A Year in Reading: Elissa Schappell

December 22, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 2 min read

These two books were a blast of double-barreled lady fun.

coverKaren Russell, who first put a bite on my heart with her astonishing debut short story collection, Saint Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, this year sank her teeth in, with the audaciously imagined debut coming-of-age novel, Swamplandia! (Knopf). Returning to the Everglades and the Bigtree Alligator Wrestling Dynasty family, Russell summons a bizarre yet wholly recognizable world where the boundaries between the living and the dead, the mythical and the mundane are erased, with the ease of a kid swiping a sneakered toe across a chalk drawing on the sidewalk. A world where heroic 12-year-old Ava Bigtree, reeling from the death of her mother (the star of the family’s now-on-the-skids alligator theme park), abandoned by her grief besotted father and her turncoat brother, who has taken a job at the rival theme park The World of Darkness on the mainland, must embark on a solo journey to the Underworld in the hopes of rescuing her older sister Ossie, a libidinous otherworldly girl who has eloped with the ghost of The Dredgeman. As in her earlier works, Russell ponders what is lost when we attempt to tame the wilderness, be it in nature or in ourselves. At what cost do we forfeit magic?

I find reading etiquette books whether they are by Emily Post, Amy Vanderbilt, or Helen Gurley Brown, fascinating and very educational. It’s not all, What sort of spoon does one use for aspic? And, What do I do when his wife answers the telephone? I recently re-read Emily Post’s Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage, copyright 1945, and feel all the better for it. I find this particular book comforting as it focuses on many areas in which I am lacking and wish dearly to improve. For example letter writing. Never again will I write a gloomy, overly long, or boring letter, or a silly letter that can be used against me in a court of law. And, the art of conversation. Because Emily Post has alerted me to the dangers that lurk in the most casual exchanges, stressing, “None but the insane could feel impelled to clutch at a neighbor’s dress and tear it off. Yet the tactless do the comparably unfit thing time and time again” I’m certain I can, with guidance (and unless I’m sauced) avoid being a “chatterer” and a “tactless blunderer.” I will become skilled in how to deliver “a no as friendly as a yes.” I will learn, finally, that in writing and speaking, “simple Anglo-Saxon is best.” Lessons for a lifetime.

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is the author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls and Use Me. She is a contributing editor and the Hot Type book columnist at Vanity Fair, a former senior editor of The Paris Review,,and co-founder and now editor-at-large of Tin House magazine.

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