He had learned that it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too. The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had been doing so for a long time. Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.
I began listening to this audiobook just yesterday during my morning commute. While it is way too early for such pronouncements, Rules of Civility is a story so beautifully told—so elegant, so effortless—it may well be The Novel, perfected.
I want to be there in New York with Katey and Eve in 1937. First, this:
That New Year’s, we started the evening with a plan of stretching three dollars as far as it would go. We weren’t going to bother ourselves with boys. More than a few had had their chance with us in 1937, and we had no intention of squandering the last hours of the year on latecomers. We were going to perch in this low-rent bar where the music was taken seriously enough that two good-looking girls wouldn’t be bothered and where the gin was cheap enough that we could each have one martini an hour. We intended to smoke a little more than polite society allowed. And once midnight had passed without ceremony, we were going to a Ukrainian diner on Second Avenue where the late night special was coffee, eggs, and toast for fifteen cents.
But a little after nine-thirty, we drank eleven o’clock’s gin. And at ten, we drank the eggs and toast. We had four nickels between us and we hadn’t had a bite to eat. It was time to start improvising.
And then they meet the handsome young banker, Tinker Grey, and head out into the night.
Powdered with snow, Washington Square looked as lovely as it could. The snow had dusted every tree and gate. The once tony brownstones that on summer days now lowered their gaze in misery were lost for the moment in sentimental memories. At No. 25, a curtain on the second floor was drawn back and the ghost of Edith Wharton looked out with shy envy. Sweet, insightful, unsexed, she watched the three of us pass wondering when the love that she had so artfully imagined would work up the courage to rap on her door. When would it present itself at an inconvenient hour, insist upon being admitted, brush past the butler and rush up the Puritan staircase urgently calling her name?
I am lost to this book already, aching to dive in and swim there a while among its perfect sentences. There is so much to savor.
Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles. A first novel by this principal at an investment firm in New York whose only other published work is a short story cycle, published in 1989. Wow.
You remember how much I hate to pack, right? It has been more than 10 years since I’ve taken a beach vacation*, and this time it was easy. A couple of bathing suits, a cover-up, a long strapless beach dress, a few pairs of shorts. And this:
It is going to be a good week, I think.
Further proof? I woke up at the beach this morning and found this cuteness beside my bed:
a little roundup of things that inspired me this week
The Age of Miracles There is so much we take for granted in our lives, minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day. Perhaps the most significant is that no matter how heavy a burden we carry, tomorrow the sun will rise on a new day. But what would happen if suddenly that were not true? What if the most basic of all acceptances—that the earth rotates on its axis every 24 hours—were altered?
It’s the premise of the most engrossing book I’ve read in a long time, The Age of Miraclesby Karen Thompson Walker. The book places the coming-of-age story of 11-year-old Julia against the backdrop of an inexplicable slowing of the earth’s rotation. The result is a world in which nothing is predictable, everything is unbalanced.
I love the story’s open:
We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it.
We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath the skin. We were distracted back then by weather and war. We had no interest in the turning of the earth. Bombs continued to explode on the streets of distant countries. Hurricans came and went. Summer ended. A new school year began. The clocks ticked as usual. Seconds beaded into minutes. Minutes grew into hours. And there was nothing to suggest that those hours, too, weren’t still pooling into days, each the same fixed length known to every human being.
But there were those who would later claim to have recognized the disaster before the rest of us did. These were the night workers, the graveyard shifters, the stockers of shelves, and the loaders of ships, the drivers of big-rig trucks, or else they were the bearers of different burdens: the sleepless and the troubled and the sick. These people were accustomed to waiting out the nights. Through bloodshot eyes, a few did detect a certain persistence of darkness on the mornings leading up to the news, but each mistook it for the private misperception of a lonely, rattled mind.
On the sixth of October, the experts went public. This, of course, is the day we all remember. There’d been a change, they said, a slowing, and that’s what we called it from then on: the slowing.
I am not a science fiction fan, so to speak. And this is not science fiction. It’s a story about a regular family, set in our familiar world, amid circumstances that feel terrifyingly possible.
(And let me note this is Karen Thompson Walker’s first novel. Doesn’t that make it even more remarkable? Why are so many of my favorite books debut novels? Fascinating.)
a little roundup of things that inspired me this week
In addition to the loss of our beloved Eagle/Nest/Tree this week, I am mourning the death of Nora Ephron. For years she has been one of those famous people in the orbit of my life with whom I secretly pretend to have a personal relationship. It’s as if we just had lunch and once again discussed my obsession with finding exactly the right doctor to take care of those little (HA!) scowl lines between my eyebrows.
Oh for goodness sake, Nora says to me over Arugula Salad with Watermelon and a Balsamic Reduction*. Just get the injections so you can MOVE ON to think about something important. Like what you’re going to do about the stuff that requires surgery.
Oh my dear, honest, funny Nora.
Do put her on your list. Anything. All of it. Brilliant.
1. I Feel Bad About My Neck, by Nora Ephron
Every essay in this collection is classic. I have had the book for years (thank you, Suzann) and also love the audiobook version. Read by Nora herself, it is a joy to hear those smart, witty, brutally honest stories delivered in her voice. You will laugh out loud, I promise.
2. Sleepless in Seattle (Available via Instant Streaming on Netflix. Bonus.)
Of course you have already seen this Nora Ephron film so many times you have every line memorized. Me, too. And still I gathered a group of friends for a girls’ movie night and watched it again, complete with oil-popped popcorn and a vast selection of movie candy. Yes, there were raisinets. We ranged in age from 12 to 53 and I swear, watching it together was a brand new experience. Love.
I will miss you, my dear friend Nora. I will miss our imaginary lunches, and our walks through the park, and the long telephone conversations during which we discussed Very Important Things. I will miss seeing you across the room at a swanky cocktail party and rushing over to tell you about the great book I am reading, the one you must buy on the way home.
And let me say this one final thing, the big lesson I shall take with me as I make my way through a crazy world that seems to be getting crazier by the minute. You were right about this, too:
Real life never lets you down. Why would anyone write fiction when what actually happens is so amazing?
For a while on those late-summer drives, Stubblefield began believing he had fallen into an adventure. Near the top of Jorre Gap stood a lone log cabin, a tourist shop selling folkloric products, according to a hand-lettered sign by the road. Local honey, handmade pottery, rabbit-tobacco door wreaths, quilts, arrowheads. But the shop was closed. It had either failed or had taken a recuperative pause after Labor Day and was waiting to reopen early in October, when the leaf lookers drove up from the flatlands. Passing the tourist shop, he noticed a face behind the window, indistinct in the shallow light. Stubblefield’s initial reaction was to declare it a girl’s face, and possible a pretty one. As he switchbacked from gap to valley, he wondered why his first thought was to distinguish man from woman, pretty from not pretty? Probably because he was so damn lonely and because the schematic of our fool brains inclines us that way. Always looking for any opportunity to cast our sad little package of hope into a future we won’t inhabit.
From my newest favorite book of all times. Nightwoods, by Charles Frazier