Review: Mannequin Girl: A Novel

Mannequin Girl: A Novel
Mannequin Girl: A Novel by Ellen Litman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“A moment comes, Kat thinks. A moment came. You’re a glitch in a plan, an unfortunate error, and even your parents don’t like who you’ve become. And once this knowledge sinks in, nothing else out there can scare you.” [p.247]

“Except, Kat knows, it won’t happen. Because being exceptional is nothing but a trap. It makes you obsessed with your significance, and also, it riddles you with doubt. You do harsh things when you believe yourself one of a kind. You push away those who love you and sneer at those you deem not good enough. She’s seen it up close. She’s done it herself all her life – believing that she had some sort of promise.” [p.346]

This is a little gem of a book. It deserves more stars but I’m hesitant because of the way it made me feel.

The story opens when Kat is young, just getting ready to begin school, to enter into the magical world of her glamorous, intellectual, slightly subversive teacher parents. She longs to become a pupil in their school and bask in their attention and praise for her exceptional intellect. An unexpected medical diagnosis derails her plans, sending her, instead, to a residential clinical school, where she is neither beloved nor special. By the time she is an adolescent and her parents have joined the faculty at her school, a distance has grown between them and she eventually becomes disenchanted.

Fascinating for the details of life in 1980s Russia. Deeply heartbreaking for the details of Kat’s longing for the attention her parents lavish on other students, and for the terrible mistakes she makes while trying to get it.

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Review: A Long Way Down

A Long Way Down
A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s official. Nick Hornby’s wonderful. In this book, four strangers meet on the roof of a building on New Year’s Eve. Each plans to to commit suicide. Over the next 300 pages, they don’t fall in love, become millionaires, or even become best friends, but they do help each other find reasons to stay alive. You wouldn’t think a novel about killing yourself could be heartwarming, funny, thoughtful, and rude, but this one is.

Four stars instead of five because Jess’ character was too ridiculous and the math in Maureen’s life did not work.

(I don’t understand how there isn’t more pizza-related violence in our society. Just imagine: You’re, like, the top whatever in Zimbabwe, brain surgeon or whatever, and then you have to come to England because the fascist regime wants to nail your ass to a tree, and you end up being patronised at three in the morning by some stoned motherfucker with the munchies . . . I mean, shouldn’t you be legally entitled to break his fucking jaw?)” [p. 30]

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Review: Drawing Blood

Drawing Blood
Drawing Blood by Molly Crabapple
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In Drawing Blood, Molly Crabapple depicts the arc of her career development: from young student without sufficient finances to attend the art school of her choice, to impoverished artist trying to get the attention of those who could make her a star, to emerging adult awakening to events on the larger world stage. Throughout, she shares her political and artistic development, all through the lens of class and gender.

Crabapple is a fascinating person, mesmerizing artist, and capable writer. Why only three stars?
For me, I think it’s her worldview. She writes largely of her life as a young person in America in the 2000s, and yet she has enormously internalized a sense of women’s worthlessness that is breathtaking and sad:

“We were young women, at a bad school, studying for a competitive, ill-paying industry. What did we have to interest people besides our looks?” [p.80]

Yes, she made money posing for artists and GWCs (guys with cameras) – far more than she could have made waiting tables or temping in one of NY’s gazillion office towers. But she had so much more to offer than her nakedness and youth. Her art would have taken a different form had she not become involved in the world of sex workers, strippers, and burlesque, but how sad that she didn’t think she had any other choices. Sad, because she writes of her own negative feelings and experiences with it. I would not be sad for her if she wrote about it as a sex-positive, exuberant, powerful part of her life. Again and again, she writes about being put down by the people she encountered in this part of her life.

I also found myself uncomfortable with her depictions of her relationships. Where is friendship and kindness? Where is her center? In friendship after friendship, Crabapple describes competition and jealousy. In her primary romantic relationship, which she characterizes as the love of her life, she (purposely or not) repeatedly depicts a power differential. Even after years together, she still refers to that art studio as “Fred’s” (not hers or theirs). She “begs” Fred to help her arrange her Shell Game works so she can look at them in their entirety. Even when describing Fred’s warmth in their shared adult bed, she writes “He’d grab me, pin me down, and push himself into me. Afterward, he fell back to sleep.” Presumably, this is consensual and there is love and pleasure for them both. But Crabapple has a passive and powerless way of speaking about sex and her own body, and it stays with her through this whole book.

“I burst into tears – not fear, but of humiliation. No matter how far I’d strained against the rules for women, I was right back in my body, this fuckable, vulnerable shell.

I would never have the right to travel or take up space. At best, I’d be tolerated by someone who’d demand sex as payment the second we were alone.” [p.47]

“When I thought of every proposition or threat that I got just walking down the street in my girl body, I decided I might as well get paid for the trouble.” [p. 88]

“Any strawberry picker will tell you that hard work is a road to nowhere.” [p.98]

“Most career breaks come this way. Talent is essential, but cash buys the opportunity for that talent to be discovered. To pretend otherwise is to spit in the face of every broke genius. I am good, but it was never just about being good. It was about getting noticed.” [p.99]

“. . . abortion was for stupid girls, teens who didn’t know how babies were made, not clever girls like me. This passivity is baked into the grammar: “impregnated,” “knocked up.” Yet no matter how free or clever I believed myself, there I was. Knocked up.” [p.110]

“I forced myself to comply. When the media reports that a suspect in custody was killed after resisting arrest, they never tell you how hard it is to assist passively with your own kidnapping. They never talk about the discipline it takes to submit.” [p. 289]

“Occupy Wall Street taught some middle-class white people what poor people and people of color already know: the law is a hostile and arbitrary thing. Speak loudly, stand in the wrong place, and you can end up on the wrong side of it.” [p.292]

This is a confessional book, but also showy. At some point, it began to feel like a put-on, like she was pretending to share the truth with readers but was really winking or snickering behind their backs. She writes for so long about ‘not being good enough’ – The same story over and over. Finally, with her experiences beginning with the Occupy Wall Street movement, Crabapple beings to show some maturity, perspective, and growth. I am eager to seek out her art and writings from that period.

Advertised as a work about a political artist, this book begins and ends with stories from her work interviewing and drawing at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. I wish that this section was longer and the other parts were truncated.

Also, the reproductions of her artworks were maddeningly small. A larger format book would have done her better justice.

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Review: Outline

Outline by Rachel Cusk
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beautifully composed. Mesmerizing. Vague.

A writer travels to Greece to teach a week long writing course. She dines with friends, listens to her students, goes boating with her seatmate from the plane. In each interaction, the narrator listens as the others spin out their tales, truthful or not. None of them seem to recognize that anything that has happened in their lives or relationships could be their own responsibility.

The narrator reveals little of herself. Initially, it seems that everyone she meets is a self-absorbed lout, blabbing on and asking her nothing. We don’t learn much about her; (we get a few details children, a mortgage, a melancholy).

Partway through, another character says:
“What he thinks is of no importance. . . If I found out more about what he thinks, I might start to confuse him with myself.”

It is almost that she is drawing them each out and sharing very little of herself on purpose, even though they are, mostly, not very pleasant company, because she is in a time of her life in which she has lost herself.

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