The Reason I’m Staying Home

It can be argued that the purpose of entertainment, any entertainment, is escapism. Immersion in a preferred diversion allows us to indulge ourselves in ways that aren’t doable in everyday life. The flavors to choose from are almost limitless: the arts, sports, gaming, movies, YouTube…and of course, books. I read to challenge myself, I read to learn something new, I read to figure shit out —but I also read to slide into a little old-fashioned popcorn escapism. And when it comes to escapism, nothing beats a deep delve into places I don’t want to go. The best way for me to get out of town is curling up with a book and getting down with some armchair travel.

I LOVE armchair travel. I don’t have to pack anything, I can have snacks anytime I want, and most importantly, I don’t have to pack anything. It’s not that I don’t love going places. I really do. I just hate packing. When choosing an armchair travel book, I’m not fooling around. I don’t want some gentle, humorous vacation anecdote. Think thickly forested tropical jungles, rivers that traverse entire continents, or monsoon-drenched mountain topography. Throw in a full narrative involves a journey from one end of a country to another and I’m helpless to resist. As long as I’m not going somewhere, I want to not go to as much of it as possible.

Armchair travel also gets me off the hook for pretending to embrace new, unnerving experiences. Bluntly put, I am a big fat coward. In real life, I do not enjoy situations that intimidate and/or terrify me, but I bulldoze my way through my discomfort when I have to. But in my entertainment? Why I gotta suck it up? There are some non-negotiable scary things that I’m just not invested enough fake my way through. Take horror movies, for instance. My system can’t take looking at all that spurting blood and what’s the payoff? If I make it through Saw, I can do the whole awful experience again with Saw II? SRSLY. Hard pass. Accordingly, my armchair travel often centers on locations where I’m never going to go in person because it’s TOO SCARY. Specifically, I am always going to avoid any place on the globe where one can find the Giant Restless Spider Populations. If a given locale has spiders the size of frisbees, I can’t. I. CAN. NOT. (This is not meant to disparage spiders or the spider-loving humans among us. You’re all lovely and amazing and can you just stay on that other side of the room please? Or maybe outside? Yes. Outside is better.) But I definitely have enough gumption to read about spider-infested places, because I am a profile in courage.

Whether you prefer your arachnid-infested vacations fictional or non-fictional, I’ve got you covered. These books also have jungles, treasure, world history, and tigers. Grab your can of Raid and let’s jump in.

The Strangler Vineby M.J. Carter, is an Edgar-nominated novel set in 1837 India, at the height of British colonialism and the dawn of the Victorian era. When it came to establishing British rule in invaded nations the British government was dependent on the influential and powerful British East India Company.  Chartered in 1600 to pursue and protect trade routes for Britain, the British East India Company was a strange hybrid of army, for-profit corporation, and unchecked police force that leveraged the veneer of the British government without any accountability to any checks or balances. The odd structure of the company – private ownership that rested in Britain’s ruling peer class acting to create wealth for the nation – was a conflict of interest nightmare that spawned opportunities for abuse and corruption, with the populations of the countries that East India looked to dominate paying the price.  Where was the morality in disregarding the culture and existing governments of invaded countries? What dictates how we choose our loyalties? The Strangler Vine lays out these questions as a brilliant structure for a good old-fashioned road adventure and mystery thriller. Newly arrived in India, rookie East India officer William Avery is reluctantly paired with disgraced Company veteran Jeremiah Blake and tasked with finding the missing Xavier Mountstuart, a lauded poet whose latest work has caused a scandal within the British community in Calcutta. The East India Company wants Mountstuart found so they can safely send him back to Scotland and settle the scandal…or do they? The motives and means surrounding Mountstuart’s recovery provide the thriller backbone to this story, and you will root for Avery and Blake’s unlikely friendship. I love a plot that is predicated on ‘capture the threatening poet’. It’s a fast-paced, quixotic book, and it contains the best chase scene I’ve ever read. It also has a man-eating tiger. It probably had a bunch of India Jungle Spiders too but I closed my eyes during all those parts.

The Lost City of Z by David Grann, is a non-fiction account of Victorian-era British explorer Percy Fawcett’s obsessive search for the legendary, lost city of El Dorado in Brazil’s Amazon. The same British Empire colonialist philosophy that created the East India Company also fostered a generation of British explorers, men who crisscrossed the world and brought proof of their travels back home to Mother England. Some explorers were motivated by science, to find and classify new species of flora, fauna, and animal. Some were motivated by competition, to be the first to climb mountains or cross the Arctic Circle. And some were motivated by acquisition, seeking caches of gold and treasure. It was this last category that Percy Fawcett falls. After years of expeditions in Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru, Fawcett was convinced that the Amazon hid the ruins of El Dorado, an ancient city thought to be only a myth. Sure that he had determined its location, Fawcett led a search party that included his son into the jungle in 1925. The group disappeared. David Grann’s description of turn-of-the-century South American travel and his own foray into the Amazon are almost suffocatingly accurate. Well, I assume the description is accurate. It sure felt accurate, as I checked every room I entered for giant Brazilian monkey spiders for days after I finished the book. For all its classic adventure narrative, The Lost City Of Z’s examination of Fawcett’s single-mindedness and the larger implications of the relationship between the Old World and the New World is incredibly compelling.


All packed!

Have a lovely time, keep your windows rolled up, and call me when you get there! In the meantime, I am going to go not unpack. I’m exhausted.


Action Items
The Lost City of Z was developed as a film and is being released this year. Robert Pattinson is in it and I was surprised because I was unaware of recent vampire activity in Brazil. Anyway, watch the trailer here.

The Reason For Cold Turkey

Hello, January! That magic time of year when weeks of unbridled decadence skid to a halt puddling into a big pile of regret and shame. It is time for a reckoning. (Doesn’t it feel like the holiday excuse period starts earlier and earlier? Using Labor Day as a free pass for excess is weaksauce. Nobody is buying “What the hell, it’s Labor Day!” as a valid reason to have cheese dip for breakfast. You do you. Just have the cheese dip. Why you gotta blame Labor Day?) January is the month when it’s time to rein in all those shenanigans and act like an adult, for Pete’s sake. Shed those extra pounds from all that gravy and chocolate. Return those superfluous gifts you overbought. In my case, January detox also commences the annual Big Cleanup, purging a year’s worth of crap that’s turned every surface of my living space into a junk drawer.

It was in the process of shoveling out one of those squirrel-nest piles that I found three fancy little books of cocktail recipes that I completely forgot that I owned. I probably had big intentions of featuring the books in some Pinterest-worthy, artfully arranged bar display with fancy empty antique bottles and brass corkscrews. I got really close to doing it, too, in that I bought these three books and shoved them in a drawer four years ago. Take THAT, Pinterest. Flipping through the books, I got to thinking about the tight relationship between writing and booze. Lots of authors like to bring the party to the page. Literature featuring booze is like a big liquor store: from cheap peach schnapps to pricey Scotch that smells like old socks, there is something for everyone. Here are some that made an impression on me.

The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald) The Great Gatsby is the book that really showed America how to get lit. Main character Jay Gatsby, putting out bait to attract his former love and current neighbor rich girl Daisy Buchanan, turns his exclusive West Egg, Long Island estate into neighborhood central for a 24/7 throwdown. His party only has two rules: Look fabulous and make bad choices. In the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, “everybody in the club getting tipsy.”* Fitzgerald knew a thing or two about parties, having codified uninhibited and licentious behavior in his collection of short stories, Tales Of The Jazz Age. For all of his literary success, Fitzgerald never felt a part of the elite American wealthy society that he made so famous. That bittersweet longing for inclusion is brilliantly expressed in the book’s narrator Nick Carraway’s attendance at Gatsby’s endless, gin-soaked party. Nick is there, he’s an invited guest, he is welcomed by his host, and yet he can’t shake the feeling that he’s still on the outside looking in. As if with his nose pressed against the glass, peering in the window, Nick walks us through the kind of inevitable debauchery that results when a party is underwritten by organized crime and sponsored by a lovesick pretender.

*Possibly J-Kwon**
**Definitely J-Kwon

Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails With A Literary Twist (Tim Federle) This book of cocktail concoctions proves there is a niche audience at the intersection of English Major Ave and Fully Stocked Bar St. I always thought I was the only person who lived at that address but LOOK. I HAVE ROOMMATES. Page after page of beverages, all inspired by and named for classic works of literature? SQUEEEEEE. Eventually, I’ll get around to making one of the many outstanding drinks in this book, but for now, it’s not necessary because I’m just drunk on all the literary references and stellar puns. As a bonus, this book’s list of classic titles fleshed out my TBR list. (How could I have forgotten I haven’t read The Unbearable Lightness of Being?) One day, I am going to meet author Tim Federle and make him several Pitchers of Dorian Grey Gooses. (Geese? Pitchers of Dorian Grey Geese? I need to work this out before Tim gets here….or just avoid the whole question and make him a batch of Woman In White Russians.)

Postcards From The Edge (Carrie Fisher) The main character in Carrie Fisher’s debut novel is an equal-opportunity substance abuser, so we’re not limited to alcohol here. This semi-autobiographical story of a working actress with a famous mother coping with her day-to-day life LA after rehab pulls no punches as it chronicles the reality of living the glamorous life in the world’s biggest fishbowl. It’s hilarious, heartbreaking, and above all brutally honest. Carrie Fisher is unique in her ability to take cringeworthy, painful situations and craft side-splitting comedy while never succumbing to self-pity. It gives her work an emotional integrity that resonates long after you’ve stopped laughing.

“The Swimmer” (John Cheever) For every cheerful depiction of the convivial camaraderie of drinking, there is someone living the toxic nightmare of addiction. John Cheever captures the dark, chaotic recklessness of chronic alcoholism in his startling short story, “The Swimmer”. Surreal and hypnotic, the story depicts the slow collapse of a life dragged under by habitual benders and the hazy confusion brought on by too many booze-induced blackouts. Cheever knew a thing or two about drinking to excess. His lifelong struggle with alcoholism was a family affair, with his father and his brother both sufferers, and Cheever almost died from an alcohol-induced embolism before he was able to quit drinking for good. In “The Swimmer”, Cheever depicts the pain and vulnerability at the core of self-destructive behavior while avoiding showing any sympathy for the damage that it does. It’s poignant, enlightening, and a little scary.

Honorable Mention: The Secret History (Donna Tartt) Get drunk with your friends! Pretend you’re a deer! Maybe kill some people! HAHAHHAHAHAHA parties are fun!





Action Item
For more silly words about The Secret History, click here. And, for the record, I will happily make Pitchers Of Dorian Grey Gooses/Geese for Donna Tartt any time she wants.

The Reason I’m Reacting

I am surfacing for air after an intense binge reading week. Like, a don’t-talk-to-people-have-food-delivered-take-your-book-with-you-everywhere week. You know: maniacal. I think that I may have been reacting to the dream I had in which I had a visit from Thornton Wilder. (If you’re curious about that little nugget, catch up here.) I’ve been wondering what Thornton might be trying to convey. Why me? As an actual writer, is he personally offended by my amateur-hour book blog? Is he curious about how to set up his own WordPress account? Does he think my book choices are not challenging enough? Is he making fun of me behind my back to all the other ghost Pulitzer prize authors at the ghost Pulitzer prize cocktail parties?

In short, I read a lot this week because I am worried about being judged by an award-winning figment of my imagination. Let’s see how that played out at the bookstore!

The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson) Make no mistake-Shirley Jackson is here to play with your head. She knows how to scare you and she is going to scare you, so put your feet up and enjoy the ride. If you’ve read any Shirley Jackson, it’s probably her short story, “The Lottery”, because it has ascended to Required Reading status. It’s there for a reason: “The Lottery” is so scary it will hide behind your closet door just so it can scream “BOO” when you go to change your shoes. Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House is a ghost story, a gothic horror novel, and a master class in subtle atmospheric manipulation. SHIRLEY JACKSON WANTS YOU NERVOUS. Using the standard horror premise, “let’s all spend the night in a haunted house and see if it’s really haunted”, Jackson uses distorted perceptions and exploits character flaws to make every word suspenseful. The wall between reality and imagination becomes thinner and thinner. What keeps us civilized? What keeps us human? How easily are we broken?
PS: Safety tip for you: Just assume the house is haunted without sleeping in it. Why am I even having to tell you this?

The Last Days Of Night (Graham Moore) Widespread use of harnessed electricity is a technological innovation that is barely 100 years old, but it is ubiquitous to the point of invisibility. Really: how often do you think about electricity? The only time I think about electricity is when I can’t find a place to charge my phone, and I need my phone charged because those candies aren’t going to crush themselves, people.  The Last Days Of Night tells the origin story of all those blazing lights and Teslas that now populate daily life. The right to capitalize on the commercial adaptation of electricity for household use was an out-and-out legal brawl between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. The interplay between the inventors, the engineers, the businessmen, and the lawyers is fascinating. Nobody played fair, and nobody played nice. There’s no crying in the engineering lab. Graham Moore has looked at all those inscrutable historical documents and extracted a lively, incredible story that sparks and crackles. (GET IT)

Arcadia (Lauren Groff) Lauren Groff’s 2015 novel, Fates and Furies, is an amazingbeautifulheartrendingmasterful book that I am still not over. (Feel free to indulge my fangirling about that book here.) Arcadia, published in 2012, is a story about the lifespan of a commune in upstate New York. From the 1970s and into the future, Groff traces the fervent idealism that gives way to the reality of the daily grind that gives way to the abandoning of the effort through the eyes of Bit. Born into the commune community, Bit grows up ranging the fields and woods of Arcadia, the commune co-founded by his parents with their charismatic friend Handy. Handy is more interested in glory and attention than in the reality of governing the commune. Working with his parents to keep their utopia afloat and then finding his way in the wider world as he grows up and the community that he loves so much falls apart, Bit sees himself as the keeper of the flame. He maintains the desire for purity and goodness, the motives that made Arcadia such an attractive proposition, even as it is doomed to fail. Groff looks at what inspires loyalty and dedication, what makes people stay together, and what damage can be done and undone over a lifetime. I love the way she threads Greek mythology into the book, illustrating that the ways people love each other and hurt each other aren’t new; they are just new to us.

I hope all this plays well when Thornton tells his friends. Maybe I’ll even get an invite to the next cocktail party.



I’ll wear something subtle.



Action Items
All of these books were procured at Sundog Books in Seaside, Florida. Shop your local indie bookstore!
The Haunting of Hill House has been adapted into a movie twice, in 1963 and in 1999. (I haven’t seen them because I don’t like scary movies that scare me.)


The Reason You Like Me, You Really Like Me

Last night, I had dinner with a group of friends that I have known for a while. We get together every few weeks or so, put a bottle of wine on the table, and catch up with each other on all the things that are happening, or have happened, or might happen. We ask each other for advice. We giggle (or in my case, laugh very loudly with a noise that might make you think “Is there a donkey here? And did someone set its tail on fire? THAT IS A VERY BAD NOISE.”)and we never leave without making plans for the next time we will see each other, because we like each other, and it’s always good to have future plans to be with people you like. It makes all the days where you have to spend time with people you don’t like endurable. (Sure, it’s easier to avoid people you don’t like, but honestly, unlikable jackwagons have a way of forcing themselves into all kinds of situations.)

The connections that sustain, that provide pleasure, that ring with value, happen with people and—at least for me—with books. Connecting with a book is unpredictable. Falling in love with a book is like falling in love with a person–you caught lightning in your bottle. But what attracts the lightning in the first place? It’s easy to define what repels lightning. Dealbreakers include not sharing your french fries, not letting me eat your french fries, and not offering me any of your french fries. (Also I will need some ketchup.) There’s no way to guarantee that spark between people will turn into a friendship or that opening a book will lead to a new favorite read. There are some ways that make it more likely for a friendship to cement, and that is to start with a character who is delightful, a character who makes all your encounters interesting, a character who manages to command your attention without hogging the spotlight. Such is the Russian gentleman and citizen of the world Count Alexander Rostov in Amor Towles’s absorbing new book, A Gentleman In Moscow. THIS BOOK, Y’ALL.
You: Why is she running around in a circle flapping her hands?
Book: She’ll calm down in a minute
You: Ok but WHY
Book: She does this when she really likes a book

I want to tell you all the things about this book ALL OF THEM PLS READ IT SO WE CAN JUST TALK ABOUT IT OK but in the interest of you not pushing me out of a moving blog, I will reluctantly limit myself to some major fangirling over Count Alexander Rostov. Born into Russian royalty at the turn of the century, Count Rostov behaves as it is expected for a Russian gentleman to behave. He speaks French, he travels, he is educated and worldly, and he conducts himself impeccably in the nuanced, complicated code of a European aristocrat. Unfortunately for him, that whole skill set gets super unpopular at the onset of the Russian revolution. Like, stand-by-that-wall-and-wait-to-get-shot unpopular. Luckily for us, Count Rostov escapes a date with an itchy Bolshevik trigger finger and is instead sentenced to a lifetime of house arrest at the Hotel Metropol in sunny, balmy Moscow. The book commences as Count Rostov’s trial concludes and spools out a life spent in the same in the same location, never free to go, only free to stay. He is so good at his staying that I am looking into “House Arrest At A Hotel” retirement packages because I am SOLD. I want the deluxe version, where my room is next to Rostov’s and I get to hang out with him at the bar every night, thus fulfilling my family motto “If You Can’t Make Friends Buy Imaginary Book Ones As Part Of Your Retirement Planning.” (We have it inscribed in Latin on our family crest, which is an emu stealing food out of a car at a wildlife safari.)
You: That was a lot of words
Book: Yup
You: I’m just saying, it doesn’t seem like she limited herself there
Book: Fangirls have no limits



Family pride.


Russian history is epic, but since 1922 Russian history has attempted to cram all the epic it could possibly ingest into one big history meal. It’s an epic binge. The Revolution, Lenin, World War II, Stalin, the Cold War, the Iron Curtain—it’s a nonstop history carousel. Count Rostov is our witness to these larger events outside the hotel walls, but they happen in A Gentleman in Moscow where so much of history actually happens: in conversations over dinner, or tea, or at the bar. Towles writes Rostov not as a rigid, reactionary protector of his royal class birthright, but as a man who delights in serving others, who seeks out and enjoys the company of all people. Everyone has value in his eyes, and it is his ability to make these connections that save him, over and over again, and make him such a pleasure to spend time with.

Likability is a slippery quality because likability in and of itself is easily fabricated. I mean, sociopaths are likable. Jerks are likable. Justin Bieber is likable. It’s when likability comes wrapped in sincerity that you get magic. You can fake the volume of your hair, you can fake your orgasms, but you can’t really fake sincerity. Rostov isn’t perfect, but he is sincere. Instead of embracing his entitlement to a world lost to him, he blooms where he is planted. Sure, if you have to go to prison, your best case scenario is a hotel as opposed to a—well, a prison. I trust Count Rostov, though. He would have been a gentleman anywhere.
You: Who is faking org—
Book: Nobody
You: No one told me this was a smut blog


Action Items
Amor Towles’s first book, Rules Of Civility, is a good one too.