Back to the Sarah J. Maas frontlines

It’s all my next-door neighbour Sanaz’s fault. She introduced me to – nay, impelled me to – read Sarah J. Maas’s young adult fantasy trilogy A Court of Thrones and Roses (ACOTAR). This was Spring 2018. I can remember the exact day – we were both on our front sidewalks chipping off ice during an unseasonal ice storm: April 15.

Sanaz cautioned me that the first book takes a bit to get into. Right as usual. But once you are halfway through, it flies, and so do the other two. Happily, by the time I’d inhaled all three, a fourth novella was out, and I sped through that too. So that was about 2,064 pages of YA fantasy digested in about 8-9 weeks.

The novella contains the first chapter of the next in the ACOTAR series, focussed on sister Nesta and Illyrian warrior Cassian. Don’t tease me like this Sarah J! It’s still not fucking out. I’m pretty sure I saw some sort of announcement on her Instagram that it’s scheduled for January 2021, but now that I look back for it, it’s mysteriously missing.

Sanaz then said I had to read Maas’s first YA series – Throne of Glass (TOG). Seven books this time, plus a prequel. She started writing it when she was 16, what? Just as good, even better? Everyone has their own opinion. But I started in, and loved it, but the pace slowed a bit.

I read through the first 4 books through the latter part of 2018, a solid 2,080 pages, and then proceeded to start #5 Empire of Storms, and give up. I was YA’d out, fantasy’d out. No Maas (mas), to quote Roberto Duran. Time out.

In the meantime, I’d started Candy on her own Maas-capade, by giving her TOG Novel #1 for her April 2019 birthday. Being a generally more disciplined and committed individual than me, she finished TOG by end of the year, and impelled me, a la Sanaz, to finish the series. She even gave me (correct that, lent me) her hard cover #6 and #7 that I was missing. At Christmas.

So once again, into the breach. I’m going to do it. I started re-reading the very end of #4 Queen of Shadows last night, because after about a year, I can’t remember what was happening, who’s who, and all that. Starting into Empire of Storms anew today, and I’m determined and slightly daunted to finish the remaining 2,368 pages of the TOG series.

Then onto House of Earth and Blood, which is getting rave reviews and apparently is no longer pure YA (I think that means she uses the word “fuck”, because otherwise ACOTAR in particular was pretty damn adult-y in some places).

Wish me well.

And in Candy’s words, what else do you have to do during a pandemic Sarah? Write that Nesta shit and get it out here.

Nordstrom check-in – not so damn bad, she says with a disappointed sigh

2019’s Spring trend of “chewed-hem” jeans wasn’t the runaway success they might have predicted. Or so I assume, since they are conspicuously absent from the 2020 Spring website.

Remarkably few crazy fugly high-priced jeans on offer:

Brunello Cucinelli Track Pant Jeans, C$1475.

These must be catering to the “soft pants” movement of the 2020 pandemic – how prescient! I really don’t get why you’d pay $1500 for track pant jeans, but I’ve seen far worse on this website.

Ripped acid-dipped jeans by Givenchy, C$1315.00
Marine Serre Moon Print Jeans, C$1350.00 – quel dommage, available in size small only 🙁
U-Gusset jeans (what?), by Yohji Yamamoto, C$726 on sale!

These three are all pretty ugly, and very expensive, IMHO. And they each look remarkably UNflattering, even on a model. But, again, seen much worse.

Marc Jacobs high-waisted jeans, C$790.

Apparently the pandemic has time-travelled us back to the 70s, because super high-waisted jeans are BACK. If you are 19 and skinny and all’s right with the world, these probably look alright on you. (And you could audition to be Daisy Jones in Daisy Jones & The Six, except the TV series is already cast. Listening to this audiobook right now, by the way, and it’s fun – told as an oral history, so lots of characters and conflicting perspectives. Glad I was a young kid in the 70s because it was a sucky sucky decade.)

Nevertheless, for someone who is many decades away from the age of 19, these are a monstrosity. But only $790, so, again, seen waaaay worse Nordstrom. Although there are lots of more affordable high-waisted jeans for the aspiring Daisys of the world.

Crossover skinny jeans, C$555

The asymettrical (aka “crossover”) look continues, which allegedly gives the jeans a “punky” edge, but strikes me as a factory fuck-up.

And I’m kinda psyched, cuz Nordstrom models have tattoos on their ankles! That aren’t photoshopped out! Whoo-hoo. I do love a nicely placed and low-key ankle (or wrist) tattoo – honest, I’ll share my Pinterest board with you. They make these jeans far cooler than they would otherwise be.

All in all, I was hoping to find a lot more to snark about. Nordstrom has failed to disappoint, and that in itself is a letdown. Sigh.

To borrow from Star Wars – there is another! Our own Hudson’s Bay Company may be stepping in to fill the fugly vacuum – slowly, measuredly, but decidedly. The Bay won’t let me copy the image. I guess it’s just too damn precious. So here’s the link:

https://www.thebay.com/product/daniel-gregory-natale-reconstructed-denim-trousers-0600090426281.html?dwvar_0600090426281_color=BLUE

Scroll down for the view from the back to see the absurdly huge ass and the upside down pockets on the back calves (don’t put your keys in there, girls!). A steal at C$350.00.

When a marriage is a whole world

I started Nina Riggs’ The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying sometime around November 2017. I finished it this past December, over TWO years later. It’s not Nina’s fault it took me so long. I have ADHD or something. And her book was almost too beautiful to read, and too terrifying to finish.

The Bright Hour is a lovely book despite the potentially (but not necessarily) depressing subject matter. Nina Riggs is (spoiler alert, was) a beautiful writer. The chapters are bite-sized snippets of her life post-cancer diagnosis, often just detailing the beauty of simple pleasures in life. Sometimes the unexpected humanity found in the medical system. Sometimes the devastation of losing control of your body and your life.

Nina Riggs

Nina writes wearing many hats – she’s a poet, hence the gorgeous prose; she’s a daughter, taking care of her own mother diagnosed as terminal; she’s a mother struggling with a limited shelf life with two young boys; she’s a wife to her soulmate John; and she’s a family historian, her family being descended from the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson.

And she’s funny; the book is surprisingly light-hearted in many spots. It’s not oppressively bleak at all. The book starts off with this perfect sentence:

Dying isn’t the end of the world, my mother liked to joke after she was diagnosed as terminal.

The prose is so gorgeous that the entire book is littered with my underlining, attempting to capture so many perfect sentences and passages.

“At Least I’m Here With You”

One particular chapter, snippet, later in the book, hit me in the gut. Nina and John decide to take their kids to Universal Studios in Orlando to see Harry Potter’s World – with her oncologist’s blessing. And, heck, I’d go – butter beer in Hogsmeade, buying a wand from Ollivanders in Diagon Alley – sign me UP.

It’s a vacation that’s more bitter than sweet. First, it’s pretty clear that Nina’s limited shelf-life is kicking in. Second, Nina makes Universal Studios sound pretty fucking horrible – shuffling through endless lineups, battling the crowds, suffering through expensive horrible fast food places, plus managing John’s anxiety. There’s a 110 minute line-up for the Minions ride, even with their super expensive Express Passes! On second thought, I can live without the fake wand from fake Hogsmeade.

And they are staying at the Portofino Bay Hotel. Of their fake Italian resort hotel – she says:

It’s hard to keep track of the different levels of artifice here, and in some ways it reminds me of my own body. It looks intact – lovely, even, on the outside – but you can sense that on the inside something is not right.

The fake hotel, however, has a couple plusses: a pool & alcoholic beverages for the adults. So they spend a crowd-free afternoon at the pool of the fake hotel in horrible Universal Studios, making the best out of a bittersweet shit sandwich. As they do, Nina reaches out and says to John, sitting beside her:

At least I’m here with you.

This is an inside joke of theirs, from a children’s book they’ve read to the kids a million times. The line comes from the mother in the book, said to her child who hates shopping at a Costco-esque shopping hell. “I think shopping’s boring too”, says Little Llama’s mama when the baby llama was having a meltdown …. “But at least I’m here with you.”

She and John have said this little one-liner to each other hundreds of times – “words of solidarity … on the battlefields of parenting.” They are together in this hellhole; at least they have each other.

And so she goes on to ask herself:

What happens to little scraps like this, when there is only one person left to get the allusion? …

What is the use of an inside joke with the dead?

Hubby and I have so many inside jokes like that, innumerable, after 28 (next weekend) years of marriage. Such a rich mythology of stuffed bunnies and bears and hippos and turtles, all with their own backstory and motivations, so elaborate we’re starting to forget them ourselves. There’s the movie lines we throw out at the same time – Midnight Run, Clueless, Grosse Pointe Blank, Local Hero. Sometimes it’s non-verbal, like a particularly poignant hand gesture we adore from Searching for Bobby Fisher. Graeme swears we’ve done the Vulcan mind meld.

Sometimes we lapse into this marital shorthand around other people, and it’s a bit embarrassing and rude – exclusionary, not on purpose. We have our own language, our own dialect. We are in our own world, our cocoon, our hutch – and that’s what Graeme promised me when we first talked about getting married. Marriage is a sanctuary against the outside world; a hutch that shelters the two. That’s what Graeme spoke so movingly and eloquently about at his brother’s 25th anniversary vow renewal. (His speech made the women in the audience cry, including me.)

The Cocoon Shatters

And that was the punch to the gut to me. When one of you dies, that whole cocoon is shattered. That insular world of two, full of coded deep understanding, is rendered meaningless. What’s the use of a language that only one person speaks?

When your marriage creates a whole world, that whole world dies with either one of you. And I dread that day. Is that why I’m obsessed with reading books about death, dying, and especially dead spouses? To prepare for the incomprehensible?

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women

We watched the new version of Little Women on the weekend. I can’t imagine how daunting it must be to take on remaking that movie, with so many beloved versions. My beloved version was made by Gillian Armstrong in 1994, with Winona Ryder as Jo and Christian Bale as Laurie. Basically, perfection, and a mandatory Christmas watch every year.

Disconcerting on Many Levels

I found it somewhat disconcerting to watch Saoirse Ronan as Jo and Timothee Chalamet as Laurie. I love Saorise, especially from Brooklyn and On Chesil Beach, both quiet slices of magic. She’s brilliant, and I have no issue with her as Jo, except that she clearly isn’t Winona Ryder and she’s not in Gillian Armstrong’s movie. Timothee Chalamet is new to me, and quite frankly he didn’t work for me, at all. Too scrawny, too delicate – nowhere near a sufficient match for Jo in the early scenes. Nowhere near as dreamy as Christian Bale in the later scenes when he comes courting for Amy. A bit too lightweight.

Also distracting me was the fact that I realized Laura Dern, as Marmee, looks identical to my friend Brenda. I’ve seen Laura Dern in a million things, including Big Little Lies seasons 1 and 2 recently, and never noticed that she and B. were separated at birth. Clearly were. (Update: B. doesn’t see it. But I’m totally right.)

And a further distraction was the actress who played Beth. (Where have we seen that actress before? Oh, I know, Dan in Real Life, I told myself – a really underrated movie!) I was convinced it was Alison Pill (also from The Newsroom), and it wasn’t!! Turns out she’s an Australian actress I’ve never heard of.

Alison Pill
Eliza Scanlen

Are these not the same woman?

Even after I IMDB’d who was playing Beth during the movie, I was still convinced Alison Pill was playing Beth – that’s who I saw on the screen. If Pill showed up at the Golden Globes to accept an award for playing Beth, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash.

Despite being very distracted by these casting issues, I tried to focus on the positive qualities of this updated version. Which I like more in theory than in reality, but let’s take an inventory.

What’s Good about It?

Feminism. The 2019 version is very feminist, and I ideologically have no problem with that, being, well, a feminist myself.

Of course Ryder’s Jo is a feminist too – she wants to make her way as an author. But this version presents women’s options as much bleaker – Aunt March nearly scares Amy to death when she tells her the fate of her entire family rests at her feet. She must marry well. She has no other choice. You kinda get why Amy is so fixated on marrying moneybags Freddie Vaughan for much of her early adult life.

Nuance. The characters of Amy and Meg, in particular, are much more nuanced than in the 1994 version. Amy is not just a spoiled, money-grubbing, vain brat – she’s talented and independent and thoughtful. Worthy of Laurie’s love in a way she’s not in the 1994 version. I am convinced Laurie married the 1994 Amy because he wanted to be part of the March family. I’m convinced he married Greta’s Amy because he was in love, as he tells Jo he is.

Meg is virtually a saint in Gillian Armstrong’s movie, misstepping only once at Sally Moffat’s debutante ball, having a tipple and showing some decolletage. Otherwise, perfection to a nauseating degree. Emma Watson’s Meg is much less saintly, splurging on silk fabric even after she’s married to John Brooks and poor as dirt, just to show Sally she can (when she can’t). She is much more fallible and human. (Having said that, Emma Watson was a complete milquetoast and groupie in that role. Didn’t like Meg at all.)

Even Marmee is far more nuanced – much more vulnerable and much less saintly. She cries (but doesn’t let her daughters see), she seems a bit cross with her injured husband, and then she gets snippy at her husband jokingly suggesting he would go to California with Prof. Baer. Theoretically, I should like her character a lot more in this film. But there’s something very comforting about Susan Sarandon’s unflinching and unwavering Marmee. No tears for her. Sainthood all around.

I haven’t read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women since I was about 11, so I can’t say which version of the characters is closest to the book.

Onto my Gripes.

What’s with the timeline? I found the non-linear timeline pretty darn annoying. Wait … Meg’s married with kids now? What time period is it? I’m confused.

It was also confusing that Amy is played by the same (brilliant) actress throughout (across a span of, what, at least 10 years?), and I found it hard to tell whether she was a girl or a woman in some scenes. Which was a bit creepy. The Kirsten Dunst/Samantha Mathis girl/woman split in 1994 fixed that problem.

I suppose the narrative served the main purpose of putting Jo’s writing and her book Little Women front and centre, a character in its own right. The movie culminates in the publication of her book, rather than her pairing with Prof. Baer. That’s her accomplishment, that’s her true worth.

Still, it was distracting and precious and not entirely necessary.

Greta is NOT a hopeless romantic. It was a neat little feminist trope to have Jo’s editor, Mr. Dashwood, convince the author to pair up “Jo” the character with Prof. Baer at the end of her book, when Jo the author was determined that she would not marry. The romantic declaration of love between Frederich and Jo at the Concord train station is but a bit of literary fiction to appeal to Mr. Dashwood’s romantic and silly daughters.

Again, ideologically, I get it.

But the hopeless romantic in me wasn’t keen on that denouement. I also wasn’t sure why this Frederich was French and not German. And why he wasn’t Gabriel Byrne, the perfect Prof. Baer. (When he takes Winona Ryder to watch the opera from behind the stage, sigh.)

See, isn’t this hopelessly romantic and so much better?

As an aside, I am a Hopeless Romantic. I publicly declared myself as such at my second attendance at the off-Broadway show In and Of Itself. (Every theatre-goer has to select a card with a word or two that best describes them, from a display of about 500 cards? Play #1 was Problem Solver – with my law partner MJ. Play #2 was Hopeless Romantic with hubby. Clearly my choices were influenced by my companion at the play.)

Greta can’t change Jo’s arc just like that. Why can’t Jo be a successful author AND fall in love? What does Greta have against Jo having it ALL? Why is it better and more purely feminist that she end up alone? Why are love and marriage so easily dismissed ?

This is such a marked deviation from the author’s story – and Jo’s well-known history – that I do take exception to it.

All in all, I’d give it a B-.

We’ll always have Paris …

Hubby and I were watching The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, and I got all nostalgic when Rose leaves for Paris. All the cafes and bistros, and visiting the Rodin Museum. Esp. the Rodin Museum, my favourite part of Paris save for the food.

Except the tragic last night when we had Italian food in Paris. Not advised.

Rodin Museum w/ Paula, early May 2006

Spring and Fall

One of my favourite poems from undergrad. One of the few I still have memorized.

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1880

The Great Gatsby

Possibly the most perfect closing paragraphs of any novel, ever. Graeme & I bonded over 30 years ago over a shared love of this book and these words. (And Billy Bragg.)

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I though of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further … And one fine morning –

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

November Road

Lou Berney’s November Road came highly recommended to me, by someone whose taste is impeccable. “Stylized historical crime fiction” – not my usual fare at all. It’s the kind of book that has a blurb from Stephen King on the cover. (Which I’m fine with. Hey, I’ve read my fair share of Stephen King in my lifetime, admittedly mostly in high school. But I still love The Stand to this day.)

My expectations were high, and I wasn’t disappointed. November Road is a very good read. Extremely well-written, a compelling page-turner.

Here’s the premise: Set against the backdrop of JFK’s assassination, we meet Frank Guidry, a handsome, charming and entirely amoral New Orleans mafioso. Oops, turns out he played a small part in the assassination, unwittingly. He’s a rook in a game of payback orchestrated by his mob boss Carlos, who really didn’t appreciate Jack and Bobby hauling him to testify before Congress about organized crime. Turns out mob bosses hold grudges.

So Frank, always one step ahead, scrams when he sees other unwitting pawns getting offed all over New Orleans. Carlos is cleaning up loose ends. Frank’s on the lam, and along the way he meets up with Charlotte and her two young daughters, who are all headed to California.

Charlotte’s back story is pedestrian – she’s decided her life with a hopeless drunk of a husband in small town Oklahoma is going nowhere. JFK’s assassination barely makes an imprint on her – what does she care, her life will never change, she could write all of her next chapters on a napkin. After a depressing pre-Thanksgiving family dinner filled with pretense, Charlotte’s mother-in-law presses a wad of cash into her palm in unspoken gratitude for suffering her useless alcoholic son. Charlotte sees an opening and takes it. She packs her bags and the kids’ bags and they are off, with the car, the epileptic dog, and $300. So long drunk Dooley. Bye bye Oklahoma.

After their chance meeting, Frank decides to use Charlotte’s car trouble and the insta-family she provides to create a cover story for his own trek to Vegas. The bad guys looking for him won’t be looking for a family man on a Thanksgiving road trip with the pretty wife and sweet girls.

But the twist in November Road is that Frank falls for his own cover story. He falls in love with Charlotte … and her kids. He desperately wants the sham to become a reality. He wants to be a husband and, yes, even a father. His own father was a brutal asshole who ended up murdering Frank’s younger sister (with a fire poker, yikes) after Frank escaped his abusive home at an early age. However crappy a guy he is, Frank thinks about his sister every day.

Now here’s pretty, smart and thoughtful Charlotte – they can be a family together and right this ship for both of them. She admits she’s left hubby, and Frank assumes she must need a replacement. Here’s the family he never had, pre-packaged, and right at his door step.

Of course (spoiler alert) this Brady Bunch fantasy can never happen – Frank’s only hope for surviving Carlos’ wrath is getting the hell outside North America, as far away from Carlos as humanly possible. Vietnam is the plan, and it’s going to be tricky to get Charlotte to agree to that side trip. By the way, Charlotte’s interest in acquiring another hubby, even one as charming and handsome as Frank, is less than nil. Sex, sure, but otherwise she’s making her own way from now on. Men just drag you down.

November Road is at its heart a novel of redemption. We initially meet the Frank Guidry who rats out his oldest friend, who’s on Carlos’ shit list, after he’s sought Frank’s protection. He becomes the Frank Guidry who is prepared to sacrifice his own life for another’s. We initially meet the Frank who objectifies, exploits, and disposes of a long line of willing New Orleans women. In stark contrast to the Frank who grows to idolize and idealize Charlotte.

Yet Charlotte isn’t Frank’s salvation. Rather, it’s his newfound insight into what a healthy and nurturing parent-child relationship can be. He’s a man willing to sacrifice himself, and more for the kids than for Charlotte. Those girls deserve the chance at life that his asshole father stole from his sister.

Frank Guidry at the end of November Road is a changed man, a man trying to be decent for the first time in his life. A man willing to protect rather than run.

The best part of November Road, the most apt and fitting, is its epilogue, set decades later. Charlotte’s two daughters, both impressive movers and shakers shaped by their mother’s grit and determination, visit her grave. They have a fleeting memory of that road trip when they were little kids, with … who was that man? They don’t know that road trip shaped their lives. And their saviour Frank is largely unremembered and entirely redeemed.