This Week's Reads

Aimee Bender, Chelsea Handler, MacKenzie Bezos, and Elizabeth Royte.

Willful Creatures

By Aimee Bender (Doubleday, $22.95) In his A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace talks about writers being not merely observers but stalkers, creepy watchers, obsessive-compulsive students of human behavior. And OK, so maybe we are, but few are as good at sociological surveillance as Aimee Bender. Her brilliance isn't just in picking up on the tiny, whispered actions that stand for our big ideas and giant hang-ups, it's in artfully and stealthily turning them around and feeding them back to us as matter-of-fact human nature. When the characters in her new story collection act and think in small, seemingly insignificant ways, she's telling you something important about them—although exactly what isn't always obvious at first pass. In "Off," an unnamed woman begins the story by saying, "At the party I make a goal and it is to kiss three men: one with black hair, one with red hair, the third blond." It seems like sarcasm, or an unfunny joke, except that the phrasing is so stiff and dry that you really have to wonder if she isn't serious. Four paragraphs later, you realize she is; this really is a story about an unnamed woman at a boring party who hits on a dark-haired guy, a redhead, and a blond. "Off" in particular is full of peculiarities and mundane observations. The protagonist scorns the other women at the party and their identical handbags, shoes, and sweaters. She disdains the fact that the works of Dutch masters are reproduced on the covers of address books and on ceramic mugs. She reveals that she's rich and has everything she needs, but later, she schemes to steal everyone's coats. Bender's sentences go from overly long to short staccato things that feel like nervous, anxious burps. You get that something ominous is unfolding, but you don't get exactly what it is. Eventually, you realize that the pleasure you're taking in uncovering it is as subversive as the woman and her Neapolitan-flavored conquests and stolen coats. So it goes with the other 14 stories in Willful Creatures: They're full of perverted deviants, greedy lovers, fantastical beings, and dry, quotidian observations. Reading them in this fashion, jumbled together, you come upon your own simultaneously boring/kinky nature, too. In "End of the Line," a regular-sized man mistreats the miniature man he purchased at a pet store. Later, he lets him out of his cage and follows him on his miniature bus back to the miniature people colony and has to stifle the urge to step on the small bus and squash it like Godzilla. Yet this all feels disarmingly correct—as if in some state, Kansas maybe, there are colonies of small people, and some of them are occasionally kidnapped and sold in pet stores, and we normal-sized folks aren't always entirely kind to them. In "Ironhead," a married couple with pumpkins for heads produces a child with an iron for a head. They love their weird little offspring, but he's unwell and cannot thrive. Eventually he dies, and their friends and neighbors bring casseroles. It isn't a surreal metaphor about illness or deformity, it's just Bender playing with fantasy and exploring magical realism. She recently told an interviewer that she likes to write in the early morning, "closest to dreams [as] I can get." This story, like all her stories, is about the gray chain links separating the subconscious from the office cubicle, and about the prosaic things that sit on that fence, lurking and unfolding. LAURA CASSIDY Aimee Bender will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., Aug. 25. My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands

By Chelsea Handler (Bloomsbury, $13.95) Most people can dredge up one or two painfully hilarious—or at least embarrassing—stories from their sex life, and retell them for the amusement of those who can't. It's a delicious, vicarious thrill for listeners: You can enjoy the bedroom antics of your craaazy friends, but thank God it didn't happen to you. In that simple way, Horizontal succeeds for the reader. But like author Chelsea Handler and her boundless libido, you're frequently left unsatisfied—despite all her and her book's potential. On the Oxygen Network's Girls Behaving Badly, Handler and her fellow comediennes specialize in making strangers feel threatened or uncomfortable, using skits often orchestrated in a studio where all but an unlucky few are in on the joke. Handler's stories work in much the same way—setups. Consummation matters less than situation in a series of Handler's alcohol-fueled "almosts" with a leather fetishist, a Vegas stripper named Thunder, a coke-snorting government attorney, and others. The book also takes a few chapters to get to a bona fide one-night stand, and it opens with a 7-year-old Handler attempting to secretly photograph her sexually adventurous parents. It's not particularly funny, nor are the depictions of trashy men the teenaged Handler makes out with at the Jersey shore and on Martha's Vineyard. Each encounter is motivated by animal lust, but her descriptions of the men and the sex are disappointingly modest. When Handler hooks up with someone she actually likes, she writes, "The sex was okay, but for some reason I lost interest . . . or consciousness. Whichever." More likely, the encounter didn't generate any good material for her stand-up routine. You'd think it'd be easy for a woman as beautiful and successful as Handler to get a date when she moves to L.A., but she seems to enjoy setting herself up for disappointment with the biggest losers around. She portrays herself as a shallow compulsive liar, but gets a dose of her own medicine when a friend convinces Handler's latest conquest that Handler is terminally ill and just wants emotional closeness, not sex, leading to another night of frustration. The resulting story is like watching a clock tick, and you wonder why the brash writer feels obligated to spoon with the guy all night. Handler's non-PC sensibility may work better in a comedy club, where the audience is drinking, than on the page. In "My Little Nugget," she writes, "The great thing about sleeping with a midget is that first you get to have sex with them and then you can use them as a pillow." Instead of doing this, she passes out and later laughs about hitting "an all-time low." Because he's a midget—get it? Rimshot, please. "I made sure to pick stories that were humiliating, because this was not about trying to make myself look good," Handler recently told the San Francisco Chronicle. You won't hear many authors saying the same of their first book, which thankfully makes Handler—love her or hate her—and her world of one-night stands one of a kind. RACHEL SHIMP Chelsea Handler will appear at the Comedy Underground (222 S. Main St., 206-628-0303; $12, 21 and over), 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. Fri., Aug. 26–Sat., Aug. 27. The Testing of Luther Albright

By MacKenzie Bezos (Fourth Estate, $23.95) For most parents, watching a home video of father and son working together building the attic would be a fun experience, but Luther Albright "[feels] the solemn press of responsibility that haunted every moment of his [son's] scrutiny or emulation." If this sounds bleak, it is. First-time novelist MacKenzie Bezos delivers a precise character study in Testing that is as compelling as it is uncomfortable to read. Luther Albright is a successful engineer in Sacramento, Calif., married to a beautiful, patient wife, and father to a teenage son, Elliot. They live in a beautiful home he designed and enjoy a blessed existence until an earthquake—literal and figurative. The house he built begins to fall apart, a dam he designed comes under attack for being unsafe, and Elliot turns against him. His son sets a series of nine "tests"—minor adolescent fare like shaving his head or leaving a pair of girl's panties in full view of his father. As Elliot pushes his father to react in some way, Luther's passivity and paranoia gradually crack the foundation of his family. As one turns the pages, the atmosphere is tense and oppressive. Faced with an imposing array of imagined wrong turns in response to his tests, Luther is paralyzed. His imagined catalog of dangers (murderous intruders, decay and corruption in the materials of their house, fires, poisons, etc.) also gives the reader a growing sense of unease and incipient panic. Luther's narration is meticulous and detailed—the resounding slam of a car door, the precise angle of sunlight—but strangely imprecise with regard to time. It's often not clear whether a certain event happened in the distant past, the recent past, or just in his worry-filled imagination. The result can be confusing for the reader, but further reinforces the sense in which Luther believes himself helpless in the face of time and events beyond his control. If the explanation for Luther's isolation —rooted in childhood—feels unsatisfying, insufficient to explain his almost staggering inability to act, it's at least consistent with his fatalism. Even if you don't agree with his outlook, Bezos reminds us that most families are not torn apart dramatically, in an instant, by a single great cataclysm. Like a dam slowly under siege by drips of water, the foundations of family intimacy are eroded every day, by tiny instances of silence, omission, and misunderstanding. SUMMER BLOCK MacKenzie Bezos will appear at Queen Anne Books (1811 Queen Anne Ave. N., 206-283-5624), 3 p.m. Sun., Aug. 28; and at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Wed., Aug. 31. Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash

By Elizabeth Royte (Little, Brown, $24.95) Pure trash, from the first page to the last. And that's a compliment. Like Andie MacDowell in sex, lies and videotape (whom she cites), author Elizabeth Royte is obsessed with our waste: Where does it come from? How does so much of it accumulate? And where does it go? Are we bad people for creating so much junk? Alas, there is no James Spader to rescue her from her garba-logue. Our mounting trash piles represent both a growth industry and a municipal headache, even in the "recycling Mecca" of Seattle—which Royte repeatedly praises. To better understand our nation's appetite for pollution, she begins weighing and analyzing every ounce of trash from her three-person Brooklyn household, sorting it in her kitchen on her daughter's snow sled. After determining its components (glass, metal, paper, biomass, other), she tracks each to its terminal destination: recycling, mulch, landfill, and even a sewage treatment plant. It's not a pretty journey; she finds herself trespassing and clambering under chain-link fences to follow what she views as her property, however soiled. She also gets the predictable runaround from carting companies and landfill managers who don't like snooping journalists. One tells her, "You want to solve the garbage problem? Stop eating. Stop living." Put differently, we're indicted by our own shit. "No wonder we prefer opaque garbage bags," Royte writes—we want to hide the contents in "the culture of shame" of garbage. That's one reason most landfills are closed to public viewing. Of course, as Royte notes of the age of pigs in the street and rag-and-bone pickers, there was once no such thing as landfills and no such word as garbage. Her increasingly obsessive quest leads her to the philosophy of Zero Waste and "closing the loop" and even a zealot in Berkeley, Calif., who unhooks his house from the sewer line. (Yes, there's a filtering pond out back. But still.) Though New York–centric in many ways (garbage haulers call the maggots that spill from bags "disco rice"), Royte's worries ought to find a lot of resonance in Seattle's green-obsessed, liberal-guilt culture. Even if our city has a high diversion rate from landfills (San Francisco's 50 percent is tops), she finds a very disturbing statistic: Of all the garbage in the U.S., municipal solid waste—which we obsessively sort and recycle—represents only 2 percent of the total! We don't see the other 98 percent, the ecological-economic "footprint" behind our consumer choices, because it's industrial: the processes that make our cars, our housing materials, our clothes, our Styrofoam coffee cups, even our tiny beloved iPods. Which makes Andie MacDowell's depression seem justified—the garbage is winning. (Remember the energy costs for those trucks that rumble around to get your empty Snapple bottles each week.) Despite this, though she offers no new insights or profound solutions in her very readable account, Royte still finds recycling to be "a moral act." Even if her book lacks the impact of Fast Food Nation or Super Size Me, it'll get you thinking about the dreaded checkout line query at the grocery store, not that it ultimately matters how you answer: Paper or plastic? BRIAN MILLER

 
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