The Twenty Page Rule

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I used to commit to one hundred pages of a book before I made the decision to stop reading because I felt guilty about not giving the writer a fair chance. Now I know that if I haven’t connected with a novel and its characters by the first twenty pages of the book, I will probably not change my mind by page one hundred. I know some readers consider this a sacrilege and feel obligated to finish the book even when they are not completely interested or engaged in the writing. Why? Reading time is precious and gets even more precious as I get older. “Too many books, too little time” is more than a book-bag slogan for me.

Sometimes I am not aware of why I am not getting into a book, it could be a prize winning, critically praised work and yet my response is a shrug of the shoulders and “meh”. Most of the time, though, my reasons are apparent. I put the book down because the writing is flat, dull and uninspired with not a hint of color, dash or dazzle. I might as well read a textbook, insurance policy or instruction manual. This kind of book causes a lot of “How did this book get published?” chatter with my bookish friends.

Over-description in a book makes my eyes glaze over. I remember a book with an omniscient narrator in which the first pages described every tree, body of water, all the flora, fauna and then the town’s streets, parks and squares before a single character was introduced. I kept wondering if anybody lived there. In other books, the characters inhabit the book from page one, but they are boring. I started one of those multi-generational sagas and put it down because blandness and tedium ran through all three generations of the family.

Often, I read a novel that interests and involves me until just after the middle of the book. At this point, you sense that the writer is having trouble sustaining the same level of readability. The writing becomes turgid, and the ending seems either rushed and unsatisfying or overwritten and confusing.

I’ve probably missed out on lots of great books by using this twenty page test, but when I finish a book I know that it has been a book I relished from the first page to the last.

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I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron

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I just spent an enjoyable few hours reading “I Feel Bad about my Neck,” the only book of essays by the late Nora Ephron that I hadn’t read. She begins the book with her title essay about her aging neck and continues with other girlie themes; cookbooks, manicures and pedicures, skin and hair care and the time and effort required to maintain even the lowest standard of female attractiveness. She ridicules her own practice of dyeing, waxing, botoxing and the enormous amount of money she’s spent on cremes, moisturizers and lotions which she knows will never stop the inevitable aging process.
Later essays tackle more serious topics like raising children and work with the same self-disparaging wit. She tries to pinpoint just when “raising children” changed into “parenting”, a scarier word that suggests that your child can be molded into a perfect human being if you just give him or her one-hundred percent attention one hundred percent of the time. She does a brief chronological sketch of her career from reporter at the New York Post to freelance journalist and essayist and her corresponding ascent into livable lodgings in Manhattan.

She was a fiercely partisan New Yorker and her writing sometimes describes her world of spacious west-side apartments with hidden courtyards and liveried doormen who pilot you safely into taxis. But even though she lived and wrote about this life of celebrity with its elegant lunching and luxury shopping, there is always an undertone of wry befuddlement, a sardonic observer who is all too aware of her own shortcomings and is likely to pick up on yours, too, especially if you are pompous or pretentious or mean spirited.
The last essay, “Considering the Alternative” is about the bittersweet accomplishment of attaining the age of sixty and beyond. This piece is short on self-mockery and long on self-reverie and I got teary when she wrote about the loss of her best friend, Judy, to cancer and how much she misses her. Ephron writes in a no-nonsense way about death refusing to soothe herself with “bromides” and “homilies”. This chapter is particularly poignant since I read it after her recent death of leukemia in June of this year. I read in one of the many tributes after her death that she’d known about the leukemia diagnosis since 2006, but kept it from the public. If true, this would account for the note of muted melancholia along with the laughs in this book and her last one, “I Remember Nothing”.
Nora Ephron was a Renaissance Woman by any standard, a journalist, a novelist, and a writer and director of wildly popular movies like “When Harry Met Sally,” Julia and Julie,”and “Sleepless in Seattle.” but my favorites are her essays.


The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

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If you are one of those people who wish there were more hours in the day; you might change your mind after reading The Age of Miracles. The novel is set in a California town where, mysteriously and unaccountably, time increases minute by minute, hour by hour and day by day until time loses all meaning. Daylight seems to last forever and the nights are endless. This phenomenon is labeled “The Slowing” and, worldwide, scientists are baffled by its appearance and threatened by its effect on the environment and the physical, emotional and mental upheaval it will bring on human beings. As time accumulates, people either adopt a standard 24 hour day meaning whole days lived in total darkness or daylight and others choose to live their lives according to the rhythm of light and darkness. This practice is called “going off the clock” and there is inevitable conflict between the two groups.

While this bizarre earth-changing event is occurring, the main character, Julia, an eleven year old girl, is coping with the chaos of “The Slowing” as well as pre-adolescence, a frightening, confusing passage even in normal circumstances. She is the only child of a calm, logical physician father and an anxious, excitable mother who teaches English and Dramatics at the local high school. With no siblings to distract her, she focuses a lot of her attention on her parents’ marriage which changes as “The Slowing” evolves.After her best friend betrays and then snubs her, Julia, a serious and reflective sort, cannot connect with other girls in her class who flirt, giggle and play at seduction. She gets a crush on a quiet, moody boy in her class named Seth whose lonely independence matches her own. Their innocent bonding and sharing is meant to contrast with the dire, ugly circumstances of their world.

As you might have guessed by now, this is a disheartening book to read with alarming descriptions of the deterioration of the natural world while the characters try to adapt to circumstances beyond their control. But the beauty of Walker’s writing and the story of Julia’s coming of age during this apocalypse makes this book a moving and worthwhile read.


Where Do You Read?

I am certainly not going to take a photo of my rumpled bed and lumpy pillows and add it to these sumptuous and clever reading spots. But it doesn”t really matter where you read since books take you away from your chair or bed or seat on the commuter train and into the milieu of the novel. This is why I particularly like writers whose sensuous descriptions make it easy to smell the rain on the pavement or the grease on the grill in the roadside diner or see that melon-colored sunrise.

Still, when I see photos like those below, my imagination takes a detour and I put myself on that windowseat looking away from my book for a minute to look out the window at those nearby trees. I would feel like I was reading in a treehouse! What about sitting in the white chair with that blue throw keeping away the chill? I don’t think I’m supple enough to read for long in that hole in the bookcase cubby, but I think it’s charming. I see people reading on treadmills and I guess its possible, but I don’t like the pain/pleasure dynamic. It would be like eating chocolate chip cookies while someone kept slapping your face!

I just like the idea of space set aside for the purpose of reading. No matter where you live, all it takes is a chair, bed, chaise longue, rocker, futon, lawn chair, hammock or park bench and some light to illuminate the bookpage.

Where do you like to read?

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Capital by John Lanchester

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I’m daft about English novels. I like it when “nappies”‘ “crisps”, “biscuits”, “knackered”, “cheeky” and “bugger off” pop up in the dialogue. I love it when tea is served with elaborate pastries on fragile china. I like sly spinsters in tidy cottages who solve heinous crimes on their way to jumble sales and drunken old colonels who talk endlessly of their time in India.

The characters in John Lanchester’s novel, “Capital”, set in modern London, are more of a twenty-first century breed. They are either scheming careerists and greedy, mindless consumers (the Haves) or the dignified, hard-working, foreign born residents who serve them. (the Have-nots) The title of the book alludes not only to London, the capital of England, but to financial capital like property and pounds sterling and the characters are defined by whether they have lots of it or little of it.

This have/have-not theme focuses on the bustle and commerce Pepys Road, a London street of handsome, three story, brick homes built in the late 19th century. The residents of Pepys Road are introduced just as they are receiving identical postcards in their mailboxes with the menacing message, “We want what you have.” As the novel goes on, the harassment escalates and the messages are accompanied by dead crows and human feces.

The main characters include Roger and Arabella Yount; Roger makes heaps of money in a bank and Arabella spends it. Eighty-two year old Petunia Howe is the oldest resident and Zbegniew Tomascewski, a Polish builder, is kept busy with the endless home restorations and renovations on Pepys Road. Matya Balatu is a Hungarian-born nanny who, in a funny account, rescues Roger from his own children during the Christmas holidays and the Kamals are an extended family of Pakistanis who live above their small grocery/convenience store. Many other characters including a meter maid from Zimbabwe and a young Sengalese Soccer phenom and his protective father are woven into the plot of this well-populated book.

The point of view in “Capital” changes with each chapter and sometimes within the chapter so that each character’s story is told incrementally. I enjoy reading a novel structured like that because, as a reader, I find the plot more compelling and readable when the scene and mood and characters keep changing. The only time the narrative stumbles a bit is on the last few pages which seem gratuitous and hastily written. For example, when Roger sums up his wife’s attitude to the family’s straitened circumstances: “Roger wasn’t quite clear whether she had always been the way she is now, or whether what had happened was that he had moved in one direction and she had gone in another. Whatever the reason for the shift, it was real, and he now, and increasingly, found her crushingly shallow and wearingly, suffocatingly materialistic” there is no need for this simplistic insight as Lanchester has skillfully portrayed her as exactly that throughout the book.

Finally, I am not going to say that London is like another character in the book not only because its a cliche but because I stubbornly hold to the idea that people are people and places are places, even in books. But London certainly lingers in some characters’ minds, especially those born in other countries who are homesick and alienated and despise the city’s unfriendliness and vulgarity and others who are charmed and dazzled by its variety, polish and style. Freddie Kamo, the soccer player’s father, takes long walks through London and keeps a detailed mental catalog of what he sees as its garish, wasteful excess and cruelty while his son is besotted with its beauty.

This 527 page novel was a well-paced and involving summer read.

From Page to Plate

Here are a couple of recipes from the Saturday afternoon feast that Rohinka Kamal prepared for her husband, children and bickering brothers-in-law:

Achari Gosht Recipe

Naan Recipe

The Gosht sounds mouth-on-fire hot, but delicious. I like the Naan served in Indian Restaurants but I’ve never made it.


Menage

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Menage by Alix Kate Shulman

The book begins with a witty description of a once, briefly successful writer from an unnamed authoritarian country. Zoltan Barbu is sorting through his wardrobe to find something appropriate to wear to his mistress’s funeral. He strives for not just correct, but notable attire. His thoughts are so engaged in his own image and so free of grief, remorse or regret that in only a few pages Alix Kate Shulman has completely defined this Narsscisist and his past and why he cannot write another well-received novel and revive his lagging career.

If you don’t like him wait until you meet the other two main characters. Heather, is a bored, privileged housewife with two small children, a boy and a girl. Her house is palatial, sumptuously furnished and set on acres of greenery with a nearby wood. She is a careful reader and lover of books, but aches to write stories. Her only writing is a column for an eco-conscious publication that stresses simple living urging readers to “never have two of anything when one will do.” Mack, her real estate baron husband and provider of all the splendor, travels a lot, has extramarital affairs and would like to mollify his restless, suspicious and spoiled spouse.

Mack meets Zoltan at the funeral of his mistress whom Mack knows through a mutual friend. When he recognizes the brooding one-time celebrated author he invites him to dinner and then to come and live at his idyllic (on the surface) New Jersey mansion. He is promised peace, solitude and a room with a jaw-dropping view as a retreat where he can at last pound out, on the laptop that will also be provided, the masterpiece that has so far eluded him.

I’ll stop here because it’s when this Menage begins to cohabit with all their opposing desires and interests and their monumental egos begin to clash is when the fun begins. My favorite scene is when Zoltan inspects the closets, drawers and pantries of his absent benefactors and describes the obscene bounty in detail.

This novel is a short but pleasurable read.

From Page to Plate:

I love to cook and when I can I will add links to recipes for delicious sounding meals served by and to the characters in the novel. I haven’t made them yet but here are two recipes from the menu Heather served to welcome Zoltan. Maybe you’d like to try them:

Here’s the recipe for the white bean cress soup
link for Fettucini in Lemon Sauce

To make the whole meal, you’ll need to roast a lamb, dress some trendy greens in a light dressing, buy crusty bread and serve outrageously expensive chocolate truffles and imported coffee for dessert! (or not)


Is This You?

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