The Painter by Peter Heller

Moody. Atmospheric. Haunting.

“The Painter” by Peter Heller will fill you with the yearning to pick up a brush, buy a canvas and run away to Santa Fe. It will suffuse you with the sound of a brook on a clear moonlit evening and the feel of a fishing rod in your hand. It will fill you with the appreciation for natural beauty and the bottomless grief of losing the one person whom you love most. 

Jim Stegner is an artist trying to paint his way out of his past.

In the wake of the destruction of everything he ever held dear; he paints, he fishes. He doesn’t drink. He controls his anger. He loses himself in his work – and his work is amazing. Genius. Transcendent. It touches, inspires and moves people to laughter, to tears. But behind the work is a man barely holding it together. An artist, struggling to survive just being human. 

One day Jim comes upon a man beating a small helpless horse and he puts himself in danger to save it. This one act of thoughtless kindness derails his entire quiet existence. He is unable to halt the uncontrollable progression of events and his life, and art, become darker and more volatile. He walks the line between what is right and what is just, between reality and the half-world he hides in. 

Jim is violent, protective, loving and lost. He is drowning in his grief and slipping over the edge. When he surfaces into the everyday to feel, to experience, to help… he makes it harder and more complicated somehow. He mostly only manages to fuck things up. Again. 

And in every page, through every mistake or bewildering blessing, is painting. Jim creating beautiful, funny, moving, delightful, horrifying and stunning things. Fish dancing on water, birds flying on desks. Mischievous crows and thoughtful horses. Oceans filled with miraculous light and pure joy. We experience who Jim is – his struggles, his choices, his thoughts – with every stroke of his brush.  

Heller’s writing vibrates with life on every page. You smell the turpentine, hear the scratch of the palette brush, feel that cool water around your waders as you fish. But most of all, you endure every piercing emotion with Jim. 

Jim is a man who cannot let go of the one thing he ever truly loved and lost. Who makes so many mistakes for all the right, and wrong, reasons.

A man who wants a simple life and who in his heart wants to be a better person.

To love more. To hurt less.

But isn’t quite sure how to get there – or even if he can believe ‘there’ still exists. 

Unnatural Creatures selected by Neil Gaiman

A black spot appears on your tablecloth. When you look again, it’s gone. Now it’s on your wall. You blink. It’s on your ceiling. With each new appearance, it grows. It swells. It becomes a large, hideous, dark presence in your home. And then you learn – it’s hungry.

“Unnatural Creatures” is a collection of stories selected by Neil Gaiman. I picked it up while I was visiting Portland, Ore., to see a friend. Elbowing my way through the crowds at Powell’s Books to find a new read, I stumbled upon it in the staff-recommended section.

Since I was only allowing myself to buy one book (such willpower) I decided anything selected by Gaiman was worth checking out.

These fantasy stories feature dark and mystical creatures ranging from hungry black spots to professor werewolves.

In “Ozioma the Wicked” a young girl is an outcast when her town learns that she can speak to snakes. Then one day, something lowers itself down from the sky and threatens everything they hold dear. Only Ozioma can help them.

“Moveable Beast” is an adventure in which a Beast collector arrives at the Bastardville Dreamy Creamy, an ice cream store in a town that prides itself on being miserable. He comes to collect their beast, but little does he know what that beast truly is.

Larry Niven’s “The Flight of The Horse” is about a man who travels back in time to find curiosities for the modern royal family. He goes on a quest further back in history than ever before to find a horse but finds something quite startling instead.

In one of my favorite pieces of the collection, a young girl named Matilda gets off the omnibus one day at an unexpected destination. In this village, the princesses’ pet cockatoucan transforms aspects of the village with its magic laughter.

The king becomes a butcher; the prime minister becomes a child. It makes Sundays come together and Thursdays get lost. It changes time, people and places to make their village a topsy-turvy mess.

Though Matilda normally wouldn’t be able to tackle such a complicated problem, the cockatoucan accidently makes her clever. And she concocts a plan to set the village to rights.

Each piece in “Unnatural Creatures” is different and delightful. Whether the authors are writing about griffins or bicycles, the characters are unique, and the stories are imaginative.

Gaiman has assembled a charming collection of whimsical romps – whether they are dark, sweet or deadly – that any reader will enjoy.

Hyperbole and a Half; dinosaurs, cake and rainbows

“Hyperbole and a Half” by Allie Brosh is like reading about the inside of your head – all the dinosaurs, cake, rainbows and overly emotional thoughts churning around into a colorful mess that constitute your life completely unfiltered.

We try really hard to keep all those dinosaurs and rainbows under control, but in this book, they roam free. I admit, maybe this isn’t everyone’s head (if you’re scowling at me right now, I mean you), but I loved it because it is a little bit like being inside mine.

It started the day I read the dinosaur costume entry, Menace, on Brosh’s blog. It was like making a new friend. I have worn a dinosaur costume, and I, too, have felt incredibly powerful waving my claws in the air, having a tail and roaring.

The best part is people not looking at you like “why is that human roaring?” because you’re a dinosaur now – you can roar to your heart’s content. So yeah, I was hooked.

Brosh’s blog is truly great. Each entry contains humorous stories and drawings to illustrate the ridiculousness that is daily life with blatant honesty. Her book “Hyperbole and a Half” is an extension of this.

In “Hyperbole and a Half,” we experience Brosh’s battles with depression, her childhood memories, her struggles to be a better person and even a little delicious cake stealing. Her writing is brutal, comical and wholly sincere.

There are many, many reasons to read this book, but here are just a few. You should read it if:

You love dogs.

You love cake.

You love books.

You like to laugh.

You are human.

The thing is, I think a lot of us can relate to Brosh’s book. It’ll make you chuckle, sure, but it’ll also make you think.

If you’ve ever struggled with depression or felt overwhelmed by the total lack of control in your daily life, or if you’ve ever needed someone just to understand how amazingly frustrating it can be just to be a person existing in this world, you’ll relate. And I think we’ve all been there.

Brosh reminds us that we’re all human, and that, yes, life is hard. It’s hard and ridiculous and exquisite. We should be grateful just to be experiencing it every day, but most of the time, we aren’t.

We’re mostly caught up being infuriatingly human, and if we’re going to do that anyway, then we might as well laugh a little bit at ourselves, too.