The Reason To Crack The Cover

I’m on a bookstreak-three really great books in a row, so I’m sharing my mojo. If you need something to help pass some down time as you fire up your summer this week, one of these might help. If you’re already in the middle of something you love, give it a shout-out in the comments.

Bull Mountain, by Brian Panowich, opens with a quote from Julius Caesar, so you know shit is about to get real. (Hint! Julius Caesar = stabby betrayals that are stabby).  This story about the legacy of violence and misplaced loyalties through three generations of a North Georgia family is blunt, brutal, and rapid-fire.  The insular Burroughs clan, career criminals trying to turn from locals running ‘shine to  major racketeers moving meth and guns, are Olympic contenders at grumpy grudgeholding. They all made me really nervous and I found myself yelling warnings at the characters while I was reading the book: “GET OUT OF THE WAY!” “DON’T GO IN THERE!” Spoiler: None of them listened to me. This book that made me wonder–how, exactly, do sharks feel about swimming with other sharks? It is just another day in the ocean or is there an awareness that you’re in the most danger when you’re surrounded by creatures exactly like you?  Just when you think you have this book figured out, it twists. And twists. And twists again. When it was over, I needed a hug, much to the chagrin of the person next to me in line at the pharmacy.

Bull Mountain

Where the Burroughs from Bull Mountain are intentional in inflicting pain and punishment, the Lee family in Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You are experts in more insidious forms of suburban torture. When your mom plays favorites. When your sister takes your stuff. Hiding failing grades from your parents. This is a family suffocating under the weight of its secrets and Ng’s shifting narrative successfully dances through multiple points of view, successfully conjuring equal parts empathy and disgust for each of the five family members. It has the atmosphere and flavor of a thriller, lending a sense of urgency that kept me turning the pages. Ng perfectly captures the slow burn of family-fueled bitterness. I could not put it down and when I was finished I needed a hug, much to the chagrin of the person next to me in the waiting room at the oil change place.


If you’re in non-fiction mood, you’re curious about one of the world’s greatest artists, and you’ve always wondered about the shenanigans that Charles I got up to before he ascended to the British throne in 1625, The Vanishing Velázquez by Laura Cumming just might fit the bill.  Cumming parallels the histories of the mysterious, brilliant Spanish court painter Diego Velázquez and John Snare, a 19th-century British bookseller whose accidental acquisition of a Velázquez in 1845 turns his life upside down. Velázquez served as the court painter for Philip IV during the zenith of Spain’s power in Europe and his paintings are known for their intimate realism. 185 years after Velazquez’s death, John Snopes buys what he thinks might be an unknown painting of British monarch Charles I at an estate sale and spends the remainder of his days devoted to proving it as a Velázquez at great personal cost. I didn’t need a hug after I finished this book, but I did need a trip to Spain. I settled for going out for tapas but I’m still a little bitter.



Action Items
Happy reading!

The Reason This Bag Is So Heavy

Graduations, weddings, bail hearings-spring always brings with it a plethora of occasions appropriately marked with a gift. I have a long list of presents to get and since I solve all my problems with books I am headed to the bookstore. The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but my road to the bookstore is paved with printed, notarized statements promising myself I will not buy one more book. My picture hangs, poster-sized, in every marketing department of every bookstore in America. “Make her happy”, the head of marketing tells interns at orientation while pointing towards me, “and we’ll always make our stretch sales goals.” But today, I am not shopping for me. I won’t buy myself ANYTHING. It’s about willpower and…um…just willpower, I guess. And iron will. Which I have in spades! It will all be GREAT.

Mystery/Crime Fiction section first! Because nothing says “Congratulations and Best Of Luck!” like a book about a serial killer who psychologically terrorizes people by using psychology.
Me: oooh new thrillers
Book: Pick me!
Me: “This year’s Gone Girl”
Book: But I am way stabbier
Me: chill out book
Me: I’ll take it

Ok, one book for me, but hey- I’m not going to give a murdery book as a gift. That is tacky. Let’s hit up Contemporary Fiction because you know what makes a great gift? What everyone loved at your last book club gathering. Even if it was Fifty Shades Of Grey.
Me: The Lifeguard’s Wife’s Cousin’s Goddaughter’s Female Friend
Book: Oprah loves me
Me: I’m out
Book: But I have angst and hairstyles
Me: No more books where the title defines the female protagonist by her relationship with someone else
Book: Judgy much?
Me: Does David Sedaris have a new book?
Book: He does. It’s called Amy Sedaris’ Brother
Me: Touché.

I really love humorous books and I have a collection of them so I’m going to keep this one too. It’s important to add to collections. It’s called collecting and it’s a real thing LOOK IT UP. Maybe I’ll find some good gifts in History. Something ponderous and weighty about the world and how it turns or something.
Me: Oooooh things happened before
Book: Yes, for many years
Me: I want all the history
Book: Be more specific
Me: Speculative medical practices in ancient Babylonia
Book: TOO specific
Me: Ok anything with Teddy Roosevelt on the cover

History is important, so Teddy is coming with me. I’m working my way over to Science and Nature. Inspiration is going to hit me any time now.
Me: …..
Book: A Brief History Of Time?
Me: I’ve already not read that twice
Books: Cosmos?
Me: Haven’t read that one at least three times
Books: Here’s one about how science proves introverts are awesome
Me: I’ll take one for every room

Cookbooks! Everyone likes snacks! Cookbooks are super gifty.
Me: ooohhh provincial Portuguese farm to table
Book: ok really?
Book: NO. Put me down.
Me: I will totally make my own cheese
Book: no you won’t
Me: It’s Portu-CHEESE get it bwaaahahahahaha

Geography and Travel
Me: (gets tackled and restrained by store employees until I calm down)

One more chance to check off my list – I’m sure I’ll find everything I need in all the fun stuff merchandised by the register.
Me: Origami stationery?
Bookstore: Send a letter that looks like ninja stars!
Me: …send mail that looks like a weapon?
Bookstore: yeah ok that this is not well-thought out

As I stack my books up to pay for them, I swear I hear the tinkling of a bell. I think an intern just got his wings.



Thank you for asking! I do need assistance getting my purchases to my car.


Action Items
Go shopping.


The Reason To Plant A Tree

Memory is unpredictable. Not in the way that two people will remember the same event differently, but more in the way that one will person will remember an event even happened when another person won’t remember the same event even took place. Maybe because while one person was paying attention at said event, the other person was thinking about lunch. Or maybe that person was a little bit hungry then got excited about having pizza for lunch. I’m saying that I am human and I can’t possibly be expected to pay attention to every single thing occurring outside of my head all the time, especially if I’m hungry and I really want pizza for lunch.

Having an event crawl into your brain and transform itself from experience to memory can’t be forced, but it does tend to happen whenever experiencing something profound for the first time – first kiss, first pizza, the first time you fall in love with a book. In fact, one of my strongest memories is from one of my first books. It’s a vivid memory of a party that I was not invited to and didn’t attend. Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, P Diddy’s White Party, the Olsen twins’ 16th birthday? Boring crapfests compared to this legendary canine shindig, and I remember it like it actually happened.

Go, Dog. Go! is P.D. Eastman’s adorable beginning reader book that always seems to be on any bookshelf that kids hit up to find a book. It gets all kinds of things right but can I just take a moment and call attention to that perfect title? Two words, two complete sentences. Right out of the gate, Eastman is making it clear that the dogs in his book are not from any of the contemplative breeds. Go, Dog. Go! dogs are adventurous adventurers, not intimidated by the things that most of the dogs I know are intimidated by, like driving and wearing accessories and fishing.

As a new reader, I was mesmerized by this book. It’s kinetic. Excitement is happening everywhere, starting with the bold block-striped cover featuring a jaunty  Italian racing dog. The book focuses on the basics, which makes perfect sense considering its target audience still considers putting on pants before leaving the house as an optional activity. The dogs go in and out and up and over things. Sometimes, to shake it up, they go under things.

I found the whole community vibe in Go, Dog Go! fascinating. The dogs all seemed to know each other and all of them seemed down for whatever. It’s one thing for ONE black and white dog to ride a bike. It’s quite another for a whole group of black and white dogs to ride bikes, roller skate, and scooter together in the same direction without it resulting in a big catastrophic pileup.  At bedtime, Eastman lined up all his dogs in one giant, football-field-sized bed, apparently sourced from the So You Need A Giant Bed store. These are some motivated, unusual dogs and I loved all of them.

P.D. Eastman worked for Disney, Warner Brothers, and Theodore Geisel over the course of his career, so he was no slouch at telling an amazing story with illustration.  Little humans need a starting place on figuring out how to figure it all out with books and a beautiful illustration is how it’s done. The best illustrations are equally intimate and inviting,   whether it’s crawling into bed with a million dogs or sitting in the great green room with the red balloon, or keeping company with a very hungry caterpillar. Go, Dog. Go! was the first book I projected myself into. I was in there, hanging out with those dogs. They seemed welcoming enough, if not a little fixated on sitting under houses and engaging in reckless driving. (No seat belts and no helmets? Drag racing in roadsters? I don’t even want to see your insurance rates, mister.)


Gaze at your own risk.

As much fun as all of these dogs were having, and as much fun as I had looking at them having fun, it was nothing compared to what goes down at the end of the book. So fantastic it needs a two-page spread,all the dogs attend a giant dog party at the top of a tree. There was not a corner of that tree that didn’t blow my tiny, malleable mind. There’s a dog getting ready to be blown out of a cannon. There’s an epic trapeze conga line happening. You ever see Truman Capote on a trapeze? NOPE. There’s some sort of airborne maracas playing happening that isn’t fully visible because the dog with the maracas is so airborne all you can see are the paws holding the maracas. That is a WHOLE LOT of maracas. How big is that fucking cake? Who was in charge of giving out the hats? Where did they find a ladder tall enough to get to the top of the tree? When did all those dogs find the time to learn to climb a ladder?

I stared at this picture for hours, seeing in it a grown-up, unsupervised world that looked scary and awesome all at once. I wanted to be at that party. I didn’t know how I’d get there, but P.D. Eastman was clearly had a place for me. In the middle of all that dog action, in the middle of the trapezes and the cake and the megaphones and the jump rope, there I was.


I even got to wear a hat. I remember it clearly.

Action Items
Please help me understand what is happening here. Is that a trampoline? A net? There is no science that explains how this is working.




The Reason This House Is Not Clean

Until this year, I’ve been neutral about Jane Eyre. I’d read it once, so I was familiar with the fundamentals: Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 Gothic novel about the orphan Jane’s grim journey from unhappy schoolgirl to unhappy governess to unhappily falling in love with her unhappy employer, the emotionally unavailable Mr. Rochester.  Until this year, I thought the extent of my Jane Eyre experience was checking it off the list of Required Reading. Well, I was wrong, and there is no denying it anymore. Jane Eyre is flying at me from all directions lately and it’s starting to unnerve me. I am smack in the middle of an unintentional Jane Eyre moment. Until this year, I’ve never needed a literary exorcist. I don’t even know how to go about finding one. Craigslist? But it’s time to bring in a professional because Charlotte Brontë is messing with me.  I’m not sure why she has singled me out for her Jane Eyre immersion. I didn’t even know Charlotte Brontë read this blog.

This all started innocently enough this past winter at the sublime Kramerbooks in Washington, DC. (If you have never been to Kramerbooks, drop what you are doing and go RIGHT NOW. It’s beautiful. It’s got a bar. In the middle. Of the bookstore. GAH perfect bookstore is perfect.) Browsing the stacks for some holiday reading, my eye fell on The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. It was not the title of the book that grabbed me so much as the author’s last name. It has two Fs. I admire a man who doubles down on consonants, so The Eyre Affair went on my buy pile. The Eyre Affair is the ffirst book in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, taking place in a clever alternate universe where classic literature rules pop culture and special agent Thursday Next is kept busy trying to save valuable first editions from a mysterious criminal. There’s also a portal that allows people travel in and out of their favorite novels, which sets the stage for an extended chase through Jane Eyre. I cracked it open New Year’s Day. It’s a ffun and very ffunny book.

One Eyre encounter does not a haunting make, right? Hang on. A few weeks after I read The Eyre Affair, I landed on the 2011 movie version of Jane Eyre during some late-night channel surfing.  I’d just had my Eyre Affair refresher course, so I thought it was neat that I’d stumbled across the movie and settled in to watch it for a bit. I’d tuned in near the end after the fire destroys Mr. Rochester’s Thornfield Hall.  (True confession: I don’t like Mr. Rochester so much. He makes me stabby. All props to Michael Ffassbender, but even he can’t make Mr. Rochester appealing to me.)  By the time the movie was over, I’d decided what Jane really needs is some mascara and a less rigid class system and then fflipped over to watch Captain America: The Winter Soldier for the 18th time, um, ffor science.

Big deal. Encounters with a book and a movie, both based on the same classic novel. So what? OKAY you asked for it. A couple of weeks after the movie, I have my hands on Lyndsay Faye’s tremendous new book, Jane Steele. Someone more attentive than I am would probably pick up from the title that I had another Jane Eyre-ster egg, but I am not known for my attention to detail or powers of concentration. This is because shiny things exist, and I should look at them. Jane Steele is Lyndsay Faye’s reimagining of Jane Eyre with Jane cast as a serial killer. I read the book and love it, but I am now taking notice there is a lot of Jane Eyre in my vicinity.

Coincidence, right? I figure since things happen in threes I must be done with Jane Eyre. NOPE. Charlotte Brontë is apparently just getting warmed up, because a month or so after I finish Jane Steele I idly click on one of those round-up articles, something like “Ten Of Today’s Novelists Recommend Other Novels” and out of the ten novelists, three—THREE—mention Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. Guess what? It’s a Jane Eyre-inspired book that imagines the backstory of Mr. Rochester’s attic-dwelling mad first wife. Charlotte has my attention. I immediately go get the book and immediately start reading.

Jean Rhys published Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966 as a prequel to Jane Eyre. It follows the marriage of an English gentleman (a huge jerk in this book–preach, Jean Rhys, preach) to Antionette, a Jamaican heiress. Cold and demanding, Antionette’s English husband changes her name, makes her move from Jamaica to England, and locks her in an attic after driving her insane. Hahaha! Just a story, right, Charlotte? We’re all just reading here, right? Right?…



Site of the first disturbance.


I know better than to fight a riptide so I am going to flip onto my back and float this one out. If I’m really living in a Gothic novel this year, then all of these Jane Eyre coincidences are actually foreshadowing and I’m due for some kind of freaky supernatural event any day now. Charlotte, if you’re listening? I am already going to re-read Rebecca, so please don’t send me any Daphne du Marier hints. I don’t think I can stand the strain.

Also, if nobody hears from me for a few days, just do me a ffavor? Please check the attic.

Action Items
Spend New Year’s Day next year reading anything entitled A Non-Haunted Book About How To Be Ffabulous.

The Reason For A High Ponytail

My legion of fan is constantly bombarding me with demands for salacious details about my literary celebritying.  It’s an endless stream of questions like:
You’re going to stop blogging soon right?
Do you know how crappy your grammar is?
When will you settle that non-existent Twitter feud with Tobias Menzies?
Please, please, will you stop blogging? Soon?
But the question I get more often than any other is “How do you find time to read?” Okay, adoring fan, you asked and you shall receive. It’s AMA time. Going against my publicist’s advice, I am going to go all tell-all on this topic and pull the curtain back in the hope of satisfying my demanding public. There is both an art and a science to cramming maximum words into my eyeballs, except there’s no science at all and I’m not artistic. I’m just willing to exploit every available opportunity to read a book. Feel free to take notes!

Before I let my crazy hang out share my reading expertise, though, a word about multitasking. That word is ‘IRRITATED’ because I am lobbying hard to set the word ‘multitasking’ on fire and throw it off a bridge. (Irony alert! Actually a great example of successful multitasking.)  The thing about multitasking is that it implies that two things can be done well at the same time and you know what that is?!? Taskshaming. I can barely do one thing well at the same time and I refuse to be taskshamed. There is only one very specific time in my day where two tasks intersect and I get both of them done simultaneously. It’s also a great example of found reading time. You guessed it – I read while I blow dry my hair.

I’ve been read-drying (Dry-reading? Blow-wording.) forever. Basically, it’s that I hate being bored, and nothing is more boring than sitting there for thirty minutes while drying my hair. It’s just like watching paint dry, except the paint is, you know. Hair. The truly embarrassing thing about this is that when I toyed with writing about this topic, I didn’t think I would have enough to say about it. HAHAHAHAHA. It turns out that I have given blow-read-drying a ridiculous amount of thought. I actually have a list of rules, for crying out loud. It’s probably too late for this warning, but it’s about it get nerdy up in here.

The cornerstone of blow-reading is that you start with a book and work your way backward. Well, not exactly. You start with washing your hair, then work your way around a book. It’s a space-time continuum, sponsored by Aveda and Barnes & Noble. (OMG! There IS science!)

1. Commit to having enough hair so that blow-drying is required. If a stylist offers to give you a “cute pixie cut you can just run your fingers through”, jump out of the chair, state commandingly “I WILL NOT PATRONIZE ESTABLISHMENTS THAT HATE LITERATURE” and storm out. Everyone will know you are a serious reader.
2. Reading while blowing your hair dry means zero control over how your head ultimately looks. More than once I have created an unintentional BumpIt at random places on my head because I zoned out with a book after wrapping half my wet hair up in a big round brush. I think of it as ‘charmingly lopsided’ but I’m actually projecting ‘fell asleep sitting upright on a plane’.
3. The finishing touch on all your accidental BumpIts is frizz. Because you lost track of how long you’ve been pointing hot air at your head because Erik Larson published a new one.
4. Ignore all hype about ‘this season’s hot new hairstyle!’ Your haircut choice is static because learning how to dry something new will cut into reading time. Mine is a breezy style that’s halfway between local afternoon news anchor and Laura Petrie from the Dick Van Dyke Show.
5. For every tenth book purchased, invest in a wad of ponytail holders.
6. Practice this: Look in the mirror, sigh, and put your hair in a ponytail. This will serve because you are going to wear a lot of ponytails. But you are also going to keep up with all of the New York Times best sellers, so SUCK IT, PONYTAIL.

Choice of reading material is key for successful read-drying. Personally, I like non-fiction, but you do you when picking yours. Below are some books that helped me pass a lot of blow time:
(Note to self: retain editor who will flag ‘blow time’ as poorly worded)
Under The Banner Of Heaven Jon Krakauer
The Greater Journey David McCullough
The Ice Master Jennifer Niven
Henry VIII: The King And His Court Alison Weir
All the biographies
All the autobiographies
All the memoirs ever memoired including Martin Short’s I Must Say: My Life As A Humble Comedy Legend, a book that made me cry so hard that I double frizzed my hair resulting in a genuinely terrible picture of me taken later that day at a drag queen brunch. But I digress.

Bonnet Dryer

Book club.

Equipment required for read-blowing is simple-a hair dryer and a book. Stay away from fancy words like “advanced drying technology” when purchasing your dryer. The smaller and slower it is, the longer it takes to dry your hair which makes all the difference when you are trying to work in an extra chapter. You know you’ve got it right when the motor sounds like a tired, indifferent group of bees.

You’re ready! Set your reading goal and go wash your hair. If someone asks you what happened to your head, just say you were multitasking like a boss.

Action Items
Invest in some really good conditioner.