Friday, February 13, 2015

Say It with a Book

Nobody says you have to actually eat
these chalky little hearts.

People, I hope you haven't forgotten tomorrow is Valentine's Day. I urge everybody to observe the day, even if you don't have a lover who's hoping for a gift or a nice night out––and the amenities of the relationship later. Don't think of it as a money-making scheme cooked up by chocolate manufacturers or Hallmark Cards. Life is short and often brutal, so let's express some affection on a day specially set aside for it. You must have a pet, a neighbor, a friend, a boss, or a relative you're fond of. Even if you're a total misanthrope, you can kinda get into the spirit of tomorrow and give yourself a little something. I'm here to help you with what that little something could be.

Now, gift-giving is a balancing act between what you think your recipient would like and what you want to give him, her or it. Of course, just because your 13-year-old son or daughter would like the keys to your 2015 Maserati GranTurismo, and Fido wants that platter of chocolate cookies on the counter doesn't mean you're going to give them those things, even on Valentine's Day. No. Your best gift to Fido is a long, patient walk on the leash, after you've asked him who's a good boy and let him lick your face. For your kid, you'll leave some milk in the fridge and a couple of chewy fudge brownies (see recipe here) in a plastic baggie on top of a wrapped copy of Sherman Alexie's hip and funny The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go (the first in the dystopian Chaos Walking Trilogy), in which everyone can hear every one else's thoughts; or Bryce Courtenay's The Power of One, featuring a South African boy who grows up in the 1930s-1950s and aspires to be the welterweight champion of the world. Or, if it's too late to pick up the book, scribble in the Valentine's Day card that you've ordered it and it's on its way. Or include an emailed Powell's Books eGift certificate in the card. Don't forget to say I love you.

A good choice for the conscientious mother who reminded you about the Golden Rule until it leaked out of your ears when you were a kid is a copy of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Stick inside a note detailing how much you appreciate her. You must illustrate the note, no matter how poor an artist you are, with a picture of the two of you––draw stick figures if necessary. If you know To Kill a Mockingbird is already on her shelf, you can pre-order her Lee's Go Set a Watchman (Harper/HarperCollins, July 14, 2015) here or at your favorite online independent bookstore. Minae Mizumura's A True Novel, a re-imagining of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights in post-WWII Japan, or the layered and twisting tale of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin would be other great Valentine Day's choices. Or, show your mom that she can relax, now that you've turned out okay, with a light-hearted or satirical book: Anita Loos's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson or Martin Amis's Money.

If you're still working on turning out okay, offer your dad encouragement by showing him at least you know a good book when you see one and you have a sense of humor. Choose one with a theme of innate savagery such as The Call of the Wild by Jack London, anything by Cormac McCarthy, or Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. With a book like this, you can give soft candy such as caramels, jelly beans, or whatever candy you know he likes. If you're completely incorrigible, give yourself Richard Matheson's tale of horror, Hell House.

Got a sorta cynical sibling or long-time friend who's been with you through thick and thin? Pay tribute to your relationship, not with something sentimental, but Will Christopher Baer's surrealistic Kiss Me, Judas, in which disgraced cop Phineas Poe goes through a very bad time; Thomas Pynchon's blast from the psychedelic past, Inherent Vice (include an invitation to see the movie in your card); or Leigh Brackett's No Good from a Corpse, featuring hard-boiled private eye Ed Clive. Some other appropriate hard-boiled choices include Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives, Jean-Patrick Manchette's The Prone Gunman, and Sébastien Japrisot's Trap for Cinderella. Accompany the noir with a good bottle of Pinot Noir. The Pynchon goes well with the Beach Boys' Good Vibrations, a harmonica, or a pint of heavenly hash ice cream. (Any other accompaniment is between you and your local police force.)

Maybe your spouse or one of your old friends needs a dose of playfulness. Give him or her the opportunity to exercise that ol' inner nut ball with something eccentric, such as a literary figure who refuses to stay dead (Marcel Theroux's Strange Bodies), a man who is brought back to life after dying a century earlier in a human vs. alien war (Neal Asher's Dark Intelligence (Nightshade, February 3, 2015)), or a ritual that changes the lives of three Cambridge students (The Course of the Heart, by M. John Harrison).

Long-time Read Me Deadly readers know I'm a proponent of reading in the tub. If this also appeals to you and/or your lover, have a special Valentine's Day tub session. Give him or her one of the Horatio Hornblower books by C. S. Forester; an Aubrey-Maturin book by Patrick O'Brian (the series, set during the Napoleonic era, begins with Master & Commander); or Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny. Gather plenty of towels, put your glasses of wine or rum out of harm's way (fortify yourself first), arm yourselves with water pistols and a super soaker to replicate the firing of a water cannon, step into the water-filled tub, and act out scenes. At some point, you'll want to sing Anchors Aweigh (or consult this site for a British naval ditty).

An alternative: Perhaps you weren't raised by parents who taught you to always play fair––or maybe they did, but surely they're not in the bathroom with you now, and, besides, we all know all's fair in love and war. Don't mention to your lover that there's a battle brewing, and when he or she slips into the tub, open surprise fire with a blast from a water bazooka. A further alternative: After both of you are sitting in the water, grab his or her leg––using your hands rather than your teeth, because you need your mouth to yell the "duh duh duh duh" of the Jaws theme song––and commence a' wrestlin'. (Note: Be sure you closed the bathroom door before climbing into the tub, or you may find your dogs joining the melee at sea. If they do, I hope your windows are closed or your neighbors will wonder what the heck is with all the barking, yelling, and splashing.) After someone has surrendered (we will not say "thrown in the towel"), curl up in bed with cups of soup in which are floating some little oyster crackers. This is the perfect time to watch Jaws, Das Boot, The Search for Red October, Master and Commander, or Run Silent, Run Deep. Then bring up what they say about oysters, which surely holds true even if they're only crackers, and don't go to sleep.

For other folks, you can accompany a book with another gift. For example, for someone who loves gardening and crime fiction: Dig up a lovely old teacup and saucer, put a couple of small stones in the bottom of the cup, add some African violet soil mix and a miniature African violet. Give this little plant along with Reginald Hill's Deadheads. Or perhaps you know somebody who's constantly getting lost. Accompany a mobile GPS system with a book in which location is important: Charles Willeford's Miami Blues or Brighton Rock by Graham Green.

For someone with a lot of books in a TBR pile, a huge zippered tote bag comes in handy. Good bags are offered by LL Bean, and there's no shipping charge; it's too late to order one to arrive tomorrow, but you can say in a card that it's coming. Using this bag makes a TBR pile portable, and in addition, removes it from the eyesight of a guilt-ridden reader. I like this idea so much I bought several large zippered bags for myself and keep one full of books in the car. Before giving, don't forget to first add a book to the bag––in effect, you're "seeding" it. Some choices: Dennis Lehane's The Given Day is the first in the excellent Joe Coughlin trilogy (the third, World Gone By, is due out this spring, and I can hardly wait). To someone who bemoans life as giving no second chances, give Kate Atkinson's Life After Life. For anyone who hasn't already read it, Angelmaker, by Nick Harkaway, is a riot of fun.

Give a cheap used book of literary fiction such as Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma with a subscription to the London Review of Books or The New York Review of Books. Accompany a used book of mystery fiction (some good bets are Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep; Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's The Laughing Policeman; and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a heist novel by George V. Higgins) with a subscription to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Mention the online fan club, The Wolfe Pack, in the card taped to a Nero Wolfe book by Rex Stout (i.e., Too Many Cooks or Some Buried Caesar). Accompany a Sherlock Holmes DVD or book with a card that includes information about the Sherlockian web portal. Andy Weir's The Martian is a good present for any adult halfway interested in science, unless you know he or she would strongly object to the use of an occasional f-word. Be sure to mention Matt Damon will be starring in the movie later this year.

I hope you have a great Valentine's Day tomorrow. After you've rounded up books to give your loved ones, treat yourself to one, too. Let us know what you're giving and expect to receive. Our TBR piles are suddenly looking kinda puny.

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