11 November 2014

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

--Lt Colonel John McCrae of the Canadian Army, "In Flanders Fields." McCrae was a field surgeon and a field hospital chief during WWI; he died at No. 3 Canadian General Hospital in Boulogne on January 28, 1918.

05 November 2014

It's a trajectory

"I associate happiness with having a plan. The Plan, mind, doesn’t have to be grand – “Write 1,000 pages in three weeks” or “Save the world”. It can be, “Find out if Lidl is still selling shelled pistachios” or “Please get around to replacing the water filter in the cellar this afternoon, you idiot.” Happiness isn’t a position. It’s a trajectory.
"More an ongoing affair, happiness isn’t getting something, but wanting something. It’s having appetite, being filled with desire. It’s being pointed in a direction. It’s caring about something, which means the condition always comes with the threat of disappointment, injury or loss. As giving a toss about anything or anyone makes you a sitting duck, happiness is intrinsically precarious; it entails putting yourself at risk. It has nothing to do with feeling pompously, fatuously puffed up over your wonderful self and your wonderful life. It’s being too driven, too busy, too focused on what’s on the docket for today to remember to even ask yourself if you’re happy. If you’re really happy, you’re probably thinking about something else."
-Lionel Shriver (greatest) on happiness for The Guardian.

03 October 2014

"Gone Girl": See it or skip it?

I wanted to poll the audience here. The hotly anticipated adaptation of Gillian Flynn's GONE GIRL opens today in theatres. Anecdotally I've heard everything from "Looks terrible" to "I'm already lining up to see it," but one thing I haven't heard is the classic "I don't want to see it because I don't want it to affect how much I like the book."

Are you planning to see "Gone Girl"? Where are your expectations for it?

30 September 2014

My Summer Reading List, 2014

Jesmyn Ward, MEN WE REAPED

Lawrence Wright, GOING CLEAR
Meg Wolitzer, THE TEN-YEAR NAP
Michael Gibney, SOUS CHEF
Dylan Landis, RAINEY ROYAL
Jennifer Weiner, FLY AWAY HOME

Kate Christensen, THE GREAT MAN
Rainbow Rowell, ATTACHMENTS
Carol Rifkin Brunt, TELL THE WOLVES I'M HOME
Jennifer Haigh, MRS. KIMBLE
Lori Rader-Day, THE BLACK HOUR

Megan Abbott, THE FEVER
Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling), THE CUCKOO'S CALLING
Peter Heller, THE PAINTER
Charles Duhigg, THE POWER OF HABIT
Jessica Grose, SAD DESK SALAD
Christina Alger, THE DARLINGS

19 September 2014

"I Leave You," "Walk Among the Tombstones" open today

Now this is what I call a major week for book adaptations. Jonathan Tropper's THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU hits the big screen thanks to director Shawn Levy ("Night at the Museum," "Date Night," other movies that don't have "Night" in the title) starring Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Corey "Hemingway in 'Midnight in Paris'" Stoll and Adam Driver as siblings coming home for their father's funeral. Watch out for Ben Schwartz ("Parks and Recreation," "House of Lies") as a childhood friend turned rabbi.

For the dramatic minded, check out "A Walk Among the Tombstones," the first time mystery writer Lawrence Block's PI Matthew Scudder has appeared onscreen. (I read A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES back in 2009.) Scudder, a depressed ex-cop in AA, takes a case involving a kidnapped and murdered woman that takes him to dark places in New York City. For you "Downton Abbey" fans, this movie also costars Matthew Crawley, er Dan Stevens. (Irresistible film trivium: Block cowrote "My Blueberry Nights," Wong Kar-Wai's English-language debut.) "A Walk Among the Tombstones" is in possession of a kick-ass trailer and was directed and written by Scott Frank ("Get Shorty," "Out of Sight"). Why did I write all this when I could have just written "Liam Neeson is a badass, in the US this time"?

Also in theatres today: "The Maze Runner," based on the YA book by James Dashner of the same name, and "Hector and the Search for Happiness," based on the Paulo Coelho novel (nooope) and starring Simon Pegg. See 'em or skip 'em?

12 September 2014

Opens today: "The Drop"

Hey, remember "Mystic River" and "Gone Baby Gone"? Dennis Lehane's work returns to the big screen today with "The Drop," by Belgian director Michael Roskam (Academy Award nominee, Best Foreign Film 2012 -- lost to "A Separation") with a cowriting credit for Lehane himself. The plot concerns a local bartender who gets mixed up with the Mafia, but the movie will probably get most of its notice from its costar, the late great James Gandolfini. (Not to diminish his work, but I'm also looking forward to seeing Noomi Rapace, who played Lisbeth Salander in the original GIRL WITH A DRAGON TATTOO adaptation, in an English-speaking role.)

Have you read THE DROP? Are you going to see this movie or skip it?

11 September 2014

"Roll of Film: Photographer Missing"

Vines of smoke through latticework of steel
Weave the air into a garden of smoke.

And in the garden people came and went,
People of smoke and people of flesh, the air dressed

In ash. What the pictures couldn’t say
Was spoken by the smoke: A common language

In a tongue of smoke that murmured in every ear
Something about what it was they’d been forced

To endure: Words spoken in duress,
Inconsolable words, words spoken under the earth

That rooted in smoke and breathed in the smoke
And put forth shoots that twined through the steel,

Words plunged through the roof of the garages’
Voids, I-beams twisted; the eye that saw all this

Tells and tells again one part of the story
Of that day of wandering through the fatal garden,

The camera’s eye open and acutely
Recording in the foul-smelling air.

--From Tom Sleigh's "New York American Spell, 2001."

The Library of Congress now has an official landing page for resources related to Sept. 11 poetry.

05 September 2014


Going on vacation with other people's dysfunctional families isn't always that fun, but I'll make an exception for the Posts and co. of THE VACATIONERS, who pack all their secrets and quiet disappointments with each other off to Mallorca for two weeks. Manhattanites Jim and Franny Post are off for sun and fun with son Bobby (a not-very-successful real-estate broker in Miami), daughter Sylvia (about to head off to college), Bobby's girlfriend Carmen, plus Franny's best friend Charles and his husband Lawrence. What none of the other guests know is that Franny is using this trip to decide whether she and Jim should divorce after Jim strayed, an act of infidelity that already cost him his job.

You already know that the vacationers of THE VACATIONERS are eventually going to find the house too small, the walls too thin, and their family ties too itchy and constraining. For the most part, the reader of THE VACATIONERS feels none of these things, and can even enjoy the Spanish setting in moments when the family can't. (A private pool and the beach? Send me away!) One of the most nuanced relationships I found in here was between Franny and Charles -- it's rare, in a way, that you see that kind of friendship between older people in fiction, while the woman-and-her-gay-best-friend dynamic is all over millennial pop culture). And then there's Sylvia and her image of herself in that pivotal moment between high school and college. She could so easily have been a dumb cliche but I found her fascinating.

If I had any complaints (and alas, I always have one) I had trouble getting a handle on Franny Post, the matriarch who pushed this trip into being. She's in the book plenty, but I lacked a sense of her inner life that I got from even brief sketches of the other characters. (I think Carmen's sections are my favorite. Poor Carmen.) Perhaps I had trouble understanding why she chose to go through with the vacation in the first place, given the currents of familial strife underlining it.

03 September 2014

Current reading: THE LAST MRS. ASTOR

Reading about Brooke Astor's multiple marriages reminds me of the debate earlier this year over the connection between marriage and financial stability and how we equip people (or don't) to take advantage of that.

Mrs. Astor was married 3 times in her life and author Frances Kiernan makes a pretty clear case that Marriage #3, to Vincent Astor, was primarily financially motivated, with #1 and #2 having contributing financial factors. The woman born Roberta Brooke Russell was of a class where it would have been unseemly for her to work, and her education (ending at 16) did not equip her to do so anyway. But Husband #1 was a feckless unfaithful alcoholic who more or less stashed her at her in-laws for years, and after her divorce from him, and in her widowhood after Husband #2, she didn't have an independent income nor a way to make it. That said, she did work for a few years at House and Garden and for interior designer Dorothy Draper -- but she had to maintain the facade that it was a lark or a diversion, something she could enlist her friends in, rather than being 'real' about (Kiernan points out that Conde Nast paid badly in those years because it was expected that editors were of the leisure class and independently supported -- so they didn't need the money. Also, they had expense accounts.)

You can fault Mrs. Astor for marrying for money, and some friends quoted in this book do -- I was surprised at how barbed they were sometimes given that this is an authorized biography. (What is your damage, Louis Auchincloss?) But her other options were to live on her annual income from her second husband's will or fall back on her mother or other relatives. Whether that annual income would have been a struggle or not to live within isn't clear -- this calculator from the terrifically named WestEgg.com estimates it would have been around $248,000 in 2013 dollars, not exactly a pittance. But her marriageability was what she had to trade for financial stability. It was all she had. And to her credit, at least she knew that she was marrying a fortune. According to Kiernan, Vincent Astor courted her quite aggressively (bizarrely, with the help of his soon-to-be-ex-wife who apparently wanted him to settle down so she could leave him), so it wasn't a question of who got hoodwinked in that trade.

In conclusion, it's another day I am grateful to be a woman in 2014, where I can hope and plan to support myself for the rest of my life no matter what happens. And this book is some real-life Edith Wharton business and if you like Old New York you should take a look.

P.S. If you follow NYC tabloids, this is the Mrs. Astor whose grandson and son went to court over charges that her son was keeping his mother in reduced circumstances while pocketing over $2 million a year of her fortune. That's her son from her first marriage. I think that is covered in this book, although I'm not there yet. I was called for jury duty right around the time they were trying to empanel jurors for that trial, which was an impossible struggle according to courtroom scuttlebutt.

02 September 2014

Unbookening update

It's a new season and still the books are flooding in. If you didn't notice me stealthily dropping off posts about unbookening in the past few months, you probably can guess by that update that I haven't been doing very well with it. My record-keeping has been shoddy... also my will to get rid of books, or take 30 seconds to think before buying a new book.

So, I'm drawing a fat black line and starting over. I've been staycationing this weekend (in the joyous sense of the portmanteau, not the "economic necessity" sense, although the saved $$$ is nice too) so I have a nice fat stack of books to read. I don't have any out from the library right now, so I'm going to focus on reading my inventory down. 

Additionally, a friend of mine introduced me to The Minimalism Game, which is a method of getting rid of your extra stuff by making it a competition over 30 days. I'm not 100% on board with the minimalist movement, but since I moved into my apartment a year ago (whoo!) and I know there's stuff lurking around that I haven't used in the past year, this seems like a fun way to weed out. I'll update in the middle of the month, probably.

01 September 2014

One-Star Revue: Roxane Gay, BAD FEMINIST

Roxane Gay's essay collection BAD FEMINIST will probably end up on my best-of-the-year list this year. I follow Gay on Twitter and, not surprisingly, like other women I follow who write about issues touching women, people say the most egregious garbage to her. This is hardly groundbreaking news but the strength of it makes me depressed.

Take Amazon, for instance. The lowly product review was invented as a buyer's service to other buyers: Do or don't do what I did! The product review has steered me away from many consumer products in the past (my favorite is for clothes, because clothing copy is notoriously fluffy in its lack of description). It also lends a platform to express closely held beliefs beyond the pages of the book, especially when the book contains any political matter. It's like the letters section of your newspaper, turbocharged.

It's worth considering whether the form of the anonymous content is not long for this Internet. Just kidding, of course most of us can handle it, and some people evidently can't. Last year Popular Science announced it would shut off comments entirely due to (of course) research showing such online debates negatively influenced how people viewed the science discussed, describing a "decades-long war of expertise" that has led to absurdities like (and this is my example, not theirs) Jenny McCarthy speaking as a physician on autism. In August the editors of the women's blog Jezebel.com wrote an open post to their parent company Gawker Media begging them to change the structure of anonymous comments, due to an overwhelming volume of anon. accounts depositing porn and other upsetting images in comments sections. How much time should be spent regulating online comments and reviews before it can be concluded that there's no saving them?

For now the Amazon review stays, which is great because we can examine the perspectives of people who didn't agree with me and/or are just wrong on Gay's book. But for the first time since starting this survey, I didn't have that much to choose from; there aren't too many reviews of BAD FEMINIST on Amazon, but the ones that are there are overwhelmingly positive. Granted, a well-articulated negative review can be a great provoker of thoughts, but as this series has shown, the one-star reviews on Amazon are normally not examples of that. So I dipped into Goodreads (which is owned by Amazon so it's not honestly cheating) to borrow 2: 
  • ""Bad Feminist" Or The Secret Life of the Remainder Shelf Where Dust Mites Prevail Over All Things Paper" This review is signed "God" because if you write it, it's true.
  • "It was pure nagging"
  • "She spends half the book talking about movies, books, and articles she likes or dislikes." Yup, that's how criticism works. 
  • "Instead of focusing on real events in life, she was obsessed with TV, the book wasn't even about feminism." Sigh

25 August 2014


This weekend's New York Times travel section included a trip that, reading about it, I realized I always wanted to take: Searching for Anne of Green Gables on Prince Edward Island. I loved the Anne of Green Gables books and Montgomery's other books (the Emily of New Moon series is also quite good though I don't want to talk about the ending). Travel writer Ann Mah (a former book editor at Viking Penguin, I have just learned) weaves in scenes and places mentioned in the books in her account. It's totally captivating and I'm in. 

The L.M. Montgomery memoir mentioned in the article, THE ALPINE PATH, is available on Kindle for 99 cents (a deal even at the modest 78 pages). Falling down a rabbit hole there, I also found out that Montgomery's selected journals were published in several volumes, but were edited with a view toward small-town Canadiana and max marketability; the ones you want are in the Complete Journals, which I obviously bought, so see you in 2016 sometime when I'll have all the gossip on 1890s Canadian provinces. 

21 August 2014

A book I'm in, a roommate lesson

Last year I read an irresistible request for interview subjects around the topic of roommates. I have had a lot of roommates in my life but I agreed to be interviewed about one in particular, my experience with whom is captured in the chapter "Newborn Baby." (Some of you have heard that story, and the rest will just have to go seek the book out, I guess.)

Now that I've read my portion, I am pretty happy with how it looks. (I do sound a little naive, but that's on me. And perhaps I was at the time!) I would probably stress again that my story differs from most in the collection in that my experience was uniquely positive. I think if my roommates were to come across it independently, they would be pleased with their portrayal (though they might not remember it the exact same way). The way they handled the stage of their life that they were in was remarkable to me at the time, which is one of the reasons I agreed to be interviewed; it was an uncommon thing.

I haven't read the whole book yet (though I planned to) but I get the sense, again, that most of the stories collected are about bad or bizarre roommates. That can happen, as can the million tiny petty aggressions that come of living with people and that can slowly drive a person crazy. But overall, living with roommates has been beneficial to my life. Even if I would rather have lived alone at times given my druthers, and even though I sometimes still relish the solitude that comes from an empty apartment, on balance it was good for me to have that close-range personal experience. In the portion of this book that came from me, it was much more than that. If you're afraid of moving in with roommates, you shouldn't be, because everyone has her own weird quirks. Sometimes, living with people is as much about discovering what your weird quirks are, and when something goes from "weird quirk that I can get used to" to "intolerable state that I devoutly wish never to experience again." Self-discovery is just the bonus. And the best part is, as long as you're not legally attached, you can always move.

20 August 2014

Three books to talk about when we talk about Ferguson

The Left Bank Bookstore in St. Louis is putting together a recommended reading list for residents and others who want to learn more about the underpinnings behind what's been going on in Ferguson, Missouri these past (nearly) two weeks. The list, which is here, incorporates fiction and nonfiction, recent books and some classics. This is not the only necessary response but for me it is an important one; one of its effects on me has been to make me aware of how much I need to learn about the U.S., racial politics, policing, etc.

Here are some recommendations I have gotten from Twitter and elsewhere that I intend to follow up on:

  • James Loewen, SUNDOWN TOWNS: A HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICAN RACISM. A "Sundown Town," historically, was a town that unofficially kept African-Americans and other minorities from living or working there through intimidation, threats or indirect local ordinances. Ferguson may have been one of those towns, prior to the 1980s when the demographics of the town began to shift to today (majority African-American population). 
  • Radley Balko, THE RISE OF THE WARRIOR COP. Some of the most striking images coming out of Ferguson have been focused on the silhouettes cut by the Ferguson police against the protesters, seemingly over-militarized in their riot gear. This book elaborates on and evaluates the programs that have armed local law enforcement divisions (largely since 9/11) in places like Ferguson. 
On the fictional side, I have been also reminded of some of the historical pieces in Jonathan Franzen's debut novel THE TWENTY-SEVENTH CITY, which is set in St. Louis and whose plot involves suspicion among several racial and ethnic groups in and around the city. 

What have you been reading about Ferguson lately?

11 August 2014

Creative juices

What should I bring to my writing class next week when I go up for critique? Here's my shopping list so far:

  1. Wine for me