- Having people in my life who remain good friends no matter how we drift thither and yon.
- My small dog.
- Cashmere. A cliché perhaps, but every time I yank one of those bad-boy thrift-store sweaters over my head on a cold morning -- I'm just glad.
- Bookwormy genes. I suspect that having our collective noses stuck in a book kept the family from visiting criminal mischief upon one another during those long North Country winters of my youth.
- A bird-feeder. For $10 in seed, I am the benevolent Seed Goddess to a flock of house finches and cardinals and an assortment of their feathery pals.
I imagined that it would be easy to list a dozen things a day that make me happy. Two dozen. More –– I recognize that I live a cheerful and lucky life. But as it turns out, it's often the same things each day. Here are a few:
In any case, I'm okay with Disney pink these days.
Wear pink all you like, boys and girls, but please learn to change the oil in the lawn-mower and don't turn your nose up because some skill set seems to belong to the other half of the world. That is all. Carry on.
(These images lifted from Arthur Rackham's wonderful illustrations for Grimm's Fairy Tales and The Romance of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, Alfred W. Pollard's abridgment of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.)
Once, while I was writing at the coffee shop in the Barnes & Noble Bookstore, I noticed a crowd slowly gathering. And gathering. And gathering. Then a gal plopped down at my tiny cafe table and said, by way of apology, "My feet are killing me." She flashed me a look at her ticket –– "Number 437 if you can believe it!"–– and, perhaps recognizing my confusion, she added, "I don't read anything except I just LOVE this Janet Evanovich and Stephanie Plum!" She was waiting to get a book signed by the author.
The old-fashioned term dipsomania –– from the Greek of thirst + excitement –– seems wasted as a way to refer to alcoholism. There are dozens of other colorful options: call someone a rummy, a wino, an alky, a drunkard, a soak; say they are soused, pickled, zonked, pissed, impaired, tipsy, hammered.
I wish there were a parallel Greek term for the specific greed that certain writers engender in their fans. Bookthirstia, maybe, anyway, the kind of appetite that makes 400+ ladies of a certain demographic gather in a bookstore waiting for Janet Evanovich to arrive with her police escort. It's not limited to any demographic, I know this. The hordes of Harry Potter readers, the legion of Dickens-fanciers and Brontë-ites –– you can't guess who it's going to strike.
Papa Joe was rendered gleeful by the addition of a Louis L'Amor in his Talking Books package. My mother amassed a complete collection of Gene Stratton Porter, and re-read the oeuvre at least once a year. She also tried for the whole Andre Norton, but I suspect she missed a few.
Looking at the bookshelves across the room from this glowing screen, it's clear that I, too, have a galloping case of whatever-it-is-itis:
It's not uncommon for me a grill complete strangers about what they are reading, whether they like it, and what else they've read recently. The impulse to talk books often overwhelms my meagre grasp of social skills.
It's maybe akin to having a golden retriever trot up to you at the park with its tail waving like a hairy flag; it sticks a cold nose onto your leg in a manner that is startling but patently harmless.
I understand that it's rude but I am driven by some effervescent mix of my mom's unflappable busybody nature and the entitled attitude I copped from newspaper reporting. I don't break in if they are actually reading, but I'll ask when they are just -- you know -- carrying.
For every time I indulge in this obnoxious curiosity, there are five times I have resisted giving into the impulse...
And with that -- whatcha reading? Huh? Huh?
Here's me: I have the Complete Collected Dorothy Parker at bedside. I've been dipping into it for a year or so -- Parker is such a smart writer. I gobbled down Hilary Mantel's bleak and hilarious Beyond Black recently. I finally got around to reading Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford, and I am about half way through Jon Green's The Fault In Our Stars. I am listening to the audio production of To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal.
At the bookstore recently, I was excited to see Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries and Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch both in paperback. And -- o0oh! -- new books from Lorrie Moore, Ian McEwan, Sarah Waters (sqee!), Garth Stein, Lauren Beulks, Wally Lamb and more. I think it will be a good year for reading.
Now you go: What ARE you reading?
There is so much to be happy about, I don't know why I ever complain about anything. That said, and a long list of grievances put aside for now, here are a few more things that make me feel grateful:
Seems like it was Mrs. Larney's Latin class that had us chanting, "Single: I-you-he/she/it, Plural: we-you-they" to memorize the various grammatical persons. So much of what Mrs. Larney taught really stuck with me -- and for so many years, too.
When I started reading The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown, I was reminded of that chant. Many novels are told from the perspective of first person -- presenting the events from that person's singular and peculiar point of view.
For example (and these first lines are identified at the end of this blog entry): "I have just come home from a visit to my landlord -- the only neighbor I shall be troubled with," or "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again," or "You don't know about me without you have read a book called The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain't no matter," or "The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it."
The Weird Sisters (the title a reference to Shakespeare's King Lear) takes first person to an unusual level: the plural. Instead of "I," it's "we" talking to the reader.
The book is good -- I wouldn't be bubbling about it otherwise -- and not just because of the novelty of first-person plural. The writing is supple and interesting, rich with matter-of-fact observations and clever references, and vivid characters (the girls' father is a scholar of Shakespeare who nearly always speaks with a quotation from the Bard, for instance). The sisters' coming-home adventure is engaging, and author Eleanor Brown performs a kind of magic trick in presenting that peculiar collective identity often shared by sisters at home.
Rather than focusing on the suicides from the perspective of a single boy witness, author Eugenides expands the scope, magnifying the bewilderment and mystery. The events of that year take on the significance of myth, and the boys come to sound like a Greek chorus: "Sometimes, drained by this investigation, we long for some shred of evidence, some Rosetta stone that would explain the girls at last." It's funny and horrible and very affecting.
It's an old truth that bears repeating: the perspective from one tribe never quite reaches the far side of other people's lives. Maybe this is the work of all good novels, to give the tribe of readers a peep into someone else's experiences.
* Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Bronte
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
Or double-click and download this book. Right now. Seriously.
Still reading my blog? Thank you, and no, this is not my pen name.
Still here? Bless your heart! Okay, I can understand doubt and resistance. Let me blab a little about Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson.
I've been disappointed by some of the prize winners out of the UK (Not naming names, but the Booker Prize, "the best original full-length novel in the English language" has me scratching my head on a regular basis).
But this one --! Kate Atkinson's debut novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, won the Whitbread (now Costa Award) in 1995. I regret not having found this one sooner, because she is a wonderful writer (she has a compelling mystery series featuring Jackson Brodie including the lovely title Started Early, Took My Dog) and this a great story.
The novel starts:
"I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall. The clock once belonged to my great-grandmother (a woman called Alice) and its tired chime counts me into the world."
And continues as the narrator, Ruby, is born ("I don't like this. I don't like this one little bit. Get me out of here somebody, quick! My frail little skeleton is being crushed like a thin-shelled walnut.") into 1952 York, in the north of England. The family -- unhappily married George and Bunty, Ruby's sisters, a grandmother -- lives above their pet shop. Each is wrapped in his and her own concerns, which are carefully observed by Ruby in a way that is by turns laugh-out-loud funny and breathtakingly sad.
The storytelling seems like magic: "Tom, however, continued to believe that Lawrence had been spirited away into thin air, infecting the younger children with the idea so that for ever afterwards when they remembered Lawrence they remembered him as a mystery, for they never heard from him again, although he did try to write but the family had moved on by then."
Ruby tumbles over and then circles a handful of family secrets. The secrets are neither spectacular nor sordid, but they resonate and amplify forward and backward into the past of the family.
Yeah, I know, I make it sound...not so spectacular. But believe me when I say get your nose into this book. And then don't plan to get anything done until you've finished.
You're welcome. In advance.
To be fair, four books is probably too many to recommend in one fell swoop. Even in a single, less pernicious swoop. Possibly in any nature of swoop, four is a lot of reading. I am scaling back.
So here are three (3!) thematically-related recommendations. Even if you are NOT thinking about long open prairie vistas, inscrutable cattle, honest ponies, and other essential ranch bric-a-brac, I have some good books here.
Stories about the American West never really fall out of fashion. The genre has been going strong for a century and more. And by genre, I mean those kinds of books Papa Joe was always happy to find in his Recorded Books packages from the library: straightforward tales where the reader knows what to expect. There will be good guys, bad guys, horses, handguns, a conflict somebody is likely to win. The lone hero loping through the saguaro cactus and purple sage in search of revenge? Yup. Masters of the genre include Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour, and more recently, Elmer Kelton.
Though the following three books share some Western elements -- roving the open range, for instance -- these books do not fall in inside the boundaries of genre. They are not predictable, not straightforward, and not forgettable.
Writing about Wyoming, Annie Proulx (The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain) ropes and wrangles the accent, the reticence, and the iron grit of the wildest state (sorry Texas!) in the lower 48. Proulx (pronounced "prue" btw) is one of those writers who holds very little truck with publicity (check out this Paris Review interview) preferring instead to do her work: which is to learn about stuff and then write about it and let readers do what they will.
She's written three wide-ranging collections of Wyoming stories in recent years. Each of her story collections is great.
Get this book, Bad Dirt, and put it in your car. Trust me, next time you are stuck in a waiting room, turn to one of Proulx stories -- these quick, searing sketches make a perfect short, smartening read instead of a round of whatever electronic distraction is sapping the strength these days.
Carmac McCarthy is widely praised as one of the greatest living American novelists -- a fact that, shamefully, rouses my prejudice against the traditional white lions of American letters: John Updike, Joseph Heller, and Philip Roth are among the writers I should probably admire more, but don't. Despite the hype, Carmac McCarthy's work, including recent award-winners No Country for Old Men and the post-Apocalyptic The Road, earn the praise honestly.
I like this earlier novel. It seems marginally less bleak -- as I read it -- than his later work. All the Pretty Horses (the name comes from the traditional lullaby) follows young John Grady Cole across the border to Mexico. It takes place around 1950, past the classic heyday of the cowboy, but the boy sets out for his adventure, his horse, and his heartbreak. Standard-enough sounding plot, but the writing--!
McCarthy is not afraid to throw it out there in ways that break all kinds of writing rules:
"They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing."
Don't try writing that at home, kids. But do read it.
And with a view from across the aisle, Sherman Alexie... a poet and writer who grew up on the Spokane Indian reservation in Washington. His first book, Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, is a collection of related short-stories about Thomas Builds-the-Fire and Victor Joseph growing up on the rez. The boys play basketball, tell stories, try to make sense of the wreckage of their families. The heartbreaking part sneaks up on you -- the characters are deadpan funny about the realities of living under the not-so-benign rule of the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) in a community racked by poverty and alcoholism:
"It's hard to be optimistic on the reservation. When a glass sits on a table here, people don't wonder if it's half filled or half empty. They just hope it's good beer. Still, Indians have a way of surviving. But it's almost like Indians can easily survive the big stuff. Mass murder, loss of language and land rights. It's the small things that hurt the most. The white waitress who wouldn't take an order, Tonto, the Washington Redskins."
Not a reader? (Okay, what the hecky-doodle are you reading this blog entry for? Extra points? Seriously?) Try the movie.
Alexie, who is engaging, funny, telegenic, and clearly quite comfortable in the 21st Century (far more than Proulx or McCarthy-- his website and plenty of Youtube video as evidence) made one of the stories in Lone Ranger and Tonto into a lovely independent film called Smoke Signals. If it's not in your Netflix queue already, branch out a little already.
Trying to keep a lid on my enthusiasm for recommending books by theme: this time it's all about style.
My mother and I used to stroll through her neighborhood when I visited. Walking and talking and discussing at the way people paint their shutters, how some people put in gardens and others let things run wild, we always looked into the windows as the daylight faded. Endlessly curious about the notion of home, she sometimes speculated about how the looks of a house might change the lives inside of it.
"If I lived there," she'd say, "I'd be much neater."
"Yes," I'd say. "And you'd have four perfect children."
"No, I'd still have you two, but we would all be different."
And that's how stories and style seem to me: the same plot goes very differently depending on the architecture and how the building is maintained. Here are a few of the more striking novel dwellings:
Self-Help is an early collection of Lorrie Moore's stories. Full disclosure: she was one of my writing teachers, and I still have a bit of a crush on her. She is so smart. So funny. She can make you laugh out loud even as she breaks your heart. Her use of second person (the "you" of self-help books) make these seem like stories shared person-to-person. If this is a house, it's a split-level ranch, and you are at the kitchen table sipping coffee from a heavy avocado-green mug while the owner confides something important and strange.
Later I found out that The Last Unicorn is a beloved underground classic, but when I was twelve, I stood in a bookshop in Rockland, Maine, and weighed it against The Worm Ouroboros. Lucky choice. I gobbled up this paperback with an uncomplicated and uncritical love, re-reading it countless times. And why not? Beagle pitches everything -- including a Lear-quoting butterfly and a magician named Schmendrick -- in beautiful, mock-high-heroic language. This book is not so much a house as a garden where you hear an old-fashioned ballad performed with perfect pitch, as, say Celia Pavey.
I picked up Nocturnes for the King of Naples on a whim. I liked the cover. It was published in 1978, and I read it around the time I was also first hearing about AIDS. It's a novel about lost love told in an unwavering fever-pitch of metaphor and beautiful language. Not homey, not cozy, this house, but astonishing: "A wind said incantations and hypnotized a match flame out of someone's cupped hands. Now the flame went out and only the cigarette pulsed, each draw molding gold leaf to cheekbones."
And that sprawling Victorian Gothic revival mansion behind the fence? The one that nearly lured me back to grad school at least twice? That's Possession, a novel that follows two parallel stories: a pair of modern-day English scholars and a pair of Victorian poets. The former are investigating the latter, racing against a crass American and others to discover the mystery behind the poets. Byatt created a body of work for both of the Victorians (poetry and stories and letters and diary entries galore) and the way she shifts between the modern and the Victorian has made me by turns envious, greedy, and swoony with admiration.
As a reader, it's like one open-house after another, with realtors offering bowls of candy while perspective buyers stroll around and admire or not. You can even try out a stint in that stark modern minimalist place on the hill, or spend a week or so at that the lakeside cottage.
For a writer, the view can be a lot more daunting. Yeah, sure, you think, I can make me a stout little log cabin, but whoa -- the Great Camp Sagamore? Um, well. But you close the book, stop blogging, and try to get some work done.
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