Still Life, Louise Penny

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with a couple of friends from a yoga class I used to have time to take before I had to balance the work from home/mom lifestyle (if you’re  a parent and manage to do this and still go to such classes, bless you – I wish I were that person, but alas, I am not). The three of us are from different generations, and I never get tired of seeing them because as much as I love the company of my peers, it’s a precious gift to have long talks with women who have have experienced so much of the world, such passionate careers, and such diverse relationships. I always leave laughing, buoyed up by their stories and by the long list of book recommendations we’ve shared with each other.

811sqbhadjlFor the past six months, both of them have desperately been trying to get me into the Chief Inspector Gamache series by Penny, and while they’ve been on my list, they’d never quite made it to the top. Unfortunately, a new one had been released just before our last get together, which meant they did a lot of excited whispering back and forth (kindly keeping me from being spoiled, while simultaneously piquing my curiosity to an annoying extent). I finally gave in and ordered the first one for my kindle while waiting for our food to arrive.

I read Still Life while fighting off a few bad nights of insomnia that culminated in a stomach bug, and I can definitively say that Canadian cozy mysteries are the best medicine. Obviously, I’m already deep into the second volume, but I think the most delightful part of the whole experience was the email chain that resulted from telling my friends that I had finally caved.

From K: And they just keep getting better and better! Enjoy! So glad you started them. But don’t be like T and read them out of order. That’s just too upsetting.
From T: Happy you are hooked. Remember it is (still, I believe) a free country – read books in any order you feel like reading them.
Honestly, I was sick as a dog when I read their replies, and I still laughed. In order (like the obsessive compulsive I am) or out, Louise Penny has all three of us completely hooked. Even fighting over them is fun, possibly because it’s been a long time since I’ve gotten to share a great series with people I can also share a meal with, and possibly because a little Canadian escapism is just the ticket for getting through this crazy winter…
Peter was willing the water to boil so he could make tea and then all this would go away. Maybe, said his brain and his upbringing, if you make enough tea and small talk, time reverses and all bad things are undone. But he’d lived too long with Clara to be able to hide in denial. Jane was dead. Killed. And he needed to comfort Clara and somehow make it all right. And he didn’t know how. Rummaging through the cupboard like a wartime surgeon frantically searching for the right bandage, Peter swept aside Yogi Tea and Harmony Herbal Blend, though he hesitated for a second over chamomile. But no. Stay focused, he admonished himself. He knew it was there, that opiate of the Anglos. And his hand clutched the box just as the kettle whistled. Violent death demanded Earl Grey. (pg 46)

The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion

Since having a baby, I’ve found it less difficult than expected to write a post here every two weeks. I haven’t even found it all that tough to have a book read, which is almost more of a surprise. This week though, I almost had to throw in the towel. I have so much work piling up (do other writers find that this time of year is their busiest? I almost always have more work than I can handle in the winter/spring season) that even though I read The Rosie Project two weeks ago over several very long nights when my kiddo was sick and needed to be held in order to get any sleep, I’ve had zero brain power to think about reviewing it.

16181775It’s especially odd since I picked this up for the first meeting of a book club a friend invited me to join, and because I’ve never been part of such a group before, I was particularly meticulous reading it. This might not seem impressive until you consider that the book was consumed entirely between the hours of midnight and 5am four days in a row. By the end, I was so sleep deprived that Simsion’s characters were the only thing holding my night reality together. (And yes, when I finished it, I immediately ordered the sequel because I couldn’t function without this fictional world.)

Of course, when I went to the meeting last week, it was mostly an excuse to eat and drink wine sans children – not that I’m complaining – but the discussion about the book was more limited than I’d expected. (I was impressed that out of seven of us, six had completed the novel, which apparently is pretty rare.) It felt good to join a group of women who were excited enough about reading (anything without pictures) that they were willing to do the work even if, in the end, it wasn’t exactly the point of the evening.

I only knew one person that night, and I found it exciting to talk to doctors, pharmacists, engineers, and salsa dancers about this sweet little love story. It’s so easy to get lost in my own perspective as a writer; I was fascinated by other interpretations of the characters and their motivations. As it is, I rarely read the same books as my friends, and writing about what I read here is the closest I come to having a community of like-minded readers to tap into. We bookworms tend to be a comfortable with solitude, but many of us would also agree that there is real pleasure associated with sharing a good read.

I’m not sure I ever would have come across this book without the suggestion of the group. The Rosie Project is about a socially awkward professor of genetics (he almost certainly falls somewhere on the autistic spectrum) who is looking for a wife using his own scientific method (a sixteen page questionnaire) to weed out “time-wasting, incompatible” candidates. I was a little put off by the idea at first (I was afraid the book would be insensitive to such a protagonist), but after two chapters, I was hooked. Don Tillman is an unusual hero, and I couldn’t help but root for him. He isn’t limited by his idiosyncrasies; instead, they define a starting point for his growth. Simsion clearly understood his protagonist inside and out, and he treats him with gentle affection.

It made for a wonderful escape from a stressful week. I slipped easily back into Don’s challenges every evening. His very relatable problems made for a good jumping off point in book club as well. We ended up talking about bad dates (one memorable story ended up in traction, another, vomiting non-stop from food poisoning), compatibility, and deal-breaking quirks in a partner. I know more about some of those women after two hours than I do acquaintances I’ve known for years! Plus, I got to drink an entire glass of wine while sitting with my feet up, and at this point in my life, there is very little that can beat such luxury when combined with a good book…

Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters, Mallory Ortberg

Last month, I was diligent about my research. I read a lot, but it was almost entirely a fact seeking mission, and quite frankly, it was exhausting. Don’t get me wrong – the books were incredible, and I’m so glad I took the time to read and take notes from them, but I also wish I hadn’t put so much off to the last minute that I was forced into such a rigorous schedule. As it is, we still have plenty to do before this baby arrives, and I don’t have much energy for anything – even reading delicious fiction – but I did find a book (at the beautiful new library that opened a couple of months ago right down the street – am I excited about this? Yes!) that was prefect for all the evenings I was sitting in a line of cars waiting to pick my husband up from the train. 

Mallory Ortberg, in case you don’t know, is the co-editor of an amazing website called The Toast. Her book, Texts from Jane Eyre, is ridiculous and honestly way more brilliant than it has any right to be. I felt downright stupid trying to parse some of the texts because I’m clearly not as well read on some of the classics as I should be.  She, on the other hand, has the kind of inside scoop on quality literature that will make English majors weep with joy. It’s also the perfect book to keep on hand for those three to five minute intervals of downtime we seem to now use exclusively for checking Instagram, Twitter, email, or, of course, texting our own brilliant thoughts to loved ones and frenemies alike. 

I’ve recently reached a saturation point with my phone though. I find that if I check apps too often in a day, I start to feel truly fatigued. Having a book that’s easy to jump into and out of is the best medicine. It gives me a reprieve from whatever stress or boredom I’m trying to combat without raising my blood pressure or making me feel like I’m wasting my life looking at recipes I’m too beat to cook on Pinterest. (For the record, in the past, I have made some of those recipes, and they’ve been delicious, but I’m more in a path of least resistance mood when it comes to food these days, so it just doesn’t make sense to spend time mindlessly clicking.) 

 While the very best long term solutions would probably involve spending more time in the garden, or somehow discovering a way to collect all those brief breaks and turning them into an hour on the couch with a superb novel, having Ortberg’s wonderful sense of humor to keep me company has been a wonderfully workable option. Her book pinpoints that oft-overlooked intersection between pop culture and literary prowess. I feel, in equal parts, that I would happily watch her do standup as I would be in awe of her lectures in a college classroom. Her intelligence is also intimidating to me in the best kind of way; it makes me want to reach out and learn from her because I trust that her sense of the absurd would make the experience utterly delightful. 

This is probably not a book that would strike the same chords for everyone as it does for me. It skews toward a younger audience in its conceit, but an older one in its depth – an interesting combination, and one I hope might encourage interesting conversations about theme and communication between those two groups. Literature is an ever evolving field, and although some elements will always remain at its root, our drive as curious, boundary-challenging humans will also push and stretch it into new shapes in every generation. It’s one of the most beautiful things about books and about studying trends and history of reading habits. We’re always seeking to do what Ortberg has – take the best of the old and transform it into something fresh, fun, and new.

For more about Mallory Ortberg, go here.

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, Melissa Bank

I love that there exist books I must read in a day. It’s as freeing a feeling as diving into the ocean. I come up from a book like that sputtering, looking around at everything I’ve forgotten I need to do. The dishes are not just not done – they’re not even in the sink. They’re not even in the kitchen. The laundry hasn’t had a chance to get wrinkled in the dryer because it’s stinking up our closet. My email, which I prefer to keep as close to inbox zero as possible, suddenly balloons. I resort to scribbling down notes from phone calls or numbers for the doctor’s office on the white board on the fridge because otherwise it will be as though those conversations never happened. The book is all that matters.

I read at least a book a week, and sometimes more, so I feel comfortable saying that I read a lot. I read at the gym and when I’m waiting to pick up my husband from work. I stay up too late lying in odd angles to angle the light from his kindle onto my pages, and when I wake up sandy-eyed the next morning, I shake the cobwebs away by reading over breakfast. I’ve always been like this, obsessed, filling the empty spaces with words and stories and my own happy endings.

I do this regardless of the fact that some of those books aren’t the greatest. Not all books are created equal. But we know that, don’t we? We’re readers. If you stick with me here every week, if you’re willing to read about reading, you know this. You know that there are infinite books in the world, and some of them will make your blood sing, and some of them you’ll read every ten years like clockwork, and some you’ll donate without getting past the first chapter.

This is part of the reason why I don’t use a metric system here to talk about the books I read – four stars could mean so many things – I can’t quite wrap my brain about that kind of categorization. It’s not wrong, it’s just not me. I’m the kind of person who pets the spines on books when I have to leave them on the shelves in bookstores. I whisper to them. Don’t worry. Soon, the perfect person will be by, and they will find you and love you as you’re meant to be loved. I am overly sentimental.

When I found The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing last January, I staying with my parents. I’d come out with a couple of friends from high school. They were buried somewhere in Music History, and I was dragging a finger over all the overly stuffy fiction titles that end up in second-hand bookstores. I didn’t need a new book, so of course, I was already holding four of them, and this became the last. Girls was where I drew the line and demanded we buy and sit and have our bottle of wine (because the best bookstores serve wine and have couches where you can sprawl out with your compatriots, clutching your books and laughing over the fact that one of you owns a house now, and one is expecting a baby, and all are incandescently happy that while everything changes, this can still exist). So we did, and it snowed that night, which was perfect, and then I packed up and flew home, and it found a place beside all the orphan books I can’t bear to whisper goodbye to.

And it languished there. Many books do. I’m a raven that way, picking up more shiny titles than I have time to read. Until I do. And often, the paper and glue books I buy, the ones I grab without the benefit of Amazon’s carefully collated selection – often, they are the very best. I fell hard into this book, and the whole time, it reminded me of when I first read Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. It was eight years ago, but I still remember it stitching itself into my soul like it was yesterday. It’s a funny feeling, and not entirely comfortable. Books like Girls tickle and prick at the edge between what’s right and what’s true. They remind you of the things you’ve done wrong, and the things you’ve left undone, but also of the fact that everyone does things wrong, and leaves things undone sometimes. Instead of loathing that imperfection, this book embraces the frailty that exists in all of us.

The Sheriff, Simon Fairbanks

When Simon asked me if I could read his novel, I suspect he thought I would either A) say I would read it then never get around to it, or B) read it, send him a few thoughtful paragraphs and be done with it. Ha! Jokes on you Mr. Fairbanks! There’s nothing I love more than taking a red pen to the book of someone I know and then bombarding them with my “helpful” “constructive” “criticism.” (Seriously. Just ask my mother. No bond is too sacred to escape my frenetic enthusiasm for improvement.)  It’s especially satisfying when that person is also the first place winner of the collaborative novel competition, Ten to One, that I participated in over the last eighteen months.

Now, as an American, I have been brainwashed since infancy to settle for nothing less than completely crushing the competition; because I came in second behind Simon, reading The Sheriff could have provided just the balm my ego needed. It could have served as my moment of triumph – a chance to tear his writing apart and reveal my own superiority! It occurred to me, of course, as I was reading (and enjoying) his entire novel in one day, that if he turned out to be a terrible writer, that would be a real blow to the self-esteem…so it’s actually for the best that after I was finished, I was hoping he had a sequel planned. (He set it up for a sequel, and it’s cruel to set a reader up for a sequel and then not provide one Simon.)

As it happened, I did write him an email immediately upon finishing the book. Mainly, I needed to figure out why he’s so obsessed with clowns. (His character in Ten to One was a clown and the God-like figure in The Sheriff was a clown. Are they one and the same? Is there even such a thing as clowns (plural) or is there just the one clown with many faces? Does his fixation stem from a childhood obsession? Too many viewings of that episode of The Simpsons when Bart had that clown bed? Or possibly just one extremely traumatic viewing of Killer Clowns from Outer Space?) You’ll be shocked to hear that he was much more interested in my other thoughts about the book. I got zero answers to my clown inquiries. I’m sure that has has nothing to do with the fact that the clown in The Sheriff played a minor role in the story and everything to do with him belonging to a society of clowns with a strict code of secrecy. 

Personally, I find the idea of a clown with the power to turn the clouds into a refuge for tribes of magical beings fleeing the earth to be terrifying. Clowns are scary enough without fantastical powers, but I can’t argue with the results. I loved that all manner of creature could be living up above us and that, if discovered, would be part of an air-bound war between the people of earth and those flying high above. I also thought the payoff regarding the Sheriff and his deputy was ingenious, and I don’t use that word lightly (especially when it comes to my former nemesis). One of his reveals was so lovely it’s actually quite difficult for me not to spoil it. I won’t, of course. We’re very anti-spoiler here on the internet…

Essentially though, in this one book, he manages to in squeeze in clowns, misunderstood villains, comedic violence, less comedic violence that sneaks up and tears out a little piece of your heart, cheeky old folks, red headed brothers, and worthwhile spoilers. Since I will read just about anything with heroic red heads and back-talking geriatrics, I was well and truly taken. I am, however, first in line with a red pen to get my hands on a draft of the sequel. Sweet victory, I await!

 

For more about (my friend and very good sport) Simon Fairbanks, head over here.

My Most Excellent Year: A novel of love, Mary Poppins, and Fenway Park, Steve Kluger

I had about a hundred things I was supposed to be doing this weekend, and rereading this book was not on the list. The problem was, by about four o’clock on Sunday, I was in such an irritable mood that all I wanted was an old friend.

Unfortunately, my oldest friends live thousands of miles away, and my dear friends within driving distance have marathon training runs, children’s birthday parties and new babies (or boyfriends) to keep their dance cards full. And as much as I cherish my husband (he is a wonderful and very patient man!), I could tell this mood was not going to improve even in his company. I decided to hit up my own private stacks and rediscovered one of my all-time favorite MG/YA novels.

I reread the whole thing in less than twelve hours, and it was just as perfect as I remembered. It’s told from the perspective of three seniors looking back at their freshman year of high school in Boston, and honestly, it just has everything I could ever want from a book like this: effortless diversity across race, orientation, and ability; passionate integration of interests covering topics as broad as baseball to musical theatre to political activism; beautiful, believable friendships; and atypically structured, loving families.

This is the kind of book I wish made it onto the curriculum for required reading in schools. Without being preachy or overly moralistic, it promotes resilient, realistic characters any student could be proud to emulate. It’s almost enough to make me want to rewind and take a second stab at being fourteen (almost).

 

For more about Steve Kluger, head over here.

Murder is Binding, Lorna Barrett

I have been on a mystery binge the last few weeks. It’s part of my transition into summer reading. I’m all about paperbacks I can take to the beach or lake; they can get sandy and wet without doing much real damage, and they can be left on a towel without fear of someone stealing them (the kindle is great for many things, but it doesn’t enjoy the elements or prove to be quite as discouraging to thieves).

Also, after months of keeping up the same work routine, these months of summer, while not necessarily vacation, provide an illusion of change. The days are longer. The drinks and barbecues and camp outs with friends are more plentiful, and in general, there’s a relaxing of the spirit. My reading habits tend to follow with a certain pleasant softening. I gravitate toward reading material that engages a playfulness rather than  studious or reflective part of my brain.

As a bonus, because I’m working on my own mystery novel, technically, I can call books like this research. Stretching it? Yes. A little. Maybe. But I don’t care. A good mystery is a gift, and I refuse to turn my nose up at the chance to read one. Barrett’s novel is even set near the town in New Hampshire where I grew up, so reading it felt like taking a mini-holiday back to the east coast (complete with a little family drama!). I was a little disappointed that the “binding” in question referred to book bindings and not quilting, but once I got over that, I was tickled by the idea of a town that tries to reestablish its downtrodden economy by inviting niche book shops to take over. I would happily live in such a town, and I suspect I am not alone.

Honestly, the premise alone was captivating to me. I loved imagining such a place – bookstores as far as the eye could see, and for every proclivity! Barrett even included a layer of realistic tension between the shop owners and the townies. Having lived for so many years in a small town kept alive by tourism dollars, I’m familiar with its double-edged sword. It can be difficult to live someplace constantly overrun with enthusiastic strangers. They walk too slowly, they seem to speak decibels louder than necessary, and they grab all the parking…but they’re also necessary. And sometimes even adorable in that exuberant, remember what it feels like to be on a holiday sort of way.

Barrett manages to capture that dichotomy here while exploring the position of an outsider like her protagonist, Tricia. Even after months of living in this town, she’s still very much on the fringes, yet when her sister comes to visit, she manages to insinuate herself with the locals in no time. It’s this push and pull at the heart of the book that drew me in, the reminder of what it felt like to live for eight years in a town where I never quite fell into step with the community, blended with the sort of dark mystery that exists in the secret heart of every town.

 

For more about Lorna Barrett, go here.