I’ve been in a reading slump for awhile now, though it’s hard to say why it persisted for so long. Earlier in the summer I embarked on a necessary professional transition, which is to say I wasn’t happy in my position and I did the thing where you update your written list of credentials, send them off for consideration, and then hope you get to talk to someone else about something else. I did, they were, in fact, considered, and now I’m here, though in the excitement and newness I forgot how unsettling it all can be. It’s not so much the taking on of new responsibilities that’s most daunting, honestly. It’s getting comfortable in one space, good or bad, and then feeling uprooted and exposed in your dailiness. Walking into the office with wet hair after a morning run, learning the accepted etiquette of eating at your desk (or not). Feeling like you have to sit in your chair until 5 o’clock on the dot, whereas before 4:45 was an anomaly. Though, most of all, simply feeling unknown and waiting for those little crumbs of acknowledgement and acceptance.
The recommendation to read Laurie Frankel’s This Is How It Always Is came with a caveat: don’t ready anything about the book, not even the description on the book jacket, just start reading it. So, this is precisely how I proceeded, and having since gone back and read all these previously banned descriptions, I’m glad I avoided them. I don’t think they gave too much away, but I think they framed the story in a way that I wouldn’t have wanted to accept going into it. This post will more than likely contain spoilers, so if you too want to go into the book with a completely clean slate, now is the time to jump off this post, read the book, and pop back in to see how you felt about the book and its imposed framework.
As someone whose professional life exists in the almighty digital world, reading Doree Shafrir’s Startup felt a little too familiar. While I’ve never worked for a bona fide startup, I have dabbled in the agency world where terms like “gamification” and “market disrupter” were part of the daily buzz. If a company has to heavily promote a certain culture of free food, alcoholic beverages, and a jeans-inclusive dress code, I’ve learned to run the other way. There’s a reason these places have to promote their perks so heavily. When you get a call at 10 o’clock on a Friday night from a client with outrageous expectations, you will happily trade the jeans and the beer for, say, boundaries and a personal life.
In preparation for reading Sarah Shoemaker’s Mr. Rochester, I did my due diligence and put in the time to reread Jane Eyre. I honestly wasn’t expecting to get as much out of it as I did, and as someone who has been reluctant to reread in the past in the name of an ever growing wishlist of new things to explore, I severely underestimated the wealth to be found in studying a familiar story. I was more capable of picking up on nuances and subtleties that would have otherwise been lost on me if I hadn’t had a loose recollection of where the story was going, and I felt like I heard Bronte’s voice more strongly than I did in my first pass. I also realized how little of the actual story I did, in fact, remember, so it wasn’t nearly as repetitive as I had anticipated.
After taking a week to reread Jane Eyre, I immediately dove into Sarah Shoemaker’s soon to be released (May 9th) book Mr. Rochester. As the title implies, Mr. Rochester aims to give voice to Jane’s difficult, and notably ugly, love interest, Edward Rochester. Mr. Rochester takes us through Edward’s childhood, from boarding school as a young boy, through an apprenticeship with a mill owner, to the West Indies, and then back to England and through the time period we are already familiar with in Jane Eyre. This historical span felt quite ambitious, and as I had just read Jane Eyre itself, the most pressing question seemed to be how well Mr. Rochester succeeded in creating a viable voice for Mr. Rochester, and furthermore how Shoemaker’s imagined history enhanced Mr. Rochester’s story.
Every once in a blue moon you stumble upon a book that is so absorbing, so rich, you feel its aftershock long after you put it down. Life feels a little deeper, a little more illuminated, and your bar for exceptional writing is raised a few notches. Yan Lianke’s The Explosion Chronicles was one of these experiences for me. The Explosion Chronicles is a satirical history of Explosion, a burgeoning municipality, written by a not so fictional chronicler named Yan Lianke, who documents Explosion’s growth from village to metropolis. The story is both big and small; Explosion’s history is sweeping, but the novel itself is full of fascinating moments, illustrated by a force that feels mythical in its ability to pull in the natural world. Flowers bloom or die in response to events, weather is subject to persuasion. Explosion’s rapid growth lies at the hands of the Kong family, namely its second oldest son, Kong Mingliang, who will stop at nothing to see Explosion rise to its urban peak.
What if? In a fantastic exploration of the implications of a single kiss, Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth asks us to consider how our lives become inextricably connected by one event, one relationship, or how this singular event fans out into decades worth of history in a way that makes it impossible to tease out individual threads. Commonwealth tells the story of the Cousins and Keatings families, and the events that unfold as a result of Bert Cousins crashing baby Fanny Keating’s christening party with a bottle of gin. He peripherally knows her father, and attends the event only as a way to avoid his own small children and wife. The gin is an unlikely gift for a christening, a last minute grab on the way out the door, but it is the vehicle that allows Bert to kiss Franny’s mother, Beverly, and kicks off a relationship that forever alters both families. Beverly leaves Fix Keating, her first husband, to marry Bert, and then Bert and Beverly relocate from California to Bert’s native Virginia. There are six children between both families; Caroline and Franny (Frances) Keating, and Cal, Holly, Jeannette, and Albie Cousins.
There are few stories you have the pleasure to experience that you could inhabit indefinitely, and A Gentleman in Moscow was one of these all-encompassing literary worlds for me. The language, the structure of the book, where do I begin? A Gentleman in Moscow tells the story of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, who is sentenced to house arrest in 1920’s Russia for writing a subversive poem, or subversive as deemed by his prosecutors. He is confined to life in the Metropol, a luxury hotel in the center of Moscow, though he must give up his previously occupied ritzy suite for more cramped quarters on the hotel’s upper floor. Still, this fate seems better than death or banishment, and aside from the limitations of the hotel itself, life for the Count carries on in some semblance of normalcy. Within the Metropol he is free to do as he pleases. He dines at the hotel’s restaurants, makes use of any of its services (barbershop, seamstress), and is also free to interact with other hotel guests without limitations. While we don’t leave the hotel either, we get snippets of the larger Russian climate as it comes through the Metropol via an expanding cast of characters.
Last night Mr. Brain and I finally got around to watching the movie adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s Room. I loved the book, marveled at the insight into Jack’s psyche, though as I read it some time ago, I had a lot of space between my reading and viewing experiences. Still, it’s not an easily forgotten story and I was very curious to see how it would play out as a movie. So much of the story is filtered through Jack, which is how the horror becomes almost palatable. If Room is the only world you know, it’s not so bad.
It should have been so easy to be happy.
I have a book hangover. I loved Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot. I mean, I really loved it, and I feel sort of cheated that I didn’t get to say goodbye to its cast of characters and wish them all well before having to return this book to the library. I didn’t anticipate that I would like this book so much, and I almost didn’t read it, but I am ever so grateful that I did. What Alice Forgot is sneakily thoughtful, and the question it sets out to answer is more profound than it first seems at the book’s beginning. What would it be like to confront your current life with your past self?