Snippets

When I get excited about what I read, the people around me tend to hear passages lifted out of the book I’m in. Their reactions are generally lukewarm, and mainly put on for my benefit, a slight come-down from what I expect: screams of joy and laughter, or perhaps deep and utter contemplation of the subject.

This has led me to believe two things:

  1. I am a master at reading bits of books, and nobody acknowledges it. There must be some sort of tacit agreement or conspiracy, considering the universality of their responses.
  2.  People are befuddled by hearing things at random and out of context.

In light of this, I’m going to experiment on all of you, with passages of the subtle and deep novel, The Monk Downstairs by Tim Farrington. It’s about two people who have to figure out their lives and then figure out if they love one another. It’s not a romance novel and it’s not chick lit, it’s a Book. The difference here is that a single mother rents her in-law apartment to a man who’s just quit the priesthood after twenty years: so the book is about family, seclusion, religion, trust, and all kinds of love. I’m not kidding when I say that it’s deep, but it’s the kind of depth that you can see in everyday life if you look for it, and perhaps easily miss considering the slow pace. You can’t miss it in this book.

But is it there in parts clipped out of the rest of the book? Let’s see.

The characters you will have to know are: Rebecca, the single mother who hates her job; Mary Martha, her six year old daughter; and Mike, the ex-priest.

“In four good puffs, maybe five, she knew, she would stub the butt into the shell and her life would seem very small and sad to her again. It was the evil magic of nicotine that buoyed this little moment of peace. But it was lovely, nevertheless, to sit quietly, fingering the guitar pick that hung from a silver chain around her neck and listening to the untrimmed bushes rustle in the breeze that blew in from the sea.” (19)

“Across the circle, on the shore of the stream, [Mike] stood flanked by Sherilou and Phoebe, looking somber and absorbed. His habitual hunch looked odd out of doors, as if the sky itself might be a little low.” (80)

“Maybe that was what real love was, being willing to charge toward the busy, noisy place that someone else inhabited and find what comfort there you could.” (104)

“He sat down and tugged a sock on. His feet in the morning light were extraordinarily ugly. How could she ever have imagined she could live with feet like that? She’d been desperate, apparently. She’d been so lonely.” (156-157)

“Inevitably, the weightless moments with Mike began to seem unreal. All her furniture said that love was a bubble and a fake.” (159)

Of Beanie Babies: “’You see?’ Mike said. ‘That’s special. I bet Patricia can’t remember all hundred and seventeen names of hers.’ Mary Martha walked in silence for a few steps, then said crossly, ‘Well she can remember more than eight.” (180)

[I leave out any moments in the latter part of the story. Because.]

“There was nothing ahead of her but the cathedral, its upper reaches drenched in sunset gold, and the plum trees in the evening hush, waiting for spring. There was nothing ahead of her but all the steps to be taken.” (274)

What do you think? Did you get anything out of it? Either way, it’s a great book – with very shiny legs on the cover.

The Pinky Promise

I liked 37.5 percent of this book, which is pretty appalling, considering that I paid $6.50 for it used.

The other 62.5 was about cancer, death, dead pets, and family strife – but mainly cancer. Additionally crippling is that because this is a book of nonfiction, you have to slog through the dreary reality of it all: it’s a great big slab of misery with judicious use of the Oxford comma. So in one, a left-handed man is bit on that hand by a dog; in another, a woman reconciles her difficult relationship with her mother by visiting her grave; as a final punch, the book ends with an essay written by a woman with stage 4(b) liver cancer, and this one gives you the works. Not only does she have a constellation of malignant masses in her abdomen, but she also has two young children and a doting husband. So in addition to the horror of cancer, you have to deal with the author’s speculations on what her untimely death will do to her partner and to the childhoods of her offspring. The biographies in the last few pages reveal that she died in the year before this collection was published.

I spent the next couple of hours wondering if I was feeling lumps, or if I was paranoid.

Thanks a lot, Book.

The problem with these books is that even the parts you hate are written so well, it’s hard to trash them – that and everyone seems to have cancer, which renders them bulletproof in terms of harsh and hyperbolic criticism. …Which is no fun. (And explains why it took me about four months to finish it.)

 

The essays I did like – all seven and a half of them – weren’t, on the whole, about death. The essay I read twice, “Grammar Lessons: The Subjunctive Mood” by Michele Morano, was like sinking into a perfectly warm pool, crossing to the deep end, and looking down through the water at what’s waving underneath. It wasn’t a lesson in grammar, really – though it was a cunning device – but a lesson for Morano herself as she traveled through her relationship. It’s paced beautifully, and ends just as we are about to reach for more. It leaves us on a gently drawn breath.

There was one essay about death I did appreciate, which is surprising, because it opens on the words, “In the elevator going down from the seventeenth floor, everyone is crying.” So begins Lily Tuck’s “Group Grief.” It’s about people who have been widowed, who are going through the first and most terrible stages of grief. Tuck looks at everyone else with crisp observation and severe judgement, something that she seems to revel in but also to criticize about herself. So while she details everyone else, she also includes her own emotional moments, tucked between more lengthy sections about the others: her anger at the pace of the group, the inanity of the tasks they are given; the quiet moments of grief that pass through her; how she imposes her grief on people who ask how she is doing. Slowly, she tells us more, and though we get slightly more information, we feel the weight of what she is unwilling to say. We get so much – our quota – and that’s it.

This withdrawal of information and Tuck’s sarcasm revives what could have been like all the other essays in the book. It proves that we are not entirely wells of sorrow in grief: we are also real people who don’t stop being who we are, even when wounded. At least, that is what I hope to be the case.

 

In the end, I finished the book, looked over at my boyfriend, felt tentatively for lumps the size of baseballs mooshed in with my organs, and said, “Gimme your pinkie.”

I swore then and there, with complete earnestness, I would never buy – or, sin of sins, read – a collection of essays of this ilk again.

Crescent

The drawknife meets a steady resistance. Pull. Pull harder. The wood underneath the blade splits or shaves off in hard heavy shavings, more chunks of wood than thin strips of leavings. I’m sitting, slightly hunched, the peg clamped to the table tightly. The table rattles as I tug on the two handles of the curved knife, or at least it did until I screwed it to the wall. The pegs are about a foot long, oxagonal, with a blunted tip at one end. It’s my job to sharpen them, so that they can keep the new barn together. There’s 250 of them, and it takes me two days.

I’ve never done this before, and at the beginning I feel freakishly slow, that I’m being too picky, that the drawknife isn’t doing what I expected it to do – one moment it takes away too much, and in another, too little. Slowly, though, I speed up. I become a little more aggressive, know how to gauge the amount of force needed to make each cut in the wood. Soon, as I feel each sharpened point to check for any uneven edges, I savor the silky smoothness of the peg where the knife has passed exceptionally well.

Physically, it’s still not easy. My slightly-hunched position, inevitable with my closed posture, causes my back to ache when I get up. There’s a hard tug in my arms every time I pull the blade toward me, something that only becomes more and more difficult each time I start after a break. Especially when I begin again, I tend to skew up my face with the effort. It’s hard to ignore that my body rebels after doing such a task for such a period of time, and it’s most visible in my hands.

Thursday afternoon, I decide to wrap my palms and my knuckles in gauze, to protect them from the strain, to blunt the pain now manifesting itself in blisters, some of them under calluses I already had. The next day, I add a pad under each of the gauze wrappings, then several band-aids. It looks as though I have been in a streetfight, and from my hands alone, it’s hard to tell who could have won.

I have a series of blisters that cascade from my pointer finger to my ring finger on my right hand, the first on my second finger on the pad, nearly in the center of the fingerprint, the next on my third finger in between the second and third knuckle, and the last on my fourth finger nearly at the crease of my upper knuckle. I have a large blister at the base of my third finger, and one in the same place on my left hand, only this one is the worst of the lot. I show my hands to people on that Saturday, and they gasp at the cream-colored specter lingering under my skin. I also have two more blisters to either side of it on that hand, and a couple more small ones besides. Taking off the band-aids was a relief, but it did make opening the screw-top bottle of wine difficult that night.

I continued going, past the point of aches and that of pains, shearing the wood away. I watched the shavings fall, blurry outside of my concentrated field of vision, and they seemed to me to be the clippings from the haircut of a golden-headed boy. They stuck to the mesh of my shorts, so the illusion was broken each time I brushed them off with the back of my hand. It helped that I’d had to take off my glasses as I worked; they fell down my face as I sweated. I could also feel sweat bead and run down from the crease of my knee to my ankle, like feeling a ghost run its finger down my calf.

The focus required was immense; one wrong step and I could seriously cut myself. However, it did not stop the thin lines of cable running between my music player to my ears and back again. I was transported into a focused trance, the sort of thing that people find useful in meditation. I’ve never been able to truly meditate – I haven’t the patience – but this book always calls it to me. It’s deliberate, perhaps a bit slow, with an interior rhythm of its own. It doesn’t pace itself for your life, you pace your life to it. This makes it a great book. It makes the word great turn pale.

At the end of the day, you return to fill up your water bottle one last time, and as you do so, you step into the old red barn. The swallows on the eaves set into the air, calling to each other, weaving around each other, as you stand looking up in the wide doorway. They fly out, you flex your hands, and smile.

Harrumph! Harrumph!

The books Marry in Haste and Just Like Heaven reflect their titles to perfection.

Marry in Haste by Anne Gracie is a lukewarm romance novel: it exists to make the bad ones look worse and the great ones look brilliant. This is one of many books exactly like it, and it fits into many of the tropes on my list: it’s a 4, 11, 12, 19, 21, and a 22.

It’s typical because the female character has super-smelling capabilities, something I have never seen in this world (how can she detect notes of cognac and vanilla underneath the aftershave? Pah.) It’s typical because the moody male character is different by day – removed and perfunctory – whereas at night…it’s a romance novel. It’s also typical because it espouses the same idea that a hymen is a complete barrier and the sure sign of virginity.

THE HYMEN DOESN’T WORK THAT WAY. IT JUST DOESN’T.

Moving on…

Marry in Haste also revolves around a female character without noticeable flaws: the heroine never sets a foot wrong during the story – and her only misstep occurred years before the book begins. Even then, the mistake – premarital sex with a stableboy – is tempered with how she was emotionally manipulated. Sheesh. However, it does go to show that, generally speaking, the women in Regency books don’t make errors: the world around them forces them to take actions. They’re never forced to atone for something they’ve done, something truly terrible. The men can have serious flaws – though they are usually skipped right over, as though PTSD or alcohol abuse are trifles – but the women? Not so much. If you are a lady starring in an historical novel, you are morally unimpeachable.

And it’s SO boring.

This is what makes Just Like Heaven so…heavenly. Julia Quinn, of all of the popular writers, tends to deliver: her characters seem like normal people, and the actions taken make sense. Each book is not a formulaic collection of norms, but its own entity. This is very much the case for Just Like Heaven, as none of the items on my list apply.

(I’m pausing so that you can gasp dramatically.)

(You’ve done it, right?)

(Good. I’m going to escape these parentheses now.)

The main characters have known each other for years, but neither one has been fruitlessly in love with the other, so a #20, Friendzoned, really isn’t possible. They only realize that they have feelings for each other after many, many years – and almost at the same time. They might have taken a couple of weeks to suck it up and say it, but it’s refreshing to have characters who genuinely know each other and who don’t suffer in silence for years, as is grindingly typical (it’s called a #16, Love at First Sight).

Not only this, they are both pretty well-adjusted, stable people who love their families and who are not carrying on with some half-baked mystery, which rules out a number 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, 19, 21, and a number 22. She doesn’t try to change him: she likes him the way he is. (D-AWWWWW!!)

You see what I mean? I’ll knock off the rest of the list. Like a hit man.

3, The Ramshackle: No house or inn in particular is involved; there is no major redecoration.
5, The Guardian: Sure, he has some marginal responsibility for her, but when he realizes that he has feelings for her, it doesn’t get in his way. He does have to calm her down when she realizes he’s been chasing off bad marriage prospects, but that’s because they are on an equal footing. To fit in with the trope, the balance of power has to be biased toward him.
14, The Right Honorable: No scandal is allowed to occur.
17, The String Puller: No older man forces the marriage.
18, The Snappy Old Lady: There is an assist at the end from this kind of older woman, but she isn’t the one determining the couple’s future.
23, The Unprotected Sex: There is premarital sex, but babies get conceived AFTER they get married – and that they have had sex doesn’t determine whether they get married: they have sex when it’s clear that they both love one another. Like a normal person could in this situation.

This is what happens when the characters are well thought out: they don’t fit tidily into any category. There are strong relationships outside of the romance; emotions are genuine and genuinely expressed; everyone has a strong grip on reality, and even might have a sense of humor. The main characters are flawed, and each of them makes mistakes – and not only that, but the errors are all realistic. There’s no bad guy: there might be characters we feel more or less for, but nobody could spout horns or click across the floor on their cloven hooves.

And there’s a fistfight! And she gets involved!

 

In summary, while one of these books is wildly better than the other, they are both still romance novels. It’s not like Quinn’s book gets to jump the fence and become a Real Book – it’s a leopard, and it has spots – but what it does is set the gold standard. Maybe it’s why I’m experiencing a growing frustration with the genre: there are so many books whose characters are so two-dimensional that they all disappear when shown in profile.

Harrumph! Harrumph!

Inelegance

I have decided that there is a difference between chick lit and romance novels. Romance novels are always chick lit, but chick lit books are not always romance novels.

Chick lit is a subsection of books that are aimed specifically at women; they generally feature women in their thirties who are endearing, and only sometimes in a good way. They go on a voyage of self-discovery, which will usually involve finding love, but generally you can expect loads of clothes shopping and that the word ‘reinvention’ will be bandied about at an alarming rate. The main characters are somewhat good at their jobs, and really try to be good at it, but it’s something that doesn’t work out so well most of the time. A great example – and a textbook case – would be Bridget Jones’ Diary. (Which, like much of chick lit, is set in England.)

The unfortunate part is that, unlike the rest of the genre, Bridget Jones’ Diary is actually really good. Most chick lit is like a dumpster fire with a lot of old cosmetics and uncomfortable shoes in it. Showy, but terrible – and not a little sad.

This is the rough part of reviewing every book I read: some of them show that my taste is slightly appalling. If it helps, I was given this book by a friend in a Park and Ride, as though it were a shady drug deal; the book (with a few others) stayed in the hot trunk of my car for several days before I remembered its existence and bit into it. But these books do serve their purpose: I have been going through a rough patch lately, and having something that is amusingly dreadful was a welcome distraction.

There’s nothing else for it. I’m going to have to divulge the title. I may lose your respect, but [insert motivational multi-cam speech here].

It’s called Elegance. I know. You know. It’s bad. And then there’s the cover:

I wouldn’t be surprised if even my cat ditched me.

This book is remarkably flawed: no part of the story could ever happen, not a bit of it. In reality, the main character, Hot Mess, would be a single, vain, hot mess. And nobody would touch her, particularly with her shaky credentials, though she’s not even close to being the most out-of-touch character in the story. There’s the guy she married who pretends he’s not gay. The guy she goes out with who stinks of desperation more than she does. There’s the piano player who is so exuberant that if he was real, he would be under supervision of the state for the use of illicit substances. And there are the drips she works with, one of which happens to have the traditional English eccentric mother (she’s eccentric because she’s got about fifty dogs). And of course, the main character goes through multiple clothes transformations, gets divorced, dates around, gets a new job, takes an inexplicable number of days off, and decides that she is not-fat enough to find someone to love.

Have I mentioned the token Gay Best Friend? (We like this idea as women because we would like to befriend men, but don’t always feel that we can trust them not to try to get in our pants. I think it’s dumb.)

The problem with doing these blogs is that I realize in a real quantifiable sense how bad some of these books are. This one? It fell off the bottom of the chart long ago. It’s rushed, and every character feels like a paper doll moved around by the author. Nobody has depth, partially because the story is rushed and partially because if the plot was slowed down, the whole thing would fall apart.

This is the reason why Bridget Jones’ Dairy did so well. It’s not that it is drastically different plot-wise, but it does have characters who ring true. You can look at who they are and what they want, and it’s complicated, as it should be. They’re rounded out by their feelings, impressions, wants, needs, goals, funny habits, and all those little things that go into what makes someone a person. That’s the whole secret, really, and it’s simple: characters move the plot. If the characters move the plot, you go places that make sense. If you don’t, you call your book Elegance. And I want to slap around your publisher with a big dead fish.

 

THWACK!!

THWACK!!!

THWACK!!!!

Standing Down

One of my all-time favorite movies is Roxanne, a spoof on Cyrano de Bergerac; it’s one of the best things ever done. But don’t go and look up the trailer – it’ll ruin the surprise right at the beginning. I would even have someone else go and buy the movie for you so that you can’t see the cover: the reveal is that good.

What I will tell you, though, is a moment in the film I think about a lot – roughly every day. Steve Martin, who plays the main character, goes up to a newspaper dispenser. He inserts a quarter, takes out a newspaper, glances at the headlines, and then, pow! He starts screaming, fumbling in his pocket: he puts in another quarter, returns the paper, and walks off with a bounce in his step. It’s a moment of perfect comedy, and it hasn’t aged a bit (which is saying something for a movie that was made in the 80s).

 

I’ve loved everything I’ve seen Steve Martin in: the blend of intelligence and sheer goofiness is irresistible. Born Standing Up belongs in a slightly different category: Martin writes with a smoothness and with an instinctual sense of what the reader needs. The intellect and the absurd are still there, but this isn’t a comedy: it’s a memoir, and perhaps more than that, an explanation.

Steve Martin got his start with standup, over the course of a decade of plodding followed by a few years of frantic stardom. And then, seemingly suddenly, he quit. He generally doesn’t talk much about this time in his life in interviews, so I get the sense that this book exists so that he can throw it at nosy interviewers who are more interested in the past than the present. (And the present is pretty great – he’s a renowned banjo player.)

I listened to the audiobook version – read, naturally, by Martin – so I can’t bring you deeply specific impressions of what it was like to go through the book. There were, however, a few moments that have stuck around.

 

Martin addressed his childhood, living in an emotionally distant and sometimes abusive household. I won’t give any specifics, because even as I heard him speak about his early years, it felt like an imposition, as though Martin felt somewhat obligated to give us this part of the story. It did, however, blossom into a beautifully poignant conclusion. But what I really remember is that he told us that his childhood, like that of many other comedians, had been difficult –  “just so you know that I’m qualified.”

My heart thumped.

 

An unfortunate detail of many discussions of comedy is that Bill Cosby keeps coming up, like bad sushi. The problem is that he provided such an incredible departure from the other kinds of comedy on offer, and that he was so freaking funny. I love his bit about Noah and God, though I cringe even as I listen. Almost inevitably, Steve Martin talks about Cosby: Cosby said that if the audience doesn’t laugh but if the waitresses do, you’re still in good shape. Is there a way to separate the good comedy (and the good advice) from someone I’d like to see cry himself to sleep every night in prison?

 

Steve Martin’s success took him a monumental amount of time. Years and years of playing in marginally bigger and better comedy clubs and in other venues, years of developing new material, new both to Martin and to the world. Years of driving around the country, years during which success seemed almost impossible. When he finally did make it, he hit it so big that it boggles the mind. He packed venues with thousands of seats, had to slink out of arenas so he wouldn’t be mobbed by autograph-seekers. He became dizzyingly wealthy, had the world at his fingertips.

But –

He wasn’t anonymous anymore, which meant that he spent most of his time either working or in hotel rooms. He had plenty of private space, and not enough contact with people. Worse, as the years went by, he could feel his material get stale. And then he started seeing empty chairs. His star was waning. He was tired, travel-weary, not to mention lonely. So he quit.

Many, many people were shocked – how can you just quit at the pinnacle of fame? Perhaps what they hadn’t noticed was that Martin had already seen the top, and knew that he was likely only to go down from there. He wanted a break, and he wanted something new. And thank goodness for that – we wouldn’t have The Three Amigos, The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, Trains, Planes, and Automobiles, or, of course, Roxanne.

 

I’ll round us out with a couple of my other most-favorite things Steve Martin has done:

Laters!