The Reason To Bring A Diva, Part Deux

I had a cross-country flight today–4.5 uninterrupted hours in the air, perfect for some quality time with a diva book. Sadly, no delays, so ONLY 4.5 hours. But still. SQUEEEE.

ICYMI, my very first diva book was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. For today’s flight, I brought along The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin.


Which, as it turns out, is about Truman Capote and his life with the social elite of New York City during the time that he wrote In Cold Blood. I was reading about Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. ON A PLANE. It’s all so serendipitously meta that I giggled pretty much the whole flight, which I assure was you was not appropriate considering the subject matter of the book.

Anyway, I recommend The Swans of Fifth Avenue, and not just because I’m on a diva book buzz.

I got so worked up about the whole thing that I’m immediately re-reading In Cold Blood, so if you need me, you know where to find me.




The Reason It’s A Little Sloppy

I love unapologetic, in-your-face perfection. I’m not talking about crafted, photoshopped perfection, the kind of shiny perfection intended to seduce you into purchasing a car or mascara or plastic surgery. (True story: I always buy the mascara. Because MASCARA.) I mean irregular, sideways perfection. Take flamingos, for instance. Flamingos are ridiculous. A flamingo’s purpose is to live in smelly marshy places and eat shellfish out of shallow, muddy water. They actually scoop up mud and filter it in their beaks to extract shrimp (and algae – which goes to prove the old saying, “It’s a good day when I can eat shrimp and algae!”). So, not only do these birds have weird taste in sushi, they are sucking the sushi out of wet dirt. Do you know what flamingos should look like? Short sloppy mud vacuums. Instead, they are perfect, pink and sinuous, elegant and gawky as they tower above the shallow water on one leg. There is no reason for flamingos to be this awesome, no good reason to be the color of a tequila sunrise and shaped like a couch pillow with dowels tied to it, but there they are. Taken apart—curvy neck, knobby legs, spring-break-airbrushed-t-shirt pink-the pieces are kind of silly. Together, they are unpredictably, undeniably perfect.

Photoshopped, staged, bland, watered down, crowd-pleasing perfection: it’s fun in its way, but too much of it leaves me longing for something deeper. There’s only so many times I can really believe that people “woke up like this”. No, you didn’t. You probably woke up like me: haggard enough to scare cats and in dire need of enough caffeine to restore the ability to use multisyllabic words. Imperfect perfection is so much more interesting. It’s like only listening to Taylor Swift songs, or being asked to live on a diet of nothing but butter noodles. After a few days of nothing but butter noodles, you’d jump for some eggplant.
Perfection: hey, don’t bring butter noodles into this
Me: sorry
Perfection: they are BUTTER NOODLES and they don’t deserve this shit
Me: I should have used a different example
Perfection: yes you should have, sicko

There aren’t that many perfect books, and there are even fewer perfect books that stand as an author’s first and only book, and even fewer that are a first novel that win a Pulitzer Prize. Whatever that formula is, Harper Lee figured it out when she published her one perfect book. Just one tiny, NBD, seismic, atom bomb of a book. To Kill A Mockingbird is rare, a quintessentially American novel about growing up in the Jim Crow South. This book is loaded with iconic literary BFFs and everybody has a favorite: Scout, Jem, Calpurnia, Atticus,  Boo Radley. (Back up off Boo. He is MINE.) Scout’s relationship with her father is so well-written and so realized that as readers, we effortlessly project ourselves into the story because we see ourselves there. By all appearances, To Kill A Mockingbird woke up like this.
Perfection: So you’re saying TKAM is like butter noodles
Me: um NO
Perfection: Pretty sure that’s what you said

To Kill A Mockingbird was published in 1960 and immediately made Harper Lee famous. Foregoing a splashy public life, she lived privately in her Alabama hometown and died in February 2016. It was nothing less than a bombshell when it was announced in 2015 that she was publishing a second book, a companion to To Kill A Mockingbird. Mildly put, Go Set A Watchman was (and is) controversial. Written in 1957, it tells the story of an adult Scout Finch, returning to Maycomb to visit her father. Harper Lee had submitted the book for publication, but it was rejected and the manuscript had been considered lost. Go Set A Watchman was a hot topic. Did Harper Lee truly consent to publish, or was she a victim of elder abuse? Would the book alter the essence of Atticus Finch? People couldn’t wait to read it. People were boycotting reading it. People bought the book, then returned it in protest. I hesitated to read it because I didn’t want to spoil my perfect memory of my perfect experience reading To Kill A Mockingbird, but ultimately my curiosity got the better of me. I ordered a copy and silently asked Harper Lee to forgive me.



Flamingos: majestic and dignified.

Which came first, the Mockingbird or the Watchman? I didn’t know what to expect when reading Go Set A Watchman, but I was not expecting it to be so genuinely weird. It was like walking into a room full of people I’d known for years only to find that everyone has switched voices. The words and the sounds are familiar, but they’re coming from a brand new face. It was disconcerting. That familiarity makes it tempting to compare the two books, but Go Set A Watchman, for me, isn’t a book so much as it is an unusual look into the work it takes in order to produce something as perfect as To Kill A Mockingbird. You can’t hide genius, and Harper Lee’s gentle, humorous, devastatingly insightful voice still shines through in Watchman-unevenly, but it shines. The quicksilver flashes evident in Watchman become the lightning in the bottle that is Mockingbird.
Perfection: Same with butter noodles
Me: Not sure where you’re going here
Perfection: You have to boil the water first
Me: Do you eat anything else?
Perfection: Sometimes plain spaghetti

To Kill A Mockingbird was a book I’d taken for granted, a book so good and so ubiquitous that it was easy to assume that it just woke up like that. I mean, by the time Demi Moore is naming her kids after the characters in a book, it seems like that book has perhaps reached blandly perfect maximum cultural saturation. Go Set A Watchman reminds me that To Kill a Mockingbird didn’t just happen. Harper Lee had to figure it all out, had to put all the pieces together, take them apart, and put them back together again and again. Like a flamingo standing in murky water, To Kill A Mockingbird is startling, more beautiful that it needs to be, and crookedly, deliciously perfect.


Action Items
Celeste Barber is a perfect flamingo on Instagram. Go check her out @celestebarber.






The Reason You Can Stop Looking

Major, important scientific research has been done to examine why people fall in and out of love. Committed relationships are complicated. What makes people choose each other and stay together? Science tells us that the reasons people split apart are layered and complex. Adultery. Financial infidelity. Values incompatibility. I’m not a trained researcher with expertise in data analysis, but I can tell you with 100% certainty that science is dead wrong about why people break up. You know why couples break up? Because one person in the couple will give directions using the words “east, west, north, south” and the other person will give directions using “left and right”. That shit right there will DOOM a relationship. You’d think the ubiquitousness of navigational technology would level out this problem, but it doesn’t, something I am reminded of every time I fire up my smartphone to make it tell me how to get places. That damn woman who lives in there always starts by telling me to go southeast or west and it’s infuriating because I can’t break up with HER.

The point here is, words matter. Choosing the wrong words dooms your attempt at communication, or at least your attempt to get directions to the nearest liquor store. Choosing the correct words opens doors and opens minds, building bridges between you and your goal, important bridges that keep you from falling into a chasm and being eaten by dragons. And, really, it’s dragons that we are here to talk about today. More precisely, my indifference to books about dragons that live in the bottom of chasms. Or robots. Or complex fictional worlds that cross planets or are accessed through tunnels. I am here to confess: I have tried, I really have, but I don’t read science fiction.



Like a Bat Signal, but opposite.


I like the word science. I like the word fiction. I like both of those things a whole damn bunch but when you put them together you get a genre that I avoid like it’s going to sting me and I don’t have my EpiPen. Merriam-Webster says science fiction is “fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component”. Seems simple enough and appealing in theory. In practice, it is a mighty struggle. I think I can count on one hand the number of science fiction books I’ve read. I got through The Hobbit, but I didn’t make it ten pages into The Fellowship of The Ring and really it was more like five pages. Um…let’s see. The Time Traveler’s Wife? Does that count? (Especially if I didn’t like it?) Slaughterhouse Five. Yup…still on one hand, even if I eventually remember I accidentally read anything by Isaac Asimov. Which I can assure you, I haven’t. No Phillip K. Dick. No Ursula K. LeGuin. I’m admitting it right now, there is a lot of great writing that I’m leaving on the table. I have no good reason for it. Let’s all agree that I’m deficient in some way.
Science Fiction: Agreed
Me: Thanks for the pile-on

Whenever anyone talks about their deep and abiding love for The Game Of Thrones or Lord Of The Rings, I feel a little twinge that combines bafflement, jealousy, and sadness. People LOVE these books, and I want to love them too because loving books is my favorite. J.R.R. Tolkein and George R.R. Martin have legions of fans (and a love for the letter R) who embrace the full absorption into the worldbuilding that science fiction and fantasy offer. I’m so left out. It feels like a big party that I am invited to, but can’t muster the interest in attending, so instead of going to the big fun party I’m just going to stay at home and not read any books that require I memorize made-up world names. Or made-up dragon species names. Or made-up languages.
Science Fiction: so you’re just lazy
Me: No I just don’t want to work hard to read those books
Science Fiction: …..
Me: Oh ok. YES.

It’s not possible to like everything, I guess, but how I continually walk away from clearly well-written, epic stuff just makes me roll my eyes at myself. I suppose I’m a more frivolous reader than I’d like to admit, but every once in a while I’ll try. The book Outlander was suggested to me for the first time a few years back. The person recommending told me it was about time travel through magic stones. She lost me at “time travel” and I fled the room at “magic stones” because the only thing that makes time travel less interesting to me is when it’s not done in a spaceship or a tesseract. (A Wrinkle In Time! That’s science fiction right??? Make that list FOUR books!) And magic stones? Just, NO. Her enthusiasm for the book was evident but couldn’t overcome magic stones. Hard pass.

Fast forward to a few years later and my social media newsfeeds are filled with people discussing a book about time travel through magic stones. It rang a dim, distant bell, and I eventually unearth the memory of rejecting this same book. In the intervening time, Outlander built a passionate, dedicated fan base and the author had written eleventy-billion more books. Yup-another science fiction/fantasy epic series that I wasn’t reading. This time, though, I was going to figure out what people were talking about. I was not going to leave myself out in the cold, clutching my tattered copy of In Cold Blood. I got a copy of Outlander and read it, cover to cover. (Wait! FIVE sci-fi books!)
Science Fiction: So you loved Outlander?
Me: I did not say that. I said I read it and tried not to be a dick about it.
Science Fiction: Well, at least you tried
Me: I really did
Science Fiction: Let’s keep this open dialogue going
Me: as long as we don’t have to open it with magic stones
Science Fiction: we’ll just google directions

I guess you can stop looking for me to recap science fiction, but, if I ever run into an actual dragon, I will let you know about it immediately.


Action Items
Does Watership Down count as science fiction?


The Reason To Downsize

I like everything about travel. I like airports and train stations and buying weird gas station snacks on road trips. I like tiny travel sizes of things: tiny shampoo and tiny bottles of ketchup and tiny tubes of toothpaste. IT’S ALL SO TINY. You know those tiny sewing kits that hotels provide? I can’t resist taking them home even though I have never ever needed a hotel room sewing kit. I have 17 of them. (When I get three more, I am going to host that sewing kit-themed party I saw on Pinterest.) Nothing about travel feels inconvenient because even the most mundane travel carries the promise of the bubble, that for a quick period of time you will float above whatever your normal life is, taking in a whole new view. It’s rejuvenation and experience and making memories and ironic souvenir Tshirts.

Travel is great. You know what isn’t great? Packing. I fucking haaaaaate packing. Packing is the sullen, tedious yin to my sunny travel yang.I don’t like anything about packing. I don’t like making decisions about what to take with me. I don’t like all the tiny things, the tiny toothbrush and tiny shampoo and tiny pillows, because no matter how tiny I make the tiny things I always run out of room in my stupid tiny suitcase. My track record is erratic on remembering to pack essential stuff like contact lenses or glasses or, on one memorable trip, my actual suitcase full of my actual stuff. Considering how much I hate packing just a fraction of my possessions for a limited period of time, the thought of moving fries my synapses. Pack ALL the stuff? Then take ALL the stuff to a different place and unpack it? I do not see the point. Let’s just stay here. It’s lucky for everyone concerned that it was not my job to be an American pioneer or Ernest Hemingway because believe me if it was my job there would not be a California or a The Sun Also Rises. We only have those things because people (not me) were willing to pack up and move.


No, we are NOT.

There are two kinds of moving: Back To and Away From. Back To moves circle around to where you started, like moving back to your hometown. Away From moves launch you into the great unknown, taking you out of the familiar, like when Luke leaves Tatooine so he can go blow up the Death Star. Arguably, American history is one big Away From move story and while many of those stories have happy endings, the Donner Party’s is not one of them. The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of The Donner Party by Daniel James Brown, isn’t just Away From, it’s Far Away From. This book traces the Donner Party’s journey, step by tortuous step, from its beginning in Missouri in May 1846 to their arrival in the Sierra Nevada mountains…where they, um, stayed a while. I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, but winter in the Sierra Nevadas did not go well.

Daniel James Brown is wonderful at translating his meticulous research into relatable human experience, and in this book that is never more evident than when he is scaling the westward journeys against the preparation for the journey. The detailed description of the provisioning that the Donner Party undertook blew my mind. Food, oxen, a mobile kitchen, linens, clothing, EVERYTHING–outfitting a traveling party for the great migration west took weeks. This is yet another story that proves to me I would have been the worst pioneer to ever pioneer. I am actually whatever the opposite is of a pioneer. Pion-not? If it took me weeks to pack for anything I would cancel my plans.
Pioneers: Westward, ho!
Me: meh
Pioneers: Let’s make history!
Me: Or stay here and make popcorn. WHO’S WITH ME

Moves can cross countries, or moves can cross oceans. Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises by Lesley M. M. Blume tells the story of how Ernest Hemingway conceived, wrote, and marketed his debut novel, and how that experience created the public face of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway and his first wife Hadley moved to Paris after the first World War, because Europe after WW1 was an inexpensive place to bring American dollars. While in Paris, Hemingway cultivated the nurturing support of the city’s literary elite, establishing the relationships and the network that would help make his name as a writer and living the experiences that would ultimately become The Sun Also Rises.

Hemingway’s move is, at first glance, an Away From move. It’s hard to get much more Away From than putting an ocean in between your start and your destination. Going to Paris was a lot more fun than going to Gatlinburg or Fargo, but it amounted to the same thing, because upon arriving in Paris, Hemingway immediately fell in with a crowd of…Americans. His Parisian friendships and social circle consisted of Americans and UK expats-until he went to Spain. In Spain, his friendships and social circles consisted of Americans and UK expats he brought with him from Paris, plus matadors. Hemingway loved him some bullfighting.
Hemingway: I really do like bullfighting
Me: I get it
Hemingway: My Tumblr is @fuckyeahbullfighting

If I actually HAD to move somewhere, which I’m absolutely not doing because I hate packing, I’d model it on the Hemingway method, which is
1. Not have a lot of stuff
2. Take all that stuff to Paris
3. Eat some cheese, probably
4. Become famous

That is way less strenuous than the pioneer method, which is
1. Have a ton of stuff
2. Get even more stuff
3. Skip the iffy pioneer cheese
4. Drag all that stuff for hundred of miles, on foot, and there’s not even a hotel with room service when you get there because frontier

A hat tip to those intrepid souls who pull off pulling up stakes and start over in a new place. I’m happy to come visit you, as soon as I finish packing.
Me: so what’s in the wagon anyway
Pioneers: Tiny sewing kits
Me: I knew it


Action Items
Daniel James Brown is the author of The Boys In The Boat, another great Away From moving story.