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Review: Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose is transcendent and grounding

Author Durga Chew-Bose.

Title
Too Much and Not the Mood
Author
Durga Chew-Bose
Genre
Non-fiction
Publisher
HarperCollins Canada
Pages
221
Price
$24.99

Above all else, Too Much and Not the Mood, Durga Chew-Bose's debut collection of essays, rightly resists the tired idea that for non-fiction to be great, for it to be powerful, for it to matter, it must edit itself, pare itself back and get straight to the point. Chew-Bose's lyrical prose thankfully lingers, languishes and takes its time – and we all benefit from the pace the author sets.  Reading Too Much and Not the Mood has the satisfying sensation of watching liquid being spilled from a container in slow motion. First there are those few isolated drops – tiny ideas breaking forth and falling on the page, letting us know what is to come. There is a moment of anticipation, the sense that something overwhelming is about to happen. Then the onslaught begins – only a handful of lines into the book, Chew-Bose's ideas are entirely let loose, saturating everything in what feels like an endlessly nourishing way.

The reader knows immediately that this collection is the product of an observant and inventive mind, someone with a knack for breaking down big ideas and expanding on minor details in a way that makes them meaningful – even revelatory.

Take, for example, the opening essay. Heart Museum begins with a tiny image, a particular humble emoji – "smaller than an apple seed, crumb sized." For a moment, Chew-Bose ponders the little pink building on her phone, named "Love Hotel" in the emoji glossary but "heart hospital" in her mind. With its six-storey windowed façade, letter H and the fuchsia heart that floats above its extension, the digital drawing sets off a tidal wave of thoughts, memories and ideas. The sweeping exploration continues for almost a hundred pages, about half the book, looking at childhood, a woman's inner life, pop-culture optimism, friendship, health, love, anger, solitude, New York – on and on. The overall effect is both impressive and startling, and despite the vast, wide-ranging nature of the novella-sized piece, it somehow continues to stay on course, eventually closing in a tidy loop, taking the reader back to the "heart hospital" where everything began.

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"The best ideas outrun me," Chew-Bose writes as the essay gets going, despite the fact the reader feels as if she is always in the lead. And though the quality of the prose may indeed be loose, twisting and even tangential, with images webbing out in seemingly random ways, there is never any doubt that this is a writer in full, artful control of everything she is conveying. Via this collection, Chew-Bose is taking us on a deliberate journey – whether the trip covers dozens of pages or only a few at a time – and though the path is occasionally unclear, where we inevitably end up leaves us with a satisfying sigh.

Chew-Bose finds rich metaphor in the mundane, but is also able to simplify the most monumental of human feelings. She recounts a time when a bullet came through her bedroom window, after some kids had been playing with a gun in the street and her inability to immediately recover from the terrifying close call. "[N]o matter how diligently I swept, I kept finding slivers of glass on my floor," she writes. "They seemed to suggest it's okay to be someone who is slow to move on."

In the essay D As In, she uses her first name to look at the complex concept of identity, both the one she conjures for herself and the ones others project upon her. She underscores the absurdity of people who can't be bothered to pronounce her name properly, who ask where she is from and what her name means, while also touching on the effect those queries have had on her over a lifetime.

A shorter essay on the author's reading of Moby-Dick in a well-lit corner of her college library seems to remind us of the complex joy of lingering with a book, how reading can often challenge us to the point of desertion yet still entirely consume us. A piece on living alone examines the intentional and unintentional choices we make when untethered from the presence of others, while an examination of "upspeak" highlights the assumptions people make about us because of the sound of our voice. An essay that begins with a dead squirrel in a backyard pool – my favourite in the collection – ends up tackling the minutia of high-school dynamics, the heartbreak of separation and the love between a parent and child.

Yet these simple explanations fail to do the book justice – Chew-Bose takes us far outside any initial assumptions of what a particular essay is "about," into myriad details we never would have noticed. She illuminates her large-scale ideas with the comfortable familiarity of the everyday and beautifully tackles vital issues of race, family and culture, her vivid descriptions bringing every scene, every memory, vibrantly to life. (I particularly enjoyed a teenage boy from high school being described as smelling "like an unwashed fitted sheet," carrying around "a seemingly empty knapsack that looked like a deflated pool toy strapped to his back," and the idea that "wearing heels indoors on wood floors sounds like the holidays.") If it is possible for a book to be both transcendent and grounding, this is it.

Stacey May Fowles is the author of Baseball Life Advice: Loving the Game That Saved Me, which was published this month.

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