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.

Tuesday Salon, anyone?

Tuesdaysalon

Maybe it's not technically laziness, but never mind the excuse. I'm arriving late to the party once again. But you would not believe the traffic.

Books. Anyone else get that same little shiver up the spine (HAHA!) or am I coming down with something? Maybe I should cover up. Put on a jacket.

Or maybe I should just shut up and get on with it.

 

Theborrower

 

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai

Viking, June 2011

Summary:

"Lucy Hull, a young children's librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, finds herself both a kidnapper and kidnapped when her favorite patron, ten- year-old Ian Drake, runs away from home. The precocious Ian is addicted to reading, but needs Lucy's help to smuggle books past his overbearing mother, who has enrolled Ian in weekly antigay classes with celebrity Pastor Bob. Lucy stumbles into a moral dilemma when she finds Ian camped out in the library after hours with a knapsack of provisions and an escape plan. Desperate to save him from Pastor Bob and the Drakes, Lucy allows herself to be hijacked by Ian. The odd pair embarks on a crazy road trip from Missouri to Vermont, with ferrets, an inconvenient boyfriend, and upsetting family history thrown in their path. But is it just Ian who is running away? Who is the man who seems to be on their tail? And should Lucy be trying to save a boy from his own parents?"

 

Have you seen the way a cat reacts when you throw down a pinch of catnip? Imagine the cat is a human (SEE: librarian, female) and the catnip is this book. Now, throw it down on the floor in front of me. You may want to look away. Then again, you may not.

Pervert!

That lovely mental image was pretty much my reaction when I read the cover blurb from this book. Slack jaw, string of drool, glassy eyes, followed by rolling all over the floor, meowing madly. Disturbing? Yes. A bit. With appropriate counseling you'll get past it, like I did.

I wanted to read this book so badly I deferred it until now. I realize that sounds nonsensical. I wanted to read it, so I didn't? But once I'd read it I wouldn't have it to look forward to anymore. It would have already been done. Never again could I read this book for the first time. I skimmed the first few pages, maybe the first chapter, saw how worthwhile it was going to be, then immediately stuck it behind the GREAT BOOK BARRIER REEF in my family room. Out of sight out of mind, right? It bought me a couple months, at least until most of the hoopla about it quieted down.

I was right to put it away. When I pulled it out again last week it was all the sweeter. The early reviewers had done their stuff, selling the book's wonderfulness to all the early readers who dig this crazy, nerdy sort of thing. It was just me and this wonderful book. All alone.

(I believe I hear a violin playing softly in the distance.)

The publisher's summary (above, courtesy of Amazon.com) makes it sound like a goofy book. Parts of it are, but on the whole it's actually a little more serious. That's not a bad thing. You kind of want to see that in a book about kidnapping, even if it is consensual. Not that kidnapping is ever right. Except, maybe, when it is. Oh, go read a book on ethics.

The road trip is a great ride. Literally. Ian's every inch the obnoxiously spirited 10-year old, full of curiosity and way, way too much energy. He's hilarious, just a joy to be with. And, while Lucy adores him, never expressing any irritation with his spasticity (?), she's also a grown woman lacking real direction, confused about her place in the world. Her worry about Ian, about how this little boy's being raised, may have some legitimacy, but following that impulse to run away with him… That's a little sticky.

Still, Rebecca Makkai manages to sell it. Just when you're starting to think, "Now she'll stumble and I'll get angry with the book for its complete lack of reality, toss it aside and cry copious tears,"  guess what? She never makes one misstep, never fumbles a detail. She plots flawlessly, creates loveable, living, breathing characters you can't help wanting to hug, even if you do want to give Lucy a little slap sometimes.

It's just that ending… But I can't tell you that now, can I?

Just read it. If the summary raises your blood pressure like it did mine, just read the thing. Feel free to message me, comment here without spoilers, email me if you feel the need to scream WTF? And if you've read it you'll know.

And you need to read it.

Really.

NOW.

 

But now, dears, I am out of time. When your back was turned I had to throw in some laundry. Now, lunches for tomorrow need to be made. I didn't get to any of the other books I've been reading or have finished since my last update, and, yes, I was already behind then. I apologize most abjectly.

Until next time, when I may or may not catch up catching up. Just don't bet the farm on it.

 

Reviews:

The Chicago Tribune

Publishers Weekly

 

The Blogs:

The Book Frog

 

Rebeccamakkai

Rebecca Makkai