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


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.

From Philip Roth’s home to mine: on buying a piece of his estate

Since reading Portnoy’s Complaint sometime back in the 90s, I’ve never been a Philip Roth fan. But tell me he’s dead and they’re selling his stuff, and I’m all over it.

I blame it on Twitter: specifically, author and Chicago Tribune “Biblioracle” columnist John Warner, who, on that fateful day, tweeted he’d won an auction for Philip Roth’s alarm clock.

Wait. What?

It was Saturday, July 20. I work part days on Saturdays, and to stave off the boredom and resentment I always have my phone next to me, left hand scrolling Facebook and Twitter limitlessly. Running bang up against John’s tweet, I grabbed the URL for the Roth estate auction.

Ebay made up the entirety of my previous auction experience. I used to drop in once in a while, to snap up old Penguin paperback editions and the occasional oddity, like a postcard from the town in the Netherlands where my family hailed from — hey, big spender.

Litchfield County Auctions is the real deal, where the rich go to pick up Persian rugs and Chippendale armoires. I felt like someone’s hick relative in overalls, sucking on a piece of straw. But such is the beauty of the internet: “belonging” there only means I haven’t reached the limit on my credit card.

It was phenomenal, like someone had taken Roth’s house just as he’d left it, turned it on its side and shook every, single damn thing out. You name it, they sold it. There were ratty old afghans, lamps and tables, fine collectible Chinese vases and figurines, paintings and so many silver pieces. So many.

As it was a live auction, all I had to do was shove my credit card information at them, watching as each item came up and bidding commenced. While some things went for tens of thousands, a few bits and bobs, I noticed, were quite affordable. Tentatively, I hit the bid button for a couple vases. When they rose too high for my blood, I went on to a Chinese figurine. Unwilling to chase it over $ 100, I scrolled ahead to upcoming items.

Then I saw it: a Chinese reverse painting on glass.

I had only the vaguest idea what “reverse painting” meant, but it was lovely and the estimated sale price was in the range I was willing to spend. I watched as one person bid, then another. It wasn’t getting a lot of attention; I held my breath. When last call!, then final warning!!! popped up I swooped in and bid as the gavel came down.

I imagined the glowing face of the high bidder as the auctioneer was ready to call it, mentally measuring out the place he’d hang it next to the fireplace, his new “Roth niche.”

Then, BAM!

“You’ve been outbid, sucker!”

All’s fair in love and auctions.

My impression of Roth’s writing, aside from the narrow scope of my experience with Portnoy, was that he’s a man’s writer. And when I say man’s writer, I’m staring squarely at Ernest Hemingway — poster boy for excess testosterone. Not that I imagine the scholarly Jewish writer had a penchant for big game hunting, nor that he regularly got toasted and ripped off his shirt in his editor’s office, as Hemingway was wont to do.

Roth was a bit more restrained. Just a tad.

Fairly or not (probably not), judging him solely based on a novel about a young man’s obsession with masturbation, I’ve always believed he’s a writer obsessed with sex.

Before you start going all feminist on me, I know full well women have written about sex. I have no issue with that, but, to my knowledge, none have done so quite so famously as Roth, at least not on the topic of young men and masturbation. And I’m not only not interested in young men and masturbation, I actively avoid it.

Perhaps I should use the word masturbation one more time in this post, what do you think.

Hey there, fella. You’re one magnificent bastard.

Since the Roth item arrived, I’ve begun researching his life and work, reading reviews and watching interviews on YouTube. Though it pains me to say it, I may have rushed to judgment. Philip Roth wrote some 30ish novels. The more I read, the more it behooves me to investigate him further before making up my mind he’s not my thing, if for no other reason than I own one small piece of his estate.

That I bought on impulse. Because Twitter made me.

Meanwhile, I have a lovely Chinese reverse painting on glass I need to hang in my Philip Roth niche. I don’t have a fireplace, but I do have an Ikea dresser. Chippendale it ain’t, but what did we decide about “belonging”?

It’s all about having room on your credit card.

At a reading crossroad

Books mentioned in this post:

Philip Roth – Everyman

Kiran Desai – The Inheritance of Loss

Philip Roth – Portnoy’s Complaint

Having so recently finished those two big honkin’ 19thC books (and if you’ve been paying attention at all you won’t have to ask which) [ Adam Bede and Emma, duh], I’m at somewhat of a reading crossroad.  That’s not to say I’m reading nothing, but considering my normal reading pattern is to have a good six or eight books on the go at once, finishing two books that took up so much reading time will tend to leave a gap. What’s the quote about nature abhorring a vacuum?  Well, so does Lisa abhor reading holes.

One way of plugging said reading holes involves a simple perusal of my email in box, most specifically my inbox at work.  Working in a library as I do, I get a lot of newsletters related to books, most of them leaning toward what’s hot off the presses.  I’ve signed up for all of them, mind, so I can’t say it’s the library signing me up for these. The simple fact is when I first started at the library my job wasn’t terribly busy. I hadn’t learned the ropes of basic tasks well enough to take on anything extra, so my free time was filled perusing periodicals like Book List and Publisher’s Weekly. And, being a list-maker by nature, that started what has become my mile-long list of titles accumulated in the process of reading these wonderful book periodicals just since last September, when I was hired.

Imagine what the list will be like when I’ve been there a year, five years, ten years… It will be most unwieldy. I may have to abandon my current streamlined procedure of writing down titles and authors on sticky notes and adhering them around my desk/cubicle area and actually take advantage of the information age and start a spreadsheet.  That would be far less eccentric, but much more practical. That’s true, but you’re speaking to someone who owns literary action figures (Shakespeare and Jane Austen, in addition to Curious George with a hula hoop, if the definition may be expanded a bit).  Practical isn’t exactly my forte, but when I start losing sticky notes you can bet I’ll be called to action.

[2013: It’s long since become a whale of a list, thousands of books long – many of which I own but, strangely, haven’t found time to read. But hey, they’ve let me go since then. Surely that will resolve things.

Or not.

Probably not.

As of today – 9/5/13 – I have somewhere around 2,500 of my books listed on Goodreads. I don’t think that’s even half the books I own.]

[2015: I’ve sold and accumulated so many books, I have no idea where I am numbers-wise. Plus, I’ve since divorced, necessitating the culling of my book collection. Hundreds of volumes are still at my former marital home; I live in an apartment now and have no room for the vast majority of them.]

Thank goodness for interlibrary loan, that’s all I can say.  Living in suburban Chicago I really can’t complain about the abundance of great libraries willing to lend me their books. And, what may be almost equally as sweet (or, as my daughter says it, suh-weeeeet!), I DON’T GET CHARGED FINES FOR LATE RETURNS… That last should maybe be kept ‘twixt you and I…

At present I have, well, a few interlibrary loan books.  Not as many as would be my record (which may explain why the interlibrary loan person won’t ever make eye contact with me, and why she mutters a lot under her breath), but a decent number.  Every time I enter the staff area in the library I always must check my mailbox for new arrivals, as that’s where they generally wind up, though I have had them lobbed from the interlibrary loan desk to my own, in the past. Usually she’ll be kind enough to call to me and get my attention first, to be fair.

Phillip Roth’s latest, Everyman, is one most recently found stuffed in my mailbox, along with Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss.

I’m not exactly a Philip Roth fan, but the reviews I’ve been reading about his latest sounded intriguing.  Never mind the fact his Portnoy’s Complaint stands amongst the most “disgustful” books I’ve ever read to date.  I had a very difficult time getting through that one, I will admit, and it scared me off him quite effectively for a while. But I don’t like to judge a writer by one title alone.  I like to vary my reading, too, and it never hurts to throw something not in a Lisa genre into the mix now and then.

The Desai title is another that made my book radar, either via the daily reviews I receive via email or through one of the literary periodicals.  Plus, this is an author I’ve never read before, which gets me double bonus points. I’m pretty sure this is the review that attracted my interest in this one:

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. This stunning second novel from Desai (Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard) is set in mid-1980s India, on the cusp of the Nepalese movement for an independent state. Jemubhai Popatlal, a retired Cambridge-educated judge, lives in Kalimpong, at the foot of the Himalayas, with his orphaned granddaughter, Sai, and his cook. The makeshift family’s neighbors include a coterie of Anglophiles who might be savvy readers of V.S. Naipaul but who are, perhaps, less aware of how fragile their own social standing is—at least until a surge of unrest disturbs the region. Jemubhai, with his hunting rifles and English biscuits, becomes an obvious target. Besides threatening their very lives, the revolution also stymies the fledgling romance between 16-year-old Sai and her Nepalese tutor, Gyan. The cook’s son, Biju, meanwhile, lives miserably as an illegal alien in New York. All of these characters struggle with their cultural identity and the forces of modernization while trying to maintain their emotional connection to one another. In this alternately comical and contemplative novel, Desai deftly shuttles between first and third worlds, illuminating the pain of exile, the ambiguities of post-colonialism and the blinding desire for a “better life,” when one person’s wealth means another’s poverty.

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.

These two books, as well as the others (books which I’ve usually forgotten I’ve requested, I should qualify) that will either fly to my desk via airmail or wind up in my inbox, should pretty effectively fill the holes on Lisa’s reading list.  Next time I’ll post about my current main reading list, but for now I think I’ve made this short story long enough…

[2013: I didn’t finish Everyman or even start the Desai. I’m not proud. Honest but not proud. To date, I’ve read nothing by Desai and nothing more by Roth, though he’s still on my list and I’ve bought a couple more of his books since I wrote this post. See, not like an author doesn’t stop me buying his or her books. I don’t get it, either.]