books I’ve read

Cranford was so thoroughly charming I couldn’t stop reading it. It made me laugh, sigh and even get a little misty-eyed at times. The structure of the book–reminiscences by a woman who divides her time between Cranford and a neighboring town and is good friends with the main characters–is simple but elegant. Stories and flashbacks both detailed and simple bloom organically from the overall structure. As you read the book, you feel the rhythms of a small town and the people who live there–you learn about the characters and their interconnectedness just like anyone else new to the town would.

And the characters! Members of “The Last Generation,” they’re mostly the middle class unmarried women of the town, who cling to an identity of aristrocracy and elegance that they’ve only known as ideals, not realities. They assiduously avoid discussing their monetary woes and do their best to pretend, ignore or argue away the realities that their precarious financial situations bring. Chief among them in terms of the book are the Jenkyns sisters: acid-tongued, literature-loving (hee hee) Deborah and her younger, milder sister, Matilda (Matty).

Although the action of the book seems to focus on the smaller events of life, larger touches of tragedy invade the narrative quite frequently–from the death of strong-minded Deborah to Matty’s financial ruin, the outside world and its darker realities is never as far away from the borders of Cranford as the ladies would like to pretend.

Still, that’s where most of the humor comes: a delightful, ironic wit about these women and the way they’ve chosen to approach life. Like so many of my favorite authors, Gaskell (author of my beloved The Life Of Charlotte Bronte) has such affection for her characters that their foibles seem real and endearing. You admire them and sincerely want the best for them, even when they’re behaving badly.

Although there’s not a satisfying “ending” as such, the book manages to spin into something quite lovely, with a restoration of sorts being made to Miss Matty’s life that really got to me. The flashes we’re given of her private emotion and pain–especially in terms of her would-be romance with a gentleman from her youth–are handled nimbly and tenderly without revealing too much. Just as they’d have it, the ladies of Cranford in the end remain the masters of their emotional domains, only revealing as much of their inner lives as they want to. The fun for the reader is to match their efforts against the facts, and more than often, smile at the disparity.

Plus, there’s a cow in a flannel costume. 🙂

I loved this book!

I like whimsy. Quite a bit, actually, but there comes a point where it’s too much.

Aimee Bender’s fiction contains quite a bit of whimsy/magical realism/etc. One of my favorite short stories by her involves a woman whose boyfriend de-volves into a sea turtle and she keeps him in a pan of salt water in the kitchen. An Invisible Sign Of My Own is rife with this kind of bizarre, twisted fairy tale logic. In fact, it starts with a bedtime story about a kingdom without death, and how one family deals with it when overpopulation becomes too much of an issue.

So much of this book is haunting and lyrical and powerful–Bender excels at the sparse details and brutal-in-their-simplicity sentences that can truly create magic on the page–but it falls apart about halfway through. The narrator does bizarre things that we accept as her reality: knocking on wood until her knuckles bleed, eating soap to stave off sexual feelings, buying a shiny new axe for her birthday.

The book’s world seems to support this as Mona gets a job as an elementary school math teacher for the creepiest group of students ever, led by eerie, aggressive little Lisa Venus. (Great names!) A sense of foreboding in numbers–they predict the age at which many characters will die–adds up (pun, pun) to an excellent atmosphere of tension, but halfway through the book everything changes. Suddenly the numbers don’t have a dark purpose and Mona starts to become less ethereal. Everything comes to a head with some misuse of the birthday axe in the classroom, a development that shatters the book’s logic. Mona suddenly becomes more rational and the chilling, mysterious fog that makes the book so delicious burns off.

If we’re supposed to have patience and understanding for her quirks so early in the book, why should we suddenly care when Mona’s strangeness causes a horrific accident? The ending of the book is a big letdown as well.

Still, Bender is a fantastic writer with an intriguingly dark imagination. Even when the book strains at places–a bad word choice or a plot/tone weakness–it’s still an affecting, weird read and I’m glad to say I couldn’t put it down, even in a Johnny Rocket’s at the mall.

When I was in elementary school, I remember wanting to read The Secret Garden for a book report. I had ordered it from one of those Weekly Reader order forms. I remember the teacher telling me that I was too young, and of course, my indignant side flared up and I was like, “I’ll show this bitch.”

She was right. I could barely get into the book at all, so I threw it aside and dove into something more my speed: The Babysitters Club where Dawn (the health-food-loving Californian transplant) discovered her new house was haunted!

When I picked up the book a few years later, I love, love, loved it. Still, I had never read A Little Princess, even though I had heard how great it was. When it was discussed on Jezebel, one of my favorite websites, in their fantastic Fine Lines section, I decided to give it a shot.


It was charming and sweet and I actually sighed with delight at several places, all thanks to how wonderfully sympathetic and admirably Sara Crewe is drawn. Even though she’s definitely not perfect–as we find out in several asides that she has quite a temper and even has fantastized about killing the evil Miss Minchin–she radiates a goodness that makes the reader love her instead of wanting to see any sappy smile slapped off her face. (Usually what I think when it comes to “the good guys.”)

Plotwise, Burnett does a pretty smart trick of achieving wish fulfillment but earning it. Although Sara’s goodness is rewarded and she ends the book able to do whatever she wants, Burnett has structured the narrative to make this seem just and true instead of magically implausible.

Sara’s strength, endurance and intelligence would impress anyone, but the kind little actions she takes towards her friends (especially Melchisedec the rat…how do you even pronounce that name?) really warmed this cold, cold heart. Still, for a modern American reader, the issue of class sticks a little.

Should we really be happy that poor, uneducated and overworked Becky is elevated to lady’s maid? Sure, she gets fed and treated well, and she herself would probably never question her role in serving Sara, her better, but this American wanted to see Becky overthrow her class limitations and start a little revolution.

But that is probably why I am no princess, little or otherwise.

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything is named after my favorite Bauhaus song, and to be honest, it didn’t really live up to the title. I wanted so very much to love this book–and for awhile I couldn’t put it down–but I think it ultimately disappoints.

This is the story of a mother, Janice, and her two daughters, Margaret and Lizzie, and how they’re all affected when the father runs off with the mother’s best friend. He officially leaves on the same day that the stock of his pharmaceutical company (spurred by its new anti-balding drug, Coifex, fantastically described as a giant green horse pill) explodes, making him a one of the wealthiest men in his already-wealthy Silicon Valley neighborhood. Unfortunately for Janice, he’s managed to cut her out of the new earnings. Even more unfortunate for Janice is the fact that she develops a handy crystal meth addiction. (Multi-tasker!)

Margaret’s a feminist intellectual who’s barely surviving in LA now that her feminist magazine, Snatch, has pretty much imploded, leaving her almost $100,000 in debt. The scenes with her musing on her own failure while surrounded by her friends (all spectacularly successful and rich, of course) were the best parts of the book, and I loved a scene where Margaret, with only $300 to her name, facing eviction and about to have everything in her life taken away, is pressured into paying for a chunk of a rich friend’s birthday dinner. Margaret’s the most interesting character in the whole book, from her grad school thesis “The Mother Alien: Contemporary Cinema and the Poststructuralist Feminist Cyborg” to her maddeningly passive attempts to interrogate a drug-dealing pool boy.

Her younger sister, Lizzie, is a teenager in high school who’s recently developed an interest (and talent for) sex–or, more accurately, the attention she gets from boys thanks to her newfound reputation. While she’s incredibly sympathetic, her lack of intelligence and common sense are almost too much to take. You can probably guess at a late-novel Lizzie subplot already which Janelle Brown quickly (and overly conveniently, as she herself admits in the text) then dispatches.

Brown does a great job of juggling these three women’s storylines, and dropping hints and information in one chapter that are echoed in subsequent ones to great effect. The total lack of real communication among the three women makes a frustratingly accurate point–one real conversation involving all three women would shorten the novel by 100 pages at least. Of course, that’s the way real families are and always will be, too.

The novel is best when it’s unflinchingly dark–Brown sends her characters hurtling towards their own destruction with clear, cold eyes–but sadly she softens towards the end, weakening the overall effect. Even though it falls apart, I still couldn’t put the book down. I just wish I hadn’t been left with a bit of a headache and some regret when I was finished.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
The Plague And I by Betty MacDonald
The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted by Elizabeth Berg

greengablesI’ll always remember watching Anne of Green Gables on PBS (I think it was PBS) with my family and some of the vivid images: the dead mouse in the plum pudding, the Avonlea fashion, Rachel Lynde’s face when Anne insults her, the broken slate.

When I found out the miniseries was based on books, I quickly checked them out of the library and lost myself in the romantic, dreamlike prose of L.M. Montgomery. (How I loved the “of” construction—it sounds so dramatic: Anne OF Avonlea; Anne OF the Island, and my favorite, Anne OF Windy Poplars. Windy Poplars!!)

It’s funny—I just read a piece by Margaret Atwood talking about how the original novel, Anne of Green Gables, has just turned 100. Reading it again, the book seems so fresh and full of life that it’s unbelievable that Anne, Marilla, Matthew, Gilbert Blythe have all been around for that long.

The characters, the writing, everything just hums with energy somehow—I can understand why there’s such a huge Asian fanbase for Anne—her charm transcends time and race and place.

You fall in love with Anne Shirley and all her misadventures, and stay there—to Ms. Montgomery’s enormous credit—as she changes and grows. I’ve always admired the beautiful nature writing in these books that make a forest or garden on Prince Edward Island seem magical, but I appreciate now the equally masterful little touches that make Matthew so sweet and good-hearted, Rachel Lynde so tart-tongued but fiercely loyal, Josie Pye such an almost-lovable bitch and Gilbert Blythe so dreamy slash fucking hot.

It’s the character of Marilla Cuthbert, the thin, angular, crisp, no-nonsense spinster who takes Anne in and experiences maternal love (in a non-gushy way since she constantly keeps a prim and tight lid on her emotions) that stands out to me now.

The beauty of the love between adopted mother and child is the real romance in a book full of romance (The Lake Of Shining Waters, The Snow Queen, The Haunted Wood), and I find it even more touching as I’ve gotten older than I did as a kid.

Marilla, convinced she is plain and unlovable but stern enough not to care—at least not outwardly—finds new life through the brilliant, fairy-like Anne, and her wry comments that deflate Anne’s more flowery protestations are gems of dry wit.

This is a beautiful, beautiful book, throbbing with life, and I look forward to returning to it again and again. I wonder how the upcoming prequel Before Green Gables will be. Once I get it from the library, I’ll turn a Rachel Lynde-ian eye to its pages…

john adamsI was walking across a parking lot of a strip mall at night (when I am all old-makeup-Winona Ryder-in-Edward Scissorhands, these scenes be my main memory of overly paved and overly franchised Southern California) talking to a guy I was about to have dinner with. We saw one of the ubiquitous John Adams posters featuring one of my biggest celebrity crushes, Paul Giamatti, when my pal laughed.

“Gee, they must be running out of people to make miniseries about,” he said.

Of course, I turned all schoolmarm-ish, rattling off a list of Mr. Adams’s formidable accomplishments vaguely recalled from elementary school, but the more I thought about it, I got what he was saying.

When we think of the Founding Fathers (which we do so much more than the fascinating Founding Mothers.  I am planning on reading more about Martha Washington), we think of the bigger celebrities—the George Washingtons, the Thomas Jeffersons, the Benjamin Franklins. If it weren’t for the fact that his similarly-named son, John Quincy Adams became President (a fact easily remembered and noted in elementary school), I do think we’d have let Mr. Adams fade into that James K. Polk-y twilight of “well, they were Presidents, but eh.”

After reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of John Adams though by David McCullough, I happily acknowledge my ignorance and tip my hat (a backwards baseball cap, natch) to John and Abigail Adams, two of the most fascinating individuals I’ve ever read about.

Upright to a fault, a very New England-y mix of pride and humility, John isn’t thoroughly likable throughout all his many amazing accomplishments and feats. Even a great number of his peers found him impeccably moral and upstanding but too single-minded, too proud and not enough of a politician.

In the end, after a long and impressive service to the creation of the United States (arguably the greatest of any of the Founding Parents), he served as President for one term before being narrowly defeated for reelection.

Like life, the book loses much of its sparkle and energy towards the end of Adams’s life, but such is the way with almost all biographies, and there are enough fascinating details of life at the time in America and Europe alike (plus charming touches, like Abigail’s acquisition of a songbird in a cage in France and sad ones, like melancholy-tinged cameos by Marie Antoinette) to delight even the least interested reader of history.

Of course, Abigail comes across as the more fascinating figure—and you want to beat John about the head and shoulders for his jokey, dismissive response to her famous “remember the ladies” letter—and the book picks up momentum whenever the two of them are together physically.
Great book, but now I need to see Paul Giamatti in all his sexy, wild-animal glory in a powdered wig.


blackpostcardsBlack Postcards is written in an admirably clear-eyed, straightforward style. Wareham talks about many difficult situations without bitterness–the jealousy and hurt feelings among the members of his first band, Galaxie 500; his affair and divorce; the complex relationship between musicians and their fans–and that’s what makes this book remarkable.

Not only is it an honest account of just how difficult it is to be a mid-list musician in a business (and world) that lionizes a select superstar few, but it’s also a fascinating coming-of-age story of a  handsome, New Zealand-born, Harvard-educated singer/songwriter of self-admitted limited talents who nonetheless carves out a most impressive career, following and life.

Throughout, he sprinkles observations and opinions about various other acts: everyone from the Spin Doctors (horrible, horrible) to Nirvana (their success helped ruin the music business); Courtney Love (spellbinding as a live performer) to Natalie Merchant (he hates her music but would willingly boink her).

I wish that he’d indulge his writerly side a little more–there are ample opportunities for him to take a beautiful scene and run with it, but he maintains a reserve and restraint that you have to admire, one that he was famed for in his poetic but obtuse “Dr. Seuss on heroin” song lyrics.

It’s pretty amazing that despite being showered with critical acclaim, Wareham’s bands (first Galaxie 500, then Luna, then Dean & Britta) have never really broken through the mainstream, yet he’s recorded 16 albums. Sixteen!! (Plus, I really love the names of his songs, which I think is the best part of songwriting.)

Reading this book made me curious to find out more about Wareham and his projects, and sorry that I missed out on them the first time around. It’s a true pleasure to read about such an interesting life, so intelligently (and humorously) told. I couldn’t stop reading this book and I’m thrilled I got the chance.

gyspy rose leeDisclaimer: I’ve never seen the movie or play version of Gypsy.

I couldn’t put the book down, however, and spent a day trying to tear through it before I had to go out. Like the best showbiz stories, it was funny, dishy and glossed over the more complicated, unpleasant aspects of real life in favor of telling a better story.

The streamlined tale of how Gypsy Rose Lee went from backup vaudevillian to her more talented to sister to became a world-famous “ecdysiast” thanks to the iron will of her stage mother, the book is full of laugh out loud moments and scenes I had to read twice just to appreciate the droll throwaway lines Lee tosses in.

My two favorite scenes are:

1. When “Rose Louise And Her Hollywood Blondes” (the cut-rate act booked in a burlesque house after the death of vaudeville) work their first night at a burlesque house. The description of the bizarre musical numbers (an undersea song with mermaids and a sexy octopus; topless angels in a heavenly choir; sexy she-devils) and the sweet but trashy Tessie, The Tassel Twirler.

2. The bizarre schemes of F.E. Gorham, an unflappable con artist who briefly hooks up with the family and shows off her tricks (bringing your own cockroach to get a free dinner; walking face-first into a splintery board at a construction site, etc.) before trying to rob them.

It’s the indomitable spirit of the ultimate stage mother, “Madam Rose,” that carries through, and the last part of the book, about Gypsy after she’s achieved stardom and is living/working mostly on her own, doesn’t have quite the same sparkle and punch as the previous. But such is the case with autobiography (no matter how true or otherwise).

There’s a charm to Gypsy Rose Lee, however, that enabled her to become more than just a stripper: with a sense of humor and great intelligence, she took something sleazy and made it fun and palatable to everyone. What a life she lived, and it’s hard not to tear up a little at the end as she ends an era in her career, always mindful of her past.

I closed my eyes and along with the familiar noise of the train, Mother seemed to be telling me again how lucky I was. “What a wonderful life you’ve had—the music, lights, applause—everything in the world a girl could ask for…”

Living alone doesn’t always seem like “living,” does it? So often when we’re in that situation, we feel as if we’re waiting for life to begin once we meet somebody.

Obviously, that’s not the case, and one of the reasons I found Live Alone And Like It by Marjorie Hillis (besides the fact that her name is Marjorie. I love that name!) so charming was that it presents a different way of looking at something many people find negative.

Written in 1936 (!!) but completely applicable to today (well, not so much the one or two “colored maid” mentions), this wise, wry and warm book offers suggestions for “bachelor ladies” to make the most of their single status. Some of these are incredibly simple and some are creative, but best of all, it’s all very no-nonsense and cheerful, as evidenced by this line: “There may still be those in Alabama who look upon an unmarried state as an affliction, but in New York it is at most a very minor ailment.”

Some of Hillis’s suggestions are to pamper yourself, to plan ahead so you don’t wind up with long hours of lonely free time (unless that’s what you want) and to pull yourself (and your living space) together as nicely as possible.

Here she is on clothes: “But do have some really smart street costumes—surprisingly, they can cost as little as dowdy ones, and practically no one’s morale can overcome an outfit that’s all wrong. Do have some evening clothes with swish, and—very specially—do have at least one nice seductive tea-gown to wear when you’re alone (or when you’re not, if you feel like it).”

It’s enough to make me wish that I owned a tea-gown (seductive or otherwise). She also gives some awesome recipes for cocktails that I’d love to break out at my next party and offers some great advice for fun activities you probably haven’t thought of on your own.

Her sense of humor totally makes this book, too. Check out what she says about having a circle of acquaintances: “As we have already suggested, one of the great secrets of living alone successfully is not to live alone too constantly. A reasonably large circle of friends and enemies whom you can see when you want to, and will often see when you don’t want to, is an important asset.”

Having a circle that includes enemies is underrated, and I can think of a couple people who fit this description in my life.

Seriously, though, I found great comfort from reading this breezy and charmingly illustrated book—the quality of your life really is up to you, regardless of your situation or circumstance. That’s something I don’t always remember.

One of the great advantages of your way of living is that you can be alone when you want to. Lots of people never discover what a pleasure this can be. Perhaps it was because of its possibilities that the misused expression “enjoy yourself,” came into being.

The more you enjoy yourself, the more of a person you are.

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