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/
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.
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.
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.
I am surfacing for air after an intense binge reading week. Like, a don’t-talk-to-people-have-food-delivered-take-your-book-with-you-everywhere week. You know: maniacal. I think that I may have been reacting to the dream I had in which I had a visit from Thornton Wilder. (If you’re curious about that little nugget, catch up here.) I’ve been wondering what Thornton might be trying to convey. Why me? As an actual writer, is he personally offended by my amateur-hour book blog? Is he curious about how to set up his own WordPress account? Does he think my book choices are not challenging enough? Is he making fun of me behind my back to all the other ghost Pulitzer prize authors at the ghost Pulitzer prize cocktail parties?
In short, I read a lot this week because I am worried about being judged by an award-winning figment of my imagination. Let’s see how that played out at the bookstore!
The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson) Make no mistake-Shirley Jackson is here to play with your head. She knows how to scare you and she is going to scare you, so put your feet up and enjoy the ride. If you’ve read any Shirley Jackson, it’s probably her short story, “The Lottery”, because it has ascended to Required Reading status. It’s there for a reason: “The Lottery” is so scary it will hide behind your closet door just so it can scream “BOO” when you go to change your shoes. Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House is a ghost story, a gothic horror novel, and a master class in subtle atmospheric manipulation. SHIRLEY JACKSON WANTS YOU NERVOUS. Using the standard horror premise, “let’s all spend the night in a haunted house and see if it’s really haunted”, Jackson uses distorted perceptions and exploits character flaws to make every word suspenseful. The wall between reality and imagination becomes thinner and thinner. What keeps us civilized? What keeps us human? How easily are we broken?
PS: Safety tip for you: Just assume the house is haunted without sleeping in it. Why am I even having to tell you this?
The Last Days Of Night (Graham Moore) Widespread use of harnessed electricity is a technological innovation that is barely 100 years old, but it is ubiquitous to the point of invisibility. Really: how often do you think about electricity? The only time I think about electricity is when I can’t find a place to charge my phone, and I need my phone charged because those candies aren’t going to crush themselves, people. The Last Days Of Night tells the origin story of all those blazing lights and Teslas that now populate daily life. The right to capitalize on the commercial adaptation of electricity for household use was an out-and-out legal brawl between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. The interplay between the inventors, the engineers, the businessmen, and the lawyers is fascinating. Nobody played fair, and nobody played nice. There’s no crying in the engineering lab. Graham Moore has looked at all those inscrutable historical documents and extracted a lively, incredible story that sparks and crackles. (GET IT)
Arcadia (Lauren Groff) Lauren Groff’s 2015 novel, Fates and Furies, is an amazingbeautifulheartrendingmasterful book that I am still not over. (Feel free to indulge my fangirling about that book here.) Arcadia, published in 2012, is a story about the lifespan of a commune in upstate New York. From the 1970s and into the future, Groff traces the fervent idealism that gives way to the reality of the daily grind that gives way to the abandoning of the effort through the eyes of Bit. Born into the commune community, Bit grows up ranging the fields and woods of Arcadia, the commune co-founded by his parents with their charismatic friend Handy. Handy is more interested in glory and attention than in the reality of governing the commune. Working with his parents to keep their utopia afloat and then finding his way in the wider world as he grows up and the community that he loves so much falls apart, Bit sees himself as the keeper of the flame. He maintains the desire for purity and goodness, the motives that made Arcadia such an attractive proposition, even as it is doomed to fail. Groff looks at what inspires loyalty and dedication, what makes people stay together, and what damage can be done and undone over a lifetime. I love the way she threads Greek mythology into the book, illustrating that the ways people love each other and hurt each other aren’t new; they are just new to us.
I hope all this plays well when Thornton tells his friends. Maybe I’ll even get an invite to the next cocktail party.
All of these books were procured at Sundog Books in Seaside, Florida. Shop your local indie bookstore!
The Haunting of Hill House has been adapted into a movie twice, in 1963 and in 1999. (I haven’t seen them because I don’t like scary movies that scare me.)
Last night, I had dinner with a group of friends that I have known for a while. We get together every few weeks or so, put a bottle of wine on the table, and catch up with each other on all the things that are happening, or have happened, or might happen. We ask each other for advice. We giggle (or in my case, laugh very loudly with a noise that might make you think “Is there a donkey here? And did someone set its tail on fire? THAT IS A VERY BAD NOISE.”)and we never leave without making plans for the next time we will see each other, because we like each other, and it’s always good to have future plans to be with people you like. It makes all the days where you have to spend time with people you don’t like endurable. (Sure, it’s easier to avoid people you don’t like, but honestly, unlikable jackwagons have a way of forcing themselves into all kinds of situations.)
The connections that sustain, that provide pleasure, that ring with value, happen with people and—at least for me—with books. Connecting with a book is unpredictable. Falling in love with a book is like falling in love with a person–you caught lightning in your bottle. But what attracts the lightning in the first place? It’s easy to define what repels lightning. Dealbreakers include not sharing your french fries, not letting me eat your french fries, and not offering me any of your french fries. (Also I will need some ketchup.) There’s no way to guarantee that spark between people will turn into a friendship or that opening a book will lead to a new favorite read. There are some ways that make it more likely for a friendship to cement, and that is to start with a character who is delightful, a character who makes all your encounters interesting, a character who manages to command your attention without hogging the spotlight. Such is the Russian gentleman and citizen of the world Count Alexander Rostov in Amor Towles’s absorbing new book, A Gentleman In Moscow. THIS BOOK, Y’ALL.
You: Why is she running around in a circle flapping her hands?
Book: She’ll calm down in a minute
You: Ok but WHY
Book: She does this when she really likes a book
I want to tell you all the things about this book ALL OF THEM PLS READ IT SO WE CAN JUST TALK ABOUT IT OK but in the interest of you not pushing me out of a moving blog, I will reluctantly limit myself to some major fangirling over Count Alexander Rostov. Born into Russian royalty at the turn of the century, Count Rostov behaves as it is expected for a Russian gentleman to behave. He speaks French, he travels, he is educated and worldly, and he conducts himself impeccably in the nuanced, complicated code of a European aristocrat. Unfortunately for him, that whole skill set gets super unpopular at the onset of the Russian revolution. Like, stand-by-that-wall-and-wait-to-get-shot unpopular. Luckily for us, Count Rostov escapes a date with an itchy Bolshevik trigger finger and is instead sentenced to a lifetime of house arrest at the Hotel Metropol in sunny, balmy Moscow. The book commences as Count Rostov’s trial concludes and spools out a life spent in the same in the same location, never free to go, only free to stay. He is so good at his staying that I am looking into “House Arrest At A Hotel” retirement packages because I am SOLD. I want the deluxe version, where my room is next to Rostov’s and I get to hang out with him at the bar every night, thus fulfilling my family motto “If You Can’t Make Friends Buy Imaginary Book Ones As Part Of Your Retirement Planning.” (We have it inscribed in Latin on our family crest, which is an emu stealing food out of a car at a wildlife safari.)
You: That was a lot of words
You: I’m just saying, it doesn’t seem like she limited herself there
Book: Fangirls have no limits
Russian history is epic, but since 1922 Russian history has attempted to cram all the epic it could possibly ingest into one big history meal. It’s an epic binge. The Revolution, Lenin, World War II, Stalin, the Cold War, the Iron Curtain—it’s a nonstop history carousel. Count Rostov is our witness to these larger events outside the hotel walls, but they happen in A Gentleman in Moscow where so much of history actually happens: in conversations over dinner, or tea, or at the bar. Towles writes Rostov not as a rigid, reactionary protector of his royal class birthright, but as a man who delights in serving others, who seeks out and enjoys the company of all people. Everyone has value in his eyes, and it is his ability to make these connections that save him, over and over again, and make him such a pleasure to spend time with.
Likability is a slippery quality because likability in and of itself is easily fabricated. I mean, sociopaths are likable. Jerks are likable. Justin Bieber is likable. It’s when likability comes wrapped in sincerity that you get magic. You can fake the volume of your hair, you can fake your orgasms, but you can’t really fake sincerity. Rostov isn’t perfect, but he is sincere. Instead of embracing his entitlement to a world lost to him, he blooms where he is planted. Sure, if you have to go to prison, your best case scenario is a hotel as opposed to a—well, a prison. I trust Count Rostov, though. He would have been a gentleman anywhere.
You: Who is faking org—
You: No one told me this was a smut blog
Amor Towles’s first book, Rules Of Civility, is a good one too.
Peoplewatching is the best. I love being in the vicinity of a crowd. Plant me in a corner seat in a bar, an out-of-the-way chair at an airport, the back row at a wedding, and I am set. Watching interpersonal intersections is endlessly fascinating. The best peoplewatching, though, is when I score an invite to a family reunion for a family other than my own. Family reunion dynamics are flat out epic. It’s like watching bowling. People mill about in tightly formed clusters, maintaining uprightness, then BAM! Someone knocks everyone nine-eyed by telling the story of how Aunt Helen and Aunt Kathy got into a shouting match at Bobby’s wedding over who was sitting at the better table.
Bobby: It was Helen
Me: Don’t start
Bobby: She bribed me with a better gift
Me: You’re making it worse
Come to think of it, the entire family reunion experience is like a day at the bowling alley. It’s loud, you probably won’t like the music, and somewhere, someone is definitely keeping score. The best strategy to employ is to find your team, name it something silly, and keep your head down bowling your frames until it’s last call. If that’s even beyond you, though, stay home and read a book about someone else’s family dynamic, and make sure that book is Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett.
Bobby: I named my team
Me: I’m listening
Bobby: Best Seats In The House
Me: Way to poke the bear
Ann Patchett is a bestselling author, gifted writer, and owner of one of America’s most amazing bookstores because life isn’t fair. Well—it’s fair to HER. Not to me. I have to make special trips to bookstores because I don’t own my own, and when I do get to the bookstore, none of my bestselling books are on the shelf. Ann Patchett has to skirt around the giant Personally Written Bestsellers Section of her own bookstore just to get to her cash register so she can check out the next person in line there to buy one of her books. Commonwealth is her latest novel, a story of how families are made and unmade, of the collective territory of shared experience, and of how memories can tether us to each other even when we’ve left the past behind. It’s a wholly beautiful book, and Ann Patchett is astonishing in her ability to move the narration seamlessly from the past to present to the past. She understands that the key characteristic of family dynamics is baggage.
Bobby: Like a bowling bag
Bobby: I keep bowling shoes in mine
Me: You own your own bowling shoes?
An uninvited stranger’s attendance at an overdue christening party is all it takes to circumvent the seemingly settled lives of two families. Bert, an indifferent husband and a casual father to three-and-one-on-the-way, manufactures countless reasons to avoid participating in his home life. He wanted lots of kids, it’s just that actually parenting lots of tiny humans is, you know, a bummer. It’s in this spirit that Bert crashes a christening party for a co-worker’s new baby rather than spend a weekend afternoon with his own children. Several gin and juices and one kiss later, Bert has met the woman who will eventually be his second wife, and Commonwealth gets down to the messy business of affairs, divorces, and remarriages.
When all the dust Bert kicks up settles, there are six children in a new blended family that none of them asked for and none of them want. Anyone who grew up in a large family will recognize themselves somewhere in these brothers and sisters. Age, birth order, gender—all those slippery quantifiables that determine what your power is and where you can wield it. As the kids in Commonwealth grow up and make peace with the choices their parents have made, Patchett presents each of their stories in turn. The sibling relationships in this book are front and center, and what makes this book so powerful is Patchett’s ability to give each character’s perspective equal weight while maintaining the flow and the momentum of the story.
One of the universal experiences of childhood is grappling with powerlessness by declaring “When I grow up, I’m never going to do anything I don’t want to do” while one of the universal truths of adulthood is grappling with the discovery that we very often have to do things we don’t want to do. If attending family functions during the holidays is one of the things that you don’t want to do, the characters in Commonwealth are right there with you. Feeling stuck in an old family dynamic gets, well, old. What are the compromises we have to make as grownups to participate in family narratives that are sometimes older than we are?
If you find yourself stuck at a family gathering, and things are starting to get ugly, book a few lanes at the nearest bowling alley. Keep Aunt Helen and Aunt Kathy on separate teams at opposite ends. Bobby likes to stir things up, so keep him in the middle and give him the team with all the kids to keep him busy. Grab a lane yourself and knock some pins down. Or, if bowling isn’t really your thing, grab a seat where you can see everyone and settle in. The peoplewatching is great at a bowling alley.
If you are close to Nashville, immediately visit Parnassus, Ann Patchett’s bookstore.
One of the fundamental expectations I have of the books I read is that in any given book, STUFF WILL HAPPEN. The plot, characters, story arc, theme, point-of-view….basic book guts should be present, accounted for, and delivering. Honestly, if I wanted nothing to happen in what I read, I’d stick to technical manuals and pre-screened credit offers. Having said that, I do have a threshold for the quality and amount of stuff that happens in a book. There’s a tipping point for when a story can feel overwrought and overdone. Simply put, there’s a fine line between dramatic and drama. Please allow me to illustrate:
The Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years in extra innings in a rain-delayed final game of the series? Dramatic.
People starting fistfights over discount sheets at Target on Black Friday? Drama.
Awaiting the first photographs of Jupiter from the Mission Juno spacecraft? Dramatic.
Any episode of any reality show that includes “big”, “fat” and/or “war” in the title? Drama.
Dramatic story elements are like cake. You can flavor them however you want, layer them for gravitas, and even carve them into weird shapes. Drama is the icing, piped on in swooshy swirls and decorated with sprinkles for flair and impact. Just enough of each makes you crave dessert, but too much and you’re looking at diabetes. Today’s roundup offers up some books that dance along that fine line and deliver a little of both.
Forward: A Memoir (Abby Wambach) Abby Wambach made soccer history repeatedly during her run as a power forward with US Women’s Soccer. Most goals scored in World Cup play? Check. 100 career goals scored? Check. World record for most goals scored (breaking Mia Hamm’s world record, NBD)? Check. Abby Wambach retired as a soccer player in 2015 with 184 career goals in international play, more than any player has ever scored-male or female. Her memoir begins and ends with soccer, laying out her tortured relationship with her body and how she translated that into the mind-blowing, powerful playing style that captured America’s attention. In her private life, Wambach grappled with revealing her sexuality to her family and her public, addictions to pills and alcohol, and a rocky marriage. Now sober and working for ESPN as an analyst and a contributor, Wambach’s memoir is less a reflection on a past long gone than a laying out of her strategy for tackling her demons in her future.
The Fine Line:
Dramatic After spending her post-high school graduation summer skipping workouts, drinking all the beer, and inhaling all the junk food, Wambach showed up for her first workout as a Florida Gator completely unprepared and out of shape. Knowing her spot on the team was on the line, she forces herself to get through drills so punishing that they made me nauseous just reading about them.
Drama Blow-by-blow, word-for-word recreations of looooong text exchanges with friends during personal crises.
Breakfast At Tiffany’s (Truman Capote) If you are only familiar with the movie version of Truman Capote’s novella, then what you’ve seen is a sanitized version of this story, cleaned up for a conventional 1950s audience. The book is infinitely more twisted. On the page, Truman Capote lets his bitch flag fly, and Truman Capote has a Ph.D. in Bitch Flag. Holly Golightly is an opportunistic country girl come to town, looking to make her fortune as someone’s wealthy wife in postwar NYC. Her story is told by her brownstone neighbor and friend, a man who at first observes Holly’s comings and goings and then becomes part of her inner circle. The first person narration puts us uncomfortably close as Holly jumps from various frying pans into various fires. For all her self-destructive faults, Holly possesses a shrewd charm that is just as compelling today as it was when this work was first published. All of Truman Capote’s contradictory longings for fame, social cachet, and privacy are manifested in this jewel box of a book.
The Fine Line:
Dramatic Holly’s touching, pure love for her brother Fred. He is never far from her thoughts and his well-being is her motivation as she looks for financial security.
Drama Holly forces her pet cat out onto the streets of New York to fend for itself because she and her cat are independent souls who “never made each other any promises.”
The Queen Of The Night (Alexander Chee) Generally speaking, you can’t get more dramatic than opera. Opera is the loaded double burger with cheese and bacon on the drama menu. The Queen Of The Night is an opera in novel form, with Alexander Chee delivering a life story so fantastic it’s just this shy of magical realism. Set in Paris during the Second Empire, under the reign of the Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie, The Queen Of The Night is a master class in social climbing, and falling, and climbing again. Our heroine, Lilliet Berne, is the toast of Paris, enjoying success and fame as a leading soprano. When she is offered the opportunity to realize every singer’s dream of originating a role in an opera written especially to showcase her talent, she agrees to meet with the composer to discuss the possibility. It is then that she discovers the novel on which the opera is to be based is actually her own life story. Lilliet’s quest to find out who spilled her secrets takes the reader through Lilliet’s very eventful life. There is just a whole lot of book going on here, and Chee ingeniously enfolds the tradition and elemental structure of opera into the story. I could not put this book down, but damn, it wore me out.
The Fine Line:
Dramatic Lillet’s childhood on a farm in Minnesota comes to an abrupt end when she is orphaned as a fever wipes out her family.
Drama Prussian soldiers invade Paris and Lillet escapes capture in a hot-air balloon.
Maybe get a giant hat too. And a hot-air balloon. Just in case.