Friday, May 30, 2014

Summer of Summer: wait, summer comes with bugs?

One of my favorite sights - Overlook Mountain from the Saugerties exit off 87

In a stroke of dumb luck, our favorite cottage in Saugerties was unclaimed for the Memorial Day weekend, so that is where we headed. Saturday we had mostly crummy weather, and I drowned two spiders in the shower stall and picked up a tick just by sitting on a bench in the back yard. It's been so long since my grassy childhood that I had forgotten what total assholes ticks are. They serve absolutely no purpose other than to feast on blood and be disgusting. Seriously, screw the little bastards.

On Sunday, we broke out the hiking boots we got for Argentina, and headed for Catskill Park, and the North Mountain hike. Allen had printed out a highly detailed trail guide, which explained to us that the beginning of the trail would have some rocks and water, but that it would improve after that. "After that" turned out to be at approximately the 46% point, because this trail followed a creek bed, which was sometimes more dry and sometimes very much less dry, the entire way. We squelched through mud and clambered over rocks like loudly complaining mountain goats. But still, this was our reward:

That teeny blue ribbon on the left is the Hudson.

The top of Ashley Falls

On Monday, we rested. Or, we meant to. And then poor Allen stepped barefoot on a wasp while setting out our breakfast dishes inside the cottage, which again brought back long-buried childhood memories of needle-like pain and itchy swelling and baking soda plasters. And what I realized is, I romanticize the country, but that's because I've mostly forgotten how god damn BUGGY it is. Shower spiders, lawn ticks, floor-dwelling indoor wasps... and that's not even mentioning the mosquitoes. After breakfast, we parked ourselves on the shady deck with book (me), laptop (him), and beer, and remained blissfully unmolested the rest of the day.

Yes, his T-shirt says "The Lannisters" on it.

My read was Emily Giffin's newest, THE ONE AND ONLY. Texas, football, and divided loyalty under one gorgeous cover... what's not to love?

Your tune: vintage 80's Journey, thematic to the book and intended by God to be blasted at ruthless volume on sun-soaked pool decks: "Girl Can't Help It." Follow your heart, gang. Steve Perry would never lead you astray.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Opposite of Love: a case study in "no two persons ever read the same book."

The Opposite of Love

As a writer, I thought I was pretty comfortable with the notion that every reader brings their own personality, and their own baggage, along with them to every reading experience. It makes sense--we're all different, so we will all absorb a creative experience like reading a book in different ways. We run every book we read through our own personal filter.

When an early draft of my book, The One That Got Away, was in its initial-feedback stage, mixed in among the helpful critiques I received was one that was such, in my view, a strong over-reaction to a very small element of the story that it seemed obvious the book had touched on one of that reader's personal sore spots. I mined the critique for what I found helpful, and shrugged off the hyperbole. It was a lesson in how sometimes reviews are much more about the reader than the book.

I had this experience again recently, from the other side of the coin. I had just finished Julie Buxbaum's The Opposite of Love, and as I often do with books I really respond to, I dipped into Amazon and Goodreads to see what other readers had to say. The type of comments I saw there:

"This is a refreshingly smart chick-lit novel."
"This is a novel about a young woman finding out who she is."
"This story is about a Manhattan attorney who breaks up with her boyfriend and then has to figure out what she wants from her life."

Which, yes. Absolutely. All of those things are true.

But what I didn't see as I skimmed the reviews, and I grew more and more surprised at its absence as I skimmed, was:

"This is a story about a young woman coping with the loss of her mother."

And then it hit me: that was my baggage. My sore spot. The reason that what stood out to me about the book was not the Manhattan-attorney part or the smart-chick-lit part or the self-discovery part was that all those parts got caught in my filter. What made it through the filter, what felt to me like the purest essence of the book, was the theme of loss. How it damages us, how it haunts us, how it hurts us, long after we think it should still be able to. How we try to protect ourselves from it.

What's fascinating to me is that both my take on the book, and the take of readers who focused on the storyline more than the theme, are accurate. All that stuff is there. But because, like the book's narrator Emily, I lost my mother young, I was quite literally sobbing with recognition at the specificity of the heartbreak that's there on the page. Like Emily's bitterness and frustration that, fifteen years after her mother's death, she feels as though her mother has been reduced to little more than a series of photographs and anecdotes that have gotten worn from re-use, because there are no new photos and no new memories, and countless tiny memories not strong enough to make an impression have simply faded away. I live with that exact pain, so to stumble across it in someone else's book was extraordinary. And to me, Buxbaum's exquisitely rendered portrayal of Emily's loss, and her obsessive need to imprint her living loved ones deeply onto her memory to prevent them from disappearing when they eventually leave her behind, was the heart and soul of this book.

Yet, many other people didn't feel that aspect as deeply. They've never experienced it, so they have no way to know how true it is. Maybe they skimmed over those passages, to find out what happened with Emily's job or her boyfriend. And that's valid, too. But if we accept the idea that fiction is at its best when it reveals the truth of life, then that is where this book shines so beautifully.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Summer of Summer

My first and perhaps last experiment with footie clams.

I don't know about you guys, but summer has always been a bit of a bait-and-switch for me. Magazines do a bang-up job of selling us all on the dream of the season: long, sunny days by the lake; elaborate al fresco meals; beach parties with bonfires and clambakes and sand between our toes. But not since I was a teenager has summer meant that much relaxation and time outside... as a Brooklyn girl with neither beach house nor lawn nor even a balcony the size of a bath mat, I spend most of my summer inside. Cause here's the thing: New York City in the summer is hot as all hell, with no refreshing breezes to be found anywhere except the waterfront. And it smells like garbage. Literally. The heat warms up all the effluvia that leaks out of every trash bag left on the sidewalk outside every restaurant and apartment building, so not only are we all sweating through our T-shirts as we walk along, but we get treated to a vague odor of overheated compost while we do it. 

The other problem is, New York is still New York. Every summer sees a busy and vibrant calendar of cool, fun summer activities in the city: festivals, concerts, and other performances. When I first moved here after college, I eagerly dove into these--free opera on the great lawn of Central Park? Wonderful! Free Derek Trucks concert at the Prospect Park bandshell? Fantastic! But guess what? Everybody else thinks it's wonderful and fantastic, too. It turns out the Central Park opera performances get so crowded that your picnic blanket overlaps that of everyone around you, and you can overhear their conversations as clearly as you did while squashed between two aggressively bragging lawyers on the 4 train that morning. No matter what you do, you can't get away from the crowds.

So every spring, I get all kinds of notions about what I might do with my long, sunlit weekends; and every summer, I just hide in the air conditioning.


This year I am grabbing every conceivable opportunity to get my ass out of town, and, while in town, to make the most of the season. I will gaze at the sea. (Or a lake, or a river.) I will get sand between my toes, or at least grass. I will read books outside in the sun, with an adult beverage in my hand (beer, wine, fruity cocktail; I'm equal opportunity). I got off to a great start last weekend, visiting my sister-in-law's family in lovely Madison, Connecticut.

The beach club in Madison, CT

I read and thoroughly enjoyed Beth Kendrick's newest release, CURE FOR THE COMMON BREAKUP; if you're looking for a funny, light-hearted summer read, you cannot do better than this.

For a summer tune, this sparkly remix of Seals & Croft's "Summer Breeze" is the ultimate. Listen, and wait for the fruity cocktail to materialize in your hand. Works for me every time.

So, tell you what. I'm inviting everybody along. This is the Summer of Summer, and it's going to be good. I'll see you there.