Bitter and sweet books for Valentine’s Day



“In truth, there are only two realities: the one for people who are in love, or love each other, and the one for people who are standing outside all that.” — Charles Baxter, The Feast of Love


Valentine’s Day.


Do you really want to read anything more about it?  Romantic love and all. What is that, anyway?  Is it the hollywood version, John Cusack with his boombox standing outside your window, Dustin Hoffman pounding on the glass at your wedding? Or is that all selfishness on your part, and you’re just projecting your own needs and desires on somebody, and that’s not love, so cut that shit out.  As if you could if you wanted to, which you don’t, because you, um, have needs and desires. Jesus, you’re not an angel, or a nun. Not yet, anyhow.

So there you are, Scully to your own inner Mulder, raising a skeptical eyebrow and wanting to believe at the same time. And it’s Valentine’s Day. What to do?  Some suggest that if you don’t have a valentine, you should romance the hell out of yourself, with chocolate, flowers, and plush what-nots. Personally, I’d just as soon have a bottle of something special as another damned stuffed animal.  Nothing takes the sting out of, well, just about anything, as a perfect martini.  À chacun son goût, as the French say.  And who’s more romantic than the French?

Since you’re at home anyway, drinking gin and chiseling shards of parmesan cheese off the block while the pasta water boils, why not open a book? I have a few love-themed suggestions for you.  Some are sweet, some bitter, and all are nicely accompanied by a glass of something or other.


Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry by Leanne Shapton

I heard about this book on flavorwire, and went looking for it in the library. I found it in the “Antiques and Collectibles” section. Important Artifacts describes the relationship of Hal and Lenore through a catalogue of objects — clothing, books, photographs, emails and countless other items that the characters buy, create, give, and share. The result is a portrait of a modern relationship. It has the voyeuristic appeal of looking through other people’s stuff, but is surprisingly moving and poignant. You like poignant, don’t you?  Sure you do.

Pairing suggestion: Red wine, something textured and complex. Amarone? Barolo? Take your pick. Or a martini.


The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan

This modern love story unfolds alphabetically and associatively, instead of chronologically.  Through highly personal definitions, an unnamed narrator describes the ups and downs of a relationship and what it’s like to be in love. Levithan manages to infuse his clever conceit with great feeling and charm, and you find yourself caught up in the story and rooting for his lovers when they hit rough waters.

Pairing suggestion: An old-fashioned is a good choice here — traditional, a little bit sweet, with a hipster street cred. Or a martini.


Villette by Charlotte Bronte

This is probably my favourite Bronte novel.  Yes, yes, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are pretty good. But if you liked Jane Eyre and you haven’t read Villette, you really should. In the story of a governess in France, Bronte writes about love, class, and repressed desire. Our heroine, Lucy Snowe, is reserved and inexperienced, but also strong, independent and smart.  A lot like Jane. Lucy seems to be so clear-eyed and sensible, it only dawns on us slowly that she might be hiding things from us, and from herself.

Pairing Suggestion: A negroni. Flinty and passionate, with a bitter aftertaste. Or a martini.


The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter

Charles Baxter is a very, very good writer.  The Feast of Love was a finalist for the National Book award in 2000.  Episodic, with an ensemble cast, The Feast of Love is a midwestern Midsummer Night’s Dream. It looks at love from a bunch of different points of view, (not just both sides) and his characters have a lot to say. The book is generous, warm, a little bit sentimental, and filled with thoughtful and beautiful writing.

Pairing suggestion: Celebrate your notions of romance with champagne! Or a martini.


Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Ok, I know, it’s not exactly a love story.  But it kind of is, and I watched the Swedish movie the other night and was reminded of how much I liked the book.  Oskar is a shy, twelve-year-old boy who is being bullied at school.  One night he is out in the playground behind his building and he meets the girl next door.  She’s not exactly a girl, though. She warns him that they can’t become friends, but they do anyway (sometimes warnings just don’t take). It’s nice to know that in this crazy world someone would rip the head off a bully for you, in the name of love.

Pairing suggestion: Vodka, ice cold. It chills and warms at the same time. Or a martini.


Well, those are a few of my favourite books on the topic of love.  What are yours? Slàinte, and Happy Valentine’s Day!



Stuff I’m reading (or not)


Sometimes I read stuff and sometimes I don’t read stuff.  Like, I have this huge pile of books by my bed?  And some of them have been there for ages?  But then I pick them up, and it’s not the right time?   I have to confess that I got a bit sidetracked and watched Seasons Three to Five of The Wire (I’d already seen the first two seasons).  That was some of the best writing and storytelling I have ever seen.  Still, I have picked up a few books lately, and even managed to finish some.


Begun, Abandoned, In Progress:


The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

I couldn’t resist the poetic whimsy of that title.  And the idea is promising – a young girl begins to taste the emotions of the people who have prepared her food.  Neat.   But then I picked it up and I just couldn’t get started.  I’m not sure what it was.   It may be that the flat, disaffected tone was a little close to some other things I’d read lately.  Aimee Bender seems to be a critic’s darling.  She’s written short stories, and some have suggested that her strengths are in that format.  I might try those one day.

The Way of Zen by Alan Watts

I’ve never read any Alan Watts, and I’d heard that he popularized Buddhist philosophy in the west – and is an E4!  (I’m all about the Enneagram these days.) There are a couple of videos of him speaking on youtube, and he sounded interesting in a seventies, hippie way.  So I was surprised by the academic style of this book.  It didn’t seem like the kind of thing that would galvanize The Youth of Today.  Maybe people like to read something “difficult” to reassure themselves that they’re smart.  I have too much else I want to do.  Catch up on Breaking Bad, for example.

The Chairs are Where the People Go by Sheila Heti

I actually read most of this one, putting it down and picking it up again while eating lunch or drinking coffee. Sheila Heti interviews her friend Misha Glouberman on, well, whatever he wants to talk about.  He’s a smart person with some thoughtful opinions on art, communication and politics.  I found it interesting to read about his experiences with local zoning politics in the Annex, for example.  If you’re not into stuff like that, don’t bother.    Sheila Heti claims that she tried to write a novel with a character like Misha, but her friend seemed more interesting than anything she could make up, so she just wrote down stuff he said.   The protagonist of her latest novel is Sheila Heti, who has a bunch of friends who are named after the author’s real friends , and in it she includes actual emails people have sent her, etc.  I don’t know if that’s metafiction or just a clever way to publish a novel without having to write one. But I kind of liked her book.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

This is one of those cult books that I kept hearing about when I worked in the bookstore.   It’s a deconstructed, postmodern suspense story with multiple viewpoints, “footnotes”, stories within stories, rooms within rooms.  Unfortunately it’s due at the library in a couple of days and can’t be renewed, so I don’t think I’ll get a chance to finish it.  Might need to borrow a copy.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

This seems to have all the elements of a traditional novel that I like – good writing, interesting characters and the promise of a great story.  I guess I’m just ole’ fashioned that way.  It’s set in a family run alligator theme park in Florida.  I’ve just started it.


Read, Completed, Enjoyed:


Was She Pretty? by Leanne Shapton

Shapton’s another favourite (along with Sheila Heti) of the flavorwire set.  But I like her more.  I really loved Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry, and ended up ordering it from amazon. This book is a set of ink drawings paired with a sentence or two about people’s exes.  Each page has a point of view, so that you feel the former lover’s aliveness in the new relationship.  An example: “One of the women Len used to know was an opinionated academic.  She wore braces and they looked fantastic.” Or, “Lewis’s ex girlfriend’s name – Fiona – came up at dinner one night.  There was silence between Lewis and his girlfriend, Judy, for eleven minutes as they cut and chewed their steaks.”  The accompanying drawing is a blank page with the name “Fiona” written on it twice.  Sharpness and brevity manage to be evocative rather than reductive, as we imagine the new relationships, replete with doubt and unspoken jealousy and desire.

On Writing by Stephen King

Stephen King’s popularity and huge output have led some people to accuse him of being a hack.  But I think Stephen King is a good writer.  God knows that’s not essential to success, but clearly it’s important to him.   If you’re interested in the craft of writing, this book has a lot of useful advice.  And it’s fun to read too, with biographical details to illustrate his roots as a writer.

Gryphon by Charles Baxter

A while back I read “The Cousins” by Charles Baxter in an anthology called Best American Short Stories 2010.   I had never read anything by Charles Baxter before, and   I immediately went looking for more. I found his latest collection, Gryphon, at the library.  “The Cousins” was one of the newer stories in the collection, but not the only standout.  The first story I read (not the first one in the book) was called “Surprised by Joy”.  In it, a married couple who have lost a child work through their grief and guilt.  There were tears in my eyes at the end. None of the stories were bad, and at least eight were outstanding.

The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter

After I finished Gryphon ( reading all my favourites twice) I read The Feast of Love, an episodic, multi character study of modern love and relationships.  It was made  into a movie, which I hear is disappointing.    The changing points of view made it a little like reading linked short stories. I really enjoyed this novel, but not quite, quite as much as the short stories, which are superb.  His writing is sometimes lyrical, sometimes humorous, always evocative and thought provoking.  Charles Baxter writes for adults, a rare thing these days.