The Reason To Walk The Line

One of the fundamental expectations I have of the books I read is that in any given book, STUFF WILL HAPPEN. The plot, characters, story arc, theme, point-of-view….basic book guts should be present, accounted for, and delivering. Honestly, if I wanted nothing to happen in what I read, I’d stick to technical manuals and pre-screened credit offers. Having said that, I do have a threshold for the quality and amount of stuff that happens in a book. There’s a tipping point for when a story can feel overwrought and overdone. Simply put, there’s a fine line between dramatic and drama. Please allow me to illustrate:

The Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years in extra innings in a rain-delayed final game of the series? Dramatic.
People starting fistfights over discount sheets at Target on Black Friday? Drama.
Awaiting the first photographs of Jupiter from the Mission Juno spacecraft? Dramatic.
Any episode of any reality show that includes “big”, “fat” and/or “war” in the title? Drama.

Dramatic story elements are like cake. You can flavor them however you want, layer them for gravitas, and even carve them into weird shapes. Drama is the icing, piped on in swooshy swirls and decorated with sprinkles for flair and impact. Just enough of each makes you crave dessert, but too much and you’re looking at diabetes. Today’s roundup offers up some books that dance along that fine line and deliver a little of both.

Forward: A Memoir (Abby Wambach) Abby Wambach made soccer history repeatedly during her run as a power forward with US Women’s Soccer. Most goals scored in World Cup play? Check. 100 career goals scored? Check. World record for most goals scored (breaking Mia Hamm’s world record, NBD)? Check. Abby Wambach retired as a soccer player in 2015 with 184 career goals in international play, more than any player has ever scored-male or female. Her memoir begins and ends with soccer, laying out her tortured relationship with her body and how she translated that into the mind-blowing, powerful playing style that captured America’s attention. In her private life, Wambach grappled with revealing her sexuality to her family and her public, addictions to pills and alcohol, and a rocky marriage. Now sober and working for ESPN as an analyst and a contributor, Wambach’s memoir is less a reflection on a past long gone than a laying out of her strategy for tackling her demons in her future.
The Fine Line:
Dramatic After spending her post-high school graduation summer skipping workouts, drinking all the beer, and inhaling all the junk food, Wambach showed up for her first workout as a Florida Gator completely unprepared and out of shape. Knowing her spot on the team was on the line, she forces herself to get through drills so punishing that they made me nauseous just reading about them.
Drama Blow-by-blow, word-for-word recreations of looooong text exchanges with friends during personal crises.

Breakfast At Tiffany’s (Truman Capote) If you are only familiar with the movie version of Truman Capote’s novella, then what you’ve seen is a sanitized version of this story, cleaned up for a conventional 1950s audience. The book is infinitely more twisted. On the page, Truman Capote lets his bitch flag fly, and Truman Capote has a Ph.D. in Bitch Flag. Holly Golightly is an opportunistic country girl come to town, looking to make her fortune as someone’s wealthy wife in postwar NYC. Her story is told by her brownstone neighbor and friend, a man who at first observes Holly’s comings and goings and then becomes part of her inner circle. The first person narration puts us uncomfortably close as Holly jumps from various frying pans into various fires. For all her self-destructive faults, Holly possesses a shrewd charm that is just as compelling today as it was when this work was first published. All of Truman Capote’s contradictory longings for fame, social cachet, and privacy are manifested in this jewel box of a book.
The Fine Line:
Dramatic Holly’s touching, pure love for her brother Fred. He is never far from her thoughts and his well-being is her motivation as she looks for financial security.
Drama Holly forces her pet cat out onto the streets of New York to fend for itself because she and her cat are independent souls who “never made each other any promises.”

The Queen Of The Night (Alexander Chee) Generally speaking, you can’t get more dramatic than opera. Opera is the loaded double burger with cheese and bacon on the drama menu. The Queen Of The Night is an opera in novel form, with Alexander Chee delivering a life story so fantastic it’s just this shy of magical realism. Set in Paris during the Second Empire, under the reign of the Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie, The Queen Of The Night is a master class in social climbing, and falling, and climbing again. Our heroine, Lilliet Berne, is the toast of Paris, enjoying success and fame as a leading soprano. When she is offered the opportunity to realize every singer’s dream of originating a role in an opera written especially to showcase her talent, she agrees to meet with the composer to discuss the possibility. It is then that she discovers the novel on which the opera is to be based is actually her own life story. Lilliet’s quest to find out who spilled her secrets takes the reader through Lilliet’s very eventful life. There is just a whole lot of book going on here, and Chee ingeniously enfolds the tradition and elemental structure of opera into the story. I could not put this book down, but damn, it wore me out.
The Fine Line:
Dramatic Lillet’s childhood on a farm in Minnesota comes to an abrupt end when she is orphaned as a fever wipes out her family.
Drama Prussian soldiers invade Paris and Lillet escapes capture in a hot-air balloon.

Southern Living White Cake, Red Velvet, Peppermint, White Chocolate, Coconut


Ultimately, drama tolerance is relative. Your mileage may vary, but there’s an immense literary satisfaction in indulging in juicy, well-executed drama. It’s the holiday season -indulge! Put on your biggest sunglasses, fling that long scarf back over your shoulder, toss your hair, and dive in. Act like you own the place.  It worked for Holly Golightly.


Action Item
Maybe get a giant hat too. And a hot-air balloon. Just in case.

The Reason To Get Into The Groove

Once, I was invited to a really big birthday party. I’ll pause while you shake your head in disbelief, but hey, on occasion I slip past the deflector shields and make it onto a guest list. It was a big crowd, a surprise party, and I didn’t know most of the people there. I arrived alone and a little early (NERD ALERT), and the people that I did know that were attending hadn’t gotten there yet. So, rather than stare at the wall or eat all the tiny stuffed peppers out of anxious boredom, I struck up a conversation with a guy standing near me who also seemed a bit at loose ends (but it’s possible he was just eyeing the peppers too). After a quick exchange confirming exactly when we were supposed to yell ‘SURPRISE’ at the guest of honor, he started telling me how he spent his day, which had been a glorious stretch of hours during which he’d put some new parts on his motorcycle. He was really excited. He pulled out some pictures. Several pictures, in fact, of the bike before he’d put the new parts on, pictures of the parts themselves, and pictures of the bike after the parts had been added. As he warmed to his topic, he described the motorcycle parts in detail and why they mattered so much to his overall motorcycle experience. I tried to ask meaningful questions about what he was sharing, but my motorcycle knowledge is limited to the words “motorcycle” and “crotch rocket”, so I didn’t have much to contribute. Seventeen minutes after I’d started talking to this person, he didn’t know my name, but I knew every detail about his motorcycle transformation arc. Also, by this point, most of the tiny stuffed peppers were gone because the other people at the party knew a good appetizer when they saw it. We finally wrapped it up when we had to hide, a critical step in staging a surprise.

While it’s true that I don’t speak motorcycle, I didn’t need to in order to see that my party partner was sharing his passion. Everyone has their own thing, a thing that makes us so excited and eager that people will run if they see you getting fired up about it. Nobody in their right mind will talk to me about books, for instance. I’ve never gone as far as pulling out pictures of books when I talk about them but I’m not saying that won’t ever happen. (Unrelated note: follow Bookreasons on Instagram to see some dreamy pictures of books!) It’s one thing to verbally firehose everyone in your immediate vicinity with all of the ways you enjoy your favorite thing. It’s another thing entirely to make it a condition of any human interaction. There’s a thin line between enthusiasm and obsession, but you’d never prove that by the immersive Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline.

Ready Player One is Ernest Cline’s love letter to 80s geek and pop culture. Wait-strike that. Ready Player One is Ernest Cline’s ticker tape parade celebrating 80s geek and pop culture, complete with Tshirt guns and confetti cannons. Set in a grim future on an overpopulated Earth depleted of natural resources, Ready Player One tells the story of a society that has moved from the exterior to the interior. Virtual reality is the standard, with people spending as much time as possible strapped into full body suits logged into in a fantasy universe called OASIS. When the reclusive inventor of OASIS, James Halliday, dies and invites the whole world to compete to inherit his fortune in an elaborate 80s themed video game, the stage is set for some awesome 80s-style scrappy-underdogs-vs-evil-corporate-goliath competition.

You don’t have to be an 80s kid to enjoy this story. Ernest Cline has you covered even if you didn’t spend part of your childhood begging for an ATARI console or getting chased by PacMan ghosts. James Halliday is modeled on America’s Silicon Valley trajectory, a gifted programmer parlaying time spent tinkering with computers in his parents’ basement into a wildly successful industry and stratospheric personal wealth. In the three dimesional world, James is shy and awkward, finding interpersonal interaction painful. Inventing OASIS allows him to make his perfect reality over and over, as he programs planet after planet that recreate the late 70s and and 80s that he grew up in (my personal favorite being an entire planet consisting of video game arcade/pizza joints, and I want to go there because I hate waiting in line to play Tempest). Retreating into OASIS solves all of James’s social problems, but in his isolation, he’s unable to do the one thing that makes a personal passion so fun – share it with people that share his same devotions.  Upon his death, he’s finally able to get everyone to come to his playground. What would any of us do if we had the leverage to create the exact world we want, to engage with people in the way that makes us the most comfortable? James Halliday uses his money and influence to share everything he loves on the grandest scale possible.

Ready Player One is currently being turned into a movie by Steven Spielberg. I don’t usually get excited about movie versions of books I love, but OMG. I need Steven Spielberg to direct this 80s themed movie like I need air and regularly scheduled hair color appointments. I NEED it. I need all those 80s references filtered through the guy that gave us so much 80s culture. Interestingly, Steven Speilberg has said in interviews that he will not be referencing his own movies in Ready Player One. I don’t like telling Steven Spielberg how to do his job but he needs to change his mind on that. STAT. He’s going to leave Indiana Jones at the door? The Goonies? Whaaaat?

I suppose while I’m quibbling with Steven Spielberg on his directorial choices, I may as air my one tiny grievance with Ernest Cline. In the avalanche of dazzling 80s references in Ready Player One, there is not one appearance by the Material Girl. No Madonna. At all. I am calling a flag on that play and in the sequel I’d better see a Planet Madonna.




Action Items
My personal Thanksgiving tradition is to re-read MFK Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me. I hope you get to enjoy your traditions this year. Have a safe & happy Thanksgiving Day!

Photo credit: Richard Corman for Rock Paper Photo

The Reason To Put Me In, Coach

A couple of weeks ago, my friend, blogger and writer Baddest Mother Ever, invited me to attend a very cool book tour event with her.  I was  immediately in because “book” and then “TOUR” so YUP.  Lucky for me, it was Luvvie Ajayi’s book tour in support of her first book, I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual. We were going to get to meet Luvvie in a pre-event reception, hug her neck in a photo op, and get our books signed. I was thrilled because one of my favorite kind of books is Autographed Books. (Other favorite kinds of books include Book I Am Reading Right Now and The Next Book I Am Going To  Read.) I also detected an ulterior motive in the invitation, in that Baddest Mother Ever has been complaining that her TBR list is too long because every time she reads my blog, she adds another book to her list. Since she’d already read I’m Judging You, she was heading off my next book recommendation at the pass and neutralizing the Bookreasons impact to her list. I SEE YOU, BADDEST.

I could not wait to read I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual and meet Luvvie Ajayi, because I am always looking for new, highly qualified life coaches. I need an army of life coaches. It’s because in my head, I operate with sophistication and grace. I’m manners personified and I know exactly how to react in any situation because of my inherent maturity and genteel upbringing. In my head, I’m Jacqueline Kennedy. On the outside, I’m also Jacqueline Kennedy, assuming Jacqueline Kennedy swore like a drunken sailor, had a laugh loud enough to peel paint, and had the personality that is commonly associated with the first, cranky stage of a hangover. I try to have couth, I really do, but I am just naturally couth-repellent. I’m often told that I’m the “mean friend who’s really nice!” Ooops. Whenever I hear that, I cringe and put another notch in my “Failed At Keeping My Mouth Shut” belt. It’s got a loooot of notches.  The only way I can justify my blundering style is to say that when you interact with me, you’re getting unintentional authenticity. You’re also getting a lot of F-bombs, but you should probably have expected that authenticity comes with F-bombs, so that’s on you. Basically, in most social situations, I’m Godzilla, and the world is my Tokyo.
Godzilla: (Stomps on Tokyo)
Tokyo: Ouch
Godzilla: Sorry
Godzilla:(Stomps on Tokyo)
Tokyo: Ouch
Godzilla: Sorry
Godzilla: (Stomps on Tokyo)

Luvvie Ajayi is an authentic truth-teller too, but considering that she’s built a successful career from authentic truthtelling, I was hoping I could learn from her how to be less Godzilla and more like one of those Disney ballet hippos from Fantasia. Luvvie is a blogger, pop culture commentator, activist, and digital strategist who has made a name for herself on the Interwebz with her savvy, forthright commentary on everything from Game of Thrones to race relations to technology. She’s channeled her insight and humor into her first book, I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual.  I’m Judging You is a collection of humorous essays explaining exactly what we’re all doing wrong and how she’s judging us for it.  She’s knowledgeable, experienced, frank, and funny, and her book is so entertaining and illuminating I barely noticed it was slapping me upside the head with solid life coaching.

Baddest and I arrived at the venue, got our books, and found the lounge where the meet and greet was transpiring. After meeting Luvvie, engaging in some low-key fangirling, AND GETTING MY BOOK AUTOGRAPHED YES THANK YOU, we took our seats for the main event of the evening: an interview with Luvvie conducted by author Denene Millner. All the salient questions were covered: Luvvie’s background, the germination of the idea for her book, her writing process, and how her life has changed since her book was published. I was especially interested to hear how she has personally driven her own book tour after receiving the minimal amount of support from her publisher. From an initial two city tour to seventeen stops-and counting-Luvvie used the power of her network to drive potential readers to her book, landing I’m Judging You on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s the kind of change that social media is driving, a circumvention of the usual routes by which a book does or does not succeed.

When the interview concluded, Luvvie took questions from the audience. It’s worth mentioning that this event was sold out with a 200 person waiting list. Luvvie has been a presence on the Internet since 2007, when we used stone tablets and chisels to enter logon IDs. As a result, her fanbase is deep. It wasn’t surprising to see that she had a full house there to support her first book. What was remarkable, though, was the thread that tied together the questions that the audience asked. One by one, the people chosen to ask a stood, took the microphone and initiated their question by telling Luvvie when they first found her. “I’ve been following you since 2007.” “My friend told me about you and I’ve been reading your newsletter for years.” “I was one of your first followers on Facebook.” “I saw a keynote address you did a few years ago and I’ve been a fan ever since.” Some people told intensely personal stories about struggle, and hardship, and how much it meant to have Luvvie’s words as a touchstone. Most everyone talked about the importance of the laughter and pure entertainment that they found in their Luvvie corner. I’m Judging You is a first book and will be the first time many people read Luvvie Ajayi. But to the community of fans that grew up reading Luvvie, it’s the next stage in an ongoing conversation they’ve been having for years.
Godzilla: I like autographed books too
Tokyo: You don’t say
Godzilla: (stomps on Tokyo)
Tokyo: Godzilla can you stand still for like five damn minutes

While making me delicate or refined is probably beyond even Luvvie’s powers of transformation, watching the members of Luvvie Nation reaffirmed for me why I love the written word so much. Words help us connect, and the digital age, for all of its flaws, has amplified the potential and the power of that connection. Luvvie Ajayi is currently taking the power of that potential on a book tour. Thanks for inviting me, Baddest. I liked being Luvviejudged. And – your break is over. Next week, I’m going to recommend some James Joyce.


Sign here please


Action Items
Immediately upon finishing I’m Judging You, I washed all my bras. You’ll understand after you read the book.

The Reason For A Lot Of Reasons

Bookreasons launched one year ago. I’m a little shocked. I didn’t think I had three months worth of book-babbling opinions, much less a whole year, but here we are. Thanks for indulging me. As it turns out, I’m just a fountain of ever-flowing book babble. Who knew?
You: Everyone
Me: No way! I’m not that obvious
You: Look! A book!
You: The prosecution rests

Today I am throwing back to one of the first Bookreasons posts about one of my all-time favorites, A Wrinkle In Time. You can click here to read it. Madeline L’Engle had a lot to say about tolerance and fear. This book is now getting the film it deserves from the amazing director Ana DuVernay.




Action Items
Read all about the A Wrinkle In Time production here.

The Reason It’s Not In Order

There is an intended compulsivity to my To-Be-Read list. Theoretically, I read what’s on my stack in the order in which it was added to the stack. My books should all wait their turn behind the velvet line divider next to the sign that says “Wait Here For Next Available Associate”. It’s a neat, orderly procession because I don’t like my books to crowd me and line management is important. In theory, everything executes like clockwork, one of those Swiss clocks that is a marvel of efficiency and accuracy.

In practice, my To-Be-Read list is less a line of well-behaved books patiently waiting their turn than a crowd rushing the entrance of Toys”R”Us the day after Thanksgiving. There’s pushing, shoving, hair-pulling, and at least one fistfight. I want to be methodical and deliberate, I really do, because from the outside that approach seems marvelously productive. It’s a practice I have yet to translate into reality. For example, I’ve had Stacy Schiff’s The Witches on my list since the day it came out. That book is a straight-up diva though and I haven’t had the necessary uninterrupted time that a diva demands. Then there are my disappeared titles, because I lost my working TBR list in a disastrous iPhone update a few months ago so there are a bunch of books that I know I want to read but no longer know the names of. WHYYYY APPLE WHYYYY??? Then, of course, there are the books that are recommended to me by other enthusiastic readers. I get super pumped for those because sharing is caring and asking me to read a book you like is a secret mystery-coded message that says you like me BEST of all the people you know. It’s ok! I won’t tell anyone else that I am your favorite. If all of this feels like an elaborate justification as to why I just had to bump Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the top of the stack last week, well, your instincts are dead on.
Mary Shelley: Whut
Me: DEAD on. Get it??
Mary Shelley: Ugh

I suppose if any book is going to push to the front of the line with terrible manners and superhuman strength, it would be Frankenstein. The story behind the book is almost as famous as the book itself. In 1816, Mary Shelley and her husband the poet Percy Shelley were on an extended European tour, staying away from England for really good reasons that included avoiding Percy’s first wife Harriet, who was a tad cranky because Percy had run away with Mary while still married to Harriet. While in Switzerland, Mary, Percy, Mary’s stepsister Jane and their friends Lord Byron and John Polidori found themselves stuck inside on a rainy day. They challenged each other to tell ghost stories to pass the time and that was one hell of a one-up story session because that little party germinated both the vampire genre (hat tip to John Polidori) and the Frankenstein monster.
Percy: Whatcha doing Mary
Mary: BRB writing classic horror novel
Percy: Well “classic” might be premature—
Mary: also inventing science fiction
Percy: Okay, sure, it’s original but-
Mary: what’d YOU do today
Percy: whatever

I hadn’t read Frankenstein in a long loooong time and in truth, I didn’t read it that closely the first time. It was assigned reading in a British Literature class, a class in which the volume of assigned reading was honestly insane. The teacher’s approach was basically “British people wrote a lot of stuff. Let’s read all of it in two months.” It was all I could do to keep up with it. By the time that class was over, I was so burned out I hated England, Princess Diana, tea, Masterpiece Theater, and Monty Python. As a result of this shallow immersion, most of the Frankenstein lore I was carrying around in my head was supplied by Mel Brooks. (I’m not even sorry because Gene Wilder’s hair in “Young Frankenstein” is perfection.) When a friend told me she was reading Frankenstein for her book club and struggling a bit with it, I couldn’t abandon her to the wilds of English gothic horror. I had been there, and I have the scars to prove it. It was time to up-end my TBR stack yet again, stop skating on my sketchy, force-fed-British-Lit Frankenstein memories, and give that tall drink of mostly dead water the attention it deserved.

One trip to the used bookstore later, I was prepared to be scared. The Frankenstein monster we know, the force of nature that is a dangerous combination of brute power and pure instinct, is a creepy figure, but the Frankenstein monster in the book is actually far removed from today’s pop culture, neck bolt version. The monster’s creator, Victor Frankenstein, is an arrogant scientist who single-mindedly pursues the ultimate scientific challenge – creating life in inanimate tissue. Once he reaches his goal, he abandons his creation, unable to come to terms with the ramifications of his actions and unwilling to accept responsibility for his profound discovery. Mary Shelley curses her monster with self-awareness, a being who is unable to feel gratitude for the life he was given because he knows he is ultimately not of the world that he’s living in. This book is wildly modern, and the questions Mary Shelley raises about the ethical pursuit of knowledge are even more relevant now. I was also stunned at what a huge whiny man-baby Victor Frankenstein is. I missed that completely the first time around. I was rooting for the monster, frankly.
Mary: Me too TBH
Me: Right??


Stackus Interruptus.

My TBR stack is still a work in progress, a messy monster of my own creation. After I finished Frankenstein, I went back to the next book in the stack and promised myself no more interruptions. I’d completely forgotten that Charles Finch’s new one in the Charles Lenox series, The Inheritance, came out this week. Ooops. Charles Lenox has VIP status at my club so he always goes to the front of the line. I’ll get back to the stack right after I finish it.


Action Items
You might be able to catch the National Theater Live’s version of Frankenstein. It’s making encore rounds now. Check it out here.