January in Review: Books and Bitchery

 

Snowy January night

 

The only thing worse than January is…. drum roll… February!

The second month of the year tends to be colder in Chicago – colder and snowier. Plus, you think hey, March is around the corner, so it’s almost spring, right? Nope and nooooope. March may have stray warmer, sunnier moments here and there, but it’s nowhere near actual spring. Neither’s April. Nor at least half of May. True spring arrives in Chicago in June.

Yippee! Four months to go.

January was pretty much a pisser. I fractured my rib on New Year’s Eve, my mood took a deep, dark dive, I found out my cracked crown (I didn’t even tell you about that!) is hiding unadulterated evil in its depths, and I may lose the tooth – or the periodontist will drill into my jaw, in an attempt to save it, and my job has become a cesspool of stress.

Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

Books Read: January 2018

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

Miss Jane by Brad Watson

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

It’s All Relative by AJ Jacobs

The Comforters by Muriel Spark

Robinson by Muriel Spark

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

 

Reading was a saving grace. Well, except for Memento Mori, which I disliked intensely. My new home library grows apace, expanding past the three bookcases I bought initially. It’s time for a couple more; I have so much space here it’s insane.

For the Bowie project, I had to bail on Hawksmoor. I’d joined Audible for the first free month to have a crack at it, but was so afraid I’d forget to drop it and wind up socked with a $ 14.95/month bill I panicked and dropped it.

I do a lot of panic dropping.

The next Bowie book is James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, very readily available. I’ll try to catch up with them in March, schedule allowing.

I watched a few good films, binged a Netflix series or six (Stranger Things (season 2), Glow, The Magicians (gave up),  Black Mirror (I’ve seen all the seasons – OMG!), Alias Grace (OMGG!), Portlandia, re-watched The Office for the five hundredth time – it’s great to sleep to since I practically have it memorized). I’m going to sign up for Hulu, at least for the free month. I never got to see that last episode of The Handmaid’s Tale.

My inability to get going on my 2018 journal is a scourge. Aside from Bluestalking, I haven’t done much writing. My Moleskine notebook and custom-made leather-bound journal barely made it off the ground. I refuse to beat myself up about  that. Looking back at January, I’m fairly impressed with myself. I’m adulting, getting things done. Gainfully employed, my bills are paid. My home is warm and inviting – the downstairs, at least, the upstairs has no furniture but beds – and my life has decent balance.

I am a work in progress.

Realizing I’ve spent long enough at my current job, my resume has been cast to the winds. One preliminary library interview under my belt, I’m hoping for a call back next week. If I get this job, I’ll burrow more deeply, putting down roots. Uncertain I want to stay in Chicago for good, that would absolutely ensure I’m here at least a couple more years. Longer, if it pans out.

Restlessness is my Achilles heel. Still a little de-stabilized, I get that. Presented with a wide-open world, I want to grasp it all. Trouble is, you’ll never be happy if you don’t learn not to always want the other.

I need to bloom where I’m planted.

Chicago is no slouch. There’s much here I’ve yet to explore – the American Writers Museum, for one. How have I not been there? We have our share of literary history, including: Hemingway, Richard Wright, Dreiser, Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair. Bereft we’re not. And the architecture (Frank Lloyd Wright!), the symphony and opera houses, the museums and ebullient spirit of one of the world’s great cities.

 

Oak Park, IL

 

It’s not impossible I’ll move away. But for now, word is a person can take vacations to beautiful places without putting down roots there. Or marrying natives. That great, wide world isn’t going anywhere.

Maybe January wasn’t such an awful month. Challenging, sure. But looking back from where I sit, I’m feeling oddly satisfied.

Bring it, February.

 

Reviews: One big ol’ pile of ’em

I’m tossing several reviews together, like a reading salad. This saves your inbox (or web visit) the agony of separate, multiple posts. It’s out of love. Don’t say I never do anything for you.

Resuming formal tracking of my reading has had the unfortunate side effect of inspiring me to read more. I KNOW.  Awful. My determination to fill this journal is a 2018 goal.

Because it SMELLS LIKE VICTORY!

 

Here are the first few I’ve recorded:

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

  • Hardcover
  • Publisher: Raven Books; 1st edition (2017)
  • Purchased via Amazon.co.uk

Where did I hear about this book? I don’t know. In some UK publication, probably. In that case, why didn’t I just buy it there? Was it not out yet? Did I not have time to beg a freebie?

Does it matter? Why am I asking so many questions?

I love creepy gothic books as much as darkly psychological portraits of murderous psychopaths. Makes you wish you could spend a night in my spare bedroom, doesn’t it? Don’t be silly. You wouldn’t wake to find me looming over you.

BECAUSE YOU WOULDN’T WAKE.

I relish the dark and brooding. Heathcliff is my ideal romantic hero, which explains the irresistible attraction I have to a certain type of man. I pursue the troubled ones, the mentally unstable. I can save you, angry man with a violent past!

Alas. Sorry, no one can save you but yourself. Seven years of therapy taught me that. Come back once you’ve graduated from therapy, balanced with help of medication. But then, I may not like you as well, because you’d be normal and – GASP – possibly kind.

It’s not me, it’s you.

In literature as in life, the grim attracts me. A very dark stripe runs through my soul – or the empty space it should be, where no sound is heard save the sinister creaking of an empty rocking chair, the tell-tale beating of a disembodied heart. But then, a lot of people must be similarly afflicted, because books like this fly off the shelves. Which makes me normal. Which I resent.

I didn’t enjoy The Silent Companions at first. For at least the first quarter, it irritated me I’d paid across the pond shipping, and an inflated exchange rate, to get my grubbies on it. A haunted house, a woman who’s lost her mind, strange and shifting wooden figures that resemble people she’s known …

Yet, I just wasn’t feeling it.

Tossed to the side of my bed in a huff, I read a couple other books while it lay there, gathering dust. Then I decided dash it! I’ve paid for it, I’m going to give it a few more pages. And you know, I enjoyed it a lot more after letting it sit and stew. Still far from the best gothic I’ve read, it got one hell of a lot better.

The wooden figures – the “silent companions” of the title – are ghoulishly creepy. It’s their shifting around that does it. You know how in horror movies every time a main character works up the courage to jerk open a door, hearing a noise in the hallway, it’s guaranteed as soon as the door closes the monster/killer/icky thing will be RIGHT THERE? That, but in a surprising enough way it’s not as cliché as it could have been. Still a bit predictable, but done well enough.

The heroine develops more fully as a character through the last half of the book, enough that I’d stopped hoping for her swift death, just so the book would be over. It bothered me the plot seemed lifted from Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, done less gracefully. If I hadn’t just watched the Netflix exclusive series, I’d have been blissfully ignorant of the similarity. Purcell is no Margaret Atwood.

If you aren’t familiar with Atwood’s novel, at its center is a woman in a mental asylum. Charged with murder, her mental instability and a lack of firm evidence are enough to keep her locked up, the prospect of execution looming. In The Silent Companions, the main character is unable to speak. Interviewed on an ongoing basis by a man determined to get at the truth, she communicates her story in writing. In Alias Grace, Grace is able to speak, spinning tales like Scheherazade. Grace is completely unreliable as a narrator, the story much more suspenseful. And the ending?

HOLY HELL.

The Silent Companions isn’t the smoothest book. The dialogue tends toward the stilted. The attempted replication of a 19th century writing style comes off cheesily fake. As a lover of Victorian literature, I’m far less inclined to forgive missteps as huge as this.

It was, as you see often in reviews, “readable.” I finished it; that says a lot.

The ending irritated me. Again, picking it up so soon after my experience with the phenomenal TV adaptation of Alias Grace, it did not fare well. The power of Atwood’s novel, compared with the slow fizzle of The Silent Companions, did it no favors. I wonder if Purcell’s read Margaret Atwood’s book, if the similarities were intentional. If so, my opinion drops further.

I don’t hesitate throwing books aside. It’s ridiculous feeling you owe a writer anything. They owe you, the reader. It’s their job. They’ve produced a product, and you’ve paid for an anticipated experience. The writer needs to deliver as promised.

Not a ringing endorsement, I realize. But if you’re into gothics and aren’t looking for something either too heavy or terrifying, this may be it. And if you haven’t read Alias Grace, and aren’t an afficiando of Victorian literature.

Sorry, this just went even further South. The more I wrote, the less impressed I became. Go figure.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Catapult (October 3, 2017)

Holy lyrical and technical perfection. No wonder many lovers of hard-core literary fiction felt this short-listed novel should have won the Man Booker. I own a copy of the winner – Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders – but have yet to give it a proper read (as opposed to skimming pieces). Which deserved the win, I don’t know. All I do know, this one’s a beauty.

The trouble so many readers express is nothing much happens. It’s about perfection of writing, not a story that progresses in the traditional sense. A young girl in a remote English village goes missing. For years, residents search for her. Clues are tossed in occasionally, but they’re so few and far between the trail goes cold.

In place of a suspenseful plot, there are stories about everyday people, human experiences and the drama of everyday life in the space of time a tragedy becomes a distant memory. The parents of the girl are silhouettes on the edge. Hard details about the investigation aren’t well-defined.

If you’re looking for another Gone Girl, this isn’t your book. It’s a novel to be read slowly and savored, appreciated for the beauty of writing executed with perfection. It’s the kind of book you can pick up and put down without loss of continuity. I read it at a snail’s pace.

Every word is a treasure.

Miss Jane by Brad Watson

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (July 11, 2017)

Another beauty, this one with a plot not fast-paced but progressive. And the lyricism, just breathtaking.

Drawn from the story of his great-aunt, native Mississippian Brad Watsons’s Miss Jane is about a woman born malformed, neither her female parts, digestive nor urinary systems intact or functioning normally. She could control neither her bowels nor bladder, her life made painfully difficult.

Participating in normal society required pre-planning, and the constant worry she’d have accidents. From childhood, she was ostracized. Always on the outside looking in, her yearning to be normal, to go to school and live the carefree life of a child was heartbreaking. Forced to wear a diaper, she starved herself to avoid humiliating accidents. She wasn’t always successful.

Eventually dropping out of school, she’d learned enough rudimentary basics to allow her to read and perform basic math functions. As she got older, the dawning realization she could never have a romantic relationship in the traditional sense was a slap in the face. A strong woman, she not only endured but made a satisfyingly full life for herself, not that she never regretted what she couldn’t have. It would have been abnormal not to.

Start to finish a beautiful book, it does have lagging moments. I’m not sure I’d edit them out, though. That’s the thing. I had to pull my way along for brief periods, but overall, very worth it.

Miss Jane has literary prize written all over it.

It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree

by AJ Jacobs

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (November 7, 2017)
  • Courtesy of AJ Jacobs, because friend.

I’ve put off talking about this book because I knew it would be both very personal and time-consuming. I wanted to go into the whole back story of how I’d gotten involved in AJ’s project from the beginning, our personal friendship, and the ways I’d supported him throughout.

Flying out to Manhattan for the Global Family Reunion – the event that is the crux of this book – right around the time my divorce was finalized, it was a defining experience. I hoped to throw in pictures, too, because I went to NY and it was cathartic.

Oh, what the hell. Here are some of the pictures.

 

9/11 Museum at Ground Zero, Manhattan – a child stares in wonder.

 

I’ve known AJ at least a decade. His book The Know-it-All, about his experiences reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica, helped bring me out of a deep depression following the loss of a soul-mated friend. Written in short bursts of his thoughts on specific entries, it was both funny and interesting enough to suit my all but non-existent attention span. Losing a friend similarly passionate in his devotion to books, I’d lost the will to and interest in reading. AJ brought me back.

I wrote a deeply personal review of The Know-it-All, which AJ had seen. Meaning to find and get into contact with me, he just never did. Years later, I wrote asking him for an interview following publication of another book. He knew me immediately, telling me then how much my review had moved him.

By the time he started his world genealogy project, we were friends who communicated regularly. An editor of Esquire magazine, a very big deal, he’s still a reference on my resume. I have his personal cell number. AJ is good people.

He described his vision: what if the world traced its roots and realized we’re all cousins. I was hooked. I joined Geni.com, the site virtually hosting the project. Genealogy began to consume me. The problem: once you start, it’s hard thinking about anything else.

My then-husband was furiously jealous of the amount of time it took up in my life, manifesting in hostility toward anything I tried sharing. The rift already there after decades of a terrible marriage, we’d be divorced by the time I attended the Global Family Reunion.

No, I don’t blame that on genealogy.

One World Trade Center.

Long story short, I followed AJ through what turned out to be a tortuously difficult project to get together this real-world family reunion, held in the summer of 2015. Though his friendliness never faltered, I could see the toll it took. He was still AJ, still kind and caring, frantically busy, but never so much he didn’t return my emails. This one nearly got away from him.

The book itself went months overdue. Intending to finish sometime around March of 2016, publication didn’t happen until November 2017.

The resulting book shows the strain. He doesn’t shy away from admitting he’d gotten in over his head, that pulling together a virtual campaign getting people to join Geni and dig into their roots enough to connect with him, plan an actual event with celebrities and publicity and all that goes with it, and gear up to write this book came dangerously close to breaking him. Normally a jovial writer with a sharp edge of self-denigrating sarcasm, the style of It’s All Relative comes off almost depressing.

This book doesn’t sound like AJ to me.

Ultimately, he drew together thousands who traced their ancestry far enough they realized he was right: we are all interconnected. Real life friendships were formed between total strangers of different races and ethnic origins, small celebrations were held around the world. People who couldn’t make the official reunion held their own.

Though it rained torrentially the day of the actual, mostly outdoor reunion, feet and chairs sinking into inches of mud, he pulled it off. Sister Sledge was there, singing “We Are Family”. I saw the celebrities backstage. That part was semi-amazing.

When I saw AJ that day, met him face to face, he was so distracted it didn’t register who I was. It didn’t help I was an unrecognizable drowned rat, caught in the deluge in Manhattan while tracking down a cab. By the time I caught up with him, the strain from all that had gone wrong had him so near distraught he shook my hand absently.

Leaving the event, I couldn’t find a taxi to take me the staggeringly expensive and long route back to Manhattan. In a shady area of Brooklyn, I wandered for hours. My feet were so sore from a poor choice in footwear – fashion over function – I walked the sidewalks barefoot, lost beyond hope. Returning to the venue, I tearfully asked for help. My phone dead more than an hour, the volunteers kindly ordered my taxi.

 

Times Square

Back at my hotel, I threw things around, irate I’d paid a tremendous amount of money flying out and staying in Manhattan just to have it turn into a virtual shit show. I tossed my backstage pass lanyard in the garbage. I couldn’t wait to leave New York City.

A few weeks later, once I’d cooled a bit but not completely, I fired off an email to AJ. It was a little ranty. And god, he was sorry. So sorry we set up a Skype call so he could talk to me, apologizing as face to face as technology allows.

Fences were mended.

I guess I did wind up writing a personal review about the book, after all. It was a life experience I won’t forget – not a completely great one, but all’s well that ends friendship intact.

 

So ends a quick summary of the first few books I’ve finished thus far in 2018. I’m close to finishing more. Hopefully I’ll have time to discuss those singly. We’ll see. Lots of other book-related thoughts, but time has been kicking my arse lately.

Either way, I’ll be back soon. Until then, happy January reading.

Reading at the tail end of 2017: Ethical dilemmas thereof, and the future of my blog

 

It’s a real problem for the reading and book tracking obsessed: must you add books half-finished at the end of 2017 to that year’s tally (post-mortem, as it were), even if you don’t finish them until 2018, or is it morally justified migrating them to first reads of 2018?

My Code of Ethics Regarding Reading Protocol doesn’t cover this. Time to go rogue and make up my own rules:

Books finished in 2018 count as 2018 reads! 

Such a saucy minx.

30 December 2017: Books in Progress

 

Classics Group Read: An Easy Choice

 

A no-brainer. The classics group that chose Nicholas Nickleby doesn’t meet for discussion until late January. I have no qualms saving this for 2018’s list.

Is it the book’s fault I needed the full four weeks? I think not. Only eight chapters in, there are still 50,000 pages to go. It is Dickens, after all. The man doesn’t do short – though you’d have to ask Ellen Ternan for the official word on that.

HAHAHAHA! Sorry. Nerd humor.

Paid by the word and long-winded, some dislike him for it. Despite the fact his tangents run to dozens of pages, I adore him. The wonky characters and snarky side-comments, even the sentimental plots, have made him one of my favorite writers ever. His insights into human nature are spot on, still relevant.

That is the definition of classic literature.

My favorites of his novels are: Our Mutual Friend, Bleak House and Great Expectations. I do wish I could time travel back to the Victorian era and destroy all copies of Little Dorrit. It’s like Paul McCartney’s collaboration with Michael Jackson… very bad judgment. Almost reputation ruining, teeth grittingly bad work.

Ah, but the rest of his canon makes up for it.

I wonder how the group will like it. Recently returned after several years’ hiatus (I was an original member back when it was first formed, six or so years ago), I vaguely remember a few aren’t fond of the Victorians. It will behoove me to step up and defend the literature I love best. There are also new members, wild cards. I can’t predict their reactions.

Was Nickleby the best choice to reel in the uncertain? An early novel in his career, it’s nowhere near on par with the titles I love best. A number of film adaptations have been done of it, so it has some staying power.

Fingers crossed I won’t find the response too negative. I can argue points like its length and diversions, but flowery Victorian prose isn’t for everyone.

 

It’s not you, it’s me. Or maybe it’s you,

 

Whole new problem, if I abandon a book begun in 2017, is it cheating to carry on reading it a bit past the New Year with the intent of listing it as a DNF (did not finish, for the uninitiated) for early 2018?

So much dilemma.

 

Newly married, newly widowed Elsie is sent to see out her pregnancy at her late husband’s crumbling country estate, The Bridge. With her new servants resentful and the local villagers actively hostile, Elsie only has her husband’s awkward cousin for company. Or so she thinks. For inside her new home lies a locked room, and beyond that door lies a two-hundred-year-old diary and a deeply unsettling painted wooden figure – a Silent Companion – that bears a striking resemblance to Elsie herself…

 

Frustratingly, the elements sound fascinating – the execution not so much.

It sounded such a delight I ordered it from the UK, paying international shipping. I hate paying international shipping for new books. They’re such a crap shoot. Classics, yes. Persephone or other reliable-quality editions, of course. Vintage Penguins, certainly!

But books recently published are just plain risky.

Eighty pages in, it’s not gripping me. The writing is loose, there’s no tension, no sense of menace above the barest trace. The haunted house should loom, not feel vaguely creepy in a pedestrian sense. A door closes and locks itself. Woooooo!!!

Not scary.

When I read a gothic, I want to be spooked, half looking back anticipating a cold hand dropping heavily on my shoulder.

I’m left with a dilemma: do I keep going despite its mediocrity, considering I’ve spent the money, or write it off since the money’s gone, anyway, and I can’t recoup it through squandering precious reading time.

One or two more chapters. I’ll give it only that.

The Silent Companions reminds me of overblown books of “gothic horror” like David Mitchell’s Slade House and Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry. The two of them were just not scary, yet readers loved them.  Their premises sounded perfect; they didn’t deliver.

WHY ARE THEY SO LOVED.

David Mitchell is capable of brilliance. Audrey Niffenegger, for great ideas with results somewhat lacking. Most writers occasionally drop a dud. Such is the nature of the beast.

Like truly funny books, works of gothic horror are tough genres to nail. They must be perfect, taut as hell, without a single moment’s lapse.

I have not read a truly great work of gothic horror in a very, very long time. One title that springs to mind is Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Brilliant book. It’s not white knuckle terrifying, but a very good gothic. A couple others are just on the edge of my memory, elusive. One was about a house with a shifting staircase. Really spooky. I’ll think of it in the middle of the night and hate myself for forgetting it.

 

Forgotten female writers, a love of mine

 

Anne Royall was quite a rebellious woman, indeed. I’ve barely started the book; already I love her for that.

Publishing her first book in 1826 at the age of 57, Royall reinvented herself as a “women politico” a generation before the Women’s Suffrage Movement. She was a pioneering travel writer and satirist who broke ground on the wagon trails a generation before Mark Twain, and an investigative journalist who took on bankers and prison conditions a half century before muckrakers Ida Tarbell and Nellie Bly. She was the author of 10 original books, and publisher of a newspaper in Washington, DC for 25 years until the age of 85.

One of the most famous, sharp-witted and controversial women of her times, Royall was raised in the backwoods of the South but educated herself in one of the great libraries in the region. She openly cohabitated with her husband prior to their wedding, but was then left widowed and destitute after her husband’s family declared their marriage invalid. Turning to writing, Royall acquired fame and then enemies for her scathing and hilarious denouncements of corruption, incompetence and the blurry lines between church and state.

 

Author Jeff Biggers was the inadvertent cause of one of my biggest embarrassments as a newly-minted library programmer. Hiring him to come speak about a previous book about Appalachia as well as the writing process, I was devastated when no one showed.

It certainly wasn’t his fault, not was he upset. Relying on the public to care one whit about literature is precarious. Writers know this.

He stayed a while and talked with me, but I had a hard time getting past the humiliation I wasn’t able to fetch him an actual audience. I took a lot of things much too seriously back then, and I wasn’t as used to hanging out with writers as I am now. I’ve since learned they’re Actual People, not demigods. I love them, but they don’t intimidate me anymore.

Did I tell you about the time I chatted with Salman Rushdie and made him laugh? Because I pretty much tell everyone about that. How about the time former poet laureate Billy Collins left NOT ONE but TWO messages on my home answering machine, regarding an upcoming interview?

I’m slacking if I mention neither of those, at the very least.

His latest is one I’d like to devote serious attention to, not merely skim. I have to put reading time in reserve, as the chances this book will lead me to others is high. I’ll need a lot of note-taking time.

Most definitely a 2018 read.

All the Rest

Not members of my Ethical Reading Dilemma are books I’ve dipped into so superficially I don’t consider I’m technically reading them. Winding up next to or in bed with me, I page through them before I turn off the light. Not in the official reading queue, they’re transitional bedtime rituals.

2018 for sure.

Future Tense: Where am I going; where have I been

I did want to talk more about 2018 formal reading plans before the New Year, but I’m afraid I’ve already flooded you with posts. After a long drought, the dry ground of Bluestalking may not be equipped to absorb so much new blathering.

We all know my 2017 was amazing, that I don’t expect to see its equal again, though I dearly hope I will. Early plans for 2018 – another topic I’ve teased about – are awfully adventurous as well, though perhaps not quite so much as leaving the country for good. Leaving the area, perhaps. In fact, probably.

Don’t ask where… Mum’s the word.

Whatever becomes of me, Bluestalking is on track to change course a bit. My new tagline may be temporary, but gives an idea how I’m going to proceed. I’m not just a reader and writer, I’m also past the strict definition of mid-point in my life (unless I live past 100, and I have no plans to). Living alone and content, having had one wild rollercoaster of a life, I’d like to write more personal posts, keeping the literary slant.

There are not enough blogs written by Women of a Certain Age, not enough that speak frankly about concrete realities of living a solitary life. I’ll also feature more photographs, like I used to long ago. I replaced my DSLR camera, and am retraining myself in how to take decent pictures.

There are still many to share from 2017, as well.

I’m very excited about it all, looking forward to 2018. Thank you to everyone who’s followed me on my journey so far, for all the support and kindness on and off the blog over the past decade plus. I hope you enjoy where I’m taking things in the next stage of my life, that you’ll hop in the backseat and ride along.

Much happiness and health to you in 2018. All my very best.

Lisa

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