Best reads of 2022

My best reads of 2022. In no particular order. These are not necessarily books published in 2022. Just books I read and loved this year.

These Precious Days

I enjoy Ann Patchett’s essays and non-fiction more than her novels. Her previous book of essays, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, was another favourite several years ago, and contains a great essay on how, at her policeman father’s urging, she tried out at the LA Police Academy.

These Precious Days was a book club pick for April – and I didn’t finish it until Fall 2022. Not because it’s a laborious read. The opposite. Almost every essay was a perfect treasure, and I doled them out to myself like prizes, slowly and sparingly.

Her essay called “Three Fathers” was in the New Yorker; I read it there, and then re-read it in her collection. It’s a brilliant study of how each of her fathers – her biological father and her two step-fathers – contributed in their own way to her success as a writer. One, her real dad, by being entirely skeptical of making a living as a writer – giving Ann the perfect incentive to say fuck you and succeed. Her first step-father was her greatest fan, which she takes with a grain of salt, because he fancied himself a writer also, and every piece of his writing he ever sent her to review was God-awful. And finally, her second step-father, who was indifferent to her writing and just loved Ann for Ann.

Two of her essays focused on Patchett’s growing indifference to “things”. One of her friends inspired “My Year of No Shopping” – a challenge to buy only consumables (food, drink) and nothing else for one whole year. No clothes, no books, no purses. Ann gives it a shot – and she’s quite successful at it. Enjoy what you have. Read the books you have. Wear the sweater from the back of the closet. Buying things doesn’t fill you up or make you happy.

In “How to Practice”, she describes the tedious archeological chore of helping her best friend, Tavia, clean out her hoarder-father’s house after his death. Vowing to not leave a mess for her estate to clean up, she starts de-cluttering her own house, giving things away, throwing things away, repurposing. She and her husband Karl were neat and tidy, but still, they just had Too. Much. Stuff.

I have been recommending These Precious Days to all and sundry. If you, like me, are trying not to acquire so much stuff, then feel free to borrow it from the library. The Libby app has multiple e-book and audiobook copies available.

Also, if you haven’t read Patchett’s non-fiction book Truth & Beauty, about her friendship with author Lucy Grealy (author of Autobiography of a Face), well, please do.

Still Life

What a joyful masterpiece this was to listen to. I borrowed the audiobook from Libby. And then even before I finished it, I went to my local Book City and bought the paperback. Because it’s the kind of book you need to have in your hands, and flip through, and underline passages and dogear pages. This novel reminded me a lot of one of my favourites from last year, A Gentleman in Moscow, with its similar themes of kindness, gentility, finding family, and seeking out beauty in the everyday around us.

Sarah Winman’s writing is beyond lovely. She creates memorable real characters. There’s a fair bit of magical realism, including Claude the Parrot who seems to have a preternatural understanding of humanity’s flaws and who may also be the reincarnation of Shakespeare. I wasn’t entirely taken with the last chapter of the novel, but that’s my only quibble.

The Stranding

This novel was a recommendation from my friend Candace, and I borrowed it from her. But of course now I want my own, because it was such a good read.

I just went to Amazon (to get the .jpg of the book’s cover) and made the colossal mistake of accidentally seeing a reader’s random comment about The Stranding:

This book was fairly pleasant but somewhat forgettable.

An idiot

I can only assume the reader read an entirely different novel than I did.

The Stranding was not at all pleasant – it’s set partly in a post-apocalpytic, post-nuclear world and partly in the days leading up to it. Our female main character ends up saving herself from the apocalypse, with a stranger, by climbing into the rotting carcass of a whale. Ruth’s salvation – as the world ends – comes after she somewhat impulsively re-locates from London to New Zealand, desperate to escape the environs of her loathsome married lover. She and the stranger band together to survive. They may be pretty much the only people in the world. They encounter a stranger or two, hear stories – but of course they aren’t getting updates on their Twitter feed, because the world has basically ended. All technology has ended. It’s back to the land and the sea, and raiding the local department stores until their inventory depletes.

Pleasant? I wouldn’t have said so.

Forgettable? Haunting, I would have said. I can’t tell you how many times I have thought of this book since I read it; the characters are real to me. (This reminds me of The Time-Traveler’s Wife, where the characters stayed with me for months and months after I read it. Like friends I kept expecting to hear news about.)

One of the blurbs on the back cover of The Stranding noted how hopeful the novel is. Again, I wouldn’t have said so. But it’s thought-provoking, inventive, stressful, oddly romantic, and harrowing.

It’s also so embedded in my mind that I asked the author Kate Sawyer on Instagram to please write a sequel. Ruth and Nik, as strangers will when they are possibly the only two people left on Earth, end up with two daughters. What happens to those daughters … well, I kinda need to know, Kate.

Kingdom of Ash

I started reading Sarah J. Maas and her YA fantasy/romance books at the recommendation of my next door neighbour, who shares my sensibility for pop culture. I inhaled the first four books of A Court of Thorns and Roses in a few short months, one after the other, obsessively. Then I started in on Sarah J. Maas’ first YA fantasy series, Throne of Glass, which she started writing when she was 16, I believe.

TOG (as we in the YA world call it) is the first of SEVEN novels in the series, plus there’s a prequel. TOG and the second book, Crown of Midnight, I also consumed quickly and ferociously.

Then, according to the list of Books I’ve Read that I’ve kept religiously since 2004, I instructed myself to read something other than YA fantasy before downing the next 5 novels (list says “OKAY KOB read some adult books before more TOG”). Which, surprisingly I did, reading Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaladdin and then The Wife by Meg Wolitzer. But then I jumped right back into Book 3 of TOG, Heir of Fire. My first book of 2019 was Book 4, Queen of Shadows. And then the streak ended and I was Maas-ed out. No Maas. This burn-out, or oversatiation, also hit when I read Harry Potter years ago. Once I finished Goblet of Fire, I could not handle any more Harry, and it took several years to pick up Order of the Phoenix and proceed to devour the end of the series.

In 2021, I picked TOG back up and read Empire of Storms, which was very very stressful. It ends with our heroine in a horrible bind, having been captured by her arch-nemesis and imprisoned – in a lead coffin with a lead face-mask. So normally, I’d pick up Book 6 and find out what the hell happens after that cliffhanger. Except, in what I can only consider to be a Sarah J. Maas mental breakdown, Book #6 goes on a whole fucking 668-page tangent to follow two minor characters (including Chaol, who everyone kinda hates) on a quest to find allies in other worlds to take our heroine’s side in the war. Tower of Dawn defeated me. I started it, realized I didn’t give a fuck about its characters, and put it down. This Tweet could have been me:

In 2022, I vowed I had to finish TOG. I had it on good authority from Candace that Kingdom of Ash was an amazing ending to the series – I had to know what happens.

So, I cheated. Yup, I admit it. Instead of reading Tower of Dawn, I read the Wikipedia page to find out what transpired. (I had also done this, head hanging in shame, with the last Twilight book, which I could only stomach until the baby was born, and then regained my senses and put that shit down.)

Dispensing with the horrible Chaol and that whole stupid diversion, I picked up Kingdom of Ash and prayed that Aelin would get free from horrible Queen Maeve as quickly as possible, because to see her chained, imprisoned in a coffin, and tortured repeatedly wasn’t super fun. And once she got free (yeah, like that’s a spoiler), all by herself, not relying on any dude to rescue her, the rest of the novel (all 989 pages) just flew by.

And, again, I would like to beg the author for a sequel. Because after about 5,000 pages, it was kinda nice to see Aelin and Rowan happy, not: imprisoned; at war; tortured; separated; betrayed; or in imminent danger.

They were together, safe, and optimistically rebuilding Aelin’s war-marked Terrasen. It would be a nice little gift, just saying Sarah J. Maas, to throw your fans a happy “normal times” novella like you did for ACOTAR with A Court of Frost and Starlight.



This was a recommendation of a friend of a friend, and I bought the hard cover at my local Book City on Easter weekend because it was Independent Booksellers’ Day. And the book clerk assured me it was a great and quick read. And indeed it was. (And, by the way, that’s why I love Book City – pretty much half the time I buy a book there, one of the clerks has read it and praises my choice. How many of Amazon’s books do you think Jeff Bezos has read?)

A novel about a never-named female translator who works at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Intimacies is a study in juxtapositions. (Okay, yes, I was an English Lit major in undergrad, and yes, every essay was something like “A study in grey: The juxtaposition of light and dark in Keat’s Ode on a Grecian Urn”, or some such nonsense.) But the competing themes are apt in this novel – juxtapositions between things that bring people together (the rather intimate art and science of translating and interpreting someone else’s words and ideas, creating a bridge between languages) and the distances that can never be overcome between people (miscommunications, estrangements).

I thought it was brilliant. And I read it in an afternoon.

A Town Called Solace

Another book club pick. I have loved some of Mary Lawson’s previous novels, including Crow Lake and The Other Side of the Bridge. She’s Canadian and her novels are set in Northern Ontario, where I spent a couple impressionistic years in my youth.

I listened to A Town Called Solace on Libby and absolutely loved it. There are three narrators, as the events are told from three different viewpoints: Clara, a young girl and neighbour to the recently deceased Mrs. Orchard in Solace, Northern Ontario; Mrs. Orchard herself, an absolutely lovely elderly lady who we learn over the course of the novel committed a heinous crime in her past; and Liam, a newly divorced man with an undefined relationship to Mrs. Orchard who unexpectedly inherits her house in Solace.

It’s a lovely read – it was long-listed for The Booker in 2021, justifiably so. Once I finished it, I missed Clara, Mrs. Orchard, and Liam. I still miss them.

Clara is a favourite character from this year. Precocious, skeptical, and superstitious, she is deeply-traumatized by the disappearance of her 16-year-old sister Rose, which is a mystery that hovers over the day-to-day events of the novel. Again – I’d love to read a novel dedicated to Clara as an adult. She’d be fascinating and scary.

Truly, I will read anything by Mary Lawson. She’s a gem.

Oh William!

Ditto, I will read anything written by Elizabeth Strout, who won the Pulitzer in 2008 for Olive Kitteridge. I thought Olive Kitteridge was a masterpiece when I read it. And I declared so to my book club. My book club presentation focussed on why Olive Kitteridge is really a novel, instead of a set of inter-related short stories, and I felt quite passionate on the subject at the time.

As much as I loved Olive Kitteridge, it’s Strout’s Lucy Barton series that I love even more. I remember reading My Name is Lucy Barton in Antigua, by the pool in the hot sunshine, shortly after it was published in early 2016. I was reading it on my Kindle and inserting note after note because I was going to be presenting it to book club. I read it after Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air and right before Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial. What a great vacation that was.

My Name is Lucy Barton introduced us to Lucy Barton, a writer from an extremely impoverished and dysfunctional Midwest family. Lucy is living in New York City, in a dysfunctional marriage with William, whom she met at college (her intelligence being her ticket out of her family squalor). In My Name is Lucy Barton, Lucy ends up in hospital with a never-diagnosed ailment. And out of nowhere, her estranged mother comes to visit her. The novel is a fascinating study in the truly broken dynamics of mother and daughter. It’s about trying desperately to escape from family but never being able to escape your history.

Lucy Barton resurfaces in Strout’s Anything is Possible, which I confess I found to be a bit of a slog. It’s a series of short stories that are based in Lucy’s hometown, with an awful lot of horribly damaged characters.

Oh, William! is a chronological sequel to My Name is Lucy Barton. It was a fun fun listen on Libby, and it was a joy to meet up with much older versions of Lucy and William, now long-divorced. William is remarried and Lucy newly widowed.

William is not, and was never, an attractive or pleasant character. Lucy latched on to him in My Name is Lucy Barton because she sees him – a young professor – as her knight in shining armour, rescuing her from the fate of returning to her family and hometown. But William is just as much of a smothering, critical, abusive force as her mother. Lucy, suffering from some kind of Stockholm Syndrome, can never seem to break free of William, even after years of divorce.

Which leads us to Oh, William! – and the unexpected turn of events that transforms the novel into a road trip adventure when William drags Lucy along to meet, for the first time, his biological sister. Lucy can’t seem to do without William, even though William is as bullying and insensitive as always. I guess we are always our own worst enemies when it comes to many relationships.

Songs in Ursa Major

Songs in Ursa Major wasn’t a book club pick or a recommendation from a friend. It somehow fell into my lap, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I think it’s supposed to be a veiled dramatization of Joni Mitchell’s love affair with James Taylor in the late 60s, early in her career. I listened to it months ago, and it reminded me a lot of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and The Six. A strong sense of time (late 60s, early 70s), a female protagonist trying to make it in a very male-centric music industry, a doomed love story.

The Most Fun We Ever Had

This novel reminded me a lot of the elements I used to love about John Irving – a great big (20 hours plus as an audiobook) multi-generational story. Reminded me in many ways of Garp (which I will always say is my favourite book ever, read when I was in high school) – a great big love story between two likeable characters who are both horribly flawed. They raise four girls, and it’s not glamorous. But you root for them to stick it out as their four girls grow up and inevitably fuck up their own lives.

The Palace Papers

I was highly ambivalent about this read/listen, but after both Marie and Holly in book club strongly recommended it, I put it on hold on Libby. It’s a good 17+ hours as a listen, and every time it became available, it was a “Skip the Line” copy, which gives you only 7 days before it has to be returned. 17+ hours over 7 days is quite the commitment, and eventually I just gave up and bought it on Audible.

I’d say it’s a highly enjoyable and well-researched book that I’m still seriously ambivalent about.

Tina Brown, the author, narrates the audiobook in her highly snobby British voice. I confess I haven’t finished it, and likely won’t. I couldn’t get through the chapters on Meghan Markle, whom Tina Brown clearly dislikes. In the Foreword, Tina basically says that she’s written this book because it’s the book Meghan Markle should have bloody well read before marrying into The Firm. Do your research, Meghan, is the very clearly-stated thesis of The Palace Papers.

Then there’s the very off-putting chapter on Jeffrey Epstein and Prince Andrew’s very creepy affiliation with him and Ghislaine Maxwell. It’s a super dishy chapter because Tina Brown, creator of the website The Daily Beast, was the first to publish details of Jeffrey Epstein’s very generous sentencing in Florida for what was clearly child trafficking. Brown ran in the same circles as both Epstein and the Royals, and she’s as much a character in the chapter (without the taint) as the main players. It’s horrific, but very entertaining. Andrew comes off as a bobble-headed, daft horndog who would do just about anything for cash.

But if you like Netflix’s The Crown, The Palace Papers covers the exact same territory and timeline, with Brown’s very biased but interesting takes on the players. She adores and respects Camilla, who’s never said a word against The Firm, and is the anti-Meghan. She reluctantly admires Kate as the scheming manipulative temptress who spun her web and, albeit slowly, snared William. Kate appreciates and respects The Firm and, according to Brown, will make a good Queen. She won’t make waves, she’ll wear the right colour pantyhose, and all will be right with the world.

Now, either you love Meghan Markle or you hate her. I personally adore her, and I reject Brown’s thesis that once you marry into The Firm, you need to bend to its traditions. Maybe Meghan didn’t do her research – how could any outsider, especially an American, appreciate what it’s like to marry into Batshit Crazyland, and be victimized by the misogynistic and racist British press? Brown basically equates The Firm with the mafia – once you’re in, you can’t get out. Well, huzzah to Meghan & Harry, who said Fuck This Shit, we are out of here.

What I’m thankful for, 2020 version

  1. Food made by other people, especially Paula’s mac & cheese when I got out of hospital, Candace’s mom’s divine lasagna, Mary Jane’s birthday feast, and my mom’s Xmas turkey & dressing

2. August trip to Vineland’s Inn on the Twenty and a patio lunch, like it was almost normal

Best fish and chips, ever, plus a civilized glass of rose

3. A reprieve from work – extended health leave. It was lovely not sitting at my computer all day, and I’m determined to make sure I don’t fall back into old patterns in 2021. Work, it turns out, is highly overrated.

4. Getting better in hospital, with visits from Graeme & Paula. Visitors are an essential part of the care plan. And realizing, even in hospital, that there were a lot of people much much sicker than me.

5. Schitt’s Creek. My hospital roommate Joy said that David Rose is her spirit animal. I feel you

6. Weekly Zoom/Houseparty check-ins with the girls. Although I have so missed those impromptu weekend lunches at Le Select Bistro or Hanoi Three Seasons. I would kill for a restaurant meal, honestly.

7. Jennifer L. Armentrout’s Blood & Ash series – counting down the days to April 20th for the third in the series.

8. Ditto, K.A. Tucker’s Wild series, with a surprise Christmas novella, was a great diversion.

9. Many great audiobooks, including:

10. My new favourite Bleusalt scarf, so soft and sustainable:

11. My hair has finally stopped falling out. Yay!

12. And my house has never been so clean, while we were waiting to hear the results of the US election. Looking forward to Biden/Harris 2021.

13. My sweetie!

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.

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?

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.

Thoughts on reading real books

Note: This blog was written three summers ago, when we were staying at a rented house in Mahone Bay for a couple weeks. I guess I never got around to publishing it …

Here are some thoughts about reading real books.  I should do more of it.

I just finished reading a couple real books.

Commencement, by J. Courtney Sullivan.

Not Ulysses, or Bleak House, or The Life and Death of Ivan Denisovich. Only one of which I’ve read. But an actual fictional novel.

Commencement is the story of four young women who meet and live together in residence their first year at Smith, an all-girl college in Massachusetts. The book follows them through college, romances, career aspirations, and into the real world. It ends when they are all just over the hump of age 25.

I truly enjoyed this book, and how realistically it portrayed female friendships. These girls were not cookie cutters or clichés; they were all real, they were all different. They had the common bond of Smith among them, but otherwise came from diverse geographies, socioeconomic backgrounds and families.  It portrayed them all as ambitious, in their own ways. Sally marries early (before 25, the right guy? the right reasons?) and gets pregnant unexpectedly. Bree falls into a lesbian relationship in college (apparently almost de rigeur at Smith), comes out to unaccepting parents, and struggles to balance family vs. relationship. She’s a successful young lawyer in San Francisco, so I got that. Another, Celia, the aspiring writer, is stuck in a grim entry-level publishing job in NYC that saps her creativity; she dates but comes to realize she has little interest in a “relationship” or motherhood. And then there is April, the rebel, the radical feminist, the would-be anarchist seeking an ill-fated maternal figure; the latter half of the novel revolves around her unexpected disappearance in Atlanta, and brings the friends together again after an alienating alcohol-laced fight before Sally’s wedding.

I liked each of the characters. Like I say, they were real, and different, and yet their friendships worked. And the jockeying, power-plays and acceptance of the different dynamics amongst the friends, in their various combinations and permutations, was well done – speaking from experience.

The book had a great, surprise ending, and I’ve rarely wished for a sequel to a book as much as I’m wishing to find out what happens next, after the final page of Commencement.

This week I finished a memoir I’d been eager to read. Called The Rules Do Not Apply, by Ariel Levy. I was told to expect to cry. I didn’t. I didn’t relate to Ariel very much (I related much more to Sally, Bree and Celia – not so much to April.) Ariel is a writer. Extremely talented writer – lots of underlining of lovely passages. And look at the pretty words I had to look up as I read:

  • Lickerish (greedy)
  • Labile (changing)
  • Lambent (softly radiant)
  • Coruscate (emit flashes of light)

She’s bi-sexual, gets married to an older butch lesbian (don’t call her Ariel’s wife – Ariel is the wife!). She struggles with wanderlust and the desire to be a mother. She becomes pregnant, travels to Mongolia on assignment, and gives birth so prematurely (19 weeks) that doctors say it was a miscarriage and yet the baby was born alive, breathing. Ariel feels she’s lost a baby, beyond a miscarriage.  She took a picture of the baby; he existed. She insists on showing the picture more than she ought.  She develops an odd correspondence with the older South African doctor who tended to her in Mongolia.

A life far more outrageous and memoir-worthy than mine.  So I didn’t relate, but I did love the prose; and her story gripped me, and I was sorry when it ended. And I hoped she didn’t fall into an ill-advised relationship with Dr. South Africa – it would have been a rebound thing, not good for either of them.

I’m in the middle of reading Jennifer Close’s The Hopefuls.  I’ve read her past two books – one a series of short stories, and one a novel. I love her narrative voice. It’s a Millenial, weary, detached-while-trying-to-participate voice. Always the outsider looking in, and in doing so, being spot-on with observations and hilarious in her outsider comments.  It’s taking me a while to get through it.

None of the “real” books I’ve been reading have been escapist. Commencement is maybe chick lit, I’m not sure. Sullivan is a good writer. But it included some fraught scenarios and pretty screwed up psyches all around. Levy’s memoir was disaster from cover-to-cover – at one point she meets a friend of a friend at a party, and is asked “Oh, are you the Ariel that bad things keep happening to?”  So not escapist.  The Hopefuls, set in Washington DC and populated with the idealistic young people who parlayed volunteer jobs on the campaign into White House jobs in Obama’s administration, is clear-eyed, cynical, and without patina.

I mostly don’t read real books anymore. For about three years now.  It’s romances, many free off Bookbub, because that’s about the level of engagement I can handle – pure fantasy, attraction, lust, hiccup/misunderstanding, happy resolution.  Cinderella, Prince Charming, sex (to varying gynecological degrees). Sometimes historical (I highly recommend Lisa Kleypas, thanks Sharon for recommending.) Running my own business, practicing law, sometimes unwell hubby – all of it translates into the lowest common denominator. The adult romance. The historical romance. I’m not the only one who reads them. A couple friends do, too, and we recommend authors to each other.

But it’s unhealthy.

First of all, many (not all, not Lisa Kleypas) are really badly written, and that’s makes the written syrupy pablum not just lacking in nutrition but mildly toxic.

Sometimes I can feel the brain cells dying as I read them.

I read them instead of reading my book club books, which too often are set in WWI and WWII, and no thanks to that at all.

Second of all, that’s not life. Sure, I had little in common with Ariel Levy. But she was real and flawed. I didn’t relate to her experience, but I got her. One could sense she had to take showers and shave her legs from time to time. 

Heroines in romances don’t need showers. They never shave their legs. They are permanently vanilla-scented and hairless, all over one assumes.

Their heroes are large, masculine, muscular, toned, great in bed, and willing to do anything for their loves. Case in point: one of the last romances I read – the aspiring partner at a criminal defence law firm falls in love with Chelsea, the aunt/guardian to her 6 orphaned nieces and nephews. Right. He’d be running away, preferring any billable hour to family hour. 

By contrast, my husband this week, when I told him the vacation house’s toilet was blocked up (not by my doing, I point out to you, nor necessarily his – we had guests!), asked “And that’s my problem?” Clearly, by default, it’s all my problem. Ditto when I handed him the TV remote. Context: I make a lot of decisions in my day-to-day working life: I’m an employer, business owner, and trusted advisor to dozens of clients; sometimes I just don’t want to fucking make any decisions, esp. ones I will be judged on. I know he doesn’t want to watch a mindless Big Bang Theory episode, so fucking find what you want to watch. I don’t care. Neither one of us does, because we’re looking at our respective rectangles the entire time anyway. No one pays exclusive attention to anything, at all, ever, anymore.

Hubby’s response to being handed the remote:  You can’t even handle a remote?

So romances are not a good idea for me. 

Note to hubby – these are isolated incidents. You are normally a very fluffy bunny and a very friendly bear.

Why do I feel compelled to read about death, all the time?

Our book club just read, and adored, When Breath Becomes Air. Of course, since it’s a memoir about a physician who discovers he’s dying of lung cancer, and then writes a book (this book) that he had always aspired to write, I had already read it. Some months ago. Shortly after it was published, in fact. Because, it’s a memoir about dying, and I am compelled to read them.

I just bought:


These are the latest in a long line of books about dying  I have read in recent years. (I particularly like dying spouses, but very sick spouses and friends qualify also.)


Books about women with breast cancer were a theme for a while (inspired by my sister, undoubtedly):

And now I’m newly bummed to see that Meredith Norton, the author of Lopsided (she had an extremely aggressive form of breast cancer), died FOUR YEARS AGO:

If anyone has suggestions for memoirs about dead and dying friends and spouses – let me know. It looks like I’m staying on this path for a while now.

My Carrie Fisher shrine

I just watched this tribute video to Carrie Fisher and now I want an all Carrie Fisher day:

(Argh. For some reason WordPress refuses to make this a clickable link. Argh.)

I loved her writing. Just pulled out my copy of Postcards from the Edge -hardcover, first edition, 1987.

And I read her follow up novels, Delusions of Grandma and Surrender the Pink.  And of course, Wishful Drinking.  Here’s my little Carrie Fisher book shrine:

I also love her character Marie in When Harry Met Sally. A movie and a role that grows on me with every watching.

Everybody thinks they have a sense of humour and good taste, but they couldn’t possibly all have good taste.

I want you to know, I will never want that wagon wheel coffee table.

Written by my hero Nora Ephron, of course.


More things I love about Nora Ephron

Her essay The Lost Strudel from I Feel Bad About my Neck. I read this very short piece on the subway one morning, years ago, and laughed out loud. And then re-read it immediately.

I’ve had a craving for cabbage strudel ever since (which objectively sounds disgusting), but I’m a bit afraid to try it, since it likely won’t live up to Nora’s praises (even Nora had trouble meeting her own expectations of strudel). And then I’d just be disappointed.  I’m sure Nora would tell me that’s not a healthy way to go through life (were she still with us).

I especially admire the line “I dropped Ed Levine’s name so hard you could hear it in New Jersey.” 

Nora Ephron’s tribute to Meryl Streep. Brilliant, funny – and her delivery is impeccable.  The crowd is mesmerized — when she talks about going into Meryl’s trailer at the end of her tribute, the entire audience of celebs and self-important people hang on her every word:

Plus – what a great outfit, right?

Nora Ephron’s tribute to Mike Nichols (only Nora can make a really bad pun hilarious):