South and West by Joan Didion

I love Joan Didion’s writing style.

I’m going to preface this by saying non-fiction is not usually my jam unless it is a memoir written by a hilarious women (Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Anna Kendrick, etc..). Reality is pretty bleak most of the time so I prefer to escape into a book that stretches my imagination and pushes me out of the normal day to day. But, I made an exception because Joan Didion is a literary goddess.

If you have not had the pleasure of reading one of Didion’s novels I’ll give you the cliff notes intro to Joan. She writes in a direct yet lyrical manner. She can make the mundane sound beautiful without removing the fact that it is still mundane. I’ll give you a little excerpt from the West section of the book:

“I am at home in the West. The hills of the coastal ranges look “right” to me, the particular flat expanse of the Central Valley comforts my eye. The place names have the ring of real places to me. I can pronounce the names of the rivers, and recognize the common trees and snakes. I am easy here in a way that I am not easy in other places.”

How gorgeous is that prose? It gives me chills and makes me feel at home at the same time.

Now that we are all caught up let’s dig into the book. South and West is a collection of journal entries from when Joan traveled to the Gulf Coast in 1970 and to San Francisco in 1976. The portion on the South is well over ⅔ of the book and it is mesmerizing. As a rebel by nature she commentates from the perspective of a baffled but genuinely curious Californian. Her commentary on the Gulf is heart wrenching, upsetting and wildly uncomfortable for me to read because there’s a level of acceptance at cultural stagnation.

What I loved about the South section was that she was able to observe the culture and people of this new geographic location while being true to herself. She does not give into the patriarchal society that constantly asks about her husband. Her husband is rarely mentioned in these notes; she aims her focus at the places they travel and conversations she overhears. At the end of South she has painted the picture that the Gulf is a tragic marshland, filled with creatures that would terrify tourists if they weren’t on display and with people who hold tightly to their status quo even if it is to their detriment.

The portion on the West is much shorter. It’s like a love letter to the state Didion called home for her formative years. Didion’s notes are speckled with self-awareness. She includes details on what her normal was as a child which juxtaposes the idyllic childhood of the South through access to cultures alone. California is painted as a place deep with history but without the same reverence behind it. Cultural trends come and go without much consideration for who they leave behind.

I absolutely loved reading through these notes for two pieces she never wrote. Her succinct tone in combination with her ability to identify the toxic symptoms of two cultures without coming off as callous is pure magic. The sections unintentionally explain America as a whole. The South is tied so deeply to their roots they are willing to sink in to the marsh with them and the West is untethered, willing to float off with the next exciting idea. I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys stories from the view of an observer with heavy social commentary.

Have you ready any Didion? If so, what do you think of her style?

Harry Potter is Chicken Soup for my Grown Up Soul

We all talk about comfort foods but how often do we think about our other comforts – like comfort books.

For example, I love my stepfathers homemade mac n cheese even though my body cannot digest that much dairy and I immediately feel safe and powerful while holding a cup of coffee. B’s ideal comfort meal is a grilled cheese or two with just enough tomato soup for dipping.

But the older I get, the more I realize that I books make me feel just as secure as a good meal. I have books that I turn to when things just don’t feel right and I have books for when I just want to feel good. It is with a 9/10 time guarantee that on any day, that book can be one of the seven Harry Potters.

Harry Potter has been the one constant in my life. As a child I read, reread, and then rereread the books that were out and hung out on mugglenet.com to talk to other fanatics who also could not wait for the next book. My sweet angel lady of a mother drove me to the bookstore every book drop at midnight so I could take my new possession home and devour it through the night and in to the next morning. I drank in every word of J.K. Rowling’s craft.

I marveled at her ability to make the tiniest details significant later down the line. She created a world that I wanted to be real more than anything else. Harry’s world was complex; there was a lot of good, a significant amount of evil and it drilled in the importance of seeing the full picture before making a judgement on someone’s character. It introduced me to stories that were scary but still felt safe. Rowling always found a way to balance the overarching presence of evil with the joys that occur day to day. I was reminded by Dumbledore, Lupin, Ron and many others that to find joy I just had to look for love in the world. I was reminded by Hermione that being smart didn’t mean I wasn’t allowed to also be brave, by Luna that being as weird as I wanted was the key to success and by Ginny that the happiest relationships are the ones you can be yourself in.

I have revisited these books more times than I can count and every time I do, I feel like I am at home. I feel safe. After finishing a Harry Potter, or the whole series for the millionth time, I am reminded that I can change the world – just like three kids at Hogwarts who were constantly at odds with evil.

So after a long day, or a bad day, or just a busy period of time; that is where you will find me. Wrapped up in blankets, laying out in the sunshine or riding in the car with my nose in a Harry Potter book, channelling my inner Hermione as I escape to a world that inspires me to find love and joy in my day to day. After all as Dumbledore said, “words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic”.

What’s you literary chicken soup? Add it to the list below:

But Really Though Reads- The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Have you read a book as an adult that you wish you had read as a child? The Golden Compass made me envious of anyone under 12 picking it up for the first time. I distinctly remember wanting to see the movie after seeing the preview in theaters but luckily, from the looks of its 42% on Rotten Tomatoes, I never did.

Oddly enough, after loving that preview this bookworm never picked up the trilogy. I must have written it off as a children’s series in my HS days and stuck to rereading the Harry Potter series until the books began falling apart. I honestly never thought about the series again.

Recently Brenton and I were in one of our favorite bookstores and he picked up the first book. The moment he finished the book he looked at me and asked if we could go buy him the next one; it was a book emergency. The next day we bought him the rest of the series. Once we got him settled in the second book I decided to pick up the first one to see how valid his book emergency was.

IT WAS VERY VALID.

I’ve had friends refer to the trilogy as the atheist kid’s Narnia or a girl centric Harry Potter but after reading the first book I think what makes it special is that the first novel is a girls journey to independence. Harry and Lucy et al survive with the help of their friends and family. For Lyra, our heroine, all she can trust is herself and her daemon (physical form of soul/conscience), Pantamilion.

Another factor that differentiates this series from others is that there is an immediate rejection of the church and religion. Lyra learns rather quickly that almost everyone under the guise of being part of the church has an ulterior motive. Lyra has a fairly accurate bullshit meter from the beginning of the novel and it only gets stronger as she acquires more skills and tools throughout her semi-solo travels.

A fault of the series is that it is a novel about a wild girl that was obviously written by a man. The way Lyra rejects all things feminine is written as a differentiator instead of a casual personality trait. It comes off tone deaf in our current culture. 

In an attempt to not give anything else away, and also because I immediately want to start book two after finishing this one, I am going to wrap this up here. Sound off in the comments if you have read the series and what your thoughts are! I’ll be back with feedback on the rest of the series soon.

But Really Though Reads – Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

I’ve been in a  ~ sp0oKy~ fantasy reading mood lately and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are hitting the spot.

None of the Discworld books are even remotely close to horror but they scratch the itch of light and dark magic emotions that come up during autumn (aka spook season). I picked Wyrd Sisters as my introduction to Discworld on a whim. I’m under the impression that the characters overlap but it is not necessary to read the history of the planet that travels on the back of the sky turtle in order.

Wyrd Sisters is the story of three witches and how willing they are to break their own rules of magic to help their kingdom. The three witches are only a coven by definition; they have more differences in agreement than their alignment to each other. Our three leading ladies are Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat. Granny is the eldest witch and the least willing to participate in anything showy or fluffy. Nanny is promiscuous and life of the party. Magrat is the youngest and an idealist about the state of her coven.

The three women venture through time and space, which is much out of Granny’s comfort zone, to assist the Kingdom (personified not as individuals) in removing an awful king from power. The story is witty, hilarious and alludes to the showy witches of fairytales (Cinderella’s fairy godmother makes a cameo).

I highly recommend Wyrd Sisters to anyone who loves a magical world with a sarcastic twist. I will definitely be visiting Discworld again.  

But Really Though Reads – The Female Persuasion

I finished another book and I can’t stop thinking about it. I gobbled through Meg Wolitzer’s newest book The Female Persuasion over the last two weeks and it has left me in the strangest emotional place.

If you have not read anything by Wolitzer please do yourself a favor and pick up one of her novels now. Her stories are what I imagine we would have gotten if Sylvia Plath had access to Prozac (and her YA novel Belzhar is proof). Wolitzer creates her characters from all angles meaning that the reader gets to see them through multiple perspectives (themselves and others) in the book. Just like in reality, the character has no idea and no control over what others think of them. The feelings are raw and the strings don’t tie up neatly, but her writing encompasses the human emotional scale.

With this prior experience in Wolitzer’s worlds I picked up The Female Persuasion thinking I was prepared for the uncomfortable moments and the characters that make me squirm. I was not ready for the journey we take through Greer Kadesky and Faith Frank’s lives. Greer meets Frank when Frank speaks at Greer’s college. Wolitzer carries us lovingly through the beginning of the professional relationship between the second and third wave feminist duo. The novel touches on intersectionality, the recognition of privilege and the importance of a feminist boyfriend. Wolitzer also highlights where the animosity between second and third wave feminism stems from through anecdotes from Faith and Greer’s lives.

I’m going to stop here before I ruin the novel for anyone who hasn’t read it yet. Wolitzer’s novel is filled with triumph, heartbreak, deceit, confusion, tragedy and ends on the importance of everyone using their power for good until they cannot anymore.

Have you read The Female Persuasion yet? If so, what did you think of it?

But Really Though Reads – Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Maybe I’m spoiled from reading Harry Potter as a kid but it takes a special writer to get me to buy in to a fictional world. I love the world of fantasy but a magical universe has to be not only well thought out, but descriptive and vivid as well. Neil Gaiman is a master of fantasy. He is able to describe locations with enough detail to set the stage but with enough blanks to let the reader’s imagination run wild.

Neil Gaiman created a fantastical world right on the edge of reality. Well, actually he put it in the world beneath us. Neverwhere is a story about people who fall through the cracks. The novel takes place in the London Underground (literally). The characters in this story live in the subways and sewers as either invisible creatures or the people none of us want to make eye contact with on the street. The description of London underground is so realistic it has me looking in doorways and down drain pipes for a gateway to the world of forgotten people.

Our heroine is not a femme fatale – she unlocks the mysteries to the magic. The point that she is the key to everything is made painfully obvious by two things: 1. Her magical ability to unlock doors and puzzles, 2. Her name is Door.

Not only did the heroine entice me – Gaiman’s ability to make London seem magical yet identical to any major city is magical. I’ll give you a little taste of his magic.

“It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably, but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and homes, of parks and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkably unpalatial palaces; a city of hundreds of districts with strange names…and oddly distinct identities; a noisy, dirty, cheerful, troubled city, which fed on tourists, needed them as it despised them, in which the average speed of transportation through the city had not increased in three hundred years” 

Neverwhere has opened my eyes to the underground in my own city, the people who have slipped through the cracks. It can be a heartbreaking concept to think about (homelessness, poverty, etc) but it reminded me to keep looking for the deeper meaning in each person and interaction.

Reading about the fantastical lives of the people living in the subway told me to look for magic every doorway and reminded me that I have the key.

Please please please read this book and talk to me about it. I’m obsessed with Gaiman’s magic and the characters of London Underground.