Her Body and Other Parties

In her provocative debut, Carmen Maria Machado demolishes the borders between magical realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. Startling stories map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited on their bodies, both in myth and in practice.

A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the mysterious green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague spreads across the earth. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery about a store’s dresses. One woman’s surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted house guest.

Bodies become inconsequential, humans become monstrous, and anger becomes erotic. A dark, shimmering slice into womanhood, Her Body and other Parties is wicked and exquisite.

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Does anyone else really dread reviewing certain books? Please tell me that it’s not just me.

Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado came to me, like so many of my reads, through the Belletrist book club. I found this genre-bending short story collection challenging, confusing, disturbing and often beautifully expressed.

I would classify the reading experience as: uncomfortable.

This collection of erotic horror fairy tales isn’t made for a passive reading experience. As the title suggests, Machado’s collection is intimately concerned with women’s bodies in their desires, peculiarities and wounds. It isn’t for the faint of heart – or stomach. From the first story, called ‘The Husband’s Stitch’ (if you live in a world where you don’t know the meaning of that term, I can only advise you remain that way and don’t Google it), Machado unflinchingly studies the violence women’s bodies undergo by society, partners and themselves – there is more than one very sensory depiction of squeezing out a puss-ey lesion in this collection. Think Josh Chan’s recent staph infection on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. But worse.

Machado uses her collection to engage with the various ways that women’s bodies are under attack. In ‘The Husband’s Stitch’, we see much of the narrator’s life, from meeting her husband and falling in love, to having a child and in turn seeing him grow up. She’s consumed by passed along tales of woe of women who tried to step outside the boundaries of the roles ascribed to them by their gender only to have it all end in disaster, and self-polices her own desires accordingly. She considers her marriage happy – if interspersed with moments in which her husband’s lack of respect becomes clear. Their marriage has only one real conflict. The narrator has worn around her neck for her whole life a green ribbon, and she will not allow her husband to touch it. Though she shares herself with him in every other respect, he cannot get over the fact that he is not allowed to touch this green ribbon. He can’t allow her to be the sole owner of even one single part of herself, and when she finally gives in and allows him possession of the thing she so desperately wished to keep as her own, horror ensues.

In another story, ‘Eight Bites’, a woman has weight loss surgery only to find the removed fat assembles itself into a creature that lives in her house. The creature has no eyes or ears or nose or mouth and when the woman comes into contact with it for the first time, she attacks it – kicking it, stabbing it, ripping it to pieces.

“I find myself wishing she would fight back, but she doesn’t. Instead, she sounds like she is being deflated. A hissing, defeated wheeze.”

This violence against the self – first more ethereal before becoming painfully, flinchingly literal is familiar to us all as we are bombarded everywhere we look of images of the ‘ideal bikini body’, where weight loss isn’t a cause for concern but for praise. I always remember this one time when I went to see a Katherine Ryan stand up show; she spoke about her divorce and how the trauma of it caused her to lose a ton of weight. When she saw herself in the mirror she thought she looked like she had a horrific disease. Everyone else? Well, they complimented her on how great she looked so skinny.

Her Body and Other Parties is a haunting collection of mostly horrifying stories built on the truths of patriarchy. From the episode-by-episode rewrite of Law and Order: SVU – a show which creates entertainment out of sexual violence against women – Machado tells the haunting tale of a detective followed by the ghosts of murdered women, to ‘Real Women Have Bodies’, in which women across the country are becoming incurably incorporeal – the faded women haunt the streets of cities and have themselves sewn into the seams of designer dresses – she tells the disturbing tale of what it is to be a woman in a world in which your body is forever under attack.

Not all books are supposed to be comfortable, and Her Body and Other Parties definitely took me to my limits of self-inflicted anxiety. It’s a strange book that I find difficult to recommend, exactly, but would encourage you to read anyway.

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John Dies @ The End

This one is a bit tricky to summarise. I think I’ll just let it do it itself.

‘My name is David Wong. My best friend is John. Those names are fake. You might want to change yours.

You may not want to know about the things you’ll read on these pages, about the sauce, about Korrock, about the invasion, and the future. But it’s too late. You touched the book. You’re in the game. You’re under the eye.

The only defense is knowledge. You need to read this book, to the end. Even the part with the bratwurst. Why? You just have to trust me.’

davidwong

Nothing encourages me to read a book like one that threatens me with consequences if I don’t. John Dies @ The End by David Wong (pseudonym of Jason Pargin) is a freakish cult phenomenon that I came across entirely by accident a couple years ago when I was buying a last minute book for my long train ride home from university for the summer.

I think it’s important to note at the top of this review that I don’t read horror. I get scared easily. I don’t like it. That said, John Dies @ The End is one of my favourite books ever. So. People contain multitudes.

Technically I think you would probably call David Wong’s work comedy horror, but something about that classification makes me uncomfortable, because I feel like it diminishes the book somehow. It’s not comedy horror like Sean of the Dead (literally my only other reference point because I don’t like horror not even funny horror). It’s more absurdist than that. In other reviews, a lot of writers have compared him to Douglas Adams (but with way more gory death, obviously) but that comparison doesn’t really work for me either.

Honestly, at least so far as my own reading is concerned, John Dies @ The End is totally unique.

(I’ll just let that statement settle for a moment).

This book occupies a very special place in my heart I have thus far been unable to adequately explain to anyone. Today I’ll give it my best try.

Reading this book is a visceral experience. I really mean that. You will cringe and be grossed out so hard I would actually say you should leave a decent gap between reading and eating. At least on the first couple times through it. I just read it for the fourth or fifth time so my tolerance is pretty high.

David Wong seamlessly works through the truly haunting and the absurd, the freaking hilarious and the deeply sincere – sometimes all on the same page. To read this book is to be perpetually off balance. It’s thrilling and frightening. The experience is to constantly ask yourself what could possibly happen next? And then there’s the underlying doubt that David might just be a crazy person. He admits that he occasionally makes up a few details. As your get further into the book it gets ever more apparent when he’s doing it (although I might just think that because I’ve read it so many times).

Ultimately though, I believe David. I don’t think anyone could read this book thinking that he was just a guy who’s done way too many drugs (although he might be that, too). Remember I mentioned the sincerity in this book? Yeah? Well, that’s all David. Nobody writes about self-loathing like David Wong. It permeates his every action. Usually, I think, books like this are concerned with taking action that, secondarily most of the time, has the effect of taking down people’s deep insecurities. People who save the world usually feel pretty good about themselves by the end of the book. Not David.

I want to make clear, as well, that this is not in any way annoying to read. David isn’t just a guy feeling sorry for himself. He’s had some truly awful experiences – some of which he will never ever tell us about, others, we witnessed with him – and as a result he’s come to see the world in a very black and white way. There’s good and bad, and he knows which side he falls on (spoiler alert: it’s not good). David suffers with a lot of suicidal ideation throughout the story.

He survives because of his friends, John, of the title and Amy, who is central to everything but doesn’t really appear until the second half of the book. I LOVE this choice. John Dies @ The End is pretty long, and seeing David alone for so much of it before introducing Amy, the girl he falls in love with, is so effective. I want to take this book and slap every writer who ever went down the instalove route over the head with it. John and Amy are a part of the horror, but they somehow manage to remain separate from it. It doesn’t engulf them the way that it does David.

John is the comic relief. He’s the guy who spent his youth watching a lot of movies and is not-so-secretly thrilled that he finally gets to be the hero in his own horror story. He also really wants you to know about the size of his penis.

(supposedly it’s big).

Amy managed to avoid the horror once, when it took her brother. A year or so later and in the second half of the book, it comes back for her. With it come John and David.

Amy is a lonely girl. She lost her parents and her left hand to a car accident a few years previously. Then her brother died under circumstances that were as mysterious as they were horrifying. As a result, she’s become a resilient young woman and I love her. She and David complement each other in every way. I don’t even care that her optimism being drawn to David’s despair is kind of a cliché because it’s awesome.

Amy is a girl who knows what she wants. She’s not afraid to take control of her own path even when doing so puts her in harm’s way. She pushes David in the right direction (i.e. one where he doesn’t kill himself).

She also kind of ruins his life because it’s a lot easier to fight an unknown evil when you don’t care about anyone, least of all yourself.

It’s not very interesting, though.

Honestly, John Dies @ The End has everything, as far as I’m concerned. It’s unique, adventurous, romantic, depressing, hilarious, horrifying and sincere. It’s like nothing you’ve ever read before.

If you’ve read through to this point I recommend looking the book up on Amazon. Go to ‘look inside’ and read the first page of the prologue. Depending on how you feel after, you’ll know whether or not this book is for you.