A most auspicious way to spend January 1. If you need me, I’ll be on the porch with my haul from E. Shaver Booksellers.
A most auspicious way to spend January 1. If you need me, I’ll be on the porch with my haul from E. Shaver Booksellers.
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 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.
Tayari Jones is on a book tour, which is great because you are going to want to talk to her about An American Marriage. http://www.tayarijones.com/events/
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.
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.
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.
The Forgetting Time The 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 flat swamps 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.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.
I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. I am not claiming any kind of healthy moral high ground here because I have a profoundly developed wine and cheese tooth. Sweets, though? Meh. I have one enjoyable exception to this, however. If you are the kind of person that likes your occasional chocolate indulgence with a streak of OCD, then you already know where I am going with this sentence: KIT KAT BARS. From a sensory and organizational perspective, a Kit Kat meets all of the key candy bar criteria. They are crunchy, sweet, and you can sing that cool jingle while you’re eating them. I know what you’re saying: there are many junk foods that meet these qualifications. What’s so damn special about Kit Kats? PIPE DOWN. I AM TELLING YOU.
Kit Kats are in my personal Candy Bar Hall of Fame because they are thoughtfully, perfectly, and perhaps a bit neurotically pre-divided into segments THAT ARE ALL THE EXACT SAME SIZE THAT YOU CAN CONSUME IN THE EXACT SAME NUMBER OF BITES PER SEGMENT. There is glorious symmetry and precise portioning packed into those bright red wrappers. It’s thrilling to be able to get so much of my crazy addressed in one little foodstuff. I can take that little bar and break it apart into exact-sized pieces and there are so many ways to do it. Halves, quarters, remove one quarter at a time and nibble on it all day…so delicious. (HAHAHAHAHA it never lasts all day I always eat it in like 15 minutes.) So crispy. So anal-retentive. It scratches my OCD itch, hard.
Of all the delightful aspects of eating Kit Kats, the most delightful one for me is the Kit Kat Sister Rule, which states that the only time I’ll indulge is if I can share one with my sister. Kit Kats have a recurring role in our sisterly interactions. It is the loveliest of things because our shared DNA has bequeathed us a shared preference for chocolate eaten following our Chocolate Consumption Rubric, but that same DNA spares us from having to explain our crazy to each other. We just get it. At the movies with my sister? One dinner-plate sized Kit Kat and one jug of Coke, please. (Concession stand sizes…amirite) Traveling with my sister? She always brings a Kit Kat for the plane (any size is allowed under Chocolate Consumption/Travel, but generally the longer the flight the bigger the bar), to be brought out after the beverage cart shows up. Family functions? We hide a Kit Kat in someone’s purse to keep it from the masses while we surreptitiously break off parallel rectangular bites. It’s a tasty ritual that binds us and defines our sisterhood. All of these great things-symmetry, compulsive chocolate disbursement, and how even the smallest of things reveal a family story-swirled around over and over in my head while reading Yaa Gyasi’s complex, layered, astonishing novel Homegoing.
Homegoing tells the story of a family dynasty that originates in the 17th century on Africa’s Gold Coast with half-sisters Effia and Esi. Born to the same mother but unknown to each other, the sisters are absorbed into the transatlantic slave trade. Esi is sold into slavery and taken to the American colonies on a British slave ship. Effia is taken as a wife by the British governor of the Cape Coast Castle, a coastal fort where captured slaves were kept in dungeons before being taken to the New World. Gyasi threads the stories of these sisters across years and through generations, revealing shared characteristics and fragile connections of lives lived on two continents, of families disrupted and displaced because of the capricious and fickle nature of war, politics, and the chaotic and hateful echo of slavery. Tribal conflict, the American Civil War, Ghana’s establishment as an independent nation-all serve as a backdrop as Effia’s and Esi’s descendants find ways to survive lives broken by indifferent and powerful forces.
There are a lot of reasons to read Homegoing, but what I and my OCD self could not get enough of is how perfectly structured this book is. Book structure doesn’t really get enough love when talking about why a book is good. We will dress up as our favorite book character for Halloween or wear socks with favorite book quotes, but when is the last time you saw tote bag for sale at the bookstore that says “Narrative Arc Really Turns My Pages”? You haven’t, not only because that’s a terrible slogan, but because literary architecture is a little more subtle than other parts of a novel. It’s underneath all the flashy stuff, with a solid story structure making the difference between a buoyant reading experience and “UGH THIS BOOK JUST NEVER ENDS I’M DYING”. Gyasi takes Homegoing’s themes of home and history, of fire and water, and breaks them apart into perfect, symmetrical segments, segments that seamlessly come together, with every word in the book serving as counterweight to the words that come before and after. It takes the epic scale and grounds it into an intimate, rich, effortlessly paced book. Gyasi makes the heavy lifting look easy. I read Homegoing in one sitting and snarled at anyone who tried to interrupt me.
For some, genealogy is a privilege, because records exist that tell you where you come from. For others, family history is lost, accessed only through wistful speculation. Homegoing imagines a lost history recovered in a perfectly balanced novel that breaks apart for ideal consumption. Feel free to read it, then go share a Kit Kat with someone who just gets you. Don’t ask for mine, though. My sister and I aren’t sharing. It’s a family tradition.
This is Yaa Gyasi’s first book. IT’S ONLY HER FIRST BOOK. Cannot wait for the second one. Click on the link for her interview with Trevor Noah on The Daily Show.
According to the internet, everyone is making this Kit Kat cake.
As comforting and motivating as I find words to be, and as much time as I devote to pursuing reading the written word, I’m not much of an inspirational quotes person. I attribute this to a zero attention span combined with near-lethal distractibility. I’ll come across a really amazing quote, something that makes my soul soar, something that speaks to me in that immediate moment, and in the next instant I’ve completely abandoned whatever existential state I was in that made the quote stick out to me in the first place. As quickly as a turn of the page, I’ve moved on to a brand new existential state, one probably sponsored by Shiny Things, Inc. (“Shiny Things! When regular things aren’t shiny enough.”) I’m also likely to misinterpret inspirational quotes because without context I am lost. For instance, take this Émile Zola quote that pops up on the regular on the Inspirational Quotes circuit:
If you ask me what I came into this life to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud.
Émile Zola was a French novelist who was a key figure in the politics and culture of Napoleon III’s Second Empire. He wrote plays as well as novels. He was friends with and influenced the work of the painter Paul Cézanne. He worked as a journalist to expose anti-Semitism and corruption in the French army, which contributed to the collapse of the government. HE WAS VERY AWESOME AND BUSY OKAY. This quote sums up his philosophy of engaging, enmeshing, and embracing life in a Big Fucking Way. Do you know what he wasn’t referring to when he coined the phrase ‘live out loud’? The tendency of some of us to narrate, in full earshot of anyone unlucky enough to hear it, every aggravating bit of minutiae that happens over the course of any given day. This includes but is not limited to intense one-sided conversations with inanimate objects, gentle suggestions to other drivers on how to sharpen their driving skills, and self-coaching galvanizing speeches.
Émile Zola: By some of us, you mean you
Zola: I noticed—
Me: One sec, I gotta tell this refrigerator something
I’m not sure when I gave up on trying to function as a person who doesn’t talk to her general vicinity nonstop, but I know where it all germinated: I talk to books while I am reading them. (I also might say “hello” to my books when I pass by my bookshelves, but that is a facet of crazy I don’t have the strength to explore today.) (It’s because I don’t want them to be lonely.) Most times, when I’m reading, it’s just an occasional restrained murmur, or perhaps a grunt of admiration for a particularly well-constructed sentence. There are a couple of reads, though, that stand out for the passionate verbalization they inspired in me. I could not read these books within earshot of any other people because I was soooo annoying with the not shutting up.
Into The Wild (Jon Krakauer) Mountain climber and journalist Jon Krakauer writes gripping books about things like fundamentalist Mormons (Under The Banner of Heaven), American military heroes (Where Men Win Glory), and Artic exploration (In The Land Of White Death). I love Jon Krakauer books. I love Jon Krakauer. I keep a backpack packed and ready to go at all times just in case Jon Krakauer shows up and offers to take me away from all this with some spontaneous mountain climbing. Jon Krakauer’s book Into The Wild, the story of how Chris McCandless died in the Alaska backcountry, is a great book that drove me nuts because the main character drove me nuts. There was not a single life decision that Chris McCandless made that I did not judge, loudly, out loud, while I was reading Into The Wild. Y’ALL I WAS NOT NICE AT ALL. Chris’s story was just heartbreak in excruciatingly slow motion and I wanted to reach through the pages and shake some sense into him. My appalling lack of empathy endured for the whole book; I simply could not appreciate Chris’s perspective and that just made me yell more loudly at the book. Yes, I know. I have no soul. This probably means that Jon Krakauer is going to break our mountain climbing date.
Zola: Did you see the movie
Me: No, I was afraid I would yell at it
Zola: We all appreciate your restraint
Me: OMG REFRIGERATOR WHY ARE THESE PICKLES FROZEN
Dear Daughter (Elizabeth Little) Mystery thriller Dear Daughter is the first novel by Elizabeth Little, and attention should be paid because she came out swinging. Protagonist Janie Jenkins is out to solve the murder of her mother, a murder that she was convicted of. When Janie unexpectedly scores a release from prison after serving ten years of her sentence, she immediately goes to work to find the real killer. Janie is an utterly refreshing departure from the fragile-damsel-in-distress that is so typical of crime fiction. She is instead unapologetically snarky, relentlessly bitchy, and hilariously ballsy. Maybe she is more of a damsel-causing-distress? I flat-out love Janie and I want to be her best friend. My default cheer for Janie was “Oh hell YES” with an occasional “Don’t let ‘em give you shit about your ponytail” which is a Tommy Lee Jones line from The Fugitive that I overuse because I really like the way it sounds. I didn’t limit my verbal high-fives to Janie, either–Elizabeth Little got some respectful hollabacks from me, especially for setting the book in South Dakota. That is just cool. When is the last time you read a great crime thriller set in South Dakota? I REST MY CASE. CAN YOU HEAR ME, ELIZABETH? I CAN TALK LOUDER. I LIKED YOUR BOOK.
I have to face it: I am not going to outgrow talking out loud to books. I can compromise, though. If I’m really fired up, I promise to keep to myself.
Zola: I said other inspirational stuff too
Me: Like what
Zola: If I cannot overwhelm with my quality, I will overwhelm with my quantity.
Me: DUDE. YOU JUST TOLD ME MY LIFE.
This is why I don’t do audio books, because it’s rude to talk over people.
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.
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.
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.
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 Vine, by 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.