This past weekend, my friends wanted to celebrate my upcoming 40th birthday. They took me to a small beach town where it promptly rained so much we moved the party inside.
Their goals were:
-Get me drunk
-Make me prettier
-Determine that life doesn’t end at 40 (they are a couple years behind me)
-Eat ice cream
-Make something crazy happen (as result of all of the above)
They achieved everything except the last two. I forgive the ice cream – controlled as it is by weather – but I do not apologize for the absence of crazy, left as it was up to me.
They determined that I look too “natural,” and thus needed a makeover. I was willing to go along with anything, so I succumbed, and found myself in the bathroom reviewing curlier hair, dark eyeshadow, bronzer, and better-defined brows. More on that in a minute.
I am admittedly wilder than the two of them. By the time we got to the bar, peppered – then overtaken – by locals ranging from Hells Angels to grandmothers, I was sick of the sweeter drinks and settled in to four shots of whiskey in a row.
Between two of those shots, I went up to the bar to order. I turned around to glance at my very reserved friend, and basically before the ass print on my chair cushion filled back in, a dude had sat down next to her, moving in for the kill.
He was sweet, probably about 22. I went back to the table, and he interviewed all of us (“Did you meet in preschool? Kindergarten?” “No – PhD”), questions inevitably leading to my having to display the “40 and Hot, Buy Me a Shot” sash they’d put on me (which does not work, by the way) to explain why we were there.
“Oh.” He said. “You don’t look a day over 30.”
And then he got up so fast, he nearly knocked his chair over.
If I had known the deterrent power of this sash, I would’ve bought it 15 years ago.
He was kind, but I actually look many days over 30, and I’m glad for that. The reason I look so “natural” is because 40 basically frees up a bunch of time to do whatever it is you’ve always wanted to do but didn’t have time because of all the blowdrying. This is nothing new to anyone who’s welcomed the freedom of 40, so I won’t waste time talking about it. I’m just enjoying it.
But the encounter made me wonder if I’m a bit of a tease. I mean, I should’ve been straight up with the 22-year-old, and just said look, I’m old enough to be your mom. Instead, I kept us all in the conversation, getting him to confess his country music favourites (Luke Bryan, Tim McGraw, not that older stuff) before scaring him away.
And I wonder if I should keep on being a tease. This year, I’ve promised myself to several men who wish to hold private book clubs with me. Actually, all the private book clubs have been my idea. It’s resulted in me juggling men – and books – like a series of quick Tinder encounters lined up over two nights. “Sorry I missed your text with that lovely quote from pg. 240. I’m just busy with work... No, I’m not reading something else. How could you ask me such a thing? Are you reading something else?”
I should note that my main book club allegiance is with a group of ladies, and it’s going on something like its 10th year, so whatever, it just so happens that some of those ladies don’t have the time or inclination for books that I’m reading in these miniature versions of the club. And the men I know do.
I've turned this year into the year I read things people recommended to me, and as a result, I'm in touch with all these guys who've given me, lent me, or are re-reading books with me, but honestly it's getting to be a bit of a difficult bottleneck.
As such, I’ve teased you into thinking this is a post about being 40, but it’s actually just a mid-year book review. Ha!
(I mean who cares about being 40? All it means is you’re far more willing to put down a shitty book halfway through because you’ve got slightly less life left to fit them all in.)
These are not ranked.
1. A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James
Might I quote my friend Jake here, because he took the time to write a truly thoughtful, in-depth review of it, and I couldn’t possibly say anything better.
“This book is about sufferers. It describes the ghetto of Kingston and its dehumanizing, never ending grip on all of its inhabitants. All the character development arcs out from trauma. Copenhagen and The Eight Lanes are Jamaica’s open wound, and local and global, cold war politics conspire to twist the knife. But certain types like The Singer (Bob Marley), and the complex and mercurial Nina, my favourite character, manage a partial escape. Others remain and are consumed in turf war and the struggle for ghetto supremacy. A winner eventually emerges as the incarnation of psychopathic, expansionist, raw power. This character, like many in this book, is based on a real historical figure, Lester Coke, who became huge in the North American drug trade. Griselda Blanco, the female, Colombian drug boss is also profiled and referred to by her actual name ... I loved the strings of exhilarating pages that pass without a single coma or period. They coincide with the extreme psychological crises of their narrators: Alex in bed realizing that there is an assassin in his room, teenaged gangsters in the act of killing or being killed, and Nina’s ambivalent, stilettoed pacing outside The Singer’s gates in the dead of night. (brought to mind Golyadkin attempting admittance to the ball). Marlon James’ doesn’t just portray the sublime terror of heightened, non-thinking states. His style and pacing mainline these states into the reader.”
2. The Power, by Naomi Alderman
The power of this book to me is not the concept, which is certainly imaginative. Rather, it’s the difficulty of conceiving of a whole world, and leaving no piece unexamined or thread dangling. I marvelled through the whole book at her ability to foresee reactions and consequences of characters’ decisions, and the arrival of this power on Earth; what it would do to overturn the conventional structures of domination. That is why it works as a book; I can’t wait to see it on screen.
3. The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception, by Emmanuel Carrere
I believe Carrere and I have the same obsession with death: it is not something to be feared or resisted or conquered, but something that deserves as much consideration and thought and discussion as anything else in life. Yet we so diligently avoid it. This, like Lives Other than My Own, is a nonfiction piece, only this time it’s not about the inner beauty of the characters who face death, and their connection to others, it’s an exploration into the mind of someone whose deception ran so perilously on the edge for so long, they were compelled to kill anyone who might find them out.
4. Blue Nights, by Joan Didion
My student gave me this, saying it’s the place to start with Didion. I’m guessing she was right. Again, an exploration of death and illness in a way that is unthreatening, and somehow reassuring. I don’t know how that’s possible, given what Didion went through. Still, the accomplishment here is so great, it’s undeserving of my amateur take on it – her ability to talk about losing her daughter without ever really giving us information about her daughter is remarkable. You’re only in Didion’s head for the whole book.
5. All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
A little late to this one, but it was worth the wait. I’m pleased with myself for delaying this gratification. And it feels like the whole book is delayed gratification, that you’re hovering over a plot but never being pulled into it, that his language is so beautiful and exact, you’re only ever unravelling it, not racing to the next page to see what happens.
6. Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan
When I heard about Manhattan Beach on all the book podcasts, I thought, meh. Somehow I decided to start the first page when I was too tired to read anything heavier, and I got pulled right in. I have what I call “subway books,” books that I only read in e-copy on my phone in transit, and while this was one of them, it got so good during the last third that I’ve taken to reading it in bed as well. That’s some book, the one making such a leap.
You might notice that the last two books feature strong, spirited young females fighting against paralyzing expectations of them during World War II, and who have special connections to their fathers. I was almost doing that in three books simultaneously with Gillian Best’s The Last Wave, but 150 pages in, I thought, ah, this isn’t doing enough for me to keep going and I returned it to the library. After all, I’m almost 40. And there’s a lot left to read.