Last week, my mother asked for some book recommendations. She had some time between semesters, and she wanted to pick up a few things to read. I sometimes get a little nervous recommending things because I don’t want to suggest something I love to someone I love, only to have them hate it. I’ve done it, and I’ve had it done to me. I disliked a movie called Dogville so much, I actually called my friend Ali, who had recommended it, and yelled at her a little.
Picking out books for my mom is especially tricky. When we go shopping, sometimes she holds something up and asks what I think about it. I always ask: “For you or for me?” Because those are two different answers. I have an idea what she likes, but I’m not sure much of what I’m reading would appeal to her. Months ago, I’d given her some mysteries I liked, but she was in the mood for something different now.
A few years ago, my Grammy discovered Jan Karon’s Mitford series about an Episcopal rector living and working in a small town. She cornered me at a family gathering to tell me about them. “Oh, they’re wonderful. They’re so funny and sweet. They’re just nice books. They’re not pornographic or anything. They’re just really good, nice stories.” She placed it on the sofa beside me and patted it affectionately. My first thought was that I’ve not only read some books that probably fall within her definition of “pornographic,” but I’ve read a fair number of books about pornography. And strippers. Not to mention burlesque and an excellent book about brothels in Nevada. Oh, and once I watched American Pimp with a stranger on his laptop as I was flying home for Christmas. What can I say? I’m a naturally curious person, but I don’t tell my Grammy this.
She left the book with me and headed into the kitchen, so I was pretty sure that was her way of suggesting I check it out. I flipped through it a bit and glanced over at Mom, who’d been reading the series as well. “Would I like this?” I asked her, holding it up for her to see.
“But you like them.”
“Yeah, they’re good. They’re sweet.” It was weird to have my mom basically say: That’s more for me; not so much for you. I like to think of evaluating and divvying up pop culture as my job.
That afternoon, my Aunt Meg spotted the book where Grammy had left it for me, and where I had left it for someone who is not me, apparently. She picked it up, “Oh, these are great books.”
“Grammy was telling me about it,” I said.
She smiled as she read the cover, “They’re these really sweet stories about quirky characters in this small town. And you’ve met people who are exactly like that. She’s very funny.”
“I think Grammy thought I might want to read them.”
Meg gave me a look that suggested I’d said something cutely absurd. She paused for a moment before saying with great certainty, “Oh, I don’t think so.” She softened it with a gentle laugh.
Part of me knew she and Mom were right. The last book I read was called Men, Women, and Chain Saws, which was an academic analysis of women in horror films, and I’m currently reading about the Leopold and Loeb murder in the 1920s. But something nagged at me about the turn the conversation kept taking: “Here is something nice, sweet, wholesome, wonderful. It has all these fine, upstanding qualities, that we find both satisfying and enjoyable. It’s not really your thing.”
What do you say to something like that? The best I could do was a feeble, “I like The Andy Griffith Show.” Which is true, but somehow it seemed like a weak defense when someone implies that you might not have a soul. In college, I was sometimes accused of hating love, and I joke occasionally about being heartless, but suddenly, I was starting to wonder if maybe my family was trying to tell me something. I read a few paragraphs in the hopes that maybe this would be the day my heart grew three sizes. They were fine. I smiled once or twice, but after less than two pages, I had to admit that it really wasn’t my thing. I took consolation, as I sometimes do, from Dorothy Parker. “But I shall stay the way I am / because I do not give a damn.”
Now, in addition to the problem of my inability to feel human emotions–or at least the nice, sweet, positive, happy ones–my mom was looking for something new to read. I’d been going through Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist with an eye for possible things she might like, but the solution came from a library patron. She was in a creative writing class I taught. We were talking on the first day about what kinds of things we read, and she pulled out a book by a guy named Philip Gulley. She described the book as part of a series of “sweet, funny books.”
Sounded familiar. I bought the first book and sent it to my mom as a late Christmas present.