Reading Roundup 4/10/20

Hey friends. How’s it going? This week has been the one so far where I’ve questioned what day is it the most often. What are days? 😉 I hope you’re safe and staying well. I make a daily To Do list which helps me feel sort of productive, because I can’t seem to let go of the notion that I need to be productive to feel good. My standards of productivity are a little different from normal, though: yoga, meditation, laundry, calling my parents, supervising my son’s optional academic work, little cleaning projects – those are my To Dos.

This week I was able to do some actual work for the library, which felt really good. I submitted two videos for our Facebook page, specifically for children. One was with my son, where he helped me do two fingerplays, and the other was me reading Mo Willems’s The Pigeon Wants a Puppy. I don’t know if they’ll use them but it felt good to use my brain in an official capacity. I miss my job. I miss my library patrons. I don’t know when we’ll get back to work at the library. So many “I don’t knows.”

Oh well. We keep going, don’t we? There are books to be read, after all! Thank God for those. This week I finished two great books, began two more, and acquired one from my local independent bookstore through the mail. I’m going to buy one book from them a month while we are all social distancing. I hope all the indie bookstores make it!

RECENTLY FINISHED:

Persuasion by Jane Austen (owned paperback)

I figured out, using Goodreads and my old book journal, that this was my FOURTH time reading Persuasion. I had no idea! I would have bet money it was three. My book journal says I read it in 2008 and that it was a reread, so I must have read it sometime before I began the book journal, which was 2001. I guess I read it in high school or college then. It’s funny that I can’t remember. A voracious reader’s lot in life, I guess. Anyway, what a perfect choice for this unsettling time. I was struck this time by his funny it was, how ridiculously vain and superficial Anne’s father and sister’s were. How awfully they treat Anne! And still, she is so gracious and patient. A thoroughly entertaining, comforting, romantic read.

The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates (library hardback)

This was lovely. A short, lyrical memoir about growing up in West Baltimore in the 1980’s and 1990’s (he was born in 1975) and also about his father, a force of nature, an ex-Black Panther, a learned man who, while sometimes domineering, was desperately trying to shepherd his children successfully through the perils of racism, gangs, and the crack cocaine era to successful adulthood.

All our friends were fatherless, and Dad was some sort of blessing, but he made it hard to feel that way. He was a practicing fascist, mandating books and banning religion. Once he caught Big Bill praying at the kitchen table and ordered him to stop—

“You want to pray, pray to me. I put food on this table.”

Ta-Nehisi was a dreamy child, a pacifist, a fan of fantasy and science fiction, and it sounded like he might have experienced attention deficit disorder from the way he described how he acted in a classroom setting. But everyone knew he was smart, and the expectation of reaching his potential was ever present. He also had to learn how to be tough and fight other kids when necessary, lessons he learned from his revered older brother Big Bill. I really enjoyed reading about the rap music of the 1980s and how it became an avenue of self expression for Coates, his brother, and friends, and I loved reading about how Coates’s dad ran a printing press in his house, finding and reprinting forgotten texts by and about Africans and African American writers. His children may have tried to resist the Consciousness his father was trying to impart but they ultimately absorbed the Knowledge anyway, something many of us can relate to in our own childhoods. This was a very good memoir. I recommend it.

CURRENTLY READING:

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (my April Classics Club pick – owned paperback)

Untamed by Glennon Doyle (memoir/feminism/self-help – library hardback)

RECENTLY ACQUIRED:

img_5571How to Be An Antiracist by Ibrahim X. Kendi (National Book Award-Winning author of Stamped From the Beginning, which I haven’t yet read, but want to.)

What have y’all been reading lately? Have you purchased anything recently? Or do you have a good television show to recommend instead? I’d love to hear from you about what you’ve been doing or reading this week. And Happy Easter to those of you who celebrate.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

It is possible to leave so much out of any given story.

I devoured Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel, The Glass Hotel. I barely took any notes at all, because I just wanted to keep on reading. There is a unique pleasure in reading Mandel’s words. It feels like some sort of magic. Having read and loved one of her earlier novels, The Singer’s Gun, earlier this year, and with Station Eleven being one of my favorite books of all time, I can say she has risen to a firm spot in my Favorite Authors list.

60704756965__02801b81-4b7c-458c-bf6d-82f40e7a7732What I love about Mandel is that she excels at making me care about multiple characters through multiple timelines. Even relatively minor characters are drawn with care and filled in so they show off many shades. Events sometimes double back on themselves so that in the end there is a completely wrapped package, all the ribbons and paper of the story slowly coming together.

This novel is about a fictional Ponzi scheme and the various ways characters are connected to and affected by it. Which sounds kind of boring when I write it that way. So let me try again: it’s about a dysfunctional brother and sister relationship; a young woman who loses her mother at a young age and shapeshifts her way through life ever after; a beautiful but remote hotel off the coast of British Columbia; a charismatic business man who engineers a lucrative Ponzi scheme, all the while knowing it’s only a matter of time before it unravels. It’s also about people on the margins, people who are not tethered to a city or a house or a family. It’s an exploration of imagined worlds that seems real and real worlds that seem imaginary. It’s about loss, love, ghosts, and, of all things, shipping.

I loved it, and cried at the end. I cried at the end of The Singer’s Gun too. I think I cried during Station Eleven but it’s been a while and I don’t remember. 🙂 Mandel makes me care about characters who aren’t great people, who do things that irritate or make me feel frustrated. Humanizes, that’s the word I’m looking for. Oh, and there was a fun Easter Egg mentioning events in Station Eleven that made me gasp with delight.

Not quite as good as Station Eleven, but nearly there and incredibly absorbing.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2

Format: new hardback (owned)

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (Classics Club & Buddy Read)

In that fine place, in the ripened Indian summer weather, those two once again choose us. In circumstances where smaller spirits might let envy corrode liking, they declare their generous pleasure in our company and our good luck. What we felt last night when we fell into a laughing bearhug and fused our frosty breaths outside their door, we feel again on this placid hill. We have been invited into their lives, from which we will never be evicted, or evict ourselves.

91Vq1lzeOaLHaving read and loved Stegner’s Angle of Repose years ago, I had high hopes for his 1987 novel Crossing to Safety. I also owned a copy so choosing it for my March Classics Club pick was a no-brainer. I’m happy to say my expectations were matched and I thoroughly enjoyed this reading experience. Augmenting my pleasure was doing a a Buddy Read with Pauline of Smithereens blog, and Rebecca of Bookish Beck. I don’t know that I provided any great contribution to our email and Twitter conversations, but I was grateful for the company and the added push to read it.

Stegner is a beautiful writer – thoughtful, measured, insightful about human nature. His detail for the natural world is also a delight, anchoring his characters in a very rich and real place. This novel centers on two young academic couples, Larry and Sally Morgan, and Sid and Charity Lang. The action takes place in both the Midwest of the Great Depression, in Madison, Wisconsin, and also forty-some years later in rural Vermont. We follow the two couples as they bond very quickly and go back and forth in time ultimately to their later years, as they gather at the end of one of the foursome’s life. The men are college English teachers trying to get published and promoted, with varying degrees of success. The women are housewives as was typical of the time period, and they do have children, although the kids are mostly an afterthought in the narrative until the end.

What drives the story is the beguiling and maddening character of Charity Lang. She is what you’d call a “force of nature,” a whirlwind of energy, spirit, and generosity. I admired her but didn’t entirely warm to her, although I suppose if she’d taken me under her wing as she did the Morgans, I would probably always be in her debt and her thrall. You see, the Morgans are poor, and the Langs are wealthy. But somehow that doesn’t really come between the two couples as much as you might think it would. There are equalizers, such as Larry Morgan’s more successful writing career. There is more conflict between Charity and Sid over his stalled career than there is any conflict between the couples.

This is a quiet novel, but rich in character and detail. Deep friendship and the complicated bonds of marriage are the themes, as well as a meditation on what makes a life well lived. Reading this in such a precarious, anxiety-inducing time as this was a balm to the soul. As Pauline astutely noted, the characters feel very far away from the cares of the world in the book, although serious events occur. If you’ve never tried Stegner before I would highly recommend this one, especially if you like character-driven, thoughtful, but not overly padded, novels.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Format: owned paperback

See my Classics Club list here.

Friday Afternoon Bookish Ramblings

It’s a beautiful sunny but cold day here at a Big Reading Life Manor, and it’s been a while since I’ve posted. I just haven’t had time or energy to write about books or anything else. There is sleep to prioritize (self-care 2020!) and also I’ve been finishing watching The Good Place and Netflix’s Next in Fashion. But today I have a bit of time and wanted to catch up on things. So, hello! I hope your week has been a good one. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty much sick of winter. I’m sick of gray and I’m sick of rain. I’m trying to remind myself that everything changes, and so will the seasons, in time.

Anyway, I’ve read some good books lately, for which I am grateful. One five-star read (The Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandel, which had been on my TBR List since 2015) and three four-star reads: Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot, Body Positive Power by Megan Jayne Crabbe, and Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson. Two of the latter were ones I owned, so whoopee for reading my own books! Lately I’ve been really trying to look at my own shelves and also the beginning of my TBR list and trying to choose reads from those. It’s a constant struggle to balance those considerations with the newest, shiniest books that I have on hold at the library. You can relate, I am sure.

51anPJ5-ihL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_What am I currently reading? Lindy West’s new essay collection The Witches Are Coming, which is AWESOME and so smart and funny. I’ve only read the first four essays but so far she’s killing it. I just finished Mavis Gallant’s short story collection In Transit, which I’d been reading since December. It was good – she’s masterful at capturing humans trying and failing to relate to one another. But for me overall it was a bit depressing and I’m relieved to be finished. I am not sure what work of fiction I’ll pick up next. I think I need something light to boost my mood! I may try Helen Hoang’s romance The Kiss Quotient, which I just checked out from my library.

Next month I plan to participate in Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month, so I need to pick at91Vq1lzeOaL least one Irish book – this event always sneaks up one me. I also will be reading Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety with Smithereens as a buddy read – another selection from my Classics Club list. Please read along with us in March if you’d like!

So that’s it from me for now. I’ll leave you with some body positive affirmations from Megan Jayne Crabbe’s book (if you’re on Instagram, you should consider following her @bodyposipanda. She’s delightful.)

I’m grateful for everything that my body allows me to do in the world, and all the ways it takes care of me.
I am hotter than the inside of a poptart in this outfit!
There’s no such thing as a problem area, my body is not a problem to be fixed!
My softness is beautiful.
My cellulite clusters are constellations mapped across my thighs and I am magical.
I deserve the space I take up in the world.
I am good enough.
My body is not the enemy.

Also – how do we like this new “block editor” thing WordPress has given us? I don’t like it at all and when I tried to switch back to the classic editor it’s made my spacing weird in this post. Hmmmph. Oh well. I hope you have a very good weekend, friends – may you have lots of time for reading!

 

Classics Club: The Warden by Anthony Trollope

I’m trying to tackle my Classics Club list seriously this year, so my goal is to read and review one per month. I decided this month to go for one that I owned – yes for reading my own books! I had never read Anthony Trollope before and thought he was an author I should sample. I found an older paperback edition of the first two novels in his famous Chronicles of Barsetshire – The Warden and Barchester Towers – at a used book store for $2.50. I also took the plunge and subscribed to Libro.fm for the audio book version, just in case the book was too dense to get through on paper alone.

img_5310
Not the prettiest cover ever!

 

I’m happy to say that I enjoyed both versions – Trollope’s tone is light-hearted and conspiratorial and I didn’t find the writing to be difficult or dense in any way. The characters and story were engaging enough to keep my interest, mostly. (There were a few sections I thought could have used an editor, but that’s true of many classics, I think.) The narrator of the audio book, Simon Vance, has a melodious, soothing voice. After all the dreadful news at home and around the world the past couple of weeks, it was relaxing and comforting to sink into a world where the biggest problem was whether or not someone deserved the salary they were getting.

Ah yes, the plot: The titular Warden, Mr. Harding, has his quiet, pleasant life turned upside down by, of all people, his likely future son-in-law. John Bold takes it upon himself to question whether or not Mr. Harding’s 800-pounds-a-year salary as Warden of the old-age home that the Church is running is just under the provisions of the benefactor’s will as it was written. (I must admit, I didn’t really get why he decided to do this. I may have missed something and if you’ve read this, please enlighten me.) Lawyers are hired on both sides, and the press gets wind of the “scandal” and starts smearing Mr. Harding’s good name. And he really is a decent chap – the old men in the home love him, he takes good care of them and grounds and gardens, and plays his violincello for the men regularly. His younger daughter Eleanor lives with him, and everyone seems confident that Mr. Bold will propose to her soon. His oldest daughter is married to the Archdeacon, Dr. Grantley. Grantley has a very forceful personality and is incensed by what he sees as a frivolous attack on the Church. When Harding suggests that he resign the position, because he can’t bear the personal attacks, Grantley maintains that he must not because he’d be putting future Wardens in a bad position. Grantley is not a very likeable character, but he’s not cartoonishly villainous – just very fixed in the certainty of his opinions and very pushy.

Anyway, there’s not a lot of plot here, really. Will Harding resign? If he resigns how shall he not starve? Will Bold and Eleanor still get married now that he’s stirred up all this trouble for her father? Will the old men at the home get their extra hundred pounds a year? I enjoyed this novel, and I wanted to see how things would resolve, but I don’t think it convinced me that I need to read anything else by Trollope. What do you think – have you read any of the other Chronicles of Barsetshire? Or any of his other works? Please let me know if you think I should add something else by him to my next Classics Club list (if I make one – ha!)

 

The Finished Stack Mocks Me

When I finish a book that I think I want to write about on my blog, I put it on top of my desktop computer tower (yes, Fogey McOldster has a desktop computer and it works fine, thank you very much!) I don’t write my posts at the computer anymore, I write them on my iPad, but I’ll finish them up on the desktop which is easier than the iPad (putting in the pictures, setting up links, things like that.) Anyway, when the finished stack gets to be four books tall it starts to make me anxious. At that point, I either say, FORGET IT I DON’T WANT TO WRITE ABOUT THESE DUMB BOOKS ANYWAY or I say, okay, it’s time for some mini-reviews.

It’s time for some mini-reviews!

img_5291Anti-Diet:Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating by Christy Harrison

I have avoided writing about this book for weeks now because I don’t feel like I’ll do it justice. Christy Harrison is an Anti-Diet registered dietitian nutritionist and certified intuitive eating counselor with a background in food and nutrition journalism. She knows her stuff, and she has done her research. She shreds Diet Culture here, showing how its roots lie in historical ideas steeped in sexism, racism, and classism. She details how Diet Culture (which she calls The Life Thief) steals our time, money, well-being, and happiness, and ultimately it doesn’t even give us the lasting weight loss we so desperately crave. She then gives us strategies to resist diet culture and deprogram ourselves from years of steeping in its toxic messages. This is an excellent book if you aren’t familiar with the Anti-Diet movement or the concept of Health At Every Size. If you are familiar and just want more information, it’s still an excellent book! It’s well-researched and a fast- paced read. I loved it and highly recommend it if you’re someone who has let the Life Thief steal your joy over the years, or if you’re interested in social justice. Make no mistake, how we treat people in larger bodies IS a social justice issue.            ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ (Another good book to check out, more of a memoir on the topic, is Caroline Dooner’s The F*ck It Diet: Eating Should Be Easy.)

Piecing Me Together by a Renée Watson

This contemporary YA novel took me by surprise. It drew me in from the start and kept me engaged with its fully-realized and heartfelt portrayal of an African American high school junior in Portland, Oregon. Jade is a talented artist and uses the medium of collage to express her feelings and process things. She is also looking forward to hopefully getting nominated to go on a spring break service learning trip that deserving juniors get to participate in. Instead, her Principal gives her an “opportunity” for African American students, to participate in a Mentor program for the year. Jade is angry and disappointed because she wants to be the one who gives for a change, instead of being the poor girl at the private school who receives all the time. Plus, her mentor isn’t doing that great a job, flaking out on her from the get-go. I loved how Watson explores class and race but also gives us a set of wonderful characters in Jade, her mother, cousin, and her two best friends. If you’re the kind of reader who has had bad luck with YA novels in the past, I highly recommend this one. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

I loved this novel set in Los Angeles, which references the racial tensions and violence of the Rodney King era but mostly takes place today. Two families, one Korean and one African American, are brought together by an act of violence that seemingly comes out of nowhere but has roots in L.A.’s explosive recent past. I thought the characters grappled with some very complex contradictions and questions, and there were no easy answers anywhere. It’s a fast-paced novel of forgiveness, justice, secrets, and family bonds. The characters felt real to me and I appreciated the care with which they were written. Apparently Cha has written a crime trilogy and I think I’ll have to check it out. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

Atmosphere for days! Brooding, gothic, intense, psychological. I love it when a novel feels as immersive as this one did. Frances has recently buried her mother, a rather mean woman whom Frances had to nurse for years. She has gotten a summer position at Lynton’s, an abandoned English estate recently purchased by an American (who hired her to report on the condition of the grounds and gardens.) She is joined by a couple who is also working for the American, cataloguing the rooms of the house, Peter and Cara. Cara is volatile and moody, Peter handsome and flirtatious. Frances is dazzled by the couple, and they draw her into their web with warmth and a freedom that she has never before experienced. She is very socially awkward, and as the book progresses we come to realize that she is not as trustworthy a narrator as we might initially think. There are spooky touches in the abandoned house, strange noises, unexplained faces in windows, wild animals turning up unexpectedly, adding to the tension. This captivated me and I will have to read another book by Fuller – perhaps Swimming Lessons next. Thanks to Anne of I’ve Read This and Rebecca of Bookish Beck for putting this on my radar.    ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Have you read any of these? Anything appeal to you?

Classics Club Spin #22: A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor

Oh my goodness, how do I write about this short story collection? I feel enormous trepidation as I begin this post. This book is just really freakin’ weird. 😃 And dark. And twisted. And brilliant. But I was relieved to finish it, so what does that say?

Ten stories filled with mean people, ignorant people, unwanted visitors, negligent parents, gossips, hypocrites, killers, racists, xenophobes… sounds like a swell way to spend your reading time, right? Yet when I entered into each story (one a day, that’s all I could take) I couldn’t pry my eyeballs from it. The characters, despicable though they might be, were so fully realized and the stories so well constructed that I was hooked.

The collection starts with the title story, and it’s a shocker. A family of four and the grandmother are traveling to a Florida on a road trip, with the grandkids sassing off to their racist, annoying grandmother constantly, until she tricks the whole family into driving down this dirt road so they can see an old abandoned plantation that she “remembered.” (She gets the kids excited about it by craftily telling them that there is a legendary secret panel in a wall in which the family silver was kept.) When a chance accident happens on the deserted road and a band of sketchy dudes comes along on the scene, all hell breaks loose. It’s an eye-opening way to start off, to say the least.

Some of the stories are a bit more sedate but no less compelling. My favorite story was “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,”which features a precocious, mischievous young girl putting up with a weekend visit from her boy-crazy, older second cousins, Susan and Joanne. There’s a traveling fair in town, and two local boys are enlisted to take the girls and get them out of the house for an evening. The title of the story comes from an anecdote that the girls laughingly tell at dinner about part of their Catholic school education.

— if he should “behave in an ungentlemanly manner with them in the back of an automobile.” Sister Perpetua said they were to say, “Stop, sir! I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost!” and that would put an end to it.

When the girls come back from the fair they obliquely tell the child (we don’t learn her name) about something they saw in the “freak tent” that unnerved them.

The tent where it was had been divided into two parts by a black curtain, one side for men and one for women. The freak went from one side to the other, talking first to the men and then to the women, but everyone could hear. The stage ran all the way across the front. The girls heard the freak say to the men, “I’m going to show you this and if you laugh, God may strike you the same way.” The freak had a country voice, slow and nasal, and neither high nor low, just flat. “God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way. I’m showing you because I got to make the best of it. I expect you to act like ladies and gentlemen. I never done it to myself nor had a thing to do with it but I’m making the best of it. I don’t dispute hit.” Then there was a long silence on the other side of the tent and finally the freak left the men and came over to the women’s side and said the same thing.

The girls explain that the “freak” was both man and woman but the child doesn’t understand what that means. She later has a vision as she goes to sleep that the “freak” was leading a church service and says they are a “Temple of the Holy Ghost.” Still later in church she again thinks of the “freak” and how they said that this was how God wanted them to be. It’s a quiet, oddly beautiful story, and I loved how the child could embody a kindness and acceptance towards the “freak” that the rest of the characters couldn’t seem to muster.

I’m glad I read this and glad that the Classics Club Spin landed on this selection. I know it’s a hard sell, but I do think this is worth the read. I have all sorts of questions about what O’Connor was like, why she wrote such dark, religious, tense stories. This is the kind of book I would love to have discussed in a classroom setting because I know that I’m missing some nuances and symbolism along the way. I rated it five stars on Goodreads but it’s not one I can call a favorite, simply because I am confident that I will never be inclined to read it again. If anyone has any biographical knowledge of O’Connor or thoughts about any of these stories, I’d love to hear them!

Format: Library paperback, 252 pages.

See my original Classics Club list here.

Friday Reading Roundup

Another Friday is upon us. Another day closer to Christmas! I hope that you’re not stressed out by holiday plans, shopping, and preparation. What better way to escape the hustle and bustle than to dive into some good books, eh? I’m not yet ready to reveal my Top Ten books of the year (that will be next Friday) or to tally up stats for the reading year (the last Friday!) So today it’s a quick review of what I’ve been reading lately and what’s on my nightstand to pick up next.

Finished lately:

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal

I really enjoyed this. Picked it off the NEW BOOKS SHELF at work (win!) Contemporary fiction. Three sisters, raised in England by their immigrant Indian parents, travel to India at the behest of their dying mother’s last wish. She has devised an itinerary for them, in the hopes that they will learn more about India, strengthen their bonds, and scatter her ashes there. There are lots of secrets that the sisters are keeping from one another, and they’ve all got some serious issues of their own that their not dealing with very well. Though I could see how things were going to work out, I didn’t mind it at all. I felt like these characters were well developed and believable, and the setting as they travel to the Golden Temple in Amritsar was superb. I’ll definitely try Jaswal’s first book, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, which was a Reese Witherspoon book club pick. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Currently Reading:

Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore

I’m enjoying the heck out of this! Another off-the-New-Shelf pick. Historical romance. A18h+5O2G3LLately I just want to read fluff. I’m not ashamed to admit it! I think it’s the holidays. I just need something soothing while my mind is pulled in many different directions trying to get stuff done. The premise is classic: 1870’s England, a poor well-read, smart, and beautiful woman (verging on Old Maid at 25), relying on the kindness of her lame cousin for her upkeep – she convinces him to let her take classes at Oxford, which had recently decided to let women take classes off campus. While there she meets other like-minded feminist women and in the course of advocating for changing the women’s property laws, literally runs into the MOST HANDSOME, well-connected, filthy rich Duke. Said Duke of course can’t take his eyes off our heroine either, but definitely disapproves of her ideas and pluck. Very cute stuff follows. Haven’t gotten to the sexy times yet.

Ghosts of Christmas Past edited by Tim Martin

I wanted something Christmas-y, and spooky ghost stories appealed. I found this in a recent BookRiot article (check it out here.) So far it’s uneven, as most short story41V3UJFvzmL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_ collections are. My favorite story so far is by Muriel Spark, called “The Leaf-Sweeper.” Other contributors include Neil Gaiman, E. Nesbit, and Kelly Link.

What’s next?

I’ve got the next one in the Ruth Galloway mystery series, The Ghost Fields, and my last poetry collection for the year, Kevin Young’s Brown. After that, whatever strikes my fancy.

Do you find yourself reading lighter books during the holidays? Are you a fan of Christmas ghost stories?

The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym (Classics Club)

“You make me sound hardly human, like a kind of fossil,” Leonora protested.

“I didn’t mean that – it’s just that I never think of you as being ruffled or upset by anything. Not like me- that awful night when I burst in on you, whatever must you have thought!”

“People react in different ways. One may not show emotion, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that one doesn’t feel it.”

Barbara Pym is one of my favorites authors, but I’ve been saving some of her books I’ve not yet read. Not sure what I’m exactly saving them for, but I haven’t wanted to rush through all of them. I owned a copy of The Sweet Dove Died, purchased for $1.00 (!) at a local used bookstore, and decided this was the time to cross another Classics Club choice off the list. It’s short (just 208 pages) and typically charming and amusing – but for me it won’t jump to the top of her works.

19523620Written in 1978 (one of her later novels – she died in 1980,) the book’s main character is Leonora, an elegant woman of some means who’s in her early 50’s (I think, although it’s not exactly clear.) She meets twenty-four year old James and his uncle Henry, an antique dealer, at a book auction and immediately the three hit it off. Henry is taken with Leonora and she in turn has her heart set on James. But precisely what sort of relationship she wants with James is rather vague – she seems to just want his companionship and devotion, but not really anything physical.

Leonora liked to think of her life as calm of mind, all passion spent, or, more rarely, as emotion recollected in tranquility. But had there ever really been passion, or even emotion? One of two tearful scenes in bed – for she had never enjoyed that kind of thing – and now it was such a relief that one didn’t have to worry anymore. Her men friends were mostly elderly cultured people, who admired her elegance and asked no more than the pleasure of her company. Men not unlike a Henry Boyce, indeed.

As in many of Pym’s novels, not much happens, but simultaneously everything happens. James and Leonora grow closer, and then not one, but two people come into James’s life and threaten Leonora’s relationship with him. Meanwhile Henry is the odd person out.

I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, which is unusual for the Pym novels I’ve read – usually there’s at least one sympathetic character. Leonora is rather selfish and cold. But I was entertained and amused – Pym is always wryly funny and observant of human nature, even in an obtuse character. And as the novel went on I felt a little sympathy for her as she tried to hold on to her youth. I was also surprised by how modern the relationships felt, in that one of James’s paramours is a man. And it’s not something anyone in the novel bats their eyelashes at.

All in all, a gentle, intelligent, somewhat melancholy comedy of manners, full of repressed emotions and characters who aren’t terribly self aware. If you’ve never tried Barbara Pym I wouldn’t start with the one, but it makes for an entertaining and fast read if you’ve enjoyed her other books. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

(This is the 17th work read out of 51 classics on my Classics Club list.)

Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love by Jonathan Van Ness

I may have mentioned before that I love the Netflix series Queer Eye. LOVE IT. It’s a balm for the weary 21st-century soul. Five adorable, kind gay men meet a person who is stuck somehow in their life… mentally, physically, emotionally, sometimes all three… and, with great compassion, help them break out of their funk and start to go after their dreams again. It’s just lovely and practically every episode makes me cry happy tears. It’s hard to pick a “favorite “of the Fab Five, but if I had to it would be Jonathan Van Ness. He is the hair and skin “expert” but like all the guys he has many more layers.img_4998

Little did I know just how many layers he has until I read his new memoir, Over the Top. Wow. He really lays his life out there for the reader and I find it so brave to be that vulnerable.

When people had asked me whether I was ready for my life to change, I don’t think I really understood what they meant. It wasn’t just that strangers would know who I was. It was this other thing that started to happen to me: when I looked in their eyes, sometimes, there was a little voice in my head wondering, Would you still be so excited to meet me if you really knew who I was? If you knew all the things I’d done? If you could see all my parts?

Over the course of the memoir we see how childhood sexual abuse and growing up gay in a small, conservative Midwestern town affected his life. Despite a loving, pretty accepting family, they didn’t seem to have the emotional tools to deal effectively or help Jonathan deal effectively with his own pain and anxiety. Young Jonathan turned to food and imagined skating and gymnastics routines to escape his complicated emotions.

From the outside, my carpet-skating routines were not actually quite as major as they felt inside my head, but they gave me something so important. Choreographing routines on my own in the basement for hours on end gave my imagination a place to roam free. Nobody was there to tell me how to move my body or what music was right for me to listen to. I could daydream about how if I nailed this short program I’d be heading into the long program in second place and could lock down my spot on the Olympic team. Being able to entertain yourself is a valuable skill, especially if you’re in a prolonged dark space. (For me, that was Quincy.) Maybe that’s dramatic, and maybe I’m too sensitive, but there wasn’t much naturally occurring joy in that era for me, so it was up to me to make my own. Especially being such a soft, round kid – who wanted to be a fit, sporty one – dancing made me feel graceful. It gave me a freedom I didn’t have anywhere else.

Later, Jonathan would develop an addiction to drugs that proved very hard to kick, as well as a sexual addiction. He delves into some very dark times in his life with amazing honesty, including the period of his life that he was a male prostitute. Reading this I felt amazed that he’s still alive considering all the risky and dangerous positions he put himself in. It’s a real testament to his family and to his spirit that he persisted and fought for a better life for himself.

When you’re a survivor of abuse, living in chaos can be the most upsetting yet comforting thing in the word. It was for me.

I loved reading about how he got into the hair business and started turning his life around. The section where he worked at a very posh, high-pressure salon in L.A. was fascinating. It sounds like a hellish, toxic environment that I’d never want to work in but he came away with so many skills and a new confidence in his abilities.

His step-father’s illness and death, his own HIV diagnosis, his eventual introduction into show business and landing the part on Queer Eye, they’re all covered. This is a very open, brave book. He showed that he’s not just the sunny, ultra-positive person he often seems on the show. Those are real parts of him but also there is real trauma and messiness there too.

Over the years I’ve heard horror stories of celebrities being dicks to nice people, and I always thought that was horrifying – why wouldn’t you be nice to your fans? What did you think you were getting into? But what I’ve realized is that you can’t be the same version of yourself at all times. Maybe your kidney function test results came back weird, so you have to go back to the doctor and you’re worried, but you can’t explain that to the fan who just wants a selfie. Maybe you just held your thirteen-year-old cat in your arms as the took their last breath, but the group of people wanting a picture don’t care – they just want their bubbly JVN, and they want him right now. It’s been the honor of a lifetime to be held to this ideal, but what I really want to tell the people asking for photos is: I’m literally just as lost as you. And I’m just as much of a perfectly imperfect mess. People are layered- good and bad, filled with joy and sorrow. The key is being grounded in the relationship you have with yourself. Basing my worth in how I treat myself despite how others treat me has been the key to my success – and I want that for you too.

I really do feel like this book will help people. People with addiction and circumstances similar to Jonathan’s and people who just have your average insecurities and anxieties. It’s a fast read, engaging and at times funny with lots of Jonathan’s trademark phrases he uses (ferosh for ferocious, etc.) I loved this book. It’s a must-read if you’re a fan of the show and even if you’re not, it’s an entertaining and moving read. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐