May 2010 Books

May 3
Window Licking in the City of Love by Jennifer Maxwell

What’s going on here? Some sort of rich couple where she’s a writer and he’s a self-help dude who does sculpture and they have a son in France and she lost her virginity in the seventies to some guy who’s now a conservative politician so she goes to Te Aroha to see him for some reason and he has a daughter with a disability but they all love her very much and then she (the lady of the rich couple) goes to Paris and maybe her husband is having an affair, she can’t be sure, and all the American and Australian tourists are so annoying and tacky, unlike her, who wishes merely to drink in the city and learn its secrets, its every delightful crevice and corner, and also to find a decent hotel and also to make out with someone called Oncle Maurice and then it turns out she’s pregnant at age forty-six but not by Oncle Maurice, by her husband who is possibly having the affair with one of his sculpture students or something and forty-six is also the age her mother died but she was always a strong lady and her son is having a baby too. Yes, this is the plot of this book. Okay then.

May 17
The Australian Long Story, edited by Mandy Sayer

This is just what it says it is, right in the name: short stories, except they’re long, and they’re by Australian writers. I wanted to like this more than I did—I think if I’d been able to read this over a couple of days instead of, like the two weeks it’s taken me to get through it (I’m busy!) I’d have liked it a bit more. I did like several of the stories, especially the one about Lord Howe Island, but nothing really jumped out at me with awesomeness or anything. I did like how the editor included a story by her own husband, and then she’s all, in the foreword, “But it’s because he’s a really really awesome writer, honest! Not just cause we’re married, I swear!”

May 23
The Amalgamation Polka by Stephen Wright

I started off really liking this but got progressively more annoyed and confused as it went on, until the end, where I was like, “Okay, so the protagonist—a Union soldier from an abolitionist family fighting in the American Civil War—has somehow got on a boat to the Bahamas with his slave-owning grandfather, who has just committed suicide by throwing himself overboard after a failed mutiny attempt to Rio di Janiero? Huh?” And the thing is, it’s not like it’s so crazy, I can totally see how a scenario like that would totally make sense, if it was true to the plot and characters. This just…didn’t. It seemed pretty random, and not in the way that life is random, but in the way that stories in books are random—I think there’s a difference there, maybe in that living a random life is pretty easy to deal with, whereas reading a similarly random story is just dull to me. So that was pretty rough. I did find the idea that there used to be much more difference between the various states than there are now—not just the north and south, but, like, people from Wisconsin would have been really different to people from Delaware or whatever. It seems like people in general would have identified much more with their states (or like even their counties) than they would have as Americans, which is a pretty interesting idea I’d like to think about further. Maybe lots of Americans do still identify very heavily with their states, I don’t know. I certainly don’t think of myself as a Floridian (I’m from Miami, not Florida), but I’m just one person! I don’t know!

May 25
The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

Okay so in the speculative fiction world of this novel, if, by the time you turn fifty if you’re a woman or sixty if you’re a man, and you have no children or partner and you don’t work in a job that the state deems worthy or whatever, you become ‘dispensable’ and they send you to a sort of enclosed posh resort where they do experiments on you and harvest your organs until you die—but you get to live in a nice apartment and everything’s free and you can have a massage and a pedicure whenever you want to. There was some weird stuff that seemed almost incidental, like how out in society you can go to jail if you emphasize the differences between the sexes, like if you’re an average lady and you have a partner who’s an average dude and he comes over and chops some wood for you…you can both go to jail? And also something about how child care has become mandatory for all children between six months and six years, or something, and how the state’s rolls of worthy jobs is changing all the time and now even childless partnerless midwives are being sent to the Units! The premise itself was sort of strained but I could sort of buy it—my main difficulty was that I don’t know what this book stands for: is it anti-capitalist, or anti-socialist, or anti-feminist? Also, the weird, straightened language, maybe the result of the translation from the Swedish—almost documentary-style writing, if that makes sense, with a lot of telling and not much showing. Honestly, during a sex scene, there was a line that was like ‘He touched my face, neck, hair, shoulders, breasts, hips, thighs, belly, legs, buttocks, and vagina,’ like with all the commas and everything, and I was like, Well, right, that’s technically what goes on during sex, sure, but…? All I know is that I got scared about turning fifty and being sent to a unit my own self, because honestly? I am totally dispensable.

May 26
Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Okay, this is what it says on the inside leaf of this book, which I tore through in four hours and am I am still thinking about as I write this, like thinking about the characters and the plot and the writing and everything. I updated my Facebook and my Twitter twice about this book. Here’s what it says:

We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know enough to buy it, so we will just say this: This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice, the kind of choice we hope you never have to face. Two years later, they meet again—the story starts there. Once you have read it, you will want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens. The magic is in how the story unfolds.

And I am right there with that assertion, so I’m not going to say anything else about it, except that the title is The Other Hand in Australia and the UK, if that’s where you get your books from, and you should go read it right now because I really really want to talk about this story but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who has yet to have the deep, strange, slightly uncomfortable pleasure of reading it.

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  1. Well, you are indispensable to me.

  2. I can’t wait until that first book disappears from the stores, because the title makes me shudder.

    And perhaps you’re dispensable to that wretched dystopia, but even if your sole skill was your spooky ability to make Brussels sprouts taste good, it’d be worth keeping you around in ours.

  3. hmmm, I got given the Chris Cleave book as a ‘welcome to the family’ present by my new school, read it over summer here, and I was distinctly underwhelmed! I think maybe the blurb led me to expect great things, and it just didn’t live up to it for me… some of it was distinctly illogical. I did like her voice, if you get what I mean, but… yeah… hmmm.

  4. FYI you may not want to know… Chris Cleave is a man, his first book about terrorism in London was originally due to be released about the date of the tube bombings: uncomfortably prescient, but the actual narration I thought was very… condescending? Unrealistic? I seriously doubt anyone is actually as naive as the main character in that book. I think there’s a lot of potentially interesting stuff, but poorly completed, which makes me sad because these books do have something in them… but not quite enough. But I’m a harsher judge of books I expect good things from.
    I abandoned a Jennifer Maxwell book (the name of which I don’t remember) after page one.