You Never Step in the Same Book Twice

I was reading Paul Prud’homme’s new book about Julia Child, and I kept wanting to go snuggle in the chair with my fuzzy blanket, stretch my feet out onto the ottoman, and sink back into the cushions, letting the book slip from my fingers as I closed my eyes. It’s is not at all that The French Chef in America is boring; far from it. That strong narrative did not threaten to lull me into sleep.

It’s that, I finally realized, I associate Julia Child with sick days from long ago, in the 1960’s. It was rare to be sick enough for my mother to deem it a day off from school; when she did, she tucked me up on the couch with a snuggly blanket and a stack of books, a cold glass of crisp ginger ale and a stack of crunchy crackers. She’d turn the TV on for me, too.

There wasn’t a whole lot of exciting daytime viewing back in those days, but I was always comforted by a funny, large lady’s cooking show. She would warble and trill enthusiastically, brandishing her kitchen tools; she would drop things and laugh. It was okay! It was no big deal! Everything was going to turn out fine, she assured me.

Her voice and her demeanor were eccentric and soothing, and I would relax and drift off into a pleasant, hazy, healing sleep, waking only when my brothers bombarded the gateways at 3:00, demanding to know why I got ginger ale, asserting that I was a faker, asking if there were any cookies left. The funny lady’s influence ebbed away and the house become, again, a pulsing hub of personalities.

I didn’t sleep through Prud’homme’s book, although I met the same large and comforting presence there I remembered from TV. But that early memory colored my reading, predisposed me to find Julia Child, as remembered and reported by her grandnephew, a wonderfully colorful, larger-than-life, comforting kind of  figure.

I have a quiet book blog ( where I hold myself accountable for reading the books on my shelves (The French Chef in America, alas, was a fall off the read-what-you’ve-got-wagon; it lured me into borrowing it from the library’s ‘new books’ shelf.) When I finish a book, I write about it and post my ponderings on that blog. When I started, I tried to do the kind of formal book reviews we did in school–teasing out the premise of the book, talking about the theme or the plot, the characters and setting, trying to analyze the author’s style.

That was boring to write, and I doubt very much anyone would be excited to read it. (“Oh, boy! This is just like reading a tenth grade book report! I wonder where I can find me some more book reviews just like this one?” no one said, ever.) But I still wanted to bring some kind of written report to the page. So I flailed about. What could I say,–what could I write,–that smarter, more lucid writers hadn’t already written about this wonderful book I’d just finished reading?

And I thought about the act of reading–of how the author, intent on expression, picked these particular words and smacked them down on paper. “Here,” he or she said, nervously, gleefully, “tell me what you think of that!”

And then we both pick up that story, you and I, and read about the rainstorm the train charges through. That reminds you of your trip to the beach house with your family last summer.  And the whiny kid character is just like your cousin’s boy who cringed and cowered and wept for the whole vacation, driving you crazy. That’s the lens you read the story through: the whiny kid vacation lens. And you’re glad at the end when the main character stomps off to her new apartment after telling the whole horrible, dysfunctional family to take a rambling hike.

The old lady in the story stands out for me, though. She reminds me of a woman I once taught with, a woman who so positive everyone was going to leave her that she made sure no one ever got close. And so the irritating matriarch character becomes my handle on this story. Although maybe,–probably,–the writer intended her to be a frustrating and challenging comic character, I feel sympathy for the cranky old bat,–I kind of LIKE her!–and that colors my reading.

The story reads a little differently for you than it does for me.  And that’s what we should write about–the unique and wonderful way those words wiggle into our brain, pince out memories, call up emotions, sometimes even brew up sensory reactions, so we swear we can smell cinnamon buns baking as we sink into the wordy world.

We need to identify the work, of course,and credit the author, and maybe say when it was written. But we don’t need to do a formal deconstruction of the writing (unless of course, that’s just what we love to do.) We need to share what the work said to us–how the work made us feel–what memories or reactions floated to the surface as we dwelled, for a while, in those words.

And maybe, then, a  reader of my review-response will say, “Oh, I remember watching that old show on the fuzzy black and white TV!” or maybe they will think, “Wow! How old IS this person, to remember Julia Child live on PBS?” or maybe the reader will be totally uninterested and move on to something else entirely.

And all three are great reactions.

Because in writing book reviews, I think, we are sharing what the words did to us. And that depends on where we are in life and what we bring to this particular time and venture: our memories, our predilections, the odd and varied crew who journey with us. Our word sense, and our values, and our sense or urgency or fun, all color the way the words snake into our minds, shooting out tendrils, burrowing in.

Or not.  And if they don’t, we parse out the reason for that. And writing about what we didn’t like–well, that’s worthy writing, too.

So–when we write about the books we’ve read, maybe we can share the memories they evoke. Maybe we choose the character who moves us most, whether we are moved to sympathy or loathing or some other emotion entirely. Maybe we write down some words we’d like to say to that fictional person.

Maybe we’ve been to the place where the writing is set, and we use that as a lever to pry open the lid of the literature. We write about the last time we were in Chicago–that cold gray weekend when the rain derailed the walk we’d intended to take down the Miracle Mile. That’s different from the sunshine in the book’s first chapter, and we contrast what we felt to what the author writes.

Maybe we respond to the food served at a fictional meal, or the music played at the concert where the lovers break up. Maybe the main character is enjoying a book we hated. Maybe the mom in the story decides to be a stay-at-home mom, a decision very different from the one we made.

Maybe, we write about THAT.

Maybe we have questions for the author and our response becomes a kind of letter to that word-wielding person.

No person ever steps in the same river twice, the sage has written, and the same is true of books. Books happen to us at a certain point on our particular journey; I can read the same book ten years hence and find something else entirely in the reading.

And another person reads the same book I loved and loves it, too, but for different reasons. It is a different book for them. They write down their interactions with that book; they share the memories evoked and the emotions that surged, and I read their response,and I am broadened and enlightened because it never occurred to me the words we shared could also call up THAT.

That, I think, is what we want to capture in writing about the books we read–we capture whatever is our own particular delight in responding. We write about where we were when the bad news came, the things we wonder about Grandpa’s life in 1920, or the warm humming satisfaction we feel when the kitchen smells like chocolate chip cookies. Or—we write about the setting, characters, and the plot, because we love setting, characters, and plot. We want others to care about vital parts of writing, too.

There’s no one right way, I’ve come to realize, to write a book review, but the reviews I most love to read are the ones that spill not just the author’s work onto the page, but that also spill the reviewer’s thoughts and feelings and reactions, slew them out there for me to consider and celebrate.

What are you reading this week, my friends?