Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

"Gracious: A Practical Primer on Charm, Tact, and Unsinkable Strength" by Kelly Williams Brown

So of course after reading Adulting, when I saw that the same author had written a book on how to be gracious, I had to read it too. Because (if you hadn't noticed) I'm not exactly a bastion of tact. And in recent years I've begun to feel as if maybe I should be.

I had fun reading this book, but sadly, I failed to come away with a Plan for How to Be a Better Person. I feel like it's mostly about how to be gracious in situations where I don't often find myself (like social media--this blog doesn't count!--or entertaining guests in my home. Although reading this kind of made me want to entertain guests in my home but I'm just waiting for that little flame to burn out.)

Despite not finding a concrete system in this book, there certainly is an underlying theme of "be more thoughtful and polite," and Sam and I are trying to incorporate that into our lives. Sometimes all that amounts to is us wondering "how could I be more gracious in this situation?" and not finding a way. But it's a start.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

"Cozy Minimalist Home: More Style, Less Stuff" by Myquillen Smith

Here's yet another book that suckered me into purchasing it during that fateful pre-Valentie's-Day trip to Target. It was the title that got me: Who doesn't want their home to be cozy? Who isn't intrigued (and maybe a little bit scared) by the concept of minimalism? Who wouldn't want to have a stylish home with less stuff instead of more? Well, not me. (Yes, I don't not want those things.) So I bought the book. (Never mind the the fact that this means I added yet another thing to my home.)

I should have paid more attention to the photos when I was deciding whether to buy the book. There's nothing inherently wrong with the denim chair and uniquely-textured blanket on the front cover, though they're not quite my style . . . but I should have known that if this was the flagship photo, it wouldn't get better from there. And I did notice something inside the book before I bought it, which is definitely not my decorating style and can be summed up in one word: antlers. But I ignored these warnings and bought it anyway.

This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy reading the book in a cozy, albeit minimal, way. I even made it to Chapter 6 before I really started to worry. But on page 111, when the author suggested I start moving furniture around to the accompaniment of banjo music, I lost all faith. I was only halfway through the book. I *did* manage to finish the entire thing, but it definitely isn't a keeper and won't go down in the annals of fame as one of Kathy's Favorite Decorating Books (The Inspired Room, I'm looking at you . . . with sappy loving doe eyes).

So I will finish this post with a list of reasons this book was not for me:

  1. Not my style. (Oh, did I mention that already?) I'm all for cozy! And I like the idea of minimalism, if it can be cozy as well. But I did not care for the design suggestions pictured in the book.
  2. The method is TOO HARD. I hate moving, I hate chaos, I hate scrapping everything and starting over at the very beginning. Myquillen Smith asked me to do everything I hate. I just want to make small changes and add little touches in my home, not move in all over again (even if it's just one room at a time).
  3. I didn't come away with any good ideas for my own home. I'm sure this is mostly due to my unwillingness to follow the method. But also due to my unwillingness to decorate with antlers. 

Hey, do you want this book? Let me know and I will send it to you. Not that I've particularly made it sound like something you've gotta have. But I took my chances with it, and now you can too. Who knows, maybe you'll find it's your thing. Do you like antlers? 

Friday, March 1, 2019

"The Woman in the Window" by A.J. Finn

I remember seeing this book piled up in Target and Walmart when it first came out and thinking how uninterested I was: it just seemed like a very obvious copycat publication - the next Gone Girl on the Train, blah blah blah. Now, I loved Gone Girl when I first read it, and was gripped by The Girl on the Train, so I'm not quite sure why I was so dismissive about this one. But it turns out that my instinct was correct.

The Woman in the Window is a fairly generic piece of fiction, much less interesting than the life story of its author, which is what lured me into reading it in the first place. A.J. Finn's real name is Daniel Mallory. He was recently the subject of a very long and entertaining, if slightly horrifying, New Yorker exposé by Ian Parker. Mallory, who is a huge Patricia Highsmith fan and had supposedly written a doctorate (that 'supposedly' is a key, recurring word, where Mallory is concerned) on homoeroticism in Highsmith's novels, was, apparently, a bit of a Talented Mr Ripley himself: a pathological liar who invented whole tragedies for himself and his family as a way of furthering his career, or perhaps because he was mentally ill (his version). Suddenly, The Woman in the Window seemed a lot more intriguing. So I bought it...

But I did not devour it. It turns out that a novel written by an amoral sociopath is a lot less interesting than a novel about an amoral sociopath. Or, at least, a lot less interesting than Patricia Highsmith's novels about amoral sociopaths. Because everything that I love about Highsmith's novels - the psychological depth, the dark wit, the subversiveness - is missing here. Mallory is not a bad writer, exactly - there is at least one beautiful sentence in this novel, though I can't remember now what it was - but I had the feeling throughout this book that he was very deliberately pandering to the lowest common denominator. Indeed, everything about this book is almost soul-crushingly cynical, from its author-penned advance praise to its massive international success.

Let's start with the prose. Very short sentences, very short paragraphs, very short chapters. Lots of dialogue. Active verbs, verbing actively. Hyperbolic imagery. It's quite striking to start with, and then you realise: the whole thing is written this way. It's like a tabloid newspaper version of a novel. It's like reading 400 pages of capped-up, italicised text: the intention is clearly to be as VIVID and INTENSE as possible, but the actual effect is cliched and wearying.

Then the plot: 'contrived' does not even cover it. 'Formulaic'? Yeah, that too. I liked the references to Hitchcock movies, up to a point, but the problem was that The Woman in the Window never rose beyond the level of pastiche. The characters were all paper-thin, except for the narrator, who was too obviously designed to make the reader like/feel sorry for her, after initially mistrusting/disliking her.

Most damningly, I just wasn't hooked on the story in the way I was with Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train. True, I didn't guess whodunnit. But then, I didn't try to guess. Because I didn't care. The fact that this slight, 'page-turning thriller' took me several weeks to get through probably tells you all you need to know about it. If, by some miracle, you're not one of the millions of poor suckers who has already bought and read it...

'No Time to Spare' by Ursula K. Le Guin

The subtitle to this collection of essays (originally published as blogs, between 2010 and 2016) is 'Thinking About What Matters'. Ursula K. Le Guin is primarily known as a science-fiction and fantasy writer, with a huge body of work, and she died last year. I had never gotten around to reading anything she'd done before (mainly, I think, because I was put off by the old-fashioned formality of some of her titles - The Tombs of Atuan, The Lathe of Heaven - and by my impression, possibly false, that she was on the worthy, serious end of the SF spectrum, rather than the weird, dark, ironic end where my personal fave Philip K. Dick resided), but when I saw this book in a really cool store in Santa Fe, I was immediately drawn to it.

Partly it was that subtitle, partly the fact that she had just died and that these essays were among her last publications: I've always felt that what a writer produces in their final years, assuming they haven't lost any of their mental verve, is likely to be their most honest work, because by then it's too late for ambitions, pretentions, masks. But mostly it was this paragraph, printed on the back of the book, that hooked me: "I am free, but my time is not. My time is fully and vitally occupied with sleep, with daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading, with writing poetry, with writing prose, with thinking, with forgetting, with embroidering, with cooking and eating a meal and cleaning up the kitchen, with construing Virgil, with meeting friends, with talking with my husband... None of this is spare time. I can't spare it... I am going to be eighty-one next week. I have no time to spare.'

I loved the ordinariness of that list, but also the urgency and vitality behind it. I am forty-eight, which feels simultaneously old and much younger than eighty-one, but I could really relate to the feeling in that paragraph, and I bought and read the book as if - in the image employed by Karen Joy Fowler, in her enjoyable introduction to this book - I was a seeker, and Le Guin a sage in a mountain cave.

So did I find out the meaning of life? Yes and no. I loved her writing about the concrete pleasures of life - a cat purring in your lap, a soft-boiled egg eaten from the shell - and her advice to embrace the age you are, rather than constantly wishing yourself younger. I also liked all the writing about writing. But as the book went on, it seemed to become more of a soapbox or a collection of journalistic odds and ends: Ursula raving about some opera she'd been to, Ursula making fun of vegetarians, Ursula on insincerity in modern politics. Some of it I agreed with, some of it less so, but either way it just seemed less important and real than the more personal, supposedly trivial stuff.

Overall, though, I enjoyed this book and am glad I read it. And I am going to overcome my squeamishness about her titles and try reading some of her fiction now...