I am buzzing around this week, packing for a cross-country trip. Of course, by “packing”, I mean “Spending most of my time obsessing about my book choices and ignoring the empty open suitcase”. I’m thinking it’s time for a re-read of Helter Skelter, and I am also thinking it’s likely I’ll forget to bring shoes.
My travel strategy for books? Invite a diva. Here’s how I do it:
Parking is basic geometry, right? To prevent chaos and to maximize space, we’ve devised a simple system whereby you are obligated to maneuver your rectangle-shaped car into a larger car-shaped rectangle. Not too complicated, yet based on my observations that I make in every parking lot I enter, parking a car is either so easy an single-celled organism lacking opposable thumbs could do it blindfolded, or so difficult that a single-celled organism could have a master’s in applied math from MIT and still not be able to keep those wheels appropriately parallel and perpendicular. Any parking lot, anywhere, will prove that some people aren’t feeling the rectangles. Some people are just out there rhombusing and trapezoiding through life, and if they take up multiple parking spaces in the process, you just need to stand back and understand not everyone fits into your little rectangle world, KAREN. The rebels are here, and they are coming for all the parking spaces.
That same feeling of sticking it to the man comes over me every time I wander away from my planned reading list. There is a me with a proper TBR stack and a detailed calendar allotting each book its appropriate reading time. Then there is a me that is easily distracted by shiny book covers and friends who say “Hey have you read this? You will love it!” The back and forth between these two versions of me is vicious and bloody except there is no blood and I’m really nice to me all the time and I win no matter what because I’m reading, but still. VICIOUSNESS. BLOOD. FLAUNTED GEOMETRY.
The me that chases the book squirrels won the latest round, because as I was engaged in some light Kondo-ing, I unearthed a copy of Henry James’s Daisy Miller and Other Stories that I purchased at a used bookstore and promptly forgotten about. Woot! I pressed pause on the next planned book from my TBR stack, and in the spirit of trying to keep it fun and footloose in 2019, I decided to give myself a little reading challenge. Nothing from my TBR stack allowed, and I had to find two more books with ‘daisy’ in the title. A quick Google search later and it was ON, Daisy-style.
Daisy Miller and Other Stories-Henry James is an attention whore and I love him for it. His signature writing style is basically “I WILL GIVE YOU ALL THE PAGES AND YOU WILL SUFFER AND THANK ME” and he’s not wrong. I read his novel Portrait Of A Lady eleventy-billion years ago and I still think about that book once a week. Henry James wrote a bunch of other stuff that I need to get around to (The Ambassadors, I am coming for you, I swear) but thanks to Marie Kondo, this Henry James Wheel Of Fortune spin landed on Daisy Miller, a Gilded Age novella about a wealthy, unconventional American girl traveling through Europe with her wealthy, unconventional family. Daisy’s story is told to us by Winterbourne, a conventional American living in Europe with his conventional family and guess what? Opposites attract. Daisy operates with all the subtlety of a roller derby to as she attempts to navigate the formal, structured society of the American wealthy who settled across the pond at the turn of the century. Her brashness and candor, qualities exalted in America, make her too American as she struggles to find a place in the Old World. Winterbourne, by turns, admires and is exasperated by Daisy, and he’s powerless in the face of her charm. Daisy Miller hits all the Henry James high notes that I love-a little bit sinister, a little bit snobby-so to answer your question, yes, it sparked a buttload of joy.
Please Don’t Eat The Daisies – Jean Kerr was an Irish American author and Tony Award-winning playwright. Married to drama critic Walter Kerr, she wrote humorous essays about her domestic life as wife to Walter and mother to their four boys. Her 1957 essay collection, Please Don’t Eat The Daisies, made her a household name when it was adapted to the big screen with the 1960 Doris Day/David Niven movie “Please Don’t Eat The Daisies” and the small screen with a television series of the same name. Having been within three feet of a television in the past four decades, I have seen the movie “Please Don’t Eat The Daisies” multiple times. It pops up once every few months…perhaps mandated by local ordinance? Or due to great work by Doris Day’s PR team? I have no idea, but I’d always harbored mild curiosity about the source material and thanks to my Square Peg Round Daisy Reading Challenge, I finally made the time. Kerr’s work is funny and relatable, assuming that you, too, are a fixture of the Broadway community who decides to purchase a castle in Connecticut when you finally make the move out of your New York apartment. Not all of the essays in this book survive the journey from 1957 to 2019-I spent a lot of time looking up references so I could get the joke-but Jean Kerr’s sparkle and dry wit are clear.
Daisy Jones & The Six-This is the newest book by novelist Taylor Jenkins Reid and the first book I have read by this author. Let me say, oh so happily, that I picked the right time to tag in. You don’t have to be obsessed with VH1’s “Behind The Music” (which I am) or Rob Sheffield’s kinetic music-centered memoir Talking To Girls About Duran Duran (which I am) to completely fall into this flashback history of the fictional seventies rock band The Six, but it definitely helped me love it that much more. The book’s structure allows for each member of the band to tell the story of the rise and fall of the wildly successful The Six during the late 70s, the time when the music industry defined stadium rock. It’s a fascinating character study, a riveting story, and a commentary on the unique demands of fame and talent, and it was an absolutely delicious reading experience. I give it 10 out of 10 Fleetwood Macs.
Challenge completed, so it’s back to my nice, rectangular TBR stack.
I forgive you-I forgive all of you-for the daisy chain jokes you made in your head the whole time you were reading this.
Marking the passage of our individual journeys around the sun is a lovely and meaningful tradition. With cake, presents, and flattering candlelight, we celebrate the passage of one more year and use fire to call for blessings for the next one to come. We surround ourselves with the people we love the most, or at least with the people who will give us the best presents. Milestone birthdays are particularly noteworthy, as we pause at the threshold of a new decade to reflect on how our perspectives change with age, how our life experiences reward and challenge us, and decide exactly what kind of stripper we want to show up at our 40th birthday party.
40th birthday party strippers come in every permutation you can imagine, but one of the most memorable ones I’ve ever seen was a large, leather-wearing, BDSM-themed dude named Larry who was hired as a surprise for a notoriously shy friend’s 40th. Larry was hilarious, expertly balancing the tightrope between birthday spankings and….um, birthday spankings. He put on a great show for all the party attendees, properly and expertly traumatizing the birthday boy so much that he swore he would celebrate his next milestone birthday in a cave by himself where nobody could applaud while a professional wearing nothing but a harness went after him with a cat-o’-nine-tails. FUN PARTY.
Fast forward. It’s been a couple of years since Larry dominated the birthday boy. A bunch of us, many of whom had been in attendance at a certain 40th birthday party, decide to take a field trip to a particular restaurant way out in the country because we’d heard that they had a great fried chicken buffet followed by an outstanding floor show that featured an Elvis impersonator. By the time the evening in question rolled around, word had spread and we had multiple cars caravaning out to a tiny town on the lake. Everyone had individual motivations for making the trek and we were evenly divided between Team Chicken and Team Elvis. Personally? I was there for both. There were so many of us that we took up about half of the tables in the place. After swarming the buffet (and it was GOOD chicken) and eating our fill, we settled in for the evening’s entertainment. The warm-up impersonators gave me time to digest and wonder if we’d be getting Young Elvis or Hawaii Elvis.
I didn’t have to wait long. Fake Patsy Cline wrapped up her act and a hybrid Young-Looking-But-White-Jumpsuit-Sized Elvis made his big entrance through the side door next to the dessert table. He was delivering a mean “Jailhouse Rock” when a wave of recognition washed over me. Elvis looked familiar, but that made no sense at all. Why on Earth would I know an Elvis impersonator? I am just not that cool. As I puzzled on the feeling, my friend sitting next to me – the one who had hired Larry Leather for her husband’s 40th birthday many moons before – grabbed my arm, moving so suddenly she knocked my empty chicken plate sideways, and said “OH MY GOD! THAT’S LARRY THE STRIPPER.”
It’s a uniquely twisted path that has the same guy taking you from a leather lap dance to “Love Me Tender”. I like a story that comes back on itself, so it makes sense that one of my favorite authors is Lyndsay Faye. There’s no author who can frame a twisted path like Lyndsay Faye, something she proves yet again in her latest book, The Paragon Hotel.The Paragon Hotel is the reading equivalent of a nonstop surprise birthday party-you think everyone’s forgotten it’s your special day, then you walk into a room full of people who can’t wait to see how you react when the stripper shows up. The book opens with speed and sparks as we meet Alice James, riding a train out of 1920s New York to get away from the guy who done her wrong. You think you’re getting a breakup story? Well, that girl’s got a gunshot wound she’s trying to hide from her nosy bunkmate. (That’s your cue. Yell Surpriiiiise! WE REHEARSED THIS.) As Alice’s train pulls into Portland, OR, and a sympathetic porter with a soft heart and a few secrets of his own gets her off the train and into hiding at Portland’s Paragon Hotel, Faye has teased more mysteries about our gun moll refugee than you think possible-that is, until you meet the residents of the Paragon Hotel.
Full disclosure: I have recommended Lyndsay Faye books before on this blog. And in person. And on Twitter. And I’ve given them as gifts. And once, on a trip to NYC, I made my friend Bryn walk with me for 1.5 miles to the Union Square Barnes & Noble because I wanted a signed copy of The FatalFlame, a copy I knew would be there because I low-key stalk Lyndsay Faye across many social media platforms. I guess my point is I’m mostly harmless and nobody here needs to take out a restraining order, ha ha haaaaaaaaa, I’m just saying that everyone should have seen this recommendation coming from a mile away.
Lyndsay Faye’s body of work is defined by meticulous historical research that manifests in wildly interesting, unpredictable characters, and The Paragon Hotel is no exception. There aren’t any sidebar tedious dry authorial subject matter lectures. Instead, the book is filled with people in all their glorious, fickle, human fallibility. The Paragon Hotel is fresh, frank, and brutal. It demands your attention but never wastes your time. Alice’s story expands organically as she bears witness to the heartbreaks and joys of the people who took chances by taking her in while she reconciles herself to her sudden and shocking departure from New York. The Paragon is the eye at the center of multiple hurricanes, and that stormy energy drives the story in unexpected directions. Faye wants you to trust her; in return, she will respect your reading experience. The Paragon Hotel will wreck you, but it will reward you, too.
One day, Lyndsay Faye is going to write a novel about Elvis, birthday party strippers, and an out-of-the-way country restaurant famous for its fried chicken, and I am going to slam the pre-order button so hard it’ll rocket me into a new decade. Join me! I’ll save a piece of cake for you.
Let’s say that you’ve got an Ancient Greek hanging out with you while you’re running around doing errands. Likely as not, your day would go something like this:
You: Man this red light is taking forever
Ancient Greek: The story of the slow red light begins when Zeus distracted his wife Hera by building a fancy water park on the island of Crete. Hera, unable to resist boogie boarding in the wave pool, grabbed all of her maidens and left Zeus alone on Mount Olympus. Free from his wife’s jealous eye, he transformed into a bucket of jumbo buttered popcorn and attempted to seduce
You: Light changed
Ancient Greek: The story of the changing traffic light begins when
You: Give it a rest, Xanthos
The Greeks have a big story for EVERYTHING. Seriously. Pick a subject. Weather? Oooohh, let Xanthos tell you about the shenanigans on Mount Olympus. The seasons? See, Persephone really needed her me time and that’s why trees bloom. Mirrors? Bad hair days? Oak trees? I can do this all day, because the Greeks had every base covered with stories from a complex and intricate community of gods, goddesses, and endless variations of human/immortal hybrids with social lives that rival any Shondaland plotline.
Of all the things the Greeks lauded in their storytelling-beauty, athletic ability, cool chariots-they valued one attribute above all else. The brass ring, the Stanley Cup, the Shake Shack burger of Greek attributes is immortality. No goal was more desired than that of living beyond human limitations, of achievement that would catapult an ordinary man to off the planet to Olympus altitudes. Immortality is the spokesman for the franchise, the thing that defined what sacrifice and nobility meant to the Greeks. We are talking about immortality today because it is immortality that is the center of one of the few books that made reading life bearable for me in 2018, a story about an immortal woman banished for eternity back when eternity meant serious business, not just how long it felt to wait in line to check out at Trader Joe’s.
What would you do with unlimited circles around the sun? Not that Greeks perceived the Earth circling the sun, HAHAHAHAHA AS IF. Ancient Greece pegged itself as the center of the known world, the sun cheerfully charioting around the earth during the day (waves to Helios) and then non-sun time revealing an imaginary sky city full of star dot people, star dot Zodiacs, and some star dot bears. (Yes, astrology is bullshit, but just try saying that to ancient Greeks. They will straight cut you. Are they wrong though? If I have to pick my arbitrary magical personality prediction system, astrology wins every time because it’s fun and there are lots of branding opportunities. You know what Renaissance England gave us as personality predictors? The Humours, featuring Bile and Phlegm. It didn’t get better in the UK until JK Rowling redeemed everything with the Hogwarts sorting hat.)
Madeline Miller, a classics scholar and Greek/Latin teacher, takes the Greek idea of immortality and gives it her full, formidable attention in her gorgeous and compelling novel Circe. Circe is Miller’s second book and a continuation of her novelization of Greek mythology (go read her first book, Song of Achilles, RIGHT NOW.) Circe is a daughter of Helios, the cranky sun god, and niece of Zeus, the cranky thunder god. Zeus becomes angry (duh) with Circe when she offers assistance to Prometheus, who…okay, we cannot go down the Greek-god-family-tree-and-why-Zeus-is-a-butthead rabbit hole right now because we will be here all day. Suffice it to say that Zeus was a control freak who was a little hypersensitive about loyalty and a creative streak when it came to revenge, and Helios backed him up on everything due to Fear Of Thunderbolt To The Face. To punish Circe for her transgression, Zeus banishes her for life to an island off the coast of…Greece, probably, but this is not a map blog so let’s not sweat that detail either.
“Banished for life” is a bummer phrase, but if you’re an ordinary human, at least there’s an end to banishment because death comes for all mortals eventually. I mean, you are only going to have to come up with so many ways to fill time. But what if you’re part god and “banished for life” means you’re never getting off that island, times infinity? What is it to have endless time in solitary confinement? In some of the most marvelous passages in the book, Circe takes on her Island Challenge. With the occasional visit from Hermes, a cousin from the Gods Squad, she establishes a home, tames a lion, and invents witchcraft. Banishment sucks, yes, but real estate and an exotic animal farm sure soften the blow. Just ask Lisa Douglas.
If you read Homer’s The Odyssey – and if you did, give yourself a big high-five – you probably remember Circe as a sorceress who turns Odysseus’s crew into pigs. She exists primarily to give Odysseus yet another obstacle to overcome as he earns his place in the company of the immortals, becoming the hero whose story is told time and again. Miller’s book asks the question: Why does an island-bound goddess want to turn anyone into a pig in the first place? And as it turns out, pig-dude transformations are the least interesting thing about Circe. This book presents a deity growing into her inherited power and making it her own, an origin story for a woman who decides that immortality is as much her destiny as that of any of the powerful men who try to negate her with geography.
Madeline Miller’s attention to detail and lavish treatment of her subjects has her on pace to publish a new book every ten years, but I’m going to need her to pick up the pace. At this rate, I’m only going to get to read a couple more of her books. Not all of us are immortal, Madeline.
In loving memory of fellow book nerd Linda Brown, a fiercely beautiful soul who had her own amazing trove of epic stories. I hope everyone on Mount Olympus knows how lucky they are to have her.
I’ll be blunt. I really didn’t enjoy reading in 2018.
I’ll be blunter. 2018 reading was a chore. Drudgery. Laborious. A straight-up drag.
I’ve done a blunt little root cause analysis of the whole blunt mess, and I can reasonably admit that the whole frustrating year was completely my fault. After all, I was the source of all my book decisions, and I was making (mostly) very bad ones. The first couple of months of the year, when every book seemed to be a struggle and I found myself out of my accustomed reading groove, I wasn’t really worried. It’s not like I mindlessly enjoy every book I pick up-some just aren’t my thing. “Hey, it’s not like you mindlessly enjoy every book you pick up”, I said to myself encouragingly. “Some books just aren’t your thing.” But as the year went on, and my reading activity went from bad, to worse, to baffled confusion, I found myself avoiding my reading pile like it was a bathroom scale at a monthly weigh-in. I just didn’t want to know how bad it could get.
It’s easy to fall into a rut, but in 2018 my reading funk was beyond a simple rut. I was in a canyon. Of despair. An actual despair canyon full of sadness and…um, despair. My usual effortless reading life deserted me – just up and vamoosed, and it didn’t even leave a note. My hobby, my favorite way to spend my time, my go-to in my hours of boredom, did not deliver. With a few notable exceptions, 2018 sucked bookmarks.
If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself – or in the case of my 2018 curated reading list, if you want something done wrong you have to do that yourself too. I crowded my 2018 stack with titles that I thought I should read, but nothing I really wanted to read. I had all the wrong motivations about what I thought would make me look smart, or what would make me look like an accomplished reader. I chose books based on literary snobbishness and walked away from books I truly thought I would enjoy. Because…why? Because enjoying things is wrong?!? Because I wanted to get an A?!? Because I wanted to punish myself for…liking to do a thing?!? It was all so stupid. By the time December rolled around, I was ready to blow up my self-actualized bookshaming cycle like so many New Year’s Roman candles.
I decided to throw myself a kickoff party, a grand gesture to celebrate my return in the universal place of things. It worked for Jay Gatsby! My first order of business was to go all scorched earth on my reading list. I took everything to the beach, piled all my dead weight books into a canoe that I’d put aside for just such an occasion, set it on fire, and pushed it out into the water. The flames illuminated my triumphant face as the canoe carried the books off to their afterlife.
Ok, whatever. I just deleted some stuff from my Kindle and donated the hard copies I didn’t want to the library. But I did all that VERY dramatically. Then, on January 1, I sat down and cracked open a book that I’d been eyeing for months, a book that really understands the value of over-the-top dramatic gestures: China Rich Girlfriend, the second book in Kevin Kwan’s fizzy and fantastic Crazy Rich Asians trilogy.
China Rich Girlfriend expands the wealthy world introduced in CrazyRich Asians when NYU professor Rachel Chu marries Nick Young, of the uber-wealthy Singapore Youngs. Nick’s kajillionaire family has influence and connections far beyond Singapore, and China Rich Girlfriend finds Rachel and Nick on and off private jets as they travel Asia meeting friends, helping Nick’s family, and getting to know Rachel’s extended family. Rachel’s outsider status provides readers with the perfect guide into the hyper-consumptive world of the wildly rich. Lush with designer details, Kevin Kwan creates a rarefied atmosphere that beautifully frames relatable characters engaged in universal struggles. It’s a really fun read and it’s got me making travel plans for what feels like every country in Asia. Thanks to China Rich Girlfriend, my mojo is back. It’s such a relief. I feel like myself again, or at least like a lesser cousin to some crazy rich Asians.
I liked China Rich Girlfriend so much that the minute I finished it I downloaded Rich People Problems…so know I guess you know how I spent January 2.
In case you were wondering what those notable exceptions to the “Everything Is Bad in 2018” rule are?
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Circe by Madeline Miller
Educated by Tara Westover
It’s been a hot minute since I talked about my book life, mostly because I have not had one. Owing to a busier-than-expected work schedule and other general mayhem, not only have I not written about books, I didn’t even have time to read any books in the last few months of last year. Like any mature adult, I handled that by pouting, whining, and complaining excessively to everyone within earshot.
I hit the new year determined to get words in front of my eyeballs and I am making progress and I am pleased to report that my whining has decreased by 62%. That’s SCIENCE, y’all.
My Kindle right now. Woot!
My Kindle and I are getting along beautifully these days. If you want to check out what we have been up to, I am faithfully updating Goodreads. I’m at Bookreasons over there, in case wondering what I’m reading is keeping you up at night.
There are many things for which I am 100% trash: Videos of cussing parrots. Generously poured glasses of red wine, particularly ones I am not personally buying. James Bond movies. I always show up for these things, sometimes even wearing something other than Old Navy sweats and my Echo and the Bunnymen t-shirt. In my reading life, I also have cherished, unproblematic faves that never fail me: Any book related to, set in, or about the Victorian Era/Gilded Age. The month of November. The mystery and crime genre.
Why is November, the calendar’s turkiest month, on this list? I have two really good reasons. November contains the Thanksgiving holiday, which is when I pull M.F.K. Fisher’s marvelous The Gastronomical Me off the shelf for the annual ReReadMFKFisherFest, which runs the entire fourth week of November. And delightfully, November is the month during which author Charles Finch reliably and thoughtfully publishes a new Charles Lenox book. Introduced in 2007, the series features amateur gentleman detective Charles Lenox running around Victorian London, solving mysteries and fighting crime. Let’s review this against my Literary Trash list:
Victorian Era: CHECK
November: CHECK CHECK CHECK
See how perfect? It’s been a match made in my little book heaven…until this year. This year, in some marketing meeting that I clearly was not invited to, it was decided that the eleventh Charles Lenox book, The Woman in the Water, would not come out until…. February. What the hell? Those of you keeping score at home have already noted that February is not November. Sure, the success of the Lenox series is now driving bigger, more complex launches, requiring more time and effort for a successful publication, but you know what that sounds like? It sounds like “not my problem”. I had plans the first weekend of November that included shutting myself in a room to binge read. I was probably going to order some pizza, too. For delivery. I’m not saying that Charles Finch’s publisher is responsible for spoiling my big plans and the resulting devastation and heartbreak but it’s very clear that Charles Finch’s publisher is 100% responsible. I see you, Minotaur Books/St. Martin’s.
Today’s Agenda: Why These Two Things Are Not The Same Thing And Are Different
After recovering from the shock of finding that The Woman in the Water would not arrive as expected in NOVEMBER, I put up my red Pout Warning Flag and placed my usual all-the-formats order under protest. I don’t feel like it’s too much to ask that people I don’t know write the exact kind of books I like to read and publish them at the same time at a rate of one per year? But apparently, it is. It is now up to me to fill my Victorian void with other, non-Finch-originated books. I’ve already gotten started, even though it’s not November because I am an overachiever when it comes to poutreading.
The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age The Scarlet Sisters, by historian Myra MacPherson, tells the story of Gilded Age personalities Tennessee Claflin and Victoria Woodhull. Born to petty criminal parents, the sisters rose above their poverty-stricken, chaotic Ohio childhoods to prominent places in New York City’s social reform circles alongside the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Flamboyant and outspoken, these women made their reputation as free thinkers, boldly expressing radical views on everything from spiritualism to suffrage to free love. (I bought this book at The Strand, the magnificent Oz of a bookstore in New York City, because I thought buying a book in New York about New Yorkers who flourished in New York during my favorite historical era was really cool, which of course proves that I have no idea what being cool is.)
Victoria and Tennessee had remarkable media savvy. Using their newsletter Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly to promote provocative and controversial content, they created an audience that flocked to see Victoria lecture about current events and social issues, packing halls in New York and Boston. The sisters went from local notoriety to national headlines when they became embroiled in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal, one of the biggest news stories of the Gilded Age. In 1872, disgusted with what she saw as revolting hypocrisy, Victoria revealed in the Weekly that the famous (married) Reverend Henry Ward Beecher had committed adultery with one of his (married) parishioners. In an icky twist, Reverend Beecher had personally performed the wedding ceremony for the lady in question. (EWWWWWW. This was some quality scandal. But EWWWWW.) The resulting arrests, trials, and Congregationalist Church hearings shocked the nation and dominated the national news for over two years.
It’s hard to read The Scarlet Sisters without drawing a direct line from Gilded Age shenanigans to today’s hashtag culture, with the only real difference being the cycle of news has gone from weeks to hours. On today’s treadmill of disposable outrage, Victoria and Tennessee would already have retired from the lecture circuit and leveraged their Q score to start a sister real-estate competition show on HGTV (”Sell It Under Protest!”) Eventually, wearied and worn out from the relentless attention brought about by their involvement in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal, the sisters left America for England in search of quieter lives. In full rejection of the free love philosophy that defined their identities as fiery independent thinkers in New York, the sisters married conventional, successful men of the British upper class….men not unlike the clever and charming Charles Lenox. (Just because he’s fictional doesn’t mean he’s not #victorianhusbandgoals.)
I learned a whole lot of new Gilded Age stuff courtesy The Scarlet Sisters. For instance, ‘spiritualist’ was a legit career path in 1870. All you needed was a high-profile Greek philosopher ghost willing to talk to you from the beyond and a regular trance schedule. Of course, I would not have to cram all this new knowledge into my head if Charles Finch would just publish The Woman in the Water as expected, but I am nothing if not understanding, flexible, and moderately bitter.
Meet you back here in February.
Action Items Gone Before Christmas, a stand-alone Lenox short story, was published in October. I’m saving it until November but if you want it now, knock yourself out.
One of the best icebreaker questions is the one about choosing a superpower. Personally, I am Team Control Things With My Mind. Having ESP, or telekinesis, or the ability to speak to ghosts-those are some quality characteristics to have if you want to stand out at the next Justice League meeting. There is one mystical phenomenon, though, that’s so common everyone experiences it at one time or another: déjà vu. Translated from French, déjà vu means “already seen”, and people who experience it are overwhelmed with a sense of already having done something concurrently while doing that actual very same something. The sensation gives a bit of a rush that comes from feeling that you are in the past and the present at the same time. Déjà vu also causes anyone having déjà vu to announce “HA HA YOU GUYS OMG I AM TOTALLY HAVING DÉJÀ VU RIGHT NOW” to everyone in the general vu-cinity.
I, too, experience déjà vu, but not the sexy paranormal kind. For instance: every Labor Day weekend, I have dinner with a couple of out-of-town friends. Owing to circumstances and location, we always have dinner in the same restaurant, which oddly enough is a sports bar at a Marriott. It’s not that we’re really passionate about buffalo wings and giant nacho platters, it’s just what works. (OK FINE I LOVE NACHOS ARE YOU HAPPY) We’ve been meeting there every Labor Day for a few years now, and this year, as our meal was winding down and we were getting our check, I complimented our waitperson on her very pretty nail polish color. My compliment led to a very involved, ten minute avalanche conversation about why she’d painted her nails-she was going on vacation and she’d gotten her hair done for her trip too and she was going to a big Caribbean resort and she was afraid to scuba dive but the pool would be soooo fun and did we think she should parasail? This was followed by a detailed report on her bathing suit inventory.
Dazed as I was from the lighting quick speed at which our relationship had gone from distant but polite to besties who tell each other everything, I started to have that very strong “I have definitely lived through this before” feeling. I gloated for a minute, congratulating myself on being a super-spiritual empath who is open to vibes from dimensions that humans cannot even comprehend, and then I remembered: in that very same restaurant, a year to the day before, I had complimented our (different) waitperson on her very attractive (but different) nail polish color, a compliment that led to very involved, ten minute avalanche conversation about how her baby was just learning to walk and she was going to have to fire her babysitter and it’s so very difficult to decide when to have another baby but she thought she was ready but her husband didn’t think he was ready and WHAT THE HELL. I didn’t know that admiring someone’s manicure could inspire such catharsis. Can I please have some non-absurd déjà vu? Where’s my past life as Elizabeth I at?
Putting things on repeat happens in my reading life too. I’ve definitely picked up a book and gotten through the first chapter before figuring out that the reason it’s so familiar is that I’ve already read it. (Picture me slamming the book shut, tossing it over my shoulder, and grabbing the next one on the pile. Except since I’m practically married to my Kindle that doesn’t happen, but there is zero dramatic tension in poking a screen to download another book.) The other book déjà vu that’s all déjà too is reading a book that reminds me of another completely-unrelated-yet-completely-similar book, something that happened to me recently as I was reading a book about another one of my favorite icebreaker superpowers, reincarnation.
Me inventing Casual Friday when I was Elizabeth I
The Forgetting TimeThe Forgetting Time is documentary producer Sharon Guskin’s debut novel. It’s an intriguing book that explores the question of reincarnation and past lives, specifically the phenomena of children speaking languages, reporting experiences, or describing places about which they could have had knowledge. Jerome Anderson, an academic who has made the study of such instances his career, meets Janie Zimmerman, a desperate mother who is at her wit’s end trying to manage the odd behaviors and intense phobias of her only child, four-year-old Noah. Hoping to parlay Noah’s case into a book that will justify his life’s work, Dr. Anderson works to unravel the mystery of Noah’s struggles. By turns suspenseful and emotionally raw, The Forgetting Time is made all the more interesting by Guskin’s inclusion of case studies from real-life researcher Dr. Jim Tucker’s work documenting children reporting past life memories. I enjoyed this book, but while I was reading it memories of another book kept popping up in my thoughts over and over, a book that I’d actually never read….
Audrey Rose Hahahaha just kidding. I was flinging some dramatic exposition there. I have, in fact, read Audrey Rose, the 1975 horror novel by Frank De Felitta. The book was inspired by De Felitta’s young son, who was so precocious that it was suggested that perhaps he was manifesting talents from a previous life. (Ok really? That is some extreme competitive parenting. “My Bobby is terribly smart but he’s not gifted. He’s reincarnated. We have him with a tutor that specializes in using past lives to get better standardized test scores because just ‘paranormal’ on your resume won’t get you into Harvard anymore. And of course, he goes to Mommy and Me once a week.”) In order to read Audrey Rose, I had to steal it from my dad’s Forbidden Grown-Up Book Stack, a stash of paperbacks that he thought he kept well hidden. I was attracted to the lurid cover, a depiction of a girl walking out of a grave through flames AND YET HER DRESS WAS NOT ON FIRE WHAT POWERFUL ADULT MAGIC WAS THIS? Audrey Rose introduces the Templeton family; they are super happy, except for the part where youngest daughter Ivy is tormented by nightmares of dying a violent death in a car accident. When the father of a child who died in a car accident shows up to share his theory that Ivy is actually his dead daughter, the regression hypnosis for Ivy starts, because the 70s. Spoiler alert: It does not go well.
I love the synchronicity of books existing in parallel, eventually intersecting in the hands of a passionate reader. (ME, I’M THE READER) I don’t think I can claim any kind of special psychic gifts here. It’s basic math. The more I read, the more likely it is that I’m going to get the feeling that I have been there before. It’s like putting my favorite song on repeat. No matter how many times I hear it, I am going to enjoy all over again, every time I press play. I’ve definitely learned my lesson about complimenting someone’s manicure in a sports bar, though.
Dr. Jim Tucker has written a book about his research into children and memories of past lives.
The hottest trend in written communication is acronyms (sorry, Oxford comma) and that suits me just fine, because I am very busy and important and cannot be spending all that time typing out whole sentences. The days of monks toiling in a medieval monastery, taking a week to illustrate just ONE letter with 10 tiny panels depicting woodland creatures piously celebrating the harvest season, are long gone. Today, your modern monks are too busy penny trading and ordering Birkenstocks online to care about meticulously illustrating some boring coffee table book. If acronyms are good enough for monks, they are good enough for me. The communication revolution is happening and I am HFI.
The gains that acronyms have afforded in the fields of Snark, Profanity, and SmartAss Responses are particularly impressive. Please observe:
Awesome AF, right? The acronym that I find myself using the most, though, is a new-ish acronym for an old phenomenon. It perfectly captures that anxious cringey feeling I get when someone starts raving about a great new band I’ve never heard of. Or great new restaurant I’ve never heard of. Or worse, a great new book I’ve never heard of. You know by now I am talking about FOMO, that ever-present Fear Of Missing Out. It’s been the human condition forever, it seems, to want to Do All The Things or to want to Have All The Things or just Be All Things To Everybody and that when we can’t have everything and be everywhere, it makes us unhappy. In our present Google times, FOMO is having a real moment, because now we can almost instantly know about missing out on a whole bunch of stuff we never even knew to want in the first place. Pre-internet, we had to settle for vaguely imagining fabulous lives we weren’t living. Now, we are one Tweet, Facebook post, or episode of HGTV’s House Hunters International away from “vague idea” to “oh that is a very specific cool thing in which I am unable to participate”. It makes me wish for simpler times, when monks weren’t fretting about which monastery had the best illustration rooms or if they were participating in the dopest harvest season.
FOMO flatswamps me when I least expect it and I was not expecting it at all when a friend of mine recently shared an amazing family story. It seems that once upon a time, my friend’s mother wrote a lovely fan letter to Daphne du Maurier. The letter was in fact so lovely that Daphne du Maurier answered it WITH A WHOLE OTHER LETTER ADDRESSED TO MY FRIEND’S MOM and that letter is now a family treasure. Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) was a British author who did justice to her literary pedigree (her grandfather was both a writer and a cartoonist, and her parents were prestigious London-based actors) by publishing psychologically suspenseful novels, plays, and short stories. Du Maurier’s work explores and exploits tensions that exist between reality and perception in our most intimate relationships, finding sinister overtones and malicious intent in interpersonal power struggles. She wrote the novels Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, and My Cousin Rachel, the short stories “Don’t Look Now” and “The Birds”, and in her spare time she answered at least one fan letter.
It was Du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca that immediately came to mind when I first feasted my eyes on my friend’s Family Heirloom Letter Of Du Maurierness. Rebecca opens as we meet the narrator, a restless and dissatisfied young woman traveling Europe serving as a companion to a wealthy, shallow social climber. Bound by the limited opportunities for a woman of her station (hello, British class system), she has dim prospects for anything but a life catering to the whims of people with more money than sense. Upon meeting the mysterious widower Maxim de Winter, she enters into a whirlwind courtship that results in a quick marriage and sudden ascendancy to mistress of Manderley, the de Winter English country estate and ancestral home. As a career path, it’s enviable on the surface, but IRL it pays to ask questions before you marry a widower 20 years older than you are. Questions like:
What was my husband’s dead first wife like?
Also, why is she dead?
Also, is the housekeeper at my new English country estate a manipulative beeyotch completely devoted to the memory of my husband’s dead first wife to the extent that she will try to ruin my life through gaslighting and manipulation?
Intimidated, unsure, and undermined at every turn by her lack of confidence and a possibly psychotic housekeeper, our heroine is so full of FOMO that you will read the whole book before realizing that you don’t even know her name. Nobody does. She never shares it. The book is named for the dead wife, not the live one, which makes Buzzfeed’s list of “Bad Signs You’re Too Passive In Your First Marriage/His Second Marriage”. Too afraid to assert herself and desperate to please, our narrator spends endless time wondering what it would be like to be the kind of person who could be mistress of Manderley (her own actual house, where she lives) and happily married to Maxim (her actual husband) instead of telling everyone to STFU and taking charge.
Monk composing fan letter
My FOMO was real when my friend shared Daphne du Maurier’s charming and gracious reply to her charming and gracious fan. If I put myself out there to an author I admire, would I be so lucky as to be acknowledged? If Daphne du Maurier has taught me anything, it’s to speak up before your creepy housekeeper tries to push you out a window. My best case scenario is a return letter I will cherish forever. Worst case scenario is a restraining order I would cherish forever. Either way, I’m not missing out.
Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Rebecca is one of his best movies. It’s tense and spooky and if your jam is watching Laurence Olivier act like a jerk, then don’t miss it. This movie is Laurence Olivier at peak jerk.