This Sunday's book is 'Her Body and Other Parties' by Carmen Maria Machado.
I didn't know anything about this book when I picked it up at the Harvard Book Store, one of my favorite places on Earth, during a recent trip to Cambridge. I'm not sure why I picked it up. Maybe it was because I'd seen people reading it on the subway? Maybe I liked how the cover evokes the 'Grey's Anatomy' textbook?
Anyway, it's a collection of genre-bending short stories that are powerful and weird: right up my alley. Each of the eight stories features a female protagonist who is grappling with an intense issue, including weight-loss surgery, plague and being haunted by ghosts. At some point during the tale, she will either engage in lesbian sex or a bout of vomiting. Sometimes both. Never at the same time, though, which is good. There is so. Much. Vomiting. In fact, as I was reading the last story, called 'Difficult at Parties,' when the main character starts to drink too much at a party, I was thinking, 'yup, she's gonna puke.' Sure enough, she did.
This is not to say these stories are predictable. They were all really out there. One story had stage directions if one was to read it out loud. Another reimagines 'Law & Order: SVU' episodes in a surreal and almost frightening way. These two are there —
— but are verrrrrry different from what you've seen on TV. (I'm interested in getting Donna's reaction to this story because 'SVU' is her favorite show.) In my favorite story, called 'Inventory,' a woman makes a list of all her sexual partners, and each description gives you a clue that she's writing while a plague is wiping out humanity. I thought the way Machado used a list to advance parallel narratives was really great. It was also fun to read. I was like:
But can I be honest? Even though I really liked some of the stories, I had a hard time with this book. At times, I felt it was trying to beat me over the head with metaphors. In 'The Husband Stitch,' the protagonist wears a green ribbon around her neck that has a secret meaning. She asks her husband never to touch it or ask about it. Of course he insists on knowing the secret, to terrible consequences. In 'Real Women Have Bodies,' some kind of disease is making women turn invisible and incorporeal. A character sews whats left of their bodies into dresses. I was like:
But at other times I didn't understand what was happening, like I was at a dinner where heavy topics are discussed using unfamiliar terms. I tried to keep up, because to me these stories were more interesting, and I wanted to know more about their meaning, but I ended up more confused than enlightened. I also felt that some of the stories, particularly 'The Resident,' (about a woman struggling to complete a novel at a writers colony where she has a mental breakdown) and 'Bad at Parties' (a trauma survivor can hear the thoughts of actors in porn films) ended abruptly without full resolution. Maybe that was the point, but I felt, again, like:
Maybe it's simply because I'm not the target audience for this book that I struggled with it. Perhaps others will tell me that it's totally clear and that the book is genius, and I'm an idiot. Fair enough. I would love it of some of you guys read it so we could discuss it.Even so, I'm happy this book exists and has been nominated for several awards. The world needs more strong women writers and books need more LGBTQ and female characters.
'Her Body and Other Parties' by Carmen Maria Machado was published by Greywolf Press in 2017. 241 pages.
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Thanks for reading!*
* Thanks especially to Donna for copy editing this review!