The first three are of Savannah, the fourth of Charleston, and the last of Coligny Beach at Hilton Head.
Originally published October seventh, ‘fourteen.
The first three are of Savannah, the fourth of Charleston, and the last of Coligny Beach at Hilton Head.
Originally published October seventh, ‘fourteen.
Treat an essay like a mathematical equation and less like a blank canvas upon which you’ve to heap five hundred empty words. It’s simple, really.
You need approximately twenty-five sentences. The length of those sentences, of course, will vary based on what needs to be said, and this number is assuming you don’t have to include quotations.
Twenty-five sentences divided into five paragraphs supporting a sharp, succinct thesis statement.
For example, you are assigned the subject of cinematic villains.
The best villain in film is Darth Vader because he craves adventure and excitement instead of peace and stability, he is mastered by his emotions rather than being the master of them, and he is an intimidating and ruthless leader.
Thesis statement (The best villain in film is Darth Vader) with three reasons (craves adventure and excitement, mastered by his emotions and poor leadership skills) supporting it.
Five paragraphs: Introduction, Topic A, Topic B, Topic C and Conclusion.
INTRODUCTION. Five sentences. Start broad. The only place for bullshit is in your introduction and conclusion. ONE: For decades the cinematic industry has entertained us with tales of blah blah blah. TWO: In film we have seen the exploits and evil of psychopaths like Dr. Hannibal Lecter and the Joker. THREE: We’ve also seen the likes of criminal masterminds and mobsters and blah blah blah such as this dude and that dude. FOUR: But none have been so memorable as the Sith lord imagined by George Lucas in the Star Wars saga. FIVE: The best villain in film is Darth Vader because he blah blah blah.
TOPIC A: One reason why Darth Vader is so awful is because he seeks to please himself through grand adventures and thrilling escapades.
And then you give three solid examples to support this. You’ve got MANY films of horrible decision making from which to choose: he’s a child who boasts about how awesome he is at constructing things (his droids, his podracer); instead of listening to Obi-wan and Qui-Gon Jinn he goes and marries Queen Amidala; he has delusions of grandeur which the emperor encourages…
One sentence for each of those examples. And you don’t need to quote anything unless your professor/teacher insists that you do so. If the prof says you have to have quotes, then you should use at least one for each example.
TOPIC B: His penchant for seeking to fulfill his own desires is one way his emotions so often control his actions. He also does… Find three other ways his emotions get the better of him… like when he kills Obi-Wan or slaughters a village upon learning of his mother’s death.
TOPIC C: He taunts those who should revere him with his power and prowess rather than leading them. If an officer or a stormtrooper does not do as he’s told, Vader simply holds up a thumb and forefinger and chokes that man to death. Blah blah blah.
CONCLUSION: Regurgitation of thesis statement. Four more sentences of bullshit going from the specific to the general.
And you’re done.
The only font you use is Times New Roman. Ten or twelve point –preferably twelve, unless the prof says otherwise. Single-side it. Double-space it. Left-align it. The tab key is not your friend; if you want an indentation for the first line, there’s a way to format your paragraphs so that it automatically does this. Be verbs (AM, IS, ARE, WAS, WERE, BE, BEING, BEEN), adverbs (those things that end in -LY) and prepositional phrases are not your friends, either. They are WEAK words, and do not belong in an essay. Use them sparingly. Do not rely solely on spellcheck for editing. And, most important, your professor is not stupid; don’t try to outsmart him. You can’t.
Originally published September twenty-second, ‘thirteen.
Quite some time ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, that same institution to which I’d run in the months following the demise of a relationship with the only man who’s ever really mattered to me (he mattered too much, which terrified me, and I didn’t matter enough, which I knew… and so the thing was doomed to fail), the cessation of my employment at Borders (turns out I’d had the sense to jump ship before the thing sank), and the months prior to the death of my older brother.
To this day, I want to weep with the gratitude that I had that place to turn — I made wonderful friends there and learned from some of the most incredible professors I’ve had the privilege to know. I’d not been blessed to know Wendy Barker — not until four years ago. She’d been invited to speak at the small college here in town, to read her poetry. I’d been tasked with writing an article advancing the event. I sent her questions; she sent me answers. At that time I’d not read her work; I was struck by her poem Color Analysis:
Swatches of fabric held to my face I am a “Summer,” am told I mustn’t wear winter, clear, sharp colors of gems: rubies, sapphires, emeralds Nothing too strong, definite I am semi-precious: amethyst, aquamarine, colors of sky. I am probably an air sign Think of breezes, says my color counselor I am told to have nothing to do with the press of bright yellow, liquid greens that rush the landscape in April and May. Autumn would overwhelm me. To what season, then, am I linked apparently forever, floating rootless on pale air? Am I simply to sway here on wisps of gray pale cloud, a little gasp of pink
As I read, I was overwhelmed by the thought that I am a winter.
I am winter who longs for summer, for the warmth the heat and the light the brightness, the airiness, the softness of the pinks and the pale yellows the sweetness of baby blue the joy and the fun and the peaceful easy the long and lazy sunny day I am winter clothed in sapphire Cold and stark and barren frigid and chilling and dark I am winded. Crisp and sharp bold and brutal, bleak and depressing I am howling and blustering, wounded and haunted. Ruby red from the rage and the weeping. Bitter and broken emerald green from the envy How could anyone want to be winter?
Originally published February twenty-sixth, ‘sixteen.
Sixteen years ago, while hiding out in academia recovering from three dramatic events that occurred within a twelve month period, the greatest of which was the death of my older brother, I took a creative nonfiction writing course in which we were to write responses to the stories we read.
One story was Reading Lolita in Tehran, which I strongly suggest you read if you’ve not already done so.
This is what came from that.
I see myself as both villain and victim.
My apartment, and I’ve lost count as to how many of them in which I have lived, is lined with boxes of various sizes and misplaced furniture. I do not know if I move because the villain knows the victim is getting too close to knowing herself and insists that this not be the case. Or because the victim is too afraid of what and who she is. Or because she struggles to be free of the villain’s constraints and thinks, foolishly, if she moves, she will be rid of them.
I take them both with me — the villain and the victim.
The only thing I do here in this cell, with its pricey kitchen appliances, garden-style tub and Berber carpet, this cell I have stuffed with pieces from Restoration Hardware and Storehouse Furniture — I do not know who chooses the pieces, whether it’s the villain or victim attempting to make my prison seem more livable — the only thing I do here is sleep.
I am like the butterfly — or moth — nailed to a wall. For awhile I was innocent, carefree, happy, beautiful. Then at the age of eight I became aware that I was not beautiful because my peers were kind enough to point out my many physical short-comings. I became aware that I was fragile, clumsy, easily scarred both mentally and physically. I learned that my body was not made like everyone else’s and being different, however unintentional, was wrong.
Eventually I learned not to wonder at the differences. I learned to hide them as best I could. I learned what things I should like and what things I shouldn’t. That even if one has all of the things that are “cool”, she is not necessarily so.
Nabokov wrote: “Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form.” Why is it, upon reading this sentence, curiosity immediately seems wrong? Then, I think about it further and realize it isn’t wrong at all. It’s fabulous, really. My mother jokes that the first words I learned weren’t “Mama” or “Dada”, but “What would happen if…?”
To this day, I wonder.
I wonder what it would be like to be better. To be some character in one of my idol’s romance novels, like Margo, whose perfectly sculpted physique hides an amazing amount of insecurity, or Laura, whose femininity hides an amazing amount of strength, or Kate, whose abrasive persona hides an amazing amount of femininity. I have reread the tales of these three women numerous times, not because I see myself in any of the characters but because I like them the best and because, just for a second, I can escape the monotony and ugliness of my own colorless world.
But I am not myself when I read. I am a ghost, a shadow, a voyeur of some contrived reality.
I am only myself when I write. But the villain only lets me see so much of me at once. Or is it the victim that does?
You describe Lolita as a “small, vulgar, poetic, and defiant, orphaned heroine.” I read that and thought, briefly, you might be describing me. I can’t be certain, because, of course, I am not certain of who I am, but there are times I would use most of those words to describe me. I am small. Not physically, really. I am nearly 5’8, which is fairly tall for a woman. But I am* the smallest person in my family — the shortest, the lightest — and so I feel small. Few people in this world could doubt the vulgarity of my tongue and actions. I have done things in my life I feel an immense hatred towards myself for doing, the most vulgar of which is having given in to the constraints of society’s whims and, thus, losing myself. I like to think of myself as poetic though I wonder if this is true. Defiant? Sometimes I am certain I can be. Orphaned? I would say yes to this as well, though my parents still inhabit this Earth, still claim me as their own. But the world has rejected me, and I have rejected myself. So I am no heroine.
Manna identified Nassrin as a “contradiction of terms”. I am a contradiction, too, but only because I do not know who I am, and, thus, my identity changes, as do my moods, on a daily basis. You describe Nassrin as a Cheshire cat. And so am I.
You say a person becomes a villain because he or she never wonders, never is curious about anything but himself. That is another reason why I say I am a villain. Because I can be selfish. Because my curiosity can be quite limited to things that concern me and only me. I do not wonder why the world turns so much as why mine turns in such an ugly way. I have to remind myself to ask my friends how their worlds turn after having vented for many minutes as to how mine does.
You write: “They invaded all private spaces and tried to shape every gesture, to force us to become one of them, and that in itself was another form of execution.” I feel, much of the time that I died many years ago. That my body clings to this Earth simply because it is stronger than my soul. I died because I forgot what it was to be myself. Because I chose to value others’ definitions of me as opposed to my own. I was talking to my mother about this book earlier. Asked her to pick one word to define me that encompassed every aspect of my personality. Her word was “effervescent”, because when I’m in a good mood, I’m bubbly. When I’m in a bad one, I’m still bubbly, but the bottle is corked and bound to explode. I told her that I didn’t know if I could choose one word that sufficiently described me because I don’t know me. She reminded me that a counselor I’d seen in the seventh grade had said I knew myself. Maybe I did then. Maybe. But somewhere along the way I’ve forgotten. Somewhere along the way, my soul grew weary and eventually slept.
You say, often, throughout the second part of the book that you felt irrelevant. I have felt irrelevant since I was eight years old. Nothing, nothing I do seems to matter. Nothing inspires me to feel that my life is worthwhile. For decades I have struggled to find some reason for my being here. Always trying, always reaching. Always falling short, always failing. How does one cope with this?
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster” — Nietzsche. I fought monsters as a child: my peers, who thought I was worthless and told me so at every opportunity, that the world would be better off without me in it; my teachers, who had no idea how to reach me and, sometimes, gave up, recommending that I be placed in special education classes. Had I not been so intelligent, had my parents not had so much faith in me, those few teachers would have gotten their way, and I would never have graduated from high school, never gotten a college degree, never had the opportunity to consider going to graduate school. I would have found a way to let my body sleep with my soul a long time ago. But I forced myself to go to school every day and fought them. I was not so careful, though, in protecting myself from becoming one, for I am as judgmental, as shallow as my peers were, and bitter, too.
Now I see myself as an irrelevant, monstrous, villainous victim.
Perhaps the only reason my body survives is because somewhere, in some cell, there is this notion that eventually, my soul will wake and rejoice. But as I grow older I become more resolved to my former peers’ insistence that I am, in fact, worthless.
I take these thoughts home, to my cell, each night.
And the only way I sleep is by taking two Tylenol PM tablets.
*At the time this was written, this was true. Now? Definitely not.
I was thirty-one when I wrote this. I am forty-seven now. I wish I could say I felt differently about life but the only difference between that version of myself and this one is that my cell is now a room in my parents’ house because solitary confinement was killing me.
Originally published August fourteenth, ‘sixteen.
The rules: There’s only one. You can only name books you’ve actually read. So there goes a huge chunk of the literary canon. I graduated with an English degree but was never assigned anything by Dickens, Austen, either of the Brontes, none of the Russians… There was some Faulkner and Hemingway in there, but I never read more than a few paragraphs. The rest of the stuff held little to no appeal.
Unless you’re teaching, an English degree’s little more than a license to bullshit, and in five years of studies, I got really good at it. I did get around to reading Austen at some point; ain’t no way she’s making this list, but God love her for paving the way. I spent freshman and sophomore year at a small women’s college in the middle of nowhere. Sure, we read. We read smut. And as I got older I graduated to good love stories and discovered I liked writing those as much as I enjoy reading them, so yeah… there’s gonna be a lot of love on this list.
Thanks to the obsessive-compulsive streak my father gave me the list is alphabetized by author; if there’re multiple works by an author, they’re either listed by preference or series order.
Of the books I have read, these are the ones that I think are the best. Those in bold are the best of the best.
Originally published May tenth, ‘seventeen.
Why I wanted to read it: This is one of those that I always saw on display at Barnes and Nobles for the longest time, like The Fault in Our Stars, but would pick up and put down again and again. On a visit to the lovely, independent Blue Willow Bookshop in west Houston quite some time ago, I purchased an autographed copy, but it sat in my car for weeks and weeks. It finally made it into the house, only to be stashed on the bookshelves. One of the categories for Erin’s Book Challenge is mental illness in fiction, and it suited. God, did it suit.
What I liked: Theodore Finch. “What in the hell were you doing in the bell tower?”
The thing I like about Embryo is that not only is he predictable, he gets to the point. I’ve known him since sophomore year.
“I wanted to see the view.”
“Were you planning to jump off?”
“Not on pizza day. Never on pizza day, which is one of the better days of the week.” I should mention that I am a brilliant deflector. So brilliant that I could get a full scholarship to college and major in it, except why bother? I’ve already mastered the art (page 13).
It’s my experience that people are a lot more sympathetic if they can see you hurting, and for the millionth time in my life I wish for measles or smallpox or some other recognizable disease just to make it simple for me and also for them. Anything would be better than the truth: I shut down again. I went blank. One minute I was spinning, and the next minute my mind was dragging itself around in a circle, like an old, arthritic dog trying to lie down. And then I just turned off and went to sleep, but not sleep in the way you do every night. Think a long, dark sleep where you don’t dream at all (pages 15-16).
Apparently, I’m tragic and dangerous (page 26).
Someone has come in late and dropped a book and then, in picking up the book, has upset all her other books so that everything has gone tumbling. This is followed by laughter because we’re in high school… And so, because I’m used to it and because this Violet girl is about three dropped pencils away from crying, I knock one of my own books onto the floor. All eyes shift to me. I bend to pick it up and purposely send others flying — boomeranging into walls, windows, heads — and just for good measure, I tilt my chair over so I go crashing. This is followed by snickers and applause and a “freak” or two, and Mr. black wheezing. “if you’re done… Theodore… I’d like to continue.”
I right myself, right the chair, take a bow, collect my books, bow again, settle in, and smile at Violet, who is looking at me… (page 29).
Outside of class, Gabe Romero blocks my way. Amanda Monk waits just behind, hip jutted out, Joe Wyatt and Ryan Cross on either side of her. Good, easygoing, decent, nice-guy Ryan, athlete, a-student, vice president of the class. The worst thing about him is that since Kindergarten he’s known exactly who he is…
“Pick ’em up, bitch.” Roamer walks past me, knocking me in the chest — hard — with his shoulder. I want to slam his head into a locker and then reach down his throat and pull his heart out through his mouth, because the thing about being awake is that everything in you is alive and aching and making up for lost time.
But instead I count all the way to sixty, a stupid smile plastered on my stupid face. I will not get detention. I will not get expelled. I will be good. I will be quiet. I will be still…
I’ve made a promise to myself that this year will be different (pages 32-33).
Worthless. Stupid. These are the words I grew up hearing. They’re the words I try to outrun, because if I let them in, they might stay there and grow up and fill me in, until the only thing left of me is worthless stupid worthless stupid worthless stupid freak (page 63).
I sign onto Facebook, and over on Violet’s page someone from school has posted about her being a hero for saving me. There are 146 comments and 289 likes, and while I’d like to think there are this many people grateful that I’m still alive, I know better. I go to my page, which is empty except for Violet’s friend picture (pages 75).
Roamer mumbles. “Maybe you should go back up there and try again.”
“And miss the opportunity to see Indiana? No thanks.” Their eyes bore into me as I look at Violet. “Let’s go.”
“No time like the present, and all that. You of all people should know we’re only guaranteed right now.”
Roamer says, “Hey asshole, why don’t you ask her boyfriend?”
I say to Roamer, “Because I’m not interested in Ryan. I’m interested in Violet” (page 87).
Mom says, “Decca, tell me what you learned today.”
Before she can answer, I say, “Actually, I’d like to go first… I learned that there is good in the world, if you look hard enough for it. I learned that not everyone is disappointing, including me… (page 104).
Water is peaceful. I am at rest… in March of 1941, after three serious breakdowns, Virginia Woolf wrote a note to her husband… “I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times… so I am doing what seems the best thing to do… you have been in every way all that anyone could be… if anybody could have saved me it would have been you” (page 106).
A voice in me says, You’re no hero. You’re a coward. You only saved them from yourself (page 161).
I can go downstairs right now and let my mom know how I’m feeling — if she’s even home — but she’ll tell me to help myself to the Advil in her purse and that I need to relax and stop getting myself worked up, because in this house there’s no such thing as being sick unless you can measure it with a thermometer under the tongue…I don’t want to hear about the cardinal again. Because the thing of it is, that cardinal was dead either way, whether he came inside or not. Maybe he knew it, and maybe that’s why he decided to crash into the glass a little harder than normal that day. He would have died in here, only slower, because that’s what happens when you’re a Finch. The marriage dies. The love dies. The people fade away. (pages 185-186).
In gym, Charlie Donahue and I stand on the baseball field, way beyond third base… he crosses his arms and frowns at me. “Is it true you almost drowned Roamer?”
“Something like that.”
“Always finish what you start, man” (page 204).
“What are you most afraid of?”
I think, I’m most afraid of just be careful. I’m most afraid of the long drop. I’m most afraid of asleep and impending weightless doom. I’m most afraid of me.“I’m not.” I take her hand, and together we leap through the air. And in that moment there’s nothing I fear except losing hold of her hand (page 221).
Labels like “bipolar” say, This is why you are the way you are. This is who you are. They explain people away as illnesses (page 272).
A string of thoughts run through my head like a song I can’t get rid of, over and over in the same order: I am broken. I am a fraud. I am impossible to love. It’s only a matter of time until Violet figures it out. You warned her. What does she want from you? You told her how it was. Bipolar disorder, my mind says, labeling itself. Bipolar, bipolar, bipolar. And then it starts all over again: I am broken. I am a fraud. I am impossible to love… (pages 277-278).
I am tired. I am avoiding seeing Violet. It’s exhausting trying to even myself out and be careful around her, so careful, like I’m picking my way through a minefield, enemy soldiers on every side. Must not let her see. I’ve told her I’ve come down with some sort of bug and don’t want to get her sick (page 281).
All I know is what I wonder: which of my feelings are real? Which of the mes is me? There is only one me I’ve ever really liked, and he was good and awake as long as he could be (page 314).
And Violet Markey.
I love the world that is my room. It’s nicer in here than out there, because in here I’m whatever I want to be. I am a brilliant writer. I can write fifty pages a day and I never run out of words. I am an accepted future student of the NYU creative writing program. I am the creator of a popular web magazine — not the one I did with Eleanor, but a new one. I am fearless. I am free. I am safe (page 52).
I look in the direction Brenda pointed and there he is. Theodore Finch leans against an SUV, hands in his pockets, like he has all the time in the world and he expects me. I think of the Virginia Woolf lines, the ones from The Waves: “Pale, with dark hair, the one who is coming is melancholy, romantic. And I am arch and fluent and capricious for his melancholy. He is romantic. He is here” (page 90).
He sits cross-legged, wild hair bent over one of the books, and immediately it’s as if he’s gone away and is somewhere else.
I say, “I’m still mad at you about getting me in detention.” I expect some fast reply, something flirty and flip, but instead he doesn’t look up, just reaches for my hand and keeps reading. I can feel the apology in his fingers… (page 153).
The room has been stripped bare, down to the sheets on the bed. It looks like a vacant blue hospital room, waiting to be made up for the next patient (page 290).
Just two lines across, each word on a separate piece of paper. The first line reads: long, last, nothing, time, there, make, was, to, a, him.
The second: waters, thee, go, to, it, suits, if, the, thee.
I reach for the word “nothing”. I sit cross-legged and hunched over, thinking about the words. I know I’ve heard them before, though not in this order.
I take the words from line one off the wall and start moving them around (page 332).
What sucked: not a damned thing.
Having said that: Read it. Please, please read it. I know I shared a lot from this one. I promise you, there’s so much more good than I’ve included here.
Originally published August twenty-eighth, ‘seventeen.
Why I wanted to read it: I was supposed to read it earlier in the year (or maybe late last year?) for a book club I was in but didn’t. I needed a book that began with B for Erin’s book challenge. I felt guilty for not having read it then, and my mom said she and dad had run out of gas listening to this story, they’d been so absorbed. I figured I should give it a shot.
What I liked: She had always prided herself in keeping her madness invisible and at bay; and when she could no longer fend off the voices that grew inside her, their evil set to a chaos in a minor key, her breakdown enfolded upon her, like a tarpaulin pulled across that part of her brain where once there had been light (page 3).
“I guess you think I should hire a marching band to welcome you back,” my father, Judge Johnson Hagood McCall, said to me.
“It’s great to see you too, Dad,” I said.
“Don’t look at me that way,” my father ordered. “I refuse to accept your pity.”
“Jesus Christ,” Tee whispered.
“Say hi to Jack, Dad,” Dupree suggested. “It’s a question of manners.”
“Hi, Jack,” my father said, mugging, his words soft around the edges. “Great to have you back, Jack. Thanks for not calling, Jack. For not keeping in touch.”
“I tried to call you a couple of times, Dad,” I said. “But it’s hard talking to a man after he’s passed out.”
“Are you implying that I have a drinking problem?” the judge said, rising up to his full length, his head thrown back.
“An outrage,” Tee said happily.
Dallas said, “Like saying Noah had a problem with the weather, Pop.”
“Drink some coffee,” Dupree offered. “Sober up before you go see Mom.”
My father looked at me, then sat down on a chair, falling the last several inches.
“You heard that your mother deserted me for a much younger man, I suppose,” he said to me.
Dallas said, “The doc’s a whole year younger than Pop here.”
“There’s no need for your editorial comments, Dallas,” the judge said. “I am merely stating the facts. His money blinded her. Your mother always had a weakness for material things and ill-gotten pelf.”
“Pelf?” Tee said. “Mom likes pelf? I don’t even know what that is.”
“That’s why you’re only a public school teacher in the state that ranks last educationally in this great nation,” the judge said. “They allow you to teach other idiots, I am told.”
“My kids are autistic, Dad,” said Tee.
“Aren’t you glad Dad’s drinking again?” Dupree asked me, trying to divert our attention away from Tee. “I never feel closer to the old boy than when he’s going through delirium tremens.”
“I’m not drunk,” the judge said. “I’m on medication.”
“Dr. Jim Beam,” Dallas said. “Still practicing after all these years.”
“I have an inner-ear infection,” the judge insisted. “The medicine affects my sense of balance.”
“That infection must be hell,” Tee said. “it’s been around for thirty years or more.”
“All of you were in league with your mother against me,” said the judge, closing his eyes.
“Got that right,” Tee said (pages 130-131).
“C’mon, Mom,” Tee yelled by the window. “Give ’em hell, girl.”
“You’re in a hospital,” Dallas said, “Not a sports bar.”
“Thanks for that timely bulletin, bro,” Tee said. “And get ready for a full-contact scrimmage. John Hardin’s tying up his boat down at the dock.
“Help us, Jesus,” Dallas said.
“Worse than it used to be?” I asked Dupree.
“Still a bit off,” Dupree said. “But he’s become a little dangerous. He spooks easily.”
“Now, for the enjoyment of our live audience, ladies and gentlemen, we present madness,” Dallas said.
“First death,” Tee said, “then drunkenness.”
“Calm down, Tee,” Dupree suggested. “Don’t let him see that you’re nervous.”
“I’m not nervous,” Tee said. “I’m scared shitless.”
“He hasn’t had his shot this month,” Dupree said. “He’s fine after he’s had his shot.”
There was a tap on the window and John Hardin made a motion for Tee to unlock it. Tee made a motion with his arm that John Hardin go around to one of the doorways and John Hardin answered him by selecting a brick that formed the border of a flower garden near a memorial fountain (page 133).
Dupree said, “Let’s go together to get your shot.”
John Hardin’s eyes blazed as he spoke. “I hate you the most, Dupree. You’re number one on my list. Then comes Jack. Precious Jack, the firstborn son who thinks he was born in a manger. Then comes Dallas, who think he’s some kind of genius when he actually doesn’t know shit…”
“I’ll go with you,” Tee said to John Hardin. “You and I’ll go with Dupree to get that shot.”
“The only cure that’d help me at all is for everyone in this room to get cancer and for my sweet mother to walk out of here with me.”
Dupree rose and approached his brother cautiously. “Please, John Hardin. We know how this ends. You’ll get disoriented and do something stupid. You won’t even mean to do it or know you’re doing it. But it’s in your hands. Get a shot or the cops’ll put out a bulletin to pick you up.”
“If I needed a fortune-teller, asshole, I’d go order a Chinese meal,” John Hardin screamed… “I’m the nicest of the brothers,” John Hardin said. “Mom said that, not me. I’m just reporting the facts. She said I was her favorite. The pick of the litter” (page 137).
“Where’s John Hardin, Dad?” I asked.
“He’s fine. I just told your mother. I saw him at the house this morning. He looked like a million bucks. All he wanted was to borrow a gun.”
Dupree lowered the binoculars and looked at our father with a baleful gaze… “Jesus, I see John Hardin. He’s holding something. Yeah. Congratulations, Dad. It’s your gun.”
“You lent a gun to a paranoid schizophrenic?” Dallas said.
“No, I lent one to John Hardin,” the judge said. “The boy told me he wanted to do a little target shooting…”
“Hey. Waterford,” John Hardin was screaming. “Fuck you. That’s what I think of the town and everyone who lives in it. What a rotten little excuse for a town. Everyone who grows up here, or is forced to live here even for a small amount of time, becomes a complete, worthless asshole. It’s not your fault, Waterford. You can’t help it that you’re rotten to the core. But it’s time. You’re just not worth a shit and it shows.”
“Makes you proud to be a McCall,” Dallas whispered…
“I know what you’re saying, Dupree,” he shouted. “You’re telling everyone I need my shot and then I’ll settle down… I’m never letting another car cross this goddamn bridge. Fuck you, Waterford…”
Dupree stepped forward, the one who loved John Hardin the best and the one John Hardin hated the most.
“Close the bridge, John Hardin,” Dupree demanded.
“Eat a big hairy one, Dupree,” John Hardin answered, using his middle finger to give his words fuller effect. “This town is so shitty it gave my poor mother leukemia… That’s my brother Dupree,” John Hardin screamed from his island of steel. “If they had a contest to find the biggest asshole in the world, I guarantee he’d be a finalist…”
“I never understood why you lived in Europe,” Dallas said, “till this very moment.”
“Lots of rentals,” I said.
“What a loser,” Dupree screamed back at John Hardin. “You’ve been a loser and a phony since the day you were born. Mama just told me that. She’s out of her coma.”
“Mama’s out of her coma?” John Hardin said. “You’re lying. Fuck you, Dupree McCall.” John Hardin’s voice was as poignant as a train whistle now. “I won’t close this bridge until every one shouts ‘Fuck you, Dupree McCall.'”
“Organize the cheer, brothers,” Dupree said. “He means it. And if the SWAT team gets here, they’ll kill our brother. They don’t play.”
We ran down a line of cars and enlisted volunteers from the crowd to pass the word from driver to driver…
The town chanted, “Fuck you, Dupree McCall…”
“Now close the bridge,” Dupree shouted. “Before I come over there and whip your ass.
“You gonna pole-vault, asshole?” John Hardin shouted.
“There are ladies present on the bridge,” Dallas said, changing tactics.
“I apologize to all the ladies I might’ve offended,” John Hardin said, and there was true contrition in his voice. “But my mother has leukemia and I’m really not myself today.”
“Mama’s out of the coma,” Dupree shouted again. “She wants to talk to you. She won’t see the rest of us until she talks to you. Close the bridge.”
“I will under one condition,” John Hardin said… “I want all of my brothers to get stark, buck naked and jump into the river…”
“We get naked,” Dupree said, “Then you throw the gun in the water. We jump in the water. You close the bridge. Deal?”
John Hardin thought a moment, then said. “Deal.”
Dupree stepped out of his underwear, followed by Tee, then me, and finally a very reluctant and grumbling Dallas.
John Hardin grinned happily as he savoured the sight of us, his naked and humiliated brothers. “All of you’ve got little dicks” (pages 244-247).
I listened to this one on audio, too (because it’s seven hundred sixty-eight pages, and you readers of Picky should know how I loathe long books). There were SO, SO many pages of quotes I loved that I could share with yall. These were the snippets I wanted to go back and find.
What sucked: It’s SEVEN HUNDRED SIXTY EIGHT pages. There were a couple of instances of backstory that I wished weren’t so lengthy.
Having said all that: I LOVED this one. The writing’s beautiful. I love the family dynamic. I am in awe of Conroy’s ability to weave tragedy with comedy. It’s REALLY good stuff. Yall should read it.
Originally published October first, ‘seventeen.
Why I read it:Funny, hopeful, foulmouthed, sexy, and tear-jerking (Kirkus Reviews). Sounds like my kind of book. Seriously. Who wouldn’t want to read that? If that wasn’t enough to pique my interest, there’s the first page…
What I liked: He’d stopped trying to bring her back.
She only came back when she felt like it, in dreams and lies and broken-down deja-vu.
Like, he’d be driving to work, and he’d see a girl with red hair standing on the corner–and he’d swear, for half a choking moment, that it was her.
Then he’d see that the girl’s hair was more blond than red.
And that she was holding a cigarette… and wearing a Sex Pistols T-shirt.
Eleanor hated the Sex Pistols.
Standing beside him until he turned his head. Lying next to him just before he woke up. Making everyone else seem drabber and flatter and never good enough.
Eleanor ruined everything (p. 1).
When Eleanor was a little girl, she’d thought her mom looked like a queen… all her bones seemed more purposeful than other people’s. Like they weren’t just there to hold her up; they were there to make a point…
Eleanor looked a lot like her.
But not enough.
Eleanor looked like her mother through a fish tank. Rounder and softer. Slurred. Where her mother was statuesque, Eleanor was heavy. Where her mother was finely drawn, Eleanor was smudged (p. 18)
That must be Eleanor’s mom, park thought, she looked just like her. but sharper and with more shadows. like Eleanor, but taller. like Eleanor, but tired. like Eleanor, after the fall (p. 188).
Holding Eleanor’s hand was like holding a butterfly (p. 71).
“Well, she is kind of weird, isn’t she?”
Park didn’t have the energy to be angry. He sighed and let his head fall back on the chair.
His dad kept talking. “Isn’t that why you like her?” (p. 144)
“Why do you even like me?”
“I don’t like you,” he said. “I need you… I think it’s got as much to do with your hair being red and your hands being soft… and the fact that you smell like homemade birthday cake” (pp. 109-110).
“I don’t like you. Park,” she said, sounding for a second like she actually meant it. “I… think I live for you.”
He closed his eyes and pressed his head back into the pillow.
“I don’t think I even breathe when we’re not together,” she whispered. “Which means, when I see you on Monday morning, it’s been like sixty hours since I’ve taken a breath. That’s probably why I’m so crabby, and why I snap at you. All I do when we’re apart is think about you, and all I do when we’re together is panic. Because every second feels so important. And because I’m so out of control, I can’t help myself. I’m not even mine anymore. I’m yours, and what if you decide that you don’t want me? How could you want me like I want you?”
He was quiet. He wanted everything she’d just said to be the last thing he heard. He wanted to fall asleep with I want you in his ears (p. 111).
“Nothing, really. I just want to be alone with you for a minute.”
He pulled her to the back of the driveway, where they were almost completely hidden by a line of trees and the RV and the garage.
“Seriously?” she said. “That was so lame.”
“I know,” he said, turning to her. “Next time, I’ll just say, ‘Eleanor, follow me down this dark alley, I want to kiss you” (p. 166).
There’s SO much more good, and it’s SO much better than I could possibly convey in excerpts.
What sucked: That it ended. I wasn’t ready to leave them yet.
Having said all that: Best book I’d read that year. Hands down. Solid storytelling through and through.
Originally published June fifth, ‘thirteen.
Why I wanted to read it: I wasn’t as excited about reading this as I was for her other books. Fangirl didn’t do anything for me at all. And while I liked Beth and Jennifer in Attachments, Lincoln didn’t impress me that much. And this one? About a fifteen-year-old marriage in trouble, its complications corrected through conversations held via magic phone calls? I was wary. I wasn’t going to buy it. I’m really glad I did.
What I liked: Neal trimmed the trees. Neal kept tulip bulbs in the refrigerator and sketched garden plans on the back of whole foods receipts. He’d pour over seed catalogs in bed and make Georgie choose which plants she liked best.
“Purple eggplant or white eggplant?” He’d asked her last summer.
“How can you have a white eggplant? That’s like… purple green beans.”
“There are purple green beans. And yellow oranges.”
“Stop. You’re blowing my mind.”
“Oh, I’ll blow your mind. Girlie.”
“Are you flirting with me?”
He’d turned to her then, pen cap in his mouth, and cocked his head. “Yeah, I think so.”
Georgie looked down at her old sweatshirt. At her threadbare yoga pants. “This is what does it for you?”
Neal smiled most of a smile, and the cap fell out of his mouth. “So far.”
Neal… She’d call him tomorrow morning. She’d get through to him this time… Time zones weren’t on their side. And he was pissed with her. She’d make it better… Morning glories, Georgie thought to herself just before she fell asleep (pp. 43-44).
But that’s the thing, Georgie–he isn’t friendly. He growls at people, literally, if they get too close.”
“He doesn’t growl at me,” she said.
“Well, he wouldn’t.”
“Why wouldn’t he?”
“Because you’re a pretty girl. You’re probably the only pretty girl who’s ever talked to him. He’s too stunned to growl” (pp. 76-77).
“He was mad when he left, but–I think he’d tell me if he was leaving me. Don’t you think he’d tell me?” she was asking it seriously.
Heather made a face. “God, Georgie, I don’t know. Neal’s not much of a talker. I didn’t even know you were having problems.”
Georgie rubbed her eyes. “We’re always having problems.”
“Well, it doesn’t ever look like it. Every time I talk to you, Neal is bringing you breakfast in bed, or making you a pop-up birthday card.”
“Yeah.” Georgie didn’t want to tell Heather that it wasn’t that simple. That Neal made her breakfast even when he was pissed; sometimes he did it because he was pissed. As a way to act like he was present in their relationship, even when he was chilled through and barely talking to her (p. 106).
Christmas 1998. They fought. Neal went home. He came back. He proposed. they lived not-exactly-happily ever after. Wait, was that what she was supposed to fix? The not-exactly-happy part? How was she supposed to fix something like that, over the phone, when she wasn’t even sure it was fixable?
Christmas 1998. A week without Neal. the worst week of her life. The week he decided to marry her. Was Georgie supposed to make sure that he didn’t? (p. 113).
“You could do this for a living,” Georgie said one night at The Spoon, before they even started dating.
“Entertain you?” Neal said. “Sounds good. How are the benefits?” (p. 117).
Georgie had gotten that far into her imagining–to Neal spooning with his more-suitable-than-Georgie wife–when she imagined Neal’s second-chance kids in this second-chance world. Then she slammed the door shut on all his hypothetical happiness. If the universe thought Georgie was going to erase her kids from the timeline, it had another fucking thing coming (p. 122).
“I don’t want to go out with Jell-O instant pudding,” Georgie said.
“I would marry Jell-O instant pudding.”
Georgie rolled her eyes. “I want to go out with Mikey.”
“I thought you wanted to go out with Jay Anselmo.”
“Jay Anselmo is Mikey,” Georgie explained. “He’s the guy in the life cereal commercial who hates everything. If Mikey likes you, you know you’re good. If Mikey likes you, it means something” (p. 136).
Neal would stir in his sleep and reach for her hips, pulling her back onto the bed. “What are you looking for?”
“Paper,” she’d say, leaning off the bed again. “I have an idea I don’t want to forget.”
She’d feel his mouth at the base of her spine. “Tell me. I’ll remember.”
“You’re asleep, too.”
He’d bite her. “Tell me.”
“It’s a dance,” she’d say. “There’s a dance. And Chloe, the main character, will end up with one of her mom’s old prom dresses. And she’ll try to fix it to make it look cool, like in pretty in pink, but it won’t be cool; it’ll be awful. and something embarrassing will happen at the dance to ‘Try a Little Tenderness.'”
“Got it.” Then Neal would pull her back into bed, into him, holding her in place. “Dance. Dress. ‘Try a Little Tenderness.’ Now go back to sleep.”
And then he’d push up Georgie’s pajama shirt, biting her back until neither of them could go to sleep. And then, eventually, she’d drift off with his hand on her hip and his forehead pressed into her shoulder. She’d get out of the shower the next morning, and it would be written in the steam on the mirror:
Dance. Dress. Try a Little Tenderness (p. 140).
“I’ve wanted a Crayola caddy since 1981,” Georgie said. “It’s all I asked Santa Claus for, three years in a row.”
“Why didn’t your parents just buy it for you?”
She rolled her eyes. “My mom thought it was stupid. She bought me crayons and paint instead.”
“Well–” He lowered his eyebrows thoughtfully–“You could probably have mine.”
Georgie punched his chest with their clasped hands. “Shut. up.” She knew it was stupid, but she was genuinely thrilled about this. “Neal Grafton, you have just made my oldest dream come true.”
Neal held her hand to his heart. His face was neutral, but his eyes were dancing (p. 148).
And it won’t be the same if you have kids with some other, better girl, because they won’t be Alice and Noomie, and even if I’m not your perfect match, they are. God, the three of you. The three of you. When I wake up on Sunday mornings–late, you always let me sleep in–I come looking for you, and you’re in the backyard with dirt on your knees and two little girls spinning around you in perfect orbit… and they look like me because they’re round and golden, but they glow for you (p. 164).
When Georgie thought about divorce now, she imagined lying side by side with Neal on two operating tables while a team of doctors tried to unthread their vascular systems (p. 201).
Neal always held her hand during take off and turbulence… Sometimes he didn’t even look up from his crossword, just reached out for her when the plane started to shake (p. 275).
But these are the little things. There’s pages and pages of goodness… things that are MUCH too good to put here. Things I want you to read for yourselves. You’re gonna love Neal. He’s a pretty cool dude.
What sucked: I’m not so much a fan of Georgie’s name. One of my friends, when I read her some excerpts, she said she liked Neal, but not so much Georgie. That her name ruined it for her. And yeah… I sure wish Ms. Rowell had chosen something else to call her, but… what makes me like Georgie is that she was smart enough to recognize all the good in Neal when so many others could overlook him.
Having said all that: I loved this book. Probably more than Eleanor and Park. And I LOVE that one, so…
Originally published July ninth, ‘fourteen.
Why I wanted to read it: A friend recommended it.
What I liked: But if Meredith had placed me in the group home to scare me into behaving, it hadn’t worked. Despite the staff, I liked it there. Meals were served at regular hours, I slept under two blankets, and no one pretended to love me (p. 10).
I knew who listened to their mother (Genna), who was loved by their teacher (Chloe), and who would rather be buried alive in the sandbox than sit through another day of class (Greta, little Greta: if my asters had been in bloom, I would have left her a bucketful in the sandbox, so desolate was the voice that begged her mother to let her stay (p. 21).
Arranging the flowers and wrapping them in brown paper as I had seen Renata do, I’d felt a buoyancy similar to what I’d felt slipping the dahlias under the bedroom doors of my housemates the morning I’d turned eighteen.
It was a strange feeling–the excitement of a secret combined with the satisfaction of being useful (p. 44)
“No, warmth of feeling,” Elizabeth said. “You know, the tingling feeling you get when you see a person you like.”
I didn’t know that feeling. “Warmth of vomit” (p. 63).
I wasn’t looking for the mysterious vendor; at least, I told myself I wasn’t. When I did see him, I slipped down an alley and ran until I was out of breath (pp. 69-70).
“It’s thorny and pod-bearing. Just the sway of the tree makes you think of shifty-eyed men in convenience stores, untrustworthy.”
“And how is untrustworthy related to secret love?” he asked.
“How is it not?” (p. 86).
There had been a dried-flower business, he explained, but he’d shut it down when his mother became ill. He didn’t much care for the corpses of what had once been alive (p. 103).
“I’m more of a thistle-peony-basil kind of girl,” I said.
“Misanthropy-anger-hate,” said Grant. “Hmm.”
“You asked” (p. 104).
I was sleep-deprived and useless for an entire week. My fur floor didn’t dry for days, and every time I went to lie down, the moisture soaked through my shirt like Grant’s hands, a constant reminder of his touch” (p. 110).
I picked up a Payday and ate out the peanuts until it was nothing but a gooey caramel strip.
“Best part,” Grant said, nodding to the caramel. I handed it to him, and he ate it quickly, as if I would change my mind and take it back. “You must like me more than you let on,” he said, grinning (p. 129).
If I had known how, I would have joined Grant in prayer. I would have prayed for him, for his goodness, his loyalty, and his improbable love. I would have prayed for him to give up, to let go, and to start over. I might have even prayed for forgiveness.
But I didn’t know how to pray (p. 195).
What sucked: The excitement I’d had in the first half fell off in the second, but it should have, as this was the part of the story where the main character screws up royally and you just want to bash her head in and throttle her. Still, the author can’t quite recover that energy in the conclusion, and maybe it’s right that it’s this way, but I wanted that thrill back. I wanted the rush of a great story that I’d felt the author had promised me so wonderfully at the first.
Having said all that: It was the first book I’d read that year that I gushed about to others before I was even halfway through it. The first one I’d felt impatient while reading (a majority of) it, eager to see what happens next. I love these characters, even when they’re being pigheaded, stupid louts–specifically, Victoria. I love how she and Grant find each other. I wish I could’ve loved the story with the same intensity cover to cover, but it’s still the best book I’ve read in a long time. Plus, I stayed up ’til nearly four a.m. to finish the damned thing. And I don’t do that too often anymore. They should make a movie of this, and Carey Mulligan should play Victoria, and Taylor Kitsch should play Grant. For much of the time I’d read it, I wished I could tell a story so well. It’s beautiful.
So turns out they ARE making a movie of it… and I’m not keen on the casting. I have read it again since I’d originally posted this, and it’s SO much better with EVERY read. This book is GOLD, yall. G O L D. READ it.
Originally published February twenty-third, ‘thirteen.