The Times asked authors to track what they do in isolation. Laura Lippman, the bestselling crime novelist (most recently of “Lady in the Lake”) opens up about her comfort re-reading (including obscure midcentury YA), movie-star Venn diagrams (involving “Shattered Glass” and “Quiz Show”) and her new Twitter selfie routine.
Wednesday, April 8
A 9-year-old makes everything better, even quarantine. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, to quote Dan Jenkins, whose “Baja, Oklahoma” is one of my comfort re-reads. I have always been a big re-reader; it’s my Valium. So these days I am gulping down beloved books, and it’s probably only a matter of time before my all-stars show up in the rotation: “Mildred Pierce,” “Marjorie Morningstar,” “When She Was Good,” “Valley of the Dolls,” the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace. But my perennial re-read is a YA series about a Denver teenager named Beany Malone, written by Lenora Mattingly Weber.
I can read new things, but it helps if they are tight and focused. “Weather,” by Jenny Offill. “The Glass Hotel,” by Emily St. John Mandel. A Didion tribute that was included when I signed up for a surprise box from Booknerds, which tailors the contents based on an online questionnaire. I buy books every week from independent bookstores that are doing online orders. I’ve bought at least 25 books since March 17.
My daughter has been out of school for three weeks, but this was the week we began “distance learning,” with daily videos. Her language arts module centers on Greek mythology, which I love. Before we had online lessons, I created my own mythology classes, using “D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths.” I made a family tree for the 14 Olympians, showed my daughter the Roman names for the gods, explained how the planetary names lined up with the gods’ characteristics. I was quite smug about my lesson plan, but I still plan to write my state senator and demand that teacher salaries be quintupled.
I find watching new things much harder than reading new things. The exception is “The Plot Against America,” which my family watched on demand tonight. This marks the first time that my daughter has been able to see her father’s work, which skews, um, adult. Because I am forever making wonky little Venn diagrams for the television shows and movies I love, we also have been watching “Quiz Show” this week. It not only stars John Turturro, who plays the rabbi in “Plot,” but it centers on something that Philip Roth clearly found fascinating, the rigging of game shows in the 1950s.
I reminded my husband of this and then asked if he had ever read Nora Ephron’s piece in “Scribble Scribble” that made Richard Goodwin (played by Rob Morrow in “Quiz Show”) sound like he could be a real prick. But, man, every time I watch “Quiz Show,” I catch a new perfect detail in Paul Attanasio’s script. “Capped teeth,” Herbie Stempel’s wife says, when Herbie’s trying to absorb the news that Goodwin is a Jew.
I gave an interview, via Zoom, to Nancy Giles for CBS Sunday Morning about how I have started doing this weird thing every day in which I dress up and share the photos with social media. I was inspired by the writer Rachel Syme, who suggested on Twitter that people put on fabulous clothes on Sundays, then upload photos. The second I did it, I was hooked. So I put on an outfit every day and take a selfie. I may immediately take it off, but I perform this little ritual every day.
I take these photos in my bedroom, which means two towers of books are visible in the background. Some people think they are precarious piles, but they are actual shelves, ones that work well in a row house. I have promised to take a close-up photo of the titles when the world enters its next phase, whatever that is.
I also wrote. Some of my writer friends are amazed I’m working, but for what it’s worth, the manuscript is late and I’m having trouble meeting my daily quota of 1,000 words. Today I wrote 953 words, but it was a complete chapter. The next novel is shot through with little memories, and I am trying to get the experience of memory exactly right. There’s no hindsight in memories, not really. I’m obsessed with memory. Beware of anyone who says they have a good one; what they really have is an adamant one.
Then I filled the tub with Vitabath and read “Something Borrowed, Something Blue,” about Beany Malone’s wedding to the literal boy next door. Beany struggles with a tragic flaw, a quick temper and a terrible pride, which makes it difficult for her to apologize for the things she does when angry. Later, Weber wrote another series, about a girl named Katie Rose, and Beany, now married with children, sometimes shows up as a minor character and she’s always happy and wise and has no problems.
I just realized how much I learned about POV from Lenora Mattingly Weber.
As I mentioned, I make these Venn diagrams of my favorite programs/movies in my head. My No. 1 Venn diagram centers on Luke Kirby, who appears in “Slings & Arrows” and “Shattered Glass,” which are my desert island video picks. (Also “Show Me a Hero,” “The Deuce” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” but I, for one, am not shipping Midge and Lenny Bruce.) Today, while making matzo from scratch — we were assembling a late Passover care package for an elderly relative; there is no matzo in my local grocery store — I watched the final episode of S&A. If I had positioned myself so my tears fell on the matzo, I guess I wouldn’t have needed to salt it.
Other actor Venn diagrams worth making: Stephen Root, but I think that one’s kind of obvious. Joan Cusack. Diedrich Bader (whose circle overlaps Root’s because of “Office Space”). Hank Azaria (“Shattered Glass”!). It’s really shocking how many great performers are in “Shattered Glass.”
Mark Blum, the actor who died of COVID-19 on March 26, also was in “Shattered Glass.” I wouldn’t put him in my Venn diagram pantheon, but after his death, we watched “Desperately Seeking Susan” and “Crocodile Dundee” back to back.
Care package assembled, I impulsively grabbed Madeline Miller‘s “The Song of Achilles” from one of my towers of books. On the drive back from delivering our cooler of brisket, matzo and charoset, I read aloud the first two chapters to my husband and daughter.
My tower of books reminded me of a poster that used to hang in my daughter’s bedroom when she was a toddler, an Arnold Lobel illustration that showed a lion who lived in a house of books. Our nighttime ritual was walking around my daughter’s room, holding her in my arms, while I sang what we called the “Nightie-Night Song.” There was a different verse for each beloved object, a verse for all her relatives, and even a verse about the poster. (“Imagine living in a house made of books!/ I bet it’s just as much fun as it looks!”)
The refrain was: This is the nightie-night song. We sing it all night long. We know that nothing goes wrong. If we sing the nightie-night song.
I realize now that the ritual was stolen from — of course — a book, the final entry in the Betsy-Tacy series, “Betsy’s Wedding,” Tacy’s husband has a similar nighttime ritual for their small son. “And we go to the windows and say good night/ To the moon and the stars that shine so bright/ And we go to bed and everything’s right. ”
“Betsy’s Wedding“ ends as the country heads into World War I, more than a hundred years ago. Right now, it feels as if I sang the nightie-night song more than a hundred years ago.