Hillary’s Narcissistic Book Review: The Queen’s Gambit and Parable of the Sower

I am in two active book clubs, and I know what you are thinking—does she live in a nursing home? No, but I do have a rich and exciting life that also includes watching Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy every weeknight. I joined the book clubs on accident, not even realizing I was in an actual club, just having drinks and then someone suggests a book and next thing I know I am being asked when we can schedule the next meeting. Some people get drunk and wake up the next morning pregnant or in a Vegas hotel room with a new husband they don’t recognize, but I wake up and realize I have been indoctrinated into a book club.

The last book I read for one club was The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis, written in 1983 and now the basis for the popular Netflix series. I wanted to read Queen’s Gambit mostly so I could be the asshole who says, no I didn’t watch the show, but I did read the book.

I was concerned that I would not like this book because I do not know how to play chess. I can barely play checkers. Actually, I play all the games with squares at a toddler level. I have never won a game of Connect Four. My kids started beating me at tic tac toe when they were still being lovingly bottle fed. However, now that I have read Queen’s Gambit, which is drenched in detailed explanations of chess play, the vision of the board, the strategy, I think I am ready to compete in chess professionally.

At the beginning of the book, coinciding with Beth’s discovery of chess, she also becomes addicted to tranquilizers because her orphanage forces the green pills on all the kids to subdue the little bastards. I was never addicted to pills as an eight-year-old, but that does seem like the most fun time to try it. For starters, children have no responsibilities, like work, children of their own, or ageing parents to care for also at the same time. I don’t have many regrets from my childhood, but I wish I had experimented with drugs at an even earlier age. Maybe then I would be a world champion in something, like Hollywood Squares.  

For my other book club, we recently read Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, written in 1993 but set in an apocalyptic future. It is an epistolary novel told through the diary entries of the young protagonist, Lauren. The book starts in the year 2024 in California and describes an unimaginable world where the wealthiest few are hoarding the majority of resources and everyone else is left to try and not die. Many people are addicted to bizarre drugs and committing mass murder, space is being colonized by private companies, and police are more deplorable than dependable.

In 1993, the year Butler published Parable, I graduated from high school and then later that same year failed out of my first college. I was definitely not predicting 31 years into the future. I could not even predict how much money I would have tomorrow if I spent all the money in my account today. Butler depicts a close parallel to our world today, like when a Black male character seeks the police’s help after his sister and her family are murdered, and Lauren implores him not to go because she worries the police might kill him and steal his money.

Parable was written in the wake of the 1991 beating of Rodney King by police on a California highway and then the 1992 riots that erupted after the four officers were acquitted. As with all good science fiction, Parable is a caricature. It simply exaggerates what is already there, and the result is a future where all the masses are left struggling to survive because those in power have been allowed to jackknife the system. The moral might be that we should all work together, or we could end up in a dystopia with some people starving in the streets and many more struggling to get by while billionaires in cowboy hats blast into space for their vacay.

Meanwhile on the East Coast in 1993, I was way too high at a Widespread Panic concert in Boone, North Carolina listening to an endless jam that seemed, at the time, to last about 31 years. Now, I am a grown woman, but I am still waiting to reach psychological maturity. My bildungsroman has been a slow burn—a stream of consciousness life. The young women in these novels are both survivors and as someone who is also surviving, I think we have a lot in common.

My protagonist as a young woman doing the worm.

Hillary’s Narcissistic Book Review: Midnight Library, A Really Big Lunch, and Chin Music.

I’m currently reading two books at the same time because I’m a fucking intellectual. The first is Midnight Library by Matt Haig. Technically, I am listening to it as an audiobook, and I listen at 1.2x speed so the narrator sounds somewhat panicked at all times. As a self-proclaimed author, I can understand that probably someone like Haig does not want his readers to get through the book as fast as possible, like it is a chore. It probably took him at least a year of devotion to a desk, sculpting this thought-provoking book out of nothing, and I devour it in a series of fast paced walks in the woods.

Midnight Library is a novel about a woman who gets the chance to retry other versions of her life by examining her regrets and asking What if? The concept is sort of like the show Quantum Leap, which I used to watch on reruns after school. I am sure the intended audience for Quantum Leap was 13 years old girls who watch while shoving tater tots into their mouth. The main character in Midnight Library doesn’t work to set things right in history, she mostly just notices how things are often still wrong in her different lives, just in different ways.

In my own life, I have thought about what if I stayed at Appalachian State and got a degree in anthropology? In that life, maybe I would think it is acceptable to wear shirts with pockets and would be happily married to a very handsome woman. What if I had stayed in Austin? While I was there in the late 1990s, Mathew McConaughey was still single, high, and partying naked. I definitely would have played his bongos. Or anyone else’s.

Although, it is difficult to have regrets when I look at my life now. I am 46 and single with no real prospects, and I teach introductory English courses to unprepared college students who are reluctantly being fed into the capitalist machine. But in this life, I have a dog. Oh, and two children who are now teenagers and live like cave dwellers, only clawing their way out of their rooms to forage for food.

I am also reading, in actual print, A Really Big Lunch by Jim Harrison, which I am savoring in tiny bites because it makes me laugh, and I want to bask in his world of eating and travelling, just wandering around the woods and swimming out into the middle of harbors. Of course, Harrison’s main thread is about how he has all of this extra money from his writing career as an American poet, essayist, and prolific novelist—his novellas Legends of the Fall probably being the biggest meal ticket. I am still waiting for an offer for movie rights from my body of work. Maybe someone will want to make an epic from my essay about buying a dildo, and it will soon be streaming on Hulu and PornHub.

Harrison’s eponymous essay is about a 37-course lunch in Burgundy, France. Harrison notes that although the lunch was 37 courses and lasted 11 hours, they only served 13 different wines. I related to this leisurely lunch, thinking of my own life where I recently spent a Saturday dining on a two-course lunch in Jacksonville, Florida. I was also served one Bloody Mary, two White Claws, and then my check.

This past year, like many privileged white people, I have been reading a lot of theory (aka actual history) about racism in America. These books work well on fast speed in audio format because it makes sense for the narrator to seem frenzied as he or she tells about the oppression and murder of Black people in America since it is still happening, and fuck, we have got to get through narrating to this white lady who listens while working out her hamstrings, so that we can find some people who can actually make a difference. Harrison’s book is a definite departure—I don’t think there are any Black people in the book at all.

Big Lunch was recommended to me by an old friend, my former boss, and my one and only publishing client. His book, Chin Music, which is insightful and hilarious, sold almost a dozen copies, and he had to incur all the expenses, including me. I do not actually know how to market a book, and I don’t even do the formatting and design. Basically, the service I provide to my clients is I read the book and then make important suggestions, like maybe you should add a table of contents.

What I do not know how to do, which looking back is perhaps the most important part of the process, is to get people to buy the book. I do not know how people like Harrison get noticed initially. Maybe he just knew the right people and filled a void because we needed more books by white male authors in the 1970s. For the rest of us, it often feels like those moments in a dream when you are trying to scream and it seems impossible to make even the slightest noise. 

Harrison decided to write his first novel after falling off a cliff during a bird hunt, so I have considered that process. I am picturing a coyote and roadrunner type scenario—it is the only bird hunting on cliffs I am familiar with—I have several cans of paint and some sticks of TNT. We will see what happens. Also, if anyone reading this is looking for a publisher, I am totally available.

Chin Music available on Amazon. You should buy it.