This installment: stories from a Polish village (f); from the mean streets of LA to the even meaner desert (f); and a charming children’s book destined to become a classic (f).
Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Grzegorzewska
Linked stories about life in a small Polish village circa 1980. Young “Wiola” has adventures, gets into scrapes, takes desperate measures (hence the title, but it tuns out that mercury is inert so no harm done), and comes of age. Pets, crafts, the church, the crazy doings of villagers—intense, vivid, sometimes surrealistic. Greg is also a poet and has a sly sense of humor both of which add to these stories’ charm.
Wonder Valley by Ivy Pochoda
The action cycle between the mean streets of LA’s homeless population and a weird ranch near Twentynine Palms in the desert. There Patrick has formed a commune where interns in thrall to his hippie charisma take part in rituals worthy of Synanon and clean chickens while wife Grace and twin teenage sons watch from the house with scorn. All sorts of damaged folks and bad actors end up there and predictably things go very wrong. Back in the city some of them seek connection or revenge. A thread: the naked runner who mesmerizes rush-hour traffic and goes viral. Everyone’s flawed and sometimes it’s hard to root for the characters, but I was held by horror-fascination. Atmospheric!
Wonderling by Mira Bartok
I was curious about what the author of a fine memoir (The Memory Palace) would do with a book for children and was delighted to discover this magic tale. Initially nameless, this “groundling” with a fox’s face, one ear, and no tail, is stuck in a nightmarish home for “wayward and misbegotten creatures”—animal hybrids with human sensibilities. It’s worthy of Dickens crossed with Snicket, run by the fearsome Miss Carbunkle, the ultimate killjoy. He manages to escape with the help of his bird-friend Trinket and sets out to find out who he is and where he comes from. And try to save music from extinction. Lovely stuff which could become a classic.
Back next week.