Book review: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Many people had mentioned Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to me before I read it. I had planning on reading it for what felt like a long time. And when I finally did get around to it, I wondered what had taken me so long to start. Once I picked up Americanah, I found that I could not put it down. It offered that rare combination of excellent writing, absorbing storytelling, and challenging content. Now, normally, I don’t read novels to be challenged, necessarily. I don’t go to any trouble to seek out books — particularly novels — that I think will make me feel uncomfortable. But Americanah often did make me feel uncomfortable, and it did challenge me. And I loved it.

americanah

The novel follows its protagonist, smart and pretty Ifemelu, from Lagos to the East Coast of the United States and then back again, tracing her struggles and triumphs as she adjusts first to life in the United States and then to life in a changed Nigeria. Americanah (the title is taken from a Nigerian slang term for a Nigerian who has gone abroad and become Americanized) is about love, race, culture shock, aspiration, and nostalgia. The love story happens between Ifem and her high school and early university boyfriend, contemplative, handsome Obinze. Ifem and Obinze’s stories intersect, separate, and then intersect again, across decades and continents, until Ifem makes the fateful decision to leave her comfortable American life (and black American boyfriend) and return to Nigeria.

The race, culture shock, aspiration, and nostalgia aspects of the story are drawn in vivid detail as Ifem negotiates her life in the United States, first as a struggling international undergraduate student at a Philadelphia college, later as a successful race blogger, and finally as a disaffected fellow at Princeton. As Ifemelu is beginning to navigate her radically different life in the U.S., Obinze also departs Nigeria for the UK, where he works illegally and tries to land a green card marriage with an EU citizen before being deported. He then builds a highly successful life for himself back in Lagos, including marriage and a child.

Ifem and Obinze’s experiences abroad and back home, and the challenges they encounter as Nigerians in America and the UK, are parallel stories of people grappling with identity — racial, national, and individual — while seeking fulfillment and connections with people who don’t necessarily understand or empathize with those challenges. For Ifem, these struggles play out as she enters into relationships with Americans — both black and non-black — and tries to reconcile her identity as a Nigerian with her new identity as a black person in America. Some of the book’s most trenchant observations — and it is packed full of them — come as Ifemelu, a person who never considered herself black before leaving Nigeria, encounters America’s specific, prickly brand of racial politics. One of my favorite little scenes is when Ifemelu first arrives in Philadelphia and goes shopping with her high school friend Ginika, who has lived in the US much longer than she has. Two girls are working in the store: one black, and one white. The white girl helps Ginika.

At the checkout, the blond cashier asked, ‘Did anybody help you?’

‘Yes,’ Ginika said.

‘Chelcy or Jennifer?’

‘I’m sorry, I don’t remember her name.’ Ginika looked around, to point at her helper, but both young woman had disappeared into the fitting rooms at the back.

‘Was it the one with the long hair?’ the cashier asked.

‘Well, both of them had long hair.’

‘The one with dark hair?’

Both of them had dark hair.

Ginika smiled and looked at the cashier and the cashier smiled and looked at her computer screen, and two damp seconds crawled past before she cheerfully said, ‘It’s okay, I’ll figure it out later and make sure she gets her commission.’

As they walked out of the store, Ifemelu said, ‘I was waiting for her to ask, “Was it the one with two eyes or the one with two legs?” Why didn’t she just ask “Was it the black girl or the white girl?”‘

Ginika laughed. ‘Because this is America. You’re supposed to pretend that you don’t notice certain things.’

There are also plenty of sharp observations about the lives of Nigerians abroad, and the way they interact with each other. At one point, Ifemelu, by now a fellow at Princeton, is waiting in line for a taxi and anticipates the driver’s nationality with some trepidation.

Ifemelu joined the taxi line outside the station. She hoped her driver would not be a Nigerian, because he, once he heard her accent, would either be aggressively eager to tell her that he had a master’s degree, the taxi was a second job, and his daughter was on the dean’s list at Rutgers; or he would drive in sullen silence, giving her change and ignoring her ‘thank you,’ all the time nursing humiliation, that this fellow Nigerian, a small girl at that, who perhaps was a nurse of an accountant or even a doctor, was looking down on him. Nigerian taxi drivers in America were all convinced that they really were not taxi drivers. 

As Ifemelu becomes more familiar with the concept of race in America, she starts a blog in which she anonymously doles out observations from the perspective of a non-American black. One of those posts is titled ‘Friendly Tips for the American Non-Black: How to React to an American Black Talking About Blackness.’ As an American non-black myself, I found this post fascinating and challenging. For example, in the post, Ifemelu counsels the American non-black reader thusly:

Don’t bring up your Irish great-grandparents’ suffering. Of course they got a lot of shit from established America. So did the Italians. So did the Eastern Europeans. But there was a hierarchy. A hundred years ago, the white ethnics hated being hated, but it was sort of tolerable because at least black people were below them on the ladder. Don’t say your grandfather was a serf in Russia when slavery happened because what matters is you are American now and being American means you take the whole shebang, America’s assets and America’s debts, and Jim Crow is a big-ass debt. Don’t say it’s just like antisemitism. It’s not. In the hatred of Jews there is also the possibility of envy — they are so clever, these Jews, they control everything, these Jews — and one must concede that a certain respect, however grudging, accompanies envy. In the hatred of American Blacks, there is no possibility of envy — they are so lazy, these blacks, they are so unintelligent, these blacks.

When Ifemelu heads back to Lagos, however, she shudders her race blog and instead begins to blog about social issues in Nigeria. As she carves out a life for herself in a city that she once understood well, but in which she now feels a bit alien, she reconnects with Obinze, and their love story — complicated and fractured as it is — resumes. The resumption of their story feels both satisfying and frustrating, and the resolution (no spoilers!) is both satisfying and unsatisfying. Just like life.

I really loved this book. I want to read more of Adichie’s writing right away, and I highly recommend you do the same. In case you’re interested, here is an interview with Adichie on NPR.

My podcasting debut

As many of you know, I’m a contributor to the fantastic TV humor and criticism website, Previously.TV, which is home to the Extra Hot Great podcast. I was honored to be this week’s guest on the podcast, in which we discussed important topics such as The Bachelorette finale, the nineties-ness of Felicity, Season 1, what’s good on TV right now (my pick was PBS’s gross and fascinating Sex in the Wild), and much more!

It was so fun being on the podcast, and once I got over the revulsion of listening to the sound of my own voice, I was even able to listen to it and enjoy it!

If you’d like to check it out, it’s available for streaming and/or download here.

(Crafting) Book Review: Petit Collage, by Lorena Siminovich

As a lady in her early thirties, I know a lot of people with babies or who are expecting babies, and it’s always nice to be able to present someone with a hand-made gift instead of something store-bought. As a knitter, I’ve made my share of baby hats and blankets, but I’d like to switch up my baby gift repertoire a little. One can only knit so many baby blankets before one is driven to distraction. Thus, I was so excited to get my hands on Lorena Siminovich’s Petit Collage, which promises “25 easy craft and decor projects” for homes with children and babies — and it did not disappoint! 

petit collage
Petit Collage is a design brand for nurseries and playrooms. I wasn’t familiar with it before I received this book, but their website is pretty charming. The book follows the same aesthetic of the website. Everything is, in a word, adorable. On top of that, as promised, the crafts included in the book seem doable. The author has designated three levels for the projects: easy, intermediate, and advanced, but even the advanced projects don’t require special skills. The “advanced” designation refers more to the time commitment involved in making the object.

Flipping through the book, I saw several projects that I could make for the (current and future) babies in my life: the paper mobile, the personalized baby plaque (made with templates included at the back of the book), the baby door tag, and the patterned letters, to name a few. The templates in the back of the book are handy and practical: they can be photocopied to desired size, cut out, and used immediately.

I also love the book’s emphasis on “reusing, repurposing, and recycling materials,” since, as an inveterate crafter, I have a million scraps of things lying around and I’m forever looking for opportunities to use them in new projects. I also liked that the book suggests non-crafting materials you can use for crafting, such as envelopes, notebook paper, and scrap paper. I have all of these things in my house and would love to be able to use them in creative ways.

Overall, I can’t wait to make some of the projects from Petit Collage. These crafts have the benefit of being both adorable and accessible. Highly recommended for crafty parents or crafty friends/family of parents looking to create unique, homemade gifts.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Recent DC visitors

Al and I have been lucky this summer to have lots of loved ones visit us here in DC. As a result, I’ve gotten REALLY good at giving tours of the National Mall, even if I don’t know the history of any of the monuments, buildings, or memorials and am completely ignorant about most important things about this city, other than where you can get good fro-yo. Hey, historical details are what iPhones are for.

First, my mom visited for one night at the end of May and we got some good museum visiting and pool lounging in! We made sure to hit the National Gallery and checked out the Andrew Wyeth windows exhibition, as well as the Cassatt/Degas exhibition. Very cool.

National Gallery tunnel

National Gallery tunnel

Me and my mom

Me and my mom

Then, for Fourth of July weekend, my cousin-friend Catie visited. It was her first trip to DC, so I felt it necessary to pull out all the ‘Murrica stops. First, we went to the National Mall and gazed at the monuments (at least, the ones that weren’t closed in advance of the fireworks) and watched various military service-members in their dress uniforms doing drills.

Catie and me at the Washington Monument

Catie and me at the Washington Monument

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Next, we checked out Georgetown and stuffed our faces at the excellent Good Stuff Eatery. I highly recommend the turkey burger and onion petals (drool). Catie and I decided that we are definitely going to buy a house in Georgetown, just as soon as we become multi-millionaires (any day now).

Cute houses in Georgetown

Cute houses in Georgetown

Patriotism, Georgetown

Patriotism, Georgetown (this guy was blasting Whitney Houston’s version of ‘America the Beautiful’)

That night, we went to the roof of our building and watched the fireworks over the Mall.

Fireworks

Fireworks

The next night, we went to see Counting Crows (a long-time Steph-Catie favorite band) at Wolf Trap, an amazing outdoor concert venue (and national park!) in Virginia where you’re allowed to bring in your own food and drink, including booze. We brought a picnic, sat on the grass, and aurally revisited the mid-1990s as we listened to Toad the Wet Sprocket warm up the crowd. Counting Crows, by the way, were awesome. This is the second time I’ve seen them this summer (I’m a super-fan) and they never fail to disappoint. Catie and I sang along to every single song (except for the stuff off their new album) and even Al got into it. SO FUN.

Picnicking at Wolf Trap

Picnicking at Wolf Trap

Counting Crows!

Counting Crows!

Adam Duritz!

Adam Duritz!

Mid-concert

Mid-concert

Overall, it was a fantastic weekend and I’m glad Catie finally got to see DC.

The next weekend, Al’s mom and step-dad, Carol and Gerald, visited. Neither of them had spent much time in DC, so we took them to the Mall and did a long walking tour of many of the monuments. It was approximately one billion degrees outside (Celcius) but we persevered and saw a lot of stuff, including the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, reflecting pool, World War II Memorial, a bit of the National Gallery, and the Natural History Museum. We ate lunch at the cafe within the National Gallery sculpture garden and admired the outdoor art.

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

WWII Memorial

WWII Memorial

Sculpture garden

National Gallery sculpture garden

Gem display at the Natural History Museum

Gem display at the Natural History Museum

Carol, Al, and me at the Natural History Museum

Carol, Al, and me at the Natural History Museum

We also did some wine-tasting in Virginia (Loudoun County), which is always lovely. It’s so peaceful and beautiful there.

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All in all, it was another great DC visit with family.

THEN, the following week, my parents came back into town to look at houses in Virginia, since they’re moving back East next year. We checked out Winchester (which was just okay) and then made our way up to Leesburg (which was charming and adorable). We had a nice time walking around the historic district of Leesburg and eating lunch at the Wine Kitchen. The weather was hot but beautiful.

Leesburg

Leesburg

Parents in Leesburg

Parents in Leesburg

So, the last month has been a whirlwind of visitors, and it’s been great. But for the rest of the summer, we aren’t expecting any more guests. Therefore, I feel confident saying that Al and I won’t be stepping foot in a museum until the next round of visitors shows up, whenever that may be. Hey, we never claimed to be cultured.

 

 

(Art) Book Review: The New Colored Pencil, by Kristy Ann Kutch

The New Colored Pencil is a beautiful looking book covering “the latest developments in color drawing media.” I’ve had it for a few weeks and was a bit intimidated to crack it since the drawings featured in its pages were so beautiful and appeared so advanced. But, since I have the kind of life in which I can take an hour or so out of my day to try out a new hobby, I decided today to open the book and test it out.The results were, um, mixed.

colored pencil

This book markets itself as a guide to drawing with colored pencils, but it’s less of a step-by-step guide and more of a review of the latest materials, technologies, and techniques available. It runs through individual techniques such as sgraffito, burnishing, and line drawings, explaining in text how to achieve each effect and often showing an example of a completed drawing using the technique. However, the book does not demonstrate, step-by-step, how to do the techniques. For a colored pencil beginner like me, this lack of step-by-step instruction was a problem.

Nonetheless, I decided to read through the book and then attempt a drawing based on what I had read. I read “Part One: Wax-Based Traditional Colored Pencils” and understood everything I read theoretically, but when it came time to apply the techniques in practice, I found myself running into difficulties.

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First, I dutifully chose an object to draw (a red ceramic chicken I got in Lisbon), did a line drawing, and then began to fill in my drawing with color.

My line drawing

My line drawing

The end

The end

Turns out, this whole coloring-in bit is easier said than done, and I didn’t find the book’s guidance particularly enlightening. How, for example, was I to capture the light shining off of the chicken’s beak? I tried to color it in with white pencil but that looked weird. I tried to leave white space but that also looked weird. Clearly, I was doing something wrong, but the book offered no help. I had other questions, too: for example, was I supposed to erase the lines of my line drawing as I added color, or just color over the lines? Did I make my line drawing too dark? I had a lot of unanswered questions and my completed drawing looked kind of sad.

The problem for me was not the drawing: I’ve got that down. The problem was how to work with the pencils, which, as I understand it, is the entire point of the book. Perhaps the disconnect here is that this book is meant to be used by a much more experienced artist than I, someone who is already familiar with the techniques discussed and/or someone who could intuitively imagine them without instructional pictures. But if so, the book should probably make that clear (for example, a sub-heading stating that it’s a guide for the “experienced artist,” or something to that effect). There were a few step-by-step examples sprinkled throughout the book; for example, a two-page spread on how to do a line drawing based on a photo by using the “grid method” was helpful. I wish more of the book had been similarly instructional.

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On the positive side, the book is beautiful to look at and the descriptions are clear and well-written. It contains a lot of information about different supplies and options in the colored pencil world. It just wasn’t the book I wanted it to be.

I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review!

 

What I’ve been working on

It’s about time for a little update/mea culpa about why I haven’t been blogging much lately. It’s because I’ve been revising a manuscript and I JUST finished! Hooray! I’ve been working on this thing since November, which feels like an incredibly long time, since I can usually bust out a complete and revised manuscript in a couple of months. This time was different, because I wrote a MYSTERY NOVEL.

Turns out, I’ve learned over the past eight months, mystery novels are tough to write. You have to think about things like clues, and foreshadowing, and fairness to the reader, plus all the things you normally have to think about, like pacing, and structure, and character development. To prepare, I read quite a few mystery novels, including Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder and Murder on the Orient Express. (That woman was a genius; if I can craft a mystery half as well structured as one of hers, I’ll consider myself an unqualified success). Anyway, now I have a manuscript, ready to be perused by my beta readers (namely, my husband and a friend who gives great editing feedback).

Other than that, I’ve been working on the usual stuff: freelancing (for Previously.TV and TimeOut) and some short fiction. But mostly, it’s been the manuscript. Now that I have more free time, maybe I’ll blog more — but no promises.

Happy July!

(Crafting) Book Review: Super Stitches Sewing, by Nicole Vasbinder

Normally I do book reviews on Tuesdays. But you know what? I’m breaking the mold this week (and might continue to break it in a streak of rebelliousness against my own rules). Enjoy this midweek book review!

I am a glutton for crafting books. When Al and I were living in London and moving from corporate apartment to hotel to corporate apartment every few weeks, my loads of books came to be such a burden that we had to rent a storage space in the city so we wouldn’t have to keep lugging them around. And I felt lost without my knitting and sewing books. There’s something nice about having a reference library full of resources for those times when you get stuck on something, need inspiration, or just want to indulge in some wishful thinking. Some of the crafting books in my library fall more on the inspirational side of the spectrum (for example, Best in Show: 25 More Dogs to Knit, by Sally Muir and Joanna Osborne, is pure knitting eye candy), but when I was first (re)teaching myself to knit last year, I tore through Jennifer E. Seiffert’s Fearless Knitting Workbook, and when I got into sewing, Diana Rupp’s Sew Everything Workshop was similarly helpful. Having practical, easy-to-follow guides on hand, especially when one is still learning a craft, is essential.

Some of my crafting books

Some of my crafting books

I was happy to discover that Nicole Vasbinder’s Super Stitches Sewing is both practical and easy-to-use. Its premise is very straightforward: it demonstrates, in clear drawings and simple text, 50 common machine stitches and 18 hand stitches. The book is meant to be used as a reference guide: if you come across a stitch on your sewing machine that you want to know how to use, pop open the book and look it up. Or, if you’ve always wondered how to do a darning stitch, for example, but aren’t sure what it entails, you can look that up, too.

super stitches

Hand stitching still scares me and I avoid it at all costs, so I decided to face my fears and test out a few of the hand stitches in the book. I sat down with a piece of scrap fabric and some thread and attempted one of my old nemeses: the backstitch. And — I think I get the backstitch now! For those of you who sew, you may be thinking, “What kind of idiot doesn’t ‘get’ the backstitch?” Um, this kind of idiot. Something about it always confounded me, but the diagram and instructions in the book helped me to see that it’s actually really easy. Oh. So, guess I can backstitch now.

Look, Ma, I can backstitch!

Look, Ma, I can backstitch!

I’m glad to have this book to my shelf because I think it’ll come in handy as I attempt more sewing projects over the coming months. I bought an adorable stuffed animal kit online and have been putting it off because it involves so much hand-stitching, but I think I might be able to muddle my way through it with this book by my side.

The only complaint I have about the book is that it’s not a workbook. It doesn’t claim to be, of course, but as someone who learns by doing, I would have enjoyed a couple of simple exercises that combined some of the stitches to actually make something. But this is a slim little volume with no fat or fluff; it lays out the stitches, and that’s it. Recommended as a reference guide for beginning or intermediate sewists, or for advanced sewists who aren’t sure what the heck the Walls of Troy stitch is, but would like to learn.

I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review!

Book Review Tuesday: six quick book reviews

As usual, I’ve fallen behind on my blogging. My excuse is that it’s Bachelorette season, which means I’m covering the carnage for Previously.TV, plus I’m revising my mystery novel (more on that later, hopefully!), so things are relatively busy. But, in the last few weeks that I haven’t touched my blog, I’ve read a bunch of books, and want to talk about some of them. So, without further ado, here are six quick book reviews.

Her: A Memoir, by Christa Parravani: A devastating and beautiful memoir written by a woman who lost her identical twin sister to a heroin overdose. Parravani is a photographer who often featured her sister, Cara, in her work. Throughout their adult lives, Christa and Cara Parravani, both artists, struggled with addiction and maintaining healthy relationships, but after being violently raped, Cara’s drug use spiraled out of control. As Cara fell deeper and deeper into self-destruction, her relationship with Christa became increasingly strained. Over and over, Christa would attempt to help Cara and then become frustrated with Cara’s refusal to try to help herself. The cycle repeated itself until Cara’s untimely death. The book explores the tension between loving a person more than anyone else in the world while also resenting (and at times even hating) that person. As Christa writes in one passage about Cara’s struggles, “Not only did she not want to suffer alone, she demanded co-suffering from all who dared love her.” I teared up reading this book. Some of it was difficult to read. But I’m so glad I read it. (Here’s an NPR interview with Parravani).

Source: NPR

Source: NPR

Harbor, by John Ajvide Lindqvist: I love a dark, Nordic thriller, and so I picked up Harbor, the story of a mysterious Swedish island whose inhabitants have struck a bargain with a sinister force. The author, John Ajvide Lindqvist, also wrote Let the Right One In, so I figured his creepy pedigree was strong. The book starts off with a family — two parents and a young girl — skiing from their cottage on the small island where they live to a lighthouse in the middle of a frozen channel. Within a few minutes of reaching the lighthouse, the little girl has disappeared. There are no other people around, no trace of a body, no hole in the ice. The girl appears to have been swallowed up into thin air. The book follows the girl’s desperate father as he searches over the coming years for his missing daughter and unravels the island’s dark secrets in the process. Harbor is not so much a thriller as a supernatural horror story: think a Stephen King novel set in small town Sweden instead of small town Maine. It’s weird, and creepy, but it can be a bit ponderous, at times. Overall, though, it was an engaging read, and something different from your standard Dean Koontz-style horror novel.

The Visionist, by Rachel Urquhart: My mom was the one who recommended this book about a Shaker community in 1840s Massachusetts. First, a disclaimer: I don’t always like historical fiction because I find it can be a bit dry, a bit draggy, or a bit too infused with modern sensibilities (which is why I love Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series so much, because it avoids all of these pitfalls). The Visionist, like much other historical fiction I’ve read, was a bit draggy at times. However, the book’s detailed portrait of life inside a Shaker community kept me engaged. I knew next to nothing about the Shakers before reading this novel, but now I feel like I know what it would have been like to live among them. The titular “visionist” is a teenage girl, Polly Kimball, who is sent to live among the Shakers after she leaves her abusive father to die in a house fire. Her mother wants Polly and her brother to have a better life than she can provide, and so she leaves them at the City of Hope, a Shaker community headed by the severe Elder Agnes. When Polly gets carried away during a worship meeting, the Shakers assume she is receiving divine visions and elevate her to the position of “visionist.” The ensuing tension that unfolds between Polly, a suspicious Elder Agnes, and Sister Charity, Polly’s trusting friend within the community, feels both sad and inevitable.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. The less I say about this brilliant, funny, and touching book, the better, because it’s quite easy to spoil. Please do yourself a favor and just read it. Now. You’re welcome.

Source: NPR

Source: NPR

Sleeping Murder, by Agatha Christie. As I may have mentioned, I’m writing a mystery novel. To get my brain in fighting shape for the task, I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries. In terms of expertly crafted, tightly written, clever sleuth novels, no one beats Agatha Christie. Reading her novels is a great object lesson in What To Do while writing a mystery. The woman was a genius! I’ve enjoyed every Christie book I’ve read, and Sleeping Murder is no exception. This was the first Miss Marple mystery I read and I will be reading more; the character is a delight (and she knits!).

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. Speaking of geniuses, Margaret Atwood is one of the most inventive authors of our time, especially when it comes to imagining post-apocalyptic hellscapes wrought by human arrogance and foolishness. Oryx and Crake imagines a world in the not-too distant future in which humankind has been effectively wiped out by a human-manufactured disease. The world before the disease was dominated by Monsanto-like corporations that cranked out horrific animal hybrids and mutations such as Chickie-Nobs: headless, brainless, motionless chickens harvested in labs for their meat. Atwood’s dire vision of our potential future is gloomy, to put it mildly, and can feel heavy-handed at times, but it’s also fascinating, and so well written that I kept turning pages, even as I was horrified by what I was reading. Even more incentive to read Oryx and Crake: it’s part of a trilogy of novels that’s being turned into an HBO series!

Source: Amazon

Source: Amazon

What are you reading these days? Any recommendations? I’ve just started Neil Gaiman’s Stardust (and am loving it so far) and next in the hopper is Christina Garcia’s King of Cuba. Happy reading!

Charleston

Last week, Al and I decided to go on a mini Southern road trip. We were in Florida, so we drove up the coast on a Friday evening, stopping in Savannah for dinner, and then ending up in Charleston, South Carolina. I had heard lots of good things about Charleston and I had a vague idea of what it would be like before we got there. Despite managing to resist the siren call of the new Bravo monstrosity Southern Charm, which is filmed in Charleston, I still gleaned the general idea of the place. I expected waterways, men wearing polo shirts tucked into colorful shorts, women wearing sundresses, champagne, hanging creepers (the plant!), cobblestones, grits, and general genteelness. I was not disappointed.

Hi, we're in Charleston.

Hi, we’re in Charleston.

Now, I’m going to be honest with you right off the bat: most of our Charleston trip was spent eating. I recommend, if you care to visit Charleston, that you spend most of your time eating, as well, because the food there is really good. The rest of your time you can spend admiring the Spanish moss and going on a ghost tour (more on that in a minute). But if you don’t want to read about all of the things we ate in Charleston, you might want to skim this post. Forewarned is forearmed!

Scrambled eggs at Two Boroughs Larder

Scrambled eggs at Two Boroughs Larder

Al and I got into town late on Friday night and he had to work on Saturday morning, so we started our adventure with a late brunch on Saturday afternoon. We ate at the delightful Two Boroughs Larder, so named because it’s situated in the cool, laid-back Cannonborough/Elliotborough neighborhood. The restaurant, like the neighborhood, is cool and hipstery and feels very local. There were families eating with their kids, older people out for breakfast, and, I suspect, a few dorky tourists like us. Al had a chicken boudin blanc sandwich and I had scrambled eggs. Yum. Also, Al had this beer:

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Blonde Bombshell

Later, we wandered around the city a bit, killing time before our dinner reservation. We went down to the water and took pictures, stopped at a bar to sit outside and watch The Kentucky Derby on a big screen, and admired Charleston’s wealth of skinny old houses and elegant gardens. IMG_6555

 

We ate dinner at Cypress, where we split a cheese plate and a giant “steak presentation for two” (and what a presentation it was!).

Cheese plate at Cypress (with real honeycomb)

Cheese plate at Cypress (with real honeycomb)

After dinner, we had the awesome idea of signing up for a Charleston ghost tour, and it was so much fun! A guy named Roy, a South Carolinian with a history degree and a flair for the dramatic, led us around town, explaining various “hauntings” along the way. It was delightful. I don’t believe in ghosts, as a general rule, and neither does Al, but we both got a big kick out of Roy and his practiced delivery of various spooky Charleston stories. There were a lot of stories that began, “Now, a friend of mine…” We both agreed that Roy subscribes to the Keith Morrison school of narration: lots of dramatic pauses and “well”s thrown in for added gravitas. It helped, I think, that we were both reasonably tipsy throughout the tour (as were the five other people who attended), because it allowed us to suspend our credulity and just enjoy Roy’s creepy tales of vengeful Charleston ghosts. I highly recommend doing a ghost tour with Roy’s company if you’re in town; Al and I both agreed it was the most fun thing we did in Charleston (besides shoving food into our faces).

First course at Husk

First course at Husk

The next day, we stopped for brunch at Husk, a Southern restaurant situated in a beautiful old mansion house. Husk had really good food but they also had really good presentation. I especially loved the beautiful wooden salad plates, earthenware cups, and canvas serving bowls.

Mm, biscuits.

Mm, biscuits.

After brunch, Al and I checked out the old Unitarian graveyard, which is supposedly haunted (along with everything else in Charleston, according to Roy). It was gorgeous, full of stately trees with ghostly Spanish moss hanging from their boughs and old gravestones overrun by flowering plants.

Gravestone at Unitarian Church

Gravestone at Unitarian Church

After wandering around the graveyard, we had to get on the road and head back to Florida. I wished we had had an extra day in Charleston so we could have tried some of the other restaurants we heard about and spent more time wandering around the charming old neighborhoods. But I’m sure we’ll be back! Thanks, Charleston!

Book review Monday: You Should Have Known, by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Reading Jean Hanff Korelitz’s You Should Have Known was sort of like entering into a brief but doomed relationship. At first, you’re over the moon about your new flame, and the object of your affection can do no wrong. Then, after spending some time together, the cracks start to show. Little things start to annoy you. By the end, you feel cheated and betrayed and just want it to be over, already. Then, after the dust has settled, you look back with some fondness on the whole thing, through a haze of nostalgia, and wonder if you were being too harsh all along. This metaphor, I think, is particularly apt given the plot of Korelitz’s novel, which focuses on a relationship expert whose own relationship, in fact, is not what she believes it to be.

you should have known

[Warning: spoilers ahead!]

In You Should Have Known, we meet Grace Reinhart Sachs, a successful therapist in Manhattan who’s just written what is sure to be a bestselling book, provocatively titled — you guessed it! – You Should Have Known. The premise of Grace’s book is that women facing failed relationships have no one but themselves to blame: they should have seen it coming from the clues their partners were dropping the entire time. This smug premise may rub people the wrong way, Grace knows, but she believes with all of her heart that an ounce of prevention is the key to ensuring happy relationships. In other words, Grace’s message to women can be boiled down thusly: just don’t marry the wrong man, and you’ll be fine. As the book unfolds, we learn, from Grace’s perspective, about her picture-perfect life: she’s married to a successful pediatric oncologist, has a thriving therapy practice, and is mother to a bright twelve year-old boy who attends a prestigious private school, Reardon (the same school that Grace herself attended). Everything’s hunky-dory until a fellow Reardon mother turns up murdered, and Grace’s husband becomes the prime suspect. As Grace revisits her life with her husband, examining what appear to the reader to be fairly giant red flags that she somehow ignored for the past eighteen years of her marriage, she realizes, with dawning horror, that she married a psychopath. Accepting that her husband did in fact do the very bad thing he has been accused of, Grace skips town and takes her son with her, settling in her family’s cottage in Connecticut as she licks her wounds and starts over. Unfortunately, as Grace flees Manhattan, the book loses its way.

I was so excited about You Should Have Known when I started reading it because it had such great promise. The idea of a relationship expert who finds herself hoisted by her own petard when she realizes that she failed to take her own advice with spectacularly awful results (she married a murderer, whoops!) is delicious, and the suspenseful chapters in which Grace figures this out are wonderful. I loved Grace’s dawning horror as she realizes that everything she believed about her relationship was a lie. But the suspense that Korelitz builds is frittered away when Grace packs up her kid and drives to Connecticut, where she starts an idyllic new beginning in her family’s rustic lake-house and begins to fall in love with the handsome neighbor. Bluh.

All of the potential for drama and suspense escapes out of the plot like air out of a balloon as Korelitz subjects the reader to Grace’s reawakening at the lake-house. As a reader of a psychological thriller, I’m far more interested in the direct aftermath of the main character’s marriage with her husband, the dangerous sociopath, and a confrontation with said husband than I am in seeing the main character reconnect with old friends, develop a crush on the guy who lives in the next lake-house, and enroll her son in a good public school in Connecticut. It begs the question: as an author, why create a dangerous, sociopathic husband if he’s not also going to stir up a little trouble for his family? As murderous sociopaths go, Jonathan’s kind of a dud. Sure, he kills the lady in the beginning, but then he makes no attempt to make things difficult for Grace, who’s cooperating with the police, or to reclaim his son, who Grace has removed from the scene with nary a protest from anyone. In fact, Jonathan spends the entire novel off camera, which, in the beginning, helps to build a sense of unease, as if he could spring from behind a corner at any moment, but by the end, feels like a big wasted opportunity.

Also, being a writer, I took issue with Korelitz’s overuse of certain words and phrases. I guess I should take this up with her editor, but someone should have intervened after the seventh time she used the word “unlovely” to describe a building. My inner Hemingway was also cringing at all of the adverbs. SO MANY ADVERBS. Her favorite was “not unkindly,” as in, “he said, not unkindly.” Let me tell you: no one was unkind, ever, in this book. Adverb abuse gets my hackles up. And I know that no non-writers care about this, at all, but I am a writer, and I do care, so it affected my enjoyment of the book.

So, was this book a waste of time? No! I did enjoy large swaths of it. I loved the descriptions of life within the upper echelons of Manhattan, particularly in the close (and catty) environment of a private school. I thought the character development of Grace was fantastic (and, for what it’s worth, I pictured her as looking like Heather Dubrow from the Real Housewives of Orange County). I even enjoyed reading about Grace’s interactions with her long-lost friend Vita, from whom she had become alienated after her marriage to Psycho McGee (one of those large red flags I referred to above). But these things do not a psychological thriller make. I wish that Korelitz had followed the momentum of the first half of her book to its thrilling conclusion. It would have been a much different book, yes, and, in my view, would have been a better read.