A vacation with The Vacationers

18641982I’ll own up to it: I haven’t finished The Vacationers yet. I’m a little bit more than halfway through, and though I could probably have held off posting about it until I’d actually read the whole thing, I’ve just spent the better part of today lying in my backyard getting sunburned and savoring this book. It fits just so perfectly into this month’s theme that I just can’t help myself. If something truly horrifying and unexpected happens in the second half that undermines everything I write here, I’ll come back and edit the post. But somehow I’m not worried.

The Vacationers is one of those novels where a group of people end up spending a lot of time together in a relatively small space. In this case, the people are the Post family (and various close friends and significant others) and the space is a beautiful house on the beautiful island of Mallorca. As you can probably imagine, the crux of the book is in the varied personalities and the messy way they tangle with one another within the tight confines of the vacation, and there’s no question that Emma Straub’s pitch perfect characterization and dialogue are what makes this such a good book. But the setting is what makes it so savorable:

“Mallorca was a layer cake—the gnarled olive trees and spiky palms, the green-gray mountains, the chalky stone walls along either side of the road, the cloudless pale blue sky overhead. Though the day was hot, the mugginess of New York City was gone, replaced  by unfiltered sunshine and a breeze that promised you’d never be too warm for long. Mallorca was summer done right, hot enough to swim but not so warm that your clothing stuck to your back.”

The Vacationers is full of delicious bits like that. It’s drenched in sun and pool water and olive oil, and it’ll make you wish you were, too. Though maybe not literally.

July 2015: Settings We Want To Go To

giphyThis time of year always puts me in mind of travel, even though I don’t think I personally have gone anywhere in July more exciting than the Maine coast (not that the Maine coast isn’t exciting). But there’s something about summer that says, “Okay, pack your bags, it’s time to go somewhere awesome.”

Luckily for those of us with less time or money to travel than we might like, armchair tourism is a thing. And that’s what we’re going to be posting about this month—books with settings so compelling and vivid that you find yourself planning to drop everything and head off to Ecuador, or Iceland, or Narnia. These are the books that immerse you in their worlds completely, convince you you’re there until you run out of pages, and leave you fighting the urge to buy plane tickets at 2am.

YA love stories are the best love stories.

Aristotle_and_Dante_Discover_the_Secrets_of_the_Universe_coverWhen I decided I was going to post about Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, I went and grabbed my copy so I could thumb through it while writing, the way I usually do when I’m composing a post. But then, instead of just flipping through idly, I accidentally ended up rereading at least a third of the book. So now it’s a lot later than I’d like it to be and I’ve made very little headway on this post, but I couldn’t help it—Aristotle and Dante is just that good.

Aristotle (Ari, for short) and Dante are two Mexican-American teenage boys who meet and fall in love the summer they’re fifteen. Dante is aware of this happening. Ari is not. Ari has walled himself into and away from himself. He doesn’t let himself catch on, so, for a long time, they’re friends. They hang out, they invent ridiculous games, they smoke weed, they fight, they make up. They have conversations in dialogue that’s so real it aches. A lot of really intense stuff goes down that I won’t spoil for you, but through it all, they keep coming back to each other. And eventually, with a lot of help, Ari starts to dismantle his walls.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz is a poet, and in some ways, Aristotle and Dante reads like poetry to me, the kind of yearning, careful, guarded poetry that might pour straight from the soul of a mixed-up, kindhearted teenager like Aristotle Mendoza. The rhythms of Ari’s voice are just infectious—for a while after you finish this book, you’ll find yourself thinking in teenage boy poetry, too. Trust me, it’s a lot more fun than it sounds.

British repression, part two

tumblr_nampsxF5uu1qdbpifo1_1280I was debating about whether or not to do this. Part of me felt like it was too expected to go down the Jane Austen road during love stories month… and then part of me (the part of me that won, obviously) felt like the month would feel incomplete without going down that road. So, here we are. All of Jane Austen’s books are basically the best kind of love stories—they’re swoony, but they’re also about people who feel real, and also they’re pretty hilarious. Pride and Prejudice is an obvious favorite:

but I like Persuasion best. This is partly because its love story is extremely British and repressed (like another favorite of mine), partly because its humor is extremely British and tart, and partly because I just like being inside Anne Elliot’s head best of all. I think she’s the most introverted of all of Austen’s heroines, and pretty much everything that happens to her happens inside of her head. I think a lot of readers would say Captain Wentworth’s letter is the big romantic climax of this story (hence cheeseball movie scenes and putting it on stuff on Etsy and elsewhere), but my favorite part has always been this very internal scene, which I’m quoting at length for context, but pay attention to the bit at the beginning of the last paragraph:

Another minute brought another addition. The younger boy, a remarkable stout, forward child, of two years old, having got the door opened for him by some one without, made his determined appearance among them, and went straight to the sofa to see what was going on, and put in his claim to any thing good that might be giving away.

There being nothing to be eat, he could only have some play; and as his aunt would not let him tease his sick brother, he began to fasten himself upon her, as she knelt, in such a way that, busy as she was about Charles, she could not shake him off. She spoke to him, ordered, entreated, and insisted in vain. Once she did contrive to push him away, but the boy has the greater pleasure in getting upon her back again directly.

“Walter,” said she, “get down this moment. You are extremely troublesome. I am very angry with you.”

“Walter,” cried Charles Hayter, “why do you not do as you are bid? Do not you hear your aunt speak? Come to me, Walter; come to cousin Charles.”

But not a bit did Walter stir.

In another moment, however, she found herself in a state of being released from him; some one was taking him from her, though he had bent down her head so much, that his little sturdy hands were unfastened from around her neck, and he was resolutely borne away, before she knew that Captain Wentworth had done it.

Her sensations on the discovery made her perfectly speechless. She could not even thank him. She could only hang over little Charles, with most disordered feelings. His kindness in stepping forward to her relief, the manner, the silence in which it had passed, the little particulars of the circumstance, with the conviction soon forced on her by the noise he was studiously making with the child, that he meant to avoid hearing her thanks, and rather sought to testify that her conversation was the last of his wants, produced such a confusion of varying, but very painful agitation, as she could not recover from till enabled by the entrance of Mary and the Miss Musgroves, to make over her little patient with cares, and leave the room. She could not stay. It might have been an opportunity of watching the loves and jealousies of the four—they were now all together; but she could stay for none of it. It was evident that Charles Hayter was not well inclined towards Captain Wentworth. She had a strong impression of his having said, in a vext tone of voice, after Captain Wentworth’s interference, “You ought to have minded me, Walter; I told you not to tease your aunt”; and could comprehend his regretting that Captain Wentworth should do what he ought to have done himself. But neither Charles Hayter’s feelings, nor any body’s feelings, could interest her, till she had a little better arranged her own. She was ashamed of herself, quite ashamed of being so nervous, so overcome by such a trifle; but so it was, and it required a long application of solitude and reflection to recover her.

The angstiest angst that ever did angst, but in the best possible way. All those staccato phrases—you can hear her trying to catch her breath. It’s brilliant and heady and possibly just about as sexy as Anne Elliot could ever be (although I think if you told her that she would blush so hard her head would explode).

I knew the way you know about a good melon.

Here is a small insight into the things that happen inside of my brain: when I am reading, I am always on the lookout for what I privately think of as the Melon Moment. The Melon Moment is the moment you know you love something (a person, a book, a fruit the size of your face). It is so called because of this moment from the hit film When Harry Met Sally (whose Melon Moment, incidentally, is not this moment, but rather this one):

The Melon Moment is the best part of reading, because it usually happens pretty early on in the book, and you get to sigh happily and look at all the pages you have left to read and all of delicious melon left to eat. Melons are enormous. I am taking this analogy very very far.

My Melon Moment in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is on page 61:

She rested her head against his and felt, for the first time, what she would often feel with him: a self-affection. He made her like herself. With him, she was at ease; her skin felt as though it was her right size.

Americanah is not only a love story. It’s not even mainly a love story. It’s mainly a book about Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman finding her way, in America and Nigeria—and finding her way, not just her way back to Obinze, the man she fell in love with as a teenager (although she does that too). But this is the great thing about their relationship, and it’s right there in that first moment: this is a love story about two people finding themselves through each other.

The Book vs. The Blizzard

everythingleadstoyouFebruary was a tough month in Boston this year. Granted, it’s a tough month in Boston pretty much every year, but this one was particularly challenging. My eight-year-old self would be horrified to know I’m writing this, but eventually I really, really got sick of snow days. When every day there’s nowhere to go but your own kitchen, nothing to do but shovel, it gets old remarkably fast.

On those long cold afternoons, books were our only refuge, but many of them failed in the end, shattering against the implacable walls of boredom that towered above us. I threw down book after book that month in favor of pacing laps around the apartment; nothing could hold my attention long enough to quell the restlessness. Nothing, that is, except Everything Leads to You.

Everything Leads to You got me through blizzard number three. I read it in seven straight hours, lying on my stomach on the carpet with a cup of coffee and a blanket. It made me want to move to LA, become a set designer, and fall in love with the brilliant, beautiful, long-lost granddaughter of a Hollywood legend. If all air traffic hadn’t been grounded, I might have flown west that night.

I love Emi and Ava’s love story because it feels real, and it feels right. It isn’t simple and it isn’t easy, but nor is it overflowing with drama and angst. They’re just two people who find each other, work it out, and make it happen. Everything doesn’t tie up neatly, but it doesn’t need to, because they both know that the frayed ends are part of what make it true.