what is “normal.”

Usually narratives about child-like imagination focus on the positive aspects of this blurry reality: Children are more accepting of differences in others, they are more willing to look silly in the name of having fun, and they are amazed by the simplest things in the world. “If only adults could remember some of this childlike whimsey!” So many books and movies tell us “Then they would live happier, freer lives!”

To Know You’re Alive, a compilation of macabre graphic shorts by Dakota McFadzen, reminds us of the other side of that coin: “Yeah, but remember being a kid and genuinely fearing for your life every time you passed by the stairs to the basement? Remember when your family moved and everything you knew to be true was ripped away from you forever? Remember how you accepted a lot of upsetting things as normal because you didn’t know any better?"

"And Isn’t is actually nice to understand things as they actually are? And wouldn’t it actually be terrifying and horrible if you were suddenly thrust back into that ever-shifting world of confusion?"

Maybe the structures we cling to as adults are restrictive, but they are also comforting, and the fact that they are remarkably fragile is as terrifying as it is freeing.

Finished: Sometime before Thanksgiving

Grade: B+

After David’s wife Franny dies under mysterious circumstances, David descends into grief and

madness, exacerbated by the sudden appearance of vague threatening messages everywhere he looks.

In this surreal nightmare of tiny things invading the cracks of a man’s life, we are left wondering what is real, what is a manifestation of grief, and what is purely the side-effect of a pre-existing mental illness.

I liked this book! My only issue is that the author uses mental illness as an excuse to “do surrealism”. (Which may or may not be problematic in a “don’t romanticize mental illness” sort of way, but I don’t really have the credits to speak on that.) My problem is that it’s hard to tell how much energy the reader should invest in the literal mystery of the story.

You might get caught up wondering: “Did that really happen?

Did David kill his wife? Is his wife still alive? Is she leaving the notes?” And you might be hoping for an answer at the end. But if you do that you’re going to be dissapointed, because really this is a book about a feeling, more than a plot.

As a book about a feeling, it’s very effective, but it takes a while to figure out that’s what it is, and relax into it.

Finished: 10/9/21

Grade: A

When Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov arrives in town he seems like a perfect gentleman, but when he starts inquiring about the purchase of dead souls - deceased peasants who are still counted on the national tax census - the entire town is forced to wonder who this charming man is, and what his goals really are.

This book is less of a NOVEL with a PLOT and more of a COMIC PASTICHE OF RUSSIAN LIFE IN THE 19TH CENTURY.

It is silly, and goofy and one might even say... zainy. What I really love about this book, though, is that although the characters are cartoonish and goofy, they are still well rounded. The author is poking fun at them, but it comes from a place of love rather than anger. The result is characters that are funny but that are still allowed to be real people. We see ourselves in these characters, and our friends, and our relatives. This adds to the comedy, but also allows us to relate to them, and learn from them. Which is pretty cool considering they were written 200 years ago.

AN INTERESTING NOTE: This book is in two volumes, but Gogol never actually finished volume 2. So, as it is published, the second volume is just a cobbled together jumble of his drafts that sort of trails off without any real conclusion.