Reading Roundup: The Rules of Civility, Night Film, Country Girl

You know what’s also wonderful about fall besides apple cider donuts at the orchard, Neil Young’s birthday, riding horses and cozymaking in the kitchen? Reading books. Which I always do, but there’s something about doing it when the air is brisk and you’re curled up with some tea and a blanket that makes it an especially sensuous activity. Just burrow under a cozy throw, light a candle for some company and read away into the night, wind biting at the glass in the windows. Books becomes especially beloved to me when it’s colder, and I relate to them more sharply as companions — friends for the longer, darker nights. These are a few I’ve read in a tear recently — they were all good friends for a weekend, a few evenings or a week, and I greatly enjoyed their company:

The Rules of Civility, Amor Towles

Someone mentioned reading and liking this book here in an earlier post’s comments…or maybe it was also Twitter? Or Facebook? Ach, I can’t keep this electronic output straight. Either way, dear person who mentioned this book, THANK YOU — because of your mention, it caught my eye at the library, so I checked it out and I loved it. The story of a woman who finds herself moving in increasingly elevateed social circles, it evokes Fitzgerald, but with tinges of James Salter and Edith Wharton. That’s a cocktail of influences that would catch my eye anytime, and it makes for a pleasurable, chic, elegantly mournful read. Not a perfect book by any means: the plot kind of gets muddled and stuck at a certain point. Honestly, if you asked me what happened in this book, I would say, “A young woman in Manhattan has a series of love affairs, neither of which come to a satisfying conclusion” — and that would be entirely accurate. Amor Towles can really turn a phrase and conjure an atmosphere, and my memory of this book is like a gorgeous late night out, hazy, strewn with cigarette smoke and the smell of whiskey in the air. If you like melancholic nostalgia of the sophisticated, New York variety, this is lovely.

Night Film, Marisha Pessl

I think I am one of the few people who wasn’t entirely captivated by Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Pessl’s first book. I am not sure why; perhaps I was overly distracted by film school at the time, but I just didn’t feel very attached or intrigued by the characters, and felt I was reading a clever exercise for a creative writing seminar versus a story about flesh-and-blood people. (Perhaps I was just way too deep into my own MFA program at that point, I don’t know.) But I sort of knew that I would love Night Film, even before I read it: it’s about the mysterious suicide of the daughter of a cult horror filmmaker, and early reviews were touting its suspenseful plot and beautiful writing. First: Pessl really is a great storyteller, and the story pulls you along in that “YOU MUST FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT” way. I couldn’t really put it down, and when I had to, I was itching to get back to it again. I loved the imaginative bravura of Night Film, and wow, I have never wanted to see the nonexistent films of a made-up filmmaker so badly before. (Please let this book inspire a bunch of handmade Etsy posters for Cordova movies, yes?) The work and persona of Stanislaus Cordova was so beautifully imagined — and I loved the “clippings” and articles that formed the “evidence” of the story. This was one instance where extratextuality didn’t bother me. I’m sure people will think the whole thing doesn’t quite hang together satisfyingly at the end, and like many tight-plotted books, the third act is like a pell-mell of excitement, drama and pow-pow-pow that sometimes careens and wobbles if you really think it over. I think people will be sad this isn’t more avant-garde or whatever, but if you are a fan of old-fashioned, campfire-type storytelling and the primal pleasures of suspense, horror and mystery, this was a fantastic read. I loved it unabashedly.

Country Girl, Edna O’Brien

Edna O’Brien was once described to me as an “Irish Colette,” and that was enough for me to pick up a book of hers. I loved reading Country Girls ages ago, with its combination of rich natural detail and feminine yet brutal sexuality, but I was not sure what to expect from her memoir Country Girl other than richly beautiful writing. O’Brien’s prose works in a special kind of way: a sentence will hum along, piling beautiful detail upon beautiful detail, and then something will twist or turn enough to really stab something into your heart. It’s gorgeous yet unexpectedly violent sometimes, and it feels very much like how her childhood and coming-of-age sounds. O’Brien’s writing is as powerful and prodigious as ever, and she can conjure startling images and phrasings that take your breath away. Her writing’s most compelling in the parts detailing her early life — her religious upbringing, her family, her early marriage. And then she gets famous, and suddenly we are hearing how she went to spas to break her writer’s block and her one-night stands with some famous men — all told in a very classy, elegant yet frank way.

In a way, when I read memoirs and other first-person “real” narratives, I try to think of myself as a guest in their living room for a night, picturing them on a sofa, talking to me late into the evening. Sometimes it’s a friendly, chatty gossip, sometimes it’s a deep discussion of what their experience means as a philosophical text. I’m on the writer’s side, for the most part, and am willing to play by the rules of their game, but I’d very much like to feel like a friend. In this respect, Country Girl was like being enchanted by a charismatic, world-weary, glamorous doyenne, a woman with a rich voice and even richer memory — a woman who has spent a life enchanting and dazzling, but in the end, when you come home and think over the night, you realize you actually know very little about her. She offers beauty but no real intimacy, glamour but not wisdom, but still good company over some cigarettes and a bottle of wine. Taken on that level, Country Girl is a glamorous read, much like being a courtier of a queen in her own court. But if you’re looking for a kindred spirit to illuminate the strange path of being a woman making incandescent, incendiary art and life in a brutal world, there’s little here to help you map your own terrain.

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