Read it in a Day Rec: The Guest List by Lucy Foley

Not sure what to read anymore? Are all of your days blending together in a gray blur, as if highlighters no longer had neon ink but dull? My “Read it in a Day” book recommendations are for whiling the day away.

Title: The Guest List
Author: Lucy Foley, who has the kind of name I wish I had.
Release Date: 2020 Reese’s Book Club edition
Genre: Isolated island thriller
Describe it in a sentence: 
A bunch of privileged guests with money and secrets gather on a gloomy Irish island for a wedding.
TV/movie character who would like it: The cast of Lost, who would say, This is nothing!

Books about entrapment. Books where characters are dealing with the idea that there is no way out, no way off this ride. I bet it’s no surprise that books like this are particularly fascinating to me right now (cough: quarantine). I like seeing what happens to people, how their personalities change, when forces are closing in on them. I guess you could call them “claustrophobic books,” though they needn’t take place in elevators. It’s almost like they’re preparing me for what my life could be like this winter as the temperature drops lower and lower and I can’t leave (Lucy Foley let me know if you need inspo for a new horror novel).

Currently I’m reading Tina Brown’s brilliant biography of Princess Diana, called The Diana Chronicles. After the wedding, it sinks in that she’s really going to have to spend the rest of her life with these stodgy people and their stuffy rules, so old that dust would come up if you blew on ’em. Naturally, she freaks out.

The characters in The Guest List don’t have to spend the rest of their lives on that tiny island off the coast of Ireland, barely inhabitable. But they do have to spend the rest of their lives with themselves. And based on the revelations in this carefully plotted mystery novel, that’s enough of a shame. The setting, an island so small you can walk the circumference, separated from the mainland by a rough passage, complements the almost spiritual claustrophobia of secrets. They can’t run from themselves any longer.

Actually, I wouldn’t mind being trapped on an island like this, thx

The Guest List has whiffs of HBO’s Big Little Lies (rich people behaving badly, plus a timeline that goes back and forth) and Agatha Christie (a medley of voices, any of whom could be the killer). It’s the kind of book you can read in one day, and be happy you did—I was totally surprised by the ending, making the race to the finish worthy. OK, maybe not totally, but pretty much surprised. It still gave me that longed-for jolt of attention: I should’ve known!

Here’s the deal. This obnoxious couple insists on planning a destination wedding even though the destination is universally inconvenient for everyone, themselves included. They’re these kind of people: “But it’s all about the moment, a wedding. All about the day. It’s not really about the marriage at all, in spite of what everyone says.”

They want to have a “special” and “unique” wedding. Based on the baggage and secrets on both sides of the wedding party, their wedding would’ve been “special” and “unique” everywhere (and I use those words in exactly the tone you think I’m using them). But thanks to the rough terrain of the island that stormy night, the party becomes…dun-dun-dun: Homicidal.

Christine Quinn of Selling Sunset WISHES her “Gothic fairytale wedding” were this dramatic

Foley lets the story unfold in the voices of multiple characters (and potential victims and suspects): The bride, the plus one, the best man, the wedding planner, the bridesmaid, and the body. Foley’s writing flows effortlessly and easily—deceptively so. Since the characters are all speaking in first-person, if you read too fast, you might mss what they’re saying. Pay attention and it’s totally possible to see the ending coming toward you like headlights in the fog.

Naturally, I had to cast all of these characters. Except for the body—no spoilers. Here are my deranged castings:

  • The bride, Jules, is a media tycoon so I pictured her as Stella Bugbee from The Cut.
  • The plus one, Hannah, is skeptical of all of the people at the wedding. I saw her as the English actress Sarah Lancashire (Happy Valley).
  • Johnno is the best man. I imagined him as the mix of an ex and the actor Daniel Mays (who is in White Lines).
  • Olivia the Bridesmaid is absolutely Xanthippe from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Dylan Nicole Gelula).
  • Aoife the wedding planner had to be someone foreboding and austere. She is Harriet Walker, queen of stern and sly old women.
  • The groom, Will, is smug TV host of an adventure show. I pictured him Jack Whitehall in hiking gear.
  • Charlie is Jules’s bestie. Due to the overwhelming stickiness of Lost, I can only picture people named Charle as Charlie from Lost.

I think I also liked this book because it was skeptical of all the same things I’m skeptical of: Namely, blowout weddings for couples who only just met. My antenna is always up when that happens IRL, but it was fun to have the chance to be freely judgmental. I guess that’s another lesser-acknowledged virtue of reading. Judge away. Characters can’t have their feelings hurt when you roll your eyes at them.

Are there any claustrophobic books that have spoken to your current situation? Or are you reaching for the opposite kind of book now—travelogues and escapist fantasies? Let me know!

BuyThe Guest List here.

Fake Like Me by Barbara Bourland

51mAzWVBwOL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgTitle: Fake Like Me
Author: Barbara Bourland
Release Date: June 2019
Genre: Intellectual thriller
Describe it in a sentence: 
After an unnamed painter (wow, I’m just realizing she’s unnamed because she felt so real to me) her latest project in a fire, she travels to the compound of a famous group of painters to repaint; while there, she discovers their secrets. 
TV/movie character who would like it: The artists in Velvet Buzzsaw, a far more satirical take on the art world

I’ve been thinking a lot about scammers. How can’t I, when they’re everywhere? Anna Delvey isn’t sorry for cheating rich, vacuous New Yorkers. Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman were caught in the great scam that is the American “meritocracy.” Last summer there was the great Social Creatures by Tara Isabella Burton; I recently read a great book called Duped by Abby Elin about what it’s like to date a fraud. All of this is to say — I’m fascinated by the subject. 

But whatever else I read, Fake Like Me blows it out of the water. What a thoughtful, philosophical dive into what it means to be a woman, to be an artist, to be a woman artist! After the first-person protagonist’s paintings burn down, she decides to commit what she calls fraud: She’s going to recreate the massive oil paintings, which had taken her three years to paint, over the course of a summer.

In comparison to the other shit that goes down in the novel, though, her intentions are just sweet! Simply adorable! She’s a scammer with the best intentions: Personal ambition. She’s not hurting anyone unlike some of the oooother characters (you know who I’m looking at, you genetically blessed but cruel bunch!)

After pulling some strings, she scores studio space at the upstate commune that belongs to “Park City,” a collective of five artists who hit it big after art school. The most famous, Carey Logan, was known for alarming life-like sculptures of the human body. Two years prior, Carey walked into the lake near Park City and took her own life. None of the remaining artist have ever been the same.

Carey’s the elephant in every room. Think Rebecca of Rebecca, but of its own kind of torture for the artist. Especially since she had always looked up to Carey. Both had pulled themselves up from rough, working class backgrounds; both worked incredibly hard. When the artist starts sleeping with Carey’s ex, Tyler, the lines between her and Carey become thinner.

Bourland clearly knows what she’s writing about. She goes into such detail about the labor required to create art. That art comes from some collision of originality and actual sweat — the skill required to pull a vision into the real world. Every time the artist took measurements about cutting a canvas or paying 22,000 in oil paints my brain jolted. Art is rock ‘n roll, man. I also loved the snippets of dinner party conversation — artists talking about other people’s projects. The way that vast quantities of money are attached to esoteric ideas…the economy of the art world is fascinating. (And also so concerning. This stuff isn’t going to museums! It’s going to the Monopoly Man!)

To add another layer to this book about art, Bourland herself is so obviously an artist. Sentences, all carefully wrought, add up to shape this incredibly complicated character study of many compromised people. I’d recommend slowing down while reading the book. As a notorious speed reader, I found that treating this book more literary and less thriller was rewarding. It deals in ideas as much as plot. So when you get to the end, if you’ve been following the ideas, it’ll have been far more rewarding.

I REALLY recommend this book to people looking for guilt-free page-turners. You’ll underline the shit out of it. I’ll leave you with this brilliant passage of the weight of the seven “virtues” on women. How these concepts police women, but they’re really just traps:

D6pIb_eXYAcIz2_.jpgThe forced perspective of humility. The delirium of purity. The weight of chastity. The rage of temperance. The shame of modesty. The regret of prudence.

The REGRET OF PRUDENCE. *head explosion emoji.* The rim of sadness around all of those nights spend in, spent prudently make sense now.

We Set the Dark On Fire by Tehlor Key Mejia

819wRE-AaMLTitle: We Set the Dark On Fire
Author: Tehlor Kay Mejia
Genre: 
YA dystopia — but not the kind you’re used to
Describe it in a sentence: 
A young woman has been primed to be a “Primera,” or “first wife,” to a man in a world upheld by bigamist marriages and extreme inequality (and some pretty creative mythologies)
TV/movie character who would like it: The women in The Handmaid’s Tale would definitely feel solidarity to Dani’s problems.

In preparation for Refinery29’s YA Month, I’ve been reading a lot of YA. A lot. And I’ve enjoyed a lot of them. But among them all, We Set the Dark on Fire by debut novelist Tehlor Kay Mejia stands out for its timeliness, its stunning prose, and its absolutely new/creative/wonderful world.

Dani was never supposed to get to where she was: At the Primera graduation ceremony, about to be married off to the son of an incredibly powerful family. Years ago, her parents illegally crossed over to Medio, the affluent half of the island, making their daughter’s social ascent possible. So, Dani holds a secret. It will be the first of many.

Dani is married off to Mateo Garcia, poised to be the next President of their country. As a Primera, Dani is supposed to be his partner and intellectual equal. But his soul and body will be nourished by his Segunda wife – Carmen. Of all the wives, Dani didn’t want it to be Carmen. They were sworn enemies. Now, Dani is locked in this cold (but fancy AF) environment. Mateo is like a mini power hungry Commander Fred of The Handmaid’s Tale. He squashes all input from Dani. Her role is to be helpful and supportive. What is she going to do if he rejects all her advances? Well, Mateo knows what he wants her to do: Clean, clean, clean some more. Not quite what she envisioned for herself back at school. But since she’s a Primera, she’s supposed to remain placid, keep her composure.

Of course, Mateo’s so busy being a teenage man about town he doesn’t realize what else is happening right under his nose. Dani and Carmen realize their friction may have come from another source. Not hate, but fascination. Not hate, but looove. Yes! There are some terrific moments of intimacy, punctuating the bleak conditions of Medio. As with my favorite books, there are sprinklings of attraction that remind us why we’re on the planet.

There’s also the other factor moving the book’s plot forward. The revolution. They’ve tapped Dani. She’ll have to sacrifice her safety to be a part of something bigger than herself.

Mejia has tapped into something special with this book. It’s politically relevant, yet, but also emotionally potent. I was cheering Dani on. She’s not invulnerable, not completely brave all the time like so many YA protagonists in dystopias are. She has to become brave, because no one else is looking out for her in this cold, unequal world. TOO REAL!

I’m really looking forward to seeing how she expands the world in the next book. Unlike adult dystopias, there’s a glimpse of hope at the end of this book. Dani might be all right. Medio might be, too.

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.

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne & The Curse of the “Nice Guy”

514sa3HcecL.jpgTitle: The Hating Game
Author: Sally Thorne
Genre: 
hot hot HOT romance, plus some jokes
Describe it in a sentence: 
Two co-workers at an Australian publishing house think that they hate each other, but it turns out that hate is just masking lakes and lakes of luuust (and eventually maybe love?)
TV/movie character who would like it: This book was pulled straight out of the central romance in Much Ado About Nothing. Beatrice and Benedick would see Josh and Lucy and nod knowingly.

I first heard about The Hating Game when I was researching a story about rom-com books for Refinery29. Thorne’s debut novel pre-dates the current rom-com resurgence by a few years. This book came out all the way back in 2016; it’s only now that rom-coms are flooding the market with their cute illustrated covers. These covers mask a whole lot of sexiness, you guys. Because This. Book. Is. SEXY!

Lucy and Joshua are co-workers at Bexley and Gamin, a publishing house that had merged a few years prior. Just as Bexley and Gamin had two different governing philosophies, so do Lucy and Joshua. They’re polar opposites (for more reasons than their height difference). Josh is a neat freak, uptight, seething, grouch. Everyone in the office is afraid of him. Lucy makes it her job to be professionally agreeable — to everyone except Josh. When the book kicks off, Lucy and Josh are regularly throwing insults and each other and racking up HR violations (TBH they do not work in the healthiest work environment – their bosses pit them against each other in a race for a promotion and it’s very corporate Hunger Games).

Don’t be fooled by their friction. Friction fuels fire! The more these two good-looking leads combat each other, the more other feelings grow. Lucy finds herself drowning in her all-consuming hatred for Josh, and then the weird feelings of affection that sprout the more she looks into his eyes.

Sally Thorne is great at writing rom-coms. I would read her rom-coms for days. Quippy dialogue, singular characters, plot that traipses along in between “the good parts” (and you know what the good parts are. I believe in Lucy and Josh’s chemistry.

BUT. I totally worry for them! I worry for their emotional intelligence! First of all, it’s not healthy to fill up your days with a deep and wild hatred for your coworker. Second of all, Josh makes being a “nice guy” out to be like, the worst trait in the world. In the book, “nice” is code for boring, dull, safe, etc. Josh is not expressly “nice” but he will love Lucy with scary intensity. And somehow that is a fair exchange? A loyal pitbull man instead of a friendly golden retriever.

Admittedly, I have historically been drawn to guys like Josh. Guys who make you bend over backwards to crumple their intensity. Cold guys, who make you so hungry for affection that you’ll blush at a smile. Stubborn guys who don’t deviate from their own code of ethics. Hard-working guys who promise they’ll take you where they’re going — so long as you play by their rules. My relationships ended when I had to ask for the simple request: Please be kind to me.

Guys like Josh can be sexy! But the whole book I kept saying to myself – Lucy, be careful! Yes, he makes you feel special now — but only because he’s been a total ass for so many years. Maybe I’m reading too far into this? But the “gruff asshole is secretly a kind softie” is a trope that I see work out in a lot of books, but not necessarily in real life. What do you think?

Overall, I definitely recommend The Hating Game, if you take the relationship with a grain of salt, and not as a model. Here’s hoping that Josh is kind to her as his relationship with Lucy continues (and that he doesn’t turn into his father!)

These Short Poems Have Been Saving Me

Lately I’ve had to call on words for little shots of strength. Some use tequila; I use poems short enough to memorize. Their lines float around in my head, counteracting the insidious words that are less productive, less kind.

Yes, I’m talking about the kind of life & soul rebuilding that comes at the end of one life phase and the start of another. Me, right now — I’m on a ship in new waters. Before, I’d been on a really nice boat. The kind that you’d point at if you were on the shores and say wow, how’d she get so lucky to score a place on that very plush Axelrodian yacht? It had beautiful interiors. But it was not going to any of the islands I wanted to visit; I was locked away in my suite and never could feel the wind flapping around my face. Now I’m in a scrappier sailboat, jumping from island to island. It’s rugged. The wind is temperamental, sending me off course occasionally. My hair has never been crazier, and I’ve never been happier.

By this I mean to say, I’m in the uncharted territory that comes after a break-up. So I’ve been navigating by constellations, and by poems I can call on for spiritual guidance. I don’t always know what they mean; I just know they speak to a part of me that does.

“Failing and Flying” by Jack Gilbert

 

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.
^has there ever been a poem that better captures the bittersweet fondness that crusts over the end of a relationship? That you can’t call it failing, really? Just the end of something that might have once been good? “Coming to the end of OUR triumph.” It’s taught me not to beat myself up so much. It wasn’t a failure, really.
“Rain” by Raymond Carver

Woke up this morning with
a terrific urge to lie in bed all day
and read. Fought against it for a minute.

Then looked out the window at the rain.
And gave over. Put myself entirely
in the keep of this rainy morning.

Would I live my life over again?
Make the same unforgiveable mistakes?
Yes, given half a chance. Yes.

This poem, too, teaches me to be kind to myself. It’s all been wonderful, this life — I’d make every choice again.

“may my heart” by ee cummings

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young

and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there’s never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile

And this little poem reminds me not to let my heart freeze over.

What are your favorite short poems?

Things That Happened Before The Earthquake by Chiara Barzini

IMG_3210.JPGTitle: Things That Happened Before the Earthquake
Author:
 Chiara Barzini
Genre:
Literary coming-of-age
Describe it in a sentence:
Girl and her family move from Italy to Los Angeles; girl has way too much freedom
TV/movie character who would like it: Effy Stonem of Skins would really identify with Eugenia. When she went out to bars, she would speak to strange men with an Italian accent and congratulate herself on being so mysterious and mischievous.

I stuffed this book in my tote bag for the commute home along with three other books. Usually, I skim through the first few pages and see what sticks. But immediately after beginning Things That Happened Before the Earthquake, I was pulled into the vortex and had to say goodbye to the rom-com and dystopian I’d brought along, too. That’s how strong Eugenia’s voice is, how true her perspective. Oh, I thought. This 16 year old and I are going to be hanging out for a while. Let’s go back to remembering 16: Thinking you’re self-sufficient but really just wanting someone to pay attention to you; thinking you’re the shit but also wanting someone to cook you dinner and pet your head. Eugenia is in that place where she’s able to see her parents’ flaws, but also yearns for them to revert to being Parents in the archetypal sense – not people. It’s such a precious and precarious moment.

Anyway, I’m side-tracking here. The story is about an Italian girl who moves to Los Angeles so her father can make a movie. Eugenia’s parents, Serena and Ettore, are capital e Eccentric. They let their two kids roam free range around ’90s L.A. while they scrap together a movie, risking all financial security (and possibly breaking some laws) to do so. Eugenia, lonely, wanders around the school and her city and encounters many characters. Each encounter leaves an impression and teachers her something, maybe, but it’ll take her years to figure out what. That’s something I admire about Barzini. Everything’s filtered through Eugenia’s perspective. There are no easy answers. People she meets aren’t reduced to teaching moments; rather, they’re people who push into the clay of her becoming, for better or for worse.

giphy (7).gif

another great part of this book are its tremendous descriptions of pasta. i ate a lot of pasta as a result. 

I also love that Eugenia can be an asshole. She messes up! A lot! She breaks rules! She stirs shit! When she’s on vacation on what’s essentially a desert rock off Sicily, she gives a makeover to a local woman and fires up rumors of witchcraft. She’s the 16 year old I always wished I was. Even if that 16 year old made objectively terrible and dangerous decisions. Instead, I stayed home with a book and left the adventures to the Eugenias of the world.

Some of the best books I’ve read this year have been first-person coming-of-age stories about teenage girls (Open Me and How to be Famous). They remind me of my younger self. The girl who was just opening up. Who was scared, but also so goddamn excited. I love their arrogant brashness. They see something we (and by we I mean OLD PPL) don’t. They see hypocrisy. But as an old person, I also see the danger that Eugenia constantly put herself in, and was worried.

Oh to be 17! Oh to be on the cusp of it all! There’s a great story in Lauren Groff’s recent collection, Florida, about a teenager attending the tail end of a party full of adults, simmering in anger and resent and love triangles. She feels pity for them. She’s just starting, and she knows it.

giphy (8).gif

As you’ll find out after reading this book, she’s wrong! They do. 

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.