HIGHLY recommend the audiobook version of Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson, narrated by Marin Ireland.
It’s the story of Lillian, a 28-year-old woman from rural Tennessee who moves to the home of her wealthy high school friend Madison to take care of Madison’s stepchildren.
The two met at an elite boarding school some years before, to which Lillian had a scholarship and which she thought of as her way out of the sticks. Lillian and Madison, her randomly assigned roommate, became fast friends and played basketball together.
Lillian is everything I love in a protagonist: weird, dark with a tender side, funny, selfish, fallible, and self-aware but not enough to prevent the drama of the novel.
And narrator Marin Ireland’s reading from Lillian’s perspective is *finger kiss* perfect. I loved every minute of her reading and took a couple of extra long bubble baths to listen to more.
Lillian is also poor and Madison is astonishingly wealthy. I always enjoy seeing what rich people get up to through the eyes of characters who have less money. I empathize with that. Can’t think why…
Lillian and Madison’s relationship is weirdly, I don’t know, entangled, or something. And we don’t quite know why at the beginning of the novel. The two are attached. And we very slowly learn that, actually, Lillian took the fall for Madison in high school when she got into some big trouble. In fact, Lillian was actually kicked out of her boarding school because of this incident. And she never quite got her life back on track. But she remained in touch with and attached to Madison anyway.
When Madison asks her a very, very big favor to begin the novel, Lillian surely owes her absolutely nothing, but agrees to help her anyway. And we find out that Madison wants Lillian to care for Madison’s new stepchildren who have this teensy little problem.
They burst into flames when they’re upset.
It’s wild. I thought I would hate it. I have a very low tolerance for magical realism. I am annoyed by fairy tales and I find fantasy that isn’t Lord of the Rings irritating. And yet. This kids-bursting-into-flames novel is so well done. So believable. That I couldn’t get enough.
It was ridiculous and I loved it.
The resulting character development and sheer fun of the story is worth suspending your disbelief. And Kevin Wilson doesn’t make you work very hard to do it anyway.
He even rewards you with a fairly happy ending. A satisfying one anyway. I won’t give it away. But read this one if you are at all tempted. And let me know how you liked it.
It was a fun, quick read. The title is of course a play on Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. But Sarah Knight had the luxury of being able to leave a soul-sucking job after tidying her sock drawer and so she wrote a book from that point of view.
The book is largely about setting boundaries. It doesn’t dig too deep. It uses the word “fuck” too much. I’m not offended by it–just annoyed when an author depends on a swear word as a gimmick instead of writing a more readable book with better and more descriptive words.
There are some good witticisms. And I found that Knight is as jaded about the world of work as I am, which was fun and reassuring. Here’s a good quote on the uselessness of meetings that you might enjoy:
But there are meetings you do not have to agree to attend in the first place. For example, say a colleague from another part of the company—the Chicago office, perhaps, if you work in San Diego—is coming to town.
Some executive assistant is “setting up meetings” wherein this colleague wanders around making the same small talk about the weather and delivering vague commentary on the state of the business in half-hour increments with everyone on your floor. There are eight meeting slots, says the executive assistant. Which one do you want?
Answer: None of them. You can just say “None of those times work for me” and continue on with your day. I know, you’re worried you’ll get in trouble, and your desire to stay on your boss’s good side overrides your desire not to take this meeting. But if you’re a competent employee and you know it’s a pointless use of a half hour, your boss knows that too. Decide you don’t give a fuck. Let someone else take one for the team. There are plenty of unenlightened coworkers who will march toward those slots like blindfolded prisoners to a firing squad. It doesn’t have to be you!
Knight also recommends an exercise in which you list all the things you feel like you’re supposed to care about and then decide which you no longer want to give your energy (or “fucks”) to. From large to small, you list the things which annoy you and decide to not give a fuck about them anymore.
That exercise is so useful that I realized I’d actually already done it. So, without further comment on Knight’s book, I present to you:
The Things I No Longer Give a F*ck About Circa 2017
Professional football (in fact, most professional sports except baseball. I will always have a soft spot for baseball.)
Anything Kanye is doing; seriously, stop making these assholes famous
Boards and committees (unless I care deeply about your cause, hard pass)
Emails from vendors at work
Video games that are not Mario related
Multi-level Marketing companies (MLMs a.k.a. direct sales)
Understanding how toilets work (I can pay someone good money to deal with that); ditto the furnace and air conditioner
Religion (it is a social construct)
Rap written after 1999
That dream you had and want to tell me about
Community theater (unless someone I love dearly is in it, in which case you are also going and will pretend to love it and shut up about it, just pre-game like the rest of us.)
Spoken word poetry/poetry jams
Pretending to like good wine
Pretending to like good beer
Hipster food in general–Aioli is for fish soup at a Mediterranean café. I will have regular ketchup on my burger like an American, please, because we are in Indiana.
Family drama (I am turning 40 this year. Enough already.)
People who only want to talk about themselves
People who talk over me
People who talk too much
People who explain things to me when I know more about those things than they do. Bye.
The feelings of rude people
Learning to drive stick shift
Books by politicians (this is not literature, guys; wise up)
Books by celebrities (same)
White papers (don’t write ’em; don’t read ’em)
Having a nice lawn
Other people’s vacation pictures
Anyway, I highly recommend making a list like this if you haven’t. It’s cathartic to get that stuff off your chest. And you could always follow it up with a list of things you DO give a fuck about, which I have done and will post for those that care.
I love Alys Fowler. I didn’t know a thing about her until I read her memoir Hidden Nature last year, in which she kayaks the Birmingham, England canals and details her coming out as a gay woman.
Fowler, I learned, was a presenter on the BBC’s Gardener’s World, a show I only came to last year. I haven’t seen a single episode with her in it. But I have embraced gardening in the last couple of years and am now totally in love with the show. And Monty Don. In a platonic way, of course.
I’m also on a budget. So when I learned of Fowler’s book, The Thrifty Gardener, I popped onto Amazon, where I discovered it was $80! Lol. No.
I searched AbeBooks, a much kinder source for books anyway, and got it for $24.
Anyway, in her lovely conversational style, Fowler doles out advice for the rest of us–those that don’t have tons of extra cash, or you know, any at all, to spend on the garden of their dreams.
Above: The rockery I created in our side yard. Please ignore the trash bins–we’re moving them eventually. Bricks and rocks were free from neighbors who were getting rid of them. Plants were purchased on sale or for less than $4 a piece, or again, given by neighbors. My mom bought five of them for me, bless her. She also helped with the digging! It may not look like much to a stranger, but it’s heaven to me…
Fowler spends time on topics like saving seeds and taking cuttings from your own plants for propagation; making compost and comfrey tea–sometimes featured on Gardener’s World, I noticed; and “scrap craft,” which is what most Americans might call upcycling.
I also appreciated her recommendations on plants that are easy to grow from seed, which is much cheaper than buying plants from a nursery. At her suggestion, my garden will most certainly include poppies and nasturtiums grown from seed next year as I don’t like to spend money on annuals bought from nurseries.
In addition to these tips and tricks, I just like the approach, the mindset that Fowler encourages.
This is from her introduction:
“This much I’ve learnt. Gardening is something you do, not something you buy. You don’t have to spend money to have a great garden. Slow gardening, like slow food, is taking time to savour. It’s the process, not the sudden transformation that matters. When you build a little, dig a bit, plant a little, harvest often and, more importantly, don’t try to do it all at once, nature works with you.”
In my own gardening, I need to reread these words every day. I should put it on a sign. There is so much I want to grow and do now that I have discovered the world of gardening. It gives me so much joy and I just want more and more of it.
Also, I’m a very impatient person. I like immediate gratification. But it’s utterly ridiculous to fall into gardening and expect that.
So, instead, I continually work on taking the slow road. Just like Alys.
Sometimes you get tired of fighting the good fight every day and just need to read something that bolsters you.
I imagine this is how many religious people feel about reading books by their favorite religious authors. It’s how I used to feel as a practicing Catholic when I read books with titles like Mary in a Martha’s World or those Joshua books that make Jesus seem like a real person.
But now my inspirational reading looks very different. After a long journey out of Catholicism and a meandering detour through New Age spirituality, I came to the logical conclusion that there is no god(s).
I’m not here to argue that point. I’m just telling you about it.
As an atheist, I don’t regret my religious upbringing or experiences. I met Ben in high school youth group, for heaven’s sake. 😉 That youth group gave me a place to be loved and cared for outside of my chaotic home (where I was also loved and cared for, but still…).
When Jacob was little and I was a very young mother in need of lots of support, my parish community was there for me. Our pastor knew me by name. He was kind of a jerk, but he knew me. I was asked to give retreat talks and was given responsibilities that made me feel capable and good about myself. Overall, I had a community and a refuge in my church. I’m grateful for those people and that place.
Mostly, though, I’m grateful that my experiences with religion led me straight to atheism. I couldn’t have ended up at the right conclusion for me without having played hard for the other team so to speak.
When I began to question, and then read about, the ways in which religions are established, I grew to understand that religion is a purely social construct.
Along this path, I have also learned about the religious history of the United States. I have woken up to the constant religious fervor that is the United States.
If you didn’t know, religion is EVERYWHERE here. Ben and I went on a walk around the downtown area last week and passed, like, five churches and a synagogue in five blocks.
I was at the mall with my mom yesterday and a lady talked to me about prayer in the bathroom. We walked past a kiosk and there was a Black Lives Matter t-shirt on display right next to a Jesus Saves t-shirt.
It gets…..tiring…being a nonbeliever in this country.
Especially when there is a mob of very vocal believers trying to make laws about what you can and cannot do based on their beliefs.
It’s all feeling very Handmaid’s Tale out there right now.
Theories about how myths (and therefore religions) get started
The incredible coordinated flight of starlings
A mocking retelling of the binding of Isaac (you know, the story in the Bible where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his own child as a sign of his obedience. That’s some sadistic stuff right there, man…)
I appreciated some Richard Dawkins in my life this week. I liked the reminder that it’s possible to wonder at the beauty and ferocity of nature without attributing it to a spiritual cause. And the reassurance that, yes, the Christian God portrayed in the Bible (angry, “jealous,” sadistic) is not a God I can get behind at all. Phew.
Dawkins reminded me that there are others out there like me. That despite a country filled with people who post memes about allowing prayer in school (even though it already is) and who fight for the right to dictate who you can and can’t marry, there is hope. There are other people out there who believe in a society that benefits all of us, not just some of us.
Ironically, sometimes an atheist just needs to feel less alone in the world.
Normally, I avoid books like this. I don’t like reading books by business-y business men who want to tell me how it is. In fact, I’m kind of over men telling me how it is in general.
However, I recently developed an interest in stoicism. I’ve hounded r/stoicism on reddit, begun reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and am particularly interested in how the ideas of stoicism can be applied to struggles with addictions.
If you know me personally, you know I struggle with my own demons and am no stranger to the self-help genre. Always looking for a gem.
I’d come across Holiday’s book in a few places and thought, nah, not for me. It sounded a little like How to Win Friends and Influence People for the social media age.
Welp. It read a lot like Rachel Hollis’ Girl,Wash Your Face, which a load of schlock geared toward women and MLM-ers.
The Obstacle contained whole lot of why and “you should” and not a lot of how.
Basically a cheerleader for capitalism, Holiday spends the book trying to relate basic ideas of stoicism to getting ahead in business, which amounted to: do better, work harder, work longer hours, push through, have a better attitude.
He lauds the stick-to-it-iveness of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, which I find basic and tiring. I mean, are you allowed to write a book about business that doesn’t mention those two rags-to-riches stories? Maybe there is a fine for that or something.
Holiday surrounds such examples with directives like, “Focus on the moment, not the monsters that may or may not be up ahead.”
And “Where the head goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective.”
And “It’s okay to be discouraged. It’s not okay to quit. To know you want to quit but to plant your feet and keep inching closer until you take the impenetrable fortress you’ve decided to lay siege to in your own life—that’s persistence.”
What is the right action? What is the right perspective? HOW do you persist?
Well, Holiday remains vague on those points. But whatever it is you think you should do, you should definitely do it. Just do it. DOOO IIIT.
Now, is there merit in changing your attitude around obstacles? Absolutely. Holiday’s overall point, as far as I could tell by reading in between the lines of Tweet-able maxims, is that sometimes we tell ourselves a scary story about the challenges we face in life and that makes them seem insurmountable. We say we can’t when in fact we can.
But that seems to be Holiday’s entire point. Because he doesn’t elaborate. He read Meditations, drew a connection to his own capitalist-centric values (work harder! faster! better! focus!), and wrote a book for other capitalists about how to stay the course. Stoicism is just the intellectual lipstick on the capitalist pig.
Bit on the nose there, sorry. 😉
I also chuckled at his fangirl-ing around Marcus Aurelius.
If you’re willing to stick with me this far, here’s a passage where Holiday introduces the title concept of the book and tells us a little bit about our good friend the Roman conqueror/philosopher.
I don’t know that our man is all that familiar with the history of the Roman Empire.
It’s complicated, but Marcus Aurelius, like Roman emperors before him was a conqueror. He worked to expand his empire, which means, you guessed it, war with people who, from the looks of it, didn’t really care for being conquered.
Did you see the movie Gladiator? That war in the beginning where the Romans are battling the people of Germania? Same guy.
To say that a conqueror’s power “never went to his head” is, uh, speculative, reductive, and a little clueless-sounding maybe?
But here we are in the golden age of the internet and the director of marketing at American Apparel can paint his heroes however he wants I guess.
Is there anything I liked about this book? Yes, that central point, which is a point Marcus Aurelius makes in his Meditations. Basically and in my own words: Sometimes we tell ourselves a story about how scary something is to make it seem like we can’t do something. It gives us an out. “Nope, too scary, too anxiety-provoking, can’t do it.”
Better to realize and acknowledge when we are doing that so we can then decide whether to believe that story or to operate outside of it in order to get what we want/need. Whether that’s success at work (Holiday) or world domination (Marcus Aurelius).
But the book didn’t illuminate anything about stoicism for me. Instead, it seemed to promote the wrong and pervasive idea that stoicism is the philosophy of “keeping a stiff upper lip.”
What happens when a girl is raised to be nothing more in life than ornamental? When the outer and inner life of a woman must center on a man? When the substance of a human being is trained toward one goal and one goal only: to marry well and serve her husband and children until death?
These, to me, seem the essential questions asked by Edith Wharton throughout her entire extensive body of work.
And you can bet they are answered in the most disatrous of ways.
Because what happens when a woman is raised to believe her existence is purely ornamental–that is, the point of her being alive is to appear prettily on the arm of a man–is that she becomes a wholly social creature, existing only for others with a vacuousness of heart and mind in place of an actual personality, her needs and desires replaced (or suppressed) by her own constant social striving.
And that’s when she survives at all.
As you may know, Wharton famously writes of New York City socialites during the Gilded Age. She and her family were players in this scene and she writes from an insider perspective, even including characters which may remind you of real life socialites you’ve heard of: Nan St. George, protagonist in The Buccaneers, was modeled on Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married the British Duke of Marlborough, representing a trend–rich American marries cash-poor English gentry–made familiar to contemporary audiences by by Downton Abbey.
To me, Wharton’s genius is demonstrated in her depiction of social climbers.
In each of her major novels the world of upper-class New York is laid bare, its players representing each “type” in that world. For example, the Custom of the Country features the Spraggs, midwesterners who made it big in their hometown but struggle in New York–they represent the “new money” crowd.
I won’t go into detail on each book here because I’m separating them out so that Karen of Books and Chocolate, host of the classics challenge, has an easier time tallying my books.
But I wanted to write an overall sort of intro. first.
Spending so much time in Wharton’s New York (and Western Europe) has been so pleasurable and interesting. I see myself rereading these novels for the rest of my life, partly because the characters and writing are so engaging and partly because, well, I just love to see what rich people get up to.
p.s. Do you know of a good Edith Wharton biography? I hear the Hermione Lee bio is the place to start, but I’m open to suggestions.
p.p.s. Has anyone figured out how to insert special characters into their text? I’d really like to find the em dashes in this block editor! Clue me in if you know. 🙂
I discovered Anya Seton last year via her novel The Winthrop Woman, which was displayed in the shop at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, and I am so glad I did.
Her historical novels were impeccably researched and she is an ace storyteller with a knack for writing female protagonists in historic settings.
Plus, Mariner Books has released them in recent years with these incredibly lovely patterned covers and I’m hoping to collect them all.
I chose The Hearth and Eagle as my next Seton novel because it centers on the very same colonial American town of Marblehead, Massachusetts, in which The Winthrop Woman is set.
Seton discovered the town when researching her own family history. Apparently she found an ancestor that had lived there and became captivated by the “sea-girdled town of rocks and winding lanes and clustered old houses.”
Sounds idyllic, no?
The protagonist of this story is Hesper Honeywell. She is the descendant of Phebe Honeywell who came over from England in 1630. After introducing a very young Hesper, the story flashes back to Phebe’s time, describing her arrival in the colonies and her early life there.
From the first, I found Phebe’s story much more interesting than Hesper’s. There was adventure from the beginning as Phebe struggles through a long ocean journey and then nearly starves to death in the New World. But, alas, we stayed just long enough with her to give a sense of place to Hesper, who lives in Civil War era Marblehead.
Not to worry. Hesper’s family life is rather interesting as Hesper lives with her mother, a tired and resentful woman who has spent her life running the inn, The Hearth and Eagle, with little help from Hesper’s father, an absent-minded professor type obsessed with researching his family’s history.
Hesper helps her mother run the inn but, of course, longs for something more. Love, fulfillment, adventure, something beyond Marblehead. And into her longings wanders artist and avowed Bohemian Evan Redlake.
Thus begins an arduous saga of love and loss and Hesper’s search for meaning in a society that gives women few choices in deciding their own fates.
I’ll leave you with that grand statement. I ended up loving the novel, as I’d hoped I would. And, if you enjoy well-written historical fiction, you will too.
I found them to be equally lovely, but one, to me, was more depressing than the other.
Here’s the Goodreads blurb:
“In 1959 Florence Green, a kindhearted widow with a small inheritance, risks everything to open a bookshop – the only bookshop – in the seaside town of Hardborough. By making a success of a business so impractical, she invites the hostility of the town’s less prosperous shopkeepers. By daring to enlarge her neighbors’ lives, she crosses Mrs. Gamart, the local arts doyenne. Florence’s warehouse leaks, her cellar seeps, and the shop is apparently haunted. Only too late does she begin to suspect the truth: a town that lacks a bookshop isn’t always a town that wants one.”
The post-war English seaside is the setting for this short, tightly-focused novel. Even though it’s 1959, references to WWII are made throughout and you get the sense that Hardborough hasn’t really recovered from the war.
The book has many of the quirks often found in stories set in insular British communities—like children (scouts of some sort) turning up to do Florence’s handyman work; a domineering and well-connected older lady menacing the townspeople in order to assert her importance; old, damp buildings prized for their history but lacking in function; a wealthy recluse who abhors village politics; and a shop assistant, Christine, who is12 years old and, quite acerbic and, of course, wise for her years.
Florence, played by Emily Mortimer, reading at the seaside in The Bookshop (2017)
Sadly, Florence’s dream of running a bookshop is supported only by a few and the end of the story has her beset by financial troubles thanks to the subterfuge of Mrs. Gamart.
It is a very depressing ending. If you’ve seen the movie, you know that at least in that there is a small, dramatic triumph at the end. But that must’ve been the screenwriter’s urge to leave the audience with some hope. I’m afraid the book leaves you without it.
This is Painter’s memoir of going to art school to get a BA and then a BFA after a long and successful career as a historian and academic. Seriously, she has honorary doctorates from Yale and company.
I can’t imagine how humbling it must’ve been to start over at the bachelor level.
And her age—she’s in her 60s—is a main theme in the book, as you might expect.
Things I loved:
Her quirky style. She refers to professors as Teacher, like, “Teacher Irma told me…” I found it weird at first, but honestly, it’s handy.
Her explorations of what, exactly, is considered art. And the economic machinations that determine which artists get shown in galleries and, therefore, museums. Fascinating insight into a world I know nothing about.
Her explorations of race in the art world. These are plentiful. Highly recommend you read this if that topic interests you.
Painter is also a seasoned writer and it shows. Her knack for setting a scene is delightful throughout. Newark, where Painter is from, plays a big role and she really gives you a sense of what the city is like.
I was going to do a Things I Didn’t Love section, but really, there aren’t any. So, I leave you with an example of my last point from the book:
“Sitting in front of me on Newark light rail one afternoon were a couple of kids—early twenties or so—listening to music, bumping around in their seats, and talking loud, just exuberant. She was beautiful and spirited, he kind of ordinary to look at. He had the music, but he shared an earbud with her, two heads on one iPod. As she danced in her seat, he did something amazing. He played the subway car partition like a conga drum:
He pulsated a salsa rhythm on a vertical plastic divider. Totally awesome! I was ready for all of us passengers to jump up and boogie down the aisle. I wouldn’t have led off dancing, but I definitely would have joined in. What joy in our white and black metal tube of light rail beside Branch Brook Park, a carnival parade on a workday, an outbreak of brotherly love to a salsa beat. Strangers waving their arms and shaking their booties to the music, grinning and singing and looking straight in the eyes of their comrades in commute. But when the pretty girl started clapping her hands to the music, he of the beat shushed her. No dancing in the Newark light rail that afternoon.”
It’s a quick read at 163 pages and has a nice, tight focus on a loveable and quirky character, Keiko Furukura.
Thanks to constant anxiety overload due to coronavirus frenzy at work (and, let’s face, on social media, which I’ve been hounding ), my brain is not focused enough to provide my own blurb for you today.
So here’s part of the Goodreads summary:
“Keiko Furukura had always been considered a strange child, and her parents always worried how she would get on in the real world, so when she takes on a job in a convenience store while at university, they are delighted for her. For her part, in the convenience store she finds a predictable world mandated by the store manual, which dictates how the workers should act and what they should say, and she copies her coworkers’ style of dress and speech patterns so she can play the part of a normal person. However, eighteen years later, at age 36, she is still in the same job, has never had a boyfriend, and has only few friends. She feels comfortable in her life but is aware that she is not living up to society’s expectations and causing her family to worry about her. When a similarly alienated but cynical and bitter young man comes to work in the store, he will upset Keiko’s contented stasis—but will it be for the better?”
Weirdly, that bitter young man moves in with Keiko and kind of gets her family off her back because they think, “Oh, Keiko has a boyfriend; maybe she’s finally going to be normal now.” (Not a quote from the book, just ad-libbing). But he’s clearly taking advantage of her.
The saddest part of this book, to me, is that Keiko’s family want her to be “cured.” They see her as having something wrong with her that needs to be fixed. And because she’s unable to judge their treatment of her, she just believes them. It’s likely that Keiko has some form of autism and just hasn’t been diagnosed. And she certainly has not been treated or given any kind of care relevant to her condition. This is never resolved in the story.
When her boyfriend convinces her to quit her job at the convenience store, Keiko stops taking care of herself. She loses the thing that gives her life structure and her sense of purpose.
Keiko reclaims that sense of purpose when she finally realizes she needs to be a convenience store worker despite what others’ think of her. She sees this position as something she was made to do. So she shrugs off the faux boyfriend, goes back to working in a convenience store and, we are to assume, lives contentedly to the end of her days.
The ending is weird to me. If there were a moral of this story, it would be something like, “do what makes you feel most like yourself.” For Keiko, there is an intrinsic and indisputable identity to which one must conform in order to be happy with one’s life.
But, for me, that didn’t actually resolve all the issues in the book. What about Keiko’s family’s expectations? What about the fact that she can’t seem to function without the convenience store? What about the fact that she’s vulnerable to predators like the faux boyfriend and rather than seeing that she needed help to get out from under him, people were excited that she actually had a boyfriend?
I need answers, people.
Instead, the ending seemed to say, well, this particular woman is probably going to be OK, and you’ll have to be satisfied with that. I wasn’t really. But I’m not sad I read it either.