Tag Archive | Ann Patchett

Feminist on a Road Trip

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Every time we passed a sign for Des Moines I said it over and over in my head so many times that it started to sound like “Desdemona.” This pleased me.  Thinking about a Shakespearian heroine proved I was smart. A goddman woman of letters.

I suspected that at some point I would write about this word-morphing and “forget” to mention that I had to Google Desdemona to confirm that she was, indeed, Othello’s wife. I wasn’t 100% sure.  When I Googled her, I was disappointed to read that she was not black, as I had remembered her. She was described by Wikipedia as a “Venetian beauty.” Her husband, the Moor, was believed to be black.

These are the thoughts of a well-read person, Google or no, I thought.

We drove past Iowa City.  I waved to Jane Smiley and whatever remains of Ann Patchett’s essence after her graduate school stint at the famed writing program.

Look at me! I’m an enthusiastic celebrant of all things literary! Supporter of women in the arts!

Once Des Moines was in the rear view mirror, I succumbed to uncharitable thoughts about the Iowa State Fair goers who feasted on hunks of livestock impaled on sticks. I myself ate corn kernels with a fork and a roasted turkey wrap on a gluten-free tortilla, ThankYouVeryMuch.  Like a total asshole– I mean, who eats like that at a state fair?  When Jeff asked the pimple-faced vendor for the gluten-free turkey wrap, she stared blankly.  “Do we serve that?” she asked her shift supervisor.  We pointed to the menu; they both looked surprised.

On the final long stretch of the road trip, I fell in love with a book of essays. The pieces were well-written, darkly humorous, and made me feel smart for enjoying them. No beach reads for this woman of the world traveling through exotic Nebraska while a grating narration of Ramona and Beezus filled the mini-van.

By the time I was half way done with the book, I had a definite picture of the author in my head. She’d mentioned that she was blonde three times, so I started there. My imagination gave her blonde-but-stringy hair, an ample bosom, and a no-make-up earthiness that I assumed from her hobbies: antiquing and summering in Maine. I also assumed she was older than me by at least a generation.

Basically, I made her a funky, lovably eccentric Kathy Bates with longer, more Nordic hair.

Jeff exited near Altoona. “Can you drive?” His eye lids sagged; he’d be asleep before I merged back onto the highway. As he put the car in park, I Googled the author of the essays.

Big mistake.

She was most certainly not Kathy fucking Bates. She was Gwyneth Paltrow, but—worse—she was way less vanilla. Her face was more angular; her glasses had that “I live in Manhattan” cool that felt (and was) thousands of miles away. She looked younger than me.  Oh great– she was also a professor at a fancy New York college. She definitely knows all about Desdemona; I doubt this author ever vacationed at the Iowa State Fair.

I hated her. I hated the essays. I hated myself for enjoying them. Why couldn’t she at least be portly? Or old? Or mean? Or not funny? I was so totally jealous of her that it consumed me for miles, across the borders of the flattest states, isolated and hostile to me now, though before the Googling, I thought they were majestic and soul-stirring.

I seethed across Iowa. I seethed into Illinois. I stared at the horizon and begged myself to be, not undone by her beauty, talent, wit, and success, but inspired! vivified! energized!  I prayed for the ability to stuff the image of the real author back through the wireless airwaves so I could have my original back.

Back home, I forced myself to finish the book.  It’s not her fault she’s beautiful and friends with David Eggers.  It’s certainly not her fault my heart is shriveled by jealousy and impotent rage.

It was a really good book.

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2012 Book Review in 140 Characters (Or Less)

I have a piece of unfinished business from last year: my book reviews. It’s like a piece of food left between my teeth from breakfast that I have to get out so I can concentrate more fully on my lunch (which will, undoubtedly, consist of processed cheese product and buttered starches).

But listen: I’m busy; you’re busy.  Who has time to read 25 bloated book reviews from a Mommy blogger? If you have that kind of time you either have insomnia or a trust fund.  Either way, God speed.

But for the rest of you, I am paring down my review to a mere 140 characters as an ode to Twitter, which is rich irony, considering that Twitter is the antithesis of a real, actual book that I hold in my hands and can pass on to another reader. (I’m not a Kindle convert.)

So, without further ado, here are my reviews for the books I read in 2012:

Undress Me In the Temple of Heaven, by Susan Jane Gilman

Read this travelogue about two girls romping through Communist China- one went insane and the other wrote an incredible book of a harrowing journey. (How jealous must the insane girl be today?)

The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain

At one point, she lost all of Hemingway’s drafts, which I think of whenever I lose snippets of my WIP.  This book proves many things we already know (H was an ass), but it’s a masterful read from the view of his first wife.

Everything Changes, by Jonathan Tropper

Bad mood? Read Tropper.  Wanna get inside a thinking man’s head? Read Tropper.  Funny and heartfelt, but still our beloved, irreverent Tropper.

The Magician’s Assistant, by Ann Patchett

Patchett’s first novel– how the hell did she do that? Even the names of her characters are perfect.  I envy her talent and her unforgettable stories, especially this one.

Make Me Into Zeus’ Daughter, by Barbara Robinette Moss

Meh.  Horrible alcoholic family from which emerged an articulate daughter who lives to tell the tale.  Skip this and read Glass Castle.

5Am Fifth Avenue, by Sam Wasson

Light as air, but if you care to learn more about where Breakfast at Tiffany’s fits within the popular imagination, read it.  Stoked my love for Capote, Hepburn, and “old” Hollywood.

Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

Un-f*cking-believable story.  How Walls survived the mayhem and chaos of her early years is nearly impossible to imagine, but thank God she did, because her writing is truly art.  Put this at the top of your list: memoir at its finest.

Swamplandia, by Karen Russell

Another first novel.  The most original book I have ever read.  Still smarting on its behalf for the snub from the Pulitzer’s.  Seriously– this book is odd and memorable.  Also: disturbing because of the rape scene deep in the Everglades.

Little 15, by Stephanie Saye

Star basketball player has an affair with her coach while she’s still in high school.  Strikes fear in the heart of any mother, and illuminates a story behind headlines we see too often.  An important read.

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides

No, it’s not Middlesex, but you have to move on.  I loved this story about precocious Ivy Leaguers figuring out love while also meditating on spirituality and semiotics. Made me feel smart to read this.

Truth & Beauty, by Ann Patchett

Read this. Read this. Read this.  Incredible portrait of a long friendship between two writers.  Codependence galore from my favorite Ms. Annie P, but I loved the peeks into her writing process that are woven through the story.

Art & Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland

Not gonna lie, this one is a little dry.  Anyone struggling with whether she/he is worthy of creating art or who battles fear of the blank page/canvas/clay, this book puts fear in context and reminds the artist: just do it.

The Kiss, by Kathryn Harrison

The protagonist has a sexual affair with her father.  How, in good conscience, can I recommend this to anyone? Still turns my stomach to think of it.  Don’t know what else to say.

Say When, by Elizabeth Berg

Sweet read about a marriage that falls apart and then falls together.  Didn’t change my life, but also didn’t hurt it.

Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James

Don’t make me review this again.  Just don’t.

Fifty Shades Darker, by E.L. James

Yes, I went back for a second helping.  There were some long days of summer that I had to get through while Jeff was away. Don’t judge.

Drop Dead Healthy, by A.J. Jacobs

Hilarious year-long project recorded by Jacobs, who tried to become healthy in every aspect of his life.  I actually got a lot of health information from this book, which is fascinating.  He taught me to cook on the back burners of the stove because it’s safer.

Bringing In Finn, by Sara Connell

Her mother gave birth to her son.  Think about it, then read this gorgeous tale of healing, family and triumph. Then give it to your mother and see if she freaks out because she thinks you are asking her to carry your baby in her womb.

The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson

A humorous meditation on what it means to be Jewish.  As a shiksa married to a Jewish man, I thoroughly enjoyed the questions raised and the answers suggested.  Won’t lie: it’s a little ponderous, but there are some brilliant characters.

Daring Greatly, by Brene Brown

You, and 7 billion people have seen her YouTube videos from TED about shame. So, go read her book.  Unless you’ve never felt shame, in which case, read Arnold Schwarzenegger’s book, because he hasn’t either.

Too Good To Be True, by Benjamin Anastas

Know anyone intimately involved with CoinStar machines because times are tough and he needs milk for his son?  Well, meet Anastas.  He lays out his financial and personal ruin after being an on-the-rise author.  A generous and intimate tale of loss.

Little Red Guard, Wenguang Huang

I would have sucked at being Communist, and this book proves it.  It’s also criminal how little I knew about China’s recent history and the hardships faced by the Chinese people.  This book made me downright patriotic and proud of being American (until that asshat NRA guy gave his speech about “good guys with guns” and I got a little down-on-America again).

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson

Who is this zany Lawson?  Who cares! She’s written a hilarious tale about taxidermy and rural life in Wall, Texas.  All bloggers should read this, because it’s funny and she’s a blogger.

The Middlesteins, by Jami Attenberg

She nailed it here: The tensions between the characters.  The relationships that family members have to addiction (mainly food addiction here) and the stuckness of it all.  I am still stunned by Attenberg’s ability to “show not tell.”

Signs of Life, by Natalie Taylor

I cried reading the first paragraph.  I cried all through this book, but in the end, I appreciated  my life and my husband more than I did before I started.  Natural result of reading about a woman who loses her husband in a freak accident when she’s 5 months pregnant.

* * *

Here’s to more books in 2013– I am already halfway through Gone Girl– It’s going to be a great year for reading.

Fan Letter Friday (Vol. 1): Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett in Southern Living Magazine

(The above photo by Melissa Ann Pinney, from an article in Southern Living.)

Dear Ann, (can I call you Ann and not Ann Patchett? We’re both Southern, let’s just do it!)

You are the lucky recipient of my first fan letter posted on my blog.  I have written other fan letters way, WAY back in the day, before the world wide web was invented (to local musician David Garza and to Karate Kid star, Ralph Macchio).  I am a woman now; I don’t need to send fan letters based on my teenaged hormones or languid fantasies about being the future Ms. Karate Kid. I can send a fan letter now because I am in awe of your talent, your range, and your stories.

I first “met” you as an author when my book club selected Bel Canto in January 2002. I was skeptical at first when I read the back cover.  Latin American crisis and hostage situations are not my go-to’s for fiction.  But, I was a good book club member (until I quit because everyone else had a husband and a baby and a breast pump and I was so desperately single that no book in the world could relieve my jealousy) and read it– in two days, while in Law School.  In case you didn’t know, law school students are not exactly known for having lots of free time to pour over great contemporary fiction.

I loved Bel Canto and then, frankly, I forgot all about you.  That law school gig flourished into an actual law practice and eventually I quit quitting things because I was single and started quitting things because I was married and had two children.

This year, I decided to read 50 books.  The first: The Magician’s Assistant.  A dear friend who’s brilliant and artistic and perfect claims this is her favorite book.  Again, I devoured it in about 2 days.  And again, in case it hasn’t leaked to the world, people (mothers) with two young children are not known for having vast swaths of free time in which to read fiction.  I loved the book and still think of the characters all the time.  I wonder where you came up with the name Parsifal and I dream of seeing a house in Los Angeles that you described. (My husband’s from LA so it could happen.)

Here’s the true fan letter part:

I love your imagination and your writing. I also hate you for showing me how good a writer can be, because it’s kind of clear you don’t just dick around on a computer a few minutes of everyday (like I do).  When I read your fiction, I wonder if somewhere buried way deep inside of me, maybe in my heels, there is at least 1 story I could tell that is mostly from my imagintion.  I am not so sure. I don’t think everyone is out there walking around on a great book if only they had the time and the resources to sit down and write it.

I loved State of Wonder, which I also read recently.  I think about those mushrooms a lot and those scenes on the river.  I also think about how it might feel to get pregnant in about 30 years, and then I hyperventilate and have to find a paper bag. So thanks for giving me those daydreams!

The real kicker, and what landed you in volume 1 of my Fan Letter Friday is your memoir, Truth and Beauty.  I read the first two pages and then called my friend Joyce (of the Magician’s Assistant ardor) and told her that I loved it so much I will never write again. It’s too good, too perfect, and your opening line was exquisite.  “Jesus, she can do both fiction and non-fiction. I hate her like I hate those toned bitches in the Athleta catalog.”

Joyce talked me off the ledge, and I kept reading.

I think Truth and Beauty is one of my all-time favorite books.  I haven’t read that many books about friendship that gripped me like yours did.  Years ago (the last year I tried to read 50 books in one year (1999)), my 50th book was Lucy Greely’s Autobiography of a Face which I was literally finishing up right as my ride to a New Year’s Eve party was honking for me to come down.  “Wait, I have to finish this book by midnight. I have 2 more pages. I am coming!”  So when I realized that your book was about your friendship with Lucy, I about peed my pants on the red line train (and judging from the smell on the red line, that’s pretty much just what you do on that train).  My memory of Lucy Grealy’s book is that I had wanted to like it more.  I probably wanted more angst and sentimentality, but now, of course, I have to re-read it. I know it’s around here somewhere.

But back to you.  I was really astounded to read how codependent you were with Lucy.  And in the middle of all of those storms, you created beautiful art and that tells me that I don’t have to be perfect to have the privilege of making art. (Does a big-time novelist like you consider blogging art? Not sure if I do. Let me know what you think.)

I loved that you worked at TGI Friday’s. I love that you are southern. I love that when I finally saw your picture on the back flap of State of Wonder I was stunned at how open, friendly and approachable your face looked. You looked like someone I would be friends with.  You didn’t look all weird and artsy or inscrutable or reclusive. (I hereby vow to comment on the appearances of all the males I send fan letters to as well.)  Once a boyfriend called me a “plain Jane,” and many years later I took it as a compliment. It’s sort of what I am getting at here, but more I think that you like my friends look, which makes me feel safe and happy admiring you and your work.

You may never read this, unless you Google yourself and stumble upon Outlaw Mama.  You no doubt have lots of fans, but one more is always nice.