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.

A Year In Books

I read 102 books in 2018, or at least that’s what my Goodreads count added up to. That’s not including the half-devoured books — books with a chapter to go piled up next to my bed (it’s a bad habit), books I only tasted for work so I had a feeling for prose, books I decided not to give my hours to anymore.

It’s hard for me to describe just HOW instrumental books have been this year, and all my life. Sometimes I mistake books for my life. Like, some of my best memories of 2018 have been reading. In the week between Christmas and New Years, I spent an hour a day reading next to the Christmas tree. I deliberately forced myself to put down my work and dive into my novel. Reading a novel is useful leisure time. The world expands, gets fuller with each word. What other activity can compare?

2018 was full of changes. Most of them hard. I’ll say: Books kept me stable. When life was too much, I got to live someone else’s. Of course, there’s always a balance between choosing the books I really, really want to read for fun and the books I have to read for work (the chic books of 2018, etc). Sometimes I ache for the days of my past when I read eclectically and according to whims. But then I pinch myself and say: I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS IS MY JOB!! I can’t believe I get to INTERVIEW AUTHORS for work! It’s a dream, through and through. So I ended up “keeping up” with the books of 2018, big time. Plugged into the discourse.

So, without further ado: Here are some of the highlights, and what I thought.

Nonfiction

  • Ninety-nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown: We’re allowed to write biographies with such narrative freedom? Brown interweaves biographical details about Princess Margaret with gossip, imaginative musings, and my favorite of them all — a recounting of the time Margaret commissioned a plane to fly around some old poet’s house (I don’t remember who!!) in a variety of different forms, from haiku to sonnet. WHO DOES THAT?! Craig Brown does, my friends. A must read for anyone who loves snark and The Crown. Though admittedly, as an American, some of these British customs were blisteringly foreign to me (aka royalty in general!!)
  • Going Clear by Lawrence Wright: I thought Scientology was scary before I read this book. Now I know it’s much scarier than scary.
  • Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer: In order to explain how two fundamentalist Mormon men decided to murder their sister in law and her baby — and justify it as being a directive from God — Krakauer brilliantly situates the crime within the framework of Mormonism. I learned so much about this American-grown religion. This should be taught in high schools!
  • Bad Blood by John Carreyrou: Make this a movie, now.
  • Vanishing Twins by Leah Dieterich: Will be pressing this lyrical, freakin’ BRILLIANT memoir about love, commitment, marriage, preserving a sense of self in a relationship, into everyone’s hands, forever.
  • Future Perfect by Victoria Loustalot: Victoria, like me, is prone to hoping that psychics are real. The main difference: She writes a book about her experience with psychics, I just putz around and go to psychics.
  • The Ghost Photographer by Julie Rieger: Rieger, a top executive at 20th Century Fox, documents her journey into the world of spirits and ghost encounters, which began after her mother passed away. It’s rare to read a book written with such humor and warmth and complete lack of pretension. When Julie writes about the “other realm,” you want to believe her. This book inspired me to start my own exploratory journey. For a taste, check out my juicy interview with her.
  • Eurydice Street by Sofka Zinovieff: I struggled to read this book for a selfish reason: Zinovieff so perfectly captured the rhythm and quirks of Greece that my heart actually hurt, I missed it so much. Did I look up plane tickets while reading it? Did I consider abandoning my life to move there? Won’t answer, but you can guess.
  • Calypso by David Sedaris: We are not worthy of his humor. Thank you for sharing your family with us, Dave.
  • I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell: WHY DIDN’T THIS BOOK MAKE YEAR END LISTS?! In fact, the fact that it didn’t makes me doubt year-end lists even more than I already do; the subjectiveness and myopia that goes into each one. O’Farrell describes her 17 “brushes with death” with real even-keeled attitude, even though it’s freakin’ terrifying. The book sent me into an existential crisis. It also made me seize my own seconds.
  • Unwifeable by Mandy Stadtmiller: Grateful that Mandy shared such an intimate account of her difficult childhood, her rollicking 30s as a newly single woman documenting her dating life for the NY Post, and her addiction problems. She manages to do it all with such humor. I’d know – she was a hoot to talk to.
  • Small Fry by Lisa Brennan Jobs: You should read this book. But a warning: You won’t ever want to use your iPhone again.
  • Dead Girls by Alice Bolin: Threw the book across the room bc Alice Bolin’s brain was so electrifying that I couldn’t process it.
  • And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell: If you are a woman or know women, read this book about motherhood (and childbirth – one of the most shocking hours of my life was spent reading O’Connell’s meticulous description of her difficult childbirth). Was so floored I had to interviewinterview her.
  • Stealing the Show by Joy Press: Takeaway: The women who revolutionized TV also revolutionized culture.

Fiction

  • The Ensemble by Aja Gable: Best friendship novel of 2018. There, I said it.
  • The Incendiaries by RO Kwon: Read it twice. Liked it even more the second time. One must respect sentences like this, sentences that have been wrested and fused together like each was some deliberate piece of art. The prose is a puzzle — Kwon has worked on it for TEN YEARS to make sure it all fit together.
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: I loved the characters in this sprawling, epic novel so much I considered going to Japan to visit their graves (yes, I know they are fictional)
  • The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid: Dying film star Evelyn Hugo promises to tell her life story to a journalist; readers around the world cannot shut book until they find out which of her husbands was her favorite (it’s not who you think it’ll be)
  • The Friend by Sigrid Nunez: Read this because it won the National Book Award. I can imagine Nunez in a one-bedroom apartment writing away, not letting the hype get to her. I met a Great Dane the other day and couldn’t stop thinking about the narrator in this book, as if she were real. Loneliness is not a glamorous topic for a book, but man, is it a pillar in so many lives. The Beatles asked where all the lonely people come from; read this book to learn.
  • The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides: Took this thriller (out in January) on vacation. The ending was gasp-worthy.
  • Rules of Civility by Amor Towles: What a GORGEOUS gem of a book. What a narrator to admire, with pluck and heroism and the perfect amount of social climber instinct to make for an adventure. The book ended with a quote that will haunt me forever: “In our twenties, when there is still so much time ahead of us, time that seems ample for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revisions—we draw a card, and we must decide right then and there whether to keep that card and discard the next, or discard the first card and keep the second. And before we know it, the deck has been played out and the decisions we have just made will shape our lives for decades to come.”
  • Less by Andrew Sean Greer: Thank god he won the Pulitzer and someone recognized that humor is a form of brilliance.
  • Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn: As always, when I’m reading Flynn, I wonder what she would be like at a dinner party. And if I could sit across from her, knowing that she was capable of coming up with these twisted women, and wonder if she would interpret my mannerisms and verbal ticks as some kind of dark language of the subconscious.
  • Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken: A. perfect. novel. THE PERFECT NOVEL. I will read it, and reread it. And then go read The Giant’s House, her book which I read WAY too young and led me by the hand into the gorgeous possibilities of adult fiction.
  • The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer: All hail Lee Miller, the model turned war photographer at the heart of this fascinating work of historical fiction. She’s my new role model.
  • Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss: Sometimes you read a book and are reminded of how unbelievably smart humans can be; Ghost Wall is one of those. Moss essentially captures the entire pattern of human history in 180 pages describing an experimental archaeology trip to Northumbria. Just go with it.
  • Golden Child by Claire Adam: Read this for your book club. Get prepared to argue.
  • The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins: A magical, Gaiman-esque book about a library that contains all the knowledge of the universe and none of the universe’s rules. Haven’t lost myself in a book like this since I was 7 and reading Harry Potter, maybe.
  • NOS4A2 by Joe Hill: A real thought I had while reading this: “Wow! I love books with plot!!!!!” Joe Hill is funny and witty and scary as all hell. What are you doing? Go buy one of his books!
  • Elevation by Stephen King: Since I loved his son’s book so much, I decided to read some Stephen King. Sorry! I like Joe Hill more!!!
  • The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh: Best feminist dystopia yet.
  • The Falconer by Dana Czapnik: Oh, to be 18, oh to think in long-winded spools of philosophy, oh to be idealistic, oh to have unrequited crushes. I ached.
  • The Arrangement by Sonya Lalli: As she nears 30, a woman contemplates actually going through with an arranged marriage. I liked the way Lalli weighed two different approaches to marriage and didn’t say that one was necessarily better than the others.
  • The Witch Elm by Tana French: Considering what a mess Toby was, I’m surprised I enjoyed spending 600 pages in his head.
  • Melmoth by Sarah Perry: This book was full of fascinating modern explorations of mythology. Melmoth is a woman who bears witness to the most evil of humanity. Perry cleverly interweaves linear narrative with primary documents about Melmoth encounters. This is the kind of haunting story that would’ve terrified me as a kid. Melmoth, hissing over your shoulder.
  • My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: What a fresh new voice. Really dark but also really witty, satirical, clever. Hard to distill the tone of this book. Which is why it is better read than described.
  • The Auctioneer by Joan Samson: Written in the ’70s. A crazed outsider comes to this quiet New Hampshire town and makes everyone start giving away their belongings in an auction to support the town’s police squad. Prescient read.
  • Dare Me by Megan Abbott: cheerleaders don’t talk like this in real life
  • Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott: Now THIS Abbott I loved loved loved.
  • Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: I see both sides of the argument about this book. Kingsolver (like Meg Wolitzer in the female persuasion) definitely doesn’t look at the world’s changes as a young person would, but also, how could she?
  • That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam: REBECCA, you gotta wake up!! That’s what you’ll be thinking throughout Alam’s book about a privileged white woman raising her nanny’s black son, written in close third-person.
  • Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah: Bina Shah told me in an interview that for her, growing up in Pakistan, The Handmaid’s Tale reflected much of her reality. She created a feminist dystopia rooted in her own soil.
  • Strike Your Heart by Amelie Nothomb: Finished this book over the course of a train ride. It sunk its talons in me and BAM, I knew I was reading a dark gem.
  • Crudo by Olivia Laing: The only book I’ve read that captures the whirr and terror of the present day.
  • Praise Song for the Butterflies by Berenice L. McFadden: Maybe the most important book I read in 2018. It’s hard to believe this practice is real, but it is: The main character is sold as a ritual slave to help balance her family’s “luck.”
  • Open Me by Lisa Locascio: A girl’s sexual awakening IS fodder for a novel!!! I love books that respect young girls as independent, important people!
  •  How to Be Famous by Caitlin Moran: ^^repeat the above, just add a TON of sentences so funny I laughed out loud. Real talk? This wry, kind-hearted book about a precocious 19-year-old forging her way in the male-dominated world of ’90s music journalism while nursing a crush for a rock star in was, quite simply, the reading highlight of my year. I swooned through every passage of young love. Caitlin Moran remembers those years!
  • The Pisces by Melissa Broder: Underlined so much of this; all of the narrator’s ramblings about the kind of love that sets you on fire; the kind of emotionally vivid life that feels realer than the calmer, but inevitably duller, life of stable. With that in mind, it’s understandable why our protagonist embarks on an all-consuming romance with a merman. It’s something else.
  • Putney by Sofka Zinovieff: In this book, Zinovieff nimbly unpacks a terribly thorny topic: The affair between a young girl and her older family friend, and how memories change over the years.
  • Severence by Ling Ma: Part end of world account; part workplace comedy; all brilliant.
  • If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim: WAAHHH y u have to be so sad!
  • Rough Animals by Rae Delbianco: A gritty western about characters who don’t live on the edge — they live outside society, on ranches, in open fields, where the rules are of their own making. Rae herself is SO inspiring.
  • The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo: Truly, I wish I could change the fates of these characters.
  • Hey Ladies: Buy this for your friends.
  • Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton: Congratulated myself every time I recognized one of the shiny, spectacular New York locales Burton’s two characters, locked in a twisted friendship, visited. Tara and I spoke about why Social Creature is the perfect book for the summer of cons.
  • The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang: In the year 2018, we got a sexy, sexyYyyYy book about a woman on the autism spectrum finding love with the male prostitute she tried to help teach her how to have sex.  Love. Hoang spoke to Refinery29 about her own autism diagnosis.
  • Kudos by Rachel Cusk: One day, in the far future, Rachel Cusk will be considered a Queen of the English Language.
  • Transit by Rachel Cusk: See above.
  • Florida by Lauren Groff: Read the “Midnight Zone” three times and I still haven’t stopped thinking about its implications — that danger is all around us, that we are the danger.
  • The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton: Beauty is a prison!! Dhonielle Clayton’s new YA series examines appearances like my favorite series The Uglies did, but especially how women are expected to be slaves to beauty. And the characters in these books are slaves – that dawning realization shook me.
  • The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory: Quite simply, the book raised my expectations for romantic relationships — so I had to talk to her about them.
  • Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi: A star is born. I had the pleasure of speaking to Tomi RIGHT before she became a straight up celeb.
  • You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld: She creates characters who are so easy to judge and skewer – but you know she’d judge and skewer you just as ruthlessly. Speaking to Sittenfeld was naturally a life highlight.
  • The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer: I would’ve read a whole novel about Cory, but that’s it.
  • Circe by Madeline Miller: If you had to create My Ideal Book in a lab, it would be this: Literary but fast-moving feminist myth retelling. A feminist odyssey for the ages. 
  • Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday: God, just read this book. Unexpected. Off kilter. Sentences so gleaming I think of them today.
  • Awayland by Ramona Ausubel: Beautiful short stories! Off-kilter, imaginative, unforgettable.
  • Emergency Contact by Mary HK Choi: First of all, Mary is BRILLIANT and one of my favorite interviews. She got me so inspired to commit myself to pursuing my dreams. Anyway — her debut book captured the way we communicate now, through small bubbles sent over phones. More importantly, she emphasizes how falling in love over texts is a perfectly valid and understandable path today. It’s almost an epistolary age.
  • 99% Mine by Sally Hawkins: SWOOOON! Big, capable men fixing up houses is SUCH a type; it is clearly such a type of mine, too (and the main character’s)
  • The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory: SWOON, except for the part about being stuck in an elevator. Since I adored Jasmine’s books so much this year, I spoke to her about them.
  • Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao: A life composed of unimaginable tribulations, strung together in close proximity. The book follows two best friends in their journeys out of their tiny Indian village; one by running away, one by marriage. Girls Burn Brighter honors women’s resilience, but also highlights the unfair structures that cause them to need that resilience in the first place.
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: An American Marriage twisted me up, as it was supposed to.
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: Finally got around to reading the YA sensation. Now will foist this incendiary book about police violence, code switching, growing up amid hate and fighting it with love, upon everyone.
  • The Book of M by Peng Shepherd: Was downright stunned by this magnificently plotted end-of-the-world novel, perfect for fans of Station Eleven.
  • What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan: The kind of book you wish you could intervene in, help the characters out. Sure, they’re in an expensive high-rise Hong Kong apartment. BUT ARE THEY HAPPY?!

The Books I Read On Vacation, Ranked By How Quickly I Devoured Them

Do you know what happens to a human brain when it detached from the suction of work? It puts its proverbial arms behind its proverbial head. It looks around at the blue sky above it and the blue, not quite the same shade but close, sea ahead of it. It is happy.

After breathing the crisp air of an open schedule for a few moments, the little anxieties about unchecked emails, unfinished stories, life paths, regrets start poking through the sand like hermit crabs. The only way to vanquish the hermit crabs, which are rapidly gathering and taking out their snippers, is to put your feet up on the chaise lounge and methodically go the stack of books you brought.

Then when you finish the stack of books, you will inevitably face a moment of irrational panic. Can I really read on a kindle on the beach? The answer is yes, you can, you will.

All right, that ^ ^ is one reading of how I spent my two (!!) weeks of vacation. Yes, I ate, adventured, and hung out with friends and family. But mostly, I read. Here’s the list, in order of how quickly I read them:

  1. The Seven Husband of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
  2. You by Carolyn Kepnes
  3. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (bought in a bookstore on a Greek island, thank you bookstore)
  4. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  5. Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer
  6. Going Clear by Lawrence Wright.

So, as you can see, the trip was divided between fiction by women and batshit nonfiction about extremist religion by men. That is one of my favorite divisions. Also, NOW I GET WHAT Y’ALL WERE TALKING ABOUT WHEN YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT PACHINKO. IT IS SO GOOD. I WANT TO MAKE A PILGRIMAGE TO JAPAN AND VISIT FICTIONAL CHARACTERS’ GRAVES.

That is all.

 

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.

giphy (9).gif

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!