Are You the Most Important Person In the World? Or: The Heavens by Sandra Newman

91mmm8FL3xL.jpgTitle: The Heavens
Author: Sandra Newman
Genre: 
Literary fiction (but the kind you can tear through)
Describe it in a sentence: 
A young woman believes that her dreams — which uniformly take place in Elizabethan England — are actually real; they start having an impact on her life in New York. 
TV/movie character who would like it: Nadia of Russian Doll, who also wakes up in a slightly altered universe every day

Most of the time, I take home books for work, read a few pages, and move on. But The Heavens wrapped its smoky coils around me and kept me inside its enchanting, wildly imaginative story until I found out what would happen (and TBH, I still don’t completely know).

Do you ever wonder what your place in the world is; if it matters? Are you ever pulled between the impulses of thinking you’re insignificant, versus thinking you’re extremely special? Kate feels destined for something. She always has. It’s because of her dreams. Her dreams that seem realer than real life.

Real life, for Kate, takes place in an alternate New York in the year 2000. This is a clean, bright, beautiful city — kind of a liberal’s fever dream. There are no cars! Global warming isn’t even a phrase anyone knows! Kate lives with her wealthy friend in a large apartment building, where a cast of colorful characters walks in and out. At one such party, Kate meets Ben, the man who will remain her constant on what will become a haywire journey. At the party, they debate about the validity of the “great man” theory. Is it possible that a few key individuals really define the course of human history? But they’re so swept up in fast love that they don’t continue the argument.

Kate begins to dream more frequently. Her dreams last longer, are more vivid. And when she wakes up, she wakes up in a world slightly altered by whatever she changed in her dream — and altered for the worst. Kate doesn’t understand very basic facts of this new world she’s woken up in. A new president? Cars on the road? Her friends think she’s quirky, at first. Then, after enough lapses, they think she’s deranged.

Is she deranged? Newman keeps us guessing throughout this structurally inventive novel. The whole time I read this book, I questioned whether it was possible a book could be so up my alley. Guess what? It can be! This is a bold, playful foray into big questions: The fate of ourselves, the fate of the world. What a thrill to read a book that defies all of our expectations, and takes us on a wild ride instead.

23 Celebrities & Their Imagined Reading Habits

I spend a lot of time thinking about celebrities for work. I spend a lot of time reading, too. Here’s what I imagine celebrities, rare creatures that they are, are reading.

1. Ralph Fiennes: Collects rare books, reads them with gloves in a special rare book reading room which he keeps locked so “grubby hands” can’t get to it.

2. Reese Witherspoon: Only reads the books from her book club — after they’re chosen.

3. Willow Smith: Exclusively reads what she, herself, has written.

4. Pete Davidson: Old copies of Mad Magazine from his childhood bedroom. They smell bad but he can’t tell.

5. Leonardo DiCaprio: Michael Lewis, pop science books about global warming, obscure biographies about egomaniacal men which he then sends to Martin Scorsese with the note, “Let’s make this!” Subtext: Another Oscar?

6. Justin Bieber: Annotated Hillsong Bible with scribbles on the side.

7. Kate Winslet: Multi-generational family epics that might be classified as intellectual beach reads.

8. Cate Blanchett: Doesn’t read novels published past 1950, except for The Price of Salt (1952), and that was for research.

9. Jon Hamm: Finishes a crossword puzzle book a month; is working his way up to Wednesdays.

10. Angelina Jolie: U.N. Whitepapers

11. Jennifer Aniston: Jennifer Weiner

12. Kim Kardashian: Instagram comments

13. Madonna: Unauthorized biographies about Madonna

14. Dev Patel: Contemporary literary fiction that his women co-stars recommend

15. Jennifer Lawrence: A healthy mix of psychological thrillers and Man Booker Prize winners, which she devours in bed on many Saturday nights

16. Brad Pitt: Accrues pottery coffee table books for his many coffee tables in his many homes

17. Saoirse Ronan: Is in a book club with her mom and her mom’s friends; when she’s not in Dublin, she Skypes in.

18. Timothee Chalamet: Is just getting into Henry Miller.

19. Rooney Mara: She carries a tattered copy of an Anne Carson book around in her pocketbook and pulls it out whenever she’s in between Things

20. Chrissy Teigen: Has a collection of heavily underlined semi-motivational books written by women.

21. Taylor Swift: She’s actually working on a rom-com novel right now, funny that you ask.

22. Beyoncé: Warsan Shire, feminist discourse, Instapoetry

23. Meghan Markle: Harry bought her a chest where she can lock away her books so we can’t judge her character. (But it’s Danielle Steele, that’s who she’s reading).

Strike Your Heart by Amélie Nothomb

IMG_3255.JPGTitle: Strike Your Heart
Author: Amelie Nothomb
Genre: 
Literary fiction, but distilled to its purest and most glistening sentences
Describe it in a sentence: 
Girl grows up unloved by her mother, and her whole life is shaped around that vacuum.
TV/movie character who would like it: Camille Preaker of Sharp Objects. Like Diane in Strike Your Heart, she grew up around the absence of her mother’s love. It makes Diane tough. It makes Camille hard.

Truth be told, I was drawn to this book because it was so short. 137 pages! 137 pages means you can read it in a day, and guess what? I did. I left the office during lunch to find out what happened What Happened Next in the little tale about Marie & Diane (definitely not about Jack & Diane).

The book is about a ridiculously beautiful woman, Marie, who thinks her life is going to be much grander than it turns out to be. When she’s 19, her fling with the hunk of her small French village becomes the last romantic relationship of her life: She gets pregnant, and there go her dreams of leaving, of getting what she wants forevermore. I imagine Marie had the same hopes of mobility as Colette’s Claudine (“My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there”), but instead she turned out like every other townie. Marie is extremely jealous of her first born daughter, Diane. Diane is representative of everything that had been taken from Marie. Her beauty, her youth, her freedom. Diane grows up knowing, knowing, knowing that she’s unloved – she sees it in the way her mother treats her other two siblings. But it doesn’t break Diane. It gives her the drive her mother didn’t have to leave their town and pursue a career. While at medical school, Diane’s “vacuum,” the place where motherly love should be but isn’t, lead her into some dark corners.

OK, that’s the general plot outline. This book is also about a woman and the things women do to each other. The impossible expectation of motherhood. The traps of the patriarchy. The scars our mothers give us, whether intentional or unintentional. And of course: Jealousy. Extreme jealousy. Frankly, as a member of a generation known for scrolling through snapshots of other people’s lives on Instagram just to take self-induced jealousy steam baths, Nothomb’s novel was cathartic — it took jealousy’s toxic fumes seriously.

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If you want a positive & whimsical tale set in France, watch Amelie instead.

Strike Your Heart simply told, yes, but psychologically complex. Something that strikes you immediately about Nothomb’s writing (which is translated from French): She’s telling you the truth. There’s no unreliable narrator here. Nothomb tells and her characters show; everything is sifted through an utterly clear narrator. After reading a string of books with first-person narrators, this felt like drinking cold water. Crisp, refreshing.

Diane is an unforgettable character. So bold, so severe. She reminds me, actually, of Diane in Megan Abbott’s recent Give Me Your Hand. Both are striking blond women who a) reject men’s many advances, b) dream of STEM careers, and c) have crappy relationships with their mothers. Only Nothomb’s Diane is good. And Abbott’s is…well — you’ll see when you read it. And you should!

How To Talk About Talking About Books

My college days are behind me. A year behind me, to be precise, though sometimes I still trip on campus’s uneven stone pavement and I remember the lecture hall chairs’ stiff backs and my professors’ stiff upper lips and I wonder, what’s a year, anyway? Some years are fuller than others. My four years of college filled me up, and I’ll be running on that mileage for ages.

Luckily for me, many of my friends are little walking universities, in the sense that they don’t let my mind fall asleep. Otherwise, who knows: I might turn on Bravo one day and never turn it off. We all wrestle with temptation.

Today, a friend texted me out of the blue asking whether I could send her a critical essay I wrote in college. The specifications were broad. She just wanted any essay in which I responded to a work of literature with precise language. I sent her a short paper on Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.

My friend, C., is many wonderful things, but perhaps my favorite thing about her is that she is a Capital R Reader. The first time I spoke to her about books, we were on a beach in Greece. We began playing “What Have You Read?” ping-pong, my favorite mental sparring game. I found we had the same taste. I also found myself desperately out of my league. C’s one of those readers who makes me want to be a better (and more voracious) reader.

Both now out of college, C. and I love reading — and yet we have no outlet with which we can intellectually analyze books. I frequently recommend books to people, or gush about them. I say things like, “I missed my train stop, this book was so good!” Or, “I couldn’t get out of bed because I was devastated when it ended!”

But what about the part of my brain which could X-Ray into the book’s machinations and the author’s manipulations? Read for craft, as well as general effect? What about the endless exercises in close-reading and poring through the part to understand the whole?

When reading literature in college, I often fought against the tyranny of close-reading. As an intuitive, emotional person, I would always trust my first instinct first. I was more interested in the general impression of the book. Whether I was moved. Whether I liked it. Now, out of college, I find myself pulled to the opposite camp. It’s not enough to know that I liked it. I want to know why, and speak to the book until it speaks back.

In college, I was reading books that I didn’t always want to be reading. I was relieved when I found a book that I liked at all, so I savored it. Now, I read a lot of books that I enjoy because the syllabus is of my own choosing. I pop books like candy. Sure, it’s better than TV, but how much depth am I plumbing from each book? Is it a hearty mental exercise if I’m skimming sentences?

My goal is to begin writing pieces for each book I read. More than reviews, really, but something between a reaction and an analysis. Something voice-driven, but also data-driven. A mash-up between my conflicting desires when reading books: To understand the language, and to feel the narrative.

I’m sure C. and I will be alright, so long as we continue to read, converse, and keep an aura of undergraduate naivety about us.

The Left Hand Of Darkness, Or: Maybe I Don’t Like Sci-Fi, After All

A25837084.jpgbout halfway through Ursula LeGuin’s classic novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, and about halfway through a snore, I realized that maybe sci-fi wasn’t for me. Don’t get me wrong: I’d read fantasy as a kid, and now and then read some sci-fi short stories. I gobble up dystopias; anything that whiffs of magical realism is added immediately to my queue. I like dabbling in the fantastical. The real world is real enough, thank you!

But The Left Hand of Darkness is a whole ‘nother ballpark. It’s not fantastical so much as it is scientific. Through the eyes of Genly Ai, an envoy from a different planet, LeGuin sketches out a world wildly foreign from planet Earth. Nothing is comfortable or easy on the the planet Winter, for Genly or for me. First, it’s essentially always winter (hence the name). LeGuin invented a new calendar, and a different name for each day of the week. In the limited inhabitable latitude, two countries with radically different philosophies and societal structures compete. For diplomatic reasons, Genly traverses the border. All that is just accompanies the juicy bit, though, and the one part that made The Left Hand of Darkness an interesting thought experiment.

What makes Winter so unique, though, is its inhabitants. While human, the population isn’t gendered. They are both man and woman. Once a month, during the “kemmering” mating process, they become sex-crazed and shack up with whomever else is in kemmering, be them a partner or stranger. This leads to some situations that seem askew: The king gets pregnant; characters embody both typically “male” and female” traits. LeGuin has fun skewering the notion of gender, and how it boxes us into learned behaviors. Genly flops around, not understanding. A typical man!

To be honest, I picked the book up because I thought it would be juicy (I know! Naive). I wanted LeGuin to really explore life without gender. And for the most part, she did. I guess my big complaint is — there is no sex in The Left Hand of Darkness! The characters, when not in kemmering, are completely subdued and almost behave as if they have zero sex drives. HellLO Ursula, why didn’t you take us into a kemmering sex den? While the rest of us down here are stewing in monogamy and trapped in our bodies, you could’ve showed us an alternative.

As a result of LeGuin’s chaste writing, Genly’s diplomatic trip is just that: Diplomacy. No snogs. No watching alien genitalia shift and morph. No trips to the kemmering houses.

I’ve realized now that sci-fi is more interested in world-build ing than in making out. While I respect the genre, I’m going to retreat to my erotic thrillers, thank you, where authors are more interested in warm-blooded planets than winter.

While I’m happy The Left Hand of Darkness exists as a thought experiment, I can’t deny its effect on me. Alas, it was to snooze.