01 the mirror thief (martin seay). i haven't had the best luck with mirror-related novels this year—city of mirrors, the final book in justin cronin's vampire trilogy, was a treacly mess—but this one was compared to david mitchell's cloud atlas, and i was ever so fond of cloud atlas. the mirror thief is set in three venices: old-timey [sixteenth-century] venice, italy, where murano is an island of mystery and murder (glassblowers were commanded to gather on murano so that their accidents wouldn't burn the whole city down) and alchemists prepare unspeakable solutions; midcentury venice, california, where a young hood stalks the dodgy poet who wrote a fictional (OR IS IT?) tract, the mirror thief, about one of the old-timey italian venetians; and present-day las vegas and the venetian casino, where everyone is looking for the old-timer version of the young hood, who may have helped a bunch of card-counters defraud a casino in atlantic city. the present-day las vegas portions of the story are engaging enough, the midcentury portions are touch and go, and the part set in the venice i love so hard that i want to skip all other travel and just go back and watch it drown is almost unspeakably boring. i looked so excited when i checked this book out of the library that the gal behind the counter asked me about it and then made me promise to tell her how it was when i came back. i'm still looking for her, to warn her. was she real? i watched about a third of the innocents (a 1961 adaptation of the turn of the screw) at the gym last night and was reminded that none of us can trust ourselves.*
02 the art of memoir (mary karr). i'm on a nonfiction-and-nonfiction-about-nonfiction binge because i'm finally going to start working on a book; there! i said it! (let us ignore the fact that i've said it before.) the subject and structure of said book came to me as i was trying to figure out where mcnally jackson hides its travel section (answer: downstairs in the back corner) so i could buy a bunch of berlin guides, and it felt so right i nearly cried. to be fair, i've been tinkering with race training and diet lately and just about anything can make me cry, but still. karr has some really interesting things to say about the way we remember; she tells an effective story about how, in her advanced nonfiction classes, she stages a fight with a colleague in front of her students (who don't know the clash is scripted) and then asks them to write about what they witnessed. their accounts are all over the place, as you would imagine; we are not to be trusted. i bristled a bit when karr talked about settling on the ultra-texan voice she uses in her bestselling memoirs, but she makes a strong case for how finding that voice unlocked her memories, and she made me revisit how i think about my own past. there's some great nuts-and-bolts advice about immediacy in there, as well. i think i prefer to read mary karr on writing than to read mary karr on mary karr (though i did enjoy the first half of lit, her memoir on alcoholism and becoming catholic); it's clear that she's a great teacher.
03 the girl on the train (paula hawkins). a hardcover, beautifully brodarted ex-library copy of the girl on the train offered itself to me for $3 at the charity bookstore at which i volunteer. one should occasionally read the mass-market stuff everyone talks about and carries on the subway, right?** my friend divine saw me add it to my pile and widened her eyes: "it's...not good." i trust her taste, but pulpy thrillers are pulpy thrillers, right? then i found myself reading it as quickly as possible—not because i cared about what happened to any of its characters or needed to know how it ended, but because i simply needed it to end (i am almost completely incapable of leaving books unfinished, especially when they're terrible; if i'm going to tell friends a book is shitty, i need to know that i've given it every opportunity to redeem itself). the girl on the train is so, so shitty: the first-person, present-tense, stream-of-consciousness style gives it the found-art feel of a trio of tweens' personal journals. the story is both predictable and utterly unbelievable. the characters are uninteresting. but, but—it'd be a great movie, right? the titillating setup (rear window's jimmy stewart is now a drunk girl getting her joe biden on while stalking her ex!) was ripe for the hollywood treatment, no? apparently not. that "apparently" is key; even i don't have the heart to confirm.
04 smoke gets in your eyes: and other lessons from the crematory (caitlin doughty). like girl, doughty's memoir crossed my path at ye olde charity bookstore cafe; unlike girl, it's utterly marvelous. doughty became terrified of and fixated on death after watching a little girl fall from a balcony at the mall when she herself was young, and after graduating with a history degree (deployed to great effect, as she weaves in stories of how the dead have been treated in other eras and places) she went to work at a crematory in oakland. these days she's the head of a death-positive group of pros, academics, and artists that embraces natural burial and decay—i'm inclined to agree with them, particularly now that i know exactly how cremation works—and founder of undertaking LA, an alternative funeral service. while i have never been especially squeamish about death (probably because it's touched my life quite lightly so far, and i understand how lucky i am to be able to say that), doughty's arguments and anecdotes made it even clearer to me that our modern, western approach to our dead is deceptive at best ("Modern denial strategies help focus mourners on positive 'celebrations of life'," she writes, "life being far more marketable than death. One of the largest funeral-home corporations keeps small toaster ovens near their arrangement rooms so fresh-baked cookie smells will comfort and distract families throughout the day—fingers crossed that the chocolate chips mask the olfactory undertones of chemicals and decomposition.") and monstrous at worst. this stuff isn't for the weak of stomach, as a friend gently reminded me when i tried to describe the smell of corpses*** to her over greek food on the upper west side this summer (my apologies, A), but it is fascinating, and doughty's a gentle, principled guide:
Every culture has death values. These values are transmitted in the form of stories and myths, told to children starting before they are old enough to form memories. The beliefs children grow up with give them a framework to make sense of and take control of their lives. This need for meaning is why some believe in an intricate system of potential afterlives, others believe sacrificing a certain animal on a certain day leads to better crops, and still others believe the world will end when a ship constructed with the untrimmed nails of the dead arrives carrying a corpse army to do battle with the gods at the end of days. (Norse mythology will always be the most metal, sorry.)go read her, and come back and talk to me about the brazilian cannibals who eat their dead as a final act of respect.
imaginary reading group discussion questions
01 how long did it take you to figure out what's going on in the turn of the screw?
02 what should we be sure to do in berlin? (i have many historical and bowie-related outings planned, maybe even a tattoo in the works, but i haven't been to germany in a very long time.)
03 have you read and/or seen the girl on the train? what the hell?
04 was i alone in not knowing cremation machines are called retorts?
05 what was the last smell you masked?
*fun fact: i nearly wrote a long essay about the turn of the screw without realizing the children were not, in fact, possessed. my god but i was a hot mess in that undergraduate henry james class.
**one of the 3,411 things i miss about my morning commute to midtown (yes, i miss my commute): no more peeping at strangers' books. i still take the subway a few times a week, but the readers are few and far between at non-peak hours.
***"For those of you who have not had the privilege of smelling Eau de Decomposition, the first note of a putrefying human body is of licorice with a strong citrus undertone. Not a fresh, summer citrus, mind you—more like a can of orange-scented industrial bathroom spray shot directly up your nose. Add to that a day-old glass of white wine that has begun to attract flies. Top it off with a bucket of fish left in the sun." this is precisely what the corpse flower smelled like, as it happens.