I am fairly catholic in my choice of reading material; in a pinch I will read whatever is lying around. At summer houses, and in insomniac wanderings in my own house I have read everything from Zane Grey to Boethius, and I actually like things like YA series fiction and “cozy” mysteries. Historically, I have drawn only one line in the sand: I will not, under any circumstances, read a romance novel. I can swallow chick lit, although I don’t like it much, and I delight in a love story woven among the threads of a great novel, but I find the mechanical, predictable storylines and ridiculously overblown language of the average Harlequin to be unpalatable. I know that many women love them, and that’s great. My share may be distributed among all of them, neatly decreasing my suffering and increasing their joy.
Because my reading glasses are broken, and because I was reading books downloaded onto the Kindle on my iPhone, I accidentally bought a kind of supernatural bodice ripper the other night. I swear there were no identifying marks, and that it seemed to be just $2.99 worth of entertainment involving covens, fireballs and demons. (I told you I’d read almost anything). Had I bought this title in a bricks and mortar bookstore, an unlikely proposition since this is a “work” of the type that thrives only in the forgiving universe of e-books, I would have been warned off by a cover featuring a busty woman with her head tipped back in ecstasy, her long hair blowing back as she offered her neck to the cleft-chinned hunk about to kiss her…somewhere. As it was, I went in blind. Literally and figuratively.
Someone wise once told me that ’shoulds’ lead to anger, and that if I ever found myself experiencing irrational irritation or annoyance I should look for ways I’ve decided someone or some thing ‘should’ be behaving, then decide if that ‘should’ is rational. This has proven a very useful technique for me, since I can pretty much chronicle my life through a series of frustrations with how the world behaves, in contrast to the way it behaves in my fantasies. ‘The World Is Not Enough’ would be a good title for the story of my life, had it not been taken already by the James Bond franchise.
A fairly recent exception to my chronic state of dissatisfaction, one that leaves me hopeful that I may have at last conquered my demon, comes in the form of smartphone applications (apps). What makes me especially hopeful that I’m cured is the massive potential for disappointment the smartphone presents. If you think about it, a device that can access the internet wirelessly, take high-resolution photos, talk, sense touch, recognize speech, know exactly where it is in the world (including which way is up), know whether it’s moving and how fast, and recognize the direction and strength of magnetic fields should be able to accomplish some pretty amazing feats.
To my surprise, I find that smartphone apps that should exist, often do. For instance, I take comfort in the fact that there is an app that finds the cheapest gas near my current location, and one that listens to a song whose name I can’t remember and identifies it for me, and one that overlays the constellations over the sky when I point my phone at any part of it.
“I wasn’t as happy as I could be, and my life wasn’t going to change unless I made it change. In that single moment, with that realization, I decided to dedicate a year to trying to be happier.”-Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project
On Friday night, my co-worker joked that I had to take my glass half-full outlook and check it at the door. Then on Saturday afternoon, while wearing my yellow sunglasses, I purchased a pair of yellow pants, blue running shoes, an orange cardigan, and pink Bermuda shorts. That’s what I call optimism—but we can always have more—and we can always be happier.
In fact, when Gretchen Rubin took her bus ride and had her great epiphany on her yearlong quest for happiness—she was already happy—she just knew she could be happier.
Selfishly, I had picked up Rubin’s #1 New York Times Bestseller, THE HAPPINESS PROJECT, from Barnes and Noble just a few weeks ago because I was looking for inspiration and tips in regards to my own book project: one that also involves a yearlong quest—to become a professional amateur.
The greatest books are the ones you fall into - that create their own world; that live, extant of anything else you’re doing; and beckon you to come back to their pages. That book for me this summer was HALF BROKE HORSES by Jeanette Walls (the semi-fictional prequel to her amazing autobiographical THE GLASS CASTLE). It’s an extraordinary, textured look at an American family, multi-generations of women and how they influenced their children and generations to come. Written in pitch-perfect prose, it’s just great!
I’m also reading VANITY FAIR by Willliam Makepeace Thackery but don’t take this very seriously because I read “Vanity Fair” every summer and never manage to get through it... Except that Becky Sharp is one of the great characters ever written – it always loses me (or I lose the book) somewhere along the way... I know my friends at the Los Angeles Review of Books would disapprove of me for admitting this, but it’s true.
I’m also riveted by Stuart Firestein’s new book IGNORANCE: HOW IT DRIVES SCIENCE, the premise of which is the most important thing about science is not what we already know but what we are about to discover. I heard him speak in New York and if he’s anywhere near you, go immediately. Inspirational! Written in prose (and with a kind of humor), anyone can relate to – it’s an amazing piece of work. Wish I could take his class!
Please let us know what you’re reading or if any of the below were your picks or inspired you.
Editors’ Note: “Wild” is definitely trending.
- Amy Ephron
THE ART OF LIVING WITH MR. B
THE MASTER'S MUSE by Varley O’Connor, offers a feast of sensory detail as it depicts the love story between George Balanchine and his final wife and muse, Tanaquil Le Clercq, incapacitated by polio in her prime. Devotion and art connect them; Balanchine takes a year away from dance to nurse her. An ultimate tale of a smart, beautiful woman linked to a charismatic, artistic icon, the refreshing surprise is that no one is offered up for blame, even as the call of new, young dancers and the ballet draws Balanchine away and Tanny must face divorce and refigure her life. We’re left with a sense of the complications and unshakable bonds that can exist between artists sharing lifelong passion for their work and for each other.
The rhythm of everyday life enters in: George chops tomatoes at their country house in Weston, and roasted chicken and dessert orange jelly are served to guests. Tanny, in the novel, mentions the kitchen as “the site of continual commotion…it looked forlorn to me tidy.”In The Ballet Cookbook, published in 1966, she collected the recipes of almost every famous dancer or choreographer of the time, including Jerry Robbins, Suzanne Farrell, Margot Fonteyn, and Rudy Nureyev, whose winter borscht is one of the crowd-pleasers. The cookbook has a cult following and, a la Julie and Julia, “Dinner with Mr. B.” events and the like have sprung up, with participants fording the shrimp bisque, blinis, banana sweets, and fish dinners that melted off the frames of the supremely lithe. The Master’s Muse comforts the reader with the assurance that a love of life can fortify a love affair that refuses to perish.
- Katherine Vaz
My favorite book this summer is Maria Semple's WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE.
It's shockingly funny and Maria moves at a breakneck clip as she tells a story that is centered in Seattle, but moves around the world. This is an episolary novel, allowing the reader to follow the action in a very immediate and somewhat sneaky way. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and Maria's book literally made me happy.
Dining suggestions: Read her book and drink (of course) a good cup of coffee. Have a piece of wild salmon served with a green salad. And a slice of wild blackberry pie for dessert. Wear comfortable shoes. And download a TED Talk when you are finished.
- Holly Goldberg Sloan
The book that stole my heart and soul this summer was WILD by Cheryl Strayed. It is a journey within a journey, a book that explores heartache and devastating loss, determination and courage, and, ultimately, rebirth in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
I fell in love with Cheryl and her story. I never tired of her trek hiking the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest Trail alone or her personal journey of self-realization and discovery. This is an uplifting story, and, as Dwight Garner from the NY Times summarized so well, "is as loose and sexy and dark as an early Lucinda Williams song."
- Betsy Sherman
We had an extraordinary response to this. Many of our contributors and readers weighed in:
(Amy's too shy to mention this but the paperback version of her latest book Loose Diamonds comes out this Monday, September 4th. Love, love, love the new cover. It's as delightful, perfect and quirky as her stories. We thought they were dolls, but they are actually vases. We want them. -LD)
JUST KIDS by Patti Smith. Loved. - Christina Wayne
I just finished ALIF THE UNSEEN, a first novel by G. Willow Willows. Really interesting mix of modern Cairo and mystical jinns. I couldn't put it down. - Allison Thomas
GILIAD by Marilynne Robinson. I wept at the end just for extraordinary ordinariness of it all. - Pam Felcher
WE'RE FLYING - short stories by Peter Stamm - an internationally-acclaimed Swiss author - stories of people who are lonely and unhappy in their everyday lives (characters with whom we can identify). - Christina Zawadiwsky
I'm loving THE MIDDLE MAN by Coburn Hawk. And yes, Maria Semple's Where'd You Go Bernadette is next on my list. - Roni Keller
I stumbled into my kitchen, poured the beans in the grinder and pushed, fumbled to separate the filters, filled the pot with water and leaned against my wall oven to wait for the delicious healing brown liquid to brew.
That’s when it hit me.
I scrambled to the fridge to find my worst fear fully realized. There was not one drippy drop’s worth of cow juice in there and I’m just not a black coffee girl. I grabbed my sunglasses and my keys and drove down the hill to my local Chevron station- which was open early and relatively non judgemental for the morning breath/ morning hair/ jammies wearing mess that I was that morning. I grabbed a half gallon of milk and plopped it on the checkout counter.
“$4.00 please.” said the uniformed Chevron employee. “Ok.” I muttered and reached into my pocket to get the cash.
Suddenly it hit me like my alarm clock had just rung. “Wait a minute, $4.00? How can it be $4.00?? It’s a half a gallon of milk!!!” The checkout guy beamed with pride. He looked me straight in the eye and declared “I was ripping you off!” He grinned ear to ear.
I just stood there. I could find no witty retort. No smart comeback. I was stupefied.
by Ann Nichols