Saturday, September 10, 2011

First Lines from Books I Love #4: The Secret of Everything

About three or four months ago, sitting on some kind of odd, circular red seat near the fitting rooms at Target in Golden Valley, waiting for Mom and Meridith, I opened the Target Book Club edition of How to Bake a Perfect Life by Barbara O'Neal (which includes a letter from her to Target shoppers, being that Target plays a small part in the book, and she loves Target), and began reading. I liked the descriptions of mother doughs, and of Ramona's kitchen, but didn't get further than that. Out of curiosity about a month ago, I ordered How to Bake a Perfect Life, remembering that brief encounter, and began reading it on August 25. I remember that so specifically because I had written about it on the 26th ( Because of that experience, I ordered from her previous two novels, her first, The Lost Recipe for Happiness, and her second, The Secret of Everything. Right when The Lost Recipe for Happiness arrived in the mail, I had just finished The Kingdom Keepers: Disney After Dark by Ridley Pearson, which merits its own entry soon, since I ordered books 2, 3, and 4 from, and am anticipating book 5 in 2012.

When I opened to the first page of The Lost Recipe for Happiness and began reading, I immediately began sighing with pleasure all over again, just as I had with How to Bake a Perfect Life. Imagine coming home from a hard, yet satisfying day of work. You've done some good in your part of the world. Your family or boyfriend or girlfriend comes home not long after, and dinner is many of your favorite foods. The mail has brought the latest issue of your favorite magazine. On TV, reruns, but in particular, a rerun of your favorite episode of your favorite show. Feel that bliss, that warmth, that peace, that love? That's what The Lost Recipe for Happiness feels like. That's why I ordered it, because I wanted again what Babara O'Neal had given me in How to Bake a Perfect Life, but also to see how she did it in her first novel.

With The Secret of Everything, I've found my favorite Barbara O'Neal novel, and my new favorite novel. This one will be going into my permanent collection (It's been a while since I've mentioned it: My permanent collection are the books that will move with me when we move; I also have collections of books around my room, but this collection is in two boxes that I use as shelves for now). O'Neal (a pseudonym, by the way, as she is Barbara Samuel) is a poet in a novelist's body. I want to give out more than just the first two paragraphs, but you need to explore this book for yourself too.

So here goes, the first two paragraphs:

"On a foggy August morning, Tessa Harlow had finally tired of her long wallow on the Santa Cruz beaches. Leaving her father's tidy little bungalow as she did every morning, she carried her breakfast down to the surf: a mango fresh from the local grocer, a hunk of sourdough bread, and a hefty cup of tea she bought from the stand on the corner.

Settling on the sand, she skimmed the thick outer skin from the mango and bit into the buttery flesh, mopping the juice from her chin with a bandana. The tea was hot and milky, sweet with real sugar, and the bread---while not quite as tangy as San Francisco sourdough---complemented the mango perfectly."

Now go find it, and bask in the words and descriptions of a novelist who is stunning in her approach to the world, poetry in paragraphs. As I read many descriptions, some on one page alone, I grinned wide, gasped a little from the beauty of her prose, and felt my heart swell over and over. This novel embodies what reading means to me.

The $0.50 Bargains

I hate Panda Express. The mushroom chicken is ok, but every time my family and I leave, I feel just as empty as when I came in. I know the old Chinese food joke, but Panda Express has always struck me as serving Chinese food for bland corporate office worker types.

So when we were in the car today, and Dad suggested Panda Express for dinner, I objected. I appreciate that he's the driver on these errands, but I couldn't do it. I didn't want it, and even though we go once every month and a half or so, it's still too much.

We drove first to a barbecue place that had been written about in The Signal (That's how desperate we are to find anywhere new to eat, by relying on quite possibly the worst newspaper I've ever read, even though I worked there for a time), and it was small, with a few tables inside, and a big drive-thru, but the music was so loud, it was impossible to eat there without needing a hearing aid by the time you left. The only reason The Signal wrote about this place is because they don't know any better.

We drove to the north end of the Santa Clarita Valley, because there's a diner called The Halfway House, and it's almost in isolated territory, and therefore changed its hours in September, now open from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. seven days a week. Then Mom had heard about another barbecue place called Smokey Joe's. It's now being turned into a Thai restaurant, and Dad loves Thai food, so that'll be a possibility after they open on the 19th.

So where to then? I gave up. I told Dad that if he wanted to go to Panda Express, fine. I'd live with it. At that point, I was hungry and it didn't matter. He had also suggested wings, and that meant Wing Stop, and that would have been better than Panda Express. But then, even better, we spotted the KFC across from Big Lots. Yes! I could find something there without any problem! And most importantly, I could feel full after I ate.

We parked, and walked into the KFC. Every place we go to that's empty inevitably fills up after we walk in. It always happens. And when we went in, to the front of the line, a few people walked in about two minutes after. About seven in all. We could be a boon to struggling businesses.

I was thinking about a double breast fillet combo, but then saw a large popcorn chicken combo with potato wedges and a medium drink. No biscuit, but two biscuits could be had for $0.99, and I ordered all of that. Mom, Dad and Meridith ordered their choices, and we sat down at a table, and Dad saw that Big Lots was across the street and said he wanted to go in after to see about a cell phone case, since the last one he got was from there.

My heart started beating a little faster. Big Lots is excellent for discounted DVDs and books, both of which I love a lot. And sure, he could look for his cell phone case, but I was not leaving until I scoured absolutely every single DVD and book in that store.

We got to Big Lots and I sped for the DVDs. By the time I had looked at every single rack, I had seven DVDs, and I knew I wanted King of California (as a Santa Clarita souvenir, since part of it was filmed here, including at the Costco we have, and also because it represents the Santa Clarita I knew in these 8 years, the peaceful side trying to get out, but buried under all the plastic bullshit), and Running Mates, a TV movie from 2000 starring Tom Selleck as a presidential candidate with a devoted wife (Nancy Travis) and exes (Laura Linney, Teri Hatcher, and Faye Dunaway) all looking to get him elected president of the United States. I think I saw the trailer on the first disc of the first season of Mad About You when I Netflixed it and wanted to see it because of the presidential campaign aspect, and because I've always liked Tom Selleck, even when he's played the same kind of persona over and over. But as to the other DVDs, such as The Tailor of Panama, Cold Souls, and W., they were dependent on what books I found in that section.

And I found a lot. I first picked up The Good Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood by Sy Montgomery, part of the wave of books about pets that came out after Marley and Me became popular, evidenced by author John Grogan's blurb on the cover of this book. I never read Marley and Me and never will because I'm a dog lover and it's hard enough when it does happen without having to read about it. But a pig's love I can read about.

Then came Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland, The World in Half by Cristina Henriquez, Dog Days: Dispatches from Bedlam Farm by Jon Katz, The First Thing Smoking by Nelson Eubanks, and Arroyo by Summer Wood (owing to my newfound interest in New Mexico, spurred on by The Secret of Everything by Babara O'Neal, which you will find out a little about in the next entry).

In the midst of finding these books, Meridith handed me The Bookseller of Kabul, about a man who provided the population of Kabul with books for 30 years, even through oppressive regimes. I know that I've been given a gift with my passionate love for reading, and I want to try to spark this in others, which is why I've been researching literacy organizations, especially impressed with the ones that give books to children of low-income families, giving them the chance to see what reading is and what it can become for them. I've found one based in Henderson that I want to be part of when my family and I finally move there, and that's why I sparked to The Bookseller of Kabul. I'm thinking of starting it after I'm done with The Secret of Everything.

While I selected these books, I gradually got rid of The Tailor of Panama, Cold Souls, W., and Carole and Lombard. I had chosen the latter because I wanted to see how James Brolin portrayed Clark Gable, but given a choice between movies and books, I'll take the books every time. Plus, I was adding up $3 and $3 and $3 and $3 and so on and didn't really want to pay well over $30 for my haul. There was one nice find in the gray $3 label on The World in Half corresponding to the book being only $2. But I still didn't want to pay so much.

At the register, after Mom, Dad and Meridith were done, Meridith was keeping closer tabs on the prices of my books than I was, only because she wanted to see that The World in Half scanned as $2. But then, something incredible happened: One book scanned as $0.50, after The World in Half. Then another. Then The First Thing Smoking scanned as $3, followed by three more $0.50 books. I ended up paying only $14.68! It felt like I had put 50 cents over and over into those sticker and other miscellaneous machines you found at the entrance of various stores with all those generally useless but fun plastic trinkets, and gotten something very cool every time.