I’ve finally learned never to start a sentence with “I never….” Because until very recently I would have said “I never read books by former occupants of the White House.” Because I didn’t. I’m interested in character and human relationships and stories. And I care about all the big important stuff: the environment, immigration, social justice, gun control. But when it comes to campaigns, the minutiae of legislation, political feuds … not so much.
In spite of myself, I am gobbling up Michelle Obama’s Becoming. The woman is a born storyteller with a great story to tell. Her deep roots on the South Side of Chicago, her close-knit family, the traits that got her to Princeton, Harvard Law School and a job at a big deal Chicago law firm, and how she met and fell in love with Barack … all make for delicious reading. And she’s honest … imagine that. She admits to smoking pot, pre-marital sex, all the kind of juiciness I can’t picture Hillary revealing (sorry Hillary fans).
I’m just about one-quarter of the way through and unless things turn very sour very fast, I’m gonna love this book. Put it on your Christmas/Hannukah gift list; it’s flying out of stores. And please buy it from an indie book store, not you-know-who. Full disclaimer: I’m now working with Copperfield’s Books, the nine-store indie in Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties, with the newest store at Larkspur Landing. Check it out!
Here’s another one I’m surprising myself by liking lots: Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown. I’m not much of a royals junkie: I didn’t even watch the last wedding. But talk about juicy: if you watched The Crown or have read much history, you already know that Margaret defined outrageousness. Imperious, sexual, campy and witty, her scandalous behavior made headlines all over the world.
She knew and consorted with movie stars (Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando) and artists (Picasso, Warhol) and was the master of the bon mot. After ignoring the model Twiggy, next to whom she was seated at a dinner party, she finally turned to her two hours later to inquire who she was.
Twiggy replied, “I’m Lesley Hornby, ma’am, but people call me Twiggy.”
Margaret responded, “How unfortunate,” and turned away again.
According to Brown, she once “tried to combine the smoking and drinking by gluing matchboxes onto tumblers, so she could strike matches while drinking.” A real party girl.
This is an unconventional rollicking biography that’s give us a rich and dishy view of cultural and social Britain during Margaret’s heyday. It also makes even those indifferent to the royals care and perhaps even sympathize with the glamorous but ultimately tragic sister of the queen.
As many of you know, I could be happy for a long, long time wandering through indie bookstores. Each one has its own personality. That’s why my current bedtime reading is Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller.
In 2012, just after turning 31, Bythell returned to his hometown of Wigtown, Scotland to take over the local bookstore. His charming, very funny book reveals the trials, tribulations, and joys of owning a bookstore, complete with eccentric staff and customers, bizarre estate sales, the always precarious finances, and, of course, getting the books you love into people’s hands. If, like me, you can lose yourself for hours in a well-curated bookstore (especially one with cozy seating … I fondly remember The Tattered Cover in Denver), this book is for you.
My final recommendation is Joseph O’Neill’s Good Trouble, a short story collection. I adored O’Neill’s Netherland, in which he describes contemporary immigrant life in America through the subculture of cricket in New York. Gorgeously written, it was hailed as one of the post 9/11 novels that helped us understand its emotional fallout.
So I was happy to come upon his new book of stories. While they don’t all succeed, the opener, “Pardon Edward Snowden,” is a stunner. It starts with a less-than-successful poet receiving an invitation to a “poetition” requesting President Obama to pardon Edward Snowden. The story is spot on at depicting the jealousy an artist who considers himself unappreciated feels at the evidence of another’s success (there’s even a slam at Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize).
“The World of Cheese” is a heartbreaking story whose female protagonist has been labeled an antisemitic “persona non grata” by her son for a stray remark about his infant’s forthcoming circumcision. She has also been abandoned by a husband who moves to Costa Rica with his earthy, sexy girlfriend, grows a ponytail, and becomes a surfer. In other words, the men in her life are assholes.
And that’s the connective tissue running through these stories: men behaving badly. With elegance and keen perception, he seems to be commenting on how traditional models of masculinity just aren’t working anymore.
In the “I just have to say” category, I recently read an interview with Rachel Cusk by The New Yorker’s Alexandra Schwartz. Now I know why I intensely dislike Cusk’s trilogy: Outline, Transit, and the latest, Kudos, which I don’t intend to read.
Cusk tells Schwartz, “I don’t think character exists anymore.” Oh really? We’ve gotten beyond that old-fashioned conceit? Puh-leaze! So now we’ve evolved to the point where a string of monologues by the people the main character encounters constitutes enthralling fiction? Hooey!