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


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.


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

The Reason To Bring A Diva, Part Deux

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.




The Reason To Bring A Diva

Books are radioactive. They must be, because apparently I glow in the dark when I open one. There is something about sitting down with a book that makes me visible. From space. Look! You can’t miss me. I’m the one who went off by herself into a room, closed the door, and is trying to read. At least–that’s what I thought I was trying to do. To everyone in my vicinity that knows me, a book is a Bat Signal, frantically begging for rescue from reading the book that I purposely picked up to go read. Knowing I’m likely to be interrupted will often keep me from picking up the big books, the ones that are gonna need me to pay attention. When I really need the time and space to fall into a book, I have to find the perfect place to hide in plain sight. For this, I crave the company of strangers. And for that, I need an airport.


GAH just let me finish this chapter

I really love airports. I realize I am the president, founder, and only member of that club. I know everyone else hates them, because I can hear everyone articulating all their hate while I am standing next to them at the airport. People standing in the line for security complain about the line for security. People not in first class complain about not getting their first class upgrade. People getting their luggage searched because they packed a scimitar cushioned by fireworks complain about getting their luggage searched. I don’t understand these people. I love the energy and purpose in an airport, that sense of suspended animation that comes from being in a parallel world that’s part aggressively overpriced jewelry kiosks, part cutting-edge art exhibits, and part uninhibited daydrinking. But what I love most about airporting is the sustained reading time it affords. Of course, this only works when I am traveling solo.
You: what do you want for your birthday
Me: a roundtrip ticket to Newark
You: you want to go to Newark?
Me: no! I just want to fly there
Orville Wright: those bastards took my scimitar

Packing books for travel in a car is easy. Just fill up the trunk (and camper top) with every book you own and you’re done. Flying is tricky though, because you have limited packing space converging with an ever-present threat of delays. The thought of being stuck without anything to read is enough to make me rashy. This anxiety drove me to prepare for any flight with ridiculous overpacking of reading material, hauling one or two Main Books along with three or four objectively ranked Backup Books. (Then I’d buy a paperback when I got to the airport. Just in case I didn’t look obsessed enough.) I could barely fit my nonessential items like money and underwear in my bag. Musculoskeletally speaking, I wasn’t doing myself any favors. 
Doctor: you’re developing what we call Book Hump
Me: oh no
Doctor: yeah we usually only see it in successful, pretty people
Me: thanks?
Doctor: here’s some cream for your rash

Books have personalities. Some books don’t mind if you stop and start them a million times. They are the mellow morning deejays of your reading list, happy to let you grab a few words whenever you have the opportunity. That’s not what you want at the airport. You need a book that will boss you around from the second you crack the cover, demand you bring it a latte and some coconut water, and completely take over your entertainment schedule. In short, you need a diva. I figured this out one cross-country flight when I picked up my #3 Backup Book, In Cold Blood, instead of my #2 Main Book. In Cold Blood had been sitting around my bookshelf forever, but I’d been avoiding it because it had that “required reading” aura. Once I was buckled in and had paid close attention to the safety presentation, I idly flipped it open to the first page to prove to myself it wasn’t worth starting, and that was it. I was mesmerized. I could have been sitting next to the Rockettes doing their Christmas show on that plane and I would not have known it. Next thing I knew, I was on the last page and the plane was landing.
Me: aviation is miraculous
Wright Bros: you think we invented flying so you could read
Me: yes
Wright Bros: you are bad at epiphanies

Truman Capote knew a thing or two about divas. He was already a famous writer and literary personality when he published In Cold Blood in 1966. The book’s combination of curated journalism and fiction-style prose was a sensation and it’s considered a classic today. In Cold Blood documents the murder of the Clutter family in rural Western Kansas in 1959.  It opens with the last day of the Clutters’ lives and ends with the executions of their killers. The meticulously researched motivations and machinations of everyone involved with the crime give the book the gravity of truth while Truman Capote’s shifting narrations and ruthlessly apt descriptions lift the story into something larger. It examines the capriciousness of the American dream and the banality of evil, and it won’t tolerate being in the same stack as all those cheap paperbacks you brought, because it’s a STAR. I’m still mad I can’t read it again for the first time.

When I am at the airport by myself with a diva book, I don’t care how long anything takes. Truman Capote taught me the art of the long game. I’ll get there when I get there and I’ve got good company. Hell, if the book is really good, I want to sit at the gate. It’s sick. I KNOW. But for sure, it’s not such an obsession that I carry around a plane-shaped voodoo doll that I stick pins in to cause minor mechanical delays. HAHAHA! Because that would be crazy! Even if it does buy me an extra hour of uninterrupted reading time! Of course, pulling out a plane-shaped voodoo doll can cause some misunderstandings.
Orville: that woman over there is jabbing pins in a vibrator
Wilbur: maybe she’s mad at it
Orville: I don’t even want to know what it did
Wilbur: flying to Newark just gets weirder
Orville: how long you think before i get my scimitar back

Action Items
Truman Capote has a very diva cameo in the supremely silly movie Murder By Death.
I avoided The Sun Also Rises forever, too. I was also wrong about that.