Saturday, August 20, 2011

An Invisible Sign of My Own

Rating: 3 out of 5 Knocks on Wood

Mona Gray is young and unique. She loves the world of mathematics. She buys herself an axe on her twentieth birthday because it feels right to her. She quits things just as she is getting good at them because she likes quitting things. Bender's cast of characters includes Mr. Jones, the math teacher who every day wears a number around his neck, and Benjamin Smith, the science teacher who has his students act out a different illness each week.

That Mona and Benjamin have a romance is a minor aspect of this book. Mona tries to figure out who leaves Mr. Jones's numbers outside of houses, while trying to teach mathematics to second graders. She is also coping with her father's illness and the fact that he might not make it to his fifty-first birthday. (

I discovered this book through because of a movie starring Jessica Alba entitled An Invisible Sign. The preview for the movie was intriguing for a few reasons, among them being that Alba was actually going to be in a thinking movie that would require some acting and not just a pretty body. I was interested in the plot, so I looked up the book and ordered it right away.

It's just a small, barely-over-200 page, book. I started it on the last leg of my trip to California, and I was hooked right away. It starts with a morbid little fairy tale that sets the tone for the whole book. Yes, this is a morbid book. The main character, Mona, is a savant who is sometimes quite plucky and charming, but, other times, she is very near crazy.

Her relationships seem very distant. She has issues with her mother, but those barely get addressed. Her father is fading with what seems like alzheimer's and her relationship with him is intriguing, but there is no real closure with it. Bender, in fact, alludes to the fact that Mona is going to go the way of her father which is depressing to say the least. Mona is also hired as a teacher and her relationship with her students is unconventional. The second graders don't talk like any second graders I've ever heard.

Before I go further, I must say that the writing is fantastic. Bender captures images wonderfully and I got the idea that Mona is crazy in an unexplainable way. Some of the imagery is beautiful. Other imagery in this book are weird and sometimes forced.

To me it all goes back to the fairy tale at the beginning of the book. Mona tells a story about a kingdom where people discovered eternal life. No one was dying so the kingdom was getting overpopulated, so the king decreed that each family would have to volunteer one member of their family to die. One family in the kingdom could not decide who should die so they end up cutting off parts of themselves. Disturbing, no? I was disturbed. It ends with another version of the fairy tale that is much better. I'm still trying to figure out why, but it all ends up making sense. Every character in the book seems to be searching to become whole, as if they've been divided up, parts of them cut off. There are some cool insights like that that made reading the book worthwhile.

Would I read more Aimee Bender? Maybe. I wouldn't not read her again, but I'm not going to run down to the store and get her next book the first chance I get. Would I recommend this book to anyone? Sure. If you like your books short, quirky, a little dark, and sometimes humorous, then this is a good one to pick up. Otherwise, it might not be worth the time. I'm still trying to decide if it was worth mine. I gave it 3 out of 5 knocks on wood.

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