The Value of Friendship

There are some books I read as a kid that imprinted on me in a big way. One of these was The King’s Equal, written by Katherine Patterson and illustrated by Vladimir Vagin. I read it in second grade (which you can tell because I wrote it on the inside of the cover), forgot it at school for a little while, and then snapped it back up. This book was a big step for me – a chapter book! And one that didn’t have drawings on all the pages! I liked the great sweep of the story with its satisfying finish, the sense of all being right with the world at the close.

Now, though, I read it every so often and I realize what Patterson so cunningly orchestrated: big concepts phrased in little words. I think she knew that maybe this could change people in some small way, change how they looked at the world. She knew it was – is – a great book. It withstands re-reading, and it withstands age.

First of all, you are drawn in by the fantastic illustrations. They are delicate, amazingly detailed, and they only add to the story. You can get a larger emotional scope out of the story by studying them, as the wording can be a little sparse; this, of course, is perfect for this kind of book. Just enough art so that the child is engaged, waiting for the next painting, but enough pages with words to feel grown-up. Now, I study how the illustrations were created; I wonder what Vagin might have done to achieve that luminous effect. It’s Art, pure and simple.

On a closer read, though, you realize that there’s much more to the story. On the face of it, a bad, greedy prince wants all of the wealth and power in his kingdom, taxing all his citizens into abject poverty and making unilateral decisions. However, his father the king had decreed from his deathbed that the prince could not be king until the prince had found a wife to equal him in beauty, intelligence, and wealth. The known world was combed for princesses to fit the bill, but each time, the prince found fault. The prince was on the precipice of sending his whole government to rot in prison, when, at the last possible moment, a woman appeared.

She was beautiful, she knew things about the prince that even he did not know, and she had everything in the world that she wanted. The prince was overjoyed! They could get married and he’d be king at last! The woman, however, said that the prince had just pronounced her to be more than his equal, because the prince had said she was the most beautiful creature he’d seen, that there were things she knew that he did not, and that there were many things he wanted but did not possess.

This is where the story gets interesting, and I’m not going to tell you why.

What I will tell you is that in an adult reading, you can see a whole lot more: the book is predicated not only on the necessity of marital equality but also that a king should be honorable in order to merit crowning. More that this, the book shows the importance of teamwork and how taking pride in menial duties can be a very good thing. What really got me on this reading – loud and clear as a bell – is that you are a shitty person until you are a good friend. We don’t get hit over the head with any of it: the story shows-not-tells us.


The world is abuzz over young adult fiction – its emotional maturity! its scope! But I’d rather not overlook truly good books for children. There is a lot that you can teach a little girl without telling her you are teaching it. You can show her what she is worth; you can show her new ways to think; you can show her empathy. But not in so many words.


Poor, Obscure, Plain, and Little

Reading Jane Eyre is like being hypnotized. Charlotte Brontë is so consistent that her writing sinks you deeper and deeper into the psyche of Jane, to the point that sudden noises make you jump. Jane Eyre makes you think in her sentence structure and vocabulary for days afterward. The effect is enhanced in the winter months – ideally January or February – so that you can truly feel the book, its isolation, its steady determination.

Added bonus: Toby Stephens.

Perhaps you don’t feel the same way – perhaps you haven’t read Jane Eyre yet. If you haven’t even heard of the plot, try the book first. If you don’t like it, try watching the BBC’s 2006 adaptation: watch it all in one go and you can still get that magical disembodied feeling. And no spoilers! You’ll have a very good idea of what is to happen anyway, because the story is cunningly put together. Not only is the book deliberately constructed, but the events of the story are often hinted at or alluded to; language that Jane uses on one occasion is closely mirrored at other times. It goes to show that not only was each word decided and reviewed, but that Brontë had mapped out her plot in meticulous detail before she started writing.


I first read Jane Eyre in sophomore year of high school; my mother had intended to let me borrow her copy, and I fell in love with it. It was one of those intense experiences that leave an indelible mark. There’s a before and an after, a B.C. and an A.D. In short, I still have my mother’s book, but it’s been so long that I have colonized it and made it mine. There’s tape on the inside of the front cover and now along the spine; when I’m not reading it, it stays in a plastic bag, sealed from the world. I love the picture on the front. I love the smoothness of the pages. I like that it is a cheap paperback, but one that has endured decades of hard reading.

You could reasonably say that my love for the story has spilled over into its physical carrier; hopefully, you have books like this too. A love for the contents of the pages, but also the pages themselves. The book becomes a touchstone, giving you a flicker of emotion each time you touch the spine in passing.

Jane’s character shows me how a person’s priorities can be organized; morals first, then surrender to God, followed by love. I think about this part of her often, wonder how I could emulate it. Knowing the difference between right and wrong, following the church’s dictates, and, if there is still space left, reaching out for love. I think of this every time I sift through my books.


And if you read Jane Eyre and still don’t see my point, read Wuthering Heights instead. You filthy animal.


…This isn’t quite the landslide I am thinking about. The one I have in mind looks more like this:

No death or destruction, just a whole lot of material to wade through. I am so impossibly behind that it makes no sense doing individual posts for every book. Instead, each one will be addressed, rapid-fire. It’ll be like a cheese tasting of book reviews.


Reaper Man, Terry Pratchett

Title of Blog Post: Halfway Down a Shark

This book has it all: clueless idiots in positions of power, a critical zombie, sentient shopping carts, and Death in exile. It’s a great romp, and has the Pratchett magic: a mad jumble of semi-associated characters and events coalesce into a ball of not-quite-logic. One of the best parts is a footnote on page 51, on ‘anti-crimes,’ an action that isn’t welcome but isn’t awful, either, such as breaking-and-decorating and whitemailing (in which you threaten to disclose the benign actions of a shady character, so that he loses street cred).

Best quote of the book: “This usually led to a fierce ecclesiastical debate which resulted in Mrs. Cake giving the chief priest what she called ‘a piece of her mind.’ There were so many pieces of Mrs. Cake’s mind left around the city now that it was quite surprising that there was enough left to power Mrs. Cake, but, strangely enough, the more pieces of her mind she gave away the more there seemed to be left.” (102)


Memoirs of a Scandalous Red Dress, Elizabeth Boyle

Title of Blog Post: Minor Historical Inaccuracies

On page twenty, Boyle assumes that Regency dresses did not require corsets. (For those of you who do not read romance novels, the Regency period was in the early 1800s when the Prince of Wales was the de facto ruler of England.) Regency dresses have long flowing skirts beneath empire waistlines (that’s beneath the bust): this creates a willowy shape. Corsets were used to jack up women’s breasts so that a) they would have extraordinary cleavage and b) their legs and torsos would appear longer. Contrary to popular opinion, Regency women did lace themselves up and deform their insides in the name of fashion.

Aside from this admittedly minor detail, the book is run-of-the-mill: the heroine is gorgeous at 43 (and still fits into clothing she wore over twenty years ago); he’s an alcoholic with back scars who has spent the past couple of decades pining for her. He sobers up, she tells him that the kids he thought were someone else’s are actually his (gasp-gasp! twins!), and she decides to take off on the open sea with him, forgetting that she doesn’t have birth control and that being pregnant on the ocean can be a mite uncomfortable.

Best part of the book: finishing it and realizing that they advertise the book you just read in the back pages. D’OH!


Be Mine, Jennifer Crusie/Victoria Dahl/Shannon Stacey

Title of Blog Post: Only Partly Mexican

This one is a collection of three stories. The first is a classic Corporate Takeover (#15) in which the guy doesn’t listen and she has to browbeat him to bring him round. The second has a hero that is half-Mexican, a detail you can miss if you are speedreading. In the third, the hero knows not to press her sexually while she is vulnerable so that consent is super clear; I blacked out for a minute in pure, unadulterated shock.

Best quote of the book: “Chris had the concentration of a fruit fly and the morals of a mink.” (50)


Star Wars: The Courtship of Princess Leia, Dave Wolverton

Title of Blog Post: Five Times Fast

Star Wars has one romance story in it, and someone called Dave decided to memorialize it in print. I really don’t need to say much more than that, but I will anyway. While the story isn’t particularly fluently written, it does include a whopping eight of my romance-novel tropes: 1, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 20, and 22. (Not bad!) Han does an excellent job of being a leading man (insensitive, fully functional even when sloshed, etc.) and Leia does what Leia does: hold the whole damn thing together. (Men, sigh.) I loved the moments Luke took to say Jedi stuff and all the zany names: Zsinj (a bad guy), Gethzerion (a bad chick), and Thpffftht (the name of a good-guy ship).

Best quote of the book: “’Stormtroopers are easy to kill.’” (192)


The Secrets of Richard Kenworthy, Julia Quinn

Title of Blog Post: Someone Call Maury

I read this one on my kindle, so I have fewer explicit notes. The plot boils down to: Hero must find Heroine and marry her as quickly as possible, so that she will raise the love-child of his younger sister and nobody falls in disgrace. Heroine is kept in the dark for a long time, and when she figures out what’s going on that she restrains the urge to rip out Hero’s jugular and hold his still-beating heart in her hands – and then she figures out what’s really been going on. The younger sister marries a nice guy and somehow the central romance of the book works out. This is one of Quinn’s less likely books, to say the least.

Best idea of the book: if you love someone, the sex will automatically good. (Some of my smoothie almost blew out my nose on this one.)


Getting Rid of Bradley, Jennifer Crusie

Title of Blog Post: Three Dogs, Two People, One Bed

The scene opens on a woman with unfortunate hair and three dogs. Someone takes potshots at her and attempts to break into her house. A police officer moves in with her for her protection. Pretty soon, the intensity of their situation fuels their love story, and before you know it, they’ve skipped about three to five months of intimacy and they love one another. Both bad Bradleys are caught and the officer gets her yet another dog. I actually like him; many heroes have a mental capacity that is best characterized by a sledgehammer falling down a deep well. This guy has enough self-knowledge to know why he is avoiding love – and then tells the green-haired heroine about it. Granted, he yells and then stomps off, but the air is cleared.

Best word in the book: Nadir. It is both an astronomical term and one used to talk about the lowest ebb. Example: “Having prolonged dental surgery was the nadir of my Tuesday.”


Yes Please, Amy Pohler

Title of Blog Post: No Really, I’m a Terrible Person

Amy Pohler is the fairy godmother of comedy. She’s wicked, she’s wicked funny – and it’s generally accepted that she is lovely. Amy Pohler wrote her book to convince us otherwise. She finished college and went into comedy, assuring her parents she could waitress anywhere! (After they’d remortgaged their house, twice.) She has a nearly compunctual need to snoop in other people’s houses, rifling through the drawers. She once participated in a mean SNL skit that demeaned disabled people. She also has straightforward, harsh opinions on most drugs, driving while drunk, and her own appearance after a bad weekend. Certainly, I believe that she’s not Leslie Knope all the time, but the picture she paints of herself is honest – not mean. We are all dredging up awful parts of ourselves all of the time, biases we didn’t know we had. However, most of us are not packaging these nasty things with “World Famous Sex Advice” or lists on why phones are terrible for our lives. That’s the unhinged but brilliant Pohler edge.

Best quote of the book: “Who doesn’t love self-righteous anger? It’s great. When I yell at dads drinking coffee and looking at their phones at the playground while their seven-year-olds play on the preschool monkey bars, I feel like I am truly alive.” (66)

The Upper Lip

It is a truth universally acknowledged that men with mustaches are immensely creepy. Any woman will cringe at the thought of dating a mustachioed man, either because of the onerous experience of kissing or because a mustache generally comes complete with a windowless paneled van.

There are few men who can pull of a mustache, and most of them are very extremely dead. For instance:

Please note this fellow only pulls it off because he exudes such confidence.

Tropes: a perfect #20.

Any book written recently – say, in 2005, should know this rule.

Mustaches = doesn’t brush his teeth.
Mustaches = lives with his mother and has never done laundry.
Mustaches = strange sexual preferences.
Mustaches = sticks you with the bill.
Mustaches = pedophile.

(But sure, he could be a totally nice guy.)

(But really. Watch your drink. He’s also a Cosby fan.)

The Trouble with Valentine’s Day by Rachel Gibson features two men: our hero, Mr. Thor and our heroine’s grandfather. Both men have mustaches, and the heroine, The Dudette, maintains the stubborn will not to connect those two dots. It’s creepy. Like, creepier than two separate mustaches. Maybe it’s as creepy as four mustaches. We need to iron out a metric; I have my best people on it.

What’s more, Mr. Thor has what is repeatedly called a ‘Fu Manchu’ mustache. What immediately comes up on a Google Images search is this:

Mr. Thor is, of course, white, so I can only assume that what Gibson means is:

…Not much better.

(Don’t look into his eyes for too long, or you won’t sleep tonight.)

It’s not really worth it to cover the other myriad issues of this story – not the homophobia or Mr. Thor’s insane desire to prove his manliness; not the dumb hummer he drives, and not even that the word hummer is CAPITALIZED every time it appears in the book. I won’t talk about the dumb male stereotypes that get perpetuated or that he litters. He litters. The leftist greenie is struggling inside of me, like the Hulk inside of Bruce Banner.

I wonder if Mr. Thor would have been less of a shitty guy if he had been clean shaven (including the soul patch).

Did I not mention a soul patch?

You see, a soul patch means…

You Had to Be There

The Caliph’s House and The Language of Baklava are surprisingly similar memoirs, even though they were written by two inherently different people.

Tahir Shah, a native of England, bought a house in Casablanca the natives call the Caliph’s House; it is derelict and in the middle of a shantytown slum, but retains a character all its own. Shah goes on to bungle every aspect of living in Morocco, from trusting the wrong contractors and employees, to being foolish with money and not having a backbone overall. I’m sure much of it was supposed to be funny, but in the end, I pitied him more than anything else: I had to check the last few pages to make sure the house didn’t get bulldozed rather than refurbished. All told, though, it was fascinating to have this window-view of a place so different from what we know. (Oh, but I cringed when they brought out the crazed horde of sledgehammers!)

Diana Abu-Jaber’s book is as unlike Shah’s book as it is possible to be: rather than a caper gone awry, hers flows lyrically, as I suspect all her books do. Her story takes us through her childhood and young-adulthood, balancing her American mother’s roots and her Jordanian father’s compulsions. She slowly learns the necessary balance between each of her parents in herself. We get the impression that we don’t get all of the information as the words pour past us; we know only what we are given permission to know, though we get hazy allusions to the rest. Some of it is funny, some deeply poignant, and the narrative is studded with recipes of foods she has eaten at important times in her life.

So where Shah’s book revolves around a house, Abu-Jaber’s centers on food; Abu-Jaber grew up in her culture, Shah chose one that appealed to him. She focuses on her family, he focuses on the culture of his new country; while she’s emotionally and culturally intelligent, he needs as much help as he can get.

They both romanticize living in Arabic cultures: Abu-Jaber through the veil of time, Shah though the inevitable arm’s length a newcomer to a culture must accept. They both come of age in a way; they have to understand when what is said isn’t what is meant; they have to come to an understanding of the volatile politics of the region. More than anything, they share a compulsion. A compulsion to go to Casablanca and Jordan, to try to really experience life there. We see that Abu-Jaber inherits it from her father, Shah from his wandering grandfather. They try to find what they have lost or perhaps never yet found in the swirl of textures in their new places.

I don’t know what it is that draws us to places like this, that doesn’t give us an option. You go. No discussion. No questions. No raised hand in the back of the room. It doesn’t feel like escapism, but it doesn’t feel safe, either. I’m not even sure it feels like home in the fullest sense, when the need to belong wars with the customs from the life we had Before. Who’s to know?

Stay on the Toilet

Manners are the only thing that keeps me from going on murderous sprees on the highway; manners are the only thing that stops me from egging people who chew with their mouths open. Manners are why we (usually) manage to make socially appropriate conversation – manners are the reason why we have small talk.

Sorry! by Henry Hitchings is fascinating, long, and dense. It is a several month investment, but which has its moments that make it worth it.

Our social dictates as we know them in the Western world began with chivalry, the only way to effectively corral the bloodlust of fierce warriors and comb it into something that women would consent to be around, particularly during mealtimes, when everyone was outfitted with sharp knives. Some of the earlier rules were both basic and specific: for instance, it was impolite to attack a man while he was defecating. (The obvious loophole here is to eat a calculated amount of bad fish prior to the castle being overrun, thus securing your continued existence.)

As time went on, a thicket of manners emerged, a series of dictums fit for nearly every situation: how we behave depends on who we think we are, the amount of personal space we require, and whether we think it’s worth the trouble. We also have a large bank of things that we say to be polite but which are fundamentally insincere – ‘let’s get coffee sometime,’ ‘I will bear that in mind,’ and ‘with all due respect’ are excellent examples (138).

Naturally, we will always live in a time when manners are in a sharp decline – look at all the people ignoring everyone else in favor of their phones; witness the casual brutality of online dating. Manners are a tool that we can use to appear like angels while behaving like garbage people – and it’s not like this tendency hasn’t shown up overnight. We as Americans have long boasted of our nation’s value on equality, even while some of our citizens were only considered as three fifths of a person: as one commentator said, “You will see them with one hand hoisting the cap of liberty, and with the other flogging their slaves” (Fanny Trollope, 227).

Toward the end of the book, Hitchings raises some heavy-hitting questions: is it impolite in an egalitarian world for a man to give up his seat for any woman, regardless of age? Are we raising our children without the due complement of manners, turning them into teacher-ignoring coddled monsters? Does our culture urge, perhaps coerce us into feeling anxious and vulnerable so we are more predictable?

It seems clear that these are some of the points that are meant to stick in our minds as we turn the last pages, but really, while I enjoy thinking about any and all of these philosophical meanderings, the true crown is the list Hitchings compiled, all the reasons why society is going downhill.

Canvassing opinions about why [a decline in manners] may have happened, I heard about multiculturalism, sexual freedom, the perils of individualism, the impact of technology, the Sunday Trading Act of 1994, the decriminalization of currency in 1971,the end of the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover (in 1960), the encroachment of liberal values on school teaching, the encroachment of capitalism on just about everything, the cult of efficiency, the shrinking of the public sector, the bloated public sector, tight clothing, very loose clothing, men no longer wearing ties, the pampered ennui of James Bond, the concept of ‘unisex,’ in-ear headphones, hip-hop, the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s, the European Union, TV, the gutter press, hard drugs, the growing acceptance of soft drugs, atheism, lazy agnosticism, religious extremism, the poor quality of the modern diet, the wide use of agrochemicals and food additives, mass-produced housing and the rupturing of long-established neighborhoods, the decline of the ‘family business’ and the fraying of family life. I also heard about institutional sloth and political niaiserie. Samuel, a sixty-two-year-old jeweler, spoke for many in declaring that ‘Good manners have disappeared because there’s no discipline. Nobody trust the fucking government, nobody trusts the fucking police. The Church is mostly run by…you know’ – he makes a pungent claim – ‘so you can’t trust them, can you? Who do kids look up to? I’ll tell you who – fucking celebrities. Where’s the good of that? Women’s lib has got something to do with it, too.’ (292)

I happen to think that we are all in some way dragging our knuckles along the ground. We all say and do the wrong thing on a regular basis, whether it is a matter of etiquette or of social intelligence. The things I never notice myself doing may be the exact things that contort your brain. Despite our best efforts, we will always be prompted to ask one another,


The Antidote

Attachments is a book that sucks the sleep out of you. It’s a book you begin casually at midmorning; you slide away from it from time to time to conduct your life, but it knows you, and soon enough you are tucked back inside, turning pages. You finish it propped on an elbow in bed, the gesture you intended to make to turn off the light forgotten, that hand resting open on the blanket. As you read the last words, you fall back on the pillow with a wumph and realize that it’s three hours after your bedtime.

The best part is that it’s a romance novel. Obviously, it’s not your usual bodice ripper. It has soul. It has class. It takes a premise which generally winds up producing a serial killer and gives you a whole other animal.

Lincoln doesn’t know what to do with his life. He knows that he is good at school, but at twenty-eight, he knows it’s time for a Real Job. He finds one at a newspaper: he gets into the office in the evening and spends the night looking at flagged e-mails, those that have the wrong words in them or chains of e-mails that have gone back and forth too quickly and too often. He keeps on reading e-mails between Beth and Jennifer, the movie critic and one of the editors; slowly, he is sucked into their world and feels true affection for them. Lincoln is drawn more and more to Beth, a woman he has never seen but who strikes him as being affectionate, honest, and funny. Maybe he’s falling a little in love with her.

Lincoln sounds like a murderer, yes?

He’s not. He knows that what he does is slimy, and he doesn’t like that. He’s drawn to Beth almost against his will, and it’s easy to see why; we read enough of the e-mails to understand why someone would risk being the biggest creeper in the universe in order to orbit such a good friendship.

But that’s a huge part of it: it must be easier to fall in love with someone who writes to you. (Or in this case, someone who writes, period.) If you don’t like your written words, you change them; it’s impossible to cross out bad speech as it’s hanging in the air. Lincoln falls in love with Beth’s written version, the one she audits and curates. Lincoln often says the wrong thing – always in good spirit – but regardless his words and his silences are sometimes taken in a different direction than he intends, like we all are. A large part of the undercurrents of this story lie in that dichotomy: the brilliant people we are on paper and the clumsy ones we are out loud, how we reconcile the differences between the two.


I can’t just leave you there – even though it’s a stellar place to stop – because I really want you to read this book. I haven’t really gunned for anyone to read the books I have, but this is different. It’s sweet without being saccharine, it’s real without being gruesome. The secondary characters have real life to them, and it’s funny.

Let’s meet Justin, Lincoln’s hard-partying and hard-drinking friend from college. Toward the end of the book he gets married to a dental hygienist:

Who knew that Justin was Catholic? And devout enough that he made Dena convert. “My kids aren’t growing up Unitarian,” he told Lincoln at the rehearsal dinner. “Those cock-suckers just barely believe in Jesus.” (306)

I will never look at Unitarians in the same way.