Welcome to the latest edition of Books on GIF, the animated alternative to boring book reviews. This Sunday's book is 'Basic Black With Pearls' by Helen Weinzweig.
This book is part noir, part spy thriller and altogether one of the more interesting, weird and challenging books I've reviewed. It's about being trapped — by the past, by desire and by a spouse. It's also about the cost of escape, and what that really means. Shirley Kaszenbowski was once confined in a loveless marriage in her hometown of Toronto. Now she travels the world under an assumed name, Lola Montez, flying from city to city to continue an affair with a mysterious man named Coenraad. After a rendezvous in Guatemala falls through, Coenraad gets word to Lola to meet him in Toronto, the last place she wants to go. She's like:
But she does go back. Only Coenraad is nowhere to be found. She thinks a pamphlet about a botany conference that's been left in her hotel mailbox contains coded messages from him with clues to his location. She walks the city wearing a tweed coat over her basic black dress and pearl necklace searching for Coenraad, a James Bond type who works for the 'Agency,' in the faces of other men because he is a shapeshifter who can assume other forms. As she walks, she remembers moments from her past as well as her encounters with Coenraad. The journey is bizarre and trippy — at one point she talks to a young girl trapped inside a painting — and you begin to wonder if there really is a Coenraad out there somewhere, and if there ever was one. We learn that Coenraad's existence as a physical person doesn't really matter, and instead what's important is that Lola sees the concept of him as providing the means of her escape from life as Shirley. But has she succeeded? Can we say a woman walking the streets looking for a man is truly free? Or are the pleasures of the flesh their own prison? Kinda like eating cake while caught in a mousetrap:
Lola's walks eventually lead her back home, where she confronts her husband and the woman he swapped in to replace her. I don't want to spoil what happens, but the scene is bizarre, intense and sexual, and is the best part of the book. Thinking about it now, I'm like:
When it's over: catharsis. The black dress is ditched in favor of a multicolored one, and we're left feeling that she's learned running away and escaping are not the same thing, and she can now move forward. At least that's what I took from the book. To be honest, I struggled with this review. Even though I enjoyed the book, it took me weeks to write about it. I didn't know what to say, or how to say it. I was trapped in my own head, which you could tell if you read my last newsletter, and put off writing this review for weeks. I was stressed by frustrations in all aspects of my life. Those frustrations mounted until I felt confined and claustrophobic. At that point, Lola Montez popped back into my head. And suddenly, I was like:
Things are much better now. After long talks with Donna, I can breathe again. But know that 'Basic Black With Pearls' was not the cause of my angst. Far from it. This book is another gem from The New York Review of Books that's disorienting and troubling, and wonderful. It's a quick read, and you should definitely stick around for the Afterword by Sarah Weinman, who offers a fantastic take with depth and context. Put this book on your list.
'Basic Black With Pearls' by Helen Weinzweig was originally published in 1980 by House of Anansi Press. It was published in 2018 by The New York Review of Books. 146 pages.
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In case you missed it: Books on GIF #87 featured 'Trick' by Domenico Starnone.
What's next: Because the people demanded it in this Twitter poll, you'll get a review of 'No One Tells You This' by Glynnis MacNichol in two weeks. Also in the queue are 'The Rent Collector' by Camron Wright, 'Masks' by Fumiko Enchi, 'The Vorrh' by B. Catling and 'Evicted' by Matthew Desmond, among others.
Send your recommendations: If you've got a bestseller, a classic or a forgotten gem you want me to review, shoot me an email anytime.
Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this review!
Until next time,