December 9th, 2013
“If you ever plan to hang around train stations in the middle of the night, you should always make sure you can hear your own footsteps, and, if you are at all musical, you should try to work out which notes you make as you walk, as it stops you from being lonely, not that I ever get lonely” (3). This is Alice Butler, the pleasingly quirky narrator of this novel, in a train station on her way to a work retreat. Alice works at a big toy company called PopCo (it’s smaller than Hasbro and Mattel, but not much), in an “Ideation and Design” department. From the start of the book she’s aware that toy companies are not entirely warm and fuzzy: “We are in the business of the new and shiny, the biggest and the best, the glittery and magical, the fast and addictive. The toy industry has two big advantages over other industries. Our products are the easiest to sell, and our customers are the easiest to sell to” (7). But Alice feels reasonably good about the products she works on, which fall under three brands themed around spies, detectives, and code-breakers, with a fourth brand, maybe about survival skills, to be added soon. The work retreat, though, makes Alice think differently about things: a group at the retreat is tasked with coming up with a product to sell to teen girls, and hears from various specialists in market research, branding, and so on; meanwhile, Alice learns more about other people at PopCo and what they do (e.g. someone whose job is to create fictional online personas—presented as if they were real teen customers—to promote PopCo products). “It’s all dishonest,” a co-worker says to Alice, at one point, and Alice finds herself agreeing: “She’s right. The way the products are designed, focus-grouped, manufactured, and sold. It’s all dishonest, all of it” (415).
But the story of the novel isn’t just the story of Alice’s growing disillusion with PopCo: that present-day narrative alternates with the story of Alice’s childhood. We learn that Alice’s mother died and that her father left, leaving her to live with her mom’s parents. Alice’s grandmother is a mathematician working on the Riemann hypothesis; Alice’s grandfather makes crosswords and other thinking puzzles and breaks codes, including one big one: the (fictional) Stevenson/Heath manuscript, which gives the location of buried treasure. But Alice’s grandfather won’t tell anyone the solution, because the treasure is buried in a spot that’s now a bird sanctuary: he doesn’t want treasure-hunters disturbing the birds, and the treasure was never the point for him: the puzzle was. But he gives Alice a necklace with a code on it, which she is sure is related to the treasure. So there’s that bit of the story, and lots about Alice helping her grandfather with his work (he teachers her about ciphers and prime factorization, and sets her to counting words and letters in documents he’s trying to decode), and then there’s also the normal-life bits of Alice’s childhood: school and friends and boys and the difficulties of being a teenage girl, maybe especially if you’re smart and loner-ish.
And there’s another mystery, too: in the present-day story, Alice starts getting messages in code while she’s at the work retreat. They’re pretty vague and she’s not sure who’s sending them, or why: does it relate to the treasure and her necklace, or is it something else entirely? And oh, there’s a bit of romance, and also some bits about Go and sailing and the moors and old hill forts. If this all sounds like a lot, it is, but it doesn’t feel like too much: I like all the disparate bits and digressions of this book, and I like Alice’s narrative voice a lot. There’s one bit where she’s coming down with a cold that felt so real and familiar and vivid, the way that when you’re getting sick, everything can sometimes be almost hyperreal, in sharp focus, until the point where you realize how awful you feel. Unfortunately, the end of the book lost me a bit: the story of Alice’s disillusion with PopCo and with consumerism in general ends up being a bit heavy-handed. More pleasing: the fact that there’s a cryptic crossword at the end of the book for readers to do!
Smut: Stories by Alan Bennett
Picador (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 2012 (Originally Faber and Faber, 2011)
November 22nd, 2013
There are two stories, or maybe you could call them novellas, in Smut: the first, which I liked better, is the longer of the pair, at 93 pages; the other is 59 pages. Both stories are, to a large extent, about secrets, or about things people think are secret that aren’t secret after all, and I think that the type and form of the secrets in each is a big part of why I liked the first story, “The Greening of Mrs Donaldson,” so much more.
In that first story, we meet Mrs Donaldson, a middle-aged widow who works part-time at a hospital as a demonstrator, acting out cases/symptoms for medical students to diagnose. Mrs Donaldson’s married daughter is a bit scandalized: she jokes that the job makes her mother a “distant relation of the artist’s model with some of the brazenness and even nudity that that occupation could involve” (8-9). “It’s a way of not being yourself,” Mrs Donaldson says (ibid.). But, as Mrs Donaldson learns, sometimes our ideas of ourselves are tied to past realities/circumstances, or are more limiting/limited than we might imagine. In addition to working at the hospital, Mrs Donaldson has two student lodgers, a guy and a girl who are dating, and when they fall behind on rent they suggest they might “put on a demonstration” for her in lieu of payment (21). She agrees, and then, having watched the pair have sex, finds herself thinking about it more than she’d expected to. She finds that “having a secret put her in a good mood, sheathing her against the petty annoyances” of her daily life: “hectic though the evening had been for Mrs Donaldson in retrospect it constituted some sort of refuge, a haven utterly set apart, a place of her own” (31). Mrs Donaldson’s voyeurism is a moment of connection, odd as it might be even to her, and is indicative of the freedom of her widowed life: she can figure out who she is and what she likes and what she wants.
The second story, “The Shielding of Mrs Forbes,” has at its center characters who are mostly more self-interested and less likeable than Mrs Donaldson, and their secrets are more like lies. Graham, a handsome young man who mostly likes other men, marries a less attractive woman for her money, much to his mother’s dismay. His mother, the Mrs Forbes of the title, is a piece of work: “I wouldn’t put it past her to be Jewish,” she says, of her son’s fiancée; she also says the fiancée, Betty, is “so dark people might think she was Asian” (96, 103). Mr Forbes (senior) gets the worst of it, though: his wife insists on calling him Edward when he’d rather go by Ted, and she polices his speech, telling him he’s “too old to say “tits”,” among other things (99). All the main characters, Mr Forbes and Mrs Forbes and Graham and Betty, wind up sleeping with at least one person who isn’t their spouse, though only one of the affairs actually stays entirely secret. While there was lots to laugh at in this story, and while I like Betty, who turns out to be savvier than Graham, I was glad this story was the shorter of the two.
Meanwhile, the cover of Smut, designed by Henry Sene Yee and illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal, makes me grin so much: it’s like a kama sutra of teacups, with really good type design. (This post on the cover designer’s blog shows some earlier approaches and sketches, all of which are fun but none of which are quite so great as the final result.)
November 14th, 2013
I liked the voice and tone of Picture Me Gone from the first page, which starts with 12-year-old Mila talking about her name: “The first Mila was a dog. A Bedlington terrier. It helps if you know these things,” she says, and then, a bit farther down the page: “I don’t believe in reincarnation. It seems unlikely that I’ve inherited the soul of my grandfather’s long-dead dog. But certain traits make me wonder” (1). Like a dog, or like Clever Hans, Mila is extremely observant. She can read a room, or someone’s mood, by picking up on little details that others miss. She can’t always articulate how or why she knows things, but often she can: it’s the accumulation of facts and circumstances, piles of mail or someone’s posture or the direction of someone’s gaze.
It’s good that Mila’s observant, because she has a lot to figure out: at the start of the book, she explains that she and her father, Gil, have been getting ready to travel from London to upstate New York, to visit her father’s oldest friend. (Gil hasn’t seen this friend, Matthew, for eight years.) But then the friend’s wife calls with strange news: her husband has disappeared, just left for work one day and didn’t come back, leaving her with his dog and their fourteen-month-old son. Mila and her dad decide to take the trip as planned: they’ll go to New York, and they’ll find Matthew.
I like how this book is a travel-story and a coming-of-age story and a puzzle-story all at once; I like how it is about how complicated life can be, and about how relationships (romantic, friendship, family) can work or not work, without being too heavy-handed about any of it. Also, yay for queer/bisexual visibility: there’s an adult character in this book who has been romantically involved with both men and women and is not presented as someone who used to be straight but realizes she is queer (or vice versa).
November 10th, 2013
I really like wordless (or almost-wordless) picture books in general, and this story of a cat with “a silly name that belies his predatory nature” (in the words of Sarah Harrison Smith, writing in the New York Times) is a whole lot of fun. Mr. Wuffles, the title character, isn’t interested in any of the toys his people buy him: on the first page of the book, we see him disdainfully stalking away from a new goldfish-on-a-string toy, the pricetag still on. In fact, Mr. Wuffles ignores a whole bunch of toys with the price tags still on them: mouse toys and feather toys and a ball with a jingle bell inside, a shuttlecock, a ball of rubber bands. One toy, sans price tag, catches his eye, except it’s not a toy at all: it’s a spacecraft, with five very small aliens inside. The aliens are thrilled to have made a safe landing and are about to leave their ship for a photo opportunity, tiny flag in hand, when Mr. Wuffles gets his claws on their ship. Mr. Wuffles is delighted. The aliens, not so much: after being batted around, they all look a bit queasy, and, worse, their ship has been damaged. More worried than triumphant (though still with their flag in hand), they leave the ship, and are nearly squashed by Mr. Wuffles, who gets distracted by a ladybug at just the right moment. The aliens make a run for it, and find a safe spot under the radiator, which is also, it turns out, where the ants and ladybugs of the house hide from Mr. Wuffles. With the help of art (cave-painting-style hunt scenes the insects have created on the walls, and a similar scene the aliens create), the aliens and insects bond over their shared status as prey on the run from a creature many times their size. After a group photo and a shared meal, the aliens show the insects their broken spaceship parts; the insects give them material from which to make replacements (think of all the stuff that gets lost under the radiator!), and then they all craft a plan to get the aliens safely back to their spaceship. Mr. Wuffles is not so delighted anymore.
This book is lots of fun, with lots of great little details, and it’s clear that Wiesner is a cat person: he does a great job of capturing a cat’s movements and moods. (Per this video, he rigged up a camera on a stick and followed his own cat around the house while he was working on this book. Totally great.)
November 2nd, 2013
“Like a river that overflows its banks, it spreads sideways rather than carves its way forward, plot-wise” (32). So says the narrator of Kehua!, an author-character who is writing a “tale of murder, adultery, incest, ghosts, redemption and remorse” that sprawls instead of rushing along (15). The book is split between the author-character’s own experience of writing—sitting in her own possibly-haunted house on a hill—and the story of the characters she’s creating: Scarlet, who’s about to leave her husband for a famous actor; Cynara, Scarlet’s sister, who has belatedly realized she’s a lesbian; Lola, Scarlet’s niece, a “wayward nymphet” (16); Alice, Scarlet and Cynara’s mostly-absent mother; and Beverley, Alice’s mother, who was born in New Zealand, ended up in London, and has outlived three husbands. There are questions of family character and genetics and destiny, whether family secrets, misdeeds long past, can still somehow resonate. “Things come out of your family history to accost you. The present is always haunted by a past which needs to be acknowledged, purified” (113). And then there are the titular kehua, taken from Māori culture: wandering spirits whose task it is to bring the family (within the tribe) towards the soul of the bloodline: they act as motivating forces, inspiring Beverley and her clan to action in ways that aren’t always straightforward. I liked this book well enough, but it also felt a little stand-offish: the shifts between the story of Beverley and her family and the writer-character, combined with the way the narrative emphasizes its own fictional nature, had a slightly distancing effect for me.
October 26th, 2013
“The first annoying thing is when I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he always says, “What’s most important is for you to understand it’s not your fault.” You’ll notice that wasn’t even the question” (3). This is how Where’d You Go, Bernadette starts: with Bee Branch letting us know that her mom disappeared two days before Christmas. And then we jump back to November, to the start of things: Bee gets her report card. She’s gotten perfect grades for her whole time at the Galer Street School, and she reminds her parents that they told her she that if she got perfect grades, she could have anything she wanted as a graduation present. What she wants turns out to be a trip to Antarctica, which her mom, Bernadette, proceeds to start organizing, with the help of her new outsourced personal assistant. But Bernadette hardly leaves the house, and the prospect of being stuck on an Antarctic cruise with a lot of probably-annoying strangers sounds pretty terrible. And, meanwhile, relations with the family’s next-door neighbor, whose son is in Bee’s class at school, are increasingly strained. Crazy thing piles on crazy thing (a fight over blackberry bushes, a mudslide, a misunderstanding about prescription drugs, accidental involvement with the Russian mafia), and Bee’s dad plans to stage an intervention. But things don’t quite go as planned.
The book, then, is the story of all these events leading up to a moment of crisis, and then the mystery of Bernadette’s disappearance: but it’s also a portrait of Bernadette, her current self and her past self, pieced together by her daughter using the evidence she has. The book is semi-epistolary, with much of the narrative consisting of emails between Bernadette and her personal assistant, emails between the next-door-neighbor and her best friend (who ends up being assigned to be Bee’s dad’s administrative assistant, too), and various other notes and memos. The story is simultaneously a very funny satire and a serious story about what happens when a woman loses herself: Bernadette was an accomplished architect who hasn’t created anything since Bee was born: Bernadette has, in a sense, been gone long before she disappears.
I like that the book ends with Bernadette’s own words, in a letter from her to Bee explaining things, and I love the way the book shifts, at the end, from satire to something else, and how the language shifts with it. I like how Bernadette finds herself as an artist again, how she starts talking about what she sees: how she goes from ranting about Seattleites and Canadians to talking about the beauty of icebergs, like this:
I saw hundreds of them, cathedrals of ice, rubbed like salt licks; shipwrecks, polished from wear like marble steps at the Vatican; Lincoln Centers capsized and pockmarked; airplane hangars carved by Louise Nevelson; thirty-story buildings impossible arched like out of a world’s fair; white, yes, but blue, too, every blue on the color wheel, deep like a navy blazer, incandescent like a neon sign, royal like a Frenchman’s shirt, powder like Peter Rabbit’s cloth coat, these icy monsters roaming the forbidding black. (314-315)
October 14th, 2013
These twenty-six stories by H.H. Munro, who wrote under the pen-name of Saki, are selections from five volumes that were originally published between 1904 and 1919. They’re all fairly funny, though I found the first few stories the weakest. In those early stories, like “Reginald at the Carlton” or “Reginald on Besetting Things,” we’re reading about a recognizable realistic world: Reginald dines out with a Duchess, and they gossip and opine and say clever things; Reginald tells a story about a woman who has the misfortune to fall into the habit of telling the truth, as opposed to the socially accepted white lies life is normally fully of. “Reginald’s Drama,” in which Reginald thinks about what kind of play he’d like to someday write, is funnier because it’s got a bit more of the absurd: Reginald talks about how his play “would commence with wolves worrying something on a lonely waste—you wouldn’t see them, of course; but you would hear them snarling and scrunching, and I should arrange to have a wolfy fragrance suggested across the footlights” (12). Things pick up even more with “The Strategist,” which is the first of many stories in this book that center around young people behaving mischievously in various very funny ways. “The Strategist” is one of my favorite stories in the book; another is “Tobermory,” which features a houseguest telling his hosts he’s taught their pet cat to speak English—and the horrified reactions of everyone when it turns out to be true, and when they think of all the things in the household that the cat’s been hitherto silently watching. Edward Gorey’s illustrations are well-suited to the Edwardian high society setting of the stories, and to their sometimes dark humor: the combination of Gorey’s art and Saki’s writing makes this book particularly satisfying to read.
I saw the cover of this novel on CoverSpy and really liked the Brownstone-Brooklyn-meets-Hokusai design, so when I saw it at the library, I checked it out. The first-person narrator is sixty-ish Seido Oda, who was born in a small village in the mountains in rural Japan: he tells of how his parents were innkeepers, how he had three siblings, how, as a child, he was accepted as an acolyte at a local Buddhist temple. He talks about leaving his home and his village:
I was eleven years old and the ties to my family and my home, even to Katsurao, had been abruptly cut with a ritual knife and a simple cascade of shikimi leaves, for the word “priest” means “leaving home and entering not-home.” (19)
This separation from home turns out to be permanent: after a time in Tokyo and a time back at the monastery, Reverend Oda is sent to Brooklyn, where the sect he is part of is planning to build a temple. Once Oda is in New York, the story becomes one in part of culture shock, which is about humor and sometimes about the things that Oda learns (like: not to judge by appearances/first impressions). There are also threads of the story about Oda’s ministry to various Believers in New York, and the help he is or isn’t able to give them.
I expected to like this book a little more than I actually did. One thing I found hugely distracting was the way the Brooklyn setting was handled. Some neighborhoods and places appear with their real names (Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights, the bar that’s called the People’s Republic of Brooklyn) while others don’t (Court Street becomes Cortina Street, Smith Street becomes Castor Street, and the neighborhood where Oda lives, which is clearly a version of Carroll Gardens, complete with the park with the bocce courts, isn’t named as such). I understand wanting a fictionalized version of a place, but I would have liked a fictionalized Court Street that was called that. I also think that I might have liked a book with a slightly different balance of setting/description and plot and character. There were some great descriptive passages when Oda is in Japan and when he’s in New York, and also some great bits of haiku (Oda quoting Issa and Basho; Oda writing his own), and I would have liked more of that. Or maybe I just needed to be reading more slowly/less distractedly, to better appreciate those parts that were there: this was another during-breaks-at-jury-duty read so it’s hard for me to tell which failings were the book’s and which were mine.
September 29th, 2013
This collection of fifteen short stories (which I heard about via Goodreads then saw at the library) has been good jury duty reading, by which I mean it’s light and easy enough that I could comfortably read it during breaks, even if several simultaneous conversations were happening around me. “Light and easy,” though, isn’t necessarily my favorite kind of short story, and I found myself wanting more interest, more weirdness, more challenge.
All the stories are about looking for love online, which is a reasonably interesting conceit, but I probably would have liked the book more if there had been some queer relationships rather than all the stories being about male/female romance. Note that I didn’t say “man/woman romance” there: the book’s final story, “Stupid Humans,” is about a deer and a polar bear. This is probably my favorite story in the book: I like the quirkiness of the premise and the humor and poignancy of the plot. I like sentences like: “It is a little bit hard for polar bears to hit the right keys sometimes, with those big paws” (234). I like the fact that the polar bear and the deer meet in a climate change chat room on a site that isn’t really a dating site, and I like the details of their flirtation. Other highlights of the book for me included “Love, Really,” which is narrated in the second person and tells the story of the arc of a relationship through the repetition of the phrase “this is the part where,” and “Limerence,” because it focuses on a man’s infatuation rather than a woman’s. I also appreciated the structure of “Love Quiz,” which offers three possible endings, ranging from anodyne to sweet to gritty, and some of the descriptions of falling for someone in “Dog People,” like a character who feels like “anticipation had opened the gates of her senses; she was noticing more things around her than usual” (184). Or this part, from the same story:
She felt as if she was inhabiting her body in a new way, more consciously, and she felt an awareness of every step, the way her hands did things like tuck back a stray hair. The automaticness of her seemed to be laid bare, and it was as if she was seeing that for the first time. (190)
Elsewhere in the book, certain repetitions bugged me: two stories involve women sending pictures of their kayaks (with or without themselves) to potential dates; two stories mention The Good Earth; two stories talk about how guys who are balding always wear hats. And I sometimes found myself not quite believing in the characters/their world, or maybe just not interested enough: the middle-aged women worrying about finding love before it’s too late, the apple-martini-drinking New York girl, the woman who chats online with a guy for two months before suggesting they meet, the man and woman who joke that they “define the gender wars” because he likes Billy Collins and Nirvana and she likes Anne Sexton and Tori Amos.
September 21st, 2013
There’s a piece in what purpose do i serve in your life called “cybersex” that consists mostly of screenshots of Facebook chats between Marie Calloway and one or more interlocutors, with the other party’s name/photo blocked out. In one of these conversations, in which a guy talks about wanting to be rough with her, Marie asks “y do u like those things.” “I dunno,” the guy says, then “It’s hard to know why” and then “Why do you like the things you like?” That question, of what people like and why, comes up in various ways in the book, often in relation to sex but also in regard to art/writing. (There’s a piece called “criticism” that consists of negative responses to Calloway’s writing collaged on top of pictures of her; in another piece, “jeremy lin,” Calloway’s narrator talks to Tao Lin, I mean, “Jeremy Lin,” about writing in general and Calloway’s writing in particular.) There’s also the question of when people are and aren’t honest about what they like and don’t (and, relatedly, what they want and don’t): at various moments in the book, the narrator pretends to be grossed out by things (being kissed by a guy after he’s gone down on her, a guy fingering her then wiping his fingers on her thighs, her own menstrual blood, the idea of kissing a guy with his semen in her mouth/passing that semen into his mouth) that she’s not in fact grossed out by (and is sometimes in fact interested in).
The thirteen pieces in this book are largely centered around sex, but they’re not about sex, exactly. They’re about sex as experience, and the power dynamics of sex (does the power lie in female youth and beauty? or male domination?) (not that I actually think that’s an either/or question and not that I actually think that either of those is quite right, at least not in the kind of sex I have or want to have). They’re about the narrator’s insecurities or past insecurities or sometimes-recurring insecurities, worries about her appearance, worries about being clingy, worries about how to relate to other people.
I like how dialogue-heavy some of these pieces are, and how awkward/funny some of those bits of conversation are, like this conversation between the narrator and a client in “sex work experience two”:
“I thought it’d be alright if I did it with an American, but I guess not.”
Did he have some American fetish?
“Why an American?
“My girlfriend’s from America. She’s living in New York right now. She said that this is the only way it’d be okay.”
“If it was with an American?”
“No, if I paid for it. […] (30)
The vision these pieces present of the relations between men and women is often pretty grim. In “sex work experience three,” the narrator thinks: “I am so tired of men pretending that they see me as something other than a whore, that they see any woman as anything other than that” (69). In “thank you for touching me,” after having a threesome with two guys who are friends with one another, there’s this: “I wondered what they would say to each other about it later. I wondered if they would make fun of me after they left. I imagined them imitating the sounds of my moans to each other and laughing” (235). In this interview, Calloway says,”actually I feel like I’m much more what a lot of liberal feminists would call “sex negative” than most women I know,” and that’s a big part of the book: there is lots of sex but not the sense of a lot of pleasure in it: fun, sometimes, and arousal, sometimes, but only sometimes, and lots of shame and anxiety and insecurity. Yet somehow it’s a really compelling read.