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 can be argued that the purpose of entertainment, any entertainment, is escapism. Immersion in a preferred diversion allows us to indulge ourselves in ways that aren’t doable in everyday life. The flavors to choose from are almost limitless: the arts, sports, gaming, movies, YouTube…and of course, books. I read to challenge myself, I read to learn something new, I read to figure shit out —but I also read to slide into a little old-fashioned popcorn escapism. And when it comes to escapism, nothing beats a deep delve into places I don’t want to go. The best way for me to get out of town is curling up with a book and getting down with some armchair travel.
I LOVE armchair travel. I don’t have to pack anything, I can have snacks anytime I want, and most importantly, I don’t have to pack anything. It’s not that I don’t love going places. I really do. I just hate packing. When choosing an armchair travel book, I’m not fooling around. I don’t want some gentle, humorous vacation anecdote. Think thickly forested tropical jungles, rivers that traverse entire continents, or monsoon-drenched mountain topography. Throw in a full narrative involves a journey from one end of a country to another and I’m helpless to resist. As long as I’m not going somewhere, I want to not go to as much of it as possible.
Armchair travel also gets me off the hook for pretending to embrace new, unnerving experiences. Bluntly put, I am a big fat coward. In real life, I do not enjoy situations that intimidate and/or terrify me, but I bulldoze my way through my discomfort when I have to. But in my entertainment? Why I gotta suck it up? There are some non-negotiable scary things that I’m just not invested enough fake my way through. Take horror movies, for instance. My system can’t take looking at all that spurting blood and what’s the payoff? If I make it through Saw, I can do the whole awful experience again with Saw II? SRSLY. Hard pass. Accordingly, my armchair travel often centers on locations where I’m never going to go in person because it’s TOO SCARY. Specifically, I am always going to avoid any place on the globe where one can find the Giant Restless Spider Populations. If a given locale has spiders the size of frisbees, I can’t. I. CAN. NOT. (This is not meant to disparage spiders or the spider-loving humans among us. You’re all lovely and amazing and can you just stay on that other side of the room please? Or maybe outside? Yes. Outside is better.) But I definitely have enough gumption to read about spider-infested places, because I am a profile in courage.
Whether you prefer your arachnid-infested vacations fictional or non-fictional, I’ve got you covered. These books also have jungles, treasure, world history, and tigers. Grab your can of Raid and let’s jump in.
The Strangler Vine, by M.J. Carter, is an Edgar-nominated novel set in 1837 India, at the height of British colonialism and the dawn of the Victorian era. When it came to establishing British rule in invaded nations the British government was dependent on the influential and powerful British East India Company. Chartered in 1600 to pursue and protect trade routes for Britain, the British East India Company was a strange hybrid of army, for-profit corporation, and unchecked police force that leveraged the veneer of the British government without any accountability to any checks or balances. The odd structure of the company – private ownership that rested in Britain’s ruling peer class acting to create wealth for the nation – was a conflict of interest nightmare that spawned opportunities for abuse and corruption, with the populations of the countries that East India looked to dominate paying the price. Where was the morality in disregarding the culture and existing governments of invaded countries? What dictates how we choose our loyalties? The Strangler Vine lays out these questions as a brilliant structure for a good old-fashioned road adventure and mystery thriller. Newly arrived in India, rookie East India officer William Avery is reluctantly paired with disgraced Company veteran Jeremiah Blake and tasked with finding the missing Xavier Mountstuart, a lauded poet whose latest work has caused a scandal within the British community in Calcutta. The East India Company wants Mountstuart found so they can safely send him back to Scotland and settle the scandal…or do they? The motives and means surrounding Mountstuart’s recovery provide the thriller backbone to this story, and you will root for Avery and Blake’s unlikely friendship. I love a plot that is predicated on ‘capture the threatening poet’. It’s a fast-paced, quixotic book, and it contains the best chase scene I’ve ever read. It also has a man-eating tiger. It probably had a bunch of India Jungle Spiders too but I closed my eyes during all those parts.
The Lost City of Z, by David Grann, is a non-fiction account of Victorian-era British explorer Percy Fawcett’s obsessive search for the legendary, lost city of El Dorado in Brazil’s Amazon. The same British Empire colonialist philosophy that created the East India Company also fostered a generation of British explorers, men who crisscrossed the world and brought proof of their travels back home to Mother England. Some explorers were motivated by science, to find and classify new species of flora, fauna, and animal. Some were motivated by competition, to be the first to climb mountains or cross the Arctic Circle. And some were motivated by acquisition, seeking caches of gold and treasure. It was this last category that Percy Fawcett falls. After years of expeditions in Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru, Fawcett was convinced that the Amazon hid the ruins of El Dorado, an ancient city thought to be only a myth. Sure that he had determined its location, Fawcett led a search party that included his son into the jungle in 1925. The group disappeared. David Grann’s description of turn-of-the-century South American travel and his own foray into the Amazon are almost suffocatingly accurate. Well, I assume the description is accurate. It sure felt accurate, as I checked every room I entered for giant Brazilian monkey spiders for days after I finished the book. For all its classic adventure narrative, The Lost City Of Z’s examination of Fawcett’s single-mindedness and the larger implications of the relationship between the Old World and the New World is incredibly compelling.
Have a lovely time, keep your windows rolled up, and call me when you get there! In the meantime, I am going to go not unpack. I’m exhausted.
The Lost City of Z was developed as a film and is being released this year. Robert Pattinson is in it and I was surprised because I was unaware of recent vampire activity in Brazil. Anyway, watch the trailer here.
The following is a true story.
When I was but a fledgling reader, the one of the first book series I devoured was that classic of American classics, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House On The Prairie. The books appealed to me because they were entertaining and pleasant, accessible because book Laura was about my age, but still alien because of the historical frontier setting. Laura was frustrated with her siblings, just like me! So relatable! She uses an outhouse, while I have modern plumbing! So exotic! Laura’s adventures in pioneering were engrossing but benign..until book four. Nothing in my short life had prepared me for the bombshell waiting in By The Shores Of Silver Lake.
As By The Shores Of Silver Lake begins, the entire Ingalls family is recovering from scarlet fever. Times were hard on the prairie! So exotic! Everyone miraculously survives, which isn’t how things typically went down in a pre-modern medicine world, but Laura’s older sister Mary is rendered blind by the disease. LIKE SHE JUST WAKES UP BLIND WTF. I was stunned. It wasn’t that I didn’t know that blindness existed. I just didn’t know that someone could just UP AND GO BLIND. WHY HADN’T ANYONE TOLD ME PEOPLE COULD JUST UP AND GO BLIND? Mary, of course, rallies to her circumstances, gathers her resources, and perseveres with the support of her loving family. Her inspiring example made me panic. I knew if I JUST UP AND WENT BLIND I would crumple like a piece of old tin foil. Even at a young age, I recognized my lack of internal fortitude. In my panic, I began to practice being blind so that if scarlet fever ever found me in the suburbs, I would be prepared. I ate with my eyes closed. I got dressed with my eyes closed. As it turns out, I was terrible at doing those things with my eyes closed, but one thing I got really good at was taking a shower in the dark. It took a while, but I got to the point that I could shower in the dark more efficiently than with the bathroom lights on. I practiced it so often that to this day, I shower in the dark. It just feels more natural. COME AT ME. PRAIRIE DISEASES. I AM READY.
True stories are sweepingly epic, or horrifying, or chilling, or heartbreakingly sad. (Or really dumb. See paragraphs 1-2.) Resultingly, true stories are great foundations for books, but a true story isn’t a guarantee of a great book. In the right hands, a well-told true story makes a book an equivalent of a phenomenal TED Talk-compelling and informative. In the wrong hands, you end up with a book equivalent of a toaster cooking demonstration-unnecessary and boring. What about a true story really matters? Does a story rivet a reader with insight, or stop a narrative in its tracks with irrelevance? These are the questions that authors struggle with. Unless, of course, the author is historian David McCullough.
David McCullough has told some of the most fascinating true American stories there are to be told. He’s been blowing the doors off American social history since his first book, The Johnstown Flood, was published in 1968. McCullough’s painstaking research marries with his lively storytelling style to make a convivial learning experience. He’s everyone’s favorite history teacher. His presidential biographies are enough to justify his formidable reputation (John Adams, Truman, Mornings On Horseback) but McCullough also tells larger stories about the unique experiences that contribute to the American identity. From the history of the Brooklyn Bridge to the year 1776 to American aviation, McCullough will entertain you and turn you into an armchair historian all in one book. You know where armchair historians are in demand? TRIVIA NIGHT. That’s right: David McCullough will make you smarter and more popular.
For maximum American history trivia answers packed into one true story, it’s hard to do better than McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans In Paris. America in the 1830s was a country on the move, busy building on the potential and the promises of the successful Revolution. A new generation took on the task of forging what it meant to be American by engaging in the time-honored practice of traveling abroad. In particular, Americans headed to Paris to take up residence, steep themselves in culture, and study and practice in their chosen fields. The result was an America that developed upon a foundation of New World democracy and Old World intellectual tradition. A thorough education was one that embraced the value of broadened horizons, so it was not unusual to spend multiple years in Paris before sailing back across the pond. Because David McCullough wants your team to win every single American history category including the double points round, this book delivers reams of trivia about notable Americans like Elizabeth Blackwell, James Fenimore Cooper, and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Of all the true stories that David McCullough tells in The Greater Journey, my favorite is that of Samuel Morse. Prior to The Greater Journey, the only thing I knew about Samuel Morse is that he invented the telegraph and Morse code and the only reason I knew that is because I read a million scrappy kid detective stories in which the scrappy kid detective, tied up and thrown into a closet/attic/cellar by the bad guy, gets rescued by tapping out a message in Morse code. As it turns out, before he invented the telegraph and
detective rescue Morse code, Samuel Morse was a portrait painter. He went to Paris to improve his painting skills, and while there he spent hours every day at the Louvre, immersing himself in as much art as he could cram into his eyeballs. He distilled his time there in one of his most famous works, The Gallery At The Louvre, 38 of the Louvre’s most famous paintings rendered in miniature. For Americans who did not have the means to experience the greater journey, Morse’s painting – and subsequently, Morse’s communication invention – closed unimaginable distances. If you can’t parlay all that Morse knowledge into a seat at the team trivia table, then you’re just not trying hard enough.
Medical detectives are awesome.
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.
A couple of weeks ago, my friend, blogger and writer Baddest Mother Ever, invited me to attend a very cool book tour event with her. I was immediately in because “book” and then “TOUR” so YUP. Lucky for me, it was Luvvie Ajayi’s book tour in support of her first book, I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual. We were going to get to meet Luvvie in a pre-event reception, hug her neck in a photo op, and get our books signed. I was thrilled because one of my favorite kind of books is Autographed Books. (Other favorite kinds of books include Book I Am Reading Right Now and The Next Book I Am Going To Read.) I also detected an ulterior motive in the invitation, in that Baddest Mother Ever has been complaining that her TBR list is too long because every time she reads my blog, she adds another book to her list. Since she’d already read I’m Judging You, she was heading off my next book recommendation at the pass and neutralizing the Bookreasons impact to her list. I SEE YOU, BADDEST.
I could not wait to read I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual and meet Luvvie Ajayi, because I am always looking for new, highly qualified life coaches. I need an army of life coaches. It’s because in my head, I operate with sophistication and grace. I’m manners personified and I know exactly how to react in any situation because of my inherent maturity and genteel upbringing. In my head, I’m Jacqueline Kennedy. On the outside, I’m also Jacqueline Kennedy, assuming Jacqueline Kennedy swore like a drunken sailor, had a laugh loud enough to peel paint, and had the personality that is commonly associated with the first, cranky stage of a hangover. I try to have couth, I really do, but I am just naturally couth-repellent. I’m often told that I’m the “mean friend who’s really nice!” Ooops. Whenever I hear that, I cringe and put another notch in my “Failed At Keeping My Mouth Shut” belt. It’s got a loooot of notches. The only way I can justify my blundering style is to say that when you interact with me, you’re getting unintentional authenticity. You’re also getting a lot of F-bombs, but you should probably have expected that authenticity comes with F-bombs, so that’s on you. Basically, in most social situations, I’m Godzilla, and the world is my Tokyo.
Godzilla: (Stomps on Tokyo)
Godzilla:(Stomps on Tokyo)
Godzilla: (Stomps on Tokyo)
Tokyo: FFS GODZILLA
Luvvie Ajayi is an authentic truth-teller too, but considering that she’s built a successful career from authentic truthtelling, I was hoping I could learn from her how to be less Godzilla and more like one of those Disney ballet hippos from Fantasia. Luvvie is a blogger, pop culture commentator, activist, and digital strategist who has made a name for herself on the Interwebz with her savvy, forthright commentary on everything from Game of Thrones to race relations to technology. She’s channeled her insight and humor into her first book, I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual. I’m Judging You is a collection of humorous essays explaining exactly what we’re all doing wrong and how she’s judging us for it. She’s knowledgeable, experienced, frank, and funny, and her book is so entertaining and illuminating I barely noticed it was slapping me upside the head with solid life coaching.
Baddest and I arrived at the venue, got our books, and found the lounge where the meet and greet was transpiring. After meeting Luvvie, engaging in some low-key fangirling, AND GETTING MY BOOK AUTOGRAPHED YES THANK YOU, we took our seats for the main event of the evening: an interview with Luvvie conducted by author Denene Millner. All the salient questions were covered: Luvvie’s background, the germination of the idea for her book, her writing process, and how her life has changed since her book was published. I was especially interested to hear how she has personally driven her own book tour after receiving the minimal amount of support from her publisher. From an initial two city tour to seventeen stops-and counting-Luvvie used the power of her network to drive potential readers to her book, landing I’m Judging You on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s the kind of change that social media is driving, a circumvention of the usual routes by which a book does or does not succeed.
When the interview concluded, Luvvie took questions from the audience. It’s worth mentioning that this event was sold out with a 200 person waiting list. Luvvie has been a presence on the Internet since 2007, when we used stone tablets and chisels to enter logon IDs. As a result, her fanbase is deep. It wasn’t surprising to see that she had a full house there to support her first book. What was remarkable, though, was the thread that tied together the questions that the audience asked. One by one, the people chosen to ask a stood, took the microphone and initiated their question by telling Luvvie when they first found her. “I’ve been following you since 2007.” “My friend told me about you and I’ve been reading your newsletter for years.” “I was one of your first followers on Facebook.” “I saw a keynote address you did a few years ago and I’ve been a fan ever since.” Some people told intensely personal stories about struggle, and hardship, and how much it meant to have Luvvie’s words as a touchstone. Most everyone talked about the importance of the laughter and pure entertainment that they found in their Luvvie corner. I’m Judging You is a first book and will be the first time many people read Luvvie Ajayi. But to the community of fans that grew up reading Luvvie, it’s the next stage in an ongoing conversation they’ve been having for years.
Godzilla: I like autographed books too
Tokyo: You don’t say
Godzilla: (stomps on Tokyo)
Tokyo: Godzilla can you stand still for like five damn minutes
While making me delicate or refined is probably beyond even Luvvie’s powers of transformation, watching the members of Luvvie Nation reaffirmed for me why I love the written word so much. Words help us connect, and the digital age, for all of its flaws, has amplified the potential and the power of that connection. Luvvie Ajayi is currently taking the power of that potential on a book tour. Thanks for inviting me, Baddest. I liked being Luvviejudged. And – your break is over. Next week, I’m going to recommend some James Joyce.
Immediately upon finishing I’m Judging You, I washed all my bras. You’ll understand after you read the book.
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
Real Estate Agent: Or to talk to the dead
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
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.
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
Contractor: Should the color match the red of the blood dripping down the walls?
Me: YES. I love holistic design
If you like haunted house novels that are actual fiction, I recommend Slade House by David Mitchell. It’s 100% fly free.
I had a cross-country flight today–4.5 uninterrupted hours in the air, perfect for some quality time with a diva book. Sadly, no delays, so ONLY 4.5 hours. But still. SQUEEEE.
ICYMI, my very first diva book was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. For today’s flight, I brought along The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin.
Which, as it turns out, is about Truman Capote and his life with the social elite of New York City during the time that he wrote In Cold Blood. I was reading about Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. ON A PLANE. It’s all so serendipitously meta that I giggled pretty much the whole flight, which I assure was you was not appropriate considering the subject matter of the book.
Anyway, I recommend The Swans of Fifth Avenue, and not just because I’m on a diva book buzz.
I got so worked up about the whole thing that I’m immediately re-reading In Cold Blood, so if you need me, you know where to find me.
I like everything about travel. I like airports and train stations and buying weird gas station snacks on road trips. I like tiny travel sizes of things: tiny shampoo and tiny bottles of ketchup and tiny tubes of toothpaste. IT’S ALL SO TINY. You know those tiny sewing kits that hotels provide? I can’t resist taking them home even though I have never ever needed a hotel room sewing kit. I have 17 of them. (When I get three more, I am going to host that sewing kit-themed party I saw on Pinterest.) Nothing about travel feels inconvenient because even the most mundane travel carries the promise of the bubble, that for a quick period of time you will float above whatever your normal life is, taking in a whole new view. It’s rejuvenation and experience and making memories and ironic souvenir Tshirts.
Travel is great. You know what isn’t great? Packing. I fucking haaaaaate packing. Packing is the sullen, tedious yin to my sunny travel yang.I don’t like anything about packing. I don’t like making decisions about what to take with me. I don’t like all the tiny things, the tiny toothbrush and tiny shampoo and tiny pillows, because no matter how tiny I make the tiny things I always run out of room in my stupid tiny suitcase. My track record is erratic on remembering to pack essential stuff like contact lenses or glasses or, on one memorable trip, my actual suitcase full of my actual stuff. Considering how much I hate packing just a fraction of my possessions for a limited period of time, the thought of moving fries my synapses. Pack ALL the stuff? Then take ALL the stuff to a different place and unpack it? I do not see the point. Let’s just stay here. It’s lucky for everyone concerned that it was not my job to be an American pioneer or Ernest Hemingway because believe me if it was my job there would not be a California or a The Sun Also Rises. We only have those things because people (not me) were willing to pack up and move.
There are two kinds of moving: Back To and Away From. Back To moves circle around to where you started, like moving back to your hometown. Away From moves launch you into the great unknown, taking you out of the familiar, like when Luke leaves Tatooine so he can go blow up the Death Star. Arguably, American history is one big Away From move story and while many of those stories have happy endings, the Donner Party’s is not one of them. The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of The Donner Party by Daniel James Brown, isn’t just Away From, it’s Far Away From. This book traces the Donner Party’s journey, step by tortuous step, from its beginning in Missouri in May 1846 to their arrival in the Sierra Nevada mountains…where they, um, stayed a while. I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, but winter in the Sierra Nevadas did not go well.
Daniel James Brown is wonderful at translating his meticulous research into relatable human experience, and in this book that is never more evident than when he is scaling the westward journeys against the preparation for the journey. The detailed description of the provisioning that the Donner Party undertook blew my mind. Food, oxen, a mobile kitchen, linens, clothing, EVERYTHING–outfitting a traveling party for the great migration west took weeks. This is yet another story that proves to me I would have been the worst pioneer to ever pioneer. I am actually whatever the opposite is of a pioneer. Pion-not? If it took me weeks to pack for anything I would cancel my plans.
Pioneers: Westward, ho!
Pioneers: Let’s make history!
Me: Or stay here and make popcorn. WHO’S WITH ME
Moves can cross countries, or moves can cross oceans. Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises by Lesley M. M. Blume tells the story of how Ernest Hemingway conceived, wrote, and marketed his debut novel, and how that experience created the public face of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway and his first wife Hadley moved to Paris after the first World War, because Europe after WW1 was an inexpensive place to bring American dollars. While in Paris, Hemingway cultivated the nurturing support of the city’s literary elite, establishing the relationships and the network that would help make his name as a writer and living the experiences that would ultimately become The Sun Also Rises.
Hemingway’s move is, at first glance, an Away From move. It’s hard to get much more Away From than putting an ocean in between your start and your destination. Going to Paris was a lot more fun than going to Gatlinburg or Fargo, but it amounted to the same thing, because upon arriving in Paris, Hemingway immediately fell in with a crowd of…Americans. His Parisian friendships and social circle consisted of Americans and UK expats-until he went to Spain. In Spain, his friendships and social circles consisted of Americans and UK expats he brought with him from Paris, plus matadors. Hemingway loved him some bullfighting.
Hemingway: I really do like bullfighting
Me: I get it
Hemingway: My Tumblr is @fuckyeahbullfighting
If I actually HAD to move somewhere, which I’m absolutely not doing because I hate packing, I’d model it on the Hemingway method, which is
1. Not have a lot of stuff
2. Take all that stuff to Paris
3. Eat some cheese, probably
4. Become famous
That is way less strenuous than the pioneer method, which is
1. Have a ton of stuff
2. Get even more stuff
3. Skip the iffy pioneer cheese
4. Drag all that stuff for hundred of miles, on foot, and there’s not even a hotel with room service when you get there because frontier
A hat tip to those intrepid souls who pull off pulling up stakes and start over in a new place. I’m happy to come visit you, as soon as I finish packing.
Me: so what’s in the wagon anyway
Pioneers: Tiny sewing kits
Me: I knew it
Daniel James Brown is the author of The Boys In The Boat, another great Away From moving story.
A source water of my ever-flowing river of shame is that I am not capable of keeping a diary. My life history is littered with blank journals that have really pretty covers. Well – not entirely blank. More accurately, my life history is littered with journals that have the first five pages filled in with words. Titillating, insightful words like “Dear Diary, OMG queso is my favorite” and “Dear Diary, I need a new pair of black pants because I can’t get the queso stain off the ones I wore last night”. After the first five pages, idle doodles take over, harmless little drawings of missiles dropping on a diary factory or diary factories exploding in missile attacks. By page eight, it’s nothing but empty paper. Flipping through those blank pages, I am forced to admit yet again that I bought yet another journal because I thought the cover was pretty. Keeping a diary involves discipline and self-reflection and I am not here for any of that. I am here to binge on cheese until my memory is foggy.
Diary: Congratulations on your purchase! Whatcha gonna write
Me: I’m going to record my thoughts about the world and meaning of life
Diary: Waiting you out here
Me: FINE I am drawing puppy faces using only circles
Diary: Draw some kittens too
While I’m busy not writing in my diary, I love to read other people’s. I especially love reading cookbooks for the stories they tell about how people lived through food. What was important, what was available, what was relevant in a culture is all evident in what flowed through the kitchen. I’ll read any cookbook like a novel, but my favorite kind of cookbooks are the ones that include the stories and context for a recipe, like when an author tells her life story by describing exactly how she positions her crabmeat salad on her buffet when she entertains. Specifically, I love reading cookbooks by the marvelous Julia Reed. (Spoiler alert-crabmeat goes piled on a giant platter, mixed with mayo, served with toast points.)
Diary: Now describe the toast points
Me: This feels like homework
Diary: How it works is, you write stuff down
Diary: What are you drawing?
Me: Missiles bombing a toast point factory
Julia Reed is a Mississippi native, New Orleans resident, author, and a contributing editor at Garden & Gun and Elle Décor magazines. She is also a consummate storyteller, flinger of parties, and feeder of people as is evidenced in her books Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, and Other Southern Specialties and But Mama Always Puts Vodka In Her Sangria!. Julia Reed’s stories read like the best diaries, with a casual, intensely personal feel. Watching her glamorous mother throw legendary cocktail parties in her small Mississippi hometown, Julia Reed found her own hostess rhythm when she left her home state to work in the cosmopolitan Northeast. She describes coming into her own as a writer, a professional, and a hostess, from the college student parties done on a budget to the years she lived in New York as an editor for Newsweek, blowing people’s minds with plates of deviled eggs and pimiento cheese sandwiches. As magnetic as Julia Reed’s personality is on the page, I can’t imagine what it’s like being in the room with her while she convinces you to try just one bite of her lemon squares. (Okay, fine, she would never have to convince me to eat a lemon square. I’m not dead inside. However I do loathe eggs in all their forms but I’d still like to have her try to persuade me to eat a deviled egg. I won’t eat it. I don’t care if that damn egg is stuffed with Tom Hiddleston and a pair of diamond earrings. But I’d still like her to try.)
Diary: You can’t chew earrings, duh
Me: No it’s hyperbole
Diary: How would you even get Tom Hiddleston in an egg?
Me: It’s—no, you wouldn’t, I’m just saying-
Diary: Tom Hiddleston doesn’t go to small parties
Me: This is why we can’t dialogue
Julia Reed’s books are delightful, loaded with intimate and fascinating memories. They make me wish I’d commit to any kind of journaling, but the closest I come to diary entries are all the margin notes I have scribbled in all my books. I don’t discriminate-I’ll mark up any of my books when the mood strikes-but I really go to town on my cookbooks. It’s interesting when my notes don’t make any sense, like when I just use punctuation. What the hell do I mean by the really big question mark I wrote next to the recipe for an eggplant enchilada dish? Was it “why did I make this crap??” or “how did I live this long without making this delicious crap??” or “Why would I ever make this eggplant crap??” I don’t know because I was too lazy to write out even one word that summed up my impression. Also right now I am really understanding why I will never grow up to be Julia Reed. I’ll bet she uses words and punctuation in her cookbook notes.
Maybe not all hope is lost for a written record of my life. Surely I can access my last ten years worth of texting transcripts and put them in a binder. Succinct, specific, vivid – in fact, it’s better than a diary. It’s a diary slam.
Diary: That is insulting
Me: Think of your nice, clean pages
Diary: When you put it that way
Me: Maybe just one more circle puppy
The Baddest Mother Ever has mad journal skills. See for yourself here.
If you’d like to arrange for Julia Reed to keynote my next birthday party, thank you! You shouldn’t have.
As anyone does, I take everything Matthew McConaughey says very, very seriously. So when his character on True Detective said “time is a flat circle” while trying to explain why time is a flat circle, I paid attention. Until that point, I considered time to be fairly linear. Except during a 60-minute workout. Do you know how long 60 minutes takes at the gym? About 4,00,000000,00,2 minutes. In that instance time is less like a flat circle and more like a tremendously annoying parabola. But time being a flat circle? That was such a super-fancy way of describing that what goes around, comes around, that it got me thinking about the unpredictable ways that karma will serve up tasty goodies. Like reading a powerful book, then meeting the person that wrote it. (I’m not a namedropper so you’ll have to wait to find out I met Dr. Terrence Roberts, one of the Little Rock Nine. IN PERSON.)
But first, a word about fangirling. Fangirling is hard work, y’all. It’s a nuanced art form requiring endless hours of practice to strike just the right note of obsessive incoherence. After all, when meeting someone you admire, why behave in a rational, mature way? It’s so much easier to give in to temptation and collapse into loud babbling. If you are the kind of person who can keep your cool when you are introduced to someone of whom you are a fan, I congratulate you and can you please tell how you do that? Because when I am introduced to someone I think is awesome, my feelings tend to fling me around like a rodeo bull, flailing me awkwardly all over my immediate vicinity. It makes the idea of meeting a familiar stranger a horrifying prospect. Like The Hulk, I must carefully avoid situations that might trigger my fangirl mutation. Except when I can’t avoid them, like when I got to meet Dr. Terrence Roberts. IN PERSON.
In 1957, Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas was desegregated, forced by the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision to end the “separate but equal” education policy that divided life by race in the South. Attempts to integrate schools were routinely met with hostility and defiance. In Little Rock that manifested in targeting the nine African-American students who desegregated Central High School with daily death threats, harassment, and violence. This organized campaign meant to drive the Little Rock Nine out of Central resulted in the dispatch of the 101st Airborne to ensure the students could attend school. Dr. Terrence Roberts writes about living that experience and the subsequent path his life took in his memoir Lessons From Little Rock. It’s a powerful book, in no small part because of the way Dr. Roberts recreates the unbelievable day-to-day atmosphere of danger and terror that he endured.
Dr. Roberts is retired as a college professor, owns a private management consulting firm, and speaks all over the country. I was fortunate enough to see him speak, IN PERSON, at a local school. Keeping the attention of a room full of restless students for the better part of an hour is no small feat, but you’d never know it by Dr. Roberts. He is a gentle, unassuming man with a compelling presence. I think he commands attention because he doesn’t deal in platitudes. He doesn’t have to. He spent the better part of a year willingly walking into a building where the majority of the people he saw wanted him to go away and die and would have considered themselves heroes for making sure he did just that, so the conviction behind his words isn’t power-of-positive-thinking-hug-it-out stuff. He lived a truly ugly powerlessness, and when he describes how he lived with that fear, persevered, and made decisions that eventually carried him up and out of that world, it’s hard not to listen.
At its essence, fangirling is about gratitude. When someone you don’t know impacts your life, they become a part of your everyday world. It’s a weird, one-sided intimacy that doesn’t translate well into three-dimensional interactions because there just isn’t a way to make gushing not moderately creepy. The gratitude is a silent message, sent into the ether. ‘Thank you. What you did was so hard. I don’t know how you did it. My world is better for it. Thank you.’ Then you meet your hero and it’s all “HI. I LIKE YOUR BOOK. I LIKE IT FINE. I’VE BEEN SENDING YOU THOUGHTS SORRY IF THEY GOT ALL OVER YOU.’ There aren’t words that are adequate to the task of expressing the depth of “What you did matters”, so I’ll pass a story on instead.
About a week after the assembly, I was talking with a friend who was there and who also got to meet Dr. Roberts IN PERSON. We were basking in our shared fangirl glow. She’s a teacher, and she was telling me about one boy in particular in her class who has very little patience with himself. As she put it, “He’s a smart kid. He just gives up.” She’s been coaching him all year on how to work through his frustration with little success, watching as he fell further behind, which only served to increase his frustration and decrease his patience. The opportunity to break the cycle presented itself the day after we saw the speech. Her student brought her yet another blank worksheet, saying he didn’t want to do it and when could he go outside and play? Flashing back to the speech the day before, she channeled her best Terrence Roberts. Remembering her student loves soccer, she asked him if he would give up, stop running on the field, while going for a goal. When he said he wouldn’t, she pointed at the worksheet. “Then why are you giving up on that? It might scare you. But you don’t give up.” And in the way that words make magic, that lit a fire, and suddenly she has a student who won’t give up, no matter how much crossword puzzles aren’t soccer. A man given the opportunity to stay in school made a difference for someone with a different struggle. It’s a full circle.
I’m glad I exercised enough self-restraint not to scare Dr. Roberts in public. Since maturity is a goal of mine, I’m chalking that as a win. I was able to control myself mostly because my inner voice was threatening me in my head (shutUP!shutUP!shutUP!) It’s not the kindest of mantras but it prevents me being removed from the premises most of the time.
True story: my inner voice sounds exactly like Matthew McConaughey.
Check out Atlanta’s Center For Civil And Human Rights .