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.)

Just Kids

I feel like Just Kids – a sort of memoir of Patti Smith and a sort of biography of Robert Mapplethorpe – is the prototypical late-1960s, early 1970s artist life in New York City. They have a precarious relationship to getting enough to eat or keeping a roof over their heads, but the art is the focus. When Patti Smith first went to NYC, she very clearly was homeless for awhile, though that phrase is never actually used. And there is much talk about food and hunger.

But mostly, the book is about art. About her helping Robert figure out that he was a photographer, first and foremost. About him helping her with her poetry. (She still writes in poetry on her Instagram account, it’s lovely.) About their struggle to create art and to live on the money they made from their art. In short, to be artists.

And you can see its reflection throughout pop culture, too, the idea that Greenwich Village and Chelsea are places for artists, even though they’re full of wealthy people who have second homes in the suburbs now. But back in the 1960s and early 1970s, they were neighborhoods where artists could afford to live very cheaply and near other artists too.

There is also a thread that follows Robert Mapplethorpe as he discovered that he was gay and how he eventually accepted it – it’s odd for me, now, living in the San Francisco Bay Area to remember how taboo being queer was for so long. And about the eventual photographs that got so much attention from the Republican Party – he was trying to shock and he did.

It ends, after jumping forward several years to cover Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS in 1989. Another thing it’s hard to remember – and for me to get my teenager to understand – is how pervasive AIDS was and its effect on not only artists, but the US as a whole. (Not everyone survived Reagan.)

I found Just Kids to be inspirational. It’s about Smith finding her voice and forming a band who will be ok with her being the front person. It’s about how fucking around for awhile in your 20s will lead to you figuring out who you are and what you want to do. And as someone who is about to re-figure out what to do with her life, reading about other people doing the same makes me feel less alone.

Jack

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels are a damn delight to read. They’re quiet and smart and thoughtful about people and relationships and how to be good to one another and faith. I’m less interested in faith than in anything else in that list, but she makes faith about how to be good to other people, and I’m very interested in that.

If you’ve read the prior novels (and I wish I’d re-read them before starting this one), you know that Jack is the screw-up who tests everyone’s ability to be good to each other. He’s the son of a priest who’s an atheist and a troublemaker. Before leaving town, he gets a girl pregnant. Yes, he runs off on her, and she eventually leaves their small Iowa town for Chicago. In Jack, this is all history, and he’s had a stint in jail to boot.

Now, he is in St Louis and aware that he is a malevolent force in the world. All he wants is to be harmless; it’s the goal he’s working towards. Alas, he has the unfortunate luck to fall in love with a Black woman, Della, and this is the 1950s. This is the opposite of harmless, and he knows it. So does she. They try to stay apart and sometimes it works better than others. But they are in love, and it’s a mature, understanding sort, these are not crazy kids making bad life choices.

Robinson has enormous sympathy for Jack and Della, and her kindness and love show in every word in Jack. I was eagerly awaiting this book, and it did not disappoint.

Beowulf

I’m struggling with what the write about Beowulf, as I usually do with anything that’s considered a classic. Like, it’s been around for a million and a half years! There are people who study it for a living! I’ve never even read another translation of it, let alone know very much about it.

So here’s what I can tell you about my reaction to it and why this version of Beowulf instead of a different one. In no particular order:

  • The long introduction by the translator, Maria Dahvana Headly, was super helpful to me as a total newbie. She’s coming to Beowulf as a feminist, and Beowulf is very definitely an epic poem about what it means to be a good man. She talks at length about Grendel and Grendel’s mother, and possible not-toxic-masculine interpretations of those characters. But also, just in a grounding of the poem and what it was about? I really appreciated it.
  • And I appreciated the lens of healthy masculinity that the translator brought to it. It’s very much in the same vein as Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, using words that are more modern and attempt to convey relationships and status in a more modern way.
  • Speaking of Grendel and his mother… they’re in it a lot less than I thought. I came to the epic assuming that it was one hero’s journey type of a story, like The Odyssey. But it’s really three smaller adventures tied into one big story. Grendel is the villain of the first one, his mother is the antagonist in the second, and there’s a dragon hoarding gold in the third.
    • Apropos of the dragon in the poem, here’s a bit of history. The Romans left Britain in roughly 410, and there’s very little to no written history of what happened in Britain from that point until the Venerable Bede writes in the 700s. But people keep finding stashes of Roman Gold hidden away on the island, dating from those uncharted years. The latest hoard was found in 2012. So, hidden stashes of gold weren’t uncommon on the island, though dragons are unlikely to have been involved.
  • I do love that the poem starts out “Bro!” Like the person telling it is your drunk brother.

I can’t tell you if this translation is better than others or deep meanings about Beowulf. But I enjoyed it.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

All Addie LaRue wants is to see the world. But she was born in a small town in 17th century France, where her only option is to become a housewife and have children and never leave the town she grew up in. So she makes a deal with… not quite the devil, but definitely a spirit of the night – she gets to live forever, doesn’t have to get married, but the catch is that no one remembers her. There are logistics to work out – how do you rent a room if the person you’re renting the room from forgets you the minute you leave their sight? But once she gets those under control, she has an amazing time exploring the wider world and learning and experiencing everything possible.

Fast-forward to 2014 in New York City, where Addie is at a bookstore, and someone remembers her.

I have been excited about this book for what feels like years – from the time VE Schwab announced she was working on it on her social media, to being envious of all the people who got advanced reader copies, to finally preordering it, and then actually holding it in my hands and getting to read it. And handing it over to my teenager the minute I was done with it so she could read it too.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue wasn’t perfect – I’m not convinced that one of the more important characters was developed enough, Henry’s (the person who remembers her) relationship with his family felt very one-note. But the characterization of Addie as being a person who lets most creature comforts go, as long as she has art to consume – that hit home. And the reveal of the framing of the book at the end? Masterfully done.

Look, I loved The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, and I think you might too.

The Library Book

Let me tell you that so many people I know loved The Library Book by Susan Orlean. It’s probably because I work in a library and know so many librarians. I enjoyed learning about the history of the Los Angeles Public Library, I enjoyed reading about the fire that happened at the main branch in 1986 (the same day as Chernobyl, so while it should have made the evening news, it didn’t), and Orlean tells her intertwining stories well.

If you are a book person, read The Library Book.

The City We Became

There are not enough words for me to talk about how much I loved The City We Became. I initially read it in March 2020, when NYC was in the middle of covid lockdown and the book still made me so fall in love with the city that I wanted to move there, like, as soon as possible. (Why am I not writing this until October? Well, let’s just say that pandemic productivity is bullshit and there are days that getting anything done has been incredibly difficult.)

In the book, cities are actual entities that get born into the universe when they reach a certain size and vitality. But the universe has forces who don’t necessarily like it when this happens – it’s a very Lovecraftian premise. New York City is in the process of being born, and its avatar (the young homeless artist who is the personification of the city) has gone missing after the battle of its birth. So each borough of the city gets its own avatar, its own person. Manhattan is a young brown man of indeterminate origin who has just moved to the city, the Bronx is an older Lenape woman, Queens is a young Indian mathematician, Brooklyn is a former Black rapper who is now on city council, and Staten Island is a young White woman who is terrified to leave the island. They all have to find each other, and then the main avatar in order to defeat the manifestation of the universe who would like to see the city snuffed out. It’s a basic quest story with twists and turns and I loved it.

It’s the first of a trilogy (warning: she’s still writing the next two books), but it’s based on a short story in How Long Till Black Future Month? So if you’re looking to see whether or not you’ll like the book, you could do worse than to track down the story and read that first.

Anyway. The City We Became is a damn delight and if you’re looking for a reason to fall in love with New York City you could do worse than reading this book.