The Best Thing

Remember when I wrote about middle grade books and (essentially) altruism, and how we don’t seem to be able to do things on behalf of others any more? Well guess what? A lovely bookstore is proving me so happily wrong!

They are offering the prize of a lifetime subscription of books—but you have to nominate someone else! I can’t quite convey how wonderful I find this. You can nominate anyone, and how gratifying would it be if they won? I find the whole thing a balm in these trying times.

Go ahead, do it, I wish I could do it every single day until the election.

Good Old World War II

I’m currently reading The Alice Network, and I’m finding it incredibly reassuring, despite its harrowing reality. I mean we’ve got war, betrayal, Nazis, inhumanity, poverty and famine. Trouble, no? But you know what we also have? A clear and agreed-upon enemy. Shades of gray, sure, but always with the awareness and omnipresence of Good and Evil. It made me think of Dory Previn’s Play It Again, Sam. It’s a record my parents had, and I loved it, the craziness of all her songs. But that one? That one is hitting me hard right now.

I mean, there are books like All the Light We Cannot See, which play out amid Nazism while trying to hold on to the humanity of all involved—even the Nazis. But generally, and rightly of course, books that even tangentially touch on Nazis, or Germany in WWII, do so with a clear understanding that Nazi ideology is the very essence of wrong, bad, evil. Of course that’s reassuring right now, when that same ideology is running rampant and we all seem to be in one of those dreams where you’re trying to scream and run, but your legs can’t move. Maybe, too, these WWII books are great because they remind us that there used to be things that we all agreed upon.

I haven’t finished The Alice Network yet. But it is offering my an oh-so-welcome respite these days. Play it, Sam/Play it for me/Take me where I want to be/Back to you, and good old World War Two/I just can’t face today.

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.

Sigh.

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.)

How Is the Pandemic Like a Middle Grade Novel? (Shocking story below!)

 

(Image courtesy Etsy BuyTheDress)

So. It’s been a summer, hasn’t it? Truly, I have felt moved to post a whole bunch of times. There’s something about that old Covid-19 that really connects to children’s literature for me. It feels invented out of A Wrinkle in Time, but slant: a dire threat, and the only way we can survive isn’t to fight for our own lives, but to try to save others from being sick—except humanity might not up to the task if it means thinking about other people.

I hope any and all of you reading this are relatively healthy, relatively sane. Here at blog HQ in Brooklyn, NY, it’s been a ride, and will continue to be one.

What else can can I tell you? It turns out that the level of stress is a magical way to figure out what kinds of books you truly love. Like a magical stone (that I, of course, can’t remember the name of right now) it will reveal all. Here’s how:

Try to read a book. If you keep putting it down, it cannot save you, and you must let it fly free. But! If you fall deeper and deeper in, until the ceiling hangs with vines and the walls become the world all around (thanks, Maurice), then it is the kind of book you must continue to seek out, because it is the only thing (as far as I can tell) that will save you. Quarantine reading must be without shame or showing off, only with the hope of sanctuary (or at least, you know, a bit of fun).

So, some books you might think about:

The Broken Earth Trilogy, by N. K. Jemisin (Chestnut, for you old-timers, LOVED it.) Crazy feminist sci-fi, apocalyptic but not our particular apocalypse.

The Last Widow by Karin Slaughter This was just the kind of silly hero action I needed—like a blockbuster movie but without the toxic masculinity.

The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman I thought I had read all the old guy mysteries. But I had not, and this was perfect and strange and wonderful.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel Oh, so mournful and quiet and compelling. I wish I could unread it so as to read it again for the first time.

I hope you are all fine. I hope you are finding ways to support your bookstores and each other. I hope I write again soon with more books that are transporting.