books, art, culture, and other things I love

Category: books

Midwestern malaise in Dean Bakopoulos’ Summerlong.

If you’ve ever spent any time in the Midwest during the dog days of summer, than you know its heat: scorching, relentless, unforgiving. And in Dean Bakopoulos’ new novel Summerlong, readers will meet characters that exhibit some of these qualities. 

Don Lowry is a small town realtor in Grinnell, Iowa–the place he was born and raised, and the place he met his wife while attending college. Now he and Claire are the parents of three young children, who have fallen into a predictable suburban existence. But when each has a separate chance encounter with two local twenty-somethings, things come to a boil.

Summerlong is not a feel-good vacation read–in fact, one reviewer noted that it “is no escape”–but that’s what makes it so good. It is the classic suburban novel, in the style of Cheever or Updike: all restrained rage and repressed longing. Beautifully written and believably wrought. Read it, if only as a cautionary tale.  


Bookminded Recommends: A book for your inner fashionista.

To get where I’m coming from, first I have to tell you a little story. Really it’s my husband’s story: about the time that we were moving and he moved 25 contractor bags full of fashion magazines. Yes, you read that right–25 contractor bags of fashion magazines. They were all mine, and I insisted on moving them into our new apartment. They were primarily W and Vogue, with some other international editions mixed in.

This was what I called my fashion archive. My husband called it trash. Eventually all of those magazines did find their way to the trash–that is, the recycling bin (many recycling bins over weeks and weeks), however I still  stand by my argument, which led me to cart around all of those pounds of glossies for so many years: fashion is important. It’s worth archiving, it’s a way that we express ourselves, and it has its own history. All of which makes it an important object of study in my opinion.

So, since you know a little bit about my fashion biases, it will probably come as no surprise that I love Amanda Brooks’ latest memoir/fashion history/insider’s view of the industry titled Always Pack a Party Dress. Brooks has particular insight into the fashion industry–really into the whole industry of aesthetics. She started her career as an intern for Patrick Demarchelier, and then as a “gallerina” at the Gagosian Gallery and she moved on to a variety of fashion posts–ending up as the fashion director Barneys New York, before decamping to her family farm in England to focus on her family and other projects.

Brooks has always been impeccably dressed with a twist: she never ignores her WASPy, prep school roots, but they are always partnered with a twist. (Think Barbour meets Balmain.) For those that love fashion, and get a thrill reading about early Tuleh, Louboutin, or Phillip Lim, her book is fabulous–with lots of insider anecdotes (like the time she met Billy Zane and Mick Jagger at a nightclub in Paris) and I highly recommend it. If, however, your idea of dressing up is Lands’ End with some Patagonia or L.L. Bean thrown in this may not be your book–but for those of you with a dash of Carrie Bradshaw in your hearts, you will love it. (And it basically covers the fashion history contained in those 25 bags.)

All The Single Ladies: Kate Bolick’s Spinster.

The word spinster connotes images of an old woman living in a sad little apartment with her many cats as companions. A woman that shuffles along the city streets with bags that contain enough groceries for a day or two–like a quart of milk, a can of tunafish, and a few slices of deli meat. She smells like moth balls and closed spaces. Spinsterhood is a condition, an affliction, an incurable disease.  Or is it?

In Kate Bolick’s new book Spinster, her jumping off point is an assertion: “Whom to marry, and when it will happen–these two questions define every woman’s existence.” But by considering a group of women–all writers themselves: Neith Boyce, Maeve Brennan, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Edith Wharton–in concert with her own life, Bolick suggests that there is another script to follow, the one that the individual writes for herself. In Spinster, then, she unpacks the term and challenges the notion what it means to be an unmarried woman and/or a woman who follows her own mind–even if she does eventually marry.

Written in a style that is part historical narrative and part personal history, Spinster will get you thinking–about what conscious and unconscious coupling looks like, and how women commit to and preserve their individual ambitions.

Live at Boston’s Paramount Theater: Cheryl Strayed in Conversation with Tom Ashbrook.

Last night my friend D. and I sat in the balcony of a packed Paramount Theater in Boston to see On Point Live: an evening of NPR radio host Tom Ashbrook in conversation with Cheryl Strayed, author of the fabulous memoir Wild as well as Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of her Dear Sugar columns from The Rumpus.  Now, along with writer Steve Almond, Strayed hosts the podcast Dear Sugar Radio, which provides advice (of the practical and philosophical sort) to letter writers.

Preshow: we had to take a selfie. Me: "This would be a better photo if we had one of those sticks." D.: "Um, we're too old for selfie sticks."

Preshow: we had to take a selfie. Me: “This would be a better photo if we had one of those sticks.”                                                  D.: “Um, we’re too old for selfie sticks.”

When host Tom Ashbook took the stage, there was thunderous applause. Once things quieted down and he spoke, there were even some tears as he paused for a moment to thank his audience and his listeners for the kindness that they showed to him in the months since the loss of his wife to cancer at the end of November. There was another point in the evening when Ashbrook solemnly asked Strayed a question for his own twentysomething daughter–how does one at that age deal with loss of someone so significant as one’s mother. Strayed’s response was heartfelt and touching–emphasizing the importance of accepting the fact that grief is ongoing, but the reason for this is that it is recalling the love that was there. That is, the origin of grief is beauty and love–not ugliness. This insight was very meaningful, and the audience sat rapt as Strayed discussed the loss of her own mother.

Our view from the balcony.

Our view from the balcony.

Their conversation touched on topics (drawn largely from audience questions) that ranged from Strayed’s writing habits to her definitions of feminism in the 21st century–the latter in light of Elinor Burkett’s opinion piece in last Sunday’s New York Times that questions the authenticity of transgender women (previously male) defining what it means to be a woman. Though Ashbrook pushed her a bit on this point, Strayed maintained that there was room for anyone in the feminist movement, and suggesting that as times change, so do boundaries and definitions.

Toward the end of the evening, Steve Almond took the stage and revealed that he and Strayed had just wrapped up three days in the studio, recording 20 (!) hours of Dear Sugar material–I can’t wait for that! The show closed with news analyst Jack Beatty commenting on the impact and growth of On Point, which began as a radio program in the days after 9/11 and has emerged as a forum for a national conversation.

All in all, a delightful and inspiring evening!

Another public radio tote bag. (I have quite the collection going!)

Another public radio tote bag. (I have quite the collection going!)

Summer Reading: A (fabulous) fictional foray into the life of The Royals.

File this under ‘Books That Are Nearly Impossible To Put Down’: The latest novel from blogging duo Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, The Royal We, is an absolute delight from start to finish. It is the kind of ‘dessert read’ for which you need not feel guilty—as its prose is fast-moving and breezy, yet smart and clever—in short, what you *wish * US Weekly would be (Except. It. Is. Not.). 

The Royal We is a contemporary Roman à clef of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge that manages to create its own world that is original and wholly entertaining, even as its story is imbued with some details inspired by the courtship of Wills and Kate.

Instead of St. Andrews, readers are given the backdrop of Oxford as the setting wherein American exchange student Rebecca (Bex) Porter and Nicholas (Nick) Wales, future King of England, meet for the first time. Bex has come to the UK from Cornell to further her study of art and history in the idyllic setting, and also to find her own identity apart from that of her twin (Lacey, also a student at Cornell). Over time, Bex’s good nature and friendliness earns her the acceptance of Nick’s inner circle—and eventually she and Nick realize that they are drawn to each other apart from the group. Once they confess their mutual attraction, they embark on a relationship that spans two continents once Bex returns to the U.S. to complete her degree until she returns to London to work and reunite with Nick.

There is one problem, however, and it’s a big one. The looming shadow of the monarchy and its expectations and obligations.

Bex and Nick carry out their relationship in private for several years, until they finally receive the (reluctant) permission of the Queen to be seen together (platonically) in public. This newfound public visibility is not, as it turns out, a good thing—and it leads to the couple’s split. The British press mocks this ‘yankee’ who lacks aristocratic bloodlines—and suggests that she is a climber with designs on the heir to England’s throne.

Will they reunite? Will true love win? Will they each manage to keep some of themselves, even though forces (the Queen, Royals watchers, turncoat friends, and jealous siblings) conspire against them?

You must read it to find out! So, so good—the most fun literary indulgence I have had in a long time.

The Unmoored: Two haunting books about strangers living in strange lands.

In Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau, readers meet Anna Benz, an American expat living in Switzerland with her husband and three young children. Despite having spent nearly a decade in the country, her grasp of the German language has yet to advance past a rudimentary level. With her husband Bruno and mother-in-law taking care of many of life’s quotidian tasks, however, she is able to exist in an insulated bubble—speaking only when needed to those outside of the home. And her lack of a driver’s license leaves her entirely reliant on the local train that allows her to find a life outside of her small Zurich suburb. While her language fluency may be limited, there are, of course, other more primitive forms of communication to which Anna does have access—and her nameless malaise impels her to search for connection through a series of ill-considered affairs (even as she goes through the motions of learning in a daily language intensive course designed for foreigners).

And in Family Life, Akhil Sharma presents narrator Ajay Mishra, who suffers from a similar cultural and personal disorientation when his family moves from Delhi to New York City in the late 1970s. America holds the promise of success and upward mobility for the Mishra family—but after a tragic accident renders Ajay’s older brother Birju incapable of realizing the dreams his parents have for him, the family’s screeches to a halt, leaving Ajay to exist as a virtual orphan.

Though both Anna and Ajay are surrounded by family and would-be friends, each is alone, bearing the burden of decisions and happenstance that would seek to define them. We see each event play out in (dreadful) slow motion, as if watching a Greek tragedy with the knowledge of what lies ahead. By societal standards, Anna is a “good wife, mostly” and Ajay is a good brother and a good son–on the outside. But what others don’t see is the internal struggle that each character experiences. They only see the missteps and mistakes that play out in public.

As Tolstoy famously observes, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and in Hausfrau and Family Life readers see the veracity of this statement. The precise prose of Essbaum and Sharma impresses us with the ability to delicately create worlds that we may inhabit temporarily—if only to convince us that we are happy that we do not reside there permanently.

What We See When We Read.

I remember precisely the moment that my mental images of a book’s characters didn’t jive with someone else’s. The book in question was Pat Conroy’s sweeping novel set on the Carolina coast, The Prince of Tides. My family’s next-door neighbor Judy loaned me the book and for a week solid, I ran home after school (I think I was a sophomore?) and tore through its 700 pages with great focus. I had a clear vision of Tom and his twin sister Savannah; I could even picture the landscapes and settings described in the book with exactitude.

Until the movie was released, that is.

I finished the book about a month before the movie arrived in theaters and I couldn’t wait to see the story played out on the big screen. (As a side note, I think it was actually the first movie I went to see by myself.)

The casting of Nick Nolte for Tom struck me as a bit off. I was thinking more a young Robert Redford or Paul Newman type. But when Barbra Streisand appeared on screen as Tom’s psychiatrist and eventual love interest—well, that really threw me off. She was not who I had pictured while reading–AT ALL.

Even though I had been picturing characters in my mind since I started reading books without illustrations, I recognized in that moment the significance of our own mental images in establishing connection and engagement with literary figures. And the fact that someone else’s image didn’t match mine made it difficult for me to enjoy the film. In fact, when I reread the book as an adult, I felt that Barbra Streisand was intruding on my interior reading world!

In fact, in Peter Mendelsund’s (very excellent) book, What We See When We Read, he cautions against this very thing: “One should watch a film adaptation of a favorite book only after considering, very carefully, the fact that the casting of the film may very well become the permanent casting of the book in one’s mind. This is a very real hazard.” Indeed.

Mendelsund also talks about signifiers and notes that “there are moments, when we read when all we see are words” but also points out that “words are like arrows—they are something and they also point toward something.” While we learn this concept in Semiotics 101, the author’s examples are both clear and interesting.

In his role as the associate art director at Alfred K. Knopf, Mendelsund designs book covers (like these) and with What We See When We Read has created a unique and full-illustrated text that investigates the phenomenon of the elision of the visual mind and the literary page. If this idea intrigues you, Mendelsund’s book is worth a read—I loved it.

This was not my casting vision while reading. ;)

This was not my casting vision while reading The Prince of Tides. 😉



My favorite read of 2015, already?

For the past several years, the first book that I finished in January has ended up being my “year’s best” for that particular year. In 2012, it was Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, in 2013, Wendy Lawless’ Chanel Bonfire, and in 2014, it was Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. This year, I predict that Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves will hold the same honor.

You know the kind of novels that you feel like you truly inhabit while you are reading them? Well for me, this was one of those for sure. The story starts off slow—as it carefully lays the groundwork for the book’s framework. We meet Eileen Timulty, the only daughter of Irish immigrant parents. Her father is the de facto mayor of their Bronx burrough while her mother is the long-suffering (sometimes alcoholic) wife that young Eileen must care for. Early on, Eileen is fully aware that this is not the life that she wants for herself and at this point another character enters the narrative, casting a long shadow into her future: The American Dream.

Eileen keeps out of trouble and stays focused, earning degrees that enable her to climb the management rungs as a nurse at the local hospitals. She marries a man, Ed, who is opposite to her father—even more so than she realizes—who is happy with his job as a community college Biology professor, his Jackson Heights apartment, and his wife and son, even as Eileen longs to move up the ladder. When Ed turns down a coveted faculty position at NYU and later, the deanship at Queens Community College, we think that this couple is mismatched and destined for failure.

And when Ed starts to exhibit strange, erratic behavior, we wonder whether this small family of three will implode against the backdrop of 80s upheaval.

A story about taking the long view—looking toward the future without denying one’s past. A story about love, and commitment, and finding peace in one’s choices. This novel had me up at 4 am to finish the final pages—and there I sat, crying—moved beyond measure by the way the author ended the story. Beautiful writing and a narrative that is much more than simple plot movement. Everything works together here to great effect—the post WWII American ideology, the setting of New York City and its suburbs, and most of all, its believable and endearing characters. Read this book—it just might be your favorite of 2015.

Reading interrupted.

So I was all set to read Matthew Gilbert’s book Off the Leash—then this happened:

Clearly, Hildy can’t be trusted alone with good reading material or she’ll try to eat it for lunch. Boo!


Bookminded Recommends: WBUR’s Digital Bookshelf.

Truth be told, I am never at a loss for book recommendations. I always have some books “on tap”–whether they be in the stack on my bedside table (that was a fib–I actually have a stack and a bin beside it!), scribbled in my planner after a friend recommends a title, on my bookshelves, or in my “to read” shelf on Goodreads. But sometimes I will hear something on my local NPR station, WBUR, about a book or an author and think it might be something that I would like to read. Often I am in the car and will forget to look them up after the fact. So that is why I am so excited about this: WBUR’s new Digital Bookshelf! 

Books are divided up by category and if you click on the book cover, it will also show links to WBUR coverage on the book–either show podcasts or articles. Such a great way to collect all of that content in one place–check it out!

My out-of-control bedside stack, which shows my range of reading genres--everything from the NYT to Joel Osteen! :)

My out-of-control bedside stack, which shows my range of reading genres–everything from the NYT to Joel Osteen! 🙂