The Glass Hotel

The idea that there are multiple universes where we all live out different lives may be true in physics, but it’s really only applicable in fiction. There’s no other way to get any insight into what those lives might be except through using your imagination. Practically, it doesn’t matter what would have happened if I’d done something different with my life 20 years ago – all I can do is work with what I’ve got in front of me.

But if you’re Emily St John Mandel, and you’re not quite willing to let all of your characters from Station Eleven go, by all means, use parallel universes to allow yourself to have fun. (I’m not being sarcastic, btw. Really, this is also what fan fiction is for – what if x were different in this book that I love – and it’s a great way to explore a world or characters more.)

Truth be told, the repeating character isn’t a major one, and is only used in one of the side storylines here. The Glass Hotel is a hotel on a hard-to-get-to island off British Columbia. One of the characters bought it because he liked it – he had that kind of money – and then a different disaster that wasn’t the Station Eleven pandemic happened, the 2008 financial crisis. All kinds of things change after that. This is that story. Who owns the hotel in the middle of nowhere and who works there and what happens after it has to close?

I really loved this book, and I may have read it all in one sitting, which doesn’t happen that often. The Glass Hotel is great and I would recommend if you’re looking for a distraction from the current state of things.

The White Album

There is a line in the first essay in The White Album: “…I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.” Substitute 2020, and I’m here (though 1968 was also a very climactic year).

The White Album is a collection of Joan Didion’s excellent essays from the late 1960s through the 1970s. She covers topics from the Manson Killings to the new California Governor’s mansion (built for “a family of snackers”, and it has since been sold to a private family) to Hawaii, Georgia O’Keefe, Doris Lessing, and more.

I picked up The White Album this time precisely for that 1970s-era-disaster-vibe that 2020 has. She has a wonderful way of describing the unreality of the world that we live in, and I needed to see that 2020 isn’t original in its awfulness.

This has happened before. This time around, we suffer anxiety and depression instead of vertigo and nausea. Welcome to 2020, same as 1970.

Ratking

Ratking is a book from my shelves, first bought over 20 years ago (and originally published in 1989). It’s a mystery that takes place in 1984-ish Italy, scarred by the political kidnappings of the late 1970s. It’s not a cozy mystery or one that wants you to see how beautiful Italy is. That black and white photo on the cover with the prominent shadow? Yeah, this is a film noir version of Italy, maybe hardboiled? Ratking has more in common with Raymond Chandler than it does with Under the Tuscan Sun.

Our hero, Aurelio Zen, is a disgraced police detective who gets put on a kidnapping case in Perugia because someone important is leaning on someone else important, and something needs to be done. Zen is the only person available, and no one really thinks there’s anything to this anyway, so it’s fine.

Plot-wise, it’s your standard mystery. But I love this book for its atmosphere – so weary and tired and full of crumbling beauty – and its description of what a ratking is. “A ratking is something that happens when too many rats have to live in too small a space under too much pressure. Their tails become entwined and the more they strain and stretch to free themselves the tighter grows the knot binding them…” It just seems so appropriate for this political season in which we find ourselves.

I will always love Ratking for its atmosphere and cynical beauty. If you want to see actual beauty, there is a three part series called Zen that you can buy on Amazon. Ratking is the third episode, even though it’s the first one in the book series.

Real Life

Real Life is a Booker-nominated novel about a Black man working towards his PhD at the University of Wisconsin – my alma mater, and a place that doesn’t want to be racist but is. The action mostly takes place over one summer weekend, with all sorts of relationship cracks and repairs happening. Because it’s about racism, yes, but it’s also about how people are with each other. How they become friends and/or lovers. How they un-become friends and/or lovers.

I enjoyed Real Life (contrasted in the book with academic life, which, if you have ever gotten a masters or a PhD, you know how isolating it can be from the wider world), and not just because I got to remember the place I grew up. The relationships felt real and lived in, and the depiction of how isolating academic life can be was spot on.

Recommended.

The Rules of Magic

The Rules of Magic is a fleshing out of the world of Practical Magic by way of the lives of the aunts from that book – Frances and Jet – and their childhood in the New York City of the 1960s. (I’m not actually quite sure the timeline works. It makes more sense if Practical Magic takes place in the 2010s, but the book was first published in 1995. It wasn’t a big issue, but it occasionally niggled at me.)

But I liked reading about their young lives in the city, and I always like reading about adventures in Manhattan in the 1960s, before it was glammed up in the 1990s. I enjoyed their run-down townhouse on the Upper East Side, I liked their witch shop in Greenwich Village. There are more fleshed-out male characters in The Rules of Magic than there were in Practical Magic, too. It might be a more solid book, in that way.

But it doesn’t have the over-the-top-ness of the prior book. And bits of it oddly took place in Paris, which, while one of the more feminine cities in the world (and one of my favorites), isn’t necessarily a witchy city.

If you enjoyed Practical Magic, you should totally follow it up with The Rules of Magic. I’m not sure it would stand on its own, though.

The Body Keeps the Score

The Body Keeps the Score is a non-fiction book about how stress and trauma affect your physical body. It tries to cover everything; not being a therapist, I can’t tell you how comprehensive it is. It certainly felt that way. But let me tell you that in the ongoing shitshow that is 2020, reading about both the effects of trauma on the body and possible ways to combat it was a fucking godsend.

Some of the therapies are definitely things you’ve heard before: yoga, writing, getting enough sleep, that kind of thing. But he goes into the studies that back up *why* they help you process your emotions and to let you move on to a better place, which stops you (ok, me) from rolling your eyes about them and actually take them seriously.

Some of the therapies and body systems are things I hadn’t known about before. Things like the autonomic nervous system (the one that kicks in while you’re relaxed, not the fight or flight one), polyvagal theory, EMDR (which I’d heard of but never understood before), neurofeedback (which, this is the one I want to try if I ever get the chance), parts (of the self) work and why it works.

The other thing that The Body Keeps the Score reminded me of was that, while 2020 is traumatic, I am relatively fortunate. It doesn’t mean that this year isn’t taking an emotional toll – it totally is – but things could be so much worse. There is so much deeper trauma out there in the world. So while it gives me good resources and the why I should pull out the damn yoga mat when all I want to do is watch Ghostbusters (2016) for the millionth time, it also gives me some perspective. My life could be so much worse.

So yes, The Body Keeps the Score was essential reading for the moment and yes, I would recommend it if you feel like you’re at the end of your rope.

Practical Magic

So, Practical Magic. If you’re familiar with the story, it’s probably because you’ve seen the movie once upon a time. The movie is good – I like it. Very female-centric and all about women solving their own problems. Men are either plot devices or the reward at the end, which is a nice change from the patriarchy. But I’d never read the book before now.

The book is significantly different: after her husband dies, Sally moves to Long Island, and that’s actually where the action takes place, not the old family house in Massachusetts. It’s mainly in Sally’s ranch house in a nameless NYC suburb. The aunts don’t have to go away because they’re by and large not there to begin with (but I can totally understand wanting to use Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest as much as you can). And there are way more dudes in the novel, though they are still mostly either plot devices or the reward at the end. There is more romance in the book, but it is somehow less the focus of the story. The focus of the story is competent women and girls solving the problem of this creepy, abusive guy who needs to stop haunting them and their neighborhood.

I enjoyed it. Look for a review of the prequel, The Rules of Magic, about the aunts when they were young later this week. I will probably get the pre-prequel, Magic Lessons, once my to-read pile calms down a bit. If you liked A Discovery of Witches, I suspect you would also like Practical Magic.

Prodigal Summer

There was a Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter a few weeks back that talked about the curse of the B+ show. It was good, fine, enjoyable even, but it was hard to write about or review. (The show, specifically, was Away on Netflix.) Why? Because there wasn’t enough to bite into; and there’s not for a B+ show, because it is good and it is enjoyable but you don’t want to rave about it, but there’s also not much to nitpick about.

There was a lot to like about Prodigal Summer: the cranky old man neighbor, the goat-breeding subplot, that one line about meditative lawn mowing that did really hit home*, and the way that everyone grew a little closer throughout the book and became more of a community. But it was a B+ book; it was fine without being remarkable.

* Why? After my father’s mother died and he and my mom needed to clear out his childhood home, the two of them would drive 4 hours on a Friday night, and then my mom would get up to tackle the house while my dad would mow the acre lawn. Only then would he join her in dealing with all of the stuff. They would drive 4 hours home on Sunday, and they did this every weekend for months. The lawn mowing drove my mom nuts – after all, they were cleaning out *his* family’s house. But maybe he needed the mowing to mourn his mother and the soon-to-come loss of the house he’d grown up in.

Mexican Gothic

What do I know about gothic horror, given that I am not a horror fan? There’s usually a romantic element, both in the love meaning and in the over-the-top-emotions meaning of romantic. There’s usually a creepy house, and there’s often an ambiguous ending. Mexican Gothic has all three.

This was a gloriously spooky tale about a young woman, Noemí, who goes off to a country house owned by an English family to see what the hell is up with her cousin, Catalina, who recently married into the family. Catalina does not seem to be well. When Noemí arrives, she finds an odd family that lives on a very foggy hill and, well, it turns out that they’re eugenicists who think their pure English blood makes them somehow better than all of the Mexican people around them. But they’re incredibly inbred, so they need fresh blood and Catalina and Noemí are upper-class enough and exotically robust enough to be desirable. It’s exactly as icky and gross as you might expect.

It’s also a metaphor for European incursions into Mexico in the 1800s. Mexico got its independence from Spain in 1810, and a lot happened as it worked to become stable and settled and to get the government to work effectively for its citizens. In 1864, the powers that be actually brought over European royalty – Emperor Maximilian I – to rule the country. This didn’t work out well for anyone. (The Emperor was brought over from Austria by some conservatives who thought it would help them keep power over their people who were rebelling, the Emperor looked around and tried to actually make changes to help the people, which alienated his power base, which lead to his eventual capture and execution.)

You don’t need to know anything about Mexican history for the book to make sense though, and racism being the source of evilness hits home at the moment. Mexican Gothic is a good spooky season book, and I’d recommend it.

Lavinia

Lavinia is a minor character in the Aeneid – even though she ends the poem as Aeneis’ wife. She never even gets to speak. Lavinia is her story.

A quick recap of the Aeneid. Aeneis was a Trojan who was in the city of Troy when the Greeks snuck in via the famous wooden horse. His house was burned down, but he and his father and his son escaped during the ensuing battle (the Trojans lost). Aeneis sails around the Mediterranean similarly to Odysseus in the Odyssey. Eventually, he ends up in Italy, where he founds the ancient city of Rome, thus giving the Romans a bit of classical shine. At least this is the story that Ovid would have us believe.

Lavinia is a chief’s daughter in ancient Italy, of a small but successful tribe. Aeneis and his men end up, kind of against their will, in battle with them. Lavinia is the prize that Aeneis wins, but according to this story, anyway, they love each other and it works out. She is a practical person.

Lavinia is entertaining if you’re in the mood – like I often am – for some ancient European content that actually centers women. (It doesn’t exist, at least not much, so we have to create it.)