Mistress to an Age

I have an abiding soft spot for Germaine de Staël. She was determined to make a difference in the crazy and deadly Paris of the French Revolution; she thought Paris was the center of the world; for her, intellectualism and writing were the way to shape that world; and Napoleon hated her. I find her endlessly fascinating.

Mistress to an Age was the first book-length biography I read of her; it was written in 1957 and is still in print. It was quite readable as well – I was a bit worried it was going to be too academic, but it read like a novel in some points. It helps, of course, that she, her parents, and her friends were all like something of characters out of a novel. The people in her life who were more subdued tend to take a back-seat – like her husband.

There are times you want to shake her, to get her to leave well-enough alone, but that wasn’t who Germaine de Staël was. She had energy to spare, tended to draw the best thinking (if not the best of intentions) out of the people around her, and wanted to be known as the person she was – but she also needed things defined in a way that would sometimes get her into trouble. For example, Napoleon kept banning her from Paris, or France, or somewhere. And then the administrators would let things slide, like they do because their attention was elsewhere; and so she’d move closer – not to Paris, per se, but closer than the 40 kilometers than she was strictly allowed, maybe because her son was in school in Paris. And it was tolerated because her son was in school in Paris. But then she’d insist that Napoleon ok the fact that she was there, and maybe she would even ask for his approval to go visit her son in Paris. At which point, he’d be like “No, I said 40 kilometers, you have to leave.” And you know if she’d just not insisted that Napoleon say it was all right that she was there, she would have gotten away with it.

But on the other hand, that insistence that people listen to her was what made her famous. And she certainly didn’t care that people thought she was too out-there or too mouthy or not ladylike enough. Without that chutzpah, she wouldn’t have been Germaine de Staël.

Mistress to an Age was a great introduction to her, for me. I’m excited to read and learn more about her.

Why Fish Don’t Exist

Let me just explain up front Why Fish Don’t Exist: because, taxonomically, fish is an imprecise designation. It’s not that “animals that aren’t mammals that live in the water” isn’t a useful category to you and me, it’s that it’s not a rigorous biological categorization. That’s not the point of Why Fish Don’t Exist, or rather, it’s only obliquely the point of it.

It’s really a memoir; a memoir of a kid who was weird and anxious and had a philosopher for a father, the kind of philosopher who would insist that the chair she was sitting in didn’t actually exist, which isn’t going to make anyone less weird or anxious. She is in a period in her twenties where life isn’t going especially well for her, and she ends up slightly obsessed with a guy named David Starr Jordan, who was a taxonomist and the first president of Stanford University. So it also ends up being a little bit of a biography of him (aside: one chapter is the story of the possible murder of Jane Stanford, wife of Stanford University founder Leland Stanford, and it is WILD). Jordan was a taxonomist and eugenicist (second aside: forced sterilization is still a supreme-court-approved thing in the United States – this aside is less wild and more appalling), who was also really, really good at persevering. And that’s what she’s interested in: the perseverance.

As the above, ramble-y, paragraph implies: this book is all over the place. It’s not long, but it is crammed with interesting stories and it does all come together in the end to show you a person who is, not less weird or anxious than she was at the start of the book, but more accepting of her weirdness and anxiety, and therefore happier.

Why Fish Don’t Exist is an interesting, distracting pandemic read. It might make you feel better about the mental state that the pandemic has put you in. It certainly helped me.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society – I feel like if you want to have read this book, you’ve already read this book? It was made into a lovely little movie from Netflix a couple of years ago; the movie necessarily reduces the number of characters and gives the main character, Juliet, a more solid romance with the American, Mark, whose job changes from publisher (in the book) to army officer (in the movie).

But both the movie and the book capture a post-WWII time of getting your life back together, wrapped, of course, in romance because that’s how stories are told. It explores what the new normal looks like once the Germans are gone, once you’ve accepted that there are people you love who aren’t coming back, once your life feels less precarious. And that’s relevant: there is light at the end of the tunnel from this pandemic, and who knows what that means for how our lives have changed. There are people we love who have gone, governments have mismanaged things, and who knows what safe even means.

We are changed. How do we make it through to find our new normal? The answer in the book is time, being gentle with yourself, remembering who you are, figuring out what you want now, instead of what you wanted before the calamity.

You can read The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society just for the romance and friendship and it’s still a good story. But you can also use it, if you like, to remind yourself that coming out of the pandemic means that things are going to change.

Reynard the Fox

Reynard the Fox is a retelling of the Medieval tales about the wily fox and his adventures in Flanders. They are short stories arranged into a longer narrative – so if your pandemic brain can’t deal with a lot of text, these can be good. They’re short enough that you can read one or two before falling asleep at night, if that’s your thing.

The stories themselves are anthropomorphized animals arranged like a local lord and his court, with various characters trying to get into power or keep their power; all of it compromised by the fact that some animals need to eat others as a regular part of their diet. Imagine office politics, but with appetites and murder (though, can it be called murder if it’s a fox eating a hen to survive?). It’s enough to turn you into a vegetarian.

That might make you suspect: these stories are not for young kids. It’s like Grimm’s Fairy Tales with Cinderella’s sisters cutting off parts of their feet so they fit into the glass slipper. Teenagers might enjoy the stories, but don’t get this thinking you can read it to your five year old.

I enjoyed it, and would recommend to anyone who likes an adventure story.

Headliners

Headliners is the latest published book in the London Celebrities series of romance novels by Lucy Parker. I find all of these books adorable; this is the first one that isn’t about a stage actor in London, though Sabrina, leading lady, has a sister on the stage (she was the protagonist from the prior book in the series) and is a television presenter. It’s an enemies-to-lovers romance story between her and a rival presenter, Nick; there are no surprises here. It’s a pretty straight-up romance.

Lucy Parker’s leading ladies are always warm and inviting; the men always seem to be a bit gruff and maybe demanding, but they all have hearts of gold. I will say that, as this is the fifth book in the series, it does help to have read the fourth book for a bit of background on the enemies part of the story, though I don’t think it’s strictly necessary. There are cameos from most of the couples in the previous books in the series (after all, they all have plays that need promoting on Sabrina’s and Nick’s morning television show).

There is another book in the series planned, and I’ll probably read that one too. Like I said, these are charming and warm and a nice bit of escapism as we finish off the first year of the pandemic.

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.