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.



I’ll wear something subtle.



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 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.
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??


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.


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 For Full Disclosure

Out of all the things that make me really uncomfortable (spiders, tax forms, Hiddleswift), nothing induces as much squirming as the thought of navigating the complex landscape of real estate. I’m not really the detail-oriented type who can’t wait to purchase a house. It feels like a system set up to make me fail. I marvel at the intrepid homebuyers on HGTV. They aren’t afraid of anything. They just march into house after house, joyfully embracing discussions about open floor plans and masters on the main and common areas. I’m always baffled when the production-driven nitpicking starts. The doorways are too big or the floor is too shiny or the bathtub isn’t big enough to bathe the family llama. These places look great to me when they apparently are actual landfills filled with medical waste and the tears of interior decorators. Since I’m missing all the flaws that are painfully obvious to even the most novice HGTV homebuyers, I’m probably unqualified to successfully find a domicile in real life. Then, there is my fear that I would accidentally buy a haunted house. That is a real fear. It happened to those people in Amityville. I read all about it.

The Amityville Horror tells the Very True (cough, cough, ahem) story of the Lutz family, who purchased the most pig-haunted, hostile-fly-infested, demon-y house available in Amityville, Long Island, in December 1975. The house was the site of six horrific murders in November 1974,  only 13 months prior to the Lutz family moving in.  After enduring 28 days of torment at the hands of vengeful, disturbed ghosts, the Lutzes abandoned the house, leaving their possessions and fleeing in the middle of the night. They did not “move out” so much as escape. The book about their reported experience was published in 1977, was a sensational bestseller, and spawned a series of informative movies about how to live in a haunted house. The debate about whether or not the haunting was real, if the family actually experienced genuine ghost harassment, continues today. I have an entirely different theory, however. I might be alone here, but I am pretty sure The Amityville Horror isn’t about demons crossing back over to play with human emotions. It’s about real estate anxiety. A LOT of real estate anxiety.
Real Estate Agent: This room could be used as an office
Me: Nice
Real Estate Agent: Or to talk to the dead
Me: What?
Real Estate Agent: Nothing

I read the book at a very impressionable age, by which I mean when I was in fifth grade I stole it out of a stack of paperbacks that belonged to my parents. (The undeniable allure of the Forbidden Grown-Up Book Stack is also responsible for my reading The Godfather, but we’ll talk about that book and my propensity for petty book theft another day.) Even to my juvenile eyes, the book was pretty lurid. I comprehended that it was dumb to believe that a house was being haunted by an evil pig named Jodie, but I was very concerned about the possibility that my personal house might be targeted by red-eyed evil Jodie haunting pigs just because I’d read the book. How can you even tell if an evil pig is loitering in a potential home purchase? Or any home, for that matter? I’m fine with chihuahuas or urban chickens or komodo dragons, but I am drawing the line at unfriendly bacon with an agenda. Had my parents failed to do their research when buying the house we were in? I couldn’t ask them because no way was I going to confess that I’d pilfered a book from the forbidden zone. I was just going to have to be on permanent, hyperalert guard for disembodied voices telling us to “get out”.
Real Estate Agent: Look at this lovely open floor plan
Me: What does that mean exactly
Real Estate Agent: You can fit a lot of evil ghost pigs on this floor
Me: Ah

Everyone likes a bargain, and everyone wants to get the most house for the least money. But if the house you are buying is a crazy deal because people were recently murdered there, then maybe it’s not the best time to enter the housing market. Sadly, the Lutzes did not heed this advice. Sidebar question: does this advice seem unreasonable to anyone? From where I sit “don’t get the murder house” doesn’t seem controversial or even provocative, but apparently the only response to “Maybe get a different house than that recent crime scene one” is “HOW DARE YOU EVEN SUGGEST I NOT BUY THAT HOUSE” (throw money at real estate agent). It’s a homebuying shortcut that I am not willing to entertain.


This is a good start but I have some follow-up questions

The Amityville Horror is a worst case real estate scenario, second only perhaps to that vampire castle in Romania. The Lutzes were only trying to find a place to raise a newly blended family. Finding a place to live is hard, and finding a demon-free place that you think you might like is just an invitation for the universe to be a jerk by: 1. Make everything in your new place break, often simultaneously and 2. Make you hate everything in your place, often simultaneously, requiring expensive and endless renovations. Either way, you’re under attack by otherworldly forces trying to steal your soul. It’s enough to make staying in your parents’ basement look appealing forever.
Contractor: We’re here to tear up the floor
Me: (screams in terror)
Contractor: I get that a lot

The universe is a jerk when it comes to reading stolen books, too. About halfway through the chunky paperback of The Amityville Horror, I was reading about how the family was plagued by swarms of flies inside the house. The haunted drama created by the menacing Amityville fly gangs had me totally transfixed. I was therefore unprepared when I turned a page only to find that at some point an actual fly had become trapped in the book and entombed, completely flattened out like a creepy fly zombie bookmark. I threw that book across the room so fast it would have registered on a radar gun, grabbed my shoes, and fled my house for the sunny, safe outside. I get you, Lutzes. Bookreasons OUT.
Contractor: Question about interior paint
Me: Ok
Contractor: Should the color match the red of the blood dripping down the walls?
Me: YES. I love holistic design


Action Items
If you like haunted house novels that are actual fiction, I recommend Slade House by David Mitchell. It’s 100% fly free.





The Reason For All The Formats

If you are an author who sets your books in Victorian London and your first name is Charles, I have a special section on my bookshelf just for you. Granted, it’s a niche genre, but it’s not that crowded yet so now is the time to make your move if you’ve been considering a name change and a literary specialty. If that isn’t enough to entice you, maybe I should tell you a little bit about the company you’d be keeping. Take a close look at my cool authors shelf, population Charles Dickens and Charles Finch. (On Wednesdays, they wear pink.)

Victorian London is a wonderfully elastic world in which to set a book- by turns atmospheric and grand, violent and sexy. The tension that results from the convergence of Industrial Age modernity and monarchical rigidity is a forceful backdrop. Plus, the wardrobes are on point.
Victorian London: what is it about me that’s so awesome
Colonial America: maybe the top hats
Victorian London: i serve steamed suet for dessert
Colonial America: it’s definitely the top hats

Charles Dickens’ poignant ghost story A Christmas Carol has Victorian London street cred. Dickens drew on his own life experience in his writing, having been a poor child who worked in a blacking factory. As a successful author, his storytelling served as a platform for him to articulate his arguments about the impact of crippling poverty, class injustice, and the need for social reform. He self-published A Christmas Carol in 1843 and the rest is past, present and future. “Bah, Humbug” entered the English language and Scrooge achieved the kind of one-word name recognition that would one day be shared by Beyoncé and Liberace.
Charles Dickens: Goals: codify the meaning of Christmas for generations in one short book
Charles Dickens: (publishes A Christmas Carol)
Charles Dickens: nailed it

Over there on the shelf, to the right of the multiple copies of A Christmas Carol, are the books in the Charles Lenox historical mystery series by Charles Finch. A Beautiful Blue Death introduces Charles Lenox, amateur gentleman detective, wealthy enough to pursue his passion as a hobby but also wealthy enough for his passion to be tolerated by his social circle. (Oh, Victorian London, you and your insufferable class snobbery.) Lenox is sharply intelligent and remarkably intuitive, and his determination and drive are the core of the appeal of the books.
Charles Finch: Goals: publish an award-nominated debut historical mystery novel
Charles Finch: (publishes A Beautiful Blue Death)
Charles Finch: nailed it

According to every car commercial aired between 12/1-12/31 and all 4,324 Christmas movies on Lifetime, the month of December guarantees joys are magnified, memories are made, and problems are solved with a quick application of some Magic Of The Season. Sometimes, that is real life, but December has a way of magnifying all the opposites too. Losses are more resonant. Endings are more heartbreaking. The boomerang between the highs and the lows tuckers me out. Inevitably, there comes a moment in December when I need to shake off all the heightened, frantic expectations and when that moment comes, I’m selecting a favorite from the Charleses shelf for a solid re-reading chill session.  I never get tired of Ebenezer Scrooge throwing off the weight of a lifetime of grief. I never get tired of Charles Lenox’s clever perserverance. I never get tired of imagining myself navigating the streets of Victorian London in a top hat.
Victorian London: seriously?
Colonial America: told you
Victorian London: what about sewage? got lots of that
Colonial America: sticking with the hats

QV in a top hat

Queen Victoria in a top hat. Aesthetic: monarch meta.

If you’ve ever asked me for book recommendation, you’ve heard me talk about the Charleses. (Charleseses? Charlesi.) Also, if you’ve ever asked me for a book recommendation, I am so sorry, and I hope you have recovered. You were unprepared to be utterly swamped by a tsunami of pure booknerd glee. I should have warned you that I am positively evangelical about books I like. If you ask me for recommendations while you are in my undecorated house, I am going to take the book I want you to read off my shelf and press it into your hands while I describe in detail why I love it so much. You poor thing. Just nod and take it; I really can’t help myself. It’s because of my lack of bibliophilic boundaries that I buy the same books over and over again. When I need to spend some time re-reading, I’ll hit up my shelf only to find that the book I want isn’t there. Buying the same books every 18-24 months will really throw off Amazon’s recommendation algorithm.
Amazon: Did you enjoy A Beautiful Blue Death
Me: Yes!
Amazon: Then we recommend A Beautiful Blue Death
Me: I’ll take it

I’ve laid in some emergency formats for the inevitable days that my shelf presents a Charleses (Charlsises. Charlers?) gap. I picked up A Christmas Carol on audiobook this year to go with my hardback illustrated special edition and paperback. I own A Beautiful Blue Death in  paperback and digital and just replaced the hardback (for the third time). When I’m ready to enjoy a favorite, I want to enjoy it however how I can in the moment I have available. Sometimes, that’s e-reading in a waiting room. Sometimes it’s a hardback on a lazy morning or an audiobook on a long drive. And sometimes, I want to enjoy it by pressing a copy into someone else’s hands.

On December days when the edges are ragged and the strings are strung tight, I am comforted by Charleses and the vision of top hats on a busy Victorian London street. Scrooge forgives the world that took his beloved sister. Charles Lenox tracks down West End thugs and Hyde Park racketeers. Souls are saved before it’s too late. There’s redemption and there’s justice. I’m reading something that has an ending I know, because all the endings I don’t know are looming a little too large. Maybe, when you asked me what you should read, I really heard you ask for a good ending. I get it. Here’s a Charles.

Action Items
Charles Finch just published the ninth book in the Lenox series, Home By Nightfall. 
Patrick Stewart’s audio version of A Christmas Carol is marvelous.