Bear

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Marian Engel’s 1976 novel about a woman (Lou) who is sent to an island to catalog the contents of a house that her Canadian institute received via bequest. It’s actually quite a fantastic story, up until the point when Lou has sex with the bear. I guess we’re supposed to be sympathetic because she’s lonely and the bear has been getting very close to her, nuzzling her by the fireside, swimming with her in the river. Stripping the story of its bestiality, it’s delightful, a tale of late spring, summer and early fall in northern Ontario. She catalogs and leisurely reads the contents of the library, which is where I discovered Trelawny’s remembrances of Shelly and Byron. She’s annoyed when the summer people return to the area, their motorboats buzzing about, because this curtails her swimming sessions with the bear and invades her privacy. She discovers trunks in the basement and enlists Homer’s help in dragging them up, which is when he first hits on her. They eventually have sex, despite Homer’s 24-year marriage. We also learn that Lou has weekly sex with the Director of her institute, a loveless act that she’s a bit ashamed of. When the weather turns cold, someone arrives to take the bear away, and then Lou leaves the island, back to Toronto and to find a new job.

American Philosophy: A Love Story

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I read this to the end (heavy skimming!) solely to write about it here as a warning to keep anyone else’s eyeballs from the terribleness. John Kaag takes the structure of his own life—failing marriage, depression, not crying at his father’s death, divorce, then wooing of married colleague who then divorces and they marry—and fills this with academic bits about a variety of American philosophers like William James, Emerson, Thoreau, Charles Sanders Peirce, William Ernest Hocking (whose library Kaag camps out in for months, finally convincing the heirs that the rare books need to be preserved in a non-rodent-infested environment). On the surface, this seems like a fantastic approach—infuse the scholarship with personal details to make it more lively. In practice, Kaag is a terrible, clunky, maudlin writer whose words lose strength with every progression across the page, energy siphoning itself off to escape his tyrannical hold. Avoid.

My Ántonia

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I’m not sure what took me so long to get around to this classic, but it’s finally done. Beautiful story about growing up in Nebraska, both on a farm and in town. The “introduction” sets the stage, details that the author (Cather) is on a train ride with an old friend when the topic of Antonia comes up, and they challenge each other to write their recollections of her. Jim Burden’s manuscript is delivered to the author’s NYC apartment many months later, which is the story, My Ántonia, that follows.

Jim arrives by train to live with his grandparents, both his parents dead and buried back in Virginia. On the same train, a Bohemian family that includes Ántonia, along with her sad violin-playing grandfather who ends up shooting himself during the first bleak winter that the family is ill-prepared for. The descriptions of the surrounding area are lush, red grasses swaying, huge rattlers lurking, sunsets illuminating a plow left in the field. The story follows the unlikely success of Lena Lingard, whom everyone assumed would get knocked up but who escapes to Lincoln and sets up a very successful dress shop. It’s in Lena’s mouth that Cather puts the best speech against marriage in the book:

“Why I’m not going to marry anybody. Didn’t you know that?… it’s mainly because I don’t want a husband. Men are all right for friends, but as soon as you marry them they turn into cranky old fathers, even the wild ones. They begin to tell you what’s sensible and what’s foolish, and want you to stick at home all the time. I prefer to be foolish when I feel like it, and be accountable to nobody.”

Everyone loves Ántonia, but she shows the worst judgement in men, running off to marry a guy who works for the train company who actually had lost his job, so he took all her money, got her pregnant, didn’t marry her and left. She comes back home to raise her daughter and later marries a fellow Czech and bears zillions of kids to him and helps grow the farm.

Jim goes off to college to study, first at U of Nebraska and then follows his teacher to Harvard, then to law school. He runs into some of the Nebraska farm girls that were successful in San Francisco, and eventually returns to see how time has ravaged Ántonia’s physical appearance but not her spiritual energy.

Diaries of Eva Hesse

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I can’t find the review of this that made me laugh when I read it, so I’ll paraphrase: “This was a waste of time, all she talked about was her husband.” Which, after reading the 890 pages, I can confirm is patently untrue. This book is a transcription of Hesse’s actual diaries, including class notes and to-do lists, and sketches and doodles are marked in the text as [sketches]. No editing, beyond fixing certain spelling errors; capitalization and punctuation remain as Hesse wrote them. Her sister, Helen, donated the journals to Oberlin College in 1977, including sheaves of loose paper that was wedged inside. But first and foremost, these are diaries, very personal recollections that do not strive to do anything other than release the tension she felt and help her grapple with the world. Yes, she mentions relationships throughout the diaries, but our worlds are made up of these threads. Also included are her thoughts on art, problems she was facing with her work, dealing with teaching and having to come up with money, dealing with BB gun fire at her windows and neighboring men who she called the masturbators. She was a reader, and included snippets of works that moved her. As her work matured, she wrote out ideas of things she wanted to try, lists of her work’s titles and exhibitions she was in. From this, I learned that she received $1300 in compensation cash from Germany for her grandparents’ time in concentration camps!

On the drudgery of art school (1955, she’s 19 years old):

My morning class was incredibly dull with nothing accomplished while the instructor nervously jumped around explaining, demonstrating, developing a few crummy pictures. I hadn’t cared about the lone bottles in the window when I snapped the shutter nor when the darn thing was in the developer. Valuable time, which it should be spent over such stupid idiotic fetishes of a neurotic instructor. It is not a course of learning or aesthetics so at least the technical knowledge of it could be put over. His encompassing of every nothing makes it impossible to concentrate so one doesn’t acquire the necessary few isolated facts.

Notes that appear as poetry as she contemplates self (1955):

How do I proceed
publicly
privately

Early wrestling with what it means to be an artist (1957, 21 years old):

The essential forces directing me presently are motivated by the desire of being a painter. The word painter connotes significant meaning, a way of approaching life, living fully not merely existing. A painting must be approached with fully awakened eyes and mind. Conscious action determines the actual surface. This comes about after premeditation of ideas which are brought to the canvas. Once a mark is made the canvas presents itself and the painter must deal with it without preconceived ideas… The degree to which I become a “painter” is synonymous with what I make of myself as a person.

As a 23 year old, asserting her independence, but you also get a hint of the psychological issues she struggles with (1959):

I feel very strongly that I must be on my own; stand up as an individual with the responsibilities of my existence and future on my own shoulders. This is not a momentous decision, I know my reasons… I know at this moment I can and am feeling much better am capable of handling a rich life of study and experiences.

Same year (1959), her motivation to create is getting stronger:

I have so much stored inside me recently, I need to paint… I am overflowing also with an energy of kind needed in investigating ideas, and things I think about. This is a positive creative notion very likely I want also to encourage, develop, bring out search into this thing of maturity—to be a big person—mainly as a person, then as a painter finally as a whole being.

And stronger (1959); this is also where we learn of Germany’s reparation payment:

My job is yet rather meaningless and boring for me and I have held on thus long mainly as a temporary means to an end. I am progressing at a rate I had not anticipated so much may come to a climax rather shortly. I intend to really begin working on my own and hope shortly to attempt at least a few months trial of devoting myself to painting alone. During or at the end of that time I shall approach the galleries———and or the fellowships available for money & time. It is not all as unrealistic as it sounds since I have just received 1300 from Germany, money issued to me as compensation for my grandparents’ stay in concentration camp.

Months later, she looks back and notes her progress (1959). She has become a reader! and a painter:

My own development has progressed rapidly this last yr. I have grown quite independent, psychologically as well, and have settled much of the unnecessary turmoil so persistently afire within. I have come to learn loneliness but also to live with it. I had been alone previously, but sought out others; now I live with it alone.

I have become a painter, working in isolation, constructively even productively! I have become a reader. The thing I’ve always wanted most, but was in too great a conflict with myself to do. I could not turn out of myself—of my conflicts to concentrate on the outside world with any real attention.

Skipping ahead many years, she’s been married to that loser, Tom, for 2 years but this is just before they leave for their productive year abroad in Germany. Entry from May 1964 wherein she compares writing and art:

May 7.
Waiting for a train, deserted platform, bowery station, just odors.
evening.
Now I want to write, this media of expression always thrilled me. Because I think if you write you must be intelligent! However there must be bad writers. Then I though, one must know oneself to write—and that always intrigued me most of all. The idea of honesty is so challenging, much more so in words than pictures. It can be understood more clearly, be defined and comprehended.

Now in Kettwig, Germany, she’s reading Simone De Beauvoir’s Second Sex:

Simone D.B. writes—woman is object—has been made to feel this from first experiences of awareness. She has always been made for this role. It must be a conscious determined act to change this. Mine is not as much the acceptance of object role as it was insecurities from a broken, sick, unsupportive home. I survived, not happily but with determination, goals, and an idea of a better way. Now cope with it, no longer hide from the consequences but face them. To face them, give more in all aspects of living + working.

Risk nothing <–> nothing gained.

She gains more confidence even as she suffers depression and inability to work. She realizes she likes to be alone. “I am mostly disappointed in the company of others.” Later in this Nov 22, 1964 entry, she quotes a few passages from Second Sex:

* (p. 391 Second Sex)
“In boldly setting out towards ends, one risks disappointments; but one also obtains unhoped-for results; caution condemns to mediocrity.”

* (392 S.S.)

What woman essentially lacks today for doing great things is forgetfulness of herself; but to forget oneself it is first of all necessary to be firmly assured that now and for the future one has found oneself.

I love this woman! She’s also reading Zelda’s Save Me the Waltz, which she quotes:

“At night she sat in the window too tired to move, consumed by a longing to succeed as a dancer. It seemed that reaching her goal, she would drive the devils that had driven her—that, in proving herself, she would achieve that peace which she imagined went only in surety of one’s self———that she would be able, through the medium of dance, to command her emotions, to summon love, or pity or happiness at will…”

Just substitute painting———
that is all.

Not surprisingly, her marriage with Tom breaks apart. When they’re back in NYC, he abandons her for another woman whom Sol LeWitt (Eva’s bestie) calls “Total Zero.” Eva names one of her pieces after this girlfriend “in homage to her blankness.” In a 1965 entry, Eva notes that Sol says Eva’s too much competition for Tom. “Too much of a person”

She struggles with the death of this marriage along with the death of her father. Tom snubs her by not ever calling or writing a letter of condolence about this very important loss, despite having a studio directly across the street from her. She struggles with the loss of Tom for way too long, but we’ve all been there. In a 1966 entry, “The conflict now of woman + artist does exist. ———why—because I feel I must try harder because of failure in marriage.”

In another 1966 entry, a rough idea for a piece that works as poetry for me.

drawings

lines, dots

rigid
loose

dashes,
washes.
light to dark
gradations

cross hatch

Spoiler alert, she eventually purges Tom from her system and gets some major recognition in the art world. But also dies, way too young, from a brain tumor.

The Girl on the Train

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Paula Hawkins book has gotten the film treatment and after reading it, I wonder if the story was written with that in mind. In the intro chapter, she even notes that viewing the scene from the train is like a tracking shot. Plus it’s got gorgeous blondes, drunken ex-wives, and lots of gory bloody violence. Rachel is the drunk who continues to ride to London on the morning train, pretending to go to work so her roommate doesn’t suspect that she’s lost her job. The train always stops at a crossing near her old house, the one where her ex-husband and new wife and child now live, and Rachel daydreams about a blonde couple she spots a few doors down, making up stories about their life as she chugs her gin & tonics on the train.

Then, a blackout drunk evening where she’s attempting to confront Tom, her ex, and the neighbor blonde goes missing while Rachel wakes up with a nasty gash on her hand, covered in blood. She goes to the police to tell them that she saw the neighbor (Megan) snuggling up to a man not her husband the Friday prior to her disappearance, which leads them on a chase to investigate her therapist, who’s later cleared. Then the police spotlight is on the husband, who while violent, isn’t the one who did it. Finally Rachel remembers enough from her blackout to implicate Tom, confronts his wife about it (who has discovered the dead girl’s phone in Tom’s gym bag), and the two of them are held hostage by Tom while Rachel is beaten. She eventually thrusts a wine opener into his neck (too preciously perfect a detail, n’cest pas?) and kills him.

Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears

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Pema Chödrön has been saving my life since I listened to This Moment is the Perfect Teacher. I was in a tizzy recently and stopped by the library on my way somewhere else to pour some Pema over my raging brain and calm it, plucked this book off the shelf. One of my issues is the anger from going into a rage at cars that nearly hit me, or getting apoplectic at the smug entitled male gaze. I need a way to navigate the city without being at war. Pema’s got the trick, too glibly summarized as:

  1. Stop, realize you’re being hooked into a situation, acknowledge this.
  2. Pause. Take three conscious breaths and lean into the energy, explore it, get curious about this weird feeling that is so strong that was about to overpower you.
  3. Relax and move on.

This will stop the ever-escalating pattern of vengeance and aggression that I shamefully practice. The ingrained habit is to be hurt and lash out, but by pausing, you can check that, make it a moment that you learn something, choose to break the cycle of rage. “Being open and receptive to whatever is happening is always more important than getting worked up and adding further aggression to the planet, adding further pollution to the atmosphere.”

Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table

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Terrific memoir from food writer Ruth Reichl that details her growing up in Greenwich Village, then being shipped off to Montreal for middle school to learn French, back to Connecticut for high school with a fast crowd, then off to U of Michigan for college and grad school. Throughout, Ruth shows the deepening of her love of food and sprinkles in recipes and mouth-watering descriptions of meals. She has hilarious descriptions of the horrors of her mother’s cooking, like the time she poisoned her son’s entire in-law family at the engagement party by serving up scraps she’d gathered throughout the week and scraped mold off.

Women on the Breadlines

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A collection of short essays by Meridel Le Sueur representing the stories of women she met during the Depression. I caught wind of this work via A Square Meal: Culinary History of the Depression and wanted to know more about the nearly invisible presence of women in breadlines and other public assistance facilities. “A woman will shut herself up in room until it is taken away form her, and eat a cracker a day and be as quiet as a mouse so there are no social statistics concerning her.”

It’s one of the great mysteries of the city where women go when they are out of work and hungry. There are not many women in the bread line. There are no flop houses for women as there are for men, where a bed can be had for a quarter or less. You don’t see women lying on the floor at the mission in the free flops. They obviously don’t sleep in the jungle or under newspapers in the park. There is no law I suppose against their being in those places but the fact is they rarely are. Yet there must be as many women out of jobs in cities and suffering extreme poverty as there are men. What happens to them? Where do they go? Try to get into the Y.W. without any money or looking down at heel. Charities take care of very few and only those that are called “deserving.” The lone girl is under suspicion by the virgin women who dispense charity.

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China

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I finally got around to reading this book that I rescued off the street from someone’s discard pile last year, as I prepared to make my own discard pile. It’s a great look at the lives of girls/women who migrate from village to the city of Dongguan to live in dorms and do assembly line work in factories for eleven hours a day. The best parts were the deep exploration of the stories of certain girls she befriended, Chunming and Min most of all, but also side tangents with the woman who learns English like a machine, or women who disappear quickly without further followups. The blasé attitude about corruption and kickbacks, the topsy-turviness of the young bringing envelopes of cash back to their elders in villages, the cut-throat attitude and knowledge that your friends today could be completely lost to you tomorrow. A typical observation in the fact that Chunming’s boss cut her commission so she basically quit working for him except kept drawing a paycheck. “It was classic Chinese behavior on all sides: He didn’t tell her why he cut her commissions. She didn’t tell him that she had quit his company.”

Less interesting were the interludes where the author tracks down her own Chinese heritage.

Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield

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Always a fan of Mansfield’s short stories, I plucked this book from the shelves without glancing inside. I would later find myself reading a Franken-book produced by a company called “Digireads.com” (check out their website… no really! It’s pre-web).

It makes you appreciate the actual craft of book design once your eyes are scarred by being force-fed story atop story. Clearly this book has been printed from some enormous text file, no one caring for the white space necessary to demarc the end of one story and beginning of another.

This company chose 35 of Mansfield stories, with little rhyme or reason, and stuffed them tip to toe into this volume. Some I’d already read in the 13 stories about a German pension. Some were cribbed from the awesome Garden Party and other stories. And a handful were new to me, which I suffered through the poorly-designed text to savor her words. Design matters, Digireads.

After The Circus

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I’m continuing with my IV drip of Modiano, translated by Mark Polizzotti. It’s fascinating to see the overlap of his work by doing a heads down focus on him today. For example, Montherlant’s The Girls is a book that he notes his mother recommending to him in Pedigree, oddly, because she’d clearly never read a word of Montherlant in her life (the suggestion came from her journalist friend). In After The Circus, the book comes up again, recommended by a man who struck up a conversation with the narrator in a cafe (who was a journalist). I was about to add it to the list but a reviewer on Amazon warns that “it’s an epic of misogyny by a very gifted writer.” Pass.

This was a quick tale of a teenage boy abandoned by his parents and selling books to make ends meet (a detail shared with the character in Afterimage), ostensibly headed to Rome to work for a bookseller in a few months. He’s picked up by police, questioned, and then sees a woman waiting to be questioned right after him. He goes to a cafe and waits for her, then taps the glass when she walks by. He offers her a place to stay and she stashes her suitcase with him in his father’s old office (his father has fled to Switzerland, much like real life Modiano’s father). She passes him off as her brother to a group of people they meet up with later, and the two get pressed into doing a favor for the leader of the group which is a bit shady. The narrator is given 2,000 francs to walk up to a man at a bar and tell him that the other man is waiting for him in a car. This done, the car speeds away, and the narrator is sure the man will come to some harm. The woman and he plot to leave, but are detained by the job not being ready in Rome. The woman drives off to gather some of her remaining items and is killed in an accident that seems not to be so accidental.

Pedigree: A Memoir

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I’m prepared to overdose on Modiano after loving the quiet stillness of Suspended Sentences. So I marched down to the library and picked up his autobiography (this) along with a handful of other titles to be consumed in one gulp. If we take him at his word, the life he depicts in this autobiography has a complete resemblance to the world depicted in the novellas I just finished reading. Born to parents who met in Occupied France, his father a Jew deeply involved in the black market, his mother a self-absorbed theater actress who dumps her son wherever she can. Modiano is in boarding school from age eleven onward, escaping in various stretches due to being starved to death, trying to get his parents to let him remain in Paris where they live, one atop the other, his father with new girlfriend and mother with various roommates. He steals and pawns things until he writes his first book and then makes a living through writing.

Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas

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Beautifully translated from Modiano’s French by Mark Polizzotti. I was absolutely crushed by the first novella, Afterimage (original: Chien de printemps) and read it again as soon as I’d finished it. It’s the story of a Parisian teenager who meets a fictional photographer (Francis Jansen) in the spring of 1964 and volunteers to catalog his photos for him.

“On the morning we met, I remember asking him, out of politeness, what he considered the best kind of camera. He shrugged his shoulders and admitted that, all things considered, he preferred those small black plastic cameras you can buy in toy stores, the kind that squirt water when you press the trigger.”

This fictional photographer is grounded in reality by allusions to friends that did exist, Robert Capa (Spanish Civil War photographer & founder of Magnun), Colette Laurent (model and actress photographed by Capa, who notes about her that “Colette Laurent is desperately unhappy. Her life is superficial, artificial on the surface and holds none of the good things except the material ones.”)

Nearly 30 years later, the narrator (the teenage archivist all grown up and become an author) runs across photos from that spring, decides to write a book about Jansen. 15 years prior, he had made the first attempt at research, unearthing a calling card he got from one of Jansen’s friends at his farewell party. He decides to travel to the village where the friend’s house was to inquire further, “giddy at the thought of having found a purpose” to his day.

Much of the material comes from his own “memory”… the last day Jansen takes him to lunch and points out several of his historical markers around Paris (first house he stayed in, the Magnum office, etc.). He explains his shooting process that you must “approach things gently and quietly or they pull away.”

The quality Jansen possessed in his art and in his life, “so precious but so hard to acquire: keeping silent.” In the penultimate section, the narrator sits on a bench in a the gardens, overcome by drowsiness, hearing Jansen’s warning about falling into black holes.

“I was going to disappear in this garden, amid the Easter Monday crowds. I was losing my memory and couldn’t understand French anymore, as the words of the women next to me had now become no more than onomatopoeias in my ear. The efforts I’d made for thirty years to have a trade, give my life some coherence, try to speak and write a language as best I could so as to be certain of my nationality–all that tension suddenly released. It was over. I was nothing now. Soon I would sleep out of this park toward a metro stop, then a train station and a port. When the gates closed, all that would remain of me would be the raincoat I’d been wearing, rolled into a ball on a bench.”

The other two novellas, Suspended Sentences and Flowers of Ruin are supposedly more autobiographical as Modiano puts his ten year old self, Patoche, as the main character of Suspended, detailing his upbringing by friends of his mother as she traveled North Africa with the theater. There are allusions to his father’s imprisonment, and involvement with the Rue Lauriston gang (known as the Carlingue in real life). Flowers tracks Patrick as a college student trying to further unravel the mystery of his past, Pachecho the older man who isn’t who he says he is, and potential involvement in the double suicides of a young married couple in 1933.

***

Finally, a recommendation from Patti Smith that I really enjoyed.

In a German Pension: Thirteen Stories

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I went to the library with a list of titles I thought might be worth reading and none of them passed muster. Exasperated, I looked up on a shelf near me and spotted this slim volume of Katherine Mansfield’s stories, her first published collection, which contains the supposed Chekhov plagiarism in The-Child-Who-Was-Tired story. For this reason, Mansfield was supposedly keen to see this collection sink into obscurity, hoping that no one would discover the copying. I for one disagree in this theory, having just read a translated version of Sleepy (by Chekhov). The only similarities are that the main character is a young servant girl who is worked hard and who is desperately tired, who then realizes that her salvation is in smothering/strangling the baby who intrudes on her sleep. For anyone who attempts to write, you see the words formed by Mansfield and have an appreciation for them on their own. So the contours of the plot are the same, so what? It’s not like we don’t repeat the same boy-meets-girl story over and over.

The rest of the stories are without controversy and delightful, Mansfield working her magic to make you laugh unexpectedly, wryly smile. The narrator in the story, the “I” is a woman taking the cure in Germany from England, but neither English nor American (Mansfield was Australian). In one of the stories, a group from the hotel goes on an 8 kilometer excursion and she hears the lady novelist pontificating about beauty and how women must give themselves as gifts to men. KM echoes a line she earlier gave to the man insisting that the hike was 7.5 kilometers, who argues back and forth with an old man on the road: “Ignorance must not go contradicted!” This last utterance to cap off her retort to the novelist that her theory about women and love was way out of date.

Eligible: A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice

Curtis Sittenfeld writes a delightful reworking of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, so much more enjoyable than I assume those zombie mashup books are (I refuse to touch them so can’t even glimpse inside to confirm the first sentence). I hate the cover, with its chick-lit diamond ring glowing like a beacon, but once you open it, you’re swept up in the present day life of Liz Bennet, 38-year-old writer in NYC, along with sister Jane who’s pushing 40, also in NYC and getting artificially inseminated so she can have kids before it’s too late. They’re back in Cincinnati taking care of a post-heart attack dad whose medical bills are astronomical without health insurance and who has the family mired in debt after spending through his inheritance. Mrs. Bennet refuses to pull her head out of the sand, cultivating an online shopping addiction. The family home is infested with spiders and falling apart. Three younger sisters live at home: Lydia, the youngest, who elopes with transgender Crossfit gym-owner Ham; Kitty, who paints her nails all day and whom Liz convinces to get a job in cosmetology once the family finances become known; Mary, the plain one who perpetually takes online classes towards various advanced degrees and who sneaks out every Tuesday night to some unknown destination (spoiler: she goes bowling).

Swirling around all this is the arrival into Cincinnati of the eligible bachelor doctor, Chip, who was recently on a reality TV show. Jane & Chip hit it off, Liz is repelled by Chip’s pal Darcy after overhearing some remarks he makes about the women he’s being set up with. Of course Liz & Darcy end up together, but it’s a 500 page tale of twists and turns to get there. Highly entertaining, gulped down in a few hours of decadent glee.

***

Discovered by way of her New Yorker article about a friend dying of cance.r