“The Skies Belong to Us” 4.1

I’m supposed to be grading papers, but Dom’s last post won’t get out of my head, so I’m taking a break.

We kind of thought we were done posting about the book and wondered if we wanted to ask Brendan questions (and Dom wondered if he would have questions for us), but it turns out my questions are for Dominique.  In explaining why she doesn’t like Kerkow anymore than I do, she wrote: “Further, as a Canadian, I was annoyed by Koerner’s final, loving, pages about Cathy, because I felt he was valorizing the kind of self-serving, hyper-individualistic behaviour that so many people from other countries ‘hate’ about Americans.”

In as much as I’m always interested to hear what Dom thinks about American behavior, I’m particularly interested in this critique of the book and, by extension, American culture that she offers.  I’ve just finished Sense and Sensibility with one of my classes and some literary critic (maybe Marilyn Butler) reads the novel as Austen’s critique of Marianne Dashwood’s hyper-individualistic behaviour.  Marianne is guided solely by her sensibilities and puts herself and her family’s reputation in harm’s way as a result, but her life also turns out okay (Colonel Brandon isn’t my type, but he’s a good catch for a woman who has lost some of her original charm and isn’t fit for anything more than playing the piano forte and having babies).   The conservative chattering classes of the nineteenth century had no use for the Marianne Dashwoods of their world, and I wonder if that model of woman exists in the twenty-first century English imagination or if she represents a stage in the nation’s development.  Austen is writing during what Eric Hobsbwam calls “The Age of Revolution,” at a time when part of maintaining England’s social structure depended on young women like Marianne Dashwood accepting their responsibility to the collective good instead of to their own desires and sensibilities. There was no “Lean In” in the nineteenth-century.

I’m thinking of Marx’s claim in The Communist Manifesto that nations, like people, go through developmental stages that can’t be skipped or repeated and wondering if this is a way to understand the time period Koerner explores as America’s colonizing/hyper-individualistic stage. It makes me wonder if Kerkow represents not so much a type (eat-pray-love-piper-twerking-warrior princess) but a stage in America’s development as a nation. I also wonder what our twenty-first century modes of rebellion look like.  Occupy Wall Street comes to mind, and it was a collective response against hyper-individualistic behavior, but I think we’re still too close to it to understand its impact. I wonder if the rise of gun deaths in the United States is a more apt comparison, particularly the “Stand Your Ground” culture enshrined in Florida law but part of the fabric of every state.  I feel like I need to have drinks with Dom, Brendan, and some history and political science professors.

Dom also wrote: “The processes of racialization and ‘gendering’ in our society, and the hierarchies of privilege that they create, are all over this book.”   I’m curious to know what this actually means (and why gendering is in quotation marks and racialization isn’t).  On one level, I get it (and on one level my question is a friendly challenge to the jargon I see here), but I’d love to hear more. Because if Dom is suggesting a taxonomy for these hijackers, I can forget about Kerkow. Taxonomies are my most favorite thing ever (really). More than that, I’d like to not get sucked into thinking this is a book about her.

I really, truly would.

Dom saying I went nuts about Koerner mooning over Kerkow is accurate.  In my last post, I wasn’t just pretending to talk to myself. That was, almost verbatim, a transcript of the the conversation I had with myself while I was working out in Fort Greene Park.  As much as I scold my students for seeking “justice” in narratives, I fall prey to that need from time to time.  There are literary characters I absolutely hate (Victor Frankenstein and John Knightly come to mind immediately), and Kerkow is/was a real person, so I’m a bit over-the-top about her.  So much so that when Dom pointed out that Koerner  “seems as […] just as enamoured* by the “feminine wiles” he described Cathy using to get what she wanted, and she wasn’t even there.”  I’m pretty sure I yelled something like “Oh, shit!  That’s so true!”

I was happily surprised when Koerner showed up near the end of the book. It’s like he anticipated all of the questions I had about how he put this story together, and, though I’m very much a member of the author-is-dead school of reading, having this author talk to the reader was just great.  I was so surprised that I was willing to forgive him his crush until he went all goofy about her.

It occurs to me, though, that one of the reasons why I hate Kerkow is because Koerner is unflinching in what he presents about her.  He has not offered a particularly flattering portrait of her; there aren’t hearts around every discussion about her in the story.  Further, given that he couldn’t interview her, it’s interesting how he interprets her choices.   And to be totally honest, this might be as much about just how cranky, hard-to-please I am as a reader.  It’s possible, even highly likely, that if Koerner had mooned over Holder in a similar way I would have accused him of fetishizing Black Radicalism.

Partly, it’s that I’m an impossibly picky reader with little patience for modern literature.  I don’t trust these living writers, and I’m always giving books the side-eye.  Just last night I narrowed my eyes at 1Q84, and if it hadn’t been for the beer and fried whiting sandwich I was eating at Marietta’s that always makes me extraordinarily happy to live in my neighborhood, I might have started muttering at the novel.

On the other hand, when I love a book I love it with all of my heart.  Chimanda Ngozi’s Adichie’s Americanah has me in raptures, I’ve lost count of how many people have gotten Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York (and Sag Harbor and Zone One, which I’ve never read because I’m a chicken and just hearing him read from it one time gave me a nightmare) as birthday/Christmas/it’s Thursday gifts from me.  And when I really think someone is a serious reader I’ll give her (or sometimes him) Mary Shelley’s second novel Valperga.

All of this is to say that I am intemperate about books. I LOVE a book or HATE it.  There’s very little middle ground.  And the more I love a book, the more I want to love a book, and I want the writer to have thought of every little thing I would have wanted to see.  This is an almost impossible task.

This is not to suggest that I am tempering my hatred of Kerkow, but now, after reading Dom’s post,  I am curious about the little hearts I see around Koerner’s introduction of Kerkow and where he places her at this story’s dénouement. Dom sees them too, so I know I’m not crazy, but I wonder just how deliberate their placement is in the novel book.   Is he really under her sway? Is this simply a narrative technique?  It is because we live in the age of movies, and this gives the book a Hollywood ending?    I’m curious to find out.

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“The Skies Belong to Us” #4

Sometimes I talk to myself, sometimes “talking” means arguing and Tricia and Dr. Matthew don’t get along:
Still mopey it’s over?

Yes

It’s been over a week, you know.

So.

Did you do that thing you always do? You know, that thing where you forget to check when the book actually ends and you think you have a good 15 pages left when you don’t?

Yeah

So it kind of just ended for you.  All of a sudden.

Yep.

Still pissed about Cathy Kerkow?

Yes

So, just with the one-word answers.

I hate her.

Why?

She gets away with too much.

Really?

Everyone else has to pay and she doesn’t.

Seriously?

Well, I know that’s not really the case. It’s so

Nope

I know, I know she loses things too. It’s just all too easy for her to

Wrong

Sorry. What were you saying?

It’s all too easy for her to abandon an identity once it no longer suits her. And I know, she sticks around longer than I expected, but

This is really a thing with you, isn’t it?

A thing?

Yes, a thing. You started off comparing Kerkow to Piper in “Orange is the New Black” and talking about rites of passage (in that preachy tone of yours).

Well, I was right. Except she doesn’t have to because

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!

Okay, okay. Here’s the thing: why does the rite-of-passage or the process to enlightenment have to go through the lives of the disenfranchised? It’s like this is a scarf or a jacket she put on and then took off when it started itching.

But isn’t that just the unfair truth—part of being a Cathy Kerkow is that you get to move around in ways that Holder doesn’t? (and “lives of the disenfranchised?” Puhleeze!). And why does it have to be a path to anything? Or a process?

Yes, but it’s not just her or Piper (that’s a name that should be mocked all day, by the way). It’s the whole eat-pray-love of it. It’s that white woman who became a Maasai Warrior and then wrote a book called Warrior Princess! IT’S MILEY CYRUS TWERKING!!!!

Hey now, that’s just silly. You’ve known this about her all along, and I saw those moments when you felt sorry for her. You’re just pissed because Brendan likes her so much.

So much. You could practically see the little hearts on the page.

But the end as a whole, you seemed to like it.

Oh I loved it! I read it at the bar of my favorite restaurant over red wine and chocolate cake (also very hard to get right, by the way).

I know, I heard you say “I see what you did there, Koerner!” (and everyone else did too, by the way)

I couldn’t help it. I was really happy for him! He pulled off this really hard caper, an almost impossible balancing act.  I mean, really, it’s an almost flawless book.

So it’s not the writing but the point-of-view you don’t like.

It’s the politics of it, romanticizing her.

You wanted him to say “bad little white girl!” didn’t you.

Sort of.

Even though you’ve praised the book for not being preachy, for not pointing at anyone’s behavior and leaving the reader to make her own choices and connections, for being thoughtful but

Yes–for being thoughtful and dispassionate at once.  It’s hard. I know, I know.

So you want him to judge her.

NO, I don’t want him to exactly judge her. Okay, maybe just a little bit. But does he have to like her in such an obvious way? I want him to

Judge her. You want him to judge her. Actually, you want to judge her.

There’s no “want” about it. I do judge her. I know it’s maybe irrational.

Maybe irrational?

Yeah, just maybe. This isn’t like being mad at Frankenstein or Darcy. They’re not real. She is, and plus I’m not wrong, you know. She’s a type a very specific type.

Isn’t Holder?

No, he’s a product, a compilation of tragedy, and the “tragedy” is not ennui and restlessness.Terrible, awful things happen to him, and this meant something to him. It wasn’t a lark. Yes, it was deluded, but

Funny, you have all this wrath for Kerkow but none for the hijackers who put so many people in harm’s way. She didn’t actually DO anything you know? And where is Holder’s agency in all this? (God, now you have me doing it…”agency” gag)? Lots of black men went to Vietnam and faced horrible racism and didn’t hijack a frickin’ plane.

Wait, do you hate Holder? Because that’s not okay. We like him. You don’t get not to like Holder (and what’s with the “frickin’?” your mom stopped reading this blog a long time ago). The thing is Koerner makes her this heroine. She’s not just a subject like the other people in the book but the alluring muse he imagines at the moment in the novel when I want him to

What? What do you want him to do? (and, it’s not a novel, Patricia)

Well, I’m not sure.

Have you ever, ever liked any ending of any novel written after 1845? Ever?

Right now, aren’t you already looking suspiciously at Americanah? And 1Q84

Listen, that book is a million pages.  I’m going to throw a party when I finish it. (and didn’t you just say Skies is not a novel?)

But don’t you usually use words like “flat” or “excessive” or “self-indulgent” to describe the end of perfectly good books? You have issues and can’t let go, can you, crazy-reader lady? Don’t you? Don’t you?

I’m waiting.

Still waiting

First, I’m not crazy.  Second, I can do two things at once. I can hate all endings like an irrational reader and still be legitimately pissed about how Cathy ends up. In fact, I think it’s a sign of

Oh shut up. Go see what Dominique thinks. She’ll know.

“The Skies Belong to Us” #3

I can’t decide if The Skies Belongs to Us is like a good layer cake or a good lasagna.

It’s possible that I’m thinking about food metaphors because the school year has started (cries) and my mind is on teaching students how to organize compelling essays. Or maybe it’s because I read a good portion of Skies while eating the last pieces of my birthday cake (cries and weeps). Comparing it to cake might make it seem as if the book shouldn’t be taken seriously, that it’s more like dessert than something substantive. That isn’t the case. For all of the zaniness of the different hijacking plots, this is a book that invites us to think of how national crises manifest themselves in a country’s citizens—especially those citizens whose feelings of disenfranchisement chip away at their sense of moral duty. Still, I’m leaning towards cake over lasagna.

Dom wrote in her last post: “my incredulity has been tempered by compassion, and a bit of sadness.”
She’s is thinking about Holder (she refers to him by his first name):

On page 122, there’s an excerpt of the note that Roger had started to write to the captain of the plane, but which he gave up on when he couldn’t keep his thoughts straight. It’s completely incomprehensible; a word salad from someone who is clearly not in their right mind. Reading it broke my heart a little. Here was a man who had witnessed (and committed) unspeakable horrors, and yet, because of a mistake he made while trying to deal with that, he was sent back into the regular world with no help or support whatsoever.

I felt this way at a different moment. The mention of the other black guy on Holder’s flight made me sad and uncomfortable. As the crew and passengers try to figure out who among them is a threat, he is considered a suspect—for no other reason than a shared racial marker. He must have been as frightened and frustrated as the other passengers, and yet he had another burden to shoulder.

But back to the cake/lasagna that is this book.

Writing 101 teaches the structure of a good essay: the hook, the argument, the evidence, more evidence, some analysis, conclusions. You can see this in good writing everywhere. An op-ed, long non-fiction piece, or blog post begins with some anecdote that’s meant to stand in for the piece’s larger issue or theme. I do this in my literary criticism, start with some salient (or salacious) part of the text and then hang my argument on it. It’s a great model; think of it as the comfort food of writing. I thought Koerner was doing this and had sort of eased into the lasagna of his book: personal/historical/political,personal, historical/political, personal/historical/political. For roughly the first half of the book the personal focused primarily on the hijackers, either the motivation behind their attacks and/or what happened around the hijacking (NB: when parachuting out of a plane carrying your loot, don’t wear cowboy boots).

I liked that structure and the rhythm of it. It made the history feel more intimate and kept the focus on the people. I think it might be how Koerner avoids slipping into preaching (I’m fascinated by the absence of moralizing in the book thus far). But when we get to the Holder-Kerkow hijacking, Koerner starts mixing it up, adding layers within layers, and then it’s like an amazing novel, and I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Or, actually, I kind of know what’s going to happen next but I don’t know how it’s going to happen. I love that. As someone who grew up reading detective novels and who spends her time reading canonical British fiction, I’m pretty good at anticipating what’s going to happen next and, in some cases, how events will unfold. It means I’m usually reading for something else (patterns, rhetoric, ideology), and get distracted by what I want to say or write about what I’m reading.

That’s not the case here. At first I couldn’t put the book down because I was so surprised by its content; now I can’t put it down (even for my mandatory reading for school: Frankenstein, Northanger Abbey, the Romantic poets) because it’s crafted so well. Like a really amazing cake. A good lasagna is wonderful, but it’s actually really easy to make one. It’s almost fool proof. Oh sure, you can overcook the noodles, or not season the filling properly, or use store-bought mozzarella and bore yourself to death, but it’s basic and easy to learn. Cake, especially a layered cake takes skill.

Take my birthday cake for example: lemon cake with lemon curd and vanilla cream icing (it’s called Brooklyn Sunshine and you can get it from Heavenly Crumbs, but you have to order it a few days ahead). Perfectly layered with icing that didn’t leave an aftertaste or that slimy post-icing feeling in your mouth. Just when you were enjoying the cake, a bit of lemon curd would get in there and the icing is pretty and thick enough to let you know you’re eating cake for a special reason but not so thick as to overpower the cake the way the icing on those dry monstrosities that Magnolia Bakery calls cupcakes does. For me, the heart of this book is the national crisis, and Holder and Kerchow are the icing. I’m not quite sure why, so this analogy could fall apart at any moment, but I suspect it’s because they’re the shiny, compelling decoration that pulled me into the cake.

“The Skies Belong to Us” #2

I’m having a lot of fun wondering what prompted my mild-mannered friend to tweet a WTF.photo-31

Is it the sheer number of hijackers?
Is it the crude capitalism of the security debate?
Or is it the hijacker in the cowboy boots?
Is she thinking of our friend Amber the flight attendant?
Or maybe the new Almodovar movie with its Glee-like musical number?*

It’s hard to say what has my eyes wide open to the point where I want to nudge strangers on the train to share my incredulity. Is it the zaniness of the hijacking capers or the tug-of-war between the airlines and a government trying to protect a public that didn’t seem terribly bothered by side-trips to Havana? I’m in awe of the “What to Expect When you’re Hijacked” articles and the proto-Dr. Phil and his cray-cray theories about what makes a hijacker. The pissing contest between Cuba and the United States. I don’t even. WTF.

I know Holder and Ketchow are at the center of this story, but, right now at least, I’m not at all interested in them. I want to know more about the other hijackers, especially the hot Italian or the guy who hijacked a plane in order to propose (note to Dom: if a man went to those lengths to get me to marry him, I might seriously reconsider my “no wedding” policy). I credit my curiosity to the way Koerner tell us about the collection of the disillusioned and the delusional—one right after another. It’s like a slideshow you want to watch again.

Underneath the hijinks and breeziness (sorry), Koerner offers a history of the current security state we all currently live in. If Holder were getting on a plane today, a TSA agent would have the right to search his afro for explosives. Maybe “history” isn’t the right word. Maybe it’s a kind of prequel. Right now, he’s laying it out without making a lot of fuss about it. He is just telling the story and leaving it to the reader to make of it what she will. I hope it stays that way. It’s distracting when authors and/or their narrators do the work of interpretation for me. I don’t want or need anyone sitting on my shoulder and talking to me while I’m reading, unless I’m being mocked (see Jane Austen’s narrators).

Some free associations…

I’m with Dom when she reacts to politics that seem uniquely American**. I had to stop reading for a bit when Koerner describes the trauma of Holder’s youth. I also wonder if she has the same experience of being challenged about her blackness that Holder faced in his youth and I had to negotiate well into graduate school.

I’m noting how much the military industrial complex leaks into our daily lives and how the technology that begins there wends its way to civilian use.

I’m wondering if there is a connection between deregulating airlines and the current security model of the TSA. I was a kid when the airlines were deregulated and have no memory of it, but I keep seeing it as a crucial turn in public policy and our relationship to travel and, eventually, security.

I read Koerner, stop, and do other things, and I think about travel.

I remember The Flying Tigers airline that took my family from Mississippi to The Philippines. The flight attendants were extra kind to us. My Christian mother calls this God’s favor. The militant part of my black identity thinks it made them feel good to be extra gracious to this nice, squeaky clean black family. My father was handsome and sharp in his uniform, my mother was beautiful, and I was wide-eyed and well behaved. The flight attendants weren’t just nice to us on the plane. Even after we moved into our house, whenever they flew into Clark Air Base they would bring me presents—a shiny blue Flying Tigers jacket (in my size), a Flying Tiger pin, and, my favorite thing: real, whole milk. We couldn’t get that overseas, so we drank the powdered stuff (I actually only used it for my cereal or in hot chocolate). The flight attendants would bring me the milk that didn’t get used during the flight. Bliss.

Now, of course, the experience of flying overseas is exhausting and invasive.

On my way back from Amsterdam a few years ago the wand the security guard used to scan my body for explosives was triggered by the underwire in my bra. When it beeped, the flat-chested agent asked what was causing the beep. When I said it was most likely the underwire in my bra she was derisive: “why do you need underwire in your bra?” I looked at her breasts and then down at mine and then back at hers and then back at mine. I did that until she nodded curtly and let me go through.

I feel impossibly naïve to be so shocked by the degree to which all thoughts and policies about “security” are guided by commerce. I like to think I know how the world works, and as much as I attach the phrase “industrial complex” to any number of nouns (prison/education/wedding/mainstream feminist/Hollywood + see above) you’d think I know by now that Sally Bowles and the Master of Ceremonies are dead on right when they sing “money makes the world go round.”

I wonder if we will we ever buy our way back to that relative ease of travel. I know we’ll never be able to walk freely around airport and airplanes without intense scrutiny, but will the passenger’s comfort matter more than security the farther away we get from 9/11? Is there enough money in corporate travel to offset the billions earned by security?

My concerns about the writing have evaporated. I wondered at first if my first response was just me being a prickly, picky reader who was being super critical about a writer she doesn’t know, but I do think the writing gets better and smoother. I also am having a hard time putting the book down. But I am. As much as I want to know what happens next (of course, on some level I do know what happens), I’m slowing down to savor this book. I flew through Mat Johnson’s Pym a few summers ago and was bereft when it was over, wandered around like some lost puppy unsure about what to read next. Not this time.

I like what Dom says in her first thoughts about the book:

I have the sense that the “dots” in Roger’s and Cathy’s story can be easily connected from choice to choice, coincidence to coincidence, and consequence to consequence. Whether that is due to who they are, or to Koerner’s skill as a writer, remains to be seen.

*Dom is right about television. I was with her in Toronto for a week and only have some vague memory of a television somewhere in her apartment, and I don’t think it was ever on. I, steeped as I am in serialized fiction, love the whole process of falling in love with a show—especially dramas. I am very much looking forward to a well-done mini-series of this book, narrated by Samuel L. “Get these motherfucking hijackers off of this motherfucking plane” Jackson.

**I know, I know. I can’t help it.

“The Skies Belong to Us” Post #1

For two people who don’t live in the same city, Dominique and I have done a lot together over the last eight years or so.   It goes too far to say we’re like sisters, but we are a lot alike.  In fact, when I showed up in Toronto in May to be part of her wedding, her father, after spending ten minutes watching us together, noted just how alike we are–not just mischievous, but mischievous in the exact same way (she refers to me as “smart ass” quite a bit).  We don’t have the same taste in television shows (mine is good and hers is, well, let’s just say it’s something other than good), but we like so many of the same books.  So many.  We recommend them to one another, agree that they’re great, and then go our separate reading ways.  But after we survived the death march of 2013 (otherwise known as 10 hours in three-inch heels and formal gowns) we agreed on two things: we need to take a trip together and we should read a book together…at the same time.

We’re reading The Skies Belong to Us.  It’s my choice because three smart folks recommended it and because it’s non-fiction and that’s what I want to read these days.  From the book’s website:

THE STORY
In an America torn apart by the Vietnam War and the demise of sixties idealism, airplane hijackings were astonishingly routine. Over a five-year period starting in 1968, the desperate and disillusioned seized commercial jets nearly once a week. Their criminal exploits mesmerized the country, never more so than when the young lovers at the heart of The Skies Belong to Us pulled off the longest-distance hijacking in American history.

It’s a fascinating story, and already I feel like I’m in the hands of a good storyteller and someone who has done his homework.  Given how many other things I should be reading right now, it’s nice to know that this vacation away from my other reading has an excellent guide.

Random first thoughts:
Koerner wants to attribute Cathy Kerkow’s attraction to the Black Panthers to the break up of her family saying her rebelliousness is “rooted in in the trauma of her family’s dissolution several years before.”  But I’ve started Skies right after watching “Orange is the New Black”–another story of a talented, privileged white girl who needs to sow her rebellious oats by visiting the world of the dangerous and/or the marginalized.  For Piper Chapman it’s lesbian drug dealers and for Kerkow it’s the Black Panthers.   So this grates a bit.  In general I’m not a fan of the this-is-why-people-do-bad-things approach to understanding a character (I’m looking at you “Mad Men”), but I certainly understand the impulse.  Further, this is not fiction, and the point of the book is to tell us who Kerkow and Roger Holder are and how they hooked up.  It just seems too easy.  Her choices might just be that…choices.  It makes me wonder how this story would read if told by a different author: a woman (black, white, or of any hue), a black man, a historian.

My father was in Vietnam in 1968, the first year of my life (he was sent over a month after I was born and came back a year later).  We never talk about it, and I don’t watch war movies, so it’s jarring to read what he must have seen over there while my mother and I were living in my aunt’s attic in Amsterdam.  I’ve always seen Vietnam as more of a metaphor than a lived historical event, so it’s hard to read about it, particularly when I remember stories my mom told me about how my dad’s absence affected her.  And, unlike movies where I can cover my eyes if I don’t like what’s on the screen, I have to read all of Koerner’s vivid descriptions. They’re harrowing. I don’t know how anyone recovers from those horrors, and Koerner puts those dots together so carefully that it’s easy to understand Holder’s choices.

I got the Prefontaine reference without looking it up–but only because I dated an economics professor in grad school who was a marathon runner.  He had a poster of him in his home office.

Dom, I’m curious to know how the references to American politics read to you.  The name Thomas Dodd might as well have been written in bold for me.  I didn’t know his story (I looked it up), but his son is Chris Dodd, who also went on to be a senator for the state of Connecticut and is now president of the Motion Picture Association of America. That last bit doesn’t really matter, but since I’m sure this book will be made into a movie (or maybe not because I’m not sure how mainstream America will feel about this interracial couple; how far has “Scandal” taken us?*) and it points out some eerie coincidences in the first few chapters, I’m going to note it.

The idea that America didn’t have a law about hijacking planes cracks me up.  Like no one thought to put up on of those “Please Don’t Take This Plane” signs.   I guess you can’t think of everything.

For the most part, I really like the writing.  It only bugs me when Koerner writes about Kerkow’s “abundant charms.”  It feels like he’s reaching and trying to be a “writer” when it’s clear he’s already a very good one.

That’s it for now…Dom will blog her thoughts at some point.

*As a black woman in America, I feel I have to go on record and say I have no problems with black men dating white women. Or black women dating white men (I’ve done it). Or people dating other people. The heart wants what the heart wants, and I don’t politicize or historicize that.
 

Good Rule of Thumb #1

A few Saturdays ago, I got waylaid on a trip to Brooklyn by construction in New Jersey. It mucked things up forever and ever. In fact, even though I am no longer there am, in fact, in Louisiana enjoying Southern sunshine and my mother’s cooking, I know I left part of me on the New Jersey Turnpike, that part of me is still sitting with the car in park, watching bright day turn into dark night.

But I digress.

When I finally broke free from the New Jersey Hell Pike (where I’m convinced I still am), it was too late to make the event I planned to attend in Brooklyn, and I found myself on the Upper West Side, alone on a Saturday night, peckish, tired, and restless. I decided I’d eat within a block of wherever I could find parking. Along the way to a favorite restaurant, I popped into a small bookstore to find something to read over dinner. I saw a used copy of Helen Fielding’s Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination for $3.25 and decided it was worth a try. Until I got queasy about how Fielding mocked competent, ambitious women, I liked Bridget Jones’s Diary, but I found the sequel annoying and unbelievable. I’d heard that Fielding had “gone another way” with this novel, so I thought I’d give it a try, and I’m so glad I did.

Olivia Joules has all the best qualities of Bridget Jones–a tendency to fantasize as a way to cope with what could be a vapid or boring life, an ability to see the bright side of things without being annoyingly chipper, good taste in men–and she’s competent to boot! Olivia Joules is a free-lance writer who so desperately wants to be a secret agent that she tries to report on mysterious events that aren’t real at all. As a woman whose letter opener in her office is actually a dagger she was given during a role-playing game she made up with her friend Elissa when they were both in junior high, I can relate. The novel made me laugh aloud over my scallion-ginger pancakes and warm asparagus salad and weeks later, enjoying a quiet evening at my parents’ house, it made me anxious (in a good way) and sigh (in an even better way). And along the way, I picked up a good rule of thumb. I’d tell you who says it in the novel, but that would give the plot away:

The corruption of the good by the belief in their own infallible goodness is the most bloody dangerous pitfall in the human spectrum. Once you have conquered all your sins, pride is the one which will conquer you. A man starts off deciding he is a good man because he makes good decisions. Next thing, he’s convinced that whatever decision he makes must be good because he’s a good man….Always stick with people who know they are flawed and ridiculous.

Book Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

One year as his wife, and I’d have become one of those abject women who look at their husbands when someone asks them a question. I’ve always despised that type, but I see how it happens now.

I’m a sucker for a good title, so when my friend Dom (short for Dominique not Dominatrix, though I do have a friend who rightfully owns the latter label) said she was reading a book called The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society my interest was piqued. When she said it was about a writer who was more interested in books than marriage, I drove to the bookstore (local, independent…ahem) and bought it in hard cover. I was pretty sure of its ending before I even picked it up, but that didn’t lessen the pleasure of a novel that is charming without ever crossing the line into precious.

This epistolary novel is set in the aftermath of World War II, and the heroine Juliet Ashton is an unthinkable thing—a happily single woman in her early 30s. On a book tour promoting a collection of pithy essays she wrote during the war, she receives a letter from a resident of the Guernsey Islands who found her name in a book by Charles Lamb. As a woman who once bought a novel simply because a cute guy recommended it to me, my reader’s heart flipped a bit, and I did something I rarely do with books I read simply for pleasure: I slowed down.

I am a disgustingly fast reader, but some books want you to take them slowly, and this is one of them. This is in part because it’s a book about friendships and community. And in between the charming and the romantic, the history of the German occupation of Guernsey left me a little breathless. I couldn’t rush through those parts anymore than I could walk quickly past a graveyard. One letter in the novel actually made me cry, something I never do over books, especially on a rush-hour train when my feet are cold. Another letter made me gasp over pancakes at my favorite diner.

Let me confess here that I am not a fan of modern fiction with its thinly veiled narcissism and graceless prose, but every once in a while a modern novel will pull me in, and I can tell when it happens because I get nervous that it will let me down, fall into some storytelling trap that leaves me feeling flat. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society didn’t. It helps that it has all the right literary references on its side–Chaucer, Lamb, Austen, and the much-ignored Anne Bronte. How could I not be seduced? When I finished it, I let out a little sigh, closed my eyes, and imagined myself somewhere else.