Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Best Book I Read This Summer: Life Would Be Perfect

I read so many books this summer, so quickly, that it's hard to even keep them straight, but my favorite is Meghan Daum's, Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House.

It's probably because I moved this year that I just wanted to read things about moving. I started with her L.A. Times piece about selling her house and then I moved on to her book. It seemed everyone I knew was buying and/or selling this summer, and I sent the LA Times link out so many times, I lost track. I figured they could use the moral support from her common experience in real estate, "It meant the agents supplied an eye-pleasing duvet and matching pillow set that had to go on the bed every time they showed the house to potential buyers. It meant our own (apparently vile) pillows had to be stuffed into our cars because there was no way to cram them into the closet without breaking the illusion that our lives fit neatly into 890 square feet."

I still have her first novel, The Quality of Life Report (the main character names her dog Sam Shepard), and her collection, My Misspent Youth: Essays, should be handed out with the diplomas at any liberal arts college (she includes the essay on her site).

She's a little younger than I am, but I've watched her career for about a decade, impressed that she found a way to make a living as a writer, and sustain a primary relationship with the concept of "home," all without getting married or having children. (She has since gotten married, but looking at her moving day blog, it appears they're sticking with Rex, the sheepdog. No sign of any kids. At this point, maybe I ought to clarify that I'm not actually stalking her.)

In the book, she housesits at a cottage for a single girl in Venice, prompting this observation of single woman living behavior, "often this woman's furniture is made of wicker (not including the ubiquitous halogen torchiere lamp); other times it's composed of lightly stained pine of the sort that's frequently used for futon frames and collapsible bookshelves...The bad furniture is almost always provisional. As soon as true love -- and a corresponding mortgage -- are reeled in, the wicker and pine will be traded in for items from proper furniture retailers. In the meantime, however, the only things for which the single woman will willingly overpay are scented candles.She will have loads of them: fat and thin, pear scented and vanilla scented and 'rain' scented, in every imaginable color and shape." I have never had a futon. (I have had a candle.)

Her sense of details stick. Of one house hunting episode, she says, "If we had any questions, we could talk to the owners, who, contrary to custom, were actually on the premises. She then gestured to a stained orange couch on which three elderly people of questionable hygiene were staring into space smoking cigarettes, their ashes cascading around a glazed ceramic ashtray on the floor, sometimes landing in it. Sometimes not...The asking price on this house was $425,000."

Because I liked this book so much, I found myself constantly trying to repeat it. Next, I read All Over the Map by Laura Fraser. But I didn't get interested in it until, on page 231, she makes an offer on a house in Mexico that's "three and a half meters wide by fourteen long -- it has potential." By the time she hires an architect on page 249, I'm riveted. But by page 267, the book is over. All the reviews say it's a memoir from a 40-something travel writer and her experiences all over the world -- but to me, it's a book about how she re-built that house in Mexico. Smith Mag did an interview with her which actually talks about what the book is actually about. It turns out, Laura Fraser also has a blog, which is where I'm trying to see if she ever names that architect.

Then I read Sloane Crosley's How Did You Get This Number, which, again, I fell in love with on page 225, for the chapter "Off the Back of a Truck," which is nominally about a one-year relationship with a boyfriend who turned out to have never really left his girlfriend. It's a pretty spectacular story. But it's nothing compared to how she furnishes her apartment with ill-gotten gains off the back of a truck, from a store she refers to as "Out of Your League." In this chapter, she writes, " It's extremely rare to be alone in Midtown Manhattan outside of a post-apocalyptic film. Instead of the silence-inducing panic and an acute curiosity about the edibility of dog meat, it lends itself to everyone's favorite game: What If This Was My House? Often played at art galleries and upstairs bars, it also works for more unexpected spaces. Like botanical gardens. I know this fern terrarium is humid, but will you look at that light? Will you? Look at it. The third floor got a whole lot of light."  What I wrote at the time was it's the best chapter you'll ever read about heartbreak and home decor. It's not a spoiler to reveal the last line of the book, "it was all just a bunch of somebody else's stuff."

Which brings me to, the last book I read on this topic, Brooke Berman's No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments -- which has a lot to do with moving, as the title would suggest, but which is also a memoir of coming to terms with her ailing mother; recovering from a rape; how she found her career as a New York playwright; and a conflicted relationship with a longtime on-off macrobiotic chef boyfriend in search of "enlightenment," to whom she tries to explain, "Where I come from, people don't live in vans." I was downright relieved to find her blog, where I learned she eloped last month, (and not with the guy who wanted to live in a van). I wanted a chapter that talked more about the late great Waldorf Hysteria ("tiny white retro kitchen table - a find!") and more about the time she spent temping at House and Garden/HG. It seems she would have been there during the Dominique Browning years -- and Browning wrote the last book about housing that I planned to read this summer but have not yet gotten around to, though I have checked in at her  Slow, Love, Life blog.  I'll get to it, probably on Kindle, but right now I have to fret about Brooke Berman, because on page 169, she says, "I buy myself a vanilla-grapefruit scented candle, which I set on the kitchen table..." and which makes me worry Meghan Daum is NOT going to be happy with her when she finds out about THAT.
You might also like:

Tamales and Tablecloths

No Place Like Home

Blurb Transparency

Julie Powell's Cleaving: NOT the Sequel to Julie and Julia

The Last Day of Summer 

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