The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist.

Before I start into this book, I have to warn you — if you haven’t yet read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and you want to, click away from this page.  I’m not trying to pull a Lemony Snicket here; I just don’t want to ruin the novel because it may be impossible for me to discuss The Unit without giving away key points in Ishiguro’s work.

Last chance…

No?

Here I go.

Dorritt Weger, a freelance writer and novelist, has no responsibilities aside from taking care of herself and her dog.  She has little contact with her family, no spouse, and — most importantly — no children.  Parents holding jobs that contribute to the economy are considered assets to society, while Dorritt, on her fiftieth birthday, has become “dispensable.”

In Ninni Homlqvist’s eerie Sweden, turning fifty is the end of the line for most women, which is why Dorritt has packed her life into a bag, given away her beloved dog and allowed herself to be taken to the Second Reserve Bank Unit for Biological Material.  There, she will live in relative luxury in her fully-furnished apartment, select from a smörgåsbord* of catered meals, take as many items out of the library as she wants, use the state-of-the-art fitness facilities, shop at high-end boutiques, relax in a garden carefully cultivated to resemble Giverny and have unlimited access to the arts — all for free.  In exchange, all she has to do is finally contribute to the community and to do her duty as a dispensable: participate in drug trials, be a guinea pig in psychological experiments and donate her organs to more-valued people.

What’s creepily interesting about The Unit is that the case of the missing fifty-year-old women isn’t a mystery, it’s law — and a well-established one at that.  Men, lucky for them, aren’t collected and deposited into units until their sixtieth birthday, as they generally are still able to father children up to that age.  Dorritt and her contemporaries have had most of their adult lives to find spouses, be employed in socially-significant positions and have babies, so of course the question is, Why haven’t they?

Dorritt, to her credit, has tried — kind of.  Her long-time lover refuses to leave his spouse, but that’s the most of her efforts to sidestep legalities.  She says herself, “I still regarded the future with optimism.  I still believed and hoped that it wasn’t too late to have a child.  Or to at least start earning money from my profession and become financially secure, or find a partner, someone who would love me and want to live with me.  Almost to the very end I had hopes…”

And so she arrives at the Unit, where Dorritt finally finds herself in the company of people just like her — artists, authors, musicians… all dispensable, and all of whom are incredibly candid about their future.  When Dorritt makes her first “donation,” a kidney, she and the other dispensables literally compare scars.  There’s no childish glee in this, no matter how childish the act — I want to be absolutely clear.  Part of what makes The Unit so irresistable is what Ms. Holmqvist does with Dorritt’s first person narration.  She makes her protagonist completely honest: Dorritt discusses her regrets, her unabashed love for her dog, her reactions to watching her friends go into the operating room, all with unwavering frankness.

This candidness also applies when Dorritt, for the first time in her life, falls in love with a fellow dispensable.  Of course, it’s obvious that this relationship is not going to last; there’s no special treatment awarded to senior citizens who have suddenly found their perfect partners, which is what makes it all so much more bittersweet.

Like Mr. Ishiguro, Ms. Holmqvist tackles dark and heavy topics (often the same ones) and still creates an atmosphere that is not desolate.  There are moments of what even might be called happiness, though, obviously, they don’t last.  What does, however, is a sense of awaiting the inevitable — which brings me to the other reason why I found The Unit irresistable: the reader knows exactly what is going to happen, and yet he or she is still kept waiting, fists clenched and breath held.  Mr. Ishiguro accomplishes something similar, but does so while leaving the reader questioning what really is taking place beyond the narrator’s scope in Never Let Me Go.  Ms. Holmqvist, on the other hand, shows her hand from practically page one and achieves the same effect.  If that’s not compelling, I don’t know what is.

There’s so much more that I could discuss with you about The Unit, but as just as I said when I wrote about Never Let Me Go, it’s impossible to address without giving away the surprises that Ms. Holmqvist has waiting.  So pick up a copy of the book and get back to me when you’ve finished reading it.  I’ve got so much to say.

* Get it?  Because it’s a Swedish book? I’m so clever.
psychological

Very Fine Design.

Ben and I have been friends for almost thirteen years now, and so we know each other pretty well.  When he sent me an email recently with nothing in its body but a link, I knew it would be directing me to something good.

I was so right.

Graphic artist M.S. Corley “redid” both J.K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter books and Lemony Snicket‘s A Series of Unfortunate Events in the style of Penguin paperbacks of the 1960s.  I think they’re tons of fun, and so well designed that I kind of wish they were real.

Actually, I really wish they were real.

corley

You can see the rest of the Harry Potters here, and the rest of the Snickets here.  For a similar film-related project, check out the “I Can Read Movies” series at Spacesick.

A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket.

the-bad-beginningI don’t know if you’ve been able to tell based solely on what I’ve written here thus far, but I’m a pretty sarcastic gal.  Depending on which of my friends you speak with, you might even hear the word snarky used to describe me — that I cannot confirm or deny.

If there are any of you out there who share my fondness of the sardonic, pick up a book or two from Lemony Snicket‘s “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”  Its run is full of shyly satirical phrases, sentences and paragraphs (more on those in a bit).  Oh, and in case the series’ name isn’t a dead giveaway to its themes, let me be blunt.  These books deal with the unlucky, so much so that there are thirteen of them — The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, The Miserable Mill, The Austere AcademyThe Ersatz Elevator, The Vile Village, The Hostile Hospital, The Carnivorous Carnival, The Slippery Slope, The Grim Grotto, The Penultimate Peril, and, of course, The End.  (I find it incredibly funny and interesting that the last book I read in 2008 was The End.  I am not making this up.)

The series tells the story of the three Baudelaire children — Violet, aged fourteen; Klaus, aged twelve; and Sunny, a baby — who the reader quickly learn are in for an extremely odd sequence of events.  The first thing they have to endure, however, is tragedy in the form of their parents’ death and the destruction of their home.  The two circumstances, aside from being terrible, happen to also be simultaneous, as Mr. and Mrs. Baudelaire are killed when their grand and glorious house burns down to the ground.

the-ersatz-elevator1The children, now orphans, are sent to live with a distant relative by the name of Count Olaf.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that chaos then ensues.  Judge for yourself; here’s an brief list of what Violet, Klaus and Sunny encounter during books one through thirteen:

  • the author’s siblings;
  • blind leeches with a keen sense of smell and a bottomless hunger;
  • green cigarettes;
  • a hunchback, a contortionist and an ambidextrous man;
  • made-up medical procedures;
  • a misnomer-loving herpetologist;
  • questionable fashion choices;
  • territorial crabs; and
  • the letters V.F.D.

Intriguing as I’m sure that all sounds, I can’t go into greater detail without giving away too much of the thirteen books’ plots.  What I can tell you is this:

Each Baudelaire has a very specific interest or hobby — Violet is an inventor, Klaus an avid reader, and Sunny is first a lover of biting things, then a fan of cooking when she gets older — that comes in handy several times during the course of each book.

the-vile-villageCount Olaf is a master of disguise, or at least thinks he is.  He is also not what he seems, and I don’t mean that in the sense that a disguise is an illusion and therefore hiding what is real versus what is imagined.  Olaf is not what he seems because, in the end (and in The End, come to think of it) the reader sees a phenomenally different side of him, albeit briefly.

Most characters, even the ones who are secondary, have names that are either  based in literature or are anagrams of those names.  Though I couldn’t keep track of them all, I still found it fascinating that the author could.

Speaking of both the author and things that are fascinating, what I found the most interesting about these books — from a writing perspective, anyway — is Lemony Snicket’s inclusion of himself in the story.  He tells the Baudelaires’ story as if it were true, and repeatedly informs the reader how he has pieced together the children’s tale over time.  He also sprinkles throughout the pages of each book deprecating anecdotes about himself (“Overall the shack was too miserable to serve as a storage space for old banana peels, let alone as a home for three young people, and I confess that if I had been told that it was my home I probably would have lain on the bales of hay and thrown a temper tantrum” — The Austere Academy.) as well as warnings for the reader to put the book down, abandon the series and flee.

the-hostile-hospitalThis is one of my favorites, from The Grim Grotto; here Lemony Snicket seems to  babble meanderingly only to quickly drive his point home, something he does quite often and with surprising success:

After a great deal of time examining oceans, investigating rainstorms, and staring very hard at several drinking fountains, the scientists of the world developed a theory regarding how water is distributed around our planet, which they have named “the water cycle.”  The water cycle consists of three key phenomena — evaporation, precipitation, and collection — and all of them are equally boring.

Of course, it is boring to read about boring things, but it is better to read something that makes you yawn with boredom than something that will make you weep uncontrollably, pound your fists against the floor, and leave tearstains all over your pillowcase, sheet, and boomerang collection.  Like the water cycle, the tale of the Baudelaire children consists of three key phenomena, but rather than read their sorry tale it would be best if you read something about the water cycle instead.

He then goes on to compare each Baudelaire to each stage of the water cycle.

the-endFor me, the absolute best part of the series, I regretfully say, is not the childrens’ story.  In fact, it’s not even the children; while they do grow and change and even age during the thirteen books, how truly compelling can a teenaged MacGyver, a human library and a toddling chef be?  No, what kept me reading was the the writing, as I’m sure you can guess.  Sometimes, Lemony Snicket is just plain silly (“Having an aura of menace is like having a pet weasel, because you rarely meet someone who has one, and when you do it makes you want to hide under the coffee table” — The Slippery Slope.) but there are also portions where he is tender and insightful.  Very early in the series a friend of the Baudelaires dies, which comes as a great shock.  In The Reptile Room, Lemony Snicket writes:

We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.

I know that as you read those words, you immediately thought of the last time you experienced that exact feeling and the brief flash of uncertainty that undoubtedly flitted across your mind at that moment.  This is precisely the power the author wields, though it should be noted that “Lemony Snicket” is a pen name, not that it matters.  What matters is squeezed between the bizarre and the absurd, the irony and the wit: it’s the words that hold it all together.

The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry.

A few weeks ago, while I waited on my coffee order at Porter Square Books, I did what I always do — wander around and pick up whatever seems interesting. In this instance, it was Lois Lowry‘s latest book, The Willoughbys. Even if I wasn’t such a Lowry fan, I know I would have been drawn to this cover; with its black-and-white swirls and flourishes and that single eye-catching red door, how could anyone resist? I really like this sort of aesthetic for books (it’s almost like a cheery Gorey, no?) and I love dust jackets with cut-outs, as the case is here. (The book itself is crimson. In the hardcover, anyway.)

As I was debating as to whether or not to buy the book right then (I didn’t; I bought it later.) I couldn’t help but overhear this conversation between two mothers:

Mom 1: Maybe I’ll get this for [insert child’s name here].
Mom 2: Oh, I love Lois Lowry. What’s this one about? [flips book over and reads excerpt from back cover] Oh, this is horrible!
Mom 1: What? What is it?
Mom 2: It’s a book about killing your parents!
Mom 1: What?! I don’t want [insert child’s name here] reading a book like that!

This went on for several more minutes.

The Willoughbys is indeed about children killing their parents (or children wishing they were orphans). To be fair, it’s also about parents killing their children (or parents wishing they were childless). However, it is, most importantly, a satire. Of course Lowry isn’t providing a manual on how to off parents, just like she isn’t condoning infanticide and euthanasia in The Giver. (Her Newbury Medal winning novel is ranked at number fourteen on the American Library Association‘s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000.)

More than anything, The Willoughbys is a kind of love letter to the children’s books of yore, albeit one that cheekily and simultaneously pokes fun at the genre. Lowry’s characters allude to “old-fashioned people” and frequently site classic children’s novels like James and the Giant Peach and Anne of Green Gables. There’s a great deal of humor thrown in as well, like a character’s version of German (“Mein meusli ist dischgusting. It makesch me vant to womit.”) and the Lemony-Snicket-y glossary at the back of the book.

I thought The Willoughbys was a whole lot of fun, as well as refreshing. I am someone deeply in awe of those who take risks, and this book is certainly a departure from the rest of Lowry’s bibliography. That, I suppose, is something else to be in awe of, as Lowry’s written over thirty books spanning multiple genres — a feat I could only dream of accomplishing myself.