Monthly Archives: October 2013

Tiny Beautiful Things

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed is not at all the kind of thing I usually read, but I’m glad I stepped outside of my usual territory to read it, because it’s a beautiful book. For those of you not familiar with her, Cheryl Strayed, who is also the author of the memoir Wild, wrote an advice column anonymously for the website The Rumpus, using the name Sugar. I never knew about the column while she was writing it, but it had a lot of readers. She revealed her identity something like two years ago, and this book is a collection of some of those columns.

Strayed answers all kind of questions — about family, love, friendship, money — and her answers are personal and revealing. She almost always tells stories about her own life as a way of answering the question. I think this is the thing that makes the columns work so well, that she reveals her own struggles and shows her vulnerabilities at the same time that she doesn’t balk at taking an authoritative stance and telling people what she thinks they should do. Her advice is often tough and it frequently takes the form of telling people they need to make major changes and work harder at facing their problems. She by no means coddles her readers. But this is so much easier to take alongside the stories of her own struggles. You feel as though she has earned every bit of her authority and insight.

The columns are so warm, too. My only experience with advice columns before this was reading Dear Abby and Miss Manners a long time ago, and their voices were so much cooler and more detached, and entirely impersonal. Strayed isn’t just giving people advice; she is sharing with the world her hard-won personal wisdom, and you can tell she genuinely feels the pain of the people who write to her. She calls just about everyone who writes to her “sweet pea,” a habit I thought would annoy me, but instead it feels like a kind way to acknowledge the humanity of the people who write to her.

I was reluctant to read the book because I was afraid I would find it too saccharine and I was turned off by the universal adoration it has received. But enough people I respect love it, including the kind of people who are likely to worry about it being too saccharine for their tastes too, so it seemed worth the risk. And it most definitely was.


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New books!

Or rather, used books! Hobgoblin and I drove across Connecticut to visit the Book Barn in Niantic (which I wrote about here), a book store it is worth driving the entire way across a state to visit (yes, a small state, but still). We met some friends there who had two kids in tow plus there was our own kid, so we didn’t spend as long as I would have liked, but I found some nice things anyway. Hobgoblin found the entire Harry Potter series in hardcover, which we snapped up. We need to be prepared to read to our little one when he gets older, right?

I came home with:

  • Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. I was hoping to find The Days of Abandonment, but this one sounds good too. Oh, I just discovered it’s the first in a trilogy, although it looks like only the first two have appeared so far and the second hasn’t been translated into English. It’s a story about friendship between two women, which is promising.
  • Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts. The man who was working the register when we paid for our books rhapsodized about Fermor, and I’ve heard many other rhapsodies about his writing, so surely this will be good.
  • Pico Iyer’s The Man Within My Head. This is partly about Iyer and partly about Iyer’s obsession with Graham Greene. I like this particular mix of genres, memoir and literary criticism.
  • Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and Hopeful. This one is a mix of memoir and travel.
  • Georgette Heyer’s Footsteps in the Dark. All the Heyers I’ve read so far have been the romances, so I’m curious what I will think of one of her mysteries.

I could have come home with so much more, so maybe it’s a good thing the kids desperately needed their lunch and we needed to leave. Especially since I’ve accumulated a few new books from other sources. I picked up a copy of The Best American Essays, 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed, a series I make sure to read every year (and I’m such an essay geek that frequently one of the most enjoyable parts of the book is the introductory essay on the essay genre). I also snagged a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel The Signature of All Things from Goodreads. AND, I bought a copy of Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway, which is supposed to be a new take on the detective novel. And also the essay collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon. I love the title.

But most exciting of all, I got an advanced reader’s edition of a novel coming out in November, written by a good friend of mine, Elizabeth Gentry’s Housebound. You will be hearing more from me about this book when it comes out in November, but in the meantime, just go ahead and add it to your TBR pile, because it’s awesome. Here’s the cover:



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Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead

It’s been a while since I’ve posted about a mystery book group meeting. The group is still going strong and has now read 42 books in, I think, 5 1/2 years. We were sad to see a couple members leave a few years ago, but happy to get some cool new members as well. The book discussions are as interesting as ever. This time around we discussed Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, by Sara Gran. Feelings in the group ranged from mixed to very positive, with my own take on the more positive side. There were moments early on when I wasn’t sure I would take to the book or not, but by the end, she had won me over. It’s a fabulous portrayal of post-Katrina New Orleans, first of all. Gran shows how effective fiction can be at capturing complicated truths about a place and an event. I also admired Claire DeWitt very much. People in the group commented on what a difficult person she is in the novel, and I was taken by surprise at this. I saw, when I thought about it more, that she is indeed a pretty nasty person in a lot of ways, but as I was reading that didn’t even occur to me. I got so caught up in the first person voice and got used to seeing things from her perspective that I didn’t step back to evaluate what kind of head I had been inhabiting. DeWitt is a character in the hard-boiled detective tradition, and so of course she has many flaws and a prickly personality, but she is still a great person to spend some time with (mediated, of course, by the pages of a book).

The novel is also a commentary on mysteries themselves. DeWitt is a disciple of the philosopher-detective Jacques Silette, whose book Détection she quotes from liberally and which is full of enigmatic statements such as

There are no innocent victims…. The victim selects his role as carefully and unconsciously as the policeman, the detective, the client, or the villain. Each chooses his role and then forgets this, sometimes for many lifetimes, until one comes along who can remind him.This time you may be the villain or the victim. The next time your roles may switch.

It is only a role. Try to remember.

This is the part of the book I wasn’t so sure about at first. Some of Silette’s ideas are interesting, but others, such as in the quotation above, didn’t make much sense to me. I wasn’t sure to what extent we are even supposed to make sense of such statements. There is a mystical, unrealistic aspect to the book that left me feeling uneasy, as I didn’t quite know what to do with it. But, at the same time, the book explores an idea that I liked very much: that life is full of mysteries and that mysteries are everywhere, only we don’t usually see them as such. What goes on in a mystery novel is only one small part of the constant flow of the mysterious all around us. To solve a case is to put artificial boundaries around the vast unknown.

I liked this one enough to want to read the next in the series, which was recently released. Next up for the mystery group, though, is The Missing File, by D.A. Mishani, a book and an author I’d never heard of before.


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The Return of the Soldier, by Rebecca West

A friend of mind told me that Rebecca West’s novella The Return of the Soldier was very good, and as I’d already enjoyed West’s novel The Fountain Overflows very much, I thought I would give it a try. I found it to be a slow read in the best possible way: it asks you to read carefully to savor all of its details and emotional complexity. The story is set during World War I, and was in fact written during World War I, and is about two women in England who hear that Chris, one woman’s husband and the other woman’s cousin, has become ill. The news is very bad: he is mentally ill, suffering from shell shock. And the news is brought by a woman, Margaret, whom Chris loved 15 years earlier, and with whom he believes himself to still be in love. He has completely forgotten the last 15 years during which he got married, had and then lost a child. Now he is returning home to face the wife he doesn’t remember.

Described like this, the story sounds sensational, but it doesn’t feel that way. Jenny, Chris’s cousin, narrates the story in the first person, and filtered through her point of view, we see a great deal of complexity in the main characters, not least in Jenny herself. We see how Chris has changed in the shift from his young, 21-year-old love for Margaret to his more recent relationship with his wife, a colder, more practical, more sophisticated woman than Margaret. Now that he has returned from the war and is in love with Margaret again, he seems younger than ever. Far from being a detached, observing narrator, Jenny might be called unreliable, or at least extremely biased, as she has a hard time understanding Margaret and has strong feelings toward Chris. Even though she is describing a love triangle of which she seems not to be a part, she is nonetheless closely involved.

The mechanism that brings about the book’s end is perhaps too pat, but that doesn’t spoil the book, which remains satisfyingly complex all the way through. Now that I have enjoyed two West books, I am going to need to read more. I’m particularly interested in, but also scared of, reading what I understand is her masterpiece, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a travel and history book about Yugoslavia. I would under almost all circumstances not be drawn to that kind of book, especially since it’s very, very long. But I’ve heard from very reliable people that it’s great, and I want to get to it one day.


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Still Writing, by Dani Shapiro

As I wrote back when I posted on John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, I enjoy reading books on writing, even though I’m not a writer, or at least a creative one, myself. The same holds true for Dani Shapiro’s new book Still Writing. The book is part memoir, part writing guide, part inspirational text. I found it less useful as a reader than some of the other books on writing I’ve read, as it really is aimed more directly toward creative writers than the others, but it was still interesting and enjoyable. The book is written in short sections, generally only a couple pages each, that take on a different aspect of writing — facing the blank page, for example, or developing a writing schedule that works for you, or dealing with feedback from readers. The sections often tell stories from Shapiro’s life — her upbringing as an only child with unhappy parents, for example — as a way of describing what shaped her identity as a writer. By doing this, she gives readers a reason to trust her and to take her advice seriously. Her persona is warm and wise. I imagine that if I were a writer and were looking for inspiration, I would find it here. As it is, the book was a window into the writing life that in moments made me wish I did write. But I believe strongly what people say about writing because you need to. Writers do it because they feel it’s something they have to do, and they would do it whether they got published or not. Mostly, I’m happy to be a reader, and to get to enjoy the fruits of other people’s hard labor.


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Longbourn, by Jo Baker

Longbourn I’ve never read any Jane Austen-inspired fiction before, although I notice it all the time and wonder if there’s any chance I’d like it. Generally, the answer is probably not. But I’d heard enough people talking excitedly about Jo Baker’s Longbourn that it started to sound appealing. It turns out that the book is pretty good. There were some parts I didn’t like (an extended period that takes us to the Napoleonic wars in Europe) and sometimes I didn’t like the treatment of point of view. A few bumpy spots early on made me wonder whether I really wanted to be reading the book or not. But before too long I got fully caught up in the book and my doubts were gone.

The book, if you’re not familiar with it, is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ perspective. One of the most interesting things about the novel is the different perspective we get on Austen’s plot and characters. We can see the events of P & P going on, but that action is very much in the background. The “upstairs” characters come and go, and we hear brief mentions of, for example, Jane’s stay at Netherfield or Mr. Collins’s visit and rejected marriage proposal, but the center of the action is downstairs, particularly around Sarah, one of the housemaids. She is a smart, thoughtful woman who enjoys reading when she can — Elizabeth lends her books — but whose body is slowly being worn down by the hard labor required of her. She watches after Polly, the young second housemaid, and observes with interest the new footman whom Mr. Bennett unexpectedly and rather mysteriously hires. In the meantime, it’s amusing to see that Elizabeth stands out not so much because of her wit and charm, but because her habit of tramping across the fields means the servants spend more time cleaning the mud off her boots and clothing. The worries and the priorities of this novel are different than Austen’s: it doesn’t matter so much that Mrs. Bennett is an embarrassment to her more well-bred older daughters or that Lydia’s misbehavior might keep Jane from a promising marriage prospect. What matters is that Mr. Collins, the future owner of Longbourn, find a wife who will keep the current set of servants so they won’t lose their jobs. Jane is the sister most admired among the five, not Elizabeth, because Jane is neat and mild-mannered and good at keeping the peace.

I think it’s possible to enjoy this novel without being familiar with Pride and Prejudice, but it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. The story is interesting in and of itself, but playing the two novels against each other as you read adds another, very satisfying, layer to the reading experience.


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The Secret History

I’ve spent the last week or so, maybe longer, reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I wanted an absorbing novel, which it was, although I felt it was longer than it needed to be. It’s hard to tell, though, if a book feels too long because it IS too long, or because I’m too busy to read it at the pace I’d like and so it takes me longer to finish than I think it will. At any rate, it was enjoyable. I’ve been in the mood for academic novels lately, and this book scratched that itch. It’s set in a Vermont town that’s pretty clearly Bennington, and is about a close-knit group of students who take almost all their courses from one Greek professor. We learn at the book’s beginning that one of these students was murdered, but we don’t know how or why. So the novel is a cross between an academic novel and a murder mystery. As I was reading it, I kept thinking about the dust-up over this interview where Claire Messud gets (justifiably) irritated at a question about whether anyone would want to be friends with her character Nora from The Woman Upstairs. That interview sparked a whole lot of talk about likeable characters and whether readers want them in novels and whether it’s okay to want them. I found the characters in The Secret History to be intensely unlikeable all the way through. If they aren’t privileged, wealthy, and spoiled, they are arrogant and rude or feckless and foolish. The first-person narrator is one of the students, and he is the most sympathetic, but he still gets himself involved in horrible doings when he should know better and his attitude toward the novel’s events felt oddly distanced. Even so, I enjoyed reading about these characters, and so did a lot of other readers, evidently, as the book has been very popular. Perhaps this idea that readers want likeable characters just isn’t true, or perhaps readers are more likely to give college-aged students a pass? At any rate, I was surprised when one of the people on a podcast I listen to said that, given the option of what fictional world she’d like to live in, she’d choose the world of The Secret History, just without the murders. While a world where it’s possible to live in Vermont and spend tons of time studying Greek sounds appealing, I wouldn’t want to be a part of The Secret History. I’m very happy just to read about it and keep a safe distance.


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