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