Have you ever read a vicious, weirdly long review on Yelp.com and thought, “Man, who has the time to write these?” Meet Reginald Edward Morse, a top reviewer on RateYourLodging.com. He is a middle-aged, perpetually displeased motivational speaker. His life unfolds for the reader of Rick Moody's Hotels of North America in the form of his many, many online reviews of hotels. But the prolific Reginald’s sprawling reviews rarely stay true to the course, meandering off to give the reader a taste of his life: his divorce, his abominable soulmate known as K., the dissolution of his relationship with his daughter and, most of all, his deep loneliness. This sounds like a downer of a book, but it’s not. It’s hilarious. OK, it’s also heartbreaking. But don’t those two work best when hand in hand?
La Quinta Inn, 4122 McFarland Blvd East, Tuscaloosa, AL,
January 5-9, 2002
Under circumstances of regret, during the long nights of regret, you should be back at home, but you are not back at home, because you have to go somewhere you don’t want to go, where no one should have to go, namely, Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Well, sure, you can go there without incident if you are fervently interested in things gridiron, and you can go stand on the lawn and watch as the twenty-year-olds with the shaved heads pass down the main drag, along the campus, in their flatbed trucks, waving their bruised fists. Oh look, there is the tight end, oh look, there is the safety. Another winning season. If you are interested in things gridiron, your heart will rise up at this address. Otherwise, this will not be your experience. I wish I had never been there. I will never again go to Tuscaloosa, I will not go to La Quinta on McFarland Blvd, no one can make me, unless I can be assured that each day in Tuscaloosa I can be served grits.
What are you reading this week?
Ellen Marie Wiseman takes readers deep into the politics and hidden atrocities of a 20th-century Pennsylvania mining town in her latest novel, Coal River. Emma's greatest nightmare is returning to the town where her aunt and uncle live, but after she is suddenly orphaned, she's left with nothing and nowhere else to turn. Instead of letting her grief consume her, she channels her energy toward helping the child laborers that work in the unforgiving mines, but she soon discovers a slew of even darker secrets and makes an unlikely alliance in her quest to expose the truth.
On the last day in June, in the year when the rest of the world was reeling from the sinking of the Titanic, 19-year-old Emma Malloy was given two choices: get on the next train to Coal River, Pennsylvania, or be sent to a Brooklyn poorhouse. The doctor had released her from the Manhattan hospital, the Catholic church had donated a small suitcase with a few items of clothing—along with a proper mourning dress, undergarments, a hand brush, and a bar of soap—and her aunt and uncle had sent money for a ticket. After less than an hour to decide, she walked on shaky legs from the hospital to the station in what felt like a trance, said good-bye to the nurse, climbed the passenger car steps, and found her seat. The nurse had said Emma's escape from the deadly theater fire was a miracle, and she should be forever grateful for this second chance. The only thing Emma knew for sure was that she was an orphan now.
What are you reading today?
Witches are popular right now. They have always had a place in pop culture, especially in the '90s when the fascination with all things New Age hit the mainstream. Today, they're enjoying a bit of resurgence after the recent vampire craze. They're the focus of hit television series like "American Horror Story" and "Witches of East End," and are even the inspiration for today's fashion trends (think flowy dresses, shawls, capes and wide-brimmed hats—all in black, of course). But most of us know very little about the practices of actual "witchcraft," and Alex Mar decided to de-mystify a bit of this incredibly mystic group of people in her new book, Witches of America. Mar extensively interviews, observes, lives among and even befriends men and women who practice Paganism—the umbrella and nature-focused religion under which all "witches" fall. If you've always been fascinated by witches here in the U.S. and want to learn their history and peek inside their rituals and day-to-day lives, or if you're looking for a great, but not spooky, read for Halloween, then Mar has the book for you.
Witches are gathering.
Witches are gathering all across California, witches and their apprentices and little children and polyamorous collection of boyfriends and girlfriends. They are gathering for the season of death, the days leading up to the high holiday of Samhain. October is the time of year, they say, when the veil between the worlds becomes thin and the multitudes of the dead can reach across to touch you, brush your cheek, whisper in your year, drink your whiskey. So the priestesses pull out their sporty West Coast vehicles, from gnarly pickups to gleaming, eco-friendly mini-mobiles, and they load up, with complicated tents and pillows and crockery and duffel bags full of ritual gear and brown paper bags crammed with discount groceries. They are leaving their cities for the mountains and the woodlands of this schizophrenic state: the rocks and the trees and the clearer skies will bring them closer, perhaps, to friends and family who have passed to the other side.
What are you reading today?
You may recognize Jesse Eisenberg as an Academy Award-nominated actor from films such as The Social Network, but he is also an established playwright and author who has been featured in publications including the New Yorker and McSweeney's. In his first collection of short stories, Bream Gives Me Hiccups, Eisenberg's sharp comic timing lends plenty of laugh-out-loud moments to stories that span a wide variety of subjects from arguments between college roommates to reimagined historical scenes, but there are also an astonishing amount of introspective moments and tender displays of human vulnerability. The first grouping of stories, which lend the book its title, are told from a 9-year-old restaurant critic's point of view and are simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking. This collection is a wonderful fall read for those looking for some brainy humor, emotional depth and a few lovely lines of prose that are sure to get under your skin.
Sushi Nozawa does not have any menus, which Mom said made it fancy. The Sushi chef is very serious and he stands behind a counter and serves the people whatever he wants. He is also mean.
The first thing they brought us was a rolled up wet washcloth, which I unrolled and put on my lap because Mom always said that the first thing I have to do in a nice restaurant is put the napkin in my lap. But this napkin was hot and wet and made me feel like I peed my pants. Mom got angry and asked me if I was stupid.
The mean woman then brought a little bowl of mashed up red fish bodies in a brown sauce and said that it was tuna fish, which I guess was a lie because it didn’t taste like tuna and made me want to puke right there at the table. But Mom said that I have to eat it because Sushi Nozawa was “famous for their tuna.” At school, there is a kid named Billy who everyone secretly calls Billy the Bully and who puts toothpaste on the teacher’s chair before she comes into the classroom. He is also famous.
What are you reading?
By now, you've most likely heard something about 2000's cult-favorite horror novel House of Leaves. Author Mark Z. Danielewski's highly experimental writing style is often compared to that of James Joyce, but his inclusion of graphic elements—sections of text printed in shapes, multiple typefaces and font sizes, certain words printed in color—have set his novels apart in today's literary landscape. His new novel, The Familiar, is the first in a series with 27 planned volumes (yes, 27!), and it follows a 12-year-old girl named Xanther who finds an abandoned kitten on the side of the road one rainy day. Well, the story isn't quite that straightforward. Danielewski also explores Mexico, Singapore, a brutal gang in East L.A., two computer scientists in Marfa, Texas, and many more settings and characters—each with their own color-coded sections. Fans of more traditional linear narratives may want to take caution, but if you're feeling adventurous and are interested in a different kind of reading experience, then The Familiar is for you.
Xanther cracks the window, gulping air, and wow!, the spray actually warms her!
"Remember: they are only questions," Anwar has told her many times. Like he's also told her: "Remember, they are only answers."
Xanther starts breathing regular-like again.
And sure, just as there's rain out there, the number for rain is out there too.
Dancing on the pavement.
Dancing in the air.
Like music before music becomes music.
"Is everything okay?" Anwar asks.
"Huh?" Xanther responds, profoundly, rolling the window back up, too aware of what she must look like bu the look already cornering her dad's eyes. "Head in the clouds?" she tries.
"Those are some clouds."
"You know, just daydreaming," Xanther tries again.
"Tell me then," Anwar sighs. "Tell me your daydreams, daughter."
And Xanther can't stand worrying him.
She can't stand lying either. She really can't.
What are you reading today?
Sydney Padua's impeccably researched, yet playfully imagined graphic biography is a treat for history buffs and graphic novel lovers alike. The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage brings us into the heart of London's intellectual society in 1842. There, Ada Lovelace—young mathematician and the daughter of famed poet Lord Byron—meets Charles Babbage at a party. Here is where historical accuracy takes a backseat, and Padua presents a rip-roaring adventure story in which the pair build the famed Difference Engine, known as the world's first computer, and take the Victorian era by storm. With fantastically detailed art, footnotes and diagrams of Babbage's steam-powered computer, this is a whimsical graphic account like no other.
What are you reading today?
There are few forces in this world like a true Southern grandmother. Nickole Brown has written a lyric biography of her own in her second collection, Fanny Says. Brown blends descriptions of the immensely wise, brazen and sailor-mouthed Fanny with ruminations on both the power of memory and the Kentucky culture that influenced them both. The editorial assistant for the late Hunter S. Thompson, the fabric of Brown's poems share threads of his deeply honest and personal reporting, but Fanny Says proves that she's a literary heavyweight in a class of her own.
Don’t carry a purse but a pocketbook, and underneath
don’t wear a bra and panties
but a push-up Frederick’s of Hollywood brassiere
and a pair of bloomers—nylon, always white, pulled up
as far as bloomers can possibly go.
For your shoes, two options: should you need to go shopping
or get your pressure checked, lace up a pair of white Keds.
Otherwise, it’s house shoes, dust-pink slippers
curled from the dryer into tiny, warm cups for your feet.
What are you reading this week?
The plot of Sharma Shields’ The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac sounds pretty bizarre, but it’s worth the suspension of disbelief. Eli Roebuck is certain that when he was 9 years old, his mother carried on an affair with a sasquatch and ran away with him into the woods. He vividly remembers meeting the sasquatch, or Mr. Krantz as he is introduced, and his giant furry feet. Eli, who grows up to be a podiatrist, becomes deeply obsessed with hunting down the Big Foot who carried off his mother. Unfortunately, Eli’s onerous quest to find the monster of his childhood is a heavy toll on his family. And he’s not the only one in his family dealing with very real demons. And unicorns. And lake monsters.
Finally the visitor arrived. Agnes raised to the door and stood very still before it, her hands on the belly of her apron, taking a deep breath, as though to calm herself. She swept the door open.
There stood her guest, “the most interesting man.”
Eli tried not to stare. He did not see a man at all. What he saw was an enormous ape crushed into a filthy pin-striped suit. He remembered a book from school about exotic beasts, the giant apes who lived in the savage countries of the world, and the guest resembled those creatures: deep hooded brow, small blank eyes, thin-lipped mouth like a long pink gash. And the hair! The guest was so hairy that Eli was unsure of the color of his skin: Beneath the thick brown fur, his flesh—tough and charred, like strips of dried deer meat—appeared red in some places, purple in others. The guest even smelled of hair, badly, like a musty bearskin rug singed with a lit match.
What are you reading today?
Chose the Wrong Guy, Gave Him the Wrong Finger
by Beth Harbison
St. Martin's • $25.99 • ISBN 9780312599133
On sale July 2013
Ashley Barton was ready to walk down the aisle when the best man broke the news that her fiance had been cheating. Unsure of her next step, she chose escape with the best man—also the groom's brother. Ten years later, Ashley is working in her family's bridal shop after neither relationship worked out. Recent gossip says both brothers will be back in town for a wedding, and emotions collide when they are reunited. What is that little spark she still feels? Is that love, anger—or heartburn from lunch?
Here is a brief excerpt depicting the moments just after Ashley has been told—minutes before her wedding—that her fiance has been cheating on her.
It can't be true, it can't be true, it can't be truuuue, it can't be true.
That beat carried her all the way up to the altar. She was aware of the eyes on her, but she met no one's gaze. Not even Burke's, though she knew—she could just feel—it was questioning.
What's wrong? What's going on?
No clear answer formed in her head. She didn't know what was going on, exactly. She was dazed, being carried on a rickety raft by an ocean of adrenaline.
She didn't know what she was going to do until she was right there by his side.
That's when it all came clear.
She drew her hand back and slapped him with all the power of every unacknowledged hurt he'd ever inflicted on her.
The she turned and ran back down the aisle, out of the church, followed, not by the undoubtedly stunned Burke, but by his best man. His brother.
Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph by Jennifer Pharr Davis
Beaufort Books • $24.95 • ISBN 9780825306938
published June 10, 2013
As a fan of Becoming Odyssa, her memoir of first hiking the AT after college, I was thrilled when I learned that Davis had written a new book, Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph, about her recent record-breaking experience. Certain to entertain readers—fellow hikers or not—this is a story of perseverance and grit, love, dedication and sacrifice. It’s not so much about being the fastest AT hiker ever, as about taking on a challenge, consistently doing your best and allowing yourself to rely on other people to help you along the way.
Readers feeling unsure of themselves or frustrated by societal pressures regarding what they should look like, act like and/or focus on would benefit from reading Davis’ story, which offers plenty of inspiration for becoming a better "me."
Here are Davis’ thoughts after Anne Riddle Lundblad, an accomplished ultra-runner, tells Jen she’s a role model:
"I mean, how does hiking the Appalachian Trail in a short amount of time positively impact anyone? But Anne made me realize that being a role model isn’t about inspiring other people to be like you; it is about helping them to be the fullest version of themselves. The main legacy of this endeavor would not be to encourage others to set a record on the Appalachian Trail, but to encourage them to be the best form of their truest selves. And it just so happened that my best form was a hiker."
"No one seemed interested in what I'd learned or what the most valuable part of the experience had been. Instead, everyone wanted to talk about how I averaged 46.93 miles per day. . . . Why didn't anyone ask about the notions of living in the present or choosing something purposeful and fulfilling over something fun and easy? Or the idea that persistence and consistency can be more valuable than speed or strength? . . . Why did no one realize that the most miraculous part of the summer was not the record, but how well my husband had loved me?!"
If you’ve read Wild, the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, you know it is about much more than just hiking. Such is Davis’ story, too. The white blaze and rolling mountains on the cover will pull you in, and by the time you reach the end of the trail atop Springer Mountain, you’ll be wondering how you, too, can find your best self.
Next week, I'll be hiking in the Tetons with my husband, and, having read Called Again, I know that I'll be a "better me" while I'm there. What book(s) have inspired you to become a better version of yourself?