What I Read in August

September 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

Frankly, not a whole lot, at least not in the way of books, as I tried to catch up on old New Yorkers and Poets & Writerses. Two short stories stood out: Tessa Hadley’s “An Abduction” (July 9 & 16), and, to show you just far behind I’ve fallen, Junot Diaz’s “Miss Lora,” from April 23.

It has been argued that, for a British writer, Hadley appears in the New Yorker way too frequently (she has published ten stories in the magazine since 2007, by my count). Her aesthetic doesn’t do any favors for the readership. But I enjoyed “An Abduction,” which is not really about an abduction, but about a girl who willingly gets into a car with some rakish young blokes. She helps them shoplift alcohol and gets taken to one of the boys’ parents’ house, where there is a dirty pool. Much of the energy of the story comes from the hazardous, hostile tone of the flirtation from the boys:

“I think we should swim,” Daniel suggested. “It’s just too fucking hot.”

Jane blushed: his word was so forbidden that she hardly knew how she knew it—the girls never used it at school. It was an entrance, glowering with darkness, into the cave of things unknown to her.

“But I haven’t got a costume,” she said.

“Bo Peep’s lost her sheep,” Nigel mocked.

“Swim nude,” Daniel suggested. “No one can see—except us, and we like you.”

“Miss Lora” is another story about an inappropriate relationship, this one between a sixteen-year-old boy and his adult neighbor, who comes with a reputation (“That woman needs to keep her clothes on, the mothers complained”; “Bitch made Iggy Pop look chub, and every summer she caused a serious commotion at the pool”) that he leverages against that of his cautious girlfriend, who wants to remain a virgin. The story is told in the second person, with you, the reader, in the role of the boy getting backslaps for making this mischievous fantasy happen, and it is set in 1985, which allows Diaz to open the narrative with distancing flashback:

Years later, you would wonder if it hadn’t been for your brother would you have done it? You’d remember how all the other guys had hated on her—how skinny she was, no culo, no titties, como un palito, but your brother didn’t care. I’d fuck her.

You’d fuck anything, someone jeered.

And he had given that someone the eye. You make that sound like it’s a bad thing.

The brother who would fuck anything is now dead of cancer, which doubles as inspiration and excuse for the boy’s acting out, and later, as the spectre of guilt:

She squeals with delight when she sees the plastic-covered sofa and the wooden spoons hanging on the wall. You admit to feeling a little bad for your mother.

Of course you end up downstairs in your basement. Where your brother’s things are still in evidence. She goes right for his boxing gloves.

Please put those down.

She pushes them into her face, smelling them.

You can’t relax. You keep swearing that you hear your mother or Paloma at the door. It makes you stop every five minutes. It’s unsettling to wake up in your bed with her. She makes coffee and scrambled eggs and listens not to Radio Wado but to the “Morning Zoo,” and laughs at everything. It’s too strange. Paloma calls to see if you are going to school, and Miss Lora is walking around in a T-shirt, her flat skinny rump visible.

In addition:

All the Conspirators, Christopher Isherwood. The British writer’s first novel, published in 1928, about an infantilized young man acting out against his doting mother, is flawed and careful the way many first novels are, and, like the novels of his British forbears, too focused on the delaying conflicts of manners (“I say, I hope I haven’t bored you dreadfully”). But I bought it used for $3.95 and when else am I going to read Isherwood?

Salamander, Vol. 17, No 2, Summer 2012. An all-fiction issue, with war and health care as central themes. There are, in fact, three consecutive first-person stories narrated by doctors, and the first two of those, oncologists. Cancer is overburdened throughout the issue with the twin jobs of antagonist and metaphor. I was glad to see new work by Sarah Hulse (whose “Sine Die” won the 2011 Willow Springs Fiction Prize), and I enjoyed Siobhan Fallon’s story “Tips for a Smooth Transition,” in which a woman vacations in Hawaii with her husband, back from Afghanistan and exhibiting behavior suggestive of PTSD. The wife was not completely faithful while her husband was away, and Fallon cleverly interweaves the narrative with excerpts from a condescending how-to book that the wife has consulted in an effort to aid his re-entry into society. On the whole, though, the issue clung much too neatly to its stated themes, and ended up feeling very repetitive by the end.

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