Student Picks: Jonhston, Cataluna, Jansson

Laura Brashear-- People go missing every day and under different circumstances. When it makes the news, the audience takes pause and moves on. In his novel, Descent, Tim Johnston commands attention and opens the darkest fears in humanity’s hearts and minds. 

Eighteen-year-old Caitlyn is a star athlete about to embark on a new journey in life. Before starting college, her family takes a trip to the Colorado Rocky Mountains. During a morning run, she is abducted. The only witness is her younger brother, Sean, left only half conscious by the abductor’s vehicular assault. 

Johnston employs gorgeous prose to build empathy for his characters. He chronicles the three years following Caitlyn’s abduction. He captures the heartbreaking cycles of hope, desperation, and devastation, allowing the reader to fully experience the loss of Caitlyn and the breakdown of her family. 

“And in the far distance above the highest pines stood the snowy crags of the Rockies, fantastic in scale and burning in the lights of their own immensity.” Descent draws the reader into the dangerous beauty of the Rocky Mountains, maintains interest through the journey of the characters, and provides an ending that makes the journey worthwhile. 


Amira Shea--  In stressful times, I like to return to certain books for comfort, and Three Years on Doreen’s Sofa is a perfect example of literature as hot tea or a warm sweater. There is a familiarity to the setting, the cadence, and the subject; Lee Cataluna is an award-winning novelist, playwright, and journalist from Hawai’i. Her work is centered on the islands and presents characters that are relatable on both the macro and micro levels. You don’t have to live in Hawaii to understand Doreen, the take-no-shit mother trying to provide for her family, or Bobby, her half-brother/cousin, recently released from prison, whom she reluctantly allows to crash on the couch in question.

Cataluna uses Hawaiian Pidgin English throughout, which, similar to Junot Diaz’s use of Spanish in his work, gives the characters a palpable authenticity. From the opening sentence, “Fricken Doreen didn’t even stop the truck,” I knew this person. It’s told entirely from Bobby’s viewpoint, giving us an inside look at all of the factors that go into making poor life choices. Without delving into sentimentality or providing a tidy, happy ending, Cataluna still manages to provide a story that can make a tough day feel a little better. 

Garrett Zecker-- I recently read two titles by Swedish illustrator and writer Tove Jansson (whose Moomintroll has worldwide appeal). Thomas Teal's translation of Jansson's beautiful, utilitarian writing in Fair Play and Summer Book presents a captivating insight into human relationships.

Both books are written in brief, episodic vignettes. Fair Play covers the cathartic, rewarding, loving contentment that comes between two women sharing an apartment in later life. They bond over independent art projects, share their frustrations, and indulge one another with late-night VHS marathons - a definitive portrait of that one perfect relationship we all strive for, free from jealousy and longing - a love story of friendship. Summer Book is a bright novel of awakening. An energetic six-year-old girl and her wise grandmother summer on an island. We are witness to an awakening of place as much as the awakening of self and body. The Cat is a sublime commentary on the complexity of love and expectations in an allegorical tale of domestic husbandry. 

Jansson's sisterhood, independence, wild abandon, discovery, and true intimacy tempted me to finish them in one sitting. Her prose is a joy to read, simply because it's easy to see oneself in the mirror of her breathing stories.