Review: Hot Little Hands by Abigail Ulman


This collection of short stories are about break-ups that last longer than relationships; about sexual encounters, both real and imagined; about stumbling on the fringes of innocence and the marks desire can leave. About a desperate longing for maturity – and what happens when you finally attain it.

This review contains spoilers.

Jewish History: 4.5/5 stars

This was such a phenomenal story to begin with. Damn, I feel so emotional right now because of it.

This short story follows Anya, a Melbourne student in a Jewish school. We start out in Jewish History where the teacher (Mrs. Kansky) requests from her students – for Yom HaShoah – to interview any survivors in their family, or find out what happened to them if they’re dead now, and tell the story to the class.

The stories the students told really, really resonated with me. And also the characters felt so incredibly realistic.

There’s this one scene in particular where the writer perfectly describes how I felt sometimes during class:

“Anya,” she says again, her hand on my arm now, her bracelet cool against my skin. “This story is from more recent years. That’s not what we’re discussing this term.” Her voice is quiet and she’s looking right into my eyes. “Maybe you can tell it later in the year, but I think right now you should go and sit down.”
So I do. There is nothing else to do so I go back to my seat and put my hands on my desk and stare at them. Yulia passes me a note but I don’t feel like reading it. I leave it there, folded up next to my pencil case. And though the class continues, I hear nothing for the rest of the lesson but a low humming noise in my ears, like an airplane stuck in midair.”

Yes, yes, yes for that last sentence. So many things the writer mentioned had happened in my own classroom, and I’m just internally grateful for having read this story.

It may be short, but it speaks volumes. I feel truly sad knowing that not many like it exist. I mean, I seriously needed to take a breather after reading this phenomenon (mostly to rave about it to my mother… who was super impressed by it, too).

And… how have I gone so long without it in my life??

P.S. Bradley Ruben is a dickhead for what he did.

Chagall’s Wife: 3/5 stars

14-year-old Sascha happens to stumble into her boring old science teacher, Mr. Ackerman, at a café. From there on they decide to go to a number of places and talk, and then… she tries to win him over or is it vice versa??

Honestly, this story just made me uncomfortable. I really don’t like relationships where one side is majorly younger than the other. Also, in this case her wanting her science teacher made me cringe. I personally disliked all of my science teachers, so I couldn’t really understand why she felt the need to connect with him. Also, trying to imagine my own science teachers in Mr. Ackerman’s place made me sick to my stomach.

However, the writing was incredibly beautiful and specific… which is my favorite kind of writing:

“Our silence was long and expectant, like the minutes between the snooze button and the return of the alarm.”

The Withdrawal Method: 4/5 stars

“Being unexpectedly pregnant is like learning that someone you love has died. You remember, then you forget, then all of a sudden it dawns on you again. ”

This follow Claire’s decision to terminate her pregnancy. And though the story was short, it managed to encompass a lot of well-developed characters, some I liked (Claire) some I didn’t (Luke). .
Speaking of… Luke’s the clingy and obsessive asshole that got her pregnant by using the “the withdrawal method” and whenever he talked, I just kept wondering:

But I know a story is great when it manages to make me hate someone in less than 50 pages. And that it did.

And just when I was starting to get convinced that most of the men in her life were douches, we meet Anton who was pretty cool, if I do say so myself.

“So I was reading up about this abortion stuff. And there’s this website run by a really nice woman in Georgia called Loretta who’ll pay for a girl like me to have an ultrasound of my baby. Just to help me make the decision.”
“That’s sweet of her,” he says in a croaky voice. He has sleep goop caught in the corners of both eyes.
“So I was wondering if you’re interested in a road trip?”
He stares at me and yawns at the same time. “Are you serious?”
“No. Actually, I need someone to pick me up from the clinic tomorrow. I’m not allowed to leave by myself. I guess I was wondering—”
He looks like he doesn’t want to do it. But then he says he’ll do it.
“Thank you,” I say. “You’re the only person I know who wouldn’t judge me, or try to sleep with me, or tell me to keep the baby.”
“Jesus,” he says. “I can’t wait to meet your friends.”
And I can’t help it: The future reference makes me happy. “Do you want to go get a coffee or something?” I ask him.
“No,” he says. “I’m going back to bed.”

I don’t know if Claire and Anton will end up being more than just friends, but I liked that it ended on a hopeful note.

Warm-Ups: 3.5/5 stars

13-year-old Kira is a gymnast that receives the opportunity to visit America and perform on the balance beam with 3 other girls from her group. It was her lucky break.

When they arrive in America, however, something goes seriously wrong, and I still don’t get it.

“Sometime before dawn, I realize that I don’t have a picture of Coach Zhukov. I decide it’s the first thing I’ll make him do when he comes to find us.
“Smile for the camera,” I’ll say, capturing him in my viewfinder. “And I won’t tell my parents about what went wrong.”

I seriously need to know what happened. Where was Coach Zhukov and his assistant??

But on a completely unrelated note, there’s this one part that perfectly managed to encompass one of my most pressing thoughts:

“This is the weird thing—I can clearly imagine anyone’s face, except if it’s a boy who has a crush on me. Once somebody has saved me a seat in English class, or teased me in a way that means he likes me, I can’t keep his image in my head for a second. I can remember pieces of him—the color of his eyes, or a shirt he wore—but I can’t create a whole picture from those parts.”

Like, this is such a specific feeling that I had no idea anybody else could capture so well in writing. YES.

Same Old Same As: 3/5 stars

“Dr. Carvden had been using the word abuse for months before Ramona said it for the first time.
“It just makes me feel gross,” Ramona told her. “Like I’m damaged goods.”
“You’re not the damaged one,” the therapist said. “You’re someone else’s victim. This isn’t your shameful secret, it’s his.”

This offers a point of view on the aftermaths of abuse that I hand’t read about before. It’s different because once the girls at Ramona’s school find out, they offer her non-stop support and sympathy –  which Ramona is stoked about… She feels excited that she’s the centre of attention at their school (?)

“But what she saw there was not what she had expected; what she saw was not a teacher coming to bust girls using mobile phones on school grounds, but a group of six or seven girls with Kirsty at its center, and in Kirsty’s hands a cupcake covered in pink icing with a fat red candle sticking out the top.
“We just wanted you to know we’re thinking about you,” Kirsty said.
“Yeah,” said Amber, her curls nodding in concurrence. The bell rang for the end of lunch but none of the girls moved.
“And we know it’s not your birthday or anything,” said Kirsty, “but we thought you might want to make a wish. For the start of a new life without anything weird or, you know, gross in it.”

Some things get messed up along the way, and I didn’t like how both her therapist and mother handled the situation; I don’t find that they had Ramona’s best interest at hand.

“Am I in trouble?”
“Honestly? I haven’t got a clue what to do with you anymore. You’ve put me in a terrible position. Do you realize that? Now whenever I come back here, for parent–teacher or sports day or to pick you up, all the other parents and teachers are going to be staring at me like I’m a terrible mother. Like I’m married to some kind of monster, instead of to sweet old Tony, who’s working nonstop to help me pay for everything and raise you kids. Do you understand?”
“I wouldn’t worry about it. In, like, two weeks, no one will even remember any of this happened.”
“I hope not.”

The ending of the story, however, left me feeling a bit confused. It ends with her joining her family to watch tv, and Ramona’s also thinking of quitting therapy because she’s “cured” now…


The Pretty One3/5 stars

The narrator in this one was actually really surprising because it was Claire from the previous story: “The Withdrawal Method.” We left her on a pretty open ended note, so I loved getting back into her head.

But I realized very soon that she had changed a lot… and not to my liking.

In this story Claire’s obsessing over this barely legally aged kid named Sylus (aka “the pretty one”). She starts acting really out of character and I kept thinking, “Is this really Claire?”
And it really was her… because we got to have some closure on whether she had the abortion or not.

“Did I cry last night?” I ask him that night over tacos and horchata.
“Yeah, you were missing your family. And then you said you were scared about what’s gonna happen after you finish your PhD. And then you cried about your ex, and how horrible the breakup was.”
“Well, I guess we covered all bases in one go,” I say, scraping the jicama to the edge of my plate.
“And you, uh, you told me about the abortion,” he says, looking at me and lowering his voice. “I was sorry to hear about that. I cried a bit then, too.”

I just… I found it creepy seeing her pine over some 19-year-old kid when she herself is almost 30.

But when she hangs out with his friends, she realizes just how different she and Sy are.

“The girls are all talking about Gay Pride, and how it’s gonna be awesome, and they hear there’s lots of nudity, and should they go to the park or watch the parade downtown?
“Hey, they should also have a gay shame parade,” I say. “Where gay people dress up like they’re trying to pass as straight, and everyone else stands on the sidelines dressed like “disapproving parents, shaking their heads.”
They all stop smiling and just look at me. I can actually see chewing gum stuck in a clump to one girl’s molar.
“She’s joking,” Sy says from the floor, and everyone relaxes a little.”

So, remind me again why she thought that was a good idea to say out in the open?

And I could not for the life in me get why Sy and her stayed together for so long… especially when she started acting a little paranoid.

“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Just getting some fresh air.”
“Where did that girl go?”
“What girl? Oh, I don’t know. I guess she went home.”
“Did you make out with her?”
He looks at me like I’m crazy. “No,” he says.
“I don’t care if you did,” I tell him. “Just be honest about it.”
“I didn’t do anything with her. I’m in love with this other lady.”
“I don’t believe you. And I don’t even care. You can do whatever you want.”

And their relationship made me even more uncomfortable when this happened multiple times.

But they did break it off towards the end, which made me feel (shamefully) really relieved.

Head to Toe: 3/5 stars

This follows two best friends named Elise and Jenni. They used to party hardcore, but now they’re feeling a bit blue… so they mostly hang out at home.

After awhile of this, Elise randomly decides to go to horse camp with Jenni. They arrive at the camp and share their cabin with three other girls… all 11 years-old.

Though not a lot happened, my favorite moment was when they returned late at night to their cabin to find the other girls in a quarrel because of a “game” called Secret Swaps.

“Dude,” whispered Jenni. “I’m so glad I’m not eleven anymore.”
“I know,” Elise whispered back. “It’s the worst. Everything’s so confusing and, like, no one has their shit together.”
“Did you really look at her vag?”
“Yeah. She was freaking out that something’s wrong with her. She just flashed it really fast.”
“And it was fine?”
“Yeah, completely fine. I wish I had that amount of hair.”
“How does that make me a perv!”
“I dunno. But it definitely does.”
“I hope they’re asleep when we go out.”
“I know, I can’t take much more of their dramz.”

When they head back home, Jenni and Elise slowly return to their old party habits. But… it was never revealed why they were so out of it at the beginning of the story, and I would love to know the reason.

And lastly, I cannot leave without mentioning that one scene where Zack and Elise were doing it upstairs because damn, it made me cringe so badly.
All I can say is that he definitely watched too much porn for his own well-being. I mean, not only was the sex really, really awkward, but what he said afterwards scarred me.

“How does it feel right now?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. Vaginally, emotionally, whatever.”
“You should go to the toilet.”
“What?” Elise laughed.
“I don’t know. It’s good for girls to go straight after. It stops you from getting an infection or something.”
“Okay,” she said.”

It’s not even what he said, it’s just how he said it… He seriously gave me the creeps.

The only way I can convey the awkwardness and discomfort I felt is through this vine:

Like, I can’t sleep because of the continued disgust I have for Zack.

Plus One: 2.5/5 stars

22-year-old Amelia is a “wunderkind blogger-turned-author-turned-mother-to-be” and also the queen of procrastination. I mean, she literally decided to get pregnant because she couldn’t finish her essay collection.

“She got pregnant with a gay friend, and waited six weeks to make sure it was actually happening. Then she emailed her agent. It’s going to take me longer than expected, she wrote, even though it had already taken longer than expected and her last email, with the subject line Any day now…, had been sent four months ago. It’s early still and I probably shouldn’t say anything but—I can’t help it. I’m pregnant.”

The film Blue Valentine is to blame for starting all this. And her rushed decision making manages to upset quite a few members of her family.

“No one in her mother’s family had had a son for as many generations as could be remembered. It had been girls all the way until now, and the other Banks women were taking this hard, considering it a sign that the baby was an aberration and a mistake.”

But the more I got into the story, the more I realized how Amelia’s problems didn’t really feel like problems – it read mostly like #whitepeopleproblems, which I’m really not interested in.

“But why did I do this? It’s like I’m nothing now.”
“I think—” Her mom went quiet. Amelia stopped crying and tried to slow her breathing. She waited to hear what her mom thought. “I think you just wanted to keep busy and feel involved. And not writing the book made you feel futile. That part was the suicide. So you just did this big new thing. That’s what I think. And I think you’re going to be great at it.”
“You do?” Amelia said, looking up at her mom.
“Sure,” her mom said. “Better than me, anyway. I had no idea what I was doing. Still don’t.”

I’m honestly still baffled by the fact that she’s responsible to keep a tiny human alive.

Your Charm Won’t Help You Here4.5/5 stars

On her way back from Turkey, Claire gets stuck at immigration. And yes, it’s the same Claire from the previous short stories…

“I am completely blindsided when he tells me the interview is over and I will not be going on to San Francisco, that I will be on this evening’s flight back to Istanbul, or I will be going to jail.
“But I have a visa.”
“We just canceled your visa.”
“Because you have an intent to immigrate.”

Damn, I never realized just how messed up the TSA is in America. I mean, Claire’s getting deported because they think she’s trying to immigrate to their country.

“If I were Nicolas Cage I’d be elbowing someone in the jaw right now, but I’m me, so I cry tears onto my feet and watch them sink into my shoes.”

The whole situation is honestly terrifying. Like, two days ago she was having the time of her life and now she’s in some cell waiting for God only knows what.

“I think about my American friends and wonder if I’ll ever get to see them again. I think about them and I wonder if it’s possible to be a patriot of a country that isn’t yours. Not an intent-to-immigrate-type patriot. Just, like, a spectator on the sidelines, eating cotton candy and waving at the big parade.”

The only positive, since it’s been 3 years after the last time we were in her head, was seeing her changed and matured a bit (she even quit smoking cigarettes).

This short story really managed to capture all the horrors Claire went through in such a realistic way that I now feel even more terrified of airports… I mean, almost all the officers treated Claire like complete crap.

And I even got a little emotional for some reason when she started telling the reader what will happen in a week, month, year from now.

“Six weeks from now, I’ll be camped out on the sofa bed at my parents’ place, surrounded by my suitcase and all my stuff, staying up late at night to talk to my American friends online. Telling them to come visit me and not believing them when they say they will. Asking Lars to forgive me so we can get the band back together. And when I finally tell them all the story of how I got deported, they’ll laugh at how scared I was for them to know. “What did you think we’d say?” my friend Amanda will ask. “Everyone knows the system’s broken.”

The whole situation was just so broken and messed up. Damn.

P.S. I hate Gallagher with a burning passion.

All in all, I would say that this collection started and ended with the best stories, for me. They really opened up my eyes and heart, and I’m so immensely grateful.

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