If you care about a dictionary…

The Grammarians is a lovely story about two twin sisters living in the late 20th Century in and around New York City. I don’t actually want to say too much about the plot, but I loved how familial the story was, how close the twins are even when they’re fighting, and how much love was interwoven. Even when everyone is driving each other nuts, they all still love each other – families are like that.

The action is driven by the women growing up – you get their entire life stories from birth to death 258 pages – but also by a dictionary, Webster’s Second Edition. The Third Edition is apparently very controversial, in part because the second was so stodgy. One of the women has a job writing about grammar, and so is the prescriptivist and is more akin to the second edition; the other writes poetry and stories using vernacular language and so is the descriptivist, and could be compared to the third edition. (A short definition of prescriptive vs descriptive lives here, if you’re interested.)

But that is all in-the-weeds, and you certainly don’t need to care about that particular argument in order to enjoy the book. You can (I did) enjoy the characters and their relationships to each other and New York City in the 1980s. I highly recommend The Grammarians.

On Being Angry

I saw a tweet a couple of weeks ago, wondering why the media was continuing to focus on men and their idea about the 2020 election when the real story was how angry women are. How done we are with all this bullshit, the casual harassment, the serial rapist that’s in the White House, every story that has come out from #MeToo. (Because y’all of course: #MeToo.)

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo takes all of that anger – presumably her anger – and puts it into Alex Stern. She is a former teenaged drug addict who is found surrounded by a few people, mostly men, who had been brutally murdered. She had no blood on her, but she was so high that she was never a suspect. Oh, and she can see ghosts. The plot starts when, in the aftermath, Yale decides it needs her to keep their secret societies in check. The eight main societies each specialize in a particular type of magic, and a ninth house keeps an eye on each of them to make sure nothing gets out of hand or the students in them don’t get too greedy. Alex wants to be good, wants to fit in, but things keep happening. Eventually, her anger proves to be a very useful tool solving the central mystery.

It is scary and good and depicts rape, sexual assualt, and college students being the assholes that college students can be. Especially when alcohol is involved. It also features them occasionally being hit over the head with blunt objects when that happens.

But mostly, Ninth House wants to remind you how good and productive anger can be. I am here for it. You should be too.

Revisiting an old love

I read The Secret History about a million times while in college. So reading it again was a bit more like comfort than exploring anything new or looking to discover anything new.

And yet, there is something in a book you can re-read that many times. While in college, I was in love with the over the top aesthetic of this book. Now, it’s hard not to look at the characters and see tragedy written all over them. Henry, the scholar who has always been able to do what he wants; Charles and Camilla, twins who can’t live apart, not even when they need to; Francis, who needs to be allowed to be himself when he’s not at college; Bunny, fatuous and full of charm but irritating as hell; and Richard, who just wants to fit in.

I still love the aesthetic of it, the romanticism of a small college in a New England town, the fascination with beauty that is both the author’s and Richard’s, who also happens to be our narrator.

I can’t at all tell you what it would be like to approach this book, written pre-internet, as an adult almost 30 years later. All I can tell you is that I still love The Secret History, whether its because the book is great or because I loved it so much as a twenty-year-old. I will always recommend it.

Slumps and books I’m not sure are any good

I’ve been in something of a reading slump lately. Including with this book. I started Paris in the Present Tense ready for its atmosphere and characters and sank into the first chapter. After that, every time I picked it up, I read slightly less and was slightly less interested in the story. Once I was halfway through the book I found myself not caring almost at all.

I don’t think it was the story, about an older man, a failed musician, who is still fit and exercises daily, whose grandson is dying and through a series of events ends up in a street fight and kills a young man (who, it should be said, was about to kill him). You root for him, but I’m not sure you should. And I didn’t care enough to explore the middle ground.

But was it the book or was it my slump? It’s hard to tell, but I can’t recommend Paris in the Present Tense, despite my initial delight with it.

Thoughtful Kindness

Evvie Drake is a mess. Her husband – a terrible person, shown mostly in flashbacks – dies in a car accident in the first scene of the book. Evvie is in a complicated emotional space. She was in the process of leaving him when she got the phone call. Emotionally, she’s a disaster, both mourning her husband and convinced that she’s a horrible person.

Enter Dean, a former Yankees pitcher with the World Series rings to prove that he used to be one of the best. He’s retired early from the game due to a case of the yips that no one has been able to diagnose. He’s a friend of a friend and needs a place away from everything to figure some things out. Evvie has an apartment on the back of the house, so that’s convenient.

They both need to heal. Evvie Drake Starts Over is about how you heal – the time it takes, the dumb things you do and say, the arguments you have, the way you ignore therapy as a solution until you do something so stupid that you finally give in.

And yes, Evvie and Dean have a relationship beyond just landlord-tenant.

Overall Evvie Drake Starts Over is so sweet and kind and thoughtful that I didn’t want to put it down. And it’s not due back at the library for a couple of weeks, so I might just read it again, for a double-dose of likable characters who are trying to do the right thing.

Fizzy happy romance

Jasmine Guillory writes contemporary romance novels that mostly take place in Oakland, not far from where I live. The places are familiar, the characters are a delight, the situations are vaguely ridiculous but not unbelievable, and I am in the bag for her books.

The Wedding Party is the third in an ongoing series, each focused on different characters. In this case, it’s an enemies-to-lovers plot that takes place between Maddie and Theo, the two best friends of Alexa, from the first book. The action takes place while Alexa and Drew are planning their wedding – so it’s nice to get updates that the happily-ever-after ending from the first book, The Wedding Date, continues to be happily-ever-after.

Maddie and Theo don’t like each other, but the have a spark of chemistry one drunken night and then it just sort of spirals into them actually falling in love. You know how it ends. It’s a romance novel. You’re probably reading it because you want the reassurance that these not-too-screwed-up people are going to have their happy ending, and there will be some dumb decisions and drama along the way to keep you entertained. The Wedding Party delivers exactly what it promises.

Recommended.

Good books that are not for me

Queenie is a fiction book that has been described as a Black Bridget Jones. I don’t know how true that is, but it does take place in London and Queenie is in her twenties, has a strong group of friends, and she does make a lot of bad decisions.

I actually had a lot of problems getting into this book, and I ended up putting it down. The book was well-written, and the fact that I couldn’t get into it says a lot more about me than it does the book. I’m older and have less patience for some of the drama that happens in your twenties. I may have rolled my eyes a couple of times.

Do I recommend Queenie? Absolutely. Was it for me? Nope.

How to do what’s right?

The Nickel Boys is the story of Elwood Curtis. It is the early 1960s and he is a fan of the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr – it appeals to his innate sense of right and wrong and if he can just keep doing the right thing, everything will be fine.

It’s not. He, while trying to get to his college-level classes that he is taking whilst still in high school, hitches a ride with someone who’s just stolen a car. He gets sent to a reform school, Nickel in the book, but based on Florida’s Dozier School for Boys. Elwood becomes friends with Turner, a boy who has come back for his second time.

Their friendship is good and realistic and also a metaphor for how to live responsibly: do you always stand up for what is good and right (Elwood) or do you do what you have to to get by (Turner)? What is the better way to live? The book is not always clear.

It also brought home the precariousness of being Black in the South during and before the Civil Rights Movement, and not for the first time. If you’ve ever seen pictures of Emmett Till, you know how precarious life was for Black Southerners. But I mourned for Elwood and his intelligence and his promise, getting sent to a reform school where terrible things happen because he hitched a ride with the wrong person.

I read The Nickel Boys in one sitting, basically, getting up only to eat dinner. The prose is good and the story is tight. Highly, highly recommended.

Absurdism + Depression makes for good storytelling

The Bell Jar is a classic, and classics… well, lots and lots and lots has already been said about them. I find it difficult to write about them.

There are two things that I found striking about this book. First, the visceral-ness of Esther’s (the main character’s) depression. She is depressed and Plath, who committed suicide, communicates that very effectively. Second, and in marked contrast to the downer of the depression is the absurdity of so much of the actual plot of the book: food poisoning an entire room, at least one failed deflowering of the main character, and the ridiculousness of Esther’s quasi-fiancĂ© Buddy

In fact, these two things play off each other very well. Esther’s depression highlights the surrealism of the plot and the surrealism of the actions throws into relief just how far gone Esther is. She should be having very emotional reactions to everything that’s happening. But all the action is presented very flatly. It’s very effective.

I would recommend The Bell Jar very much. It’s short but effective.

Don’t read this book

The Art Forger looked like it should be good. It really did: a struggling artist solving a puzzle, exploring ideas about authenticity and what it means for something to be real, art history, drama around a theft…

But I just didn’t care. I really didn’t. The Art Forger might have been the wrong book for me right now, but I didn’t enjoy it and I stopped reading it after my required 50 pages (I allow myself to stop reading a book after 50 pages in – that’s enough time for me to get over any initial adjustment period).