The Reason For Hearts And Flowers

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

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

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

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

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

For Curtis Sittenfeld, however, exceptions must be made.

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

puppeh

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

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

#eligibility

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

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

The Reason For Cold Turkey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

cocktails

Clutter.

#cheers

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

The Reason I’m Reacting

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

cocktail-party

I’ll wear something subtle.

 

#bingeit

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

 

The Reason You Like Me, You Really Like Me

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

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

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

 

emu2

Family pride.

 

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

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

#retirementplans

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

The Reason To Pick Up A Spare

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
Me: Nope
Bobby: I keep bowling shoes in mine
Me: You own your own bowling shoes?
Bobby: Nope

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?

bowling

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.

#strike

Action Items
If you are close to Nashville, immediately visit Parnassus, Ann Patchett’s bookstore.

The Reason To Walk The Line

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.

Southern Living White Cake, Red Velvet, Peppermint, White Chocolate, Coconut

Burp.

Ultimately, drama tolerance is relative. Your mileage may vary, but there’s an immense literary satisfaction in indulging in juicy, well-executed drama. It’s the holiday season -indulge! Put on your biggest sunglasses, fling that long scarf back over your shoulder, toss your hair, and dive in. Act like you own the place.  It worked for Holly Golightly.

#fineline

Action Item
Maybe get a giant hat too. And a hot-air balloon. Just in case.

The Reason To Get Into The Groove

Once, I was invited to a really big birthday party. I’ll pause while you shake your head in disbelief, but hey, on occasion I slip past the deflector shields and make it onto a guest list. It was a big crowd, a surprise party, and I didn’t know most of the people there. I arrived alone and a little early (NERD ALERT), and the people that I did know that were attending hadn’t gotten there yet. So, rather than stare at the wall or eat all the tiny stuffed peppers out of anxious boredom, I struck up a conversation with a guy standing near me who also seemed a bit at loose ends (but it’s possible he was just eyeing the peppers too). After a quick exchange confirming exactly when we were supposed to yell ‘SURPRISE’ at the guest of honor, he started telling me how he spent his day, which had been a glorious stretch of hours during which he’d put some new parts on his motorcycle. He was really excited. He pulled out some pictures. Several pictures, in fact, of the bike before he’d put the new parts on, pictures of the parts themselves, and pictures of the bike after the parts had been added. As he warmed to his topic, he described the motorcycle parts in detail and why they mattered so much to his overall motorcycle experience. I tried to ask meaningful questions about what he was sharing, but my motorcycle knowledge is limited to the words “motorcycle” and “crotch rocket”, so I didn’t have much to contribute. Seventeen minutes after I’d started talking to this person, he didn’t know my name, but I knew every detail about his motorcycle transformation arc. Also, by this point, most of the tiny stuffed peppers were gone because the other people at the party knew a good appetizer when they saw it. We finally wrapped it up when we had to hide, a critical step in staging a surprise.

While it’s true that I don’t speak motorcycle, I didn’t need to in order to see that my party partner was sharing his passion. Everyone has their own thing, a thing that makes us so excited and eager that people will run if they see you getting fired up about it. Nobody in their right mind will talk to me about books, for instance. I’ve never gone as far as pulling out pictures of books when I talk about them but I’m not saying that won’t ever happen. (Unrelated note: follow Bookreasons on Instagram to see some dreamy pictures of books!) It’s one thing to verbally firehose everyone in your immediate vicinity with all of the ways you enjoy your favorite thing. It’s another thing entirely to make it a condition of any human interaction. There’s a thin line between enthusiasm and obsession, but you’d never prove that by the immersive Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline.

Ready Player One is Ernest Cline’s love letter to 80s geek and pop culture. Wait-strike that. Ready Player One is Ernest Cline’s ticker tape parade celebrating 80s geek and pop culture, complete with Tshirt guns and confetti cannons. Set in a grim future on an overpopulated Earth depleted of natural resources, Ready Player One tells the story of a society that has moved from the exterior to the interior. Virtual reality is the standard, with people spending as much time as possible strapped into full body suits logged into in a fantasy universe called OASIS. When the reclusive inventor of OASIS, James Halliday, dies and invites the whole world to compete to inherit his fortune in an elaborate 80s themed video game, the stage is set for some awesome 80s-style scrappy-underdogs-vs-evil-corporate-goliath competition.

You don’t have to be an 80s kid to enjoy this story. Ernest Cline has you covered even if you didn’t spend part of your childhood begging for an ATARI console or getting chased by PacMan ghosts. James Halliday is modeled on America’s Silicon Valley trajectory, a gifted programmer parlaying time spent tinkering with computers in his parents’ basement into a wildly successful industry and stratospheric personal wealth. In the three dimesional world, James is shy and awkward, finding interpersonal interaction painful. Inventing OASIS allows him to make his perfect reality over and over, as he programs planet after planet that recreate the late 70s and and 80s that he grew up in (my personal favorite being an entire planet consisting of video game arcade/pizza joints, and I want to go there because I hate waiting in line to play Tempest). Retreating into OASIS solves all of James’s social problems, but in his isolation, he’s unable to do the one thing that makes a personal passion so fun – share it with people that share his same devotions.  Upon his death, he’s finally able to get everyone to come to his playground. What would any of us do if we had the leverage to create the exact world we want, to engage with people in the way that makes us the most comfortable? James Halliday uses his money and influence to share everything he loves on the grandest scale possible.

Ready Player One is currently being turned into a movie by Steven Spielberg. I don’t usually get excited about movie versions of books I love, but OMG. I need Steven Spielberg to direct this 80s themed movie like I need air and regularly scheduled hair color appointments. I NEED it. I need all those 80s references filtered through the guy that gave us so much 80s culture. Interestingly, Steven Speilberg has said in interviews that he will not be referencing his own movies in Ready Player One. I don’t like telling Steven Spielberg how to do his job but he needs to change his mind on that. STAT. He’s going to leave Indiana Jones at the door? The Goonies? Whaaaat?

I suppose while I’m quibbling with Steven Spielberg on his directorial choices, I may as air my one tiny grievance with Ernest Cline. In the avalanche of dazzling 80s references in Ready Player One, there is not one appearance by the Material Girl. No Madonna. At all. I am calling a flag on that play and in the sequel I’d better see a Planet Madonna.

corman_8_watermark_madonna

Represent.

#livinginamaterialworld

Action Items
My personal Thanksgiving tradition is to re-read MFK Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me. I hope you get to enjoy your traditions this year. Have a safe & happy Thanksgiving Day!

Photo credit: Richard Corman for Rock Paper Photo

The Reason For A Lot Of Reasons

Bookreasons launched one year ago. I’m a little shocked. I didn’t think I had three months worth of book-babbling opinions, much less a whole year, but here we are. Thanks for indulging me. As it turns out, I’m just a fountain of ever-flowing book babble. Who knew?
You: Everyone
Me: No way! I’m not that obvious
You: Look! A book!
Me: WHERE I’VE READ IT IT’S GREAT LET’S DISCUSS IT
You: The prosecution rests

Today I am throwing back to one of the first Bookreasons posts about one of my all-time favorites, A Wrinkle In Time. You can click here to read it. Madeline L’Engle had a lot to say about tolerance and fear. This book is now getting the film it deserves from the amazing director Ana DuVernay.

menzies

Teaser.

#happybookaversarytome

Action Items
Read all about the A Wrinkle In Time production here.

The Reason It’s Not In Order

There is an intended compulsivity to my To-Be-Read list. Theoretically, I read what’s on my stack in the order in which it was added to the stack. My books should all wait their turn behind the velvet line divider next to the sign that says “Wait Here For Next Available Associate”. It’s a neat, orderly procession because I don’t like my books to crowd me and line management is important. In theory, everything executes like clockwork, one of those Swiss clocks that is a marvel of efficiency and accuracy.

In practice, my To-Be-Read list is less a line of well-behaved books patiently waiting their turn than a crowd rushing the entrance of Toys”R”Us the day after Thanksgiving. There’s pushing, shoving, hair-pulling, and at least one fistfight. I want to be methodical and deliberate, I really do, because from the outside that approach seems marvelously productive. It’s a practice I have yet to translate into reality. For example, I’ve had Stacy Schiff’s The Witches on my list since the day it came out. That book is a straight-up diva though and I haven’t had the necessary uninterrupted time that a diva demands. Then there are my disappeared titles, because I lost my working TBR list in a disastrous iPhone update a few months ago so there are a bunch of books that I know I want to read but no longer know the names of. WHYYYY APPLE WHYYYY??? Then, of course, there are the books that are recommended to me by other enthusiastic readers. I get super pumped for those because sharing is caring and asking me to read a book you like is a secret mystery-coded message that says you like me BEST of all the people you know. It’s ok! I won’t tell anyone else that I am your favorite. If all of this feels like an elaborate justification as to why I just had to bump Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the top of the stack last week, well, your instincts are dead on.
Me: HAHAHAHAHA
Mary Shelley: Whut
Me: DEAD on. Get it??
Mary Shelley: Ugh

I suppose if any book is going to push to the front of the line with terrible manners and superhuman strength, it would be Frankenstein. The story behind the book is almost as famous as the book itself. In 1816, Mary Shelley and her husband the poet Percy Shelley were on an extended European tour, staying away from England for really good reasons that included avoiding Percy’s first wife Harriet, who was a tad cranky because Percy had run away with Mary while still married to Harriet. While in Switzerland, Mary, Percy, Mary’s stepsister Jane and their friends Lord Byron and John Polidori found themselves stuck inside on a rainy day. They challenged each other to tell ghost stories to pass the time and that was one hell of a one-up story session because that little party germinated both the vampire genre (hat tip to John Polidori) and the Frankenstein monster.
Percy: Whatcha doing Mary
Mary: BRB writing classic horror novel
Percy: Well “classic” might be premature—
Mary: also inventing science fiction
Percy: Okay, sure, it’s original but-
Mary: what’d YOU do today
Percy: whatever

I hadn’t read Frankenstein in a long loooong time and in truth, I didn’t read it that closely the first time. It was assigned reading in a British Literature class, a class in which the volume of assigned reading was honestly insane. The teacher’s approach was basically “British people wrote a lot of stuff. Let’s read all of it in two months.” It was all I could do to keep up with it. By the time that class was over, I was so burned out I hated England, Princess Diana, tea, Masterpiece Theater, and Monty Python. As a result of this shallow immersion, most of the Frankenstein lore I was carrying around in my head was supplied by Mel Brooks. (I’m not even sorry because Gene Wilder’s hair in “Young Frankenstein” is perfection.) When a friend told me she was reading Frankenstein for her book club and struggling a bit with it, I couldn’t abandon her to the wilds of English gothic horror. I had been there, and I have the scars to prove it. It was time to up-end my TBR stack yet again, stop skating on my sketchy, force-fed-British-Lit Frankenstein memories, and give that tall drink of mostly dead water the attention it deserved.

One trip to the used bookstore later, I was prepared to be scared. The Frankenstein monster we know, the force of nature that is a dangerous combination of brute power and pure instinct, is a creepy figure, but the Frankenstein monster in the book is actually far removed from today’s pop culture, neck bolt version. The monster’s creator, Victor Frankenstein, is an arrogant scientist who single-mindedly pursues the ultimate scientific challenge – creating life in inanimate tissue. Once he reaches his goal, he abandons his creation, unable to come to terms with the ramifications of his actions and unwilling to accept responsibility for his profound discovery. Mary Shelley curses her monster with self-awareness, a being who is unable to feel gratitude for the life he was given because he knows he is ultimately not of the world that he’s living in. This book is wildly modern, and the questions Mary Shelley raises about the ethical pursuit of knowledge are even more relevant now. I was also stunned at what a huge whiny man-baby Victor Frankenstein is. I missed that completely the first time around. I was rooting for the monster, frankly.
Mary: Me too TBH
Me: Right??

the-inheritance

Stackus Interruptus.

My TBR stack is still a work in progress, a messy monster of my own creation. After I finished Frankenstein, I went back to the next book in the stack and promised myself no more interruptions. I’d completely forgotten that Charles Finch’s new one in the Charles Lenox series, The Inheritance, came out this week. Ooops. Charles Lenox has VIP status at my club so he always goes to the front of the line. I’ll get back to the stack right after I finish it.

#frontoftheline

Action Items
You might be able to catch the National Theater Live’s version of Frankenstein. It’s making encore rounds now. Check it out here.

The Reason To Go All In

A few weeks back, I posted a detailed cry for help in which I described how distinguished author Ben H. Winters was holding me hostage. (You can read about Ben H. Winters’ indifference to my plight here.)As a result of my signal flare, a friend crawled into my foxhole with me and picked Underground Airlines for her book club read. When I asked her what she thought of the book, she 1.heroically ignored my clapping and bouncing up and down when I asked the question because I could not WAIT to effuse about the book with someone and 2. Said she really liked it but was a bit ticked because she does not usually read trilogies. Confused, I pointed out Underground Airlines is a standalone book. She responded “Are you kidding? That is the first book in a trilogy if I ever saw one. Like we are NOT going to get the next part of that story?”

Well, hell. Upon reflection, Underground Airlines could be the first in a trilogy. For the record, I asked the internet if there are any follow-up books forthcoming. The internet said “What the hell? This book was only published in JULY. Slow your roll.” Okay, internet, CHILL, it was just a question. It’s interesting, though, that instinctive phobic reaction so many people seem to have about trilogies. I don’t have any science on this or anything. It’s just based on my experience recommending books to people only to be asked “Is that book in a trilogy? I don’t do trilogies.” It is a delicate and serious thing to open one book knowing that you are in essence opening three. It takes your book status from “in a relationship” to “it’s complicated” to “what am I, getting married here?” at warp speed.

If you are trilogy-shy, I am here to support you by cramming a trilogy recommendation into your reluctant hands. Don’t think of it as a trilogy! Think of it as…a house party where you get to hang out with some jacked up, compelling people. Think of it as a three-day weekend in an exotic place you’ve never been. Think of it as a blind date set up by someone you really, really trust and who would NEVER stick you with the book equivalent of Jon Gosselin. Think of it as your chance to find some brand new literary crushes.  Do not deny yourself the pleasure of Lyndsay Faye’s brothers Wilde, Valentine and Timothy, the heart and heartbeat of the Gods of Gotham trilogy.

The Gods of Gotham, Seven for a Secret, and The Fatal Flame tell the story of the founding of New York City’s modern Police Department, a story that Lyndsay Faye is uniquely qualified to tell. Her first book, Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings, is a Sherlock Holmes story narrated by John Watson. (It is a standalone book, YES, if I can’t talk  you into a trilogy.) That Sherlockian momentum that encompasses a diverse, lively setting, organic, intricate plots and memorable characters carries forward into the Gods of Gotham. If you read this trilogy for no other reason, do it to cast the movies in your head, because the Wilde brothers and all the New York citizens that surround them are going to get under your skin. Lyndsay Faye is a genius at characterization and she gives her characters a solid, startling setting in which to do their thing. New York City in 1845 was multiple worlds existing in parallel: Tammany Hall and tenement immigrants, abolitionists and brothel owners, the desperately poor working class and the newly wealthy industrial barons. When those streams cross, all kinds of stuff is liable to happen. Right about now, you’re expecting me to break down each of the books with a little high-level summary. TWIST! I am not going to do that. What I am going to do is tell you about MAH BOYZ.

 

trilogy

Don’t think of it as a trilogy. Think of it as three books tied together by common characters, story arc, and setting.

 

Timothy and Valentine Wilde are themselves the embodiment of 1845 New York City. Valentine Wilde is the older brother and the political animal, an enthusiastic member of the party machine and a powerful local celebrity. Valentine doesn’t see corruption – he sees opportunity. He sees favors granted, favors denied or favors wrangled. He delights in the maneuvering and the gladhandling that was necessary to rise in the party ranks. I am in awe of Valentine. He’s scary smart and subversive and sort of amoral. Also, his name is Valentine. He gives me the vapors. If I had gone to high school with Valentine Wilde, I would have spent endless hours figuring out how to get him to notice me. MORE EYELINER? BIGGER HAIR? TELL ME.

My breathless crush on Valentine in no way decreases my mellower-but-still intense crush on the younger brother and main character of the trilogy, Timothy Wilde. Timothy is an idealist, disgusted by the push-or-be-pushed vibe that defines almost every interaction in New York. Where Valentine Wilde is the sweeping energy and breakneck pace of the city, Timothy Wilde is its humanity. He’s noble, he’s stubborn, and he’s the perfect candidate for a position with the brand new Police Department: politically protected by his influential brother but himself disinterested in politics, he just wants to solve some crime and make things a little safer for people who otherwise can’t fend for themselves. Throw in his unrequited love for the beautiful and unattainable Mercy Underhill and omg I have the vapors AGAIN. OVER HERE, TIMOTHY. I’M VERY SENSITIVE. I’LL HOLD YOUR HAND AND WALK ON THE BEACH IN THE RAIN.

Come for the characters, stay for the plots, move in for the fun. Jump in! The water’s fine! However much you enjoy them, though–remember, the Wilde brothers are mine. I’ll share, but if you try to take my men, someone better hold my earrings because we are going to throw down.

#getWilde

Action Items
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