Oily, Sweaty, Dirty

Taste is somehow both subjective and objective, forming a Venn diagram I need to understand better, something that looks at where “my cup of tea” overlaps with “this is really good” or “bad.”

For reasons I don’t fully understand, I often feel guilty about my taste in books—sorry when I like something (I shouldn’t like this so much!) and when I don’t (clearly this is good, I am just being unkind). I try to walk the line, but this guilt feels like a gravitational force warping my perception, sometimes to the point where I don’t even know what I like anymore. Except in one area.

The sweaty book (or movie!). This is something I know I do not like.

I should back up: definitions, please! A sweaty movie (or book!) is one that focuses intently on dirty, sweaty, smelly, grim, miserable crap. Think pores clogged with dirt, and miserably unhappy people speaking bitterly to one another, drinking (cheap, warm, bad-tasting) beer. No one enjoys anything. Everything is filthy. Everything smells. Sort of like instead of rose-colored glasses, shit-colored ones.

The problem, of course, is that much of life is not entirely rose-colored. And saying it’s “not your cup of tea” (as I am pretty much doing here) is saying that a whole swathe of life is something you don’t want to read about. Which I don’t feel great about. And yet…ugh. I have no answer for any of this.

But if you suffer from this affliction as I do, let me warn you off Mostly Dead Things. Truly the epitome of the sweaty book.

This Time It’s a Great Trilogy!

We are all (I think?) looking for a great book right about now, hoping to take our minds and hearts somewhere else entirely, even if it’s just for the 15 minutes before we fall asleep.

Note, this does not mean “escapism” exactly. Or maybe it does? I mean, if you want another reality, it’s hard to call it anything but escapism. And yet, that doesn’t necessarily mean something sweet and light will heal your aching soul. What might? This trilogy by Ben Winters: The Last Policeman.

There is something so comforting about the trappings of genre—the searching to solve a mystery, the creepy opening of a scary book. If I were going to go off on a half-baked theory (and why not?), genre is comforting because it gives the reader the sense that the universe is, in some small way, predictable. And my favorite thing is when a genre explodes outward from itself—think Kate Atkinson or Emily St. John Mandel—holding on to the skeleton of the form while also breaking inside the reader and surreptitiously reaching her heart. (Ooh, tortured metaphor, but I think you follow me.)

Anyway, this trilogy does exactly that: begins with the tropes of a mystery police procedural (sort of) and then ventures farther and wider and deeper.

Of course, if you are allergic (or even resistant) to police procedurals or mysteries or genre itself, move along. This won’t be your cup of tea.

But if you, like me, read the search for the missing person at the beginning of a book and just slide into it as into the proverbial warm bath? This is an incredibly humane group of books for you. And there are three of them! I only wish I hadn’t read them for the first time already—this is exactly the trilogy I would want for myself in these rough waters of time.

A Math Thing

You know that terrible feeling that you’re aware of a wide swath of problems but you can’t do anything about them? And that’s really difficult, because the problems in question are real and immediate and affect the health and well-being of people and, let’s say, the planet?

What if you could focus on problems that were, instead, interesting? That didn’t have life-or-death solutions? And how about if you could talk about these problems with your kids?

Which is a VERY long-winded way of saying that maybe you want to check out Mage Merlin’s Unsolved Mathematical Mysteries. Especially if you happen to have a person at home who is, perhaps, online learning for some reason. It’s got pictures! Stories! Something to take you away from all this!

I had a book like this as a kid and I still think about the puzzles in it (though, no, I didn’t break through and solve any of them, but maybe you or your kid will!).

This is like the reading version of the Lost Chord (did anyone else have to play this as a kid? Did anyone else spend an embarrassing amount of time trying to find it? Just me?).

PS: If you do solve any of these, or find the lost chord, let us know! We will be delighted.

Is It Me? The Book? Or the #@*&! Pandemic?

I’m guessing I am not the only one who’s experienced a weird new inability to stay engrossed in a book. Or maybe I am? In any case, I can never quite tell if it’s me, the book, the situation. I know that the level of stress the whole pandemic is putting everyone under feels like it’s steadily eroding my higher functions, and I am not sure how to manage it. To me, falling deeply into a book is one of the best things there is, and I miss it.

Some things work: like with exercise, I guess, starting really light. I mean really light, a very frothy silliness. But that’s not foolproof. Going with something really good can help (thanks, The Glass Hotel!), but I don’t think that means it always works. Because I don’t really think it’s the book’s fault—it’s not you, Mexican Gothic, it’s me.

It’s a weird and scary feeling, how I imagine the beginning of losing any skill feels. Something like, Wait—I can’t throw a baseball anymore? (Note: I never could throw a baseball. Or football. Or anything.)

I’m wondering if something drastic is needed. A purge, a fast, a feast—something. Does anyone have any brilliant ideas?

Do You Wanna Have…Fun?

So, I went out and bought…well OK, that’s not really true. Ahem. Let’s try that again.

So, since my beloved local bookstore allows curbside pickups but nothing more these days, given our collective Covid-19 trauma, I went online and bought a bunch of books, thinking that since my workload is generally lighter in August (no Faulkner jokes, please!), and we were going to try to vacation, a pile of books was the way to go. Here’s what I got:

The Only Good Indians

City of Girls

Whisper Network

The Need

Beneath the Rising

I managed to hold off on reading ANY of them until we arrived at the appointed relaxation place (relaxation ended up something we had to really work for, given some unexpected cancellations of campus living, sharks, sudden illnesses and so on). I started with The Need, which was smart and creepy and clever, but not…profoundly engaging.

Even so, I still had the rest, which I splayed out on the couch with my accomplices. We deployed the old “page 101 technique”* and started with  The Only Good Indians. Which was really, really strange and good and well-written, but it turns out I can’t go with the horror for real. I am, it seems, more of a “horror-lite,” person, which sounds terrible and probably is, but I wanted to give it to you straight. The book took one dark turn, and I went swimming and took a few deep breaths. And then I came back, and I was OK, until it took another dark turn and…that was it. It’s on the shelf in my house, waiting for me to become stronger. This may never happen.

But we knew, from our page 101 test, that the other book that passed the page 101 test, that flew along swiftly on the wings of powerful prose, was City of Girls. Which I did not read next. Why? I think, probably, it had to do with the title. And it’s by Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love. She wrote a smart and lovely novel called The Signature of All Things. Which I enjoyed! So why did not go ahead and read it? I think there is some deeply ingrained misogyny in me, telling me to read something that was not about girls.


All of which is to bring me to: I began reading City of Girls once I was back in my regular house, sweating unpleasantly in my living room while we tried to figure out how we were going to make everything work even though nothing works, and…it was wonderful. So much fun. Delightful! Fizzy and fast and knowing, just a pleasure. How long has it been since I read anything that was such a pleasure? I don’t even know, but I do know that I stayed up reading late late in bed, and I wish us all that kind of lovely distraction from all the ills and sorrows of this poor old world.

I know my former readers are scattered to the winds, and that the blog has changed its time and place and address. I hope to be here for a while, and for those of you still here, I hope you are all well.

And if you have ANY books that are a pleasure, let me know in the comments! We could all use them right about now.

* The page 101 technique, about which I once wrote a blog post that I can no longer locate, involves reading page 101 of a book as a test to see whether you will enjoy it. Skips the sometimes misleading polished prose of page 1 and the spoiler situation of the back cover. Try it! (And I will try to find that post.)