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Books

Book & Bottle #6: Halloween edition

Book & Bottle pairs books with booze—a surrogate for my fantasy of one day owning a combination bookstore and bar.

Ling Ma’s Severance and Rob Roy MacGregor, namesake of the book’s cocktail pairing

I am not the kind of person who likes zombie books, not even when they’re dressed up like Jane Austen à la Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Dystopia of any type is not my go-to genre, reality being dystopian enough for me most days, thank you very much. But rules are made to be broken, and Ling Ma’s excellent debut novel from 2018, Severance, proved that, on occasion, I am in fact precisely the kind of person who likes a good zombie novel set in the dystopia of our recent past. 

Given my prejudices, it will not surprise you to learn that what attracted me to the novel in the first place was something other than spending time in the company of the walking dead. Rather, it was the promise of reading a book about work, which was implied in both the title of Ma’s novel as well as the color of its cover—pink, as in slip. I have been trying to write a non-fiction book about work for a few years now, which mostly means I’ve been reading other books about work. My reading list on the subject has veered sharply from the What-Color-Is-Your-Parachute?-type books to fiction, which lately seems to me to do a better job at treating the topic that subsumes the majority of our earthly hours with the imagination it deserves. A line from Severance comes to mind: “When you wake up in a fictitious world, your only frame of reference is fiction.”

But before work: zombies. Or more specifically, the fevered, which is what most of America has become when the novel opens. The fevered—cause unknown, but blamed on spores originating in China—are stuck in a loop of “mimicking old routines and gestures they must have inhabited for years, decades…They could operate the mouse of a dead PC, they could drive stick in a jacked sedan, they could run an empty dishwasher, they could water dead houseplants.” They pose no real threat to the survivors, a fact that the novel’s protagonist and narrator, Candace Chen, points out early in the book to Bob, the aspiring-cult leader of the small band of survivors who rescued Candace semi-conscious from a taxi she stole to get out of New York City. Bob is pontificating about whether their reality is more akin to a zombie or vampire flick—zombie in his estimation since vampire stories are character-driven—when Candace dares to challenge him for the first but not last time. Bob pontificates (and worse) a lot.

The novel slips effortlessly between Candace’s life as a twenty-something in New York City in the runup to the apocalypse and her life as one of the group of survivors dealing with its aftermath. In between slaying zombies—which the survivors do at the end of their supply-collecting “stalks” of the homes of the fevered on the purported ethical grounds of putting them out of their misery—we learn about Candace’s life at work at a book production company call Spectra. There she project manages outsourced-to-China Bible production, a job she fell into through a short-lived romance with the brother of the owner of the company.

Candace, a Visual Arts major and amateur photographer, isn’t particularly enamored of the job, but she is good at it. More than that, she can lose herself in the work.

“I answered emails. I measured spine widths to the exact millimeter. I ordered prototypes of Bibles for clients. I drew up specs for new Bible projects, sent them to the Hong Kong office for an estimate. I calculated the volume and weight of the books to estimate packing and shipping costs. I received a call from an Illinois publisher, and assured their team over speakerphone that the paper for their prayer-book series was indeed FSC certified, without the use of tropical hardwoods. I don’t remember if I took lunch or not.”

Candace’s job reminded me of my twenties, when I spent three years working as a financial analyst at Capitol Records, a deeply unglamorous job with a lot of glamorous trappings, including an office in the iconic tower on Hollywood and Vine. I got enough comp’d tickets to shows to woo my now-husband, but I spent my days in the bowels of Excel macros modeling seasonal variations on CD shipments and returns back in the days when we still had brick and mortar record stores. Like Candace, the terrible and wonderful truth was that I didn’t hate my job. In that job, as in most my jobs, I could find the same flow in mundane tasks as Candace does.

One of the strengths of the novel is how Ma handles such nuances of our relationship to work. Candace’s boyfriend, Jonathan, is a writer who freelances odd jobs to pay his bills and has grown disillusioned with the expense and consumerism of New York. He is a foil to Candace in this way, and although she admires his idealism, she also sees the price he pays. Before he leaves New York for good, Candace thinks but doesn’t tell him, “You think this is freedom but I see the bare, painstakingly cheap way you live, the scrimping and saving, and that is not freedom either.”

Despite the title of the novel, Candace never loses her job. Late in the book we learn that she actually tried to resign after her first year at Spectra, but was talked out it by her boss. She even finishes the lucrative contract she agreed to as the Shen Fever epidemic heightened, a fact she only realizes when she heads to an ATM and finds her account flush with cash from the bonus due on the last day of her contract, November 30, 2011. The catch is that there’s nowhere to spend it anymore. New York has been abandoned.

It turns out that the Severance of the title refers to other types of severance: from China, Candace’s home country; from her parents, who have both died (not from Shen Fever, but from a car crash and dementia, both at a premature age); and from her boyfriend, Jonathan, who left New York just before the fever gets a grip on the city. In the end it is these types of severance that may explain why Candace is spared. Hers is an untethered life, and what little evidence Candace has about the cause of the fever seems to indicate there’s danger in nostalgia, in a longing for a home that no longer exists.

***

What then to drink while reading Severance? At first I was thinking a Bloody Mary, not just for its ghoulish name but because barring the celery—which I think we can all agree is the least best part of a Bloody Mary—its primary ingredients are things that one might reasonably find in a well-preserved state while raiding the pantries of your fellow citizens who’ve been struck down by Shen Fever. But the thing is, a Bloody Mary needs ice, and ice is hard to come by when the power grid is down.

Which then begs the question of what cocktails taste good at room temperature? Friends, meet Rob Roy, a stiff (pun intended) concoction of whisky, bitters, and sweet vermouth that just happens to be named after a seventeenth-century Scottish outlaw turned folk hero, i.e., exactly the kind of guy you would want around in the wake of an apocalypse—the anti-Bob so to speak. Also, the drink was invented at the bar in the Waldorf Astoria, a few blocks away from Times Square, which was a few blocks away from the Spectra office where Candace worked.

But mostly it’s the room temperature thing. I know because I tested it out and can confirm it tastes good that way and also that you won’t care what the temperature is—or about anything else—after a few sips, which strikes me as the kind of thing that would come in handy in the wake of the apocalypse, even if you’re just reading about one.

Books

Book & Bottle #5: Summer Reads edition

Book & Bottle pairs books with booze—a surrogate for my fantasy of one day owning a combination bookstore and bar.

August: the last gasp of summer and with it, the cherished idea of summer reading. The multi-week vacation to the beach where you devour books sounds wonderful but also mythical—at least I don’t know anyone who actually does this, although weekend newspapers and magazines would have you think it’s the norm. I suspect those summer reading spreads, roundups of the what-and-where-the-great-and-good-are-reading-this-summer, are convenient filler for when the journalists themselves are taking a break.

The bulk of my own summer reading happened back in June, plane-side rather than poolside thanks to an unusual spate of mostly work-related travel. Rather than devote this Book & Bottle to a single book as I’ve done in the past, I’ll do like the media do and make this one a roundup of three of my favorite summer reads from that period, pairing literary libations with each. Join me here at the literary poolside of my dreams, where everyone gets a sun lounger, a drink with an umbrella in it, and a hardback so good you’d rather burn to a crisp than put it down to reapply the sunscreen.

Max Porter’s Lanny and Long Island Iced Tea

First up is Max Porter’s Lanny. I’ve been wanting to write about this book since I read it, but it was so good I immediately gave my copy away after finishing it to maximize my chances of having someone else to talk to about it. Set in an English village, it is perhaps the most quintessentially English thing I’ve ever read while simultaneously unlike anything I’ve ever read. The plot centers on the disappearance of a boy, the Lanny of the title, but I hope this doesn’t discourage parents wanting to avoid the vicarious anguish of the setup from reading it; this is not Leïla Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny, with its murderous opening sentence.

While Lanny is the supposed center of the book, he’s more absent than the other characters, even before he disappears. Porter structures the book from the perspective of these other characters, including each of Lanny’s parents; Pete, an artist in the village who at the request of Lanny’s mom gives Lanny art lessons; and Dead Papa Toothwort, a shape-shifting, eavesdropping embodiment of ancient English folklore.

In the face of all this Englishness, my first thought about what drink to pair with Lanny was elderflower champagne. Years ago when I was living in an actual English village, I watched someone make it—on a TV episode of River Cottage—and always thought I’d like to give it a try. Cue visions of a quaint village show, a beribboned bottle of my wares on display next to the other competition winners: plum jam, a wonky brown loaf, a child’s cap knitted in the design of a Christmas pudding.

I never brewed my own elderflower wine, but on any given day in May or June I could have stepped outside our cottage in Gloucestershire, walked a block or two up the road and picked the eight elderflower heads the recipe calls for. Here in San Francisco, though, the closest thing to picking elderflower is ordering a cocktail with St. Germain. Perhaps Lanny would pair better with a traditional cider or perry—also very English, but something I could probably find at a Trader Joe’s.

And then I listened to David Naimon interview Max Porter, and I realized I had been getting this all wrong. Dead Papa Toothwort may be drawn from English folklore, but he’s far from the twee stereotypes of village life. He’s a throbbing hot mess, and Porter tells us as much in the first paragraph of the first page:

Dead Papa Toothwort wakes from his standing nap an acre wide and scrapes off dream dregs of bitumen glistening thick with liquid globs of litter. He lies down to hear hymns of the earth (there are none, so he hums), then he shrinks, cuts himself a mouth with a rusted ring pull and sucks up a wet skin of acid-rich mulch and fruity detrivores. He splits and wobbles, divides and reassembles, coughs up a plastic pot and a petrified condom, briefly pauses as a smashed fiberglass bath stumbles and rips off the mask, feels his face and finds it made of long-buried tannic acid bottles. Victorian rubbish.

Dead Papa Toothwort is, of course, a Long Island Iced Tea incarnate. He could never be anything other than a Long Island Iced Tea, that garbage fire of gin, tequila, rum, triple sec, gin, and Coke that belongs in my personal drinking history to the bar at my southwest Florida hometown Benningan’s (TGI Friday’s cooler cousin) in the early nineties, when I was in my twenties and possessed a constitution that could better withstand the morning after a night of drinking cocktails consisting of five spirits.

These days I fear the bartenders in San Francisco’s hipper establishments may eject you for attempting to order a Long Island Iced Tea, but I’ve done the legwork and am happy to tell you both the Cliff House and The Buena Vista feature a Long Island Iced Tea on their cocktail menus. If you’re ever in town, hit me up for happy hour at either.

Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and Heineken

Ocean Vuong is a poet, and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is his first novel. As someone who has struggled with appreciating poetry—a fact I use as an indictment of my own rigidity, not the form—I welcome when a poet chooses to write in a format that I find more accessible. (Hat tip to poet Patricia Lockwood for her memoir, Priestdaddy, which also fits this bill.) The genre of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a little more amorphous than the words “A Novel” on the cover might have you believe, but it was enough to trick my brain into believing we could read this thing.

This “thing” is anchored by the construct of a son writing a letter to his mother, who cannot read. It is about their lives as Vietnamese Americans in Hartford, Connecticut, and the lives of his grandmother and mother before in Vietnam. In the interviews I’ve listened to with Vuong (he is a compelling speaker, one of those rare writers who’s as eloquent off the page as on), he talks about the importance of writing their experience into the Western canon, of declaring that this experience too is worthy of literature. In one such interview, he drew a striking comparison to what Chaucer was doing with The Canterbury Tales, specifically

writing a new English with no standardized spelling at a time where the Latinate reigned supreme. He stubbornly said, English life in English is worthy, and I think I’m working in the same tradition.

A more contemporary precedent for what Vuong is doing here is Toni Morrison. Following her recent death, I was reminded she did much the same thing for the black experience in America. Curiously, I had earlier thought of Morrison while reading this book, specifically through Vuong’s recurring use of the imagery of a herd of buffalo running off a cliff. The main character, Little Dog, and his grandmother, Lan, watch the scene on a nature program, and Lan asks Little Dog why he thinks the buffalo “die themselves like that.” Later, Little Dog asks the same thing of his lover. Finally, Vuong uses the imagery at the end of the book as part of a metaphor for what Little Dog is running away from and simultaneously embracing. It is reminiscent of the ending of Song of Solomon, when Milkman also leaps and takes flight.

As for the what-bottle-to-pair-with-this-book question, I started by looking for a cue from how booze shows up in the text. Opioid addiction plays an important role, but alcohol is less present. I was, however, struck by a scene where Little Dog’s grandmother, Lan, drinks a single Heineken at a child’s birthday party and, with “her face the shade of raw ground beef,” begins to sing a morbid Vietnamese folk song. The lyrics feature a woman looking for her sister “among corpses strewn across sloping leafy hills.” Even though the song is in Vietnamese and none of the Americans at the party can understand the lyrics, Little Dog’s mom, Rose, is horrified, and tries unsuccessfully to get Lan to stop.

It is a scene that has extreme resonance today (and probably always) as our access to real-time news makes us hyper-aware of the extreme cruelty and injustice in the world, in the face of which we mostly just keep going about our daily lives pretending as if nothing has changed, or if it has, that it doesn’t affect us. Our response is not rational. In this context, Lan is not the crazy one. Lan is the only sane one at the birthday party, her single Heineken a portal to this breakthrough that looks more like a breakdown to everyone else. (Heineken marketers, you can thank me later for this undoubtedly on-brand interpretation 😉.) (See also: The hypersane are among us, if only we are prepared to look.)

So here we are, quite a bit off piste from the fluffy idea of pairing a book with a drink, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that if a beer or some other intoxicant can give us a moment’s access to the pain and suffering in our world in such a way that might be transformative rather than destructive, then by all means consume it.

Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s Heads of the Colored People and Delaware Punch

My final recommendation is Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s Heads of the Colored People, a short story collection focused on the contemporary lives of black people in southern California. Like Vuong, she was motivated by wanting to read experiences that reflected her own, including “more stories about awkward, nerdy black people,” as she explained in a recent interview. Two of my favorite stories are “Belles Lettres”, a bitchy epistolary between two mothers of children at a private school, and “Suicide, Watch”, which features a social-media-obsessed young woman who posts a fake suicide note online, and reads like an episode of Black Mirror.

The setting for many of Thompson-Spires’s stories is the Inland Empire, a huge metropolitan area east of Los Angeles. My mother grew up in San Bernardino, one of the cities of the Inland Empire, and I spent a lot of time there visiting my grandparents as a kid. Most people today know it from the mass shooting that took place in 2015; it is not the kind of place that typically shows up in Literature. And yet here they were, the place names of my summers: Baseline and Foothill, both streets that seem to run forever; Stater Brothers grocery stores; a mall in Montclair.

There was a thrill in recognizing in print these names seared into my childhood brain, markers as we drove the 10 Freeway the seventy miles east from LAX. I was reminded intensely of summer vacations spent at my grandparent’s house, where one of my finest pleasures was to go to the refrigerator in the garage (which, for reasons never explained, was not plugged in and always had a paper bag between the refrigerator and the door that you were supposed to put back in place after you opened it), retrieve a can of Delaware Punch, then drink it over ice from my plastic Disneyland mug featuring a decal of Donald Duck on its transparent base.

Delaware Punch was special, in part because it was nowhere to be found in Florida, the state where I lived at the time. (It’s still almost impossible to find now, save for Amazon where I found a 12-pack for $21.95.) If you’ve never had it, you’ll just have to trust me when I tell you it’s the purple-red, non-carbonated, rocket-fuel-level-of-sugar fruit punch of every child’s dreams. And so for the question of what beverage to pair with Heads of the Colored People I’m going to go away from alcohol and suggest whatever drink is the one that reminds you most of your childhood, or of a place you loved—something from the canon of You, which is as worthy as anything in those other canons preceded by words that start with a capital letter.

Other books I’ve enjoyed this summer:

Books

Book & Bottle #4: A Long Finish by Michael Dibdin paired with Trifula Appassimento Rosso Piemonte

Book & Bottle pairs books with winea surrogate for my fantasy of one day owning a combination bookstore and wine bar.

Having drank up memoir and literary fiction in the first three Book & Bottles, I thought I’d try some genre fiction for the fourth round. When I’ve read detective novels in the past, it’s usually been prompted by a curiosity or affinity with a place, thus Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series set in Venice and Martin O’Brien’s Jacquot novels set in Marseille.

This time was no different. Michael Dibdin’s 1998 Aurelio Zen mystery, A Long Finish, is set in Piedmont in the north of Italy amongst winemakers and truffle hunters. I was jumping into the middle of a series—the sixth of eleven books—but it seemed like a good excuse to get to know more about Barolo and Barbaresco.

In the setup for the novel, a winemaker has been killed in a grisly murder for which his son has been arrested. A famous director and obsessive wine collector based in Rome enlists the services of Dottor Zen, a Criminapol officer—not for the sake of justice, but rather to get the accused son out of jail to ensure that the vintage is produced that year and the director’s wine collection is therefore completed. In return, he will use his clout to help Zen secure a prime location for his next post, a fact that isn’t supposed to make us think less of Zen but rather establish the realities of law enforcement in Italy.

The director gives us our first lesson on wine:

Barolo is the Bach of wine…Strong, supremely structured, a little forbidding, but absolutely fundamental. Barbaresco is the Beethoven, taking those qualities and lifting them to heights of subjective passion and pain that have never been surpassed. And Brunello is its Brahms, the softer, fuller romantic afterglow of so much strenuous excess.

Thankfully we are not subjected to anymore of the director’s pontificating beyond the second chapter. Instead, a mystery within the mystery emerges, this one involving a stalker who calls Zen in his hotel room in Alba using a voice changer to disguise her identity. It turns into one thread in a broader theme of Zen’s obsession with paternity.

The other thread of this theme began earlier when Zen told the director that he has a son, a baby named Carlo. Shortly after we learn that a woman “with whom he had once had a transient, desultory affair” had aborted a pregnancy for which she claimed he was responsible. This pregnancy is presumably the basis for Zen’s earlier declaration of fatherhood, as well as a bizarre episode midway through the book in which Zen inhales some secondhand hashish, mistakes the word “sun” for “son,” then proclaims to his companions, “I never told you I had a son! And I don’t. He’s dead. She killed him, and I wasn’t even there!”

And yet this is nothing compared to the denouement of this particular plot line in which, spoiler alert, Zen decides to let an adult woman—the mystery caller—believe he is her biological father despite having genetic proof otherwise. Perhaps the outcome of his previous experience in the “transient, desultory” affair is supposed to explain this choice, but this is not a plot line that has aged well. Zen rationales to himself,

Acquiring a twenty-something daughter about whom he knew next to nothing certainly promised to be interesting—and if it goes seriously off the rails, a weasel voice reminded him, you can always tell her the truth.

Weasel voice indeed. At this point—actually far earlier—I needed a drink. Forget about the Beethovens and Bachs of wine. I just needed something to get me through the remaining pages without my head blowing off in a feminist rage. Plentiful and cheap were my criteria, and there it was, prominently displayed as I entered the wine store: a €7.99 bottle of a red blend from Piedmont with a truffle hound on the label. (Dibdin would have done well to give us more of Anna, the truffle hound belonging to another local who turns up dead after the winemaker Manlio Vincenzo is first murdered. Alas, we get nothing so likable as a dog.)

The wine was drinkable enough, and the label, twee as it might be, was subtler than some of the similes Dibdin hoists on the reader. My favorites include:

At dawn the next morning, as the dull exhausted light strained to heave the insensible darkness off the lagoon like an elderly whore trying to get out from under a drunken client…

and

A vision of her supine and naked, her large breasts lolling around on her chest like half-trained puppies with a mind of their own.

Clarke-TellTaleHeart

Illustration by Harry Clarke, printed in Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, 1919.

 

Back to the “murder-in-wine-country” strand of the book, things aren’t going much better. The dead winemaker’s son had originally been arrested for his father’s murder under the pretense that his father was a homophobe and the son, who was gay, murdered him in a fit of rage. Soon we learn that, doh!, it was all a big misunderstanding: the son’s betrothed, Andrea, is just an American woman, not the Italian man his father assumed an Andrea would be. Meanwhile, the dead bodies keep piling up.

Despite its flaws, the last chapter of the book, which wraps up the mainline murder plot, is a corker. In his acknowledgements, Dibdin cites Poe and The Cask of Amontillado, claiming “a few echoes of which may be discerned in the second chapter.” I will offer no spoilers here other than to say I think it’s actually the last chapter that’s pure Poe. I haven’t felt so deliciously creeped out by a closing scene since I watched a black-and-white version of The Tell-Tale Heart in my sixth-grade English class. The finish, unlike the rest of the book, wasn’t long enough.

Books Britain Cotswolds England

My England diary: favorite things

Just back from two weeks in England, half in the Cotswolds and half in London. In the former, there were some disheartening changes to one of our favorite pubs in a neighboring village. The old snug bar has been dismantled, its fireplace-facing easy chairs displaced by a pack of dining tables that lend this fifteenth-century pub all the charm of a high street Pizza Express. Still, I wish anybody willing to take on a country pub well. If it was easy, they wouldn’t change hands and shape so often.

The Golden Fleece, Nelson Street, Stroud

Stroud

My disappointment was allayed when I was introduced to a pub, The Golden Fleece, in Stroud that seems to be getting everything right in balancing old and new. We only had time for a half pint, but I look forward to going back and whiling away an entire afternoon there, as our neighbor seemed to be doing with a pint and a paperback.

Instead, we cycled down the canal to check out the relatively newly renovated Stroud Brewery. It’s wildly different than the original, much larger and slicker, and our hearts initially dropped with the sense that another gem had been lost. Then we found a spot in a snug overlooking the vast beer-hall-style ground floor and, over the course of a few hours and a few pints of Alederflower Pale Ale, had a lovely time chatting with our fellow patrons. Vélo Bakery and Pizza is still onsite in the brewery and provided our excellent dinner.

London

In London, our standout meal was a lunch at the Persian restaurant, Berenjak, in Soho. We sat at the counter and watched the team of cooks work the tiny open kitchen, delivering dish after exquisite dish from the clay tanoor over, grill, shawarma spit, and fryer. We chose conservatively but were still rewarded: hummus with taftoon (sourdough seeded flatbread from the tanoor), an aubergine stew, and a fancy riff on a late night kabab, piled on a bed of fries and topped with a hand-tossed lettuce and onion salad, all washed down with a house lager and a Bibble pale ale.

After lunch, we walked over to Second Shelf Books, the jewel box of a bookstore selling first editions of books by women writers. There’s a profile of it here, and it’s a must-visit if you love book stores. I bought a first-edition of Carson McCullers Clock Without Hands after ogling a much more expensive copy of Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado. Like Berenjak, I’ll be back.

Carson McCullers Clock Without Hands
The spoils of my visit to The Second Shelf: A first-edition Carson McCullers


Books

Book & Bottle #3: The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner paired with Il Fait Soif Côtes du Rhône

Book & Bottle pairs books with winea surrogate for my fantasy of one day owning a combination bookstore and wine bar.

In retrospect, choosing Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room as the subject for one of a series that pairs books and wine may have been foolish, or at least open to misinterpretation. The novel’s protagonist, Romy Hall, is sentenced to two consecutive life sentences plus six years in prison for killing her stalker, a customer of hers at the Mars Room, a San Francisco strip club from which the novel takes its title. Much of the action takes place in a high-security prison, the fictional Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in California’s Central Valley, and in highlighting the inhumanity of the place and the circumstances of its inhabitants, Kushner is also making her case for prison reform. That is to say: I could imagine how a person would find it crass to endeavor to pair wine, whose trappings of tastings, vintages, and cellars can be the stuff of the worst kind of middle-class one-upmanship, with a book that makes the point that the bourgeoisie needs to pull its head out of its ass about the evils of the prison industrial complex.

But bear with me here, because in The Mars Room, alcohol, along with food and books, is as plausible an entry point to understanding the world of prison as it is to understanding the more rarefied echelons of society in books like Brideshead Revisited or The Great Gatsby. It’s just that in prison it’s the scarcity of these items that makes them significant. And as with the outside world, they become items people on the inside use to assert their identity and place in the pecking order.

For example, only prisoners with neither money nor visitors eat in the chow hall, where they are allowed ten minutes in enforced silence to do so. The lucky ones dine on microwave hamburgers from vending machines in the visiting area or buy ramen from the canteen. (I appreciate the symmetry here with the fact that “craft” versions of both these foods have become urban restaurant staples in recent years.) Romy has no money, but she learns to uses her prison woodshop responsibility for the CALPIA (California Prison Industry Authority) branding iron to hustle, toasting other prisoners’ bologna sandwiches in exchange for instant coffee.

For more potent drink, necessity is the mother of invention. A recipe for “punch” requires convincing inmates to set aside their psych meds, hiding them in a dab of peanut butter on the roof of the mouth during pill call. The stash of unswallowed pills is then dissolved in iced tea, the results of which culminate in a prison-block party that’s one of the few moments of release for the women in the entire book. As with hamburgers and ramen, I couldn’t help noticing a parallel in my own neighborhood in San Francisco—awash with young people working in tech—where there’s a bar that specializes in punch bowls at $50 a pop. On any given night you can find a group of twenty-something men in hoodies huddled around a picnic table ladling out Southern Hospitality, a punch made of bourbon, peach, lemon, soda, and, yes, iced tea.

Those of us on the outside may have Napa and Sonoma, but Betty LaFrance—former purported Hanes Her Way pantyhose model, current death row inmate convicted of both a hit on her husband and a hit on his hitman—has a different method for making her prison wine. Using a recipe of juice boxes, ketchup packets, and a sock stuffed with bread for the yeast, she distributes her pruno in shampoo bottles via the plumbing system to Romy and her cellmate, Sammy, taking care to ensure their experience is as classy as possible under the circumstances. Even on death row, Betty has a reputation to maintain:

That’s the best hooch at Stanville but you got double-decant it, honey,” Betty shouted to us up the air vent. “Don’t forget to decant. It’s got to breathe.’

Betty sent up a wineglass next, the plastic kind with a screw-on base.

“Where the hell did she this glass?

“The regular way,” Sammy said. “The vault or canoe.”

Women smuggled heroin, tobacco, and cell phones from visiting inside their vaginas and rectums. Betty was smuggling plastic stemware.

Tableware as a symbol of power emerges earlier in the book when Romy recalls an experience that led her to realize she preferred lap dancing to being a paid date, the so-called “girlfriend experience” coveted by many of her colleagues at the strip club.

You start outward, some prick had said to me once about silverware. It wasn’t a thing I’d ever learned, or been taught. He was paying me for the date with him, and in this exchange he felt he didn’t get his money’s worth unless he found small ways to try to humiliate me over the course of the evening.

Romy takes her revenge on her way out of the guy’s hotel room by stealing a bag from Saks Fifth Avenue stuffed with expensive presents for his wife, dumping them in the trash on the way to her car.

Alcohol signifies shifts in hierarchy that favor Romy when, later in the novel, she moves to Los Angeles to try to evade her stalker (not the silverware-police guy). Here she receives unwanted attention from the Guatemalan plumber at her sublet, who invites her to a Mexican restaurant to drink flaming margaritas. When she declines, blaming the headache-inducing properties of the lighter fluid, he re-ups with an offer to go drink white wine, figuring she “was that classy white wine type.” Romy declines, telling him she has to go to work to spare his feelings. Used to being at the wrong end of the power dynamic, she wields her control here with empathy.

***

Like booze, books also play a role in the power dynamics of the prison ecosystem, including the people who work there. Besides Romy, one of the novel’s most developed characters is Gordon Hauser, who has given up on his pursuit of a doctorate in English literature and ended up teaching in the prison system, where despite his better judgement he’s developed a habit of falling for his students.

If his students could learn to think well, to enjoy reading books, some part of them would be uncaged. That was what Gordon Hauser told himself, and what he told them, too.

Gordon sends Romy books from Amazon, which puts her in the ranks of prisoners who receive packages and, by extension, means they have family and friends supporting them from outside. But more than status, the distraction of the content is welcome given the prison library’s catalog is limited to the Bible.

Gordon’s first earnest attempt to select books for Romy falls flat. My Ántonia, To Kill a Mockingbird, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings are books she’s already read, but at least she’s able to trade them for the prison luxuries of shampoo and conditioner. His subsequent choices for her, including Charles Willeford’s Pick-Up, Charles Bukowski’s Factotum, and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son are better. Even though Romy is grooming Gordon to try to help her with her young son, Jackson, she genuinely enjoys his GED-prep class (despite having already graduated from high school) and the books. Later, when Gordon leaves the prison to go to graduate school in social work, Romy reflects on him:

Hauser was earnest and gentle. He would have made a good father. I had no way to get in touch with him to tell him so, and the joke had been on me, even as I thought I was using and manipulating him.

Her attempt to get Gordon to intercede on Jackson’s behalf had fallen flat, but not before she’d gotten him to smuggle her a pair of wire cutters. I don’t think it spoils the ending of a book set in prison to note that the wire cutters ultimately do more to uncage Romy than the books.

***

What wine then to pair with reading The Mars Room? One night while I was reading the book, I went to dinner and ordered a glass of Côtes du Rhône. I like Côtes du Rhône, which probably has something to do with the fact that I learned how to pronounce it early in my wine-drinking days—unlike Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Condrieu, the former of which I only learned how to say when the Beastie Boys featured it in a song lyric and the latter of which I still haven’t mastered. Full of the euphoria of one glass of wine and not too much food, I left the restaurant with the conviction that another glass was just what I needed to accompany the reading I had planned for the rest of my evening. I headed to a wine store and, sticking with a theme, selected a $24 bottle of Côtes du Rhône called Il Fait Soif.

As I paid, the clerk complimented my jacket, a purple velvet Gap blazer circa 2006 with one shoulder faded from having been stored in a closet with a west-facing window. She then complimented my choice of wine, pointing out it was “natural” as if to give me credit for selecting something farmed organically, a fact that wasn’t even mentioned on the bottle. Her undeserved compliments were transparently part of her job, and we were both willing participants in the charade surrounding a retail transaction in which the clerk’s role is to make you feel good about your purchase. My status as a customer at a semi-fancy shop secured my right to be fêted, however fleetingly.

It was an example of the subtle experience of privilege that happens to me multiple times a day, only this time I noticed it because it reminded me of the opposite of most of Romy’s interactions in life. In particular, it stood out in contrast to Romy’s denigration by the “square from Silicon Valley,” who paid her for a date that included an etiquette lesson on which piece of cutlery to use. He’s the kind of guy who would have rules about what wine goes with what dish, who would have memorized particular vintages to sound impressive when ordering, who most certainly would have corrected Romy if she mispronounced the name of a wine. He would not have appreciated the casual recommendation on the vintner’s website to drink Il Fait Soif “when feeling thirsty!”

The wine itself is a blend of 80% Grenache and 20% Syrah and drinks easy. Google later informed me that its name, Il Fait Soif, translates as “it’s thirsty work,” and that the winemakers are a woman, Michèle Aubèry-Lauren, and her son, whose name is on the bottle as the producer. I could spin some awkward logic out the translated name and the female stewardship of the wine to justify it as my choice to pair with The Mars Room, but it’s really just the lack of affectation about both the wine and its marketing that make it a good fit. Romy decidedly has flaws, but you’re still rooting for her throughout, including when she’s trashing Silicon Valley Square’s expensive gifts for his wife. Il Fait Soif is a metaphorical middle finger to such perpetrators of pretension.

Books

Book & Bottle #2: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata* paired with Chu-Hi

The fantasy of owning a combination bookstore and bar has long buoyed me through bouts of tedium that are part of corporate life. The shop would be enlivened by a roster of visiting authors, and we would pair booze with their books for reading/tasting events. While this venture remains unrealized for now, I’ve started mentally preparing by pairing booze with my own reading list and writing down the results. In short, I have concocted an elaborate ruse to drink more booze and read more books.

Convenience Store Heaven

In Convenience Store Woman, Keiko Furukura is the punkiest heroine I’ve met on the page since Viv Albertine’s 2015 memoir of her time in the Slits, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.

We meet Keiko when she’s thirty-six, having worked for the last eighteen years part-time at a convenience store, the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart. It’s a job she started for spare money while at university and, much to the consternation of her family and friends, has never left. In the first twelve pages we also learn that her family is loving and intact—two parents, one younger sister—as well as three anecdotes from her childhood that demonstrate Keiko sees the world differently, in a way that sometimes upsets other people. The first and most innnocuous of these is when she was in nursery school and finds a dead bird in the park, which she suggests they take home and cook for dinner since daddy likes yakitori. Her bewildered mother insists they bury it instead, the logic of which seems especially suspect to Keiko since an improvised funeral for Mr. Budgie requires “murdering flowers.”

While she manages to get through high school and university without creating more of the troubling incidents from her childhood, she is mostly a loner and enters adulthood with the acute feeling that she “had to be cured.” While not exactly a cure, the convenience store offers a reprieve from the undecipherable rules of the outside world that have previously gotten her into trouble.

Inside the brightly lit box, Keiko finds a world she can make sense of, where things happen predictably. Each shift starts with the crew repeating in unison the scripted phrases they use with customers, starting and ending with “Irasshaimasé!”, which means, “Welcome, please come in!” A jingle of coins in a pocket indicates a customer who just wants to buy cigarettes or a newspaper. Hot weather means sandwiches will sell well, cold weather means croquettes will be hot. There are policies and procedures, from what to wear to when to press the alarm. The alarm is never pressed, although she comes close one day when one customer starts yelling at another customer. The manager handles the matter efficiently, and Keiko observes one of the books recurring themes about society and all its microcosms:

A convenience store is a forcibly normalized environment where foreign matter is immediately eliminated.

The staff may change—she’s on manager #8 of her tenure when we meet her—but for the most part things at the convenience store stay, mercifully, nay blissfully for Keiko, the same. This is also good for the store: Keiko is a kick-ass convenience store worker.

*

Wine Kimono
Things I considered buying in the course of writing this

Trying to decide what drink to pair with Convenience Store Woman was challenging. Keiko never drinks alcohol in the book, a fact that’s not commented on but makes implicit sense given the responsibility she feels to keep herself in shape “for the sake of the store.” Food and drink is strictly transactional for Keiko. She “heat treats” rather than cooks her food, and at dinner she stuffs “the food before me into my body so that I would be fit to work again tomorrow.”

One fateful evening—more on this later—while attempting to console a former colleague, Shiraha, she makes him a cup of jasmine tea while she sticks to hot water.

I hadn’t added a teabag since I didn’t really feel any need to drink flavored liquid.

Never has a single line more deftly skewered the world of the coffee and tea-swilling masses.

Keiko does occasionally deign to drink tea when she meets up with a circle of “normal” women coordinated through a friend from school, Miho. She does this not so much because she enjoys it but because they’re a precious resource for her to study the mores of her peers outside the world of the convenience store, from what handbags they carry to the way they coo at a baby or eat their cookies by breaking them into tiny pieces with their perfectly manicured fingers. She clearly sees how they, as well as her colleagues, “infect” each other with their behavior, mimicking clothes and patterns of speech.

Infecting each other like this is how we maintain ourselves as human is what I think.

Despite Keiko’s temperance, I pressed on with the conceit of Book & Bottle and resolved to meet the challenge of choosing something to pair with the book that was easily bought at a convenience store, while also honoring Keiko’s emotionless, non-indulgent relationship with food and drink. Unfortunately, the closest convenience store to my apartment, on a gentrified drag of San Francisco, is not a normal American convenience store. In place of hot dogs and Coors, it stocks Amy’s vegetarian frozen entrees and tallboys of craft-brewed, local IPAs sold at a hefty premium to Safeway. A specialist sake store across the street didn’t seem right either. Instead I headed to the busy Nijiya Market in Japantown, which, according to the ten-cent plastic bag I bought when I checked out, is a chain of Japanese markets in California, Honolulu and Hartsdale, NY.

Standing in front of a boggling array of what I incorrectly assumed was all sake, a young man appeared and pointed at a can called Chu-Hi, telling his friends this with the closest you can get to Strong Zero here in America. I asked him what Strong Zero was, and he explained it’s a Japanese diet soda that’s about 9% alcohol. The $2.99 can in front of me said 6% ABV, just below an image of a grapefruit sliced open and sitting on top of a blue block of ice. Bingo. I had found what I assumed was the Smirnoff Ice of Japan. The Internet later informed me Chu-Hi is fruit soda mixed with shōchū, a Japanese distilled liquor. Developed in eastern Tokyo in the 1940s, Chu-Hi pre-dates Smirnoff Ice by about fifty years.

Strictly speaking I was going off-piste from the “bottle” concept of Book & Bottle, but I liked the affinity my can of Chu-Hi had with the dented canned drinks Keiko buys to take home. Hers come in flavors like lemonade and a tantalizing-sounding chocolate melon, but she’s buying them because they’re damaged goods that can’t otherwise be sold in the convenience store. Keiko describes her motives as utilitarian, and yet I can’t help sentimentally attributing the behavior at least in part to some subconscious empathy for herself.

Sparkling Selection
A sparkling selection at Nijiya Market

*

My assertion of Keiko’s essential punkiness rests on how utterly radical it is of her to be happy with what is generally considered a dead-end job, without a partner or children of her own, which she translates into flatly delivered, direct insights, like:

When you work in a convenience store, people often look down on you for working there. I find this fascinating, and I like to look them in the face when they do this to me. And as I do so I always think: that’s what a human is.

The tension in the story arrives when Keiko bows, sort of, to the pressure from her friends and family to lead a more normal life—husband, kids, a real job. Realizing a lowlife former convenience store colleague, Shiraha, suffers many of the same problems of failing to meet expectations that she does, she opportunistically hatches a scheme where he will move in with her—he’s been kicked out of his apartment—so that they can both appear to have found a partner and be settling down.

The book stays firmly rooted in reality, but the recurring language of “eliminating foreign objects,” especially as the plot takes this extreme turn, is reminiscent of the surreal dystopia of Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2015 film, The Lobster, in which single people are given forty-five days to find a partner or be turned into an animal of their choice. Fittingly, Keiko thinks of her new arrangement as adopting a pet; Shiraha is nothing more to her than an animal she has to feed. And yet everyone around them is delighted.

On the first night that Shiraha moves in, Keiko calls her sister on a whim, as an experiment, to tell her the news. She starts by asking about her nephew, who her sister reports is fast asleep, before delivering yet another of her deadpan, inadvertent reflections on what society recognizes as success:

My sister’s life was progressing. At any rate, a living being that hadn’t existed before was now there with her.

Her sister is over the moon at Keiko’s news of a man in the house.

She was getting carried away with making up a story for herself. She might just as well have been saying I was “cured.”

*

Without wanting to give away too much more of Convenience Store Woman, there’s a period where Keiko loses her profession, and the plot has a brief, eerie overlap with Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation as Keiko takes to mostly full-time sleeping. We never get to see the moment when Keiko zips up her uniform and reclaims her rightful mantle of Convenience Store Worker—a wrong I’m hoping will be righted in a full superhero-suiting-up montage if the book is ever adapted to film—but the book still ends with a scene that suggests rebirth. Alone, Keiko sees herself reflected in the window of the convenience store, reminding her of the hospital where she first saw her newborn nephew. She hears the clerk behind the glass call out the familiar refrain:

“Irasshaimasé!”

Welcome, please come in! My best advice is to heed the invitation. Grab yourself a Chu-Hi—Fresca with vodka would make a convincing facsimile if there’s no Japanese market near you—then head back outside. Cherry blossom season is here. Sit under a tree, crack open your drink and lay into the book. But beware: both have sly charms that will leave you wasted before you know what hit you.

*Convenience Store Woman is translated from Japanese to English by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Books

Book & Bottle #1: The Wine Lover’s Daughter by Anne Fadiman paired with Burgundy & Bordeaux

The fantasy of owning a combination bookstore and wine bar has long buoyed me through bouts of tedium that are part of corporate life. The shop would be enlivened by a roster of visiting authors, and we would pair wines with their books for reading/tasting events. While this venture remains unrealized for now, I’ve started mentally preparing by pairing wine with my own reading list and writing down the results. In short, I have concocted an elaborate ruse to drink more wine and read more books.

Blundering through Bordeaux & Burgundy (with Bake Off on TV in the background)

It’s hard to think of a book that suggests itself more for a series about pairing wine with words than Anne Fadiman’s memoir, The Wine Lover’s Daughter, which aims to preserve her father, the late Clifton Fadiman, in the public memory. Fadiman was a prolific book critic, editor, and writer, as well as popular radio host and committed oenophile. His daughter writes of him:

My father had long associated books and wine; they both sparked conversation, they were both a lifetime project, they were both pleasurable to shelve, they were the only things he collected.

I first came across Clifton Fadiman through the book he co-wrote with John S. Major, The New Lifetime Reading Plan, a compendium of no less an ambitious topic than world literature. He also co-authored, with Sam Aaron, The Joys of Wine, a similarly ambitious encyclopedia of wine. Ambition, or at least extreme industriousness, was a theme in Fadiman’s life. As Anne Fadiman explains, “That’s how he afforded the wine.”

Clifton Fadiman was the editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster at age twenty-eight and the book critic of The New Yorker at twenty-nine. Before that he worked his way through Columbia, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1925. Next he secured an assignment to translate Nietszche in order to finance a trip to Paris, where his first wife had run off with a member of the Italian aristocracy. Their marriage ended, but not before his then-wife facilitated Fadiman’s Damascene moment with wine: an inexpensive bottle of white Graves ordered with lunch at the Bon Marché department store.

This, I thought, was the perfect candidate for a wine pairing with the book. In addition to its symbolic importance in Fadiman’s life story, Graves is in Bordeaux, his favorite wine region. Anne Fadiman attributes her father’s preference for Bordeaux over Burgundy, which he also loved, to this:

Bordeaux are named after châteaux. Castles. The antithesis of an apartment over a Brooklyn drugstore.

Her father’s angst over being the son of lower-middle-class immigrant Jews is a recurring theme in the book. One painful anecdote reveals how anti-Semitic discrimination at Columbia deprived him of his aspiration to be a professor in their English department. While he went on to achieve tremendous success outside of academia, Anne Fadiman writes that her father never got over that snub.

The choice of wine also adhered to my own taste: white Graves varietals are sauvignon blanc and sémillon, which I much prefer over the chardonnay of Burgundy. The die was cast, and I headed to my local wine store where I asked to be directed to the white Burgundy from Graves. The clerk, perhaps accustomed to such gaffes, flatly noted that Graves is in Bordeaux before explaining that they only had red Bordeaux in stock. Reeling with embarrassment—my WASPish self-consciousness as deeply ingrained as Clifton Fadiman’s own insecurities—I followed the clerk across the store to survey the mostly lavishly-priced reds of Bordeaux. Sensing my hesitation, he suggested I try the $30 bottle of Château Tour Peyronneau 2015 Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Merlot they were currently serving by the glass.

This is how I learned that I have unconsciously—perhaps a hangover from the wine snob’s opinions in Sideways—been shunning merlot at my expense. It was delicious, easy-drinking, ripe, fruity stuff. Perhaps too easy since I had not eaten lunch. While waiting to pay for a bottle to take home, I inspected some half bottles by the counter. In my wine-emboldened state, I mistook the two syllables of Bourgogne (the French for Burgundy) for Bordeaux and believed I had in fact found a bottle of white Bordeaux in the shop. At $105 it was not the cheap white Graves of Fadiman’s department store lunch, but Fadiman was all about French vintage wines and I was gripped by the 14%-ABV-induced urge to splash out.

But wait! I spotted ANOTHER half-bottle of white Bourdeaux-nay-Bourgogne, a relative steal at $38. I brought both to the counter, along with the merlot. The clerk, silent if he had in fact detected my latest blunder, rang me up, making me the proud, foolish owner of $143 worth of my least favorite white wine, chardonnay.

This seems like a good time to acknowledge that my enjoyment of wine outstrips my knowledge of it. With French wine I’m most comfortable choosing from other regions, including, in rough order of who’s paying from me to not me, riesling from Alsace, Sancerre (sauvignon blanc from the Loire), and Condrieu (viognier from the northern Rhône).

*

The daughter of Clifton Fadiman would have never mistaken Burgundy for Bordeaux. In a sixth-grade school report she explained that “Bordeaux is bottled in abruptly-shouldered bottles, while Burgundy bottles have more sloping shoulders,” adding parenthetically: “Duh. I’d known that since I was six.” In sixth grade she also knew the names of Premier Cru, and some Grand Cru, Burgundies; a slew of oenological terms; and that most of the Great Years were odd numbers, including ’29, ’45, ’49, and ’59.

Despite knowing her way around a cellar, Anne Fadiman serves her memoir in mostly short chapters, a friendly list of wines-by-the glass rather than an imposing carte des vins. There are charming anecdotes and trivia, from a letter Hemingway drunkenly wrote to her father—in response to reviews of Hemingway’s short story collection Winner Take Nothing—to the revelation that the glass Julia Child raised when she toasted “Bon appétit!” on TV was filled with nothing more than water tinted with Gravy Master.

Fadiman’s vignettes portray a childhood that was generally idyllic and her love for her father is evident, but she’s also able to assess him with relative clarity. When she can’t she allows others to do so, as when towards the end of the book—long after the reader has already deduced the same—she lets her older brother explain why neither of them particularly like wine: “Because we didn’t need to escape our origins.”

Although Clifton Fadiman seemed to carry the burden of impostor syndrome with him no matter how famous or wealthy he became, he was also willing to admit when he made a mistake. When he was at The New Yorker, his last column of each year reappraised the books he had reviewed unfairly, or missed, over the past twelve months. His taste in wine, which had been dominated by old Europe, also changed, becoming more expansive. In his late sixties he moved up the coast from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara and developed an interest in California wines. By his mid-eighties, Greece, Chile, Australia, Corsica, and Yugoslavia had made forays into his wine cellar. Anne Fadiman writes that:

I knew he’d really loosened up the night he drank a German white with a large plate of spaghetti.

As for me, the bottle of Château Tour Peyronneau is now gone, most of it drunk with a bowl of lentil soup and a za’atar flat bread at a BYOB Lebanese restaurant. It may not have been a classic food and wine pairing, but it was in the spirit of Fadiman, who always drank his wine with food—sharing a bottle with his second wife and Anne Fadiman’s mother, Annalee Whitmore Jacoby Fadiman, with dinner every night. My two pricey half-bottles of chardonnay remain untouched as I mull over the possibilities for their disposal. I could give them away to a friend who loves chardonnay, but there would be stubbornness lurking in the gesture. Better that we share them; if Clifton “Kip” Fadiman can drink silvaner with spaghetti, there’s hope for my palate yet. It would be delicious to be wrong.

Books

2018: My Year in Books

Ramon Casas i Carbó’s After the Ball, one of the images featured in Stefan Bollman’s Women Who Read Are Dangerous

When I was in second grade, my teacher held a contest to see who could read the most books in a month. She hadn’t set any rules about the kind of books that counted, and I quickly realized I could rack up my tally by opting for short books that were meant for younger children. Little Golden Books, which were sold near the checkout at our local grocery store, Food World, were just that sort of book. My mother, perhaps relieved I was begging for books instead of candy bars, indulged me. I won the contest handily.

This year, short books have once again dominated my reading. I could blame Twitter for strip mining my attention span, but whatever the reason, I credit short books for getting me over a mid-year reading hump. First to break the impasse was writer and activist Sara Marchant’s novella, The Driveway Has Two Sides, which I devoured in a weekend. After that Nancy Mitford’s slim comedy of manners, The Pursuit of Love, gave me a British fix full of interesting women navigating the period between world wars. Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams was the perfect choice for October—not exactly a ghost story but a spooky masterpiece in 116 pages. Olivia Laing’s much-talked about contemporary novel Crudo wasn’t as enjoyable as I hoped but was more than curious enough to sustain its 133 pages. I had moved onto Deborah Levy’s brief, excellent memoir (the second of a trio) about womanhood and writing, The Cost of Living, before it dawned on me that my recent run on reading had been fueled almost entirely by books under 200-pages long. 

Not surprisingly, essay collections that bring the satisfaction of completing something in a handful of pages have also featured in my reading list for the year. David Sedaris’s Calypso provided the expected dose of wince-inducing humor as well as stark, raw writing about his family. The “Best American” series of anthologies produced its first ever edition on food writing (what took so long?), including one of my favorite tweeters and food writer at The New Yorker, Helen Rosner, and the late great Jonathan Gold, plus exposing me to terrific pieces by Tejal Rao, Lauren Michelle Jackson, and Khushbu Shah. I’m currently dipping in and out of Human Relations & Other Difficulties, a collection of pieces by London Review of Books editor and woman-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up, Mary-Kay Wilmers.

My peak good-things-come-in-small-packages literary moment was when I bought a dwarsligger edition of a John Green novel. Dwarsligger is the Dutch term for a deck-of-cards-sized horizontal book, a format that’s popular in the Netherlands. I had no desire to read a YA novel, but I was curious to know if the form factor delivered on the promise of one-handed reading, and the concept was being tested in America with reissues of Green’s books. A New York Times article had likened turning a dwarsligger’s page to “swiping a smartphone,” but my hopes for tricking my brain into replacing my Twitter addiction were quickly dashed. Reading a dwarsligger was decidedly a two-handed experience, and mine is being re-purposed as a stocking stuffer for my tweenie niece. Maybe she’ll get it.

Vintage Trailer Rally Happiness

At the other end of the size spectrum, 2018 was the year I started buying coffee table books. I suspect this might be an indicator as telling as my reading glasses that I’m utterly middle-aged, but I enjoyed buying books I felt no particular obligation to read. These included Vintage Camper Trailer Rallies, a purchase that foreshadowed my husband’s and my purchase of a 1959 Shasta, complete with silver wings and an avocado-upholstered banquette. We even attended our very first vintage trailer rally, but as visitors rather than campers. Turns out getting a camping slot in these events is more challenging than getting past the bouncer at Berghain. Still, the visual feast of a day visit was well worth the trip.

Not content with physical objects, 2018 was also the year I delved deeper into book-related podcasts. The New Yorker Fiction Podcast is my favorite for reading-while-walking, and Harriett Gilbert’s A Good Read is just my favorite. New, welcome discoveries were Between the Covers and Literary Friction, the latter of which featured an interview with Ottessa Moshfegh, writer of my favorite full-length novel of the year, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I liked it so much I wrote about it here, as I did with my other favorite novel of the year, Rachel Cusk’s Kudos. Oh, and I’d hate to leave out my other other favorite novel I read this year, George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo. I’m looking forward to delving back into the Between the Covers archive to listen to the interview with him.

My year in books unwittingly extended itself to film, too. My favorites all have some connection to books, like Can You Ever Forgive Me, based on the late writer Lee Israel’s memoir about how, when down on her luck, she began to forge letters by authors like Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward. Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant are a delight in it. I also loved the post-Hundred-Acre-Wood Christopher Robin starring Ewan McGregor. For sheer froth, it doesn’t get dishier than the documentary, Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, based on a memoir by Scotty Bowers about his role arranging liaisons for gay actors and celebrities in the mid-twentieth century. Finally, watching the film adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife (with Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce) made me feel less bad that I haven’t managed to read her 2018 novel that showed up on almost every best-books-of-this-year listThe Female Persuasion.

What I hate most about those best-books-of-the-year lists is how they all come out in November or early December, well-timed for encouraging holiday gift purchases of books, but almost crass in their dismissal of the possibility December might bring. I, for one, am not giving up on my reading for the year yet and just bought National Book Award-winner Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend. At a mere 212 pages, I’m pretty sure I can fit it in before the year’s out, which will bring my tally of books read for the year to twenty. The pleasure I get from reading is far beyond a number on a list, but twenty is pleasingly round and the second grader in me is grinning at the prospect of hitting it. 

Books

Best of the Best-Books-of-2018 lists

Are these the best books of 2018?

 

Earlier this year I had the idea for Booketlist, an app to help avid readers create and manage a lifetime reading plan—because so many books, so little time. To determine what classics should be included, I’m turning to books like Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major’s The New Lifetime Reading Plan and Michael Dirda’s Reading Classics for Pleasure for inspiration. But when it comes to contemporary literature, the task gets harder. Has enough time passed to know what the classics of the twenty-first century are? How best to keep the app up-to-date each year as more and more books are published?

To examine that question, I took a look at three of the recently published 2018 end-of-year lists from prominent English language (two American, one British) media organizations:

  1. NPR’s Book Concierge for 2018 (319 books)
  2. The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2018 (as you might expect, this list encompasses the NYT’s 10 Best Books of 2018)
  3. The Financial Times Books of the Year 2018 (195 books)

Each list is a different beast that I’ll talk about in a separate post dedicated to making sense of these lists. For now, I’ll jump straight to the results of which books show up on all three lists. In alphabetical order by title, grouped by non-fiction and fiction, the nine books that are common between these three best-of lists are:

Non-Fiction

  1. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup – John Carreyrou
  2. Educated – Tara Westover (This title made this list thanks to a reader nomination on the FT list. The FT is the only list of the three that includes a readers’ best books section.)
  3. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence – Michael Pollan
  4. Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World – Anand Giridharadas

Fiction

  1. Asymmetry – Lisa Halliday
  2. Lake Success – Gary Shteyngart
  3. The Female Persuasion – Meg Wolitzer
  4. The Friend – Sigrid Nunez
  5. Washington Black – Esi Edugyan

What does this list of nine books tell us about 2018? Perhaps it’s the wrong question since they would have been written in the years before their publication. But do they contribute to some kind of thematically linked contemporary portrait? In non-fiction, we find a tale of misdeeds in Silicon Valley, a memoir of a woman who grew up with a survivalist father, a re-examination of LSD in an age of increasing legalization of drugs from the man who taught us about the ethics of food, and a critique of the elites’ ability to change the world for good—a nice link straight back to Bad Blood and the misdeeds of Silicon Valley.

In fiction, we find a novel comprised of two novellas, one about an affair between a younger and older person, the other about the detention of an Iraqi-American; a Wall Street bro on a road trip; a novel about feminism and women’s mentoring relationships; another about suicide and womanizing and power imbalance; and finally, one about slavery and adventure. A line from the synopsis of Halliday’s Asymmetry seems a neat summary of the group of all nine books as well, each of which in some way “explores the imbalances that spark and sustain many of our most dramatic human relations: inequities in age, power, talent, wealth, fame, geography, and justice.” While these imbalances are timeless themes, they have particularly contemporary resonance in our age of #metoo, BLM, refugee crises, wealth inequality, political strongmen, and the Kardashians, to name a few.

*

I started this process by comparing The New York Times’s 100 to NPR’s list of 319 books. I assumed I’d find almost all the NYT books on the NPR list, but there were less than half—45 to be exact—in common. Here’s that list, also in alphabetical order by title, grouped by non-fiction and fiction.

Non-Fiction 

  1. American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey Into the Business of Punishment – Shane Bauer
  2. Arthur Ashe: A Life – Raymond Arsenault
  3. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup – John Carreyrou
  4. Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis – Sam Anderson
  5. Calypso – David Sedaris
  6. Educated – Tara Westover
  7. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress– Steven Pinker
  8. Feel Free – Zadie Smith
  9. God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State – Lawrence Wright
  10. Heavy: An American Memoir – Kiese Laymon
  11. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence – Michael Pollan
  12. In Pieces – Sally Field
  13. Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro – Rachel Slade
  14. Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret – Craig Brown
  15. Small Fry – Lisa Brennan-Jobs
  16. The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War – Joanne B. Freeman
  17. The Fifth Risk – Michael Lewis
  18. The Library Book – Susan Orlean
  19. There Will Be No Miracles Here – Casey Gerald
  20. These Truths: A History of the United States – Jill Lepore
  21. Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World – Anand Giridharadas

Fiction – Here I noted if the book had been nominated for a National Book Award or the Man Booker Prize, as well as genre where the book is something other than a novel of literary fiction. The inclusion of four Man Booker nominees on the list highlights the omission of the winner, Northern Irish writer Anna Burns’s Milkman, and the folly of publishing best-of lists at the end of November: the novel’s US release date is December 4, 2018, and it was included in the British FT’s best-of list.

  1. An American Marriage – Tayari Jones (National Book Award finalist)
  2. Asymmetry – Lisa Halliday
  3. Crudo – Olivia Laing
  4. Freshwater – Akwaeke Emezi
  5. Lake Success – Gary Shteyngart
  6. My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh
  7. Only to Sleep: A Philip Marlowe Novel – Lawrence Osborne (thriller)
  8. Sabrina – Nick Drnaso (graphic novel)
  9. Severance – Ling Ma
  10. Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik
  11. The Female Persuasion – Meg Wolitzer
  12. The Friend – Sigrid Nunez (National Book Award winner)
  13. The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (National Book Award finalist)
  14. The House of Broken Angels – Luis Alberto Urrea
  15. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden – Denis Johnson
  16. The Mars Room – Rachel Kushner (Man Booker Prize shortlist)
  17. The Overstory – Richard Powers (Man Booker Prize shortlist)
  18. The Perfect Nanny – Leila Slimani
  19. The Sparsholt Affair – Alan Hollinghurst
  20. The Witch Elm – Tana French (thriller)
  21. There There – Tommy Orange (National Book Award finalist)
  22. Warlight – Michael Ondaatje (Man Booker Prize longlist)
  23. Washington Black – Esi Edugyan (Man Booker Prize shortlist)
  24. Your Duck Is My Duck – Deborah Eisenberg (stories)

A final note: I built these lists mostly with Excel and eyeballing titles rather than by dumping the data into a database and systematically querying it, ie there may be mistakes. Please let me know if you notice any.

Books Britain England

My England Diary

Cheltenham Literature Festival

Listening to the radio on the drive to Heathrow after two weeks in England, host Richard Coles (current vicar, former pop-band member) mentions the “deep seams of embarrassment” that are core to the British psyche. His assertion is that tapping into these seams is the key to British stand-up comedy. It strikes a chord with me, too. This more than tea and scones, Shakespeare, cozy pubs or any other emblems of twee Britannia, is the root of my Anglophilia. I am, at heart, a congenitally embarrassed American.

Embarrassment has been a sort of leitmotif of my visit, which coincided with the annual Cheltenham Literature Festival. As with past years when I’ve been able to attend, one of the festival highlights was the event featuring four of the Man Booker Prize finalists (alas not the winner, Anna Burns). When Rachel Kushner, author of The Mars Room, stood at the lectern and started to read, she immediately interrupted herself to ask the person in the audience that sounded like they were slurping their drink through a straw to please stop. She did this with a sort of comic abrasiveness that elicited a laugh from the audience. No sooner had she started again than she interrupted herself once more to ask the offender to really, please stop. At this point someone near the front of the auditorium helpfully called out to Kushner that the noise distracting her was someone with breathing difficulties. I died inside for Kushner, wondering how she would handle the faux pas. In her shoes, I would have apologized profusely and immediately left the stage while self-flagellating with my belt or whatever object made itself available. Kushner instead gave a subtle, self-deprecating wince and immediately got back to her reading, which was dazzling and therefore effective on its own at moving the audience on from what had just happened.

After the event, all the authors shared a table for the book signing. Robin Robertson, author of The Long Take, a novel partially in verse that was one of the long shots for the prize, sat quietly with his hands folded, waiting for an autograph-seeking reader to materialize while his fellow nominees wielded their Sharpies with abandon. I was in line waiting for Kushner to sign a copy of her book, but such was my unsolicited self-consciousness on behalf of Robertson that I almost bought a copy of his book and asked him to sign it to alleviate my own discomfort—despite having enjoyed his reading the least of the four authors on stage. (Now I feel bad about saying I didn’t particularly enjoy it. To atone for this, I will add that it’s an epic novel about a World War II veteran set in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and you should definitely buy it if that sounds like your kind of thing.)

Me looking not at all embarrassed to be holding a book about poverty while eating in a gastropub.

 

In the end I bought four books over the course of the festival. In addition to Kushner’s The Mars Room, I also got Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari (his talk was the other highlight of my experience at the festival), Olivia Laing’s Crudo, and Sally Rooney’s Normal People (from the delightful The Suffolk Anthology bookstore). In the past I’ve feigned embarrassment on social media over my unbridled acquisition of books, but this is at least one area where I’ve managed to cure my own feelings of self-consciousness. My corporate job is fine as far as corporate jobs go, but the one unfettered joy its compensation brings me is the liberty to buy books whenever the mood strikes, which is often. It’s a pleasure to compensate authors—who pour years of their lives into this work—and stimulate my intellect, or simply decorate my shelves, with this sort of material indulgence. For this I offer no apology, feigned or otherwise.

***

After Cheltenham, we spent a couple nights in London, including one with an old if not particularly close friend of my husband’s. He and his family live in a home in North London that’s like the kind of home you see in a film like Notting Hill. He’s very hospitable—especially considering we see him approximately once every seven or eight years—and most striking, perhaps the least embarrassed British person I’ve ever met.

One way this manifests is in the almost-delightful-in-its-unselfconsciousness amount of namedropping he manages over the course of the ten or so hours we spend in his home. The next morning over coffee my husband and I tot up the list and come up with:

  1. Neil Kinnock, a former British politician who, apropos of nothing, our host informed us was the father of someone he and his family had recently vacationed with.
  2. The actor Damien Lewis’s brother, who is either a producer (like our host) or a director and whose profession I misstated as one of those at some point in the evening, only to be sternly corrected. Our host also gleefully explained how he and Mr. Lewis’s brother refer to Mr. Lewis as a cat’s arse because of the way he puckers his mouth. It is an image I can’t quite shake and am worried is going to affect my enjoyment in watching Billions.
  3. A British actor who plays a captain on Star Trek whose name I can’t remember, but is not Patrick Stewart, who I definitely would’ve remembered.
  4. Richard Curtis (screenwriter of Notting Hill, appropriately), his partner Emma Freud (great-granddaughter of Sigmund), and their daughter Scarlett, who coincidentally interviewed her father at an event I’d attended in Cheltenham the previous Saturday. Our hosts reliably inform us the Curtis clans runs herd over an entire village in Suffolk before thrusting a copy of the new Scarlett Curtis-curated anthology, Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and Other Lies, at me and insisting I take it. The implication is that their connection to the Curtises has somehow resulted in them having a stash in a cupboard somewhere.
  5. Elton John, mentioned when I asked about a painting hanging in the hallway—a riff on a Penguin book cover—that I liked. Apparently the painter, Harland Miller, is “big with celebrities” like Sir Elton, but our host acquired this piece long before that was the case, natch.

If our host is reading this—which he’s almost certainly not—please don’t be mad, and please keep inviting us to stay at your house every seven or so years so you can regale us with throwaways about famous people. We shamelessly like it.

***

And now on a plane back to California, where I’m writing this. Early in the flight I was annoyed by a young woman speaking loudly. Assuming it was someone wearing headphones who didn’t realize they were talking at such a high volume, I was keen to catch their eye and give them the kind of disapproving look I’ve perfected for such occasions on shared transit. Then, in a flash, I remembered Kushner’s misstep in Cheltenham and wondered if the person speaking loudly may have an impairment. She did, which I discovered shortly into the flight when she was helped to the bathroom by her caregiver. I breathed a sigh of relief I hadn’t given her daggers earlier and said a silent thank you to Kushner for sparing me the mortification if I had.