When you imagine perfect days, what do you have in mind? Maybe a distant tropical land, sitting on a beach with blue waves lapping at your feet. Or a quiet weekend tucked up in a cheery cabin with a pile of books, a roaring fire, and snow falling lightly outside. A road trip with your friends. A hike with your dog. Whatever you’re imagining, it is not what this book contains.
You’ve been warned.
Perfect Days follows mild-mannered medical student Teo who is thoroughly engrossed by his work and spends the rest of his time caring for his mother who is restricted to a wheelchair. Seems like a great guy, no? He's attentive, well-spoken, and about to dedicate his life to helping others. I beg you—just read the first three paragraphs of this book. You’ll not only be forcibly drawn in to read the rest, but those first few moments reveal so much about the internal workings of Teo’s mind—it chills me (in such a good way) just thinking about it!
Teo doesn't seem to feel much, but his quiet demeanor has allowed him to blend in and pass as normal. I'm pretty sure he'd be classified as a sociopath, but without knowing about his background it's a bit difficult to technically diagnose him. Not that this is a bad thing—I love that as readers we are riding around in Teo's disturbed mind, but at the same time, it's as if we know nothing about him. All we really see is him reacting to what happens, formulating short term plans that honestly seem harebrained at times. What makes him tick? Where is he going next? What is he really thinking and what is just a ploy? I can't tell if he has some overarching plan or if he just does things as they occur to him, though I lean towards the latter, which makes him even more crazy because his snap decisions never seem to show on the surface. He is so calm all the time—no matter what the situation, I bet his heart rate never goes above 60 beats per minute.
Teo becomes infatuated with a girl he meets at a party, Clarice, and follows her around—innocuously, of course—to learn more about her. She's more savvy than he realizes though, and confronts him about the stalking. He begs her to give him a chance and tries to explain away his deception, but she refuses him—she's leaving on a trip anyway to spend some time alone to work on her screenplay, so it isn't good timing. Tension rises, tempers flare, and Clarice winds up sedated and packed in her own suitcase, Teo calmly wheeling her away from her house.
And it only escalates from there.
I don't want to give away any more of the plot, so I'm going to try to only focus on the characters from here on out. I hope I've said enough to send you to the bookstore already, honestly, this is the best thriller I've read in a long while. A horror novel with a pink cover: what more could you ask for?
This book will creep up on you and deliver with fast-paced, sadistic enthusiasm. Just when you think you've figured out where the story is going, the paradigm between the characters will shift, or some new element will be introduced. The main story is formatted as a love story, albeit a perversion of a love story, between Clarice and Teo. The whole time they are together I was left wondering, does he actually care for her? Does he actually want her to love him?
I think there is a point at which Teo realizes that it isn't Clarice that he loves, but rather the control that he has over her. The fact that she is so completely at his mercy but at the same time, he doesn't know what is going on in her head or what exactly she is feeling about him is intriguing. People have always been boring to him before now, he's been able to see through them to view their weaknesses and desires, but there's something different about Clarice for Teo. It excites him that he knows he can restrict her physical movement but he can't control her mind or know what she's thinking. Even more exciting is the prospect that someday, through some means, he might. What he'll do when he achieves that is anyone's guess—or perhaps you'll have to read the book to find out! Once the mouse stops twitching and bleeding, doesn't the cat get bored of its toy and just walk away? Just something to keep in mind. But perhaps Teo is different.
And on the other hand, we shouldn't be so quick to judge Clarice—she is different too. We don't get inside her head like we get inside Teo's but the moments that we spend with her really surprised me. She's not your average female victim. She tries different tactics and will keep you guessing as to her actual intent towards Teo, herself, and the situation in general. Clarice doesn't fall into the stereotypical captive role very often during this book and even when she does, you might find yourself second guessing her intentions. Don't turn your back on her.
I won’t give away the ending, but suffice to say that I’d be interested to see where this story could go next.
Perfect Days is a great book for your next road trip or vacation. Read it while you're waiting for your flight at the airport. It'll make you look twice at all the suitcases being wheeled by. Why does that mild-looking guy have such a large pink suitcase?
This is Brazilian author Raphael Montes's third novel, and he's only 25. I can only hope they hurry up and translate the other two soon!
Get your copy of Perfect Days
Find out more about the author, Raphael Montes
Website (his website is in Portuguese)
Facebook (also in Portuguese)
Find out more about the publisher, Penguin Press (Penguin Random House)
I wanted to take a moment to reflect upon my own book journey, as there were some strong coincidences between this book and the previous book that I read, Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear. Now, the books themselves couldn't be more dissimilar: Novey’s is literary fiction, Montes’s is a thriller/horror novel. The plots, characters, and writing styles are all wildly different, and yet there are strong similarities that kept striking me. Is it just because I read them back to back that I kept seeing these coincidences? Maybe. Perhaps you’d be a better judge.
First, both books are set in Brazil, with parts specifically set in Rio de Janeiro. Ok, that’s not so uncanny, you say. It gets better. Both books have suitcases on the covers and feature suitcases in the text. The main character in Novey’s book, Emma, is an English translator of a Brazilian author, and Perfect Days is the English translation of a Brazilian author’s book. Further to juxtapose the translation point, Montes’s main female character’s name is Clarice, named for novelist Clarice Lispector. And here’s the kicker: Novey is a translator along with being a novelist and has translated Clarice Lispector’s work. Weird right? Perhaps just one of those strange coincidences, but I thought it was worth mentioning… I’ve been wanting to dig into The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector that was put out last year, and perhaps the universe is telling me to read those next.
Here’s a book that I happened upon, intrigued by it’s bright cover and the fact that it was a debut novel by a poet. The advance quote from Karen Russell on the cover pulled me a bit deeper and I decided to take a chance on this one.
Boy, am I glad I did!
When a famed Brazilian author whose books often deal in magical realism climbs a tree and disappears, her American translator Emma feels compelled to leave her life and her fiancé behind to fly to Rio de Janeiro and join the author’s two grown children, Raquel and Marcus, in the search to find her. What follows is a compelling tale with such a sharp, detailed attention to words, it’s more like a love affair.
Though the book is definitely an exploration of (and for) Beatriz Yagoda, the acclaimed Brazilian author who although fictional could probably be compared to real-life Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the story is really more about Emma. As a devoted translator of Yagoda’s works, Emma feels she knows Beatriz intimately and because of this believes that she has something to offer the investigation into her disappearance. So much weight rests on words for her—she spends every waking moment thinking about them, deliberating the meaning between one language and another. Emma believes in the importance and worth of words; that they impart some form of truth and that Beatriz’s works may even have hidden meaning as to her location.
It is definitely a rash act for Emma to fly to Rio alone to help these people who she barely knows, and who honestly, don’t even really want her help. Rio isn’t the safest place on the best of days, and now she’s wandering around looking for someone that has racked up online gambling debt and has loan sharks looking to extract payment or revenge. Emma’s decision to go to Rio is her own act of vanishing—vanishing from her own life. Her upcoming marriage to Miles is not something that she’s entirely set on, but she hasn’t quite been able to say that to Miles yet, or even to herself, really. She’s been floating along in the background of her own life and this trip marks the moment that she’s finally taken the step into the foreground.
This theme is echoed in her work as a translator—that oh, so important role that is oft forgotten by the general reading public. Without the translator, where is the book? It can’t be shared on a global level, across languages and cultures, becoming a phenomenon. But translators remain in the background, living in the white space between the lines. They create language, but they don’t create it anew. Such a delicate balance: sussing out the author’s true meaning and deciphering how to relay that to a different cultural audience. And for all that work, they tend to get very little recognition. Arguably, this is as it should be. The author should be first and foremost recognized for their work, but I can’t help but to think about how the work would never have been available to so many people without the translator.
Living in the shadows never bothered Emma, in fact, it seemed to suit her—it was her way to disappear. But now, that’s not good enough. She’s coming into her own, even begins taking notes on their progress towards finding the author, which at some point turns into her own creative writing. She’s overwriting her disappearance, creating herself anew. In a way, Beatriz’s escape act is the impetus that forces Emma to jumpstart her life.
All this is not to say that translation is not a worthwhile career path, but for the purposes of this book, translation is the shroud that Emma hides behind, allowing it to make her invisible and her life to go on around her seemingly without needing any guidance from her.
One other interesting feature I want to mention are these definition pages that are scattered throughout the text. They take a word from the last sentence of the previous chapter and define it or explain its root as a dictionary would, but then the definition is taken even further to surround the context of the current situation. The best way to explain this is with an example:
Between: Preposition. 1. By the common act of <between the two of them> but also used to designate a difference, a setting apart <between an author and her son>. 2. Used to indicate an interval <between a brief tunnel in Rio and the distant Pittsburgh of one’s cats> (67)
I think these moments are happening inside Emma’s mind, as though her inner translator is taking over and trying to organize and put a box around her experiences—to translate and make sense of them, as it were. They are simply beautiful and make me as a reader so aware of every word on the page—that every word holds more meaning than is at the surface level if you’re willing to unpack it.
Throw in some romance, crazy, obese loan sharks, mysterious letters from literary characters, and Chekov’s gun, and you’ve got one hell of a story. Will Beatriz turn up? And why did she really leave in the first place?
This is a truly beautiful little debut novel. I can’t wait to see what’s next from this talented author.
Get your copy of Ways to Disappear
Find out more about Idra Novey
Connect with the publisher: Little, Brown (Hachette)
I’ve started off the year with an exceptionally strong crop of books and Alexandra Kleeman’s debut novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine did not let me down in that respect. Also, grab me a Krispy Kreme, ‘cause this book made me HUNGRY!
Beyond calling this literary fiction, it’s a strangely unclassifiable novel, and yes, it is a novel, just in case you were misled by the title into thinking it was just another déclassé motivational workout guidebook by some celebrity with an awesome bod that you’ll obviously never imitate. It couldn’t be further from that, but we’ll get there, hold on a minute!
Even Amazon had trouble with this categorization (though I don’t know how they go about choosing these categories. Hopefully not based on their customer’s input, that’s all I can say…) putting it, a bit laughably in my opinion, in the “psychological thriller” category. Amazon UK is better, but still off the mark, calling it “Women’s Literary Fiction” which is perhaps a discussion best left for another day. Take that, Amazon analytical data, though people browsing for this ‘type’ of book might have a bit of trouble doing so.
Main character A has a best friend and roommate B and a boyfriend C. Her life seems pretty stable but as we learn more about her, she becomes unglued—B is basically her double and is looking and acting more like her everyday. C is more interested in TV and the breaking point of their relationship ends up being a dating reality show called That’s My Partner! that A dislikes and vows that she’d never be a participant on. The book is broken into three sections which chronicle A’s journey to find herself, or find the people who used to live across the street, or find Kandy Kakes. What is it that A really wants? I'm still not sure I know.
One of A’s constant worries in the first section of the book is how similar she is to B. They look very similar, everyone says they are the same person, in fact, A seems to be the only person that can’t see it. A is almost suspicious, worried that B is jealous and wants to take over her life, but all I saw was A slowly destroying herself. It was as though throughout the first two sections, B is finding herself and becoming more like A, A is devolving and almost becoming more like B used to be—only eating popsicles, avoiding going out, and eventually stalking her boyfriend obsessively, even though she never seemed that attached to him in the first place.
Obviously body image plays into this book, but it wasn't in the obvious ways that I expected. A is starving herself—ghosting herself—long before the third section of the book that I won’t give away here, but is it an attempt to erase herself from her life? To stop participating? To differentiate herself from the other consumers around her? Bodies also felt very alienated in this book, always being divided or looked at only as parts of the whole.
Take the game show, That’s My Partner! In the first round, couples are asked to identify their loved one based on magnified features—one eye, one shoulder, one kneecap, stuff like that. Would you recognize your boyfriend based on photos of men’s elbows? Your wife? Your child? You think now that of course you could, right? But give it a moment. We rely so much on faces and the whole of the person—could you really recognize just that one little part detached from the rest? And what if you were sure and you picked someone else’s ankle? How would that feel? How would your fiancé feel knowing you hadn't chosen the photo of her earlobe? How well do we really know the people who we think we know so intimately, and how well can you possibly know someone? Would you even recognize your own body parts out of the lineup? I think that would be the real challenge.
So then you have to think about how well you know your own body, which is a stand in for the entirety of your being. I just start wondering, who am I, really?
And we haven’t even gotten to Wally’s (the grocery store that is purposefully unhelpful to its patrons to make them buy more) or the Kandy Kakes or the veal or the disappearing dads or the cults yet! I’ll probably leave some of that for you to sort out on your own.
There is a very Kafkaesque feel to the structure and characters of this book. They are all at once very aware of the state of the world around them and then completely lost in it and totally invisible to themselves at the same time. People (not critics—who generally loved this book) who criticized this book tended to do so on the (thin, in my opinion) basis of the verbosity of the language that they felt was overwritten, or the plot that they felt strung along into nothing, or some version of frustration or confusion at the characters lack of action. Man oh man, I wish I could write each and every one of those people a personal letter to help them understand and talk them through the value and purpose and intention that I saw in all that, though I guess there are some people that are just bound to not get it. One man’s cut of veal is not for everyone, I suppose.
But I felt that all of those aforementioned elements are such a Kafka throwback. Kafka is a very tight writer, no words wasted, but he certainly can get you tangled in his sentences and in his, at times, extremely frustrating plots and strange character motivations, but these elements only further his purpose and this book reminded me especially of The Trial. In that narrative, poor Josef K. is just trying to understand the system even as it is constantly changing around him and eventually he realizes that the only way out is to give in and accept the structure and the full weight of the consequences, even though he should be blameless. A is going through her own sort of trial, one placed on her by herself, though I would argue by way of society’s media infiltration, and she does the same thing—realizes the only way out is in. Whether or not she’s right is the rest of the story.
Lastly, I'll bring up the motif of Kandy Kakes, these nasty sounding cake snacks that come up over and over again throughout the book. I pictured them sort of like those Hostess chocolate cupcakes with the white icing twirled down the middle—ugh—they sound so gross. My mother never let me have snacks like that and I can’t say I ever wanted them (thanks, mom!). When the nuclear apocalypse comes, my bet for the last surviving remnants on Earth: cockroaches and Twinkies.
In any case, Kandy Kakes are important to A first because their commercials feature a very sad and deprived Kandy Kat, who, in Wile E. Coyote fashion, concocts crazy schemes to feed his starving belly with Kakes. But the sentient Kakes always outsmart him or are somehow incompatible with his 2D cartoon body. It is mildly distressing for A and strangely makes her crave Kandy Kakes. I think she is taking on the Kat as a persona of sorts, perhaps just to have something to chase after—she wants to have something to want that badly. The Kakes come to serve a more diabolical purpose later on, but to whet your whistle, how can you argue with logic like this:
"With a product like Kandy Kakes, the ingredients are spelled out for you on the wrapper—every part accounted for, its caloric and nutritional content tabulated. But what sorts of ingredients went into a piece of fruit? An orange wasn't a type of food so much as another entity, looking out for its own interests, secretive and sealed, hiding its insides from the outside world” (139).
This novel is a smorgasbord of literary deprivation and starvation. I couldn't get enough.
Kleeman has such interesting ideas and this was only her debut novel! I can’t wait to see where she’ll go from here.
Get your copy (out in paperback on April 28, 2016):
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine
Brush up on Kafka: The Trial
Find out more about Alexandra Kleeman:
Find out more about the publisher, Harper Books (HarperCollins)
This interesting, thoughtful, layered book is a perceptive and incisive look at modern times, relationships, military clinical trials, dysfunctional families along with being an exceptionally delightful book to read.
It begins with a quirky engagement between Paul Vreeland and Veblen Amundsen-Hovda—and though the book centers around their impending nuptials, it really couldn’t be less about the wedding. McKenzie is a truly skilled writer, bringing in a wide array of elements: from a social critique of the medical trial world and bigwig Pharma companies, to a more human-drama look at dealing with dysfunctional families and learning what it takes to accept yourself as part of one of those families.
Paul and Veblen are an interesting couple, to say the least. Veblen (named for real-life economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen, who is basically a character in this book in his own right,) is content with her life, modest though it may be. She lives in a small cottage and considers herself a “freelance self,” doing amateur Norwegian translation projects and some administrative work at Stanford, which is where she happens to meet Paul, a doctor researching traumatic brain injury. Paul has greater ambitions though, his sights set on a higher, more materialistic kind of lifestyle and he jumps at the chance to take his potentially lifesaving prototype to clinical trials when he gets scouted by the pharmaceutical company Hutmacher.
In alternating chapters we follow Veblen as she realizes that she can’t just ride along the waves of life anymore; there’s a future ahead of her that she has to make decisions about and plan for. Then, we follow Paul as he tries to climb the ladder of corporate America only to find that he’s spiraling downwards, losing touch with his ideals that he’s almost forgotten he cares about.
Things are further complicated by each of their families. Without getting into it too much: Veblen’s mother is a hypochondriac who is probably also bipolar, her father has severe PTSD and is now institutionalized, Paul’s parents led a freewheeling, drug-induced hippie lifestyle that led to poor parenting, and he has a mentally challenged older brother named Justin. It’s a bit much. I can honestly say I’m glad I didn’t grow up in either one of their families.
If you’ve looked into this book at all yet, or even just looked at the cover, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “What’s up with the squirrels?” Before I read it, I thought this book was overflowing with talking squirrels from the way people wrote about it in reviews. That is NOT AT ALL what is going on here! I bring up these tree-dwelling critters not to say how cute and fluffy they are (honestly, squirrels have black, depthless eyes that scare me a bit) but rather to go deeper. The squirrels are an important window into Veblen’s state of mind. As the book goes on and her anxiety over her mother’s issues, whether she should marry Paul or not, and the future in general begin to gnaw at her, she turns to the squirrels that seem to overrun her Palo Alto neighborhood more and more, telling them all about her problems and seeing answers in the twitch of their tails or the way they seem to watch and chatter at her. To me, this felt like a reversion to her childhood state of fantasy, which was probably a sort of defense mechanism to get away from her overbearing and manipulative mother. Not only does she have that to contend with, but as her mother likes to mention and then apologize for, her father has passed on genes that might make Veblen at risk for mental illness. What is really going on in Veblen's mind? Is she on the brink of some sort of breakdown? The light, frivolity of the language in this book does not downplay its darker moments—and it sure does have them. The potential for our parents to inflict some sort of lasting damage upon us is strong and in this book it’s almost like the characters never had a chance. Rising above the mistakes of their parents is one thing. Fixing their own mistakes is a whole 'nother story.
While Veblen grew up tending to her mother and explaining her erratic behavior to other people, she was loved and cared for, though I wouldn’t say she was given every opportunity in life. She is definitely an optimist though and has found a way to be happy with her status quo. The only problem is that Paul has introduced change and forward movement and she doesn’t quite know how to reconcile that. It’s like finishing the puzzle and then finding an extra piece that doesn't fit anywhere.
Paul forged his own way in life, no thanks to his parents, who were either too busy with their lifestyle or later, too busy with Justin to have time for Paul. He’s determined to create a better, more stable and ordered life for himself now that he’s in charge of it. The exploration of the clinical trial world and the industry of military medicine is a really interesting part of this book and among other social arguments, it seems to point at the classic gender divide: Paul is worried about corporate concerns, climbing the ladder, making a name for himself professionally, bringing home the bacon, so to speak. Veblen seems to be more concerned with family matters, like her mom and dad, and is especially in tune with her natural surroundings, even at ease with the squirrel living in her attic. McKenzie proves to be more crafty than gender norms though, digging deep into the roots of each character’s respective childhoods and showing how they are in fact quite the opposite.
Paul may have resented his free-wheeling upbringing, but several incidents in his childhood cause him to have a strong moral compass which might come in handy against big pharmaceutical companies and their lack of ethical boundaries. And Veblen at her core firmly aligns with the philosophy of Thorstein himself, his criticism of capitalism and what he termed “conspicuous consumption.” You won’t find this forced down your throat in any difficult way, instead there are witty but almost throwaway remarks about the wording of advertisements and Veblen thinks agitatedly to herself about the misunderstood nature of her namesake.
This book is so beautifully written, you’ll forget that McKenzie is cramming so many themes and ideas into your head. You probably won’t even notice they’re there until you realize you’re thinking about them! The mark of a truly great writer is one that can whip up a good story, while at the same time giving you something interesting to think about, something that might enhance your worldview or, if you really get a good one, even change it.
Find out more about Elizabeth McKenzie:
Get your copy here:
THE PORTABLE VEBLEN
Find out more about the publisher, Penguin Press (Penguin Random House)
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.