The Reason For Thank You Notes

I’ve never won a major award. Also, I’ve never won an intermediate award or a minor award or even a free pitcher of margaritas at Trivia Night. I have in fact been overlooked in all categories of every award in every industry, including the ones that seemed a sure thing, like Best Repeated Abuse Of Split Infinitives or J.D. Power and Associates Best Customer Service (General Literature Blog Mass Market Segment). I’m not bitter-MUCH-because it’s really true that it’s an honor just to be nominated. It’s always seemed to me that the most satisfying part of winning any award in public is the opportunity to publicly express gratitude to the people that have stood with you on whatever journey you’ve been on that led you to that podium. We’ve all seen that at the big performer-centered award shows: tearful recipients clutching something gold and shiny, rushing through a list of names, trying to ward off the “shut up already” orchestra music.

It must be difficult to get that once-in-a-lifetime chance to say THANK YOU only to be thwarted by a commercial break. If you want an unlimited gratitude plan, you need to publish a book. Authors have it figured out because a published book presents legions of places to thank every family member, editor, librarian, barista, dog, cat, and historical dead-type people that offered support, inspiration, or grilled cheese sandwiches during the writing of the book. There’s a Dedication page. Not enough space there? Please, expand in the Acknowledgments section, and tell us more. Need to offer more thoughts to tie it all together? There is always the Epilogue option. As a reader, I devour every word in these sections, because I am fascinated and moved by the communities and the processes that produce my favorite books, and also I’m trying to put off doing my laundry.

All For You Author dedications run the gamut from silly to sad to serious. Often, dedications are memorials to honor loved ones who have passed, such as Charles Finch’s simple lines in his nautical mystery Burial At Sea to his grandmother “who loved sea stories”.  When it comes right down to it, though, my winner for the ultimate dedication goes to British poet and playwright Robert Browning. Robert Browning was one-half of the Victorian poetry power couple Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and there ain’t no celebrity like Victorian poet celebrity cuz Victorian poet celebrity got formal rules of comportment and sexual repression. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were already separately established on the literary B list when they married in  1846. It was during their marriage that Robert produced one of his most important works, Men and Women.  It’s a substantial work of 51 poems and in the last poem, Browning speaks directly to the reader and dedicates the entire incredible collection to his beloved wife. Think about that the next time you buy your significant other a funny Hallmark card with a picture of cartoon cat saying “I love you so much I brought you a dead mouse”.  Basically: you had the choice between epic poetry and dead rodents, and you blew it. Browning knew exactly what to do with his authorial podium – tell the whole world that his best writing was ultimately a gift for his wife. (Elizabeth was no slouch in the dedication department, either. Her masterwork, Sonnets From The Portuguese,  consists of love sonnets written to her husband and gave the world the immortal lines “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”. Take that, Hallmark.)

The Chair Recognizes  Where a dedication is limited to one person, maybe two, or a family, all limits are off in the Acknowledgements.  An author can acknowledge everybody. No worries about time limits, or forgetting someone and having to recover in the press room. Acknowledgments are a lovely way to loop in not only the professional relationships that take a book from idea to publication but all the other key people in an author’s circle. I love reading these, but my inner nerd is most happy when reading acknowledgments in any book that is history-related because I am so DOWN with learning about anyone’s research processes. History authors got some damn fine research processes, just sayin’, and nobody is finer than Laura Hillenbrand. Her meticulous, painstaking research has produced two of the finest American history books ever written, Seabiscuit and Unbroken.   Laura Hillenbrand’s research methods are an art form. YUP I SAID THAT. FIGHT ME. The acknowledgments for Seabiscuit read almost as a love letter to how intimate and personal history truly is, unpacking Hillenbrand’s tenacious approach that combines painstaking thoroughness with wildly open curiosity. Before it was history, it was someone’s life, and Hillenbrand acknowledges those lives with respect and sensitivity. GAH I just talked myself into re-reading Seabiscuit.

Just One More Thing Dedications and acknowledgments are as common as dirt. When an author wants to get atypical, then it’s Epilogue time. It’s fancy to add an epilogue. Not country club fancy. More like, expensive mascara fancy. When an author needs to put a bow on what you’ve just read, a bow that needs the emotional weight of a dedication and the space afforded by an acknowledgment, then an epilogue delivers the perfect flavor of closure.  Jenny Lawson illustrates this absolutely perfectly in her book about living with mental illness, Furiously Happy. This book is intentionally hilarious, not to downplay the seriousness of her disease, but to highlight the impact anxiety and depression have on her day-to-day life and how she chooses to cope with these chronic conditions. In her epilogue, she allows the humor to fall away in a heartfelt, raw appeal to people that she knows are sharing the same struggles. Mental illness is an isolating condition, often complicated by shame and stigma. Lawson uses her time at the podium to remind her most vulnerable readers that they are valued. It’s the perfect bow.


This is gonna be one hell of an epilogue

It’s awards season. Go ahead. Pretend you’re getting that award you know you deserve, grab a spatula, and practice your epic acceptance speech in the mirror. It will be our secret.


Action Items
Extra credit if you read any of Robert Browning’s poetry.

The Reason For Hearts And Flowers

When I was growing up, part of every summer was spent visiting my grandparents. Every branch of my family would descend simultaneously on my grandparents’ house for a week or two in July every year. There was always something going on, somewhere to go or do or see, but when there wasn’t, I knew exactly how to amuse myself. I’d go off in a corner and curl up with a book—but not just any book. I’d curl up with books I could only read when I was visiting my grandmother and my passel of cousins was otherwise occupied. You see, my grandmother was a member of the Harlequin Romance Club.

For the uninitiated, Harlequin romances are the gold standard of the romance genre. It was the Harlequin company that recognized that there was a big, underserved community of romance readers and it focused on making romance available on a mass scale—inexpensive paperbacks available in grocery stores and via a monthly subscription service. The latter is how my grandmother got her Harlequins – 4 books delivered every month. Since she was a customer for years and years, and she never threw anything away, there were approximately 1,23,5.200,782infinity Harlequin paperbacks in her house. The covers were all the same: soft-focus illustrations of brooding male faces leveraging squinty, steely-eyed glances at a demurely dressed woman with blue eyes and flowing hair looking intensely at a sunset/ocean/horse’s face. There was tension in those little watercolors. Grownup tension.

I read every single one my grandmother owned, so I can safely say I have master’s degree in How To Harlequin. Every book stuck to the same idea of what it meant to be in a romance. The only thing that varied was the color of the heroine’s hair, which could be blond (best), red (okay), or rich brunette (if we have to, but don’t you have a blond sister who can tag in?) Getting to the happy ending, which was always a marriage proposal, followed these five principles.
1. Be a virgin. If you can’t be a virgin, be a widow. THERE IS NO OTHER OPTION.
2. Catch the eye of an unmarried handsome wealthy cowboy pilot firefighter
3. The moodier the cowboy pilot firefighter is, the more he needs to be married
4. Don’t put out, hold out…. for a ring and a date
5. Behave yourself. The only shade of gray you’ll find in these stories is white, because that is what a virgin who is raised right wears on her wedding day, dammit.

If you wanted to know anything about romance outside of man + woman=marriage story arc, then move along. Harlequin is not the book you are looking for. These books end the second Moody Marvin pops the question and never went one page past the proposal. I guess wedding planning was just too titillating? All those bosoms heaving over china patterns and cake fillings…SMUT.

The reason that I dusted off my Harlequin memories and waltzed them down the aisle is because I just finished reading Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest release. Eligible is a modern update of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and is the fourth book to come out of The Austen Project, an initiative by HarperCollins retelling six Jane Austen novels by six contemporary authors. I wasn’t really looking for a new Pride and Prejudice experience when I picked up Eligible. In fact, I had no idea that Eligible was a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice because I was evidently living under a rock last summer when this book was released and missed the plethora of interviews and articles about it. My motivation was actually completely purposeless: I was ready for my next book and I liked Eligible’s red cover. So, yeah, I’m DEEP. For the moments when I’m actually craving a Jane Austen fix, I normally follow these five principles.
1. Read a Jane Austen book by Jane Austen
2. Put on fuzziest fat pants and turn on Clueless
3. Watch Emma Thompson’s Golden Globes acceptance speech for Sense and Sensibility
4. Write a strongly worded letter about someone’s bad manners
5. Wear an Empire-waisted dress with elbow length gloves

For Curtis Sittenfeld, however, exceptions must be made.

Eligible finds the five Bennet sisters in present-day Cincinnati, where the siblings are gathered at the family home to help their father recuperate from a heart attack. Sittenfeld’s real success in this book are the tight, sly characterizations that are her signature. The sisters’ micro loyalties, petty grievances, and ever-shifting family alliances are at the heart of the book and provide a wealth of comic moments. But Pride and Prejudice is where Jane Austen’s most famous romance lives, the tangled, tortured tale of Mr. Darcy and Liz Bennet. (If for some reason you manage to forget that the Darcy/Liz romance exists,  don’t worry. The universe will pick up your slack and remind you because every 3 months or so another adaptation of Pride and Prejudice hits a big and/or small screen.) Eligible does a wonderful job of bringing this iconic couple forward, and Sittenfeld’s clever twist on their courtship feels fresh and fun.


A Harlequin Great Dane puppy: The romantic hero we all deserve

Mr. Darcy would fit right in the Harlequin universe. (The Harleverse?). He’s moody and mostly cranky and wealthy and unmarried and he’s always glowering at Liz Bennet from across a room. Liz is where the mold is gets broken, though. Her path to her proposal isn’t demure, and it isn’t separated from her sexuality, and there’s no way she’s going to behave herself. Dating has changed a great deal in the last 200 years, but Liz Bennet hasn’t. I get you, Darcy. I’d go for her too.


Action Items
Not sure which adaptation Mr. Darcy is for you? It’s ok. Buzzfeed will help you figure it out. And THAT is how the internet is magic.

Add Curtis Sittenfeld’s other books, Prep and American Wife, to your stack. They have pretty covers too.

The Reason Strings Never Break

I have been thinking a lot lately about one of my favorite plays, Six Degrees of Separation.  Written by John Guare, it examines the existential idea that everyone in the world is linked to everyone else in the world by six people, that ultimately we are all someone’s “friend of a friend of a friend”. It was first staged in 1990 and won lots of good awards, and was adapted into a movie (for which Stockard Channing received an Oscar nomination).  The play’s story explores what happens when a young con man worms his way into the lives of comfortably wealthy Upper East siders. Flan and Ouisa Kittredge are targeted by Paul, who gains the couple’s sympathy and access to their home by claiming he attends school with their college-aged son. Once Paul’s criminal intentions get him kicked out by the Kittredges, he finds a new victim and starts another con. As his life spirals into destruction, Paul returns to the Kittredges for help yet again. The play’s emotional weight rests on how Ouisa and Flan wrestle with whether or not they should save Paul.  What makes a stranger familiar? How much do we rely on the currency of who-knows-who to determine who we let into our lives? Can we recognize the humanity in those who have wronged us? It’s an amazing play, one of my favorites, and I love the concept of the connection by six degrees.

The other thing on my mind right now is Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon. It’s a party game that marries the idea of six degrees of separation – that everyone is linked by six or fewer acquaintances – with Kevin Bacon’s ubiquitous movie career. To play, name any actor, and try to link that actor back to Kevin Bacon in six or fewer connections. It elevated Kevin Bacon from famous actor to pop culture icon and created a whole generation of people who committed the cast lists from every one of his movies to memory. There are whole websites dedicated to this game, you can get an app for it, and Kevin Bacon designed his non-profit foundation around it.

It’s at the intersection of Separation and Kevin Bacon where my friend John and I dwell. John and I have been friends for a long time. When I met John, we were at one degree of separation, by way of our mutual friend Todd. Todd was my hair stylist, and he and John started working at the same salon. Our introduction was unremarkable; Todd said to me, “That’s John”, and then Todd and I spent the duration of my appointment talking nonstop and playing Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon. Other than saying “Nice to meet you”, I didn’t talk with John that day; he was with a client, and it’s hard to get a word in when Todd and I get ramped up.  I was, therefore, a little startled when back at the salon six weeks later, I walked in to John greeting me by hollering “JIM GARNER!” across the room at me. Just “JIM GARNER!” No “Hello, nice to see you again”, just eye contact and “JIM GARNER!” It took me a second to tie the threads together: this was John, I’d met him last time I was in the salon when I’d played Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, and apparently he was now was throwing a Bacon number gauntlet.

And so, in the ways that our connections to each other make new connections, I had a new friend. That first Six Degrees conversation sums up our dynamic: his agile mind is always one or two or ten steps ahead, and I enjoy playing catch-up the best I can. His intelligence is one of the things I love most about him. It manifests in his wicked sense of humor, in his business instincts, but most of all it shines through in his self-awareness. He knows who he is, and he knows what will work for him, and he stays true to himself.

The stark honesty of Six Degrees of Separation and the silliness of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon – these embody John for me. They are weighing on me now because just a few days back, John revealed that he has been battling invasive cancer for the past year and that there are no longer any effective treatment options. He’s made the decision to move back to his childhood hometown while he still can and to go into hospice there, the place where his beautiful mother and adoring sisters live. It’s all such a shock, and yet it isn’t because it’s exactly how I would expect John to handle these momentous things. Straightforwardly. Matter-of-factly. Uncompromisingly.

Of all of John’s finer qualities, the one that presents consistently is loyalty. His circle is tight, devoted, and deep.  It suits John, being attached, which is why he has gone home to be with the ones to whom he is most attached. He has left because he is leaving, ending where he began. In the production notes for Six Degrees Of Separation, John Guare says he structured the play so that the lines of dialogue flow rapidly, to mimic the feeling of time rushing by. That contradiction, of slowing down to read a play about time slipping away, feels accurate. Minutes can drag, but when something is over, all we can think about is how quickly it passed. I have known John for years. I haven’t known him long enough.

Six Degrees Of Separation concludes as Ouisa Kittredge sheds her sophisticated isolation and embraces Paul’s humanity. She recognizes her own vulnerability. It is humbling. Is finding salvation in a flawed package any less a gift? By degrees, we are bound, and by degrees, we let go. Like hand-strung pearls, tightly and expertly nestled, we are forever together and forever distinct from the people in our lives. If we are lucky, we realize that we can bask in the luster of the pearls that surround us. By degrees, our strings grow, and by degrees, they contract. Eventually, our separations are measured by a different distance.

Japanese akoya cultured pearls are pictured at Ohata pearl industry in Ise, western Japan



Photo credit Reuters