Thursday, December 15, 2011

Books Like Whoa: The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier (2011 Book Countdown)

The 2011 bookmania continues...

The Illumination
by Kevin Brockmeier

Procured from The Fountain in Richmond... what a cute bookstore! Jealous of my friend, Maria, for living near such a gem

Procured in July 2011

Finished on September 18, 2011

Format: A lovely, small hardcover, with a beautifully simple cover design and deckled pages (deckled pages = Frankie kryptonite)

Why did I give it a try: I heard rave reviews on the Bookrageous podcast ( and the Books on the Nightstand podcast ( Plus, the bookseller in the Fountain overheard me mention something about the book and promptly placed it in my hand and told me that I absolutely had to read it. Who can say no to a good handsell?

Summary: Hmmm.... okay. I don't want to spoiler this. I'll just say that I would classify this book as a few tightly interconnected novellas that are tied together by a journal that a wife has used to record love notes that her husband writes her daily. Every day he leaves a note on the fridge telling her something that he loves about her. We follow the journal through the hands of a few different POV characters. Oh, and the titular illumination? These stories take place in a world with one slightly fantastical twist: suddenly, one night, everyone around the globe's wounds start to shine. If you have a bruise, a cut, cancer, arthritis, whatever - people can see your pain by the shining from the malady. (theme alert! seeing other people's pain!)

Thoughts: This is the kind of book that I have mixed feelings about, not because it's not wonderful, but because of the emotional toll it takes on me. Modern literary fiction that is set in a modern milieu is something that I love to read, but cannot read too much of because it is always just so sad. The mood is nearly always depressed and contemplative as the characters deal with a world where they are isolated from the community and understanding that they need. An interesting discussion topic at dinner tables... why do nearly all contemporary authors writing "serious" literature see this as the mood of the age? I don't dispute that it is, just an interesting discussion point...

Anyhoo, the writing in this book is mouth-wateringly gorgeous. Mouth-watering, because I covet the ability to craft these kinds of beautiful sentences. This is exemplified in the central MacGuffin of the piece, the journal:

"I love sitting outside on a blanket with you, my bare foot brushing against yours. I love how embarrassing you find your middle name. I love your Free Cell addiction. I love how irritated you get at smily face icons, or, as I know you love to call them, 'emoticons.' I love the way you'll hold a new book up to your face and fan through the pages to inhale the scent. I love wasting an afternoon tossing stones off the pier with you. I love seeing your body turn into a mosaic through the frosted glass of the hotel shower. I love the fact that you know all the lyrics to 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.' I love it when you fall asleep while I'm driving, because it lets me feel like I'm protecting you. I love the way you'll call me in the middle of the day to apologize for the littlest things." -p. 142

I wish that the whole journal would be published as a separate work. I would buy it. And give it as presents to everyone I love. And then sit in a corner and cry with jealousy that I didn't come up with this device.

I feel constrained from giving my full thoughts, simply because I don't want to spoiler anything in the book. It's not that it's a particularly plot driven book - on the contrary, it's rare to see a book with such a fantastical situation that relies so little on that conceit. Rather, this is a book of small character studies, with the characters dealing simultaneously with this overwhelming artifact of love and the inability for them to hide their own pain from others.

I have to say that I find the first 4 novellas much stronger than the last 2 in the book. Also, there are a couple of lazy plot points, but I won't hold them against Mr. Brockmeier too much because as I said, the plot isn't really the main show. The main show is the prose and the amazingly well drawn characters.

Overall, this book left me sad and reflective, in the best possible way. 


5 - It's really good: well written and pleasurable

How would you rate The Illumination? 

Two more 2011 books to go! 

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