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.
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 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
flashes of light)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
I’m a big fan of Nora Ephron. I first fell in love with her through the short essays she published late in her life, I Feel Bad About My Neck and I Forget Everything.
One of her essays, in I Feel Bad About My Neck, was about the transformative power of great novels. She wrote the essay having just finished reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a book I’d vaguely heard of but that’s about it. She talked about being swept away in the world Michael Chabon created, and crying when one of the characters died. And a lot more than that.
I didn’t rush out and buy K&C the first time I read I Feel Bad About My Neck, but the second or third time I did. It was December 30, 2015; I know because I kept the receipt in the book as a future bookmark.
I didn’t start reading K&C on December 30, 2015, for a couple reasons at least. First, it’s a doorstop, and I knew I’d need a good swath of time to dive into it and finish it. And second, I’ve been on a bad reading streak for a couple of years now. Reading far too much crappy chick-lit and fluffy fare; easy for the subway, easy for the brain.
I just finished a two-week vacation in Antigua, where I go with hubby (ideally once a year) to get away from work, clients, contracts and colleagues and to indulge in a good mental health break and reading jag.
K&C was the third novel I picked up to read, sitting on a lounge chair beside the quiet pool we frequent. I knew it was going to be good from the first and second pages; I had to put the book down, run to our room and get a pen. There were sentences and phrases I had to underline because they were so perfect. Sammy Clay is described as disheveled on the first page (like he’d just been “jumped for his lunch money”), and exhausted Josef Kavalier is described soon after, slumped “like a question mark” against Sammy’s door after a dramatic escape from Prague to Brooklyn. I may be remembering these turns of phrase incorrectly; I don’t have the book beside me, but I hope I am because they jumped off the page. And that was just pages 1 and 2.
K&C was a bit of a battle of the inner wills for me. The prose is sumptuous. It cries out to be read out loud. Now I understand why John Irving’s Dr. Larch read to the orphans from Charles Dickens every night in Cider House Rules. Sometimes a book doesn’t really come alive unless the words are read out loud, rolled off the tongue, and truly heard and appreciated. The book made me wish, once we were back at home in Toronto, for an ice storm or a thunder storm – something to knock out the power for an extended period (but not too extended period –it’s winter mind you), just to have an excuse to light some candles in the darkness and read the book aloud to Graeme. I thought he would enjoy it. Now he’s across the aisle on the airplane reading it; I hope he’s enjoying it.
But the prose battled every page with the plot. I’m a big fan of plot, with big stories and big characters. One of my earliest favourite books, possibly still my faviourite book, is Irving’s The World According to Garp.K&C reminded me of Garp a lot. It reminded me of his Hotel New Hampshire and A Widow for One Year. It made me want to read Garp and New Hampshire again. Big juicy audacious reads.
Back to K&C – I repeatedly struggled with savouring the prose vs. skimming ahead to find out what would happen next. Would Rosa Saks remember that Joe Kavalier was the young man who walked in on her naked in bed in the artists’ den, on the day that K&C create the Escapist? Would Joe rescue his family and bring them to America? Would Sammy find love or lust with Tracy Bacon? (I loved Tracy – “Mensware?” he says as he leaves the elevator of the Empire State Building to meet Sammy on his volunteer watch for air raids over Manhattan. “Do you have anything in a gabardine?”)
Did I love K&C as much as Nora? I don’t think so. I loved a lot about it, obviously. Especially the first three parts. Part Four, Radioman, almost killed me. The shortest of the five parts, it was brutally bleak. Joe Kavalier has volunteered for the Navy to avenge his family’s fate in Nazi-occupied Prague, and a more recent tragedy, and ends up in Antartica of all places on an apparently pointless mission, literally sleeping with the dogs. Radioman gets bleaker from there, reminding me of the once book club favourite A Fine Balance, where the protagonist ends up limbless on a skateboard at the end of the novel. I mean, holy shit, shoot me now. I felt like that about Radioman. I suppose its purpose was to test and then restore Joe’s humanity; but it crushed my soul a little bit (did they have to shoot Oyster??), and then Part Five was a bit of a letdown for me too. I kept comparing it to Garp, which I’m going to re-read, and maybe on re-reading its end will let me down. But it’s hard for any novel, even K&C, to compare to that ending.
I also re-read Nora’s essay, and her love of the book makes me love it that much more. Let’s cross our fingers for a short-lived ice storm or a lengthy winter thunderstorm. I’ll get the candles and K&C.
I finally finished Miller’s Valley on vacation last month, and I have to say, my least favourite Anna Quindlen ever. And I love her work -especially One True Thing, Blessings, and Still Life with Bread Crumbs. And her essays, including Lots of Cake, Plenty of Candles (which I recommend every woman of a certain age to read).
I really disliked Miller’s Valley‘s narrative voice (flat, resigned). It didn’t make me motivated to see the story through, which is why I kept putting it down and reluctantly picking it back up. I wasn’t interested in the narrator, quite frankly (although you would think I would be interested in a smart, studious female narrator). Mimi was bland.
The central plot of the government flooding her valley was an inevitability (and presented as such); there was no narrative tension at all. Water’s a standard metaphor for the relentlessness of time, death, etc., and it worked, but it wasn’t fresh.
I also wasn’t captured by the subplot involving her agoraphobic aunt Ruth and the “did they or didn’t they” speculation involving her father and Ruth. Meh. I’m not sure the final discovery in the attic explained everything (or anything) about Ruth.