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.)

I expected this book about food (which was published in 1825, and whose author was born in 1755) to be much drier and less funny than it actually was. In her introduction, Anne Drayton (who translated the book) describes it as “a unique combination of recipes and aphorisms, reflections and reminiscences, history and philosophy,” and that sums it up pretty well (12). I like this aphorism, which is seventh in a list of twenty at the start of the book: “the pleasures of the table belong to all times and all ages, to every country and every day; they go hand in hand with all our other pleasures, outlast them, and remain to console us for their loss” (13).

Early in the book, Brillat-Savarin talks about the senses in general, and then the sense of taste in particular: he talks about the relationship between smell and taste, and about taste as being the sense “which, on the whole, gives us the maximum of delight” (45). He then goes on to talk about various kinds of food, both in terms of where it comes from and how it’s prepared and what it’s like. He talks about how chickens are overfed and overfattened: I didn’t know that was a thing before modern factory farms. (He also notes that “It must be admitted that this unnatural rotundity is also delicious,” which cracked me up (74).) He talks about going hunting in Connecticut in 1794 and shooting a wild turkey; he talks about game and fish and truffles and sugar. He talks about coffee and ways of making it, and hot chocolate and ways of making it. There’s a whole chapter on “the theory of frying,” and another on thirst.

Later, Brillat-Savarin moves on to talk specifically about gourmandism, which he defines as “an impassioned and habitual preference for everything which gratifies the organ of taste” (132). It’s an all-around good thing, he argues: it’s pleasurable, and good for the economy (he talks about the Napoleonic Wars as having given Brits, Germans, and others a taste for French food and wine), and good for social life, too (he talks about the pleasures of two married gourmands, who get to eat good food together and talk about good food together and therefore always have something to do and something to talk about). He also talks about the science of eating and living, as it was understood in his time: there are sections on digestion, rest, sleep, dreams, obesity, and thinness, and it was interesting to read his early arguments in favor of a low-carb diet for weight loss (though he doesn’t call it that: he just says to avoid potatoes, flour, and sugar to lose weight, or to eat those same things if you want to gain weight). He then moves on to a history of cooking, and also talks about restaurants as a “completely new and inadequately recognized institution” (266). The end of the book consists of a whole section of miscellaneous anecdotes and recipes, some of which felt too random, but some of which were fun. (At one point he describes being at an inn with some companions and seeing “a very handsome leg of mutton at which the ladies from sheer force of habit darted extremely coquettish glances” (303).)

I liked all the little bits of food history in this book, and I liked its humor, and it was fun to think of the similarities and differences between Brillat-Savarin’s time and now. At one point when talking about chocolate, he talks about how vanilla, sugar, and cinnamon are the only things good for flavoring it (as opposed to things like pepper, ginger, and aniseed, which he says were tried and abandoned): I’d love for him to be able to go to a fancy 21st-century chocolate shop and try all the different flavor combinations.

It’s been fourteen years since I last read this book, the first in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, so I figured I was due for a re-read. It’s set in Cornwall on the Drew family’s August summer holiday, so it’s a summery book in that sense—there’s a seaside carnival and beach excursions and sunburns—but it’s also a quest narrative, and a page-turning adventure story about good versus evil, with an Arthurian element too.

At the start of the book, Simon, Jane, and Barnabas Drew arrive in the village of Trewissick with their parents: they’re spending four weeks in a rented house with a family friend they call their Great-Uncle Merry, and they’re delighted to learn that the house comes with a sweet dog named Rufus. They’re expecting a normal fun seaside holiday, though they know that Great-Uncle Merry is maybe a little eccentric, and that strange or interesting things somehow always seem to happen when he’s around. On a rainy day, the kids explore the house and find something very old and very interesting, which leads them on a quest for something even older: but they’re not the only ones trying to find it, and the other people who are looking for it are somehow allied with forces of evil, as their Great-Uncle Merry is somehow allied with forces of good. Danger and adventure ensue, and the second half of the book was pretty unputdownable for me, even having read it before and knowing how it would all end.

I love this description of the day the kids explore the house:

The thunder rolled quietly, far out over the sea, but the rain fell with grey insistence, blurring the windows as it washed down outside. The children wandered aimlessly about the house. Before lunch they tried going for a walk in the rain, but came back damp and depressed. (16)

And I love Merry’s description of fairy tales:

Once upon a time … a long time ago … things that happened once, perhaps, but have been talked about for so long that nobody really knows. And underneath all the bits that people have added, the magic swords and lamps, they’re all about one thing—the good hero fighting the giant, or the witch, or the wicked uncle. Good against bad. Good against evil. (72)

In her introduction to this book, whose subtitle is “A Journey into Cold,” Ehrlich describes it as “a book about winter and climate change” and also as “a six-month chronicle of living with cold” (xi). It’s a mix of personal narrative/travelogue and facts about melting glaciers and Arctic pollution and disturbed ecosystems, a mix of lyricism and starkness. Ehrlich writes about blizzards in Wyoming and glaciers in the southern Andes and a trip to Spitsbergen on a 150-foot sailboat; she writes about seeing mink and coyotes and swans and geese, about seeing polar bears and whales and dolphins and walruses and sea birds, and about a visit to the Norwegian Polar Institute, where she talks to scientists who study climate change.

In the Andes she sees glaciers and thinks about how they’ve shaped the landscape through which she and her friend/lover are hiking; in Wyoming she goes canoeing with friends in an icy river. She write about winter as when “we go behind the scenes of our own lives” and says this: “Winter is a white vagrancy. There are no days or nights. Just breathing and snow pushing space between thought” (4-5). I like how she writes about how winter means “seclusion, intimacy, ceremony, cabin fever”, and how she writes about reading all through the winter in Wyoming, decades ago, just after having lost her fiancé to cancer. (69). I like how she writes about the aftermath of blizzards: “What’s left is a swept-out room of stark beauty and clear light” (105).

At one point Ehrlich takes a bus to see the Perito Moreno glacier and writes about how glaciers, built up over time, tell us about the past:

A glacier is an archivist and historian. It saves everything no matter how small or big, including pollen, dust, heavy metals, bugs, bones, and minerals. A glacier is time incarnate, a moving image of time. (53)

I like how this book looks at time and space, globally and personally, though I sometimes wanted there to be less abstraction/philosophizing and more straight-up description. Still, this was a satisfying read, even (especially?) in the middle of summer, though of course it made me depressed about global warming.

At the start of Turtles All the Way Down, Aza Holmes’s best friend, Daisy Ramirez, is talking about a news story: a local billionaire was about to be arrested on bribery-related charges, but he disappeared just before the raid. Aza, it turns out, used to be friends with one of the missing guy’s two sons: they went to camp together when they were eleven. Later, they hear on the radio that there’s a $100,000 reward for information leading to the missing guy’s whereabouts: so of course, they decide to try to solve the mystery and get the reward. Which, of course, reunites Aza with her old camp friend, Davis Pickett, who she totally had a crush on when they were kids, and who turns out to be a sweet and sensitive guy now.

So the story is about Aza and Davis and Daisy and regular high school stuff—dating/not dating, tensions between friends, etc.— and also about Davis’s missing dad—and also about Aza’s mental health. She has OCD and has been struggling her whole life with intrusive thoughts, particularly around bacteria/the possibility of a fatal bacterial infection, and there’s a lot in the book about how she feels stuck in her own spiraling thoughts, trapped in a body that kind of terrifies her. I like the way the book is a mix of Aza’s narration and her exchanges via text with Davis and blog entries he writes that she reads; I like the way they’re trying to figure out intimacy when both of them also have other stuff going on in their lives that makes that challenging.

Spirals are a recurring image in the book—spiraling thoughts, this Raymond Pettibon painting, the spiral of our galaxy: I liked this quote a lot, from one of several times when Davis and Aza look at the night sky together:

In the moonless darkness, we were just witnesses to light, and I felt a sliver of what must have driven Davis to astronomy. There was a kind of relief in having your own smallness laid bare before you, and I realized something Davis must have already known: Spirals grow infinitely small the farther you follow them inward, but they also grow infinitely large the farther you follow them out. (284)

I’ve been meaning to read this book since it came out, and am glad I finally got around to it. It turned out to be a perfect book to finish on a day when I was home sick with a fever: so sweet, so compelling, and it totally made me cry. Also, my boyfriend, who doesn’t read YA at all, read this book before I did (I had initially checked it out from the library before a business trip last month and didn’t get to it in time) and he liked it a whole lot too, which I think says something about John Green in general and this book in particular.

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.

In The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border, Francisco Cantú writes about his experiences working as a US Border Patrol agent, and also about his life before and after that job. He writes about his mom’s Mexican-American family, and her former job as a park ranger, and how he studied international relations in college and wanted on-the-ground experience of the border, after learning so much about the history and theory and policy of it. He writes about walking from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez with his mom, before becoming an agent, and about not wanting to take that same walk afterwards: he writes about the ways the job changed him. He writes about stress-dreams, and about grinding his teeth; he writes about a classmate quitting before even becoming an agent; he writes about the migrants he encounters, on and off the job. He writes about his own ambivalence about what working as a US Border Patrol agent means: when he’s in school, one of his instructors talks about having killed one migrant and having saved the life of another, and Cantú’s thought is this: “I wondered if he thought of his body as a tool for destruction or as one of safekeeping. I wondered, too, about my body, about what sort of tool it was becoming” (19).

Cantú’s mother worries about that, too, about the effects of taking a job within an inhumane system, about what it does to a person, and it was interesting to me to read this book fairly soon after having read Ali Smith’s Spring, a novel in which one of the characters is a detainee custody officer at an immigrant removal centre in England, struggling (albeit fictionally), with similar issues. “You are stepping into a system, an institution with little regard for people,” Cantú’s mother says, when he’s starting the job “(25). “Stepping into a system doesn’t mean that the system becomes you,” he replies (ibid). But by the end of the book, when he’s acting as helper and translator for the family of someone who’s been detained after re-entering the country without papers, I’m not sure if he would agree. (Cantú helps that person’s family partly because that person is his friend, but it might not be as simple as just that.)

This is a book about place, too, not just a book about a job and about migration/border policy in general and about specific people’s stories, and I liked Cantú’s descriptions of the kinds of desert landscapes I’ve never seen, like this:

At night, finally allowed to patrol on my own, I sat watching storms roll across the moonlit desert. There were three of them: the first due south in Mexico, the second creeping down from the mountains in the east, and the third hovering just behind me—close enough for me to feel smatterings of rain and gusts of warm wind. In the distance lightning appeared like a line of hot neon, illuminating the desert in a shuddering white light. (38)

Or like this, at the book’s end, when Cantú is in Big Bend National Park, swimming in the Rio Grande:

I stood to walk along the adjacent shorelines, crossing the river time and again as each bank came to an end, until finally, for one brief moment, I forgot in which country I stood. All around me the landscape tumbled and breathed as one. (247)