The holidays give us so many things to complain about, which is why I cherish the aspects that genuinely bring me joy: some of the music, some of the parties, very little of the gifting or traveling, and all of the end-of-year best of lists, especially the book ones!
Aaah, the nerd pride to see books I’ve already read on the best-of lists, and fizzy excitement to put a library hold on titles I’d never encountered.
These past few weeks I’ve tackled a few of the NYTimes 10 best books. It’s a wonderful way to avoid baking and sending out pretty holiday cards (sorry).
First I read Less by Andrew Sean Greer. This book made multiple lists and each time the reviewer commented on how funny it was. They were right. It’s a delight to read. Named for its main character, Arthur Less, the story is about this middling novelist who books a round-the-world trip to try to outrun his perceived humiliations of turning 50, and to avoid the wedding of his ex. While his circumstances are quite distinct from my own, I absolutely share his existential anxieties about hitting 50. If, unlike me and Mr. Less, you are completely proud and comfortable with where you are in life, a) fuck you; and b) don’t worry, you’ll still like this book. The writing is subtly masterful and fresh, the wit is arch but warm, and the honesty is balanced with romance. It’s like one of those amazing little French petit four cakes you mostly just see in cartoons—whimsical and sweet, but actually incredibly difficult to pull off. (I only know this because Naomi and I now watch The Great British Baking Show together.)
Another in many best of the year lists is The Power, by Naomi Alderman. It’s speculative fiction about what happens when girls and young women discover that they can deliver electrical charges from their hands. I read the whole thing in just a couple days. It’s really, really good; like, put it down and say, “Whoa. Holy shit” good.
Then again, it’s not perfect. It’s not that the writing is so poetically beautiful, or even that its emotional power knocked me over. In fact, it’s a world-building book that makes some pretty major gaffes (more on that later). It's that the concept is #MeToo timely and Alderman is astoundingly good at presenting layers of ideas that will mess with your head in fabulous ways.
This jolt of electricity girls discover within them ranges from a sexy little spark to a lumos-like magic lantern to a high-voltage dick-singeing killer. Well, imagine how the world would change if girls had this power. Alderman plays it out in satisfyingly vindicating ways… and then takes you to some unexpected and uncomfortable places.
Yes, to see the balance of power shift, slowly at first and then rather quickly, is richly satisfying. But Alderman won’t let you linger in the self-righteous vindication. Even the gratifying parts give you much to chew on—you’ll love what happens when a woman candidate exerts a touch of physical power over her male opponent, for instance. Or, then again, maybe you won’t.
She uses a range of characters to take you through all the ways the world changes. Christianity gets a revision—after all, why are we worshipping the son, not the mother who made him? Countries that traffic or oppress women are violently and quickly overthrown. The world’s scumbags create drugs and political strategies, of course, to tweak and exploit the power now coursing through the bodies of all women.
Smashing the patriarchy sounds like a great idea, but what if matriarchy is the same thing with a different first letter? Power corrupts, after all. What if we are thinking about everything the wrong way? We like to joke about it, but maybe women are not inherently superior to men.
Naaah. We are.
As I said, her world-building is flawed. I don’t think she sufficiently addresses why guns couldn’t keep this power in check, but maybe that’s because Alderman is British, where guns are not legal. So I let it go, especially because she was telling such a provocative, page-turning story.
I was happily ready to tuck into a novel-length revenge fantasy. This is much, much more than that. I highly recommend it.
Have you ever noticed how many classic Christmas songs are about missing someone you love? (For any of you who don't get the reference of Another Lonely Christmas, click on the link to hear my favorite Christmas song.)
When my dad died, the holidays changed forever. For years, there was no real pleasure in it for me, just an affected joy and the residual happiness glowing off of my kids. That year, 2007, commenced a terrible spiral of grief for me: I lost my aunt, my mother, close friends, Jeff’s mother, our brother-in-law, and more. A therapist called it grief-related PTSD. Everything sucked, including the holidays.
Slowly, I found my equilibrium. I have my existential issues with turning 50, but in some ways I feel much older than that. My parents created my concept of Christmas and Hanukkah; now all I have are my mom's funny Mexican Christmas ornaments. Now it's all on me and Jeff to whip up the holiday potlatch of joy and junk for my kids. I’m just relieved the darkest days of grief are behind me. For years, all of this was just robotic obligation; I thought I never would genuinely want to even laugh again. I'm so glad I can feel happy again. This year some of my closest friends are struggling in the cold dark of grief. I think about them every day. If nothing else, it makes me stop whining about having to wrap gifts.
The toothbrush is out there
The comedy that arises from incredibly out–of-it people doing stuff is a personal favorite. (See the Instagram account called Drunk People Doing Things if you ever need a laugh).
One night, I was awoken by a vibrating sound, a repeating low buzz/buzz-buzz/buzz. In my sleepy fog I struggled to understand what the sound was—the smoke alarm? My kid’s alarm clock? Am I imagining that sound? Are we in danger?
Ooooh fuck, it’s the sound of an electric toothbrush. Who is brushing their teeth? (Important background: Several weeks ago I had to toss my beloved Sonicare electric toothbrush because the rubberized push-button tore and became inoperable.) Jeff’s toothbrush must be broken too.
I nudged him and through a wooly fug of sleep breath I mumbled “toothbrush.” He staggered back from the bathroom with the offending device and in the dark and half asleep, we fumbled to stop the relentless, alarming buzzing. He was banging it on his nightstand. “A pen! A pen!” I croaked. With my eyes half-closed from the glare of the light I tried to aim the pen right at the metal switch to push it off. Success. I did it. We shut out the light and fell back into stupefied slumber. Then it would start up again. We dumbly grappled with this three times, maybe four—every time the same mix of caveman banging and clumsy squinty poking, our brain-damaged sleepiness gradually replaced by an escalating fury oddly coupled with hysterical laughter (on my part; Jeff not so much). Finally, he opened the window and hurled the toothbrush into the street.
In the morning, it was gone.
I tell you all this for two reasons. First, don’t buy your loved one an electric toothbrush as a holiday gift. For about a week I thought this would be the perfect gift for Jeff, and then came to my senses. Lame.
Secondly, did anyone else see this bizarre UFO footage from the Pentagon?
Maybe those things we were cleaning our teeth with weren’t toothbrushes after all….
Happy Holidays! And, since I did decide to skip the holiday card, here's a few pics of my cuties from the most unforgettable LA Thanksgiving with my brother and sister-in-law.
This is all on fire now.