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.












Stuff I’m reading


“If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!”  – John Waters


How many books do you read at one time?

I have been struggling to put together a post on something besides Proust.  Available time has been an issue, but reading material has not.   It seems that I don’t have  much  “portion control” when it comes to reading.  I’m a bit, um, impulsive.  I’ve started writing about different books, but haven’t finished before I’m on to the next thing.   So I thought I’d just share what I’ve dipped into lately.  Read any of them?  Let me know what you thought!  Reading something now you think I’d like?  Tell me!  Hated something I loved?  leave a comment!

A Visit from the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan

This was probably the best book I read last year.  I realize it isn’t new – maybe  you’ve  read it?    It’s linked short stories about friends and colleagues in the music business, with a different point of view in each story, and characters and time overlapping.  The writing is beautiful and Egan is an imaginative storyteller – one of the chapters is in Power Point.  I thought that would be really gimmicky, but it turned out to be the story that grabbed my heart and made me want to read the whole book over again.  Egan has said in interviews that In Search of Lost Time was an inspiration for Goon Squad. “Time’s a goon,” says one of her characters.  Yes.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

I impulsively splurged and bought this in hardcover when I couldn’t find it in the library or on Kobo.   The idea of a love story about a Lisa Simpson-y Eng. Lit. major appealed to me for some reason.  I liked it, although not quite as much as Middlesex.  I was really emotionally involved in the first part of the novel, with Madeleine’s love for the complicated Leonard, and Mitchell’s unrequited feelings for Madeleine, but, as much as I felt the depiction of Leonard’s struggle with bipolar disorder was harrowing and convincing, Eugenides lost me somehow towards the end.  Maddie seemed to give up everything for Leonard, but I couldn’t quite see what the “everything” was.  Still, Eugenides is one of those sympathetic novelists who will have me reading everything he writes

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver  

Since I’m taking a short fiction course, I thought I would read Raymond Carver, who comes up in everyone’s discussions of amazing short story writers.  I haven’t finished it though, because the story Tell the Women We’re Going was so disturbing I couldn’t pick the book up again.  It’s about a murder, and I felt like I’d witnessed it.  That’s  undeniably an accomplishment, but it didn’t make me want to get any closer.  Maybe later.

The Best American Short Stories 2010 edited by Richard Russo

Anthologies like this are a bit of a crapshoot, because you never know how many of the stories will be something you’ll like. I’ve read most of it; some stories left me cold, some I really enjoyed.  Most puzzling was The Cousins by Charles Baxter.  I’m not sure what it was about, so I’m going to read it again.  Other favourites in the book were by Lori Ostlund, Kevin Moffett, Wells Tower, Lauren Groff and Karen Russell, who also wrote Swamplandia!, which is in a stack of books by my bed waiting to be read.

Birds of America by Lorrie Moore  

This is a book of short stories.  I read a story by Lorrie Moore in my class called How to Become a Writer.  It was funny and original, and I picked up Birds of America at the library because I wanted to read more.  It’s not disappointing – she has a way with a phrase that makes you laugh out loud.  Her stories are about people on the fringes of self discovery, and the book’s hard to put down.  I’ll be looking for more by Lorrie Moore.

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

This book was on a list called 10 Wonderful Love Stories Told in Unusual Ways which I originally saw on flavorwire.  I found the book in the art section of the library, but it’s really a fabricated auction catalogue that tells the story of the relationship and eventual breakup of two people named Lenore and Hal, through personal photos, cards, mixtapes, clothes and books. It has the voyeuristic appeal of something like Found by Davy Rothbart or Postsecret by Frank Warren.  Except it’s totally made up.  It’s touching and wonderfully original, and I don’t want to give it back now.  Guess I’ll have to go shopping.

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

This is a reread.  I’m reading it as part of a Random Reader Challenge, in anticipation of reading John Irving’s new novel, In One Person, a copy of which is sitting on my sister’s windowsill right now.  Hope she reads it soon so I can borrow it.  The book has been getting mixed reviews, but that doesn’t make any difference to me – I’ll read it anyway, because his best books are among my favourite books ever.  There’s a nice review of it by Jeanette Winterson in the New York Times.  I’ve read The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules twice – Owen Meany is my other favourite John Irving, so I’m going to give it another spin.  I got a bit lost with some of his later books – any you think I should read?