The New Me by Halle Butler

September 7th, 2019

The short chapters of The New Me are a mix of first-person narration by Millie, who’s thirty and working as a temp in Chicago, and third-person narration about various people whose lives intersect with hers—her supervisor at work, other women at the office, her downstairs neighbor. Nearly all the characters are female: there’s some conversation about Millie’s ex-boyfriend; there’s a dude at the party; there’s the downstairs neighbor’s male significant other; there’s Millie’s landlord: but basically all the interiority in the story is women’s interiority (I think a brief paragraph focused on Millie’s landlord might be the one exception). One of the cover blurbs, from Catherine Lacey, describes Halle Butler as “a first-rate satirist of the horror show being sold to us as Modern Femininity,” and yeah, that: the inside of these women’s minds, even the ones who seem to have their shit together in a way that Millie doesn’t, is a pretty awful place to be.

So yeah, Millie: as mentioned, she definitely does not have her shit together. It’s been a year since she and her boyfriend of four years broke up; she lives alone (with financial help from her parents) in an apartment she only sporadically cleans; she works a mindless/thankless temp job in the back offices of a design showroom; she doesn’t really do much other than work and smoke and watch Forensic Files—sometimes she drinks with her sort-of friend, Sarah, but they time they spend together doesn’t seem particularly rewarding or fulfilling to either of them, with both of them complaining about their lives/waiting for the next gap in the conversation to say what they want to say, not actually connecting at all. But Millie has all these ideas about how things could be different if she ends up getting hired on permanently: maybe with more money she’ll be more stable and she’ll also be a nicer person. Maybe she’ll be less judgmental; maybe she’ll go to yoga classes. But other characters in the book who do have more stability don’t necessarily seem totally fulfilled: a girl at work who just got a puppy is frustrated by her friends, too; Millie’s downstairs neighbor with the clean apartment wishes her partner wouldn’t talk about work all the time/struggles to listen to him; Millie’s supervisor isn’t taken seriously by her bosses. Everyone’s stuck in their own heads, though Millie’s particular combination of self-loathing and judgmental-ness is the most extreme.

This was a fast read that was simultaneously satisfying and really uncomfortable: the messiness of Millie and her life are so vivid; her anxiety and dread are described so well as to feel kind of contagious. When I first read Jia Tolentino’s piece about this book in the New Yorker, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read the book or not, and while I’m glad I did, I’m also glad I’m done with it.

State of the Union by Nick Hornby

September 2nd, 2019

I like the premise of State of the Union: A Marriage in Ten Parts a whole lot: in ten short chapters, set over the course of ten weeks, we see a married couple, Louise and Tom, having a drink at a pub before their weekly couples’ therapy appointment. They’re both in their forties; they have two kids; she’s a gerontologist; he’s an out-of-work music critic. While you learn early on what precipitated these counseling sessions (she had an affair), you also learn, as the book progresses, that there’s obviously more to it than that.

The text is mostly dialogue, and I wonder how my experience would have been different if I’d watched it in its SundanceTV version with Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd rather than reading it. (Part of the reason that I picked up this book is that my boyfriend saw the SundanceTV production at the Tribeca Film Festival back in May and enjoyed it.) I obviously can’t know, but I wonder if seeing it on-screen would have made it feel more character-driven rather than idea-driven, and I wonder if that would have made me like it more or less.

The book felt very idea-driven to me, in a satisfying way: every week Tom and Louise are talking not just about their specific situation and how they ended up where they are, but also about marriage more generally: about different metaphors for marriage and how those can cause problems, about what different people assume a marriage is or means. Is it about sexual exclusivity and sexual desire? Is it about having a family together? What does it mean/does it matter if two people who are married to one another can’t imagine themselves being friends if they weren’t married? Is a marriage like a computer, i.e. a complicated machine that you shouldn’t take apart because you might not be able to put it back together? If you do take it apart, should you try to put it back together even if you can’t make it the same as it was originally? Is being a couple about being “two against the world,” or is it about some other kind of teamwork? What does it mean when someone says they have doubts about a relationship that they’ve been in for over a decade? Is there such a thing as a “new start” in a relationship? What’s the goal of marriage, or is that the wrong question to ask?

Which isn’t to say that this book is all seriousness—it’s also quite funny. I like how Tom and Louise watch other couples leave their therapist’s house (which is just across the street from the pub) and speculate about those couples’ lives; I like how they find out big or small things about each other that make them kind of appalled, and how they react; I like how they joke with each other and work on cryptic crosswords together; I like the pace and humor of their back-and-forth.

Fox 8 by George Saunders

August 30th, 2019

I read Fox 8 over the course of a single day, starting it on my morning commute and finishing it on my evening commute, and aw, what a sweet/funny/sad/hopeful little book this is. It’s a fable narrated by a fox who has learned human language by listening to a woman read bedtime stories to her kids; he’s entranced by “the Yuman voice, making werds” (3) and by human achievements generally: houses, cars, stereos, malls, all the things people can build. But it turns out people, and the things they build, can cause problems: a mall being built disrupts Fox 8’s habitat, and when he and a friend set out in search of food, things go tragically wrong thanks to human cruelty and callousness, after which Fox 8 gets lost and finds himself wandering the world, unable to find his den-mates. He doesn’t give up hope, though, and after managing to find a new life for himself, he ends the book by offering a piece of advice to humankind, or I guess I should say Yumankind: “If you want your Storys to end happy, try being niser” (49).

I really like Fox 8’s narrative voice, phonetic spelling and awkward syntax and all, and found so many things in this book really charming: how bothered Fox 8 is by the “fawlse” depictions of foxes, bears, and owls in the stories he hears the mom reading to her kids; his conversation with a dog in the mall parking lot; his tendency to daydream. I also like Chelsea Cardinal’s illustrations a whole lot: her line drawings, with the foxes in red and most other stuff in black, complement the text really nicely. (You can see some of those drawings on her Instagram: I love the one with the tree on the left page and the foxes on the right, and that gorgeous two-page spread of Fox 8 under a cloud-filled sky, surrounded by grass and trees, with the city off in the distance.)

The first chapter of Master and Commander is such a total delight. It’s 1800, and there’s a concert happening in a fancy house on Menorca. A Navy lieutenant named Jack Aubrey is thoroughly enjoying the music, tapping the beat on his leg without realizing it; his enjoyment is spoiled when the man sitting next to him, a doctor named Stephen Maturin, grumpily tells him that if he’s going to tap the beat, he should at least do it in time. This ruins Aubrey’s mood: he finds himself feeling glum, thinking of how he doesn’t have a ship to command even though he’s been waiting for one for a while; when he leaves the concert we get this:

He was profoundly dissatisfied with himself, and with the man in the black coat, and with the service. And with the velvet softness of the April night, and the choir of nightingales in the orange-trees, and the host of stars hanging so low as almost to touch the palms. (11)

But then he gets a letter giving him command of a ship called the Sophie, and then everything is right with the world. He runs into Maturin and apologizes to him, after which they have breakfast together and talk; after another meal together later, Aubrey asks Maturin to be the Sophie‘s surgeon: and so a friendship starts. I like the opposites-attract aspect of Aubrey and Maturin’s relationship: Maturin is good at languages; Aubrey is terrible at them; Maturin knows next to nothing about boats; Aubrey has been at sea since he was twelve; Aubrey is big and garrulous; Maturin is smaller and more reserved. They’re both smart, though, and they love music, and their personalities end up complementing each other nicely.

The rest of the book is set largely on board the Sophie, which has various adventures/encounters/skirmishes with other ships. There’s a lot of naval vocabulary, some of which gets explained to the reader as it gets explained to Maturin, and some of which doesn’t get explained at all. There are frigates and xebecs and ships-of-the-line, and a whole lot of rigging and guns. But the Sophie and all the other ships out there are of course full of people, and it’s the interactions between them that made the book enjoyable for me. I liked reading about the tensions between Aubrey and his lieutenant, a man named James Dillon who turns out to have a shared history with Maturin. I liked reading about Maturin’s conversations with the doctor on a French ship, and about Aubrey’s interactions with the sailors and officers of the Sophie. But mostly I liked reading about Aubrey and Maturin: Aubrey being scared of a live snake in Maturin’s room when they’re ashore; Maturin being irate when someone drinks the wine preserving a dead snake he’s brought aboard in a jar; the two of them playing music together; Maturin trying to keep Aubrey from shooting himself in the foot, socially/in terms of his prospects for advancement; the two of them just talking, being friends.

My boyfriend often teases me about how I like really little books, and I always protest that I like books of varying lengths/sizes, but there is something appealing about a little book that’s easy to slip into a purse. The Door in the Wall by H.G. Wells is a Penguin Mini Modern Classic, and it’s little indeed: I read it in the course of a late afternoon/evening, mostly on the subway. It consists of three short stories: “The Door in the Wall” (from 1911), “The Sea-Raiders” (from 1897), and “The Moth” (from 1895). The first and last stories are somewhat thematically similar, in that they both deal with ghosts/hauntings, though they’re quite different in feel.

“The Sea-Raiders”, which I like the least, is about giant cephalopods wreaking havoc on the English coast, but even though I found it less engaging than the other two, it wasn’t terrible. There’s a sense of danger (made slightly less vivid by the third-person narration, but still) and also of scientific interest/curiosity, and also a sense of the menace of the unknown depths of the ocean, and I like the interplay of those elements. I also like this description of the cephalopods:

The creatures, it seems like most deep-sea organisms, were phosphorescent, and they had been floating, five fathoms deep or so, like creatures of moonshine through the blackness of the water, their tentacles retracted and as if asleep, rolling over and over, and moving slowly in a wedge-like formation towards the south-east. (46)

In “The Moth”, meanwhile, we learn about a lengthy feud between two entomologists. There’s humor in this story, with the entomologists publishing journal articles and replies (maybe this is funnier because I work in academic publishing?) and dissing each other in late-1800s style: at one point one of them “suggested that [the other one’s] microscope was as defective as his power of observation” (50). When one of them dies, though, the other finds himself adrift without his old nemesis, and haunted by a moth that reminds him of his dead scientific rival, at which point the story takes a turn from funny to dark (in a good way).

My favorite of these stories, though, is “The Door in the Wall”, which is the longest of the three and feels the most well-developed, plot-wise/idea-wise/style-wise. It’s a portal fantasy/parable about the dangers of either following or not following your desires, depending on how you look at it, and it’s narrated by a man whose childhood schoolmate, who grew up to be a very successful politician, has just died unexpectedly. We learn about how the man told the narrator about passing through a door into a garden in another world when he was a young child, and about how that garden/world then proceeded to haunt him for his whole life. The description of the garden is really pleasing, as is the narrator’s friend’s description of how he used to amuse himself on the way to school by trying to find a different way to get there than the usual one, getting himself lost on purpose and trying to find his way without being late: it’s like a schoolkid’s psychogeographical experiment, from long before the Situationists.

The City in the Middle of the Night is set in the future on January, a tidally-locked planet settled by humans after Earth has become uninhabitable. It’s a harsh world: half frozen night, half boiling day, with a narrow twilight range where people live in the two main cities, Xiosphant and Argelos, one of which is rule-bound and repressive, the other of which is a perpetual carnival. People aren’t the only life-forms on January, though: there are creatures they call giant squid, which live below the ice on the Sea of Murder, and hunting predators they call bison, and large creatures they call crocodiles, which turn out to have a culture and civilization of their own that long predates the arrival of humans.

The City in the Middle of the Night alternates between sections narrated by Sophie, a Xiosphanti student who, early in the book, is banished to the night but survives, and sections about Mouth, a smuggler who grew up in a nomadic civilization that was suddenly and catastrophically wiped out. The two stories intertwine, and we also learn about a bigger cast of characters: Sophie’s roommate Bianca, who’s part of Xiosphant’s elite but says she wants to make the city more just, Mouth’s companion Alyssa, who grew up in Argelos and is ready to be done with smuggling, and more human and non-human characters, including the crocodiles, who end up saving Sophie when she’s banished to the night. Sophie starts calling them the Gelet, a Xiosphanti word with connotations of building and exploring, once she learns that they have a whole technologically-advanced civilization, and it’s their city that’s the city of the title.

I liked the Gelet city most of all, I think, but I found this whole book really compelling: I liked the pace of the alternating/intertwined storylines, and all the ideas the book explores: racism and colonialism and trust and communication and memory, friendship and romance, being an outcast, being a survivor, climate change, the interconnectedness of everything.

Spring by Ali Smith

May 20th, 2019

Spring, which is the third book in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, is one of those books with two intersecting storylines where I was initially sad when the perspective shifted, because I liked the first storyline so much and wasn’t sure how the rest of the book could compare. But this is Ali Smith, so I needn’t have worried: the rest of the book won me over. Like Autumn and Winter, Spring is very of the moment: most of the book’s action takes place in October 2018, though there are memories of earlier years and little glimpses of certain characters’ futures. The first storyline is centered on a film and television director in his late sixties named Richard, who’s at a train station somewhere in the north of Scotland. He’s frustrated with his work, and grieving for his best friend/work collaborator, an older woman named Paddy. In the second storyline, we meet Brit, who works at an immigration removal centre, and Florence, a twelve-year-old girl who brings a bit of magic realism to the book with her uncanny ability to move through the world with ease, getting people to do what she wants. In addition to the narratives of these storylines we get other things: bits of writing by Florence, part of a script for a terrible film project Richard has been working on with a writer he can’t stand, lists of things Brit has learned at her work, a letter from Paddy to Richard, postcards from Richard to Paddy. There are also things about Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke (the terrible film project is about them) and Tacita Dean (whose work Richard sees at a gallery show) and of course about spring and hope and life and change. We read about “the thinnest of green shoots” splitting a rock, and about “transformation. How we’re changed by things. Or made to change, Or have to learn to change” (9, 276). We read that life “can change over time, what looks fixed and pinned and closed in a life can change and open, and what’s unthinkable and impossible at one time can will be easily possible in another” (248).

There are a lot of great things in this book, but one of my favorite things is how Richard has an “imaginary daughter”: he’s divorced, and estranged from his ex-wife and their child, but Paddy at one point suggests he imagine his daughter as being with him—suggests that he take this imagined daughter to galleries and plays and on holiday, and send Paddy postcards as he does. I love that Richard does send postcards to Paddy, over the course of decades, and I love how the image of the postcard recurs at certain points in the book, and I love how Richard uses his imaginary daughter as a reference point, and I really love this, from after Richard sees Tacita Dean’s chalk drawings of clouds (one of which, Why cloud, is reproduced in the back of the book):

They’d made space to breathe possible, up against something breathtaking. After them, the real clouds above London looked different, like they were something you could rad as breathing space. This made something happen too to the buildings below them, the traffic, the ways in which the roads intersected, the ways in which people were passing each other in the street, all of it part of a structure that didn’t know it was a structure, but was one all the same. (79)

French Exit is described on the title page as “a tragedy of manners,” which is apt. It’s a dark/funny/darkly funny novel about Frances Price, a (formerly) very rich widow who, at the age of sixty-five, has burned through all the money in her husband’s estate and finds herself having to move to a friend’s apartment in Paris in a hurry. It’s also the story of her son, Malcolm, who has lived with his mother since he left boarding school at the age of twelve, and their cat, Small Frank, whose body houses the spirit of Franklin, Frances’s late and not-at-all-missed husband/Malcolm’s father. They all move to Paris, though Malcolm is engaged to a woman in New York, and though Malcolm has no idea what they’re going to do once they get there, and along they way they interact with an amusing cast of characters, including but not limited to a medium, a wine merchant, a private investigator, and another American widow living in Paris.

Somehow Patrick deWitt makes his characters simultaneously awful and likable: I saw him read the first chapter of this book at a bookstore in Brooklyn last year, and the quirky humor of that first chapter made me want to read the rest of the book. That humor is present throughout the book, though it ends up being moving, too, especially in the interactions between Frances and Malcolm, and in the stories they both tell about their unhappy childhoods and fraught parent-child relationships. If you’re looking for straight-up realistic fiction, this is probably not the book for you, but if you’re willing to suspend disbelief and are in the mood for an odd family story, this is an excellent read.

At first, I was worried that Conversations with Friends was going to be the kind of novel where a) cheating is a plot point but b) no one ever considers the possibility of non-monogamy. I’m happy to report that it is not that kind of novel, and also happy to report that it’s really really good. This book was a delight to read from the start, even with my initial misgivings about cheating-as-plot-point. It’s narrated in the first person by Frances, a 21-year-old university student in Dublin, and it’s about her best friend Bobbi (who’s also her ex-girlfriend), their new mutual friend Melissa (a writer and photographer who sees them perform spoken-word poetry together and says she wants to do a profile of them), and Melissa’s husband, Nick, an actor who’s been having a tough time with himself/in his marriage. Melissa and Nick are a bit older than Frances and Bobbi (Melissa is 37; Nick is 32), and their moneyed/married life is something that both attracts and repels Frances (whom Bobbi describes as a communist, and who talks about not wanting to work for money). Frances’s voice is a lot of what carries the book, but it’s not just her voice: I like the way that the narrative includes IM conversations or texts and emails, the way that it’s full of the exchanges of Frances’s daily life, in whatever format, as well as her thoughts and feelings. I like the book’s sense of humor, too, and the way that it captures things people do—looking at Facebook videos, looking for more information about new friends/acquaintances, looking back at past conversations. (About Melissa, shortly after meeting her and Nick, Frances thinks this: “I didn’t know how long she had been married to Nick. Neither of them was famous enough for that kind of information to be online” (12).)

A lot of the book ends up being about Frances’s feelings for/relationship with Nick, though it’s also about her friendship/relationship with Bobbi, and her identity as a writer, and her family, and families/relationships/friendships in general, and being young and not knowing what to do and figuring things out as you go along. Frances is difficult/prickly/endearing: she’s smart and independent and uncomfortable with emotion and vulnerability, and I love her voice/the tone of the narration, the way there are lyrical moments that are beautiful without being too ostentatious. I love sentences like this: “A bumblebee flew through the open window and cast a comma of a shadow on the wallpaper before flying out again” (98). Or this: “We were driving along by the harbor, where the ships implied themselves as concepts behind the fog” (132). Or this: “I loved when he was available to me like this, when our relationship was like a Word document that we were writing and editing together, or a long private joke that nobody else could understand” (178). Or this: “Lights sparkled on the river and buses ran past like boxes of light, carrying faces in the windows” (252).

In an Absent Dream is the fourth book in Seanan McGuire’s “Wayward Children” series, and gives us the backstory of Lundy, a character from the first book. Lundy, like the other characters in this series, goes through a magic portal to another world when she’s a child. The world she goes to is the Goblin Market, and she can actually keep going back and forth between it and our world—until she turns eighteen. When the book opens, it’s 1964 and Lundy (full name: Katherine Victoria Lundy) is eight, though we also see a scene from a few years earlier, when she turned six. She has an older brother and a younger sister, and her parents are fine, though her dad’s job as the principal of the elementary school she attends makes things hard for her: no one wants to be friends with the principal’s daughter. But Lundy is happy to entertain herself: she’s a bookish kid, fine with her own company or that of adults. At the start of summer vacation when she’s in second grade, though, something happens: she’s walking home, lost in a book, and ends up in the woods instead of in her neighborhood. She knows where she is/it’s a path she’s been on before—but now there’s a tree in the middle of the path that definitely wasn’t there before. And in the tree is a door, carved with images of fruit and the words “Be Sure.” When she goes through the door, there’s a hallway, which introduces her to the Goblin Market’s rules, and then she emerges into the Market itself, a place full of human and non-human creatures that feels like “a carnival and a farmer’s market and a craft fair” all at once (41).

At the Market, Lundy meets a girl her age, who says to call her Moon, and who says she’ll take her to the Archivist, who will explain the Market’s rules. The Market, it turns out, is based on barter and the idea of “fair value,” which the Market itself magically enforces: if you don’t give fair value, you’ll go into debt, and if you go into debt, you can lose yourself in a way I won’t describe because it’s impossible to do so without being spoilery.

I liked reading about the Market, which the Archivist describes as “a place where dreamers go when they don’t fit in with the dreams their homes think worth dreaming” (56-57). But if the last book in this series felt too plot-driven to me, this one was the opposite: Lundy has adventures in the Market but they’re described in asides; most of what we see is her daily life in the Market, or at home, as she travels back and forth between the two worlds. Daily life in the Market is interesting, though: I mean, I love this:

There was a woman in a wheelchair with a shaggy golden dog whose fur flickered around the edges, like it was burning without being consumed. There was a man with four arms, weaving ribbons into beautiful ropes with the speed and ease of a lifetime spent in long practice. There was a centaur of a sort, half human and half unicorn, a single spiraling horn rising from his forehead, taking a tray of meat pies out of an oven large enough to hold an entire bakery. (64)

And of course, the traveling back and forth has its drama too. The first time Lundy goes to the Market she’s an eight-year-old kid who has disappeared on her way home from school: her mom thinks she’s been kidnapped. After she disappears again, when she’s 10, she’s sent to boarding school when she comes back, but she’s determined to go back to the Market, to be with Moon and the Archivist again (and she does, though if you’ve read Every Heart a Doorway you may remember how things end up). The later part of the book, when Lundy’s older and wrestling more with the tension between what she wants and what others want from her, was more compelling to me than the beginning, and this definitely isn’t my favorite book in the series—but I’m glad I read it and I’m sure I’ll pick up the next one when it comes out.