Phoebe lost her mother, Will lost his faith. When they meet at college, these losses congeal into extremes. Kwon writes devastatingly well about manifested pain.
Normal People – Sally Rooney
Rooney is my pick for the best chronicler of modern life. Nothing and everything happen in the truest, barest portrait of relationship I’ve read.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup – John Carreyrou
This is a story that shakes your neck off your spine: a woman in Silicon Valley has an idea for better blood testing, but takes it to a dangerous level of deception, raising millions of dollars in funding while lying about the technology’s progress (or lack thereof), deceiving her board (which consisted of people like General James Mattis and Henry Kissinger), and terrorizing her employees. While she did a bad bad thing, there is also something thrilling/chilling about what Elizabeth Holmes was doing in the male-saturated tech world.
The Ensemble – Aja Gabel
Gabel explores how family and closeness play themselves out in a classical quartet – in each of the members’ individual lives, and the life of the group itself. I had high hopes for this book, but it wasn’t as satisfying a bouquet as the cover depicts. Still, it was worth it for the musical references alone.
Transcription – Kate Atkinson
Read everything Atkinson gives you. “Transcription” probes the mundanities of war that mix with the overall drama, buoyed by a dry sense of humor.
Juliet, Naked – Nick Hornby
In a long-term relationship with a man obsessed with former cult musician Tucker Crowe to the exclusion of almost everything else, Annie wonders if life has anything more to offer. I saw a movie poster for this before I read the book and couldn’t help but picture Ethan Hawke in the role of Tucker. I think it improved the experience.
There is so much weirdness I think about all the time, varied and seemingly disparate things running through my mind. (I am large, I contain multitudes.) I’ve always been inclined to dig further into the shiny bits and bobs that catch my eye, but what about when those things are…not too deep to begin with? For example, what stupid phrases could I caption every medieval painting in this gallery with? What happens when a stalagmite would rather be a stalactite? Why does pro tennis player John Isner appear both extremely boring and also evil as he is tall (6’10”)? I don’t shy away from this, as anyone I’ve ever talked to has learned. I’ve embraced the shallows. I’ll forever be drawn to what are perhaps life’s dumber moments, its lower brows, its cruise ship-caliber offerings. And I need an outlet for these preoccupations. This is part of a series of dispatches from the Mixed-up Files of Ms. Claire G. Brindley.
There are a lot of good things about the nature series “Planet Earth.” Sweeping earthly vistas. Important records of the world’s wonders. Dazzling sea creatures. Lizards that have to run from scary-fast snakes just to go to the beach. But my favorite part is less a visual smorgasbord of natural beauty and animal ingenuity and more a soap opera. It’s trouble in paradise.
It’s the Islands episode of Planet Earth II. We’re on Escudo off the coast of Panama. Everything is beautiful and nothing hurts, except looking at the sky because it’s so dazzlingly blue. Enter the sloth (or “slooth” as David Attenborough intones). We’ll call him Slooth John B.
Our hairy hero…
The camera swoops over the tiny island in all its jewel tones. Sunlight filters through neon-tropical green leaves and shimmers up waterways. David tells us we’ll see “the extreme lengths animals go to survive.” Here we have a variation on that theme: what happens when a man pygmy three-toed sloth loves a woman pygmy three-toed sloth very much? A special sloth hug? Let David tell you.
We first glimpse Slooth John B climbing methodically up some branches, his hair tinged green. He is a slo-mo marvel. David narrates the island as a “microcosm of our living palette,” and it’s too-perfect an analogy for sloths themselves. These slow upside-down jungle puppies are also their own little ecosystems, living peacefully unto themselves.
John climbs on with his little Hamburglar face, stealing my heart instead of Happy Meals. He doesn’t have to contend with predators and eats mangrove leaves to his teensy heart’s content, but there’s something missing in his island life. There aren’t many pgymy sloths left, and John needs to perpetuate the species.
An alarming scream pierces the humid air. What David deems “an enticing call” sounds like when I think I see a bug or I accidentally burn myself. But it’s perfectly pitched slothy music to John, since it means a lady sloth is nearby (we’ll call her Abigail). “Somewhere, out there.” John hops to it. Or rather, he slowly but gracefully swings his way toward that sexy sound.
David, full of jokes as always, says John’s motions towards Abigail are “for a sloth, a quick reaction.” He is booking it, his three long claws grasping branches and his body contorting to get the hell over to Abigail. John at full speed is beautiful, and would be soothing if he weren’t on a mission of love. This is an urgent life-and-death matter. And there’s one other thing – Abigail is across a river. A deep one.
Back at it again is David: “What should any red-blooded sloth do?” Next frame: John’s in the water, his slow panda head bobbing in the waves. At this point, I’m so scared for his life that I forget about his deepest desires. Don’t do it, John! Save yourself! But the arboreal cutie just won’t quit. The camera catches his water ballet in all its glory, and I calm down a little bit. He’s actually a great swimmer – his long limbs slice through the emerald liquid, and he’s making good progress. I want to get him a tutu. It’s seeming a little odd now that sloths live in trees and not the water, but I’ve long since stopped parsing the mysteries of nature and just enjoy the idiosyncrasies.
The sloth ship is steadying on. John and his boop-able nose make it to the other side. He gazes up at the treetops, his longing for love palpable. Abigail, he’s coming! A brown blob appears in the branches – “could this be her?” David won’t cut John any slack – “He does his best to put on a turn of speed.” His slick Romeo bod climbs the last few branches like he’s Tom Cruise in “Top Gun” and this is the highway to the sloth danger zone. Then we see another Hamburglar face turn toward him: it’s Abigail!
Abigail has a secret
This is where my heart falls through the floor. Just as we want to celebrate some sweet sloth love after an arduous journey, David says, “But she’s not the one. She already has a baby.” And another boop-able nose appears next to its mother’s. I am about to explode from the adorableness, along with John’s heartrending loss. Abigail just stares at him, her baby making cute faces.
John is left blinking at this tableau, suspended in the branches. He slumps, devastated. A sloth in love is a powerful force, and he lost everything. “Even life on a paradise island can have its limitations,” says David, really piling it on.
Another sloth cry echoes over the island, and John turns toward the sound. But this is where the tale ends. David only takes about four minutes to break my heart with John’s unsuccessful love story, but maybe he will try again. However, I’ll never know how my sloth friend fared – David turns his attention to Komodo dragons and leaves me hanging. So now I think about John way too much, and his sheer determination. Would I cross a river to get to Abigail? Would I keep trying like John presumably does? Meanwhile, this sloth keeps climbing branches in search of an elusive song.
We were here to learn about islands, those “worlds in miniature,” but we got a mini drama instead. No sloth is an island.
Watch part of John’s saga of thwarted sloth love here.
Didn’t quite reach my quota this month, but did spend some quality time with these pages.
Night School – Lee Child
Let me tell you something about Jack Reacher. I am in deep, unapologetic love with this man. I will follow him wherever he goes, from tiny towns in American nowhere to more far-flung destinations, nod along as he breaks down every move in his fights against bad men. (Hand-to-hand combat comes up a lot.) Jack can devine the motives and next moves of any criminal just by which door he uses to exit the building. Everything is black and white and gray is a color reserved for mood-setting weather. He always eats in diners because of the sturdy coffee mugs and favorable calorie-to-cost ratio, and the fact that he usually uses them to either receive or stage missions, or take out a few criminals.
Jack is a 6’5”, 250-pound itinerant ex-military cop, moving through the world with one spartan outfit, a travel-size toothbrush, and a mean right hook. He’s basically a Viking: “I think ninety-nine of us grow up to love the campfire, and one grows up to hate it. Ninety-nine of us grow up to fear the howling wolf, and one grows up to envy it. And I’m that guy.” Did I mention Jack is the main character in an eponymous series by Lee Child? Well, I’m addicted.
There is so much weirdness I think about all the time, varied and seemingly disparate things running through my mind. (I am large, I contain multitudes.) I’ve always been inclined to dig further into the shiny bits and bobs that catch my eye, but what about when those things are…not too deep to begin with? For example, what stupid phrases could I caption every medieval painting in this gallery with? What happens when a stalagmite would rather be a stalactite? Why does pro tennis player John Isner appear both extremely boring and also evil as he is tall (6’10”)? I don’t shy away from this, as anyone I’ve ever talked to has learned. I’ve embraced the shallows. I’ll forever be drawn to what are perhaps life’s dumber moments, its lower brows, its cruise ship-caliber offerings. And I need an outlet for these preoccupations. To borrow from one of my first obsessions, what follows the first in a series of dispatches from the Mixed-up Files of Ms. Claire G. Brindley.
I can’t learn about history without trying to insert a voice into historical figures’ heads. I can’t go to museums or landmarks without wanting to know what all the people involved were really thinking. Take when my sister and I recently went to Glensheen in Duluth, MN – we lost our minds making up things for the people in the old mansion’s paintings to say. (Try it sometime at a historic estate near you; it’ll really spice things up.) We probably remember so much more about the place’s history than we would have otherwise, albeit through a crazy lens of our own imaginings. This is why George Washington memes are so amusing and absorbing to me.
The internet tells me that these words in Comic Sans imposed on historical renderings of a certain Founding Father are called “Sassy George Washington.” Not what I’d prefer to call them – I like to think that these are the kinds of thoughts that went through the man’s brain as he commanded forces in the Revolutionary War, crossed the Delaware on a fancy barge, and struck epic poses for history. Through it all, he gets annoyed at his coworkers, has mad donut cravings, and he just wants to dance. So more like “George is just like us.”
In this world, Washington is a crabby man-child who would like some animal crackers and some peace. A vaunted figure is brought down a few pegs, but not to any detriment. (You can read more about how many enslaved people lived at Mount Vernon over the years for that.) Far from an idealized figurehead, he’s way more fun in these memes, a flawed human who could use a nap after ushering a new nation into the world. Midwifery is hard work, George would like you to know.
In which I somehow read three memoirs and the last installment of a favorite trilogy.
The Liars’ Club – Mary Karr
Born in East Texas in the mid-1950s, Mary Marlene Karr grew up surrounded by deadly forces and beings – hurricanes, blazing heat, the oil industry, poisonous snakes, spiders, giant rats, alligators, stinging jellyfish, undertow. Her childhood was an extended calamity. But other people were perhaps the most dangerous creatures.
Memories were deadly, too, as they both evaded and invited inspection into past tragedy. Karr wastes no time getting to the butcher knife- and sheriff-rousing-type episodes of her youth, and circles this element of recollection. Some points in her life are almost too painful to be fully known, yet call out for it: “When the truth would be unbearable the mind often just blanks it out. But some ghost of an event may stay in your head, then, like the smudge of a bad word quickly wiped off a school blackboard, this ghost can call undue attention to itself by its very vagueness. You keep studying the dim shape of it, as if the original form will magically emerge. This blank spot in my past, then, spoke most loudly to me by being blank. It was a hole in my life that I both feared and kept coming back to because I couldn’t quite fill it in.” A central weight in Karr’s writing is cultivating fading but extant memories and telling stories about them.
It’s funny which things from the past are embedded there, like moths in amber, visible but immobile, and which things jump out and demand to be known again.
The spirit of this photograph is strong as ever. It is mysterious and commanding, with lightning strikes of memories. It houses an ectoplasm that keeps it moving through realms.
I fully believe this spirit is there. It breathes. When I look at this image, its motion captivates me. My grandpa Earl dashes forward, his arms wide, beguiling a jumping dog. Another dog leaps down from a tree split in half, the trunk bent and the blond wood exposed. It appears lightning-struck, a sudden change in form. The photo’s simple mysteries unfold in a long-forgotten summer day. Handwriting on the back indicates it’s July 1984, and the feeling of wonder from that day is preserved.
The dogs and Earl are in the backyard of my grandparents’ house in Atlantic, Iowa. The scene emanates the ghosts of a heated thunderstorm, the morning after a heavy rain and lightning fest ripped the night open. I’m not sure who took the photo – perhaps my aunt, as those are her dogs frolicking around the frame. The lens captures such a sweet ceremony, a joy that Earl bestowed on the things he loved. That joy streams through the decades, the love sustaining a family.
This image is a window I frequent – its energy is still strong, it depicts a realm I want to embody. The ectoplasm inhabits the photograph, manifesting a spirit I am always trying to conjure. I want to know how the lens came to freeze this particular moment, limbs and paws midair, the tree’s raw insides opened up. The person on the other side of the camera somehow knew.
The spirit dances inside this photo, just as Earl did that day in July. The storm’s energy is still in the air, and the dogs nip it up, reveling in Earl’s presence. Maybe I put as much voodoo in this image as I believe is there, but it still holds power.
She stepped off the curb on Main Street, walking with her friend to the Spot for lunch. He was at a stoplight in his Dodge, his brother riding shotgun. Earl saw Ruth, and knew.
It was summer 1945. Half the world was still at war. Ruth Palmer was a few years out of high school in Atlantic, Iowa, working at the telephone company. She knew how to wear a suit. Earl Brindley was back at home after completing 25 combat missions as a radio operator in a B-17 Flying Fortress. His geography had been madly expanded in his months of training and service, flying over a continent tearing itself apart. Ruth had stayed in the same grid of streets, but held a whole cosmos in her head.
These small-town citizens had gone to the same high school, but their paths didn’t cross until she walked the hypotenuse in Earl’s field of vision that day. She was three months older, with a round face and a ramrod build that radiated confidence. He was a skinny farm boy who looked to the skies. Once they met, their eyes fixed on the same horizon.
Earl saw Ruth through the windshield as she walked across the street and turned into the Spot. Away from him, but still electrifying. A heavy heat gripped the afternoon. Ruth shook a current back into things. Earl had to talk to this woman who could command such attention. After his combat tour in Europe, he was set for another in the Pacific theater, but for the moment, Ruth knocked that uncertain future away. They were barely a year past 20 years old, but several lifetimes in.
Earl was just on leave, and would return to flight training later that summer. His older brother Leo had been a prisoner of war in Germany until mid-May. On different ends of an Allied prisoner airlift rescue mission, the brothers shared airspace that month but did not confirm the other’s continued existence again until home. They drove that Dodge around town, having already seen more of life than they ever thought possible. Nothing could stop them again, until Earl went back into service. These were important days, as they may have come to represent a drawn-out wake for one of the men.
Ruth was no stranger to death, either. Her younger sister Leah Mary had died unexpectedly in infancy. Her older brother John was a Marine, still somewhere in the Pacific, and each day brought the chance of a telegram carrying bleak news. Her father was the town pharmacist, making potions against pain and suffering. But Ruth kept going along her own path. In photos, she finds the lens and defies definition. She is, in whatever moment caught on film, calmly standing in her own time.