Books released this week: January 18-24

I’ve received advance notification of forthcoming books for so long, I hardly glance at them anymore. When I was a librarian in charge of purchasing, Publishers Weekly and Booklist were my bibles; I scoured them cover to cover. As a reviewer with a couple decades’ worth of experience, I cannot be arsed. And since the pandemic started, publishers are sending out fewer books to tempt me back, so there goes that avenue, as well.

Because I’m an insufferable ass, despite my inattention I grumble I cannot keep up with all the new books being published, that, by the end of every year, I’ve heard of so few notable books on the “best of” lists. I could keep claiming books section editors are making up titles to make the rest of us feel stupid, or I could actually get back to consulting my sources.

I could pay attention. Be present and mindful, as the Buddhists say.

All this serves as preamble to sharing a list of a few notable books publishing within the next week. Some made my coveted list for intrinsic literary value, some for their celebration of diversity and written by an author I respect. Others, the mood just struck me. They sounded like something I’d buy.

The majority is non-fiction, and it’s a pretty stellar crop. Follow the links to sign up for a weekly roundup of things bookish from one of my regular sources. If you read any of them, I’d love to hear what you think.

Enjoy!

ADMISSIONS: A Memoir of Surviving Boarding School by Kendra James (Memoir)
Early on in Kendra James’ professional life, she began to feel like she was selling a lie. As an admissions officer specializing in diversity recruitment for independent prep schools, she persuaded students and families to embark on the same perilous journey she herself had made — to attend cutthroat and largely white schools similar to The Taft School, where she had been the first African-American legacy student only a few years earlier. Her new job forced her to reflect on her own elite education experience, and to realize how disillusioned she had become with America’s inequitable system.
Grand Central Publishing | 9781538753484

Visit this blog to enter a giveaway for this title.

The New York Times

FREE: A Child and a Country at the End of History by Lea Ypi (Memoir)
For precocious 11-year-old Lea Ypi, Albania’s Soviet-style socialism held the promise of a preordained future. That is, until she found herself clinging to a stone statue of Joseph Stalin, newly beheaded by student protests. When the early ’90s saw Albania and other Balkan countries exuberantly begin a transition to the “free market,” Western ideals of freedom delivered chaos: a dystopia of pyramid schemes, organized crime and sex trafficking. With her elegant, intellectual, French-speaking grandmother; her radical-chic father; and her staunchly anti-socialist, Thatcherite mother to guide her through these disorienting times, Lea had a political education of the most colorful sort — here recounted with outstanding literary talent.
W. W. Norton & Company | 9780393867732

The New York Times

This, about the backlash the author endured, from The Guardian.

LORRAINE HANSBERRY: The Life Behind A Raisin in the Sun by Charles J. Shields (Biography)
Written when she was just 28, Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark A RAISIN IN THE SUN is listed by the National Theatre as one of the hundred most significant works of the 20th century. Hansberry was the first Black woman to have a play performed on Broadway, and the first Black and youngest American playwright to win a New York Critics’ Circle Award. Charles J. Shields’ authoritative biography of one of the 20th century’s most admired playwrights examines the parts of Hansberry’s life that have escaped public knowledge: the influence of her upper-class background, her fight for peace and nuclear disarmament, the reason why she embraced Communism during the Cold War, and her dependence on her white husband — her best friend, critic and promoter.
Henry Holt and Co. | 9781250205537

Kirkus (a venue I personally find borderline offensive, but it has name recognition, doesn’t it)

MANIFESTO: On Never Giving Up by Bernardine Evaristo (Memoir)
Bernardine Evaristo’s nonfiction debut is a vibrant and inspirational account of her life and career as she rebelled against the mainstream and fought over several decades to bring her creative work into the world. With her characteristic humor, Evaristo describes her childhood as one of eight siblings, with a Nigerian father and white Catholic mother, tells the story of how she helped set up Britain’s first Black women’s theatre company, remembers the queer relationships of her 20s, and recounts her determination to write books that were absent in the literary world around her. She provides a hugely powerful perspective to contemporary conversations around race, class, feminism, sexuality and aging.
Grove Press | 9780802158901

The New York Times (apologies if you hit their paywall – I did and it reminded me I need to re-subscribe to digital)

The Guardian, as an alternative

THE BLACK CHURCH: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (History)
For the young Henry Louis Gates, Jr., growing up in a small, residentially segregated West Virginia town, the church was a center of gravity — an intimate place where voices rose up in song and neighbors gathered to celebrate life’s blessings and offer comfort amid its trials and tribulations. In this tender and expansive reckoning with the meaning of the Black Church in America, Gates takes us on a journey spanning more than five centuries, from the intersection of Christianity and the transatlantic slave trade to today’s political landscape. At road’s end, and after Gates’ distinctive meditation on the churches of his childhood, we emerge with a new understanding of the importance of African American religion to the larger national narrative.
Penguin Books | 9781984880352

Streaming on PBS

The Washington Post

THE DOCTORS BLACKWELL: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine by Janice P. Nimura (Biography)
Elizabeth Blackwell believed from an early age that she was destined for a mission beyond the scope of “ordinary” womanhood. Though the world at first recoiled at the notion of a woman studying medicine, her intelligence and intensity ultimately won her the acceptance of the male medical establishment. In 1849, she became the first woman in America to receive an M.D. She was soon joined in her iconic achievement by her younger sister, Emily, who was actually the more brilliant physician. Exploring the sisters’ allies, enemies and enduring partnership, Janice P. Nimura presents a story of trial and triumph.
W. W. Norton & Company | 9781324020202

NPR

The New York Times

LAND: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World by Simon Winchester (History/Economics)
Land — whether meadow or mountainside, desert or peat bog, parkland or pasture, suburb or city — is central to our existence. It quite literally underlies and underpins everything. In LAND, Simon Winchester examines what we human beings are doing — and have done — with the billions of acres that together make up the solid surface of our planet. The book examines in depth how we acquire land, how we steward it, how and why we fight over it, and finally, how we can, and on occasion do, come to share it. Ultimately, Winchester confronts the essential question: Who actually owns the world’s land — and why does it matter?
Harper Perennial | 9780062938343

The Washington Post

A PREVIOUS LIFE by Edmund White (Fiction/Humor)
Sicilian aristocrat and musician Ruggero and his younger American wife, Constance, agree to break their marital silence and write their Confessions. Until now they had a ban on speaking about the past, since transparency had wrecked their previous marriages. As the two alternate reading the memoirs they’ve written about their lives, Constance reveals her multiple marriages to older men, and Ruggero details the affairs he’s had with men and women across his lifetime — most importantly his passionate affair with the author Edmund White.
Bloomsbury Publishing | 9781635577273

The New York Times

Bookmarks/Lit Hub

VIOLETA by Isabel Allende (Historical Fiction)
Violeta comes into the world on a stormy day in 1920. From the start, her life is marked by extraordinary events, for the ripples of the Great War are still being felt, even as the Spanish flu arrives on the shores of her South American homeland almost at the moment of her birth. Through her father’s prescience, the family will come through that crisis unscathed, only to face a new one as the Great Depression transforms the genteel city life she has known. Her family loses everything and is forced to retreat to a wild and beautiful but remote part of the country. There, she will come of age, and her first suitor will come calling. She tells her story in the form of a letter to someone she loves above all others, recounting times of devastating heartbreak and passionate affairs, poverty and wealth, terrible loss and immense joy.
Ballantine Books | 9780593496206

Publishers Weekly

LET ME TELL YOU WHAT I MEAN by Joan Didion (Essays)
These 12 pieces from 1968 to 2000, never before gathered together, offer an illuminating glimpse into the mind and process of a legendary figure. Here, Joan Didion touches on topics ranging from newspapers (“the problem is not so much whether one trusts the news as to whether one finds it”), to the fantasy of San Simeon, to not getting into Stanford. In “Why I Write,” Didion ponders the act of writing: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” From her admiration for Hemingway’s sentences to her acknowledgment that Martha Stewart’s story is one “that has historically encouraged women in this country, even as it has threatened men,” these essays are acutely and brilliantly observed.
Vintage | 9780593312193

NPR

A SAINT FROM TEXAS by Edmund White (Fiction)
Yvette and Yvonne Crawford are twin sisters, born on a humble patch of East Texas prairie but bound for far more dramatic and tragic fates. Just as an untold fortune of oil lies beneath their daddy’s land, both girls harbor their own secrets and dreams — ones that will carry them far from Texas and from each other. As the decades unfold, Yvonne will ascend the highest ranks of Parisian society as Yvette gives herself to a lifetime of worship and service in the streets of Jericó, Colombia. And yet, even as they remake themselves in their radically different lives, the twins find that the bonds of family and the past are unbreakable.
Bloomsbury Publishing | 9781635577051

The New York Times

Washington Independent Review of Books

THE SWALLOWED MAN by Edward Carey (Historical Fantasy)
A lonely woodcarver longs for the companionship of a son. One day, Giuseppe — better known as Geppetto — carves for himself a pinewood boy, a marionette he hopes to take on tour worldwide. But when his handsome new creation comes magically to life, Geppetto screams…and the boy, Pinocchio, escapes into the night. Though he returns the next day, the wily boy torments his father, challenging his authority and making up stories — whereupon his nose, the very nose his father carved, grows before his eyes. When the boy disappears after one last fight, the father follows a rumor to the coast and out into the sea, where he is swallowed by a great fish. He hunkers in the creature’s belly awaiting the day when he will reconcile with the son he drove away.
Riverhead Books | 9780593188880

The Washington Post

The Chicago Review of Books

la cuisine du weekend: baking, roasting, and dehydrating

Aside from work and things book-related, I actually have a few other interests. In winter, especially, indoor diversions keep me from going stir-crazy as I continue to respect the wildly-contagious Omicron variant, hoping with spring comes better understanding what to expect from 2022.

Double-vaxxed and boosted, I’m still not messing around.

This marks two weekends in a row my interest in cooking has reared its head. If you follow me on Instagram (and if not, why not), you may recall the rather impressive array of gourmet cookery that went on in the tiny lockdown kitchen I had at my former apartment. An inability to concentrate kept me from enjoying books; I needed something to keep me from screaming, apart from binging ridiculous TV and engaging in ill-advised, socially-distant dating I’m still struggling to forget.

Apparently extreme domesticity was a fairly effective antidote to compulsively watching the CNN body count. While I am capable of cooking well, I’ve never managed to sustain it. Binges like that in 2020 aren’t uncommon for me. I’m also not great at following recipes, in part because buying loads of specialty spices and cookware is cost-prohibitive; if I’m going to blow large wads of cash, this isn’t generally where I’d start, though I did order a mandolin slicer today. And some mason jars.

Okay, fine.

The last time I followed a very complicated recipe was Christmas 2020, when I made that outrageous English Christmas cake – essentially a boozy fruitcake. All told, I wouldn’t be surprised if the ingredients cost upwards of $ 40. I didn’t keep track, to be honest. The thing weighed at least five pounds (I “fed” it peach brandy ever day, adding to the weight), and hung around so long I became heartily sick of it and had to chuck it. Had that been a normal year, I’d have forced pieces on friends and family. If I make it again, I’ll either cut the recipe in half or have a better distribution plan. Or both, actually. That was a whole lot of cake and very calorie-dense.

Because I have the metabolism of a sloth, I cannot keep large quantities of rich food lingering in the kitchen. When I have these weekend cooking binges I try to limit the size of each dish to allow me to eat one portion over the weekend, then store the rest in containers for meals during the week. On weekdays, my calories are much more restrictive than on weekends, another challenge when it comes to making the right amount of food. I came upon the term “small plates” while searching cookbooks today. If not exactly Spanish tapas, the concept is the same. It consists of small quantities of very tasty food, which is exactly my goal – small dishes, as well as versatility in using leftovers and/or safely storing for a period of time.

This book’s on my shortlist to buy, exactly the sort of menu I’m shooting for:

This was the second weekend running that I made the same small-loaf crusty bread recipe. Last weekend it didn’t rise enough. Though it came out tasting well, it was a bit dense. I let it rise in a warmer place this time, throwing in fresh-ground Italian herbs. It was cooked through, but lacked the same crispy crust. I baked it with a pan of water on the lower rack, as suggested in the recipe, but I’ve read several places a dutch oven is the best way to achieve optimal crust and uniform baking. I expect I’ll cave and buy one, seeing how much I do like having fresh bread on weekends. Dutch ovens are also great for stews and roasts.

Not quite a fail – isn’t it pretty?

Thanks to an over-zealous Instacart shopper, my last grocery delivery brought too many clementine oranges, sweet peppers, and gala apples. My lovely convection oven/air fryer/toaster oven also has both dehydration and rotisserie capability I’ve never used. The clementines were the first fruit I dehydrated. They’re good as a snack as they are, in other recipes, and as a garnish. I made an orange cake, using some of the grated clementine peel and juice, and still have loads more of the fruit.

It came out delicious, even better the second day after it had been sealed overnight. I ate some of it, slicing the rest, wrapping it well, and throwing it into the freezer for a future treat. As for the other clementines, those I don’t put aside for consumption as is – some of the fruit is a bit soft, not yet spoiled but on the way – I will either dehydrate or make into a marmalade. I’ve done that before, making a very simple recipe that doesn’t require pectin. It’s wonderful used in muffin batter or just spreading on bread. It’s a nice extra sweet topping to have on hand and stays fresh for weeks in the fridge.

Thought I’d overbaked it, but overnight it improved a lot

The sweet peppers are so versatile I wasn’t concerned how I’d use them all. I’ve had 8 oz in the dehydrator at least twelve hours now, which seems ridiculous, but it takes a very long time at low heat. Once they’ve dried they can be crumbled into soups or stews as a flavoring agent, in eggs or other savory dishes, or eaten as is. I’m going to put them in canning jars to seal tightly while I mull over how to use them.

The other 8 oz from the same bag I roasted with mushrooms in the oven, in an olive oil, herb, and parmesan cheese marinade. The intent was originally blending it into a soup, but then I opened the cabinet door and saw pasta. I don’t eat it often anymore, which is weird because I was married to an Italian for 25 years and used to consume pasta in various forms all the time. I roughly blended the pepper mix and tossed it on the noodles. It was so, so good.

Some of the Italian herb bread became homemade croutons, for salad. Those were tossed in pretty much the same marinade as the peppers and mushrooms, added with fresh, chopped parsley. I have at least two more meals’ worth of pasta, plus plenty of salad to go with it.

Peppers chopped in half with sliced mushrooms, roasted half an hour in the oven, thrown in the blender.

My company gives us MLK Day off, so spending all of Saturday and Sunday in the kitchen still leaves me time to clean my apartment, plus spend time reading my third book of 2022. I didn’t go into the weekend intending to make this much food. It just kind of happened. Looking back, it’s satisfying having created all these tasty things.

January and February always feel eternal. The older I get, the more I despise the cold and wonder why on earth I’m still living in the Chicago metro area, when my job leaves me free to move anywhere in the country. Cooking helps the winter months pass quicker, leaving enough time to plan vacation when it warms up, work on my reading list, and dream of warmth.

Plus, my apartment smells heavenly.

What’s on the menu for next weekend? I have a few ideas, including plans for some of that rice I bought just ahead of the state of Illinois declaring shelter-in-place back in 2020. Gives me something to look forward to, which is no small thing at all.

2022, Chapter One: In which our heroine accepts a challenge!

End of the story first: I just finished reading my second book of 2022, Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion. I’m not sure when a book last gave me actual chills – not hyperbolic chills but goosebumps, hair standing on end.

Holy hell.

This comes immediately on the heels of the book I finished the first week of January, a collection of short stories and nonfiction pieces by Shirley Jackson titled Let Me Tell You. In contrast to Didion, Jackson’s book was uneven. In contrast to Didion, I don’t see anything else measuring up until I’ve calmed down from the high of THAT NOVEL. But it’s unfair comparing a posthumous compilation of early and uncollected pieces the author may never have consented to publishing with a critically-acclaimed stunner of a novel that slaps you across the face, drags you up the road a piece, then leaves you for dead.

I should not have connected with Play It As It Lays. Set in Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the Mojave Desert, if I were trying to come up with three places I’m less interested in it would take a minute. Fortunately, the book’s not about places. It’s a study of a woman living with the consequences of her choices in 1960s America. Maria Wyeth is an actress who plays the Hollywood game. She sleeps around, throws herself haphazardly into life, literally drives long distances for days with no direction. Already unstable, the inevitable choice to have an abortion upends her world, sending her spiralling. Without sympathy, unmoored, she cracks.

Didion (1934 – 2021) was an admirer of Hemingway, to put her style in context. She was a journalist-novelist: sparing and precise. While learning her craft, she copied out long passages of Hemingway’s writings. I’m not positive the student didn’t surpass the master.

Shirley Jackson (1916 – 1965), of course, is known primarily as the author of the macabre short story “The Lottery,” as well as her two most popular novels: We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House, the latter adapted into a Netflix series. Her themes are supernatural, modern American gothics. Her nonfiction can be charming and witty, as I learned from Let Me Tell You. Though some of the stories did let me down, the pieces compelled enough I pulled out the bio of Jackson, A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin.

Both modern American writers, I haven’t put enough thought into their similarities to pull out the ways they mesh. I’m sure those exist but I didn’t juxtapose these two with an intention to dive in deeply. What brings them together is my list of 12 books I plan to read in 2022, books I’ve had on my shelves over a year and not yet read. Organized by Adam Burgess of the blog Roof Beam Reader, the specifics of the project are explained on his site.

There’s no conscious intent behind the books I chose, though interconnections are everywhere, no matter what you initially believe. As I read more by and about Jackson and Didion – which I’d like to do, having whetted my appetite with my first two reads of the year – I will find elements that resonate with the both of them. I’ve given up not assuming a universal law of attraction. Nothing supernatural, just an acknowledgment of interconnectivity in all things.

Superficially glancing through their respective Wikipedia articles, both these American women writers were born in California, their lives overlapping by some 30-some years (I hate math). Did they meet, I don’t know. Were they aware of each other, certainly Didion would have known of Jackson, though she hadn’t published much before Jackson’s death so it’s not too likely the other way around. Any similarities between a modern gothic writer and a journalist? I’m sure Jackson’s work extends beyond her most popular pieces. Maybe?

Speaking of resonating with gothic horror, welcome to 2022. It’s only the 10th and I’ve finished two books. Not leaving without a fight, 2021 ended with my first Covid test of the pandemic – negative, thank the gods.

My year went mostly well, everyone I love made it through, and I’m trying not to get over-confident 2022 will hold anything grand or I’ll just let myself down, won’t I.

Let’s focus on these beauties:

2022 TBR Challenge Reads – The List

The challenge is to choose 12 books – one for each month – plus two alternates, should any of the 12 prove impossible or just plain too long to finish.

1. The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai
2. My Autobiography of Carson McCullers – Jenn Shapland
3. Willa Cather: Double Lives by Hermione Lee
4. Soul of the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life – JC Oates
5. The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography – Philip Roth
6. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
7. Play It As It Lays – Joan Didion – finished
8. Hill – Jean Giono
9. Blindness – Henry Green
10. Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings – Shirley Jackson – finished
11. Lucy Gayheart – Willa Cather
12. On Being Ill – Virginia Woolf

Alternates:

Aiding and Abetting – Muriel Spark
The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin

I’ve cut down social media – save Instagram – to free up more time for reading and apparently that helped. I’ll be reading other books but these twelve I’ve hand-selected for this specific project.

Welcome to 2022.

Allons-y, y’all.

Bring on 2022 – not that I’m in a rush… But kinda.

I considered 2021 my “giveaway” year, twelve months of existing on surface level without the pressure of life goals I’d have neither time nor energy to accomplish. Suriviving 2020 was no mean feat. A hell of a lot of people didn’t make it out. And 2021, on its surface, offered zero promise – not that life every does but I think you know what I mean.

Artist: Apindra Swain, Indian folk artist

The challenges of the first Covid year used every skill in my survival tool kit, and then some. What was with that stretch of gourmet cookery, anyway? The determination to eat as well as possible in a world where all groceries were delivered and I couldn’t hand-pick ingredients – not to mention living in a dated apartment and working with an ancient cooking surface, no proper oven, no dishwasher, or counter space – was a compulsion I wouldn’t have predicted. Especially after a year of extreme self-discipline resulting in a great deal of weight loss, largely through consuming essentially the same damn foods every day. Maybe it was because of that, the realization having no guarantee of tomorrow means you should eat extremely well, to the best of your ability. Whatever its impetus, the cooking mania came and went with the year, culminating with a homemade fruitcake I “fed” with brandy for months. An appropriate, booze-soaked conclusion to a shit year.

And all that weight lost? Haha. Yeah. I’m back on the same damn foods every day train, up 1.5 sizes from my lowest weight. Good thing I’ve lost most of my interest in cooking. Ouch, I know. In my former job I interviewed hundreds of people a month, my one reliable interaction with people while quarantined. The complaint about weight gain was almost universal. A few overachievers went the opposite way, taking up running and other nonsense. Most of us completely lost track of our waistlines, living in stretchy pants, which camouflage the stark reality. Stress can do that to people. Here’s the first hint about 2022: it will be all about me and my health, physical and mental.

All things considered, I’ve done better than anticipated in 2021 – better than a goal of zero but my philosophy has always been “expect nothing, so you’re not disappointed.” People laugh but it’s actually the healthiest outlook, much better than all that “best life” nonsense. When good things do happen, it feels like a blessing. A goddamn shock. Expectations are a foolish waste of time. I could probably count on one hand outcomes that lived up to my imaginings. A couple surpassed projections but mostly they’ve skimmed in as expected or failed staggeringly. But always, always the failures have been instructive – an ultimate reason to keep going, if no solace at the time.

October weekend getaway: Friess Lake, WI

My 2021 started with a move, sheer force of will enabling me to move out of the place I was living during lockdown – the charming apartment in the alarmingly run-down building. Remember that place? The irony of moving back to the same complex I’d found dull and characterless before did not pass unnoted. I imagine some things may have turned out differently had I not moved in the first place, not left the modern apartment for the charm of the old, thinking that was the cure for my restlessness. My reasons for moving each time were legitimate and the downsides negate none of the good. Was it a pain in the ass? Yeah, kind of. But isn’t a lot of life just that – plus, you can never know what would have happened on the path not taken. It’s a mistake forgetting that.

The memory of that time, my lockdown life, is two parts misery, two parts sick personal joke. Some of it I’ll take to my grave, in good company with relics of every other phase of my life. Lots of people suffered from lack of human interaction over the past year and a half. Frankly, on that score I throve. Working from home was my blessing, the opportunity for loads of overtime to distract from a deadly virus resulting in a raise and promotion, followed by promotion into a new department. I love what I’m doing now. I anticipate it will take me places I didn’t believe were possible, because I couldn’t see past the anxiety that blocked me. I will never say the pandemic was worth the positives I’m managing to bring out. We’ve all paid a heavy price, in one way or another. Nothing’s worth repeating that.

Getting back out into the world, October 2021

My expectations for what was possible in 2021 have officially been surpassed. It both shocks the hell out of me and doesn’t. The potential was there, it just took a catharsis to achieve. My ultimate hopes go beyond a new job and a nice, modern apartment, much as it’s boosted my outlook. I’ve used the term “day job” referring to all my post-divorce employment and that’s because nothing outside writing and books can ever be anything but the means to an end – the end being paying my bills and allowing relative comfort. These are not small things. And when you’re able to attain a position that both stimulates you mentally and takes care of you, it’s a blessing indeed. I use my librarian research skills in fraud analysis and writing in presenting findings to underwriting. This doesn’t mean I cannot pursue a creative outlet at the same time. Having achieved professional satisfaction as a direct result of hard work and believing in my skills leaves open the question is there more I could be doing.

I’ve at least gotten to maybe. In my world, that’s like Oprah handing out cars. Astonishing positivity from a Stoic.

So. Here it is, nearly November, and I have no idea where the time went. Unlike the end of 2020, I can wrap my head around the concept of a next year, one in which there won’t be a change of address for the first time in a very long stretch. In 2023, yes. This is not a forever apartment, not a desired destination that sparks joy. Spring of 2023 will see a move, somewhere. A lot needs to be determined before then. I have belongings and a body to pare back down, logistics to consider, lists of wants and needs to consider.

FALAFEL: Cooking lately (it does happen)

Not rushing 2021 out the door just yet but I am giving it a few hints it’s time to put on its coat. I can see 2022 packing to move in and I’m an expert at that. In order to shift in the new, you need to toss the old. No, I didn’t mean myself. But thanks for thinking of it.

It’s not too soon to start looking forward. And it can never be too early to consider what you want from your life. There’s no other thing that matters as much.

Back from Willa Cather Country.

Red Cloud, NE – childhood home of Willa Cather.

After more than a year in lockdown with my out of control mind, a few days in Willa Cather’s Red Cloud, NE helped me decompress and put aside the crazy. It’s a tiny spot on the map, plopped down in a sparsely-populated, very politically Conservative state. With a population of 1,095, the town is so quiet I half expected skittering tumbleweeds. I drove so long without seeing another soul, I began to suspect the Rapture had left me the sole representative heathen in possession of all the bounty – a prospect that appeals, friends. I didn’t test the theory, but I suspect a person could stand in the middle of pretty much any highway in Nebraska for hours straight with zero danger to personal safety.

Things are a bit quieter there.

Joking aside, Nebraska is ruggedly beautiful. It’s peaceful, and the people I met were unfailingly friendly and kind. On a couple side-trips from Red Cloud, I pulled over to check my GPS was behaving because it seemed to have problems navigating with multiple destinations. Two of those times, locals pulled up to ask if I was okay, seeing I was a woman traveling alone. One Nebraska farmer didn’t just confirm I wasn’t in distress, he invited me to come back and see his house all lit up at Christmas – all 25 feet of Peace on Earth.

These are not things in the Chicago metro area. This is not the norm. I gathered that in Nebraska, it is.

Pretty Nebraska, start of the Great Plains.

My Red Cloud trip was as close to unplanned as it’s possible to be, without running the risk of finding myself without lodging. I rented a charming, tiny home via Airbnb and checked that the Willa Cather sites would be open in the middle of the week. That was it. I figured there were groceries to be had, a couple restaurants, all the basics. And there were, but I didn’t realize how early the sidewalks roll up. Arriving just after 4:00 p.m. the first day, once I’d settled in I thought dinner in town sounded appealing, seeing as I hadn’t stopped to eat on the 10-hour drive, fueled by Triscuits and cheddar cheese alone. Unfortunately, a quick Google revealed the grim truth: Red Cloud does have a handful of places to find food but all of them – except Subway and a gas station that serves pizza – were closed or would be closing in the next few minutes. The local population doesn’t support restaurants open all day every day, as is the case where I live. There is a wine bar, curiously, but as it turned out they’re open only Thursday through the weekend. And I was not there Thursday through the weekend.

Bummer.

While I said I planned nothing, I had packed a few groceries – food for a couple meals, plus granola and shelf-stable milk for breakfast. Pandemic food, basically. I learned my lesson. I wasn’t going to starve, but it was disappointing there was no charming little cafe on main street serving home-cooked food, as I’d dreamed of in my imagination. That was true of the entire trip. I availed myself of Subway once, from sheer necessity and convenience while out driving around. Otherwise, I stopped at a bar and grill for a burger my last day, hoping for some of that Nebraska corn-fed beef. You know how on TV you’ll see the stranger walk into a restaurant and people stop talking, turning to look? That. I grew up in a very small town that could smell an outsider. I get it. I’ve also travelled a lot and been the only American, even more uncomfortable than walking into a spot small-town locals hang out. There’s no malice in it. It’s not my favorite thing, but you get over it.

My Airbnb.

Willa Cather’s childhood home.

Considering I didn’t actually check the map to gauge the distance between the place I rented and the Cather sites, I serendipitously found myself a 10-minute walk from her childhood home – almost literally around the block. Before you go thinking that’s miraculous, remember – Red Cloud is SMALL. There is literally one North-South road, one East-West road. If ever there were a town with my name written all over it, it’s this. Even I cannot get and stay lost in a town of this size.

The place to start touring Cather Country is the National Willa Cather Center. It’s on Main St. You cannot miss it. It’s outsizedly huge in Red Cloud’s downtown. The museum is phenomenal. I cannot overstate how impressed I was by the holdings in the museum, the short film introducing her life, bookshop, and town tour that, at $ 20, is one of the best deals it’s possible to get anywhere. I’ve been to a lot of author’s homes, in the U.S. and abroad. This is one of the most impressive set ups I’ve seen, as far as amount and quality of information and access to resources. It says a lot that I went to Red Cloud with a vague idea Cather was important and left feeling an obsessive need to learn more.

She was a fascinating human being, in so many ways. A precocious child, Cather’s intellectual interests were indulged and encouraged by her family. Virginians who left partly because of their Union sympathies. the Cathers arrived in Red Cloud when she was nine years old. At the time, some of the major buildings hadn’t yet been built. Real estate was her father’s business, and he set up his office in the downtown area.

Young Willa loved music and was active in school productions held at the Opera House. She read extensively, and this tiny town of rural immigrants fed her imagination. The people she knew became characters in her books, not always in an entirely flattering light. But her passion for Red Cloud and support of its institutions even after she’d moved away endeared her to them. They may not have approved of everything about her, but the townspeople had great affection for Willa Cather.

Her bedroom, in the stifling hot attic.
Original wallpaper. Cather took it in payment from her job at the drugstore, putting it up herself.

I fell for her, too. Between the museum, the tour, the books I bought and have started reading, and drives around her dramatic Nebraska landscape, I developed a literary crush on this larger-than-life editor, critic, novelist and writer of short stories. She’s enthralling, as much for her adventurous, world-traveling spirit as the deceptively quiet, focused fiction she wrote about the place she grew up. Willa Cather did not write solely of Nebraska, but her most famous works are portraits of the citizens of Red Cloud.

I selected Edith Lewis’s bio of her partner from the pile of books I staggered out of the museum carrying, flying through it too quickly to fully digest. Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record is just that – a somewhat rough sketch of Cather the writer, created by the person who knew her best and lived with her for decades. Lewis writes about some of the works, not delving into literary criticism or deep study. There is nothing written of their relationship, not one personal anecdote, which disappointed me. I wasn’t looking to be titillated; I’d hoped Edith Lewis would relate everyday stories, informal portraits of what their life together was like. The book is anything but intimate. Lewis refers to her partner formally as “Willa Cather” throughout, never Willa, never Cather. It was a good introduction, if biased.

Deeper study will need to come from other sources.

Willa Cather and Edith Lewis shared their lives for more than 40 years, from 1902 to Cather’s death in 1947.

My few days in Red Cloud gave me what I needed: quiet respite, the peace of solitary wanders through the stately Great Plains, and the opportunity to become acquainted with an iconic American writer. It left me with more questions than answers, more avenues to investigate than epiphanies – which is precisely the way I like it. I never want to reach the end of all roads leading toward literary exploration.

Parlor, Cather family home. Table in left foreground is original to the house.
Young Willa, in Hiawatha costume.
Cemetery found in my wanderings.

Hold that thought, Red Cloud. I just may be back someday.

Writing from Hemingway’s birthplace: Many True Sentences

Parlor – Ernest Hemingway birthplace, Oak Park, IL

It’s dead quiet. If the spirits of the Hemingways are here, they’re gliding noiselessly.

The entire first floor of the Hemingway birthplace is all mine for the day, not a soul disturbing my peace. Closed to tours, the only other sentient being in the place is the maintenance man’s wife, working from the basement because their power is out. Just me and the ghost of young Ernest, born in a bedroom above my head. He lived here from birth through age six, not a very long time. Not a big percentage of his life. Still, a formative period.

It is so Victorian, so opulent and over-wrought. Beautiful, in its exaggerated way, reminding of starched shirts and generous skirts with bustles. No one would be slouching as I am on the velvet chaise, of that I’m sure. Hardwood trim intricately carved, heavy furniture with thick brocade fabric, flowery wallpaper awash with pink roses on a Wedgwood-blue background. Carpet is true to the period, bright red with flowers mirroring those on the wall. It smells strongly of air freshener. Oppressively so. It’s cool and dark, save for this part of the parlor, awash in sunlight. In fact, I wish I had a heavier sweater.

I’m finding it tough to settle. Could be the Hemingways aren’t as thrilled to have me as I am to be working here. Could be ADHD. Pretty sure we know the answer to that.

Visitors keep popping by, walking around the porch. I’m working on my DO YOU MIND? glare. A family with kids. I’ve dragged my children to their share of dead writers’ homes. I can probably guess what they’re thinking: when’s lunch and why should I care who this guy was?

Why, indeed.

The parlor, looking toward my workspace.

Imagine a young Ernest Hemingway barrelling down the stairs, running down to the kitchen to beg for a treat, servants either flustered or endeared, who’s to say. In my mind he was precocious. How could he not have been? The boy who’d go on to win the Nobel Prize. Backing up, think of the tender infant Ernest, cooing with milk dribbling from his wee rosebud lips. The tiny child who’d morph into the barrel-chested man bursting with toxic masculinity.

I cannot not feel self-conscious about where I am. It’s difficult to process. I’ll probably sit bold upright in bed tonight and yell out I HAD ERNEST HEMINGWAY’S HOUSE TO MYSELF. Instead of setting a goal for my first visit, I’m absorbing like a sponge. If it were Woolf’s Charleston, Austen’s Chawton, or Faulkner’s Rowan Oak I’d be a puddle on the floor.

In Hemingway’s house, I can be sensible. Maybe it’s best I’m here instead? Said the woman who hasn’t been offered the other options. And I hear you saying you’d switch with me. Sorry, no dice.

I’ll take it.

The air freshener’s starting to give me a headache. I’m starving, but I’m not leaving for lunch, not squandering a minute. I’ll eat while I’m waiting out rush hour traffic later. Or on the way home. Food’s a secondary consideration; I can enjoy that anytime. What I can’t get anywhere else is the oppressive weight of this scent I’m trying without success to ignore. It’s to the point I have to ask what on earth they’re masking. Would Victorians have gagged their visitors with scented oils?

I think not.

I can hear the maintenance man’s wife on the phone, working I suppose. Her husband left for whatever his day job is. Maintenance here can’t be that demanding. I wasn’t paying attention, if he told me. The tour he gave was cursory, leading me through the upstairs rooms as a matter of course. He stopped by the room where Hemingway was born and said some people break down there, dissolving in tears, which he couldn’t understand. I understand it but it doesn’t move me to that extent, personally. The maintenance man isn’t a docent. He said he could make things up as we go if I’d like. That may have annoyed me, in another author’s house. No offense intended to Hemingway, but it doesn’t here.

Again, I’ll be back and I’ll have read more about the house before I am.

I’ve visited the Hemingway House before, taking the tour lead by an actual docent. I’m sure they were a decent docent. Do I remember much? Why, no. Afraid I don’t.

The kitchen. I could seriously use a snack.

I don’t worship at his altar but how can this not be affecting. Of course it is. If I were of the romantic sort, I’d wax lyrical about his spirit remaining embedded here. I am not romantic. A true thing: The Old Man and the Sea bored me to tears in high school. Nick Adams grabbed me marginally more. Hemingway is just so American. Unappealingly self-important, at least until you know more of his past. The bravado hid a little boy who never quite grew up, stunted by a painful childhood.

Raised by a cold mother, the little boy who pattered through this house felt unloved. He acted out. Kids do that when they’re trying desperately to win their parents’ attention. He grew up continuing to act out. Depression grabbed hold of his ankle and it never let go. Depression would kill him. It killed others in his family. A terrible legacy. Learning more about him hurt my heart. It also brought me to more of an apprecation of Hemingway the man. I couldn’t dismiss him anymore.

The library. Books are of the period, not original. Damn.
Some Very Serious Hemingways.

Matter-of-fact words, one true sentence after another. A form of greatness I appreciate only now – before sitting in his parlor, but only just. I’ve been aware of him a very long time but I am a Hemingway newcomer. I don’t have literary criticism to offer; I haven’t gotten that far. Bits and pieces, visits here, his home in Key West, Shakespeare & Co in Paris. Impressions, supplemented by Ken Burns and his brilliant documentary. I thought that would send more people clamoring here. Sounds like not, unfortunately. There’s a sign appealing for money in the front yard, next to the birthplace sign. Surely artsy Oak Park won’t let their hometown hero’s home run to ruin.

Dining room, Hemingway birthplace.

Along with Hemingway, Cather has recently crept back into my sphere of interest. Next week I’m visiting her home in Red Cloud, NE. What hath the pandemic wrought, that I’d settle on mid-America as my first trip after the country opened back up? I love the Pacific Northwest, love New England. I love/hate the South, home to my god Faulkner. But no, none of these tried and trues. But Cather. I stopped feeling the necessity of applying logic so long ago. It’s tedious and, frankly, who has time to care.

My familiarity with Cather surpasses my knowledge of Hemingway, but only just. I’ve read Death Comes for the Archbishop and My AntoniaMy Antonia twice. Her writing’s so quiet, as I recall. Modern like Hemingway’s, yet not identical. It needs a literature lover to appreciate the meaning of such a nonsensical sentence. If you’ve read this far, I can only assume you, dear reader, are at the very least sympathetic.

Sarah Orne Jewett convinced Cather to concentrate her books on the sphere she knew, as Jewett did herself with her native New England. As with Cather, I’ve read little of Jewett, finding her work slow-moving and, dare I say, of little interest. Jewett is a minor American writer. Did I get away with saying that? She is. Cather is greater. I’ve also visited Jewett’s house, by the way. I was on a family vacation and didn’t drag the kids in but we did poke around outside. I saved the inside visits for later in the trip, for Melville, Wharton, Twain, and Hawthorne.

All about pacing when dragging kids on literary excursions.

Haven’t had much time to connect the dots between Cather and Hemingway. I mean, aside from these twinned visits. It’s nothing I strategized, no big literary study plan. As long as I’m doing things directly related to them, seems to me I’d find interest researching how and if they connect.

Lo and behold, they do! Tenuously, but considering they were contemporaries and very high profile, unsurprising. Hemingway famously despised Cather’s description of WWI in her Pulitzer-winning One of Ours, claiming it was taken, scene by scene, from Birth of a Nation. For her part, Cather disliked usage of profanity in writing, something she could not admire in Hemingway. As for any other connection, that’s yet to be determined.

I’ll keep reading, keep indulging curiosity.

 

“Wasn’t that last scene in the lines wonderful? Do you know where it came from? The battle scene in Birth of a Nation. I identified episode after episode, Catherized. Poor woman, she had to get her war experience somewhere” (Selected Letters 105). – Ernest Hemingway

Thank you to the Hemingway Foundation, thanks to Karma or whatever’s aligned the stars in order for this to all come about. I’ll be back over the course of the year, though I’m not yet sure when. In any event, it’s been an extraordinary experience.

Becoming a bookseller and other bookish news

Just as nature abhors a vaccum, it would appear when I find a hole in my schedule I race to fill it. The 40-hour a week day job (which has, of late, required loads of off-the-clock time training to boost me toward the position I’m hoping to move into) requires lots of mental agility and leaves me mentally exhausted. I wasn’t searching for another job, though more money is always a good thing, didn’t feel pinched or desperate. Serendipity threw the chance to become a bookseller in my path.

In modern parlance, that’s your classic no-brainer. I interviewed, I nervously sweated it out, I GOT THE JOB! Are there sweeter words in the language, aside from I WON THE LOTTERY!, in which case I’d buy my own bookshop, hire other people to run it, then refuse to sell anything? I think not. Then, haven’t I described a private library, not a proper bookshop?

I want the slanting rays of dusty sunlight filtering into dark interior, the rich smell of old leather, solid oak shelving, leather armchairs holding customers I’d allow to hold the books and flip pages if nothing else. All the while, I’ll sit and glower at them. I do love a good glower. When they inquire about price, I’ll growl-yell YOU CAN’T AFFORD IT! Then I’ll slam something, as one does.

My fantasy, my rules. And it’s this one (below), in particular, I want. Located in Lewes, England, I was there in 2017. It is a 15th-Century building, the interior of which has such a low ceiling you often have to stoop not to brain yourself on the original beams. No photography is allowed. I behaved only because the owner bore an impressively ferocious manner. I model myself and all my life choices after him. He is my spirit animal.

I want his shop, crammed as it is from ceiling to floor. Until then, a pretty and much more modern indie bookstore for me.

Those luxurious gleaming gems called Saturday and Sunday, in my household, stretch long and unstructured. I luxuriate in them and don’t we all. While I could and do argue gifting yourself unstructured time to follow your passions is a well-deserved oasis in the barren desert that is adulthood, I do have an awful lot of farfed-away time to spare. Structuring some of that unstructured time actually leads me to greater productivity. I will fit things around committments. During the work week, I throw in laundry before work, empty and fill the dishwasher on breaks, take out the trash and vacuum the rugs, etc. I get shit done in short bursts. I do the meal delivery thing (Hungryroot!) to keep my scheduled meals healthy and varied, partly because it frees me not to have to think about cooking. I do enjoy making the occasional recipe I find in the Sunday New York Times, but that’s not a consistent interest. I’d rather spend the time the pre-cut, easily assembled meals are cooking to scan through Paris Review interviews, read my Literary Critic feed on Twitter, open that ARC just arrived from the publisher, skim through, and read Facebook posts. Things I’m less great about are keeping track of bills that are due (not auto-paid), scheduling doctor appointments, other stuff falling outside everyday tasks. I’ll admit that. Life shouldn’t be totally about lack of structure, but I argue it should revolve around it.

Bookselling is technically a job, and does take up time, but if I’m honest it’s time I can afford. The money pays my grocery bills; that’s much-appreciated. But it’s obviously not about that, either. I’m a degreed librarian unable to find a local full-time job in my field. Grateful for my day job, it’s clear that’s necessary but utilitarian. If I can’t work in a library, guess what’s equally fulfilling?

Exactly!

I’ve been at it just a week. Already, working with the public in this stage of a pandemic brings me face to face with issues public-facing workers have dealt with this past year. Some of it charms. Most people are empathetic and kind, interesting and occasionally amusing, but a smaller and louder portion remains belligerant. The vaccine holds huge promise, but this virus isn’t in the rear-view mirror and my store isn’t dropping the mask mandate. True, it’s not a legal issue and can’t be enforced as such. But it’s very much the right of a private business to set the rules. Once a customer steps through their doorway, a customer has essentially agreed to abide by the owner’s requests. A certain sector of the public finds that intrusive, most turning away at the door. It’s the ones that don’t that present a problem.

Welcome to life in 2021. Locked down over a year, it’s not unexpected but is eye-opening. That won’t rule my experiences, though. My love of bookselling and all that accompanies it looms far larger.

Watch this space!

Speaking of bookish committments, I’ve asked for and been granted a judging role in the 2021 Chicago Writers Association Literary Awards. Offered the option of traditionally or indie-published fiction or non-fiction, I went against my normal preferences and chose indie non-fiction. It’s no bad thing getting outside my niche, giving other people the thrill of receiving books from the Big Five: Penguin Random, Hachette, Harper Collins, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster. These five powerhouses own all the rest, every other big house. I revere them but don’t always admire their practices. There are loads of smaller presses out there – university and other – which also turn out an impressive list of titles. Graywolf and Coffee House, NYRB, Europa, and British publishers Persephone and Virago are some of my particular favorites, then Oxford University and other academics. These are also a force to be reckoned with.

I’ll receive a selection of books, narrowing them to the best. My top choices I’ll read deeply, passing along my verdict for final judging. It’s nowhere near as grueling as my stint as sole literary fiction judge for the IPPY (independent press) Awards, but no less an honor to have stood out in a crowd of applicants. I may attend if there’s an in-person ceremony. I’m not sure anyone knows how that will go.

Once again, other news has crowded out a post I’d meant to also encompass thoughts on books read and acquired, of which there have been a staggering number. Didn’t I declare, not long ago, my intention of slowing my book buying? Maybe I didn’t say it out loud. I don’t particularly want to be accountable when it comes to book whoring. The silent part’s been said out loud, cat’s out of the bag. I am an abysmal failure. More scary, my intention is to shift this behemouth ship’s course and focus in on more books recommended by indie sellers, somewhat outside my normal habit of skimming off the top of heavily literary writers I unashamedly favor. It’s become a necessity to acquire books influenced by booksellers. A necessity, I tell you!

Are you believe this? Buying it? Persuaded at all?

Buggery.

I do draw the line at books with pink covers, though. Sorry. No romances, either. I’ll read the best of genre fiction but when I start reading romances take that as an emergency signal I’m being held captive. Call the police to have me rescued, because I’ll have a gun held to my head.

Current reading and books acquired will have to wait for their own post, yet again. Between the new job, the judging, and upcoming writing-in-residence at Hemingway’s house, life’s busy. I’ve hit a wall, gone on long enough about peripheral book news. Some of the books are sitting next to me but it’s not just laziness keeping me from discussing them. It needs more space. I can use the time, anyway, to form thoughts in my tired brain.

Dinner tonight’s a Hungryroot stir-fry, chicken sausage and broccoli in some sort of sauce and accompanied by rice. And no, I’m not an affiliate. But wouldn’t that be great. Maybe I’ll show you, next time. Are you squandering prescious reading time cooking needlessly? There’s a fix for that.

Off you bugger and leave the books on your way out. You can’t hear it, but I’m slamming something quite loudly.

Well, now, 2021 is taking a turn for the better – it could hardly have been worse.

Miss a little, miss a lot around here, I guess?.

Where do I start? The new job as a bookseller, the upcoming inclusion of one of my interviews in a poetry textbook, or my upcoming writing-in-residence at the library of Hemingway’s Oak Park birthplace?

It’s as if life is attempting to make up for the suck-fest that was 2020, all the anxiety and grief it brought. Doing a right good job of that, I will say. It cannot replace what I’ve lost, or instantly cure the mental strain I’m starting to realize the extent of now that things are looking up pandemic-wise (how often does one get to say that), but I won’t give any of it back.

You can try prying it from my cold, dead but odds are not in your favor.

“Booksellers are the most valuable destination for the lonely, given the numbers of books that were written because authors couldn’t find anyone to talk to. – Alain de Botton

Let’s clarify: I am not quitting my day job for a bookselling gig. I only wish life were that perfect. The salary and benefits provided by a job in the finance sector pay for rent, food, utilities, and books. These things I cannnot live without. A few hours a week working in a charming indie bookshop, in a charming town, on an actual town square, is the reality. Anything over and above that is metaphorical gravy.

I’m an idea person, one obsessed with pitching a million project ideas to an employer – stretching myself thin with great enthusiasm, because potential. How ’bout I write a bit for you? Review? Interview? Attempt to pull strings and get a few writers to visit, zoom, interview via the new podcast I just recommended you start? How ’bout we raise your shop’s visibility?

How ’bout not, how ’bout you’re tiring me out and I’ll rescind that offer. It’s a gamble.

It’s a shop selling new books, which explains why they were hiring. It’s a lot tougher in the used book business, but thanks to grants and kind souls who’ve been supporting indie bookstores during the pandemic, this store has maintained near-status quo. And thank the gods for it.

I’m thrilled, they’re thrilled, WE ARE ALL THRILLED HERE! And I start next Saturday.

I’m a degreed librarian, have a lit degree, and of course do all this reviewing silliness. Once before, I was half of a used/rare online bookshop business. And I have returned to roost.

It’s almost like I’m singular-minded. Is that a bad thing? If you say yes, I won’t care, mind. Just throwing that out there.

The Square, Woodstock, IL

The Importance of Being Ernest

Writing from Hemingway’s… Yeah. A day here and there, over at least the next year, writing from Ernest Hemingway’s actual library in his actual birthplace in Oak Park, IL. I only hope I do the opportunity justice. Will I make it past looking at the titles on his shelves? It boggles.

I have no idea what I’m going to write but the time cannot be squandered. Do I write about Hemingway and his work? Do I write blog posts randomly raving about the experience?

DO I WRITE FICTION.

*Faints*

I’ll be there from 9 – 5 the days I’m visiting, breaking for lunch. I expect 9 – 12:00 will consist of open-mouthed gawping, followed by an hour for lunch, in which I shove food into my mouth very quickly so I can get back to the house. From 1:00 to 5:00 there’ll be mad capering, incorporating hysterical giggling, all the while dodging people there for tours. At least, I imagine they’ll still be open for business? I never asked.

Yoinked from hemingway birthplace site…

Hemingway has been taking up a lot of rent-free head space in my noggin this year. Odd, considering the amount of energy I’d devoted to him previously likely amounts to just a tad over what I’ve given him this January – May. I’ve not read a whole lot of his stuff, but I’ve visited his homes in Key West and Oak Park, as well as his haunt in Paris – Shakespeare & Co.

In college I read a few of his Nick Adams stories for a course in American Lit. I’d be lying if I said I was smitten. I grew up a Brit Lit afficianado, never too keen on American writers – beyond Faulkner (genuflect). Hemingway is so masculine, so spare, his prose style deceptively simple. The Old Man and the Sea was assigned in high school.

It bored me to tears. FFS, REEL IN THE GODDAMN MARLIN AND PUT ME OUT OF MY MISERY.

But, and it’s a big but, my opinion began to shift without even reading his stuff, just from what I read about the man. Then, the Ken Burns special totally ignited my interest. I can’t say RE-ignited, because there wasn’t much there to start. But even before this heart-stopingly wonderful opportunity, my thoughts had begun to turn toward Ernest.

More on that later.

Oh, where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?

Have you not heard about my interview with Billy Collins? That happened loads of years ago. Gosh, was it 2014?

It’s a marvelous story about what can happen when you act like you belong somewhere, advance yourself forward, and approach a former-Poet Laureate’s publicist with a request for an interview. I was not commissioned. I had no business whatsoever taking up his time. I had a blog and ambition.

I just wanted to talk to Billy Collins and write about it. Which I did. His publicist set up a time for him to call me. I pulled out my laptop, sweated out a few questions onto a legal pad, and I’m still amazed I had the guts to talk to him. Me! The ultimate introvert, terrified of the world. Once initiated, there was no way I was going back on this. He called, we talked, I typed it out and posted on my blog.

Two weeks later, I came home to a message on my answering machine (it was that long ago). It was an apologetic Billy Collins, calling to apologize for having missed our interview and offering to make it up to me. Missing our interview? I called him back. I had Billy Collins’s number on my ancient answering machine. It may still be sitting in my ex’s house somewhere, though he likely tossed the thing.

Anyway, I told him we’d already spoken. He replied, “How was I? Was it any good?”

I assured him it was, indeed, very good. Good enough for a publishing company to track me down, years later, and send me a contract requesting publication rights.

Tell me it gets any better than that. All the writers I’ve interviewed through the years, the self-pubbed, the Pulitzer and Booker winners and everyone in-between, and it’s this one that gets pulled and published. So far beyond appropriate, so fitting. So redemptive.

I’m amazed, humbled, thrilled to pieces. If I never accomplish anything else in my foray into writing, this is enough. A nobody like me, a redneck from Mississippi who endured a painful childhood so brutal I developed selective mutism. My only solace was books. I dreamed of writing, dabbled, edited my high school newspaper. I earned a BA in lit, after a dozen years raising children I was hired to work at a library, doing a job that terrified me – booking programs, announcing speakers, going onto write their PR, social media, and newspaper copy. Around the time I earned a library degree, I started reviewing. Paying it forward to a new writer, interviewing her for Public Libraries, she mentioned me in The New York Times. People saw it. Friends congratulated me before I’d seen it myself. I published lots of other places.

It’s not a high-profile career, not in the first tier. But it’s a part of my story and it’s pretty remarkable.

I suppose it’s a testament to my strength of will I survived the shit I did, ultimately regaining my voice and using it to approach Billy Collins and all who came after. It’s the power of books that did it. That first fall down the rabbit hole with Alice, the first proper, solo novel I read.

To perfectly round things out, I eventually saw Billy Collins live and in person. It was at the Woodstock Opera House, when he came for a reading. I could have approached him in person but didn’t I still regret that.

The last I saw of him, he was walking through the Woodstock Square, away from me, as I sat in the window of a restaurant having lunch with friends from the writing group I’d formed at the library I was working at. We’d attended the reading together. As they talked I watched his retreating back. He walked so slowly, I could have caught up to him. No doubt it was the charm of the town delaying him. If I could have that moment back, I’d go after him and tell him the story I know he’d forgotten all about.

I think he’d find this as amazing as I do, if he’s the person I believe him to be.

I believe he is that person.

2021, thanks for the blessings.

Blake Bailey, Roth, and the real reason sexual predators are on the streets

Explosive news in the literary world this week, when literary biographer Blake Bailey, in the midst of almost universally laudatory praise for his new biography of Philip Roth, was revealed to be a sexual predator and accused rapist. Women who’d been middle-school students of his back in the 90s came forward, revealing the ways he’d “groomed” them as children and then made sexual moves as soon as they’d turned 18 – the “age of consent.” One former student has accused him of rape.

Roth, of course, had a reputation for treating women abhorrently. The nice term would be “playboy,” I suppose, which, depending on the degree and whether or not it was mutual, is often dismissed with a wave and a chuckle. “Boys will be boys,” right?

Because Roth chose Bailey as his biographer, the inevitable parallels are being drawn.

Publisher WW Norton temporarily suspended shipment of the book, pulling the plug on publicity. Bailey’s literary agent dropped him. The much-anticipated literary biography of Roth, already considered a strong contender for the Pulitzer, became a pariah in the course of a week.

I question if the allegations against Bailey would have exploded prior to the #metoo movement, before women found their voice, organizing to march against sexually-abusive men in the wake of Donald Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” comment caught on tape. I don’t believe it would have. It never has before, when sexually violent men have become successful. Before women found their voice, victims had to remain silent, looking on while the men who assaulted them accepted adulation.

I went searching for articles about the controversy this morning. Unsurprisingly, there is no lack. I also stopped by the Philip Roth Facebook page, where the comments are not astonishing but definitely disappointing. Given an opportunity for debate on the topic of sexual violence against women and systemic mysogyny, the group of mostly men were foaming at the mouth about the women dragging both Blake Bailey and Philip Roth through the mud. Here lies the problem: given a real-life example of the issue, we cannot engage in conversation about the real victims of sexually-predatory men. Instead, a group of readers chooses posturing in order to argue about “cancel culture.”

Really? Is that the takeaway? Guess what: this is precisely the reason women hesitate coming forward to report sex crimes against them. The minute we do, the public at large swoops in to savage us for ruining reputations of these poor, misunderstood men. Are men sometimes wrongfully accused? Of course! But women who come forward deserve to be heard.

I cannot believe I even have to say this.

The “other” position is hardly better. Those who sympathize with the women, instead of rising up to say let’s work on fixing the reason women don’t feel free to talk, instead start ripping apart Philip Roth’s life (which is over) and fiction (which is generally brilliant) for examples of terrible things he’s done. That ship has sailed. You know what ship hasn’t?

Violence against women.

I sympathize with readers who cannot stomach the idea of reading the work of men who’ve done abhorrent things. But you’re not getting it. If you want to examine topics such as racism, sexism, and glorification of violence against women in the writings of specific authors, do so! Just don’t put that ahead of advocacy for the root cause.

I’m a life-long student of literature. I get it. I enjoy rousing debate, as well, however, what infuriates me is not how fictional women are treated. It’s how actual women are.

FFS, would you take a step back and listen to yourselves.

The joy of avoidance: what I think about when I think about not writing

Excuse number 85 to avoid writing: Spring Cleaning. I have four ASAP review books in the queue; avoidance is strong with this one.

How many believe writing is exciting and invigorating, a joy like no other? You people are messed up. How quickly the adrenaline rush fades once the review copy arrives or project is given the green light. Sitting down to the computer, I question all the life choices leading up to this moment. WTF was I even thinking. It is a misery! A scourge! Ten cups of coffee and a few days (okay, weeks, shut it) later, piece submitted and turned around, it’s only then the heart of the Grinch grows three sizes.

Show me a man who declares an undying love of writing and I’ll point accusingly at James Patterson, whore of the printed page. He loves it because he doesn’t write his own shit. I could love that, too. You write it, then give me the money. Just put my name in the larger font.

Writing sucks, my friend. Two-thirds of the furrows on my brow come from the agony of forcibly pulling words out of my brain. There are rope burns on my fingers, scratches in the corners of rooms streaked with blood from my clawing, wails of despair echoing.

Save yourselves! Fly, fools!

Thus, the appeal of distraction. The pit known as my walk-in closet has been taunting and jeering, its great dark maw exhaling humid breath, uttering guttural and menacing strangling sounds. That, or I have apnea.

In another deep storage closet sit seven huge plastic bins containing my books, hundreds of them absorbing toxic plastic odors. The plan is to line one wall in my walk-in bedroom closet with bookshelves – three six-foot tall, five-shelf units. I may stick a chair in there once it’s done, roll out a carpet and imagine it’s my stately manor house. I need only a print of a roaring fire in a stone hearth that rolls down from the ceiling. I shall loftily refer to it as my Library, gesturing vaguely and gazing into the distance like an 18th-century fop. A 21st Century bluestocking squirelled away, admiring her wealth.

Fop, looking on.

Pulling out all the clothing and miscellany from the walk-in triggered overwhelming anxiety, as nearly everything does in The Time of the Pestilence. My bed positively sagging from the weight, hangers and bags spilled onto the floor. I had to have a lie down on my grievously short loveseat, bought sight-unseen and in a rush, to plot my course. I decided to approach it scientifically. Pick up one item, decide what to do with it, then do the thing.

Brilliance.

Hanging and arranging all the clothes, I realized it wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked. I’m still doubtful I have need of so many things but, in my defense, I culled two garbage bags’ worth of clothing for donation. Once I’d hauled out the laundry, I was able to measure for a dresser and aforementioned bookshelves. Three white particle board units, one cloth-drawered and metal framed dresser.

Thanks, internet!

Small-space organizing is fast becoming my forte; I thrive in these impossibly-small apartments, not that I don’t long for space. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t covet a spare room office. But if there’s an award for cramming crap I’d run away with it. Moving from my last place was a clown car gag personified. I never studied physics but I’m pretty sure I defied all its laws.

It takes ingenuity but there are ways to fit an enormous amount of unnecessary crap into the smallest of spaces. I should start my own HGTV show, a companion series to my earlier idea for a program about decorating I called ‘Good Enough’. Screw sticking out of that shelf on your cheap-ass bookcase? Bedframe duct taped to the headboard?

GOOD ENOUGH! Filmed in front of a live audience.

I never took home repair and improvement that seriously, partly because I used to think I’d eventually find some poor sod to shack up with, a man to rescue me from Herculean tasks – like putting up curtains and leveling pictures. Now I just gouge holes in the wall and slap shit up; spackle is my best friend. Post-pandemic, the idea of pursuing a relationship shifted. Not only have I become completely intolerant of other people, my life’s settling into a fixed routine I don’t want anyone else disturbing. Ironic I’ve had relationships end for exactly that reason.

The irony boggles.

Relationships just plain suck. They’re as bad as writing, just more agonizing. In theory, two people meet and join hands then run through a field of flowers together, laughing in warm-fuzzy joy. In practice, all sours and goes south, ending in a fiery ball of hatred and resentment. The same people who believe writing is a gift from the heavens probably think the same of love.

I’ve become a grumpy spinster. Does it show? I am Miss Havisham, without the rats. (Note: I’ve moved beyond High Lockdown protocol. I now shower regularly and since my hair has finally met professional scissors it’s not a knotted mess. I don’t wear the same clothing through the day, overnight, then through the next day nearly as often. And this hardly sounds redeeming, does it). I like some things a certain way and it is driving me mad not everything has its place but, as this weekend illustrates, I’m accomplishing fixes.

There are rent-a-husbands now, apps you can use to hire people to do annoying crap like hang curtains and fix walls after you’ve tunneled into the drywall, leaving gaping holes and generally making a royal of mess of things. The money you pay is justified by the satisfaction of shit getting done by someone who knows what they’re doing. Best of all, when it’s over you wave them goodbye. All the muscle, none of the irritation of stumbling over them the rest of the time.

Bitter? Me? Why yes. Yes, I am. Unashamedly and justifiably so.

I may not have actively chosen the life I have, but I do now embrace it. That’s much healthier than railing against it, trying to force fate into conforming with my idea of how things should be. Relationships don’t come naturally to me. I’m introverted, raised without benefit of an example of how healthy relationships work. Ask anyone who’s tried getting close to me – they’ll tell you gladly and with great animation. Probably swear-ily. Definitely swear-ily.

In my defense, lack of good judgement paired me with some outrageously incompatible partners. Destined for failure, each of them. I can see that, in hindsight. For better or worse, I am an introverted creative. Like a lot of introverted creatives, my early years were staggeringly dysfunctional. It’s how I came to be what I am, though I hate hearing creativity is worth the trade-off of a stable early life.

Is it? Is it really? That’s a high price.

When you’re given a set of circumstances, acceptance is the key to contentment. I don’t feel like I’m missing out. Bad relationships are toxic, far more damaging than no relationship at all. The pandemic reinforced what I already knew: I prefer the world to remain OUT THERE, to visit it when I feel like it but otherwise lock my door against it. It’s rich inside; I have all I need. Stuff gets a little crazy, often haphazard, but I built it to my own specifications.

All that matters is it has good bones.

Duty calls. I have a review that needs writing; this diversion has reached its end, like all good things.