Fall Book Reviews: 3 of 3

“Autumn . . . the year’s last, loveliest smile” —John Howard

The last of the fall book reviews! Back in a few weeks with the stack of winter books waiting to be read.

BLACK SWANS by Eve Babitz

Babitz grew up in Los Angeles under the Hollywood sign, so her muse is the iconic city and its colorful people. “Black Swans,” published in 1993, is a collection of nine autobiographical stories about failed love affairs, self-absorption, desperation, and friendship. The pieces read like personal essays as opposed to short stories with most set in L.A. from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. Rumor has it that Babitz’s work is being made into a miniseries on Hulu. Babitz satirizes L.A. and the characters in “Black Swans” as beauty obsessed internal optimists, “celebrating beauty without a whisper of fading, sagging or wrinkling.” From a middle-aged perspective of sobriety, the narrator explores various reasons why the 1960s and 1970s were so pumped with life and hopefulness amidst the debauchery of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. Stephanie Danler’s Introduction sets the tone for the collection as well as delves into the author’s psyche.

Favorite line(s): The thing about me and my friends, though, is that we are the types who are such gluttons for narcissistic fantasies (being, most of us, born with that kind of charismatic shimmer that attracts a lot of what we used to call “fun,” before fun became in poor taste) tahat we began our lives knowing that sinking into gracious old age, being happy about grandchildren, planning family dinners, being proud we put children through college or had children not in jail—these are not the things we meant be “life” when we started. I mean, they may have happened, but not on purpose.

LESS by Andrew Sean Greer

Greer takes the reader on a trip around the world with Arthur Less, an almost fifty-year-old “minor author” of fiction, “an author too old to be fresh and too young to be rediscovered.” Less is running away after receiving an invitation to a wedding he doesn’t want to attend. From his home in San Francisco, Less begins his journey in New York City where he is to interview a famous author and meet with his agent who, over dinner, tells Less he hates his new novel. Next, he attends a conference in Mexico City to speak on a former lover’s (a poet named Robert Brownburn) work. He picks up an award in Turin, Italy and then he’s off to Berlin to teach a five-week course at a university. In Morocco, Less celebrates his fiftieth birthday somewhere in the Sahara. Polishes his rejected novel in India and then to Japan to write a travel article before flying home to San Francisco. All the inequities of life push and pull at Less while he contemplates time and what it means to love. Greer won the Pulitzer Prize for this comedic romance. A funny and wise book.

Favorite line(s):

No one could rival Arthur Less for his ability to exit a room while remaining inside it.

How awful for the string of inequities to be brought out in his mind, that useless rosary, so he can finger again those memories: the toy phone his sister received while he got nothing, the B in chemistry because his exam handwriting was poor, the idiot rich kid who got into Yale instead of him, the men who chose hustlers and fools over innocent Less. All the way up to his publisher’s polite refusal of his latest novel and his exclusion from any list of the best writers under thirty, under forty, under fifty—they make no lists above that. The regret of Robert. The agony of Freddy. His brain sits before its cash register again, charging him for old shames as if he has not paid before.

HUNGER by Roxanne Gay

Gay writes in Hunger what it feels like to be trapped in a morbidly obese body. “My body is a cage. My body is a cage of my own making. I am still trying to figure my way out of it. I have been trying to figure a way out of it for more than twenty years.” Gay grew up in a loving upper-middle-class family, sheltered from a lot of life’s insults when she was sexually assaulted as a young girl on the cusp of discovering her sexuality. Devastated, ashamed, she hid her secret and shoved the memories down with food. Gay shows us what it’s like to “take up space” in the world while the soul peeks out from a body she feels stuck in. She writes: “There is a price to be paid for visibility and there is even more of a price to be paid when you are hypervisible.” It’s heartbreaking to read how she agonizes over navigating her way through airports and on planes, too small chairs in restaurants, and getting up steps to stages where she is giving a reading. The open hostility and disdain of strangers she shares the world with are revelatory in so many big and small ways. Gay’s honesty and courage are laid bare on every page.

Favorite line(s): I often tell my students that fiction is about desire in one way or another. The older I get, the more I understand that life is generally the pursuit of desires. We want and want and oh how we want. We hunger.

This hopelessness is paralyzing. Working out and eating well and trying to take good care of myself start to feel futile. I look at my body, and I live in my body, and I think I will never know anything but this. I will never know anything better than this.

And then I think, If I am really this miserable if my life really is this hard, why do I still do nothing?

THE LAST CRUISE by Kate Christensen

Christensen’s writing is so clear and crisp, sprinkled with keen sense description and pumped undertones of dark humor that I devoured this book in a couple of days. “The Last Cruise” is the story of passengers on a cruise ship sailing from Long Beach, California to Hawaii on what is to be the Isabellas (a refurbished relic) last voyage. The passengers, mostly Americans, populate the upper decks and dining rooms while the workers on the ship, mainly from Third World countries, are relegated to occupying the lower decks “sleeping below the waterline” in moldy rooms and working in airless, damp kitchens. What could go wrong does. If you’re a foody, you’ll love the descriptions of themed buffets and intricate dining presentations. And if you’re above middle age, you’ll relish the love story between older adults. Without giving too much away the novel is part “Sweetbitter,” but on water, “Ship of Fools,” without Nazis, and Gordon Ramsay’s “Hell’s Kitchen.” Throw love, discord, disillusionment, lots of alcohol, an Israeli string quartet, and a virus on board, and you’ll flip the page to see how it all ends—or begins, depending on where your sympathies lie.

Favorite line(s): Scorching heat and sweat on his forehead and fiery steam and the fleshy demands of meat were a special kind of hellish earth-air-fire-water combo Mick dealt with every day and loved perversely, even the burns on his wrists and hands, the tiny abrasions and cuts and splashes of hot fat. He welcomed it all. It quieted his brain, this stainless steel inferno of raw and charred meat and the quick flash of knives.

GIVE ME YOUR HAND by Megan Abbott

“Give Me Your Hand” is the story of Kit Owens and Diane Fleming, fast friends in high school because of their love of science and their ability to keep up with one another’s intelligence. They compete for every honor, every award that will get them onto the fast track of scientific discovery until secrets are revealed, and the friendship fizzles out. Fast forward ten years and Diane re-enters Kit’s life as they both vie for two spots on a prestigious study of PMDD, premenstrual dysphoric disorder. “The PMDD study was the star shot. . .” so every scientist in the lab was positioning themselves to work with the celebrated Dr. Severin. “My head is so full of plans that it seems aflame.” A quote by Marie Curie that the two women live by. And on the death of a parent Kit’s high school counselor tells her “It can do things to a person. And sometimes it takes a long time to figure out just what it’s done.” The reader spends a chunk of the book wondering who Dr. Severin picks, and then Kit has a few too many cocktails one night and tells Diane’s secret to a co-worker. Well, things start to get ugly soon after. Abbott is a master at getting young woman angst on the page.

Favorite line(s): All my life, I’ve only seen as much as a keyhole allows, side glances, small corners of something larger, some massive vision. But Dr. Severin—whose brain is immense and, it seems to me, very beautiful; no, sublime, beyond my reckoning—is able to see things I long to see, overarching networks, grand symphonies of the body, the brain, the genes, and the blood. Reproductive hormones and serotonin, stress hormones and neurotransmitters. The whole rickety biological pathophysiology of our women. The PMDD women, maybe all women. She sees the dangerous relays in the suffering body. She understands the mad pulses of the blood.

THE SILENCE OF GIRLS by Pat Barker

After Achilles, the Greek God of war sacks a neighboring Troy kingdom murdering Briseis’s husband and brothers, he takes the royal as his concubine. Briseis and all the other women from the kingdom are to serve the Greek army as slaves, prostitutes, nurses, and weavers while the men fight to take Troy. War and its aftermath as told through the eyes of both Briseis and Achilles is a fascinating story of a time when women were the byproduct of conquerors as they were fought over and passed around as reward.

Favorite line(s): This is what free people never understand. A slave isn’t a person who’s being treated as a thing. A slave is a thing, as much in her own estimation as in anybody else’s.