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.

Reading and Learning

A few bloggy things:

1) Chestnut is going to be posting reviews here soon, so that's something to look forward to. She is, as are so many 15-year-olds, a merciless critic, uncompromising and astute.

2) What even is this blog? Well, I've been asking myself that very question. And one of the things it is came from talking to my mother just now about managing our frustration and horror at the current political situation, who said "You have to find somewhere—for me it's the zoo [where she volunteers]—when I walked in today, my blood pressure and tension just dropped." I think for me that place has always been reading, and I am going to redouble my efforts to find books that take me to another place, so I can lose—at least for a while—this constant sense of frustration and anxiety.

Reading to me is in some ways an escape, but it's also a return, really, to a place where the things I believe in live, where I can grapple and question and experience big questions of morality and responsibility and everything that is giving me such stress these days. Oh how I love it.

Here's something I read recently:


Full disclosure: I found out about this because my agent (shh, we're trying not to jinx anything) represents this writer, and as part of my self-serving due diligence, during which I read a lot of novels, I read this. So I am somewhat biased. But—it was terrific, gripping and dark and funny. I love a civilian type detective.

I will try to pass along any books I read that give me (kids books too, keep 'em coming!), for one blessed moment, relief from myself and the ongoing anxiety the threat of fascism has thrust me into. Do the same, my readers, and we can all help each other along, through this. Because that's how we're going to get through this: together. And reading.

Weird, or the Benefits of Continuing on With a Book You’re Not Sure About

So many—perhaps too many—feelings about the word weird. 

I spelled it wrong for a long time.

I vacillate (or vacillated) between being shamed by it and viewing it as a badge of honor.

I spent some time acknowledging that it is a useful word, and frightening, because truly some people, things, occurrences ostentatiously don't fit into our expected experience, and there is a deep fear with leaving that behind.

I want to accept all weird things, in part because I know myself to be at least somewhat weird (though I believe I generally pass as not weird, but I could be wrong about this).

But sometimes the weird scares me. And I retreat from it.

So I read a book for my book group, one I highly doubt I would have picked up had I not been in a book group.


When I first started reading it, it made me mad. Defensive, somehow, as though I was being accused of not being smart enough, or hard working enough, or ambitious enough (in the large intellectual sense). I wanted to put it down, and I would have put it down had I not been reading it for book group.

But I didn't, and things began to change. It hit me, perhaps one third of the way through, that she was weird. I mean, really weird. Weird enough to connect to a guy in the book who is completely and totally weird, and they were weird together. Weirder—at least as far as I can tell—than I am.

And I wonder: is that part of it? Like, weird is OK if you're as weird as I am and no weirder? Except, isn't that pretty much running from weirdness? Because if everyone thought that, no one would really be OK with weirdness at all.

I'm not being as clear as I mean to be, in part because I'm still grappling with the ideas in the book, which are wide reaching and interesting and surprising. The book made me think anew in all sorts of good ways, it reminded me that the world is larger and allows far more than we ever really take or acknowledge.

Maybe it begins with not saying weird? With somehow not typing or labeling behavior at all, merely witnessing it? Is that even possible? What do you think?