Reading: 2 Debut and 1 New to me Novelists

In this post I talk about two debuts: Thomas Pierce’s The Afterlives, and Mira T. Lee’s Everything Here Is Beautiful, and one new-to-me novelist: Joan Silber’s Improvement, which is the 3rd of the 5 finalists in the fiction category for the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Awards (click HERE), the winner of which will be announced March 15, 2018 — which will maybe give me time to read the two remaining fiction nominees.

The Afterlives, Thomas Pierce, Hardcover, 384pp, January 2018, Riverhead Books

Jim Byrd, 33, died — technically — having collapsed in a parking garage from a heart attack. Once revived, he is disappointed to have seen nothing while deceased; no tunnel with its bright light calling him, or deceased relatives to guide him, or any hint of any afterlife at all.

Which leaves him with just life. Real life. And a device called HeartNet embedded in his chest which sends to his phone warnings and notice when his heartbeat is off, and when his rhythms have been corrected by the HeartNet.

He returns to the daily-ness of life in which he is a bank officer who okays a loan for a restaurant which might just have inside it a haunted staircase. This possible supernatural rift in reality, like his lack of after-death experiences, possesses Jim with a need to see and know more, to be able to parse the cosmic mystery of ways of being. And not. To turn might and might not into is or is not. It is telling — and perhaps a little too twee — that Jim becomes involved with The Church of Search.

Jim and his wife, Annie, eventually hunt down a researcher, Sally Zinker, who they first encounter giving a homily at The Church of Search as a hologram — by which the world in this novel is increasingly and often undetectably populated — and who claims to have invented something called The Reunion Machine, a near-magical contraption allowing communion with the dead and direct experience with the plasticity of time.

As we experience Jim’s story, we are doing our own time-traveling-communion with the dead, being given bits and pieces of the lives of those who died decades ago who may or may not be the specters haunting the staircase.

Jim sometimes doubts whether he survived the cardiac event, wondering if he is hallucinating his life experiences, how real are they? How real is he? What, in fact, is real? And more, what does it matter what is or is not real outside of one’s own mind?

This is a novel which explores existential doubt and the perplexing, confounding mystery of being alive without becoming heavy-handed or dime-store philosophical. It moves quickly, the writing is lovely, competent and often funny, and even more often insightful without pounding home points; it’s subtle and wise in the ways it asks questions without then pronouncing facile answers.

I liked it but I didn’t love it, by which I am confused, because it seems I should have. Here’s the thing, I did not love the characters, any of them, and Jim, in particular, in his confusion and self-interest, is a little off-putting — which is on me, because I think I over-identified with his confusion and self-interest and it made me uncomfortable to have to think, “Oh, is my navel gazing this annoying?” Too, I finished this book on February 6, and by the time I started writing this, five days later, I had to pick up the book and re-read parts to remember what it was about. So, bottom line, I liked it, but it didn’t etch itself into me in the way four-star books do. Which is fine. And about me, not it.

Everything Here Is Beautiful, Mira T. Lee, Hardcover, 368pp, January 2018, Pamela Dorman Books

The second debut novel in a row I have read and this one moved and shook and gutted me with its subject matter, rendered in Mira T. Lee’s skillful and devastatingly incisive artistry.

I hesitated to read this novel because it was about a close bond between siblings, one of whom suffers mental illness, and its blurbs contained words like elegiac and disturbing and unflinching, which, to me, means that if the writing is decent I am going to be made distressed and weepy by the story.

Well, the writing was considerably more than decent, it was, in fact, near stunning in both its ability to convey emotional heft and its technical prowess. Switching points of view and from first to close third, the narrative and changes in perspective could easily have been bothersome, distracting, or confusing, but, in this case, each new voice was clear, unique, and felt completely necessary to the telling of that part of the tale at that particular moment. I kept thinking of the story about how Michelangelo’s David was carved from one block of marble that had been twice rejected by other sculptors as too difficult, not rich enough to use; the complex plotting and large-small canvass of well-developed, interconnected characters in Everything Here Is Beautiful feel as if they were waiting for the perfect author to sculpt them from the huge block of possibility they are, into something beautiful and timeless and so very moving.

Trigger (and SPOILER) warning, if you’ve loved someone with mental illness, suffered it yourself, or survived a suicide attempt or the suicide of a loved one, you might want to carefully consider whether you want to read this novel. And be sure to be in a good and strong place before you do. There is a relentless underpinning of sadness, that feeling of hopeless fear one suffers when you have a loved one with mental illness, that never-ending uncertainty, fear of the telephone buzzing, is this the time?

Miranda, older sister, has repeatedly and thanklessly come to the rescue of her brilliant but troubled younger sister, Lucia whose first husband, the one-armed Israeli, Yonah, is left for an Ecuadorian undocumented immigrant, Manuel, with whom Lucia and the child they share, Esperanza, return to Ecuador while Miranda makes a life of her own in Switzerland. Along the way we hear from Miranda, Manuel, the medical staff where Lucia is committed, Lucia herself, Yonah, and the town of Meyer, Minnesota where Lucia goes to care for an ailing Yonah.

Throughout the novel Lucia is tormented by serpents who goad her to behave badly, self-destructively, and toward the end of the book, Miranda in reference to something Lucia has done says:

But the shock, the grief, the stress of it all.

The serpents did it — yes, this is easy to say. But I like to think she simply went out looking for something beautiful.

Three sentences, thirty-three words, managing to capture the coincident horror and hope experienced by someone who loves another with a mental illness; in particular the reductive effect of the simply — with which Miranda doesn’t necessarily erase the shock, grief, and stress, but, rather, as one does when coping with a loved one with mental illness, frames and shapes it in a way as to make it manageable, to ameliorate the guilt and pain, to re-write the mindset and life of that other person for whom one felt responsible into something less painful, to imagine them into something like joy, or, at least, imagine them driven by something other than the pain of their mental illness.

That’s a masterful use of language in a deceptively simple 33 words. And this novel is a masterful construct of fiction in a beautifully complicated 368 pages.

Improvement, Joan Silber, Hardcover, 256pp, November 2017, Counterpoint

I picked this novel up because it is one of the five finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. In doing background reading, I’ve come to understand Joan Silber has quite the cult following among lit-fic types, and I wonder how it is I’m only now discovering her work. Just goes to show, there are great writers out there undiscovered by many readers, even devoted readers who love and live in the world of fiction, as do I.

This is a novel constructed from interconnected short stories in which characters from earlier stories become the focus of the next part of the tale, all of which coalesces into a whole universe in which the people are affected and changed by the decisions and actions of those earlier characters who they may not even know.

The story begins with Reyna, a single mother whose lover, Boyd, is spending a few months at Rikers Island for drug possession that ought not even be a crime. Once released he involves Reyna in an illegal money-making scheme, and her last-minute, split-second decision about what she will and won’t do sets off a chain of events that reverberate and echo through the rest of the stories in the novel. But it isn’t just the future explored, also Joan Silber artfully weaves a tale of Reyna’s aunt, Kiki, and her past in Turkey, to which she fled in her youth, returning years later to America having left behind a husband but bringing along valuable rugs she later sells some of, and one of which has been in Reyna’s apartment, and which, eventually, she too decides to sell in order to perhaps right the wrongs she feels she caused with her decision about Boyd’s scam.

Throughout the short 256 pages of this deceptively easy read, Joan Silber writes with a precision of language and imagery, the effortlessness of which camouflages the layer after layer after layer of connections and motifs about love, motherhood, making amends, family, and the tapestry of life. Reyna wonders when readying to sell the rug given her by Kiki about its provenance, and how little she knows about threads per inch and its age, that rug with which she’d been living was a mystery to her, she was unaware of its worth, not unlike the life she has lived unaware of all the secrets of the warp and weft of the life she has woven.

Improvement by Joan Silber is no less intricate a creation, beautifully made by means of an artistry practiced at this level by very few authors. I recommend it highly.

***********************************************************

In conclusion, this digression; of the five finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Awards I have read Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour [click HERE for what I thought], and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing [click HERE for what I thought], and now Improvement. This leaves Moshin Hamid’s Exit West, and Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I went to my library account on-line to reserve the latter two and there were multiple copies of both available. I thought I’d check the other three nominees; EVERY SINGLE ONE except Sing,Unburied, Sing, had multiple copies available. WHY? They ought all be signed out and have lines of people waiting for them. There are lots of things about this country now that make me sad, angry, bereft, depressed, weepy, enraged, but few things are more disturbing than what I consider to be the root of all the evil and ignorance going on — a lack of intellectual curiosity and development in the population, and a continuing disregard and contempt for educators and education.

We are, in general, determinedly dumb and lazy of thought. There are few things that could not be solved by the simple act of everyone reading a book a week. Or, even, every two weeks. Or, one a month? No wonder people know so little — where would they get their information or learn how to process and interpret life? So irritating.

But, it is what it is, and my goal in these, my declining years, is to spread more Love and Light, and quit with the whining about the darkness, but rather, to eradicate it as much as I can with an open and giving heart, and sharing that with whoever is interested, adding to the illumination.

So dear ones, thank you for brightening my days and life, and for now, here I am, going.

Reading: Mysteries: Veronica Speedwell returns, and the Mitford Sisters debut

Deanna Raybourn and Jessica Fellowes have me talking briefly about their new mysteries set in the past, escapism of the most delightful variety because the NOW is a little too much, so, take me back!

A Treacherous Curse (Veronica Speedwell #3), Deanna Raybourn, Hardcover, 352pp, January 2018, Berkley

In this, the third installment of the Veronica Speedwell series, we get more backstory on her partner in detecting, Revelstoke-Templeton Vane, aka Stoker, as the two investigate the disappearance of a man from Stoker’s difficult and storied past who did him a great wrong.

I am a huge fan of Veronica; she is one of my must-reads along with Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope, M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin, and Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of Three Pines. It is a comfort and a pleasure to have a new adventure with an old friend, especially when you know you can count on reliably amusing and skilled work from a talented author.

Deanna Raybourn imbues Veronica Speedwell with a wit, intelligence, spine, and lust for life that is refreshing and encouraging. I want to be her. In this episode she tangles with Egyptian artifacts, ancient curses, current secrets and scandals, and, as always, the conventions of the times against which, when she brushes up, she quickly dispenses with, making her own way in her own way, unafraid and with great style and aplomb. Too, the language and period detail so seamlessly delivered in these pages, offered in context so it is clear about what is being said, its meaning, its use, is the sign of a truly talented and thoughtful author. Deanna Raybourn manages not only to regale us with a cracking good story in a page-turning thrill ride, but she also educates and delights along the way. Much admiration for her.

Speaking of which, too, if you haven’t, you ought to follow Deanna Raybourn on Twitter [click HERE], because she is every bit as charming, witty, intelligent, and possessed of great style and aplomb as her creation, Veronica.

The Mitford Murders (Mitford Murders #1), Jessica Fellowes, Hardcover, 432pp, January 2018, Minotaur Books

Louisa Cannon, a poor, young woman from the lower-classes in 1919 England, in an effort to escape her abusive uncle, manages to land a position in the household of the Mitfords — the real Mitfords given fictional life in this, the first in a series by Jessica Fellowes.

Louisa becomes close to daughter, Nancy, who yearns to escape the nursery and become an adult, and on the way to her 18th birthday celebration and becoming a grown-up, she and Louisa become involved in a mystery to do with the death of Florence Nightingale Shore — another real person made fictional whose murder actually did go unsolved. Not here.

Through a series of adventures and misadventures, a twisty plot of missteps and mistaken (or stolen?) identities, and connections as intricate and dependent upon one another as the spokes of a well-woven spider’s web, mysteries are solved, love found and lost, redemption achieved, and villains vanquished; all of this done with style and quickly paced, a lovely distraction of despicable behavior made entertaining.

*************************************************************************************************

So, there you have it, my dears: two delicious diversions from current events into which I sank myself, with much gratitude, over the past few days. I’ve been busy with family and dear friends and my own medical adventures, so I really look forward at day’s end (or in doctors’ office waiting rooms) to having an engrossing other world and time into which I can sink. If you, too, need to get away, both of these are great choices, along with my other favorite series mentioned earlier.

Okay, people await my presence. So, here I am, going.

 

Reading: Looking Back to Move Forward; 2 from the 1950’s

Today talking about James Baldwin’s 1956 novel, Giovanni’s Room, and Barbara Comyns’s 1950 novel, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths.

Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin, Paperback, 176pp, 2013 Vintage edition, originally published in 1956 by Dial Press

I’ve been doing a lot of looking back in an effort to decide how best to move forward, said reflection having led to my decision that my 2018 year in reading would include at least one backlist book from my massive “To Be Read” stacks for every new release I read. Considering my advanced age and long experience as gay man, one would think I’d have read all the classics of the Queer canon but because of my devotion to another queer author, Garth Greenwell, whose What Belongs To You is one of my favorite books of all time (click HERE for my love letter to it and Mr. Greenwell) and my searching out all his work, I found his appreciation for James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, (click HERE for that article) and realized though I thought I had, I had never read it. I didn’t even own a copy. So, while I have managed to read a backlist book, I didn’t reduce the To Be Read pile.

David, an American expatriate in 1950’s Paris, whose “girl”, Hella, has awayed to Spain to contemplate his marriage proposal, becomes involved with Giovanni. Torn by the conflict between his powerful erotic and emotional attachment to Giovanni and the cultural and internalized homophobia that terrifies him, David is unable to commit to any path, to face his own truth, to come to terms with himself, admitting: “I do not know what I felt for Giovanni. I felt nothing for Giovanni. I felt terror and pity and a rising lust.”

James Baldwin tells us the ending from the beginning; we know that Giovanni has been sentenced to the guillotine, Hella has headed back to America, and David is a mess of guilt, self-hatred, and doubt.

David’s shame is a difficult and painful read, particularly now when homophobic-fascist bigots are determined to undo hard-won LGBTQ progress toward equality and turn back the clock to the atmosphere of shame and second-class citizenship for everyone but white-hetero-cis-males of a certain upper-economic level, efforts at which have increased hate crimes against the LGBTQ community by 700% so far since 45 took office.

Yet, even though it is emotionally eviscerating, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room is an invaluable portrait of a particular time and attitude in our history, and reminder of why it is so important we not go back. And the language! James Baldwin’s writing is spare, but utterly evocative, managing to capture an era in the exchange of a few sentences between David and Jacques, the older gay man who has helped David, lusted for David, and for whom David has little use except to use. In the following exchange, Jacques and David are in a bar with Giovanni when Jacques asks David if he intends to write Hella and tell her about his feelings for Giovanni. Listen:

“I really don’t see what there is to write about. But what’s it to you if I do or I don’t?
He gave me a look full of a certain despair which I had not, till that moment, known was in him. It frightened me. “It’s not,” he said, “what it is to me. It’s what it is to you. And to her. And to that poor boy, yonder, who doesn’t know that when he looks at you the way he does, he is simply putting his head in the lion’s mouth. Are you going to treat him as you’ve treated me?”
You? What have you to do with all this? How have I treated you?”
You have been very unfair to me,” he said. “You have been very dishonest.”
This time I did sound sardonic. “I suppose you meant that I would have been fair,  I would have been honest if I had — if —”
“I mean you could have been fair to me by despising me a little less.”
“I’m sorry. But I think, since you bring it up, that a lot of your life is despicable.”
“I could say the same about yours,” said Jacques. “There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one’s head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain. You ought to have some apprehension that the man you see before you was once even younger than you are now and arrived at his present wretchedness by imperceptible degrees.”
There was silence for a moment, threatened, from a distance, by that laugh of Giovanni’s.
“Tell me,” I said at last, “is there really no other way for you but this? To kneel down forever before an army of boys for just five dirty minutes in the dark?”
“Think,” said Jacques, “of the men who have kneeled before you while you thought of something else and pretended that nothing was happening down there in the dark between your legs.”
I stared at the amber cognac and at the wet rings on the metal. Deep below, trapped in the metal, the outline of my own face looked upward hopelessly at me.
“You think,” he persisted, “that my life is shameful because my encounters are. And they are. But you should ask yourself why they are.”

It wasn’t so very long ago — my youth, in fact, and I am now in my 50’s — when, in much of the world, the sort of liaisons Jacques had were the only possible type for men who lusted for men. There was no possibility of being openly homosexual, and the puritan attitudes Americans had (and have) about sex coupled with culturally embedded homophobia, made it nearly impossible for gay men (and women, though it was a very different experience but no less dangerous and fraught) to have a positive self-image, to escape childhood, adolescence, adulthood without some measure of self-hate, which often went unrecognized, or, even, was congratulated. Both Jacques and David in the above exchange are displaying internalized homophobia and sex-negativity.

And, yet, Giovanni’s Room was considered too homo-positive when first published, when, in fact, it is a validation of homophobia and self-hate. As I said earlier, I thought I had read most of the Queer Canon through the years, and I did, but looking back, so much of the earlier literature was full of guilt and internalized homophobia and tragedy and struggle — all of which were reflective of Queer experience for much of this country’s existence. Dancer from the Dance, City of Night, Faggots, A Boy’s Own Story, Brideshead Revisited, and so many others, all full of inchoate yearning, once satisfied leading to tragedy, sorrow, ruin.

It’s time for a new literature, for which we must create a new world, the beginning of which is not going back to before. It’s time to undo the disaster or November 2016, restore order and the march toward equality for all, and end the patriarchy. Today. So that for a generation very soon to be, Giovanni’s Room will read as a horror story, unbelievable that attraction and love could cause such agony.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, Barbara Comyns, Paperback, 214pp, 2013, Virago Modern Classics UK, originally published in Great Britain in 1950 by Eyre & Spottiswode

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths introduces itself to you as a piquant, twee even, romp about young artists types falling in love, defying family, living on little money and lots of love. But soon, Barbara Comyns skillfully twists the fairy-tale-horror-story knife into your unsuspecting gut and takes the reader down the rabbit hole of poverty-stricken young wife and mother, abandoned emotionally, financially, and physically by a husband who turns out never to have loved her and who she realizes she never loved either.

I have never read anything like this, which is to recommend it highly. It is startlingly modern in attitude and experience, despite its having been written nearly 70 years ago, which, as with my recent exploration of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and its depiction of the horrors of Queer life in the 1950’s, is somewhat terrifying that we have not come further along in insuring equality for all people regardless of gender, race, age, sexuality, etcetera.

Sophia, twenty-one, over objections from the family, marries Charles, a painter who only rarely manages to finish a canvas he doesn’t then paint over again. Domestic bliss is short-lived and when Sophia becomes pregnant, Charles is angry and resentful. Things get worse from there. With changing perspectives and shifts in time and attitude, Barbara Comyns writes in an entirely unique and extremely assured voice. She veers from wit — dry and sardonic — to pathos, but never melodramatic mush, just up-front, out there, here it is ugly-life recounting. It is never clear exactly what she is doing until she’s done it, and one is gobsmacked by the power of the prose, plotting, and execution. For me, it was a bit like Flannery O’Connor; a naked, eager naiveté, relentlessly honest, almost too private a view into the events, as if we’re eavesdropping on someone’s therapy session — only, the someone is terribly interesting, amusing, and moving.

Read it. The ending — I am happy to say — offers some hope. And who can’t use a little of that?

**********

So, there they are, reads 7 and 8 for 2018, both from the 1950s, both part of my effort to read more widely, not just the new buzzy books, but the old buzzy books as well. And, sadly, both describe social attitudes and inequalities that one would think we’d have remedied in seventy years. And we haven’t. So, there is more to do, my friends. More. Although I am not sure what that “more” is or means for me, like I said at the start, I am looking back to determine how I ought move forward. And as with everything else in my life, I find literature to be helpful in the pursuit — our past is prologue and what better way to explore and know it, to try to experience it, than through the reading of fiction from the past by gifted writers. I have history to learn. And future to sculpt. And so, the answer is to explore all that “more” waiting out there to be read, thus, here I am, going.

 

 

 

Reading: Vanity, Humanity, Urbanity

Reading The Vanity Fair Diaries, by Tina Brown; The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, by Denis Johnson; and Neon In Daylight, by Hermione Hoby, which are reads number 4, 5, and 6 for 2018 and that makes for four new releases and only two from my backlog/older books resolution; so, next up I have James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room on top of the pile, waiting to go.

The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992, Tina Brown, Hardcover, 436pp, November 2017, Henry Holt and Company

I’m not quite sure how or why, but one day in my mailbox this showed up, a gift from Henry Holt and Company. I felt all aflush with self-importance, briefly deluding myself I’d achieved Literati status, recognized as an influencer, someone who mattered, a small-pond version of the very sort of person Vanity Fair has always covered.

I was quickly disabused of said delusion when the other thing in the mailbox was a notice of a fine being charged for falling below the minimum balance in my bank account. And so it goes for most of us, on the one hand imagining that at any moment one’s fame-ship will come in, while on the other hand daily coping with the drudging monotony of keeping one’s head above water, which dichotomous struggle perhaps explains the appeal of Vanity Fair.

When Tina Brown was called from London to rescue the quickly sinking revival of the magazine which heyday had ended in the mid-1930s, there was much snark and snipe in the vicious world of New York media. But Brown had her finger on the pulse of the Zeitgeist and her focus on the beautiful and the aspirational, with some Hollywood and international royalty, scandal, and hard news thrown into the mix, created a publishing behemoth, raking in subscribers, ad revenue, great writers and photographers, and exclusives throughout the age of Reagan and the wretched excess of selfish me-firstness that resulted in the collapse of markets and bubbles, which somehow managed to give birth to the atmosphere that’s landed this country with a bigoted, ignorant white supremacist fascist in the White House and his like-minded, equally venal and avaricious, jackbooted cronies and racist, moronic followers supporting his nefarious, treasonous destruction of what once was America.

Ironically, the latest version of Vanity Fair has done all it could to take down 45, while, arguably, this magazine was part of creating the slimy milieu which gave birth to him; he was much covered in the 80s version. A problem here being this conundrum: Was Tina Brown’s contribution her uncanny ability to spot trends, or, did she help to manufacture them — the fads, the people, the behaviors — by determining them worthy of coverage and assaulting us with them?

I leave those questions for sociologists in the future — on the off-chance we have a future — and suggest to you that whether or not you’ll enjoy the book has to do with where you were and what you were doing from 1983-1992 and how you feel about it now. When Vanity Fair re-booted in the 1980s I was living with my aunt with whom I shared a Dorothy Parker/Algonquin Round Table obsession; we imagined the new Vanity Fair heralded a renaissance of witty, literate writing and a more sophisticated cultural discourse. Alas, this was not to be. So, for me, reading these diaries and remembering the covers and articles of which Tina Brown writes, brought on a melancholy, because not only did shallow grasping stay in vogue, but, too, it was the decade when AIDS got its terrible claws into the country and exposed just how bigoted and hateful a country, its government, and many of its people could be.

And look, now, we haven’t learned a thing, have we?

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, Denis Johnson, Hardcover, 207pp, January 2018, Random House

I confess that I have never read Jesus’ Son or anything else Denis Johnson has written, but I know he has a cult of devoted — obsessive, even — fans. I get that and were I at a different place in my life, or, were the world in  better shape than it is, the relentless hopelessness and sorrow that serve as foundation to all these stories might not have made them almost unbearable for me.

That said; I wish I could achieve one iota of the beautiful artistry conveyed in every of Denis Johnson’s words, choices, silences, and ideas. His use of language is breathtaking in its ability to convey worlds in so few words, and lives in so few pages, and I would go on, but there are far more skilled reviewers of books and writers who have gone at some length concerning the glory of Denis Johnson’s writing, and this slim and posthumous volume in particular, and so I leave you to them and their wisdom.

For me, the sad, bleak, hopelessness of these dark worlds was too much, too heavy to make worth it the admittedly brilliant writing. That’s personal, so to speak further to it is unfair to Denis Johnson and anyone considering reading this volume — which could serve as master class in the art of short story writing.

Neon In Daylight, Hermione Hoby, Paperback, 288pp, January 2018, Catapult

Three things you know if you follow my book discussions/blog: 1) I have chosen a simple life which means I live on an income level below poverty and so buy books only with my closely guarded gift card collection and only those by authors I know I love and must have, or, that I cannot otherwise get and feel I MUST read: such was the case with Neon In Daylight, which was not available through the library.

2) Another thing you’d know were you a follower of mine is that I am obsessive about my adoration for Joan Didion, and, too, Renata Adler’s novels. So, when a blurb compared Neon In Daylight‘s author, Hermione Hoby, to those two writers, I was further encouraged to use my gift cards for purchase.

3) And, one more thing you’d know if you followed me, I have developed a healthy distrust for blurbs — but, there are some exceptions; Blurbs by Writers I Admire and Trust. So, when Ann Patchett blurbs a book, comparing it to The Great Gatsby and Bright Lights, Big City, I listen.

In addition to all that, it also had going for it that it took place in New York City, which usually is enough to reel me in, and it was an Indie Next pick.

Maybe my expectations were too high.

New York, 2012, Kate has arrived in Manhattan, from England, where waits for her return a boyfriend she is mostly sure she means to leave behind permanently. She becomes involved with wasted, alcoholic, used-to-be writer, Bill, and meets cute the hedonist, hipster, free-spirit-near-nut-job, Inez, who turns out to be Bill’s daughter.

For me, the voices were just slightly off; the ennui wasn’t eviscerating in the way Joan Didion can make emptiness feel with its diamond sharp edges cutting through all the distractions meant to hold our attention, those actions in which we indulge to keep us from noticing the vacancies in the middle of our lives and hearts, but, rather, in Neon In Daylight, the ennui came across more as apathetic tedium, the characters rather tiresome whiners. It was more pose than actual life-experience and felt put-on, played at.

That said, the writing was in many places marvelous. But, right now, for me, reading about vapid urbanites completely self-absorbed in their dissatisfaction with their privilege is not something in which I am interested. And New York wasn’t so much a character as it was an idea we were left to fill in.

I think this the work of a promising author whose first effort comes close to something but doesn’t — just for me, now — quite make it over the finish line of having spent gift card money on it.

************

And there it is, 2018’s books 4 through 6, all new. I have already finished reading numbers 7 and 8, both back-list, and will be posting about those as soon as I can get to it. Busy life right now; it’s all I can do to squeeze in time to read, let alone write about reading. So, on that note, here I am, going.

Momma Memories

I’m a bit MIA for a while. Lots going on. In the meanwhile, this:

Friends, on January 31 my mother will be 90 years old. This weekend her children, their children, and their children, and a few select other relatives will gather to celebrate her at a party where we thought it would be fun to have ALL her favorite foods, even if she took only one bite of each thing, or, even, just looked at it, and so we divided the nearly thirty choices among ourselves and have all been busy trying to find rhubarb for pie in January and arranging for her favorite restaurant to put together a crab imperial to be picked up, hot, in time for the Saturday luncheon and so on and so on. She’ll be horrified that we did all this, by the way, and insist she doesn’t deserve it. And she deserves so very much more.

That in mind, we’re all trying to put into words some of our memories of her, to be collected into a volume for her to keep. I wanted to share mine with all of you.

MEMORIES OF MOMMY

Studies show that when recalling events, the past is colored by the experiences and distance between then and now; maybe more-so in my case because for so long I was involved in arts where heightening and embellishing reality in order to communicate the core-truth of the story was part of the job. So, even if my memories appear the apocryphal gildings of a fabulist, they are core-truths from my heart.

It was a dark, dark night, and I was wakened because I couldn’t breathe, every inhalation caused an attack of excruciating, stabbing pain, and like one of those nightmares in which no matter how hard you try you can’t move or speak, I was trying to call for Mommy but never made a sound. But, somehow, she heard me. She knew. She was there, by my bed, holding on to me, giving me breath again.

I had pleurisy. Mommy had to work. And though it was, I recall, an issue, since I was still, then, the sweet, obedient, pre-adolescent version of myself, I was left home, alone. It was the first time I had ever been by myself; the television and couch were mine, all mine, and I could read as much and as long as I wanted without being told to go outside. It was heaven, and the beginning of my passion for solitude and seclusion, for regular time in rooms empty of any energy but my own. And I could revel because I had the phone beside me, and the absolute knowledge that every day at lunchtime, Mommy would come home to make me chicken noodle soup.

Fast forward; some forty years later.

It was a dark, dark night of an entirely different kind when I wakened to the realization breathing required an effort I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to continue making; so riven to shreds was my heart by unthinkable, near unendurable losses, it felt impossible for me to articulate my sorrow or slog through it.

Coincidentally, this was the same time I began sharing with sister Debbie the privilege of regular days and times with Mommy.  It was rather a huge change for me, this new world of hairdressers in KKK-land; over-crowded, overbooked, understaffed doctors’ waiting rooms and offices often unresponsive and  inattentive to the needs of seniors; grocery stores, grocery stores, grocery stores and the search for products sure to be discontinued as soon as they became a Mommy-must-have; Olde Towne Jewelers in Walkersville to change bands for and replace batteries in watches, of which she apparently had an infinite supply; and, of course,  the holy trinity of J.C.Penney, Boscov’s, and — for the first time in my life and against all I had held up to that point holy — the mecca: Walmart.

At first, I admit, I wasn’t completely comfortable. I not only felt out-of-place on the Mommy-tour, but I also worried I didn’t have enough to say to keep Mommy interested, that I wasn’t as fun as Debbie, that Mommy and I had for so long operated in such very different worlds it left me feeling awkward about my life, worried I had disappointed her, that I was not the person she deserved me to be, for which I knew, like everything else, she would blame herself.

Then, one day in a week when something particularly unpleasant had been aimed at me, something I’d been trying to keep from her and everyone else, she looked at me and said, “Something’s wrong.” I did my fake smile, tried to play it off and she said, “Charlie, don’t lie. I can tell.”

Those six words broke me open. In a gushing rush of weeping, swearing, ranting, anger and sorrow and fear and regret I told her everything. Later that day, over our Roy Rogers two piece chicken meals, Mommy casually said something very revealing about herself that I had never heard, trusted me with a truth of her own, and I knew we were in a new place.

I apologized for my crazy and promised I would never again hide things from her, I would not withhold truth or play games with it, making a pact we’d trust that whatever it was we had to say or tell, the other could take it. On the way home, in the car, she reached over and took my hand and said, “I like being with you. Thank-you.”

Once again, just like the pleurisy night, she’d heard me. She knew. She was there, by my side, holding on to me, giving me breath again.

Dearest Mommy, I love you with all the truth I have. Thank-you for allowing me to be me; for waiting for me to grow out of my adolescent brattiness (almost there!), and letting me go and come back, and for trusting me, and, most of all, for all the times you have given me breath, for every day of my life, especially the ones I share with you.

May the Invisible be Visible

I would like you all to read my dear friend, Ann’s, blog. She has some beautiful thoughts, she turns them into beautiful posts. I wanted to share this one in particular.

Ann Davis-Rowe

I want to talk about this book, but also feel like it’s not my story to tell.

I want to talk about how I needed a light read, but this was overdue from the library and my heart sank when I realized it was by the author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

I want to talk about my love for Maeve Binchy’s sweeping Irish epics that show not everything in the past should be romanticized and how John Boyne showed another aspect to the complicated moral history of the country.

I want to talk about how I grew up in a small, conservative place and it wasn’t until college I heard about Harvey Milk, Stonewall, Marsha Johnson, how it blows my mind that the LGBTQ+ community still has to fight so much.

But it’s not my story to tell.

It’s Cyril’s. Cyril’s and Bastiaan’s and Harvey’s…

View original post 201 more words

READING: New Year, A Resolution, and a fantastic new novel: The Immortalists

In this post I will be talking about The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt; The Sense Of An Ending, by Julian Barnes; and The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin. And about backlog, used, and reprint versus shiny new publications.

The living/dining room shelves I share with my sister. Old treasures, photography books, our childhood books.

I own a lot of books. In addition to the books furnishing my current address (and the photos are not all of them) there are at least as many again living in a friend’s basement-online bookstore awaiting re-sale, and, before those were rescued, another amount at least that large was sold to used bookstores in bulk, donated to libraries and charities, and given away to friends during a number of moves in a very short number of years, and, too, hundreds left behind in a home from which I had quickly to get out, making what amounted to “what do I save in the fire” choices.

This is my desk where I write my blogs — sometimes. Reference books and inspiration and stacks of Twitterati-gifts and mementos, because I like feeling as if I’m working among the people I have met on Twitter, so many of them in the book business or, like me, in love with the book business.

I have, mostly, stopped spending money on books. This is not because I don’t love and adore books, but, rather, because in my life there is an ongoing declension of square footage and annual income. But, I’ve always been lucky and so am blessed to live in a town with a great library, and an even better independent bookstore, The Curious Iguana, to which my dearest of friends frequently give me gift certificates, so I’ve quite an account there. I am also often gifted with cards to a major bookseller chain, and, too, an online behemoth of a book merchant-monopoly. So, I jealously hoard those credits and use them only on authors who I consider “must haves” and books I fall in love with when reading and so want to have around me, with me, permanently part of my life.

Stacks beside the couch in my room, where I sit in the morning — of late, 3 or 4a.m. having become my morning — doing my morning journaling and drinking coffee, or tea, or water.

In order to make room for more, I decided I would need to set free a commensurate amount of the already-owned. Many of those books in these pictures are in the “to be read” category and so for 2018 I made a promise to those stacks — some of which residents have been waiting patiently for years to be held and page-turned — that for every newly published book I read or got from the library, I would read one of those stoic waiters-in-line.

A closet shelf given over to that which is way more valuable to me than clothes: BOOKS! And a fan, to keep them cool and fresh. Yes, I’m a little crazy about books. I’m okay with that.

Thus, two of the three books I talk about here are backlog: The Sense of an Ending and The Sisters Brothers. Interesting petty-Charlie fact: both of those books were Man Booker short listed in 2011, The Sense of an Ending ultimately winning the prize. As a follower of the Man Booker, I was all in that year for Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, and when it didn’t even progress to the short list, I declared all those that did so to be libera non grata. Luckily, I’m bad at remembering a grudge, and acquired copies of Ending and Brothers because others I know or read had written about them. So, here we go.

The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt, hardcover, 328pp, April 2011, Ecco

This is the second of Patrick deWitt’s novels I’ve read, the first having been Undermajordomo Minor about which I said, “It’s seriously playful – or playfully serious, and darkly illuminating or illuminatingly dark. It was very Wodehouse on acid while depressed and horny and homesick. I liked it. I think.” That was two years ago and reaching back, trying to remember, I have only a vague recollection. Not unusual, I read one hundred or more books each year and so it is only the very rare book that sticks — which is no reflection on the writing, but, rather, a snapshot of where I was at the time and whether or not what I read resonated with who I was in that moment.

I’m afraid The Sisters Brothers will turn out to be the same faint flashback. It was certainly different from anything I’ve read, which is a nice plus. The scenes were hard-edged, sharply drawn, yet somehow surreal and dreamlike, as if watching a Coen Brothers film while high. I found most of the characters unlikable, which shouldn’t be a disqualification, but right now, at this point in world history, politics being what they are, I’m perhaps not in a good place to read about self-centered, sociopaths with fungible (at best) morals.

Certainly I missed (or ignored) the deeper meaning, the journey to amorality and back again; killer brothers in the old west, one somewhat less psycho and more empathetic than the other, on a mission of murder for a man even worse than they are, lose everything along the way and return to a home they departed in violence long ago, to the literal bosom of their mother. I just wasn’t into it, what it meant to say about home, family, choices, violence, men, women, lots and lots of things, and I still don’t get how it beat Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child onto the Man Booker shortlist.

The Sense Of An Ending, Julian Barnes, Paperback, 163pp, May 2012, Vintage (originally published August 2011)

This was the winner of 2011’s Man Booker Fiction prize. It was also my first Julian Barnes novel, although, I owned in hardcover and had in my “to be read” stacks his Flaubert’s Parrot and Arthur and George for years having been wowed by their synopses when published, but when I experienced one of my “I have to move again and to an even smaller space” they didn’t survive the purge.

I didn’t love this book. And that made me doubt myself and my erudition because a writer and intellect and human being I very much admire, Glenda Burgess, very much loved this book. You can — and should — read what she said about it here: GLENDA BURGESS REVIEWS Julian Barnes THE SENSE OF AN ENDING.

I am having difficulty articulating what I didn’t like, so I’ll start with what impressed me. The language is beautiful. The artistry of the structure of it, its shape, quite technically stunning. And its themes, the question; What are the limits of responsibility in the matter of how much your choices and actions influence and affect the actions of others? Where does taking responsibility become hubris and/or where does not accepting responsibility become dishonest and self-deluding?

Too, there is the question of how many versions of reality exist, as in, even without going into Einstein and physics theories, we live inside so many parallel universes made of the stuff of differing memories and points of view; we all see things through the filter of our own angles and frames of reference so what is truth? What is reality?

Julian Barnes explores this in what is more novella than novel and, as I said, in beautiful language, technically stunning and it is amazing how much he manages to fit  between the covers in such a few pages.

But … there seemed a disconnect to me between the level of insight, education, and experience of the characters and the ways in which they behaved, the choices they made. In particular, the voice of the narrator, Tony Webster, who I came away feeling couldn’t have been so jealously ignorant of others or ignorantly jealous as to not see what was there to be seen, or, even, not ask the obvious questions. It’s clear he’s not meant to be a completely reliable narrator, that being part of the clever construct of the story, but if the premise is he is grappling with his responsibility for events in other people’s lives, looking for a way of seeing through all the memories to what is an ultimate truth, well then, it felt as if it was more an intellectual exercise in which he’d already decided he really was not that important, thus largely relieving himself of responsibility — at the same time, remaining full of his own sense of self-importance. These dichotomies were not plot points, but rather, the weakness (for me) of the novel.

Like many a privileged white heterosexual male before him (and after him), Tony had the luxury of deciding which of the consequences of his choices he dealt with, in a society built to enable people just like him to have those choices. There is never really anything at risk here but his ego, the possibility he won’t be able to maintain the class-privileged view of himself he was raised to believe his due. And perhaps because that very disease is bringing us closer to Armageddon every day, it was off-putting for me in this novel.

The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin, Hardcover, 352pp, January 2018, G.P.Putnam’s Sons

Oh, how I loved this book. With each new year I carefully curate the first few reads to find one of those “A-HA! THAT! OH, YES!” experiences in an effort to start things off right. Well, The Immortalists was my third book of the year, but in a way similar to last year’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk [click here], —

(I talked about that here [CLICK IT] –and honestly, I cannot imagine another book equaling its effect on me any time soon, but I’m grateful even for coming close.)

— Chloe Benjamin’s novel gave me hope; people are still writing good stories well told, where things happen, movement and action equal to the interiority of the work. Yes. Good damn writing.

In this, the four Gold siblings; Varya,13; Daniel,11; Klara, 9; and Simon,7 on a hot, restless 1969 summer day visit a Roma fortune-teller, who Daniel heard has the ability to tell people the exact date on which they will die. The children enter, one at a time, alone, and emerge forever changed. We follow their stories, one after another, in the order of their deaths, and how each react individually and with one another to the existential threat hanging over them.

The predictions bring an intensity to living, the reminder that time is finite, opportunity to live and experience will be short. And whether or not they believe the predictions — and whether or not we do, or ought to — is never completely answered, the story combining what at first seems magic realism with behavioral insight: does fate happen to each of them or do they, by believing in it, make it happen?

Once I started reading this I was unable to stop, and, luckily (?) for me, I am suffering from pain and steroid-induced insomnia, from which The Immortalists served to distract me far more effectively than any of the painkillers I’ve been using. Thank-you Chloe Benjamin.

In addition to the compelling plotting, there is such accomplished rapid but never rushed pacing, always something moving, plot pieces coalescing in a marvel of literary pointillism that is never obvious or strained but fully engaging, painting vividly the eras through which the Gold siblings lived; there is Aids, 9/11, Afghanistan; and, too, delicate, intricate portraits of each of them and a layering of details proffered piecemeal, creating a literary chiaroscuro which grounds what might have been in less-skilled hands improbable or unbelievable stories in a tale which demands full investment of one’s attention, heart, mind, and appreciation for really damn good writing. There are so many lovely passages and striking lines, I hate to pick any out, but listen to this, close third narration from the heart of Klara after the youngest, Simon, who she convinced at 16 to run away with her to San Francisco, has died.

Still, Klara could not explain to anyone what it meant for her to lose Simon. She’d lost both him and herself, the person she was in relation to him. She had lost time too, whole chunks of life that only Simon had witnessed: Mastering her first coin trick at eight, pulling quarters from Simon’s ears while he giggled. Nights when they crawled down the fire escape to go dancing in the hot, packed clubs of the Village — nights when she saw him looking at men, when he let her see him looking. The way his eyes shone when she said she’d go to San Francisco, like it was the greatest gift anyone had ever given him. Even at the end, when they argued about Adrian, he was her baby brother, her favorite person on earth. Drifting away from her.

Freaking glorious, yes? If you ever lost anyone to death, or anger and disagreement, or distance, then that passage has that piercing ring of “A-HA! THAT! OH, YES!” sort of truth for which one lives when reading, for which as I said early on, I search at the beginning of each new year.

In conclusion, this is a beautiful novel, one of those I got from the library and which I will now need to buy to have with me, always, to join this family of books in which I surround myself. Of course, this means, I need to get rid of another. I think I can do that. Maybe even two.

So friends, thanks for reading. Don’t forget to share your love of their work with the authors who bring you joy. It’s the least we can do for our national treasures.

And for now, here I am, going.

One of my to-be-read (or read again) stacks – I got rid of clothes in my closet to make room for books.

Another closet shelf sacrificed to my to-be-reads, or read-agains.

Stack on the trunk by my bed — books I read in pieces, Miss Hanff is always nearby. When I feel lonely, or miss my aunt (often, she’s the woman who gave me reading) I dive into some Helene Hanff and feel at home and loved and safe.

Living room shelf — these have all been read, many are personal treasures; here live Elizabeth McCracken, Susan Elia MacNeal, Dorothy Parker, Edmund White, Louise Penny, and — well, you get the picture. Dear ones who bring me such joy.

My nightstand. Poetry; Stevie Smith, Edna St.Vincent Millay, Frank O’Hara, and short stories, Lydia Davis, Paul & Jane Bowles, James Purdy, Lucia Berlin, and more, and things move in and out of here.

 

 

 

FOOD: Cauliflower-Cremini Marinara; But First, A Culinary Autodidact Babbles

Before I get to the recipes, a little “singer” of an introduction — and a warning.

Today’s main ingredients.

After a scientific three hour Twitter polling process during which I asked whether or not I ought to start food blogging and received ten or so responses, here I am, going, semi-anew, with more frequent food-centric entries as complement to my book-centric and self-indulgent-navel-gazing-existential-ranting entries (Acronym for which is SINGERS. Hah!).

Note to newbies, even when writing about Books and Food, there is likely to be at least a soupcon of Singer-tone. I’ve been singing since I was a child in both the existential-ranting sense as well as on-stages far and wide, big and small — mostly small.

Which brings me to the autodidact-ism issue.

I left high school shortly after I turned 16, left home and was living on my own by 17 — neither of which leavings were entirely voluntary, and since then I have spent a life wandering and wondering, falling into and out of things and occupations, up until a few years ago no matter what else I was doing, I was also always making theatre as performer, director, producer, and for many years as teacher and coach, all without formal training or degree, my methods and madnesses untutored and often unconventional. I used the same naif approach when I was reviewing theatre and writing weekly Rants&Raves columns for an on-line publication.

My approach to work, creating, life, love, joy, is not so much a method as a Meth-head: I invite the energy into me and see what kid of trip it takes me on.

My adventures in cooking are much the same. As I used to tell my acting students and actors; I’m not here to make you into a star; I’m here to share how I became the best me I can be today, and, I hope, give you the courage and example and safe-space to open your doors to yourself to help you find your best you every day — not just on stage, but everywhere.

So, I’m not a chef. I’m not a nutritionist or dietitian or chemist. I’ve no medical background — unless you count the hours I have spent in various doctors’ offices and labs for myself and ferrying around and advocating for others. I do guess at the calories of my recipes as best I can because I’m trying to eat healthier and cleaner so as to maybe, somehow, a little bit, relieve myself of the ever-morphing symptoms of this mystery immune-system malfunction I’ve been struggling with for the past three years — that said, my calorie counts are unscientific guesses. I don’t always use organic or gluten-free, and am far from gourmet or fancy; if I could, I would regularly have sandwiches of Spam or Cheez-Whiz and potato chips, hors d’oeuvres  of EasyCheese slathered on Chicken-in-a-Biskit crackers, and — well, you get the picture. My palate is neither sophisticated nor rarefied.

I just cook. Because I love it. I love making things for other people. I love screwing around with recipes and seeing what happens. I’m not here to teach you how to cook, I’m here to share my Meth-heads, inviting the energy of the food and the day into your meals, trusting your gut, and GOING! So, here we are.

Now, enough with the SINGER, on to the cooking!

CAULIFLOWER-CREMINI MARINARA

If I could have pasta and pizza all the time, I would. Alas, I am of an age and a blood pressure that I need to watch my carbs, and since I also live with and cook for a diabetic, I am always searching for less-unhealthy ways to approximate pasta and sauce. Cauliflower, all the rage now, is low in calories and carbs, great for diabetics, and full of vitamin C. And I’ve always liked it. Granted, when growing up it was boiled to mushiness then served with a few slices of yellow cheese slapped on top. But here I am, purportedly a grown-up, and although Velveeta now makes cheese slices which would PERFECTLY complement an over-done head of cauliflower, a fellow has to compromise. So, here’s my take on using a good for you vegetable used to make a not so good for you sauce a bit healthier.

Ingredients: For roasted cauliflower
One medium head cauliflower broken into florets
1/4 cup olive oil
2 medium onions, peeled divided into rounds
4-8 garlic cloves (up to you) peeled, crushed, & chopped
pinch red pepper
dash salt
two dashes black pepper
thyme – I used dried because I had no fresh, used about 3 tsp
Ingredients for sautéed mushrooms
12-16 ounces cremini mushrooms, washed and sliced
splash of olive oil
salt and pepper
Italian Seasoning — maybe a tablespoon, I just throw it in till I feel like stopping
¼ cup red wine
Ingredients for completing marinara
28oz can tomato sauce
14.5oz can of fire roasted diced tomatoes
2 cups liquid (I used 1 cup chicken broth, 1 cup beef bone broth because that’s what was in my pantry)
½ tsp anchovy paste
2 tsp double concentrate tomato paste
2 tbs balsamic vinegar
1 tsp garlic powder
2 tsp oregano
3 tsp basil
1 tbs Italian seasoning

Cauliflower, onions, garlic prepped, and oil and spices before whisking. And Her Grace, Duchess Goldblatt, watching o’er me.

ROASTING THE CAULIFLOWER
Set oven to 400 degrees.
Gently separate the cauliflower into florets, putting florets in colander, wash them thoroughly.
Peel your garlic cloves, smash under blade of chef’s knife, then chop well. I used 8 garlic cloves today. Some days, depending on who it is I’m cooking for I might use more or less. You know how much garlic you and yours like, so use your cooking intuition.
Peel 2 medium onions, slice and break into rounds as if you were going to make onion rings.
In a largish bowl combine olive oil, red pepper, salt, and thyme. Whisk well. Empty the cauliflower, garlic, and onions into the bowl and toss until everything is beautifully coated. The aroma will already have you in near ecstasy and we haven’t even put it in the oven yet.
You can now either use a baking sheet covered in parchment paper, or a nice lasagna size casserole which is what I did because I love my Martha Stewart cookware. It’s a thing. Now put it in the 400 degree oven and let it roast for 30 minutes, then get it out and flip it around, and put it back in oven for another 15 to 30 minutes depending on your oven and how roasted brown you like your cauliflower.

Cauliflower after roasting. I might have gone a little browner some days, but today, this was just right.

WHY ROAST THE CAULIFLOWER? I’ll tell you why I decided to do so for this recipe; because I am a meat-lover trying to heal myself of my addiction to the flesh (This could go any number of ways ugly at any second, but I’ll try to control myself — which is becoming a theme, yes? Damn getting older.) I wanted to bring out the deepest flavor in the cauliflower, a richness and almost sweet earthiness that comes with roasting it along with the onions and garlic, creating a really savory flavor with lots of layers. Honestly, once I got this out of the oven, I could just have served this as a main course it was so delicious. You might try that!

These are the mushrooms at the sweating stage, almost ready to add the wine.

MEANWHILE THE CREMINIS
As the cauliflower is roasting, it’s time to saute the mushrooms. Begin, of course, by washing them, then slicing them nicely into flat mushroomy looking flats. Put a nice splash of olive oil into a skillet large enough to put all the mushrooms in one layer and have the skillet on medium heat. I sprinkle the shrooms with salt, pepper, and some Italian seasoning — again, you know how much seasoning you like, so use your own judgement and imagination — try other spices, experiment. Cooking should be fun, an adventure. And honestly, it’s not that easy to ruin food — you have to really try. Many of my experiments have turned out less than delicious, but, they were almost all edible — with the exception of a very unfortunate sweet potato pie where I accidentally used gravy instead of sweet potato in the filling, don’t ask — and trial and error is how we learn almost everything in life. You have to be hands on, reading about it just isn’t the same — take sex for example. What? Oh, right, wrong blogging category. I’ll catch you up later. Where was I?

Adding the wine. When it comes to the nectar of the grape, the fruit of the vine, the nectar of the fruit, I like to have Her Grace looking on to let me know if I’m going wrong.

Right, okay, the mushrooms are now sauteing, and eventually it will be time to add the wine. How will you know when it’s time? I’ll tell you. The mushrooms will begin to soften, and after a bit, maybe ten minutes or so of being gently stirred and warmed and tossed, they will begin to sweat, and release their liquid essence into the pan, at which point you’ll know you’ve successfully exhausted them, you’ve both gotten what you’ve wanted, and it’s time for a drink. Pour in the wine. And, although I’m not a day drinker, or, even, for the most part, a night drinker, I wouldn’t judge you if you had a little nip yourself. You’re bigger than a mushroom, so have more than a quarter cup.

Now, you want to leave the mushrooms wallowing in the wine until they’ve sucked it all up. This doesn’t take long, maybe ten minutes. Watch carefully though, you want to catch them JUST when the pan is dry, don’t let them cook a second longer than that moment of total absorption.

FINISHING THE MARINARA
Okay, so, the mushrooms are drunk and the cauliflower is full-on roasted with its buddies, onion and garlic. What have you been doing while the mushrooms were sauteing and the cauliflower roasting? You’ve been filling a large saucepan with the rest of the ingredients listed above under Ingredients For Completing Marinara. Now, let me explain what I used and why.

What was in my pantry because they were once, somewhere, on sale.

HOW I CHOOSE INGREDIENTS FOR MY CREATIONS
I live on a pretty tight budget, so when staples I know I am going to someday use go on sale, I buy them. My pantry always has a collection of canned tomato products, from sauces to diced to crushed to flavored to paste to whatever I’ve found on sale and had some extra budget for at one of the seven grocery stores from which I peruse flyers and which I regularly visit looking for unadvertised specials; Giant Eagle, Safeway, Food Lion, Weis, Giant, Aldi’s, and I am ashamed and sorry to admit, WalMart. I used to shop now and then at Wegman’s until that unpleasant New Year’s Eve incident where they sent the police to my house, after which I have boycotted them — and, well, they stopped mailing me circulars, too, so it seemed best. In any event, I chose today’s tomato products from that collection — you can easily use others, whatever you have, whatever you like — hell, were it farmers’ market season I’d have used fresh tomatoes.

Everything’s in. Let it come to a boil then reduce heat to simmer, let it do so for hours — I waited six, but more or less is fine. The longer it cooks, the deeper the flavors and the sense of layer after layer of taste.

As far as the two cups of liquid — that too was arbitrary. I could just as well have used vegetable broth, or my own chicken stock which I have some of in the freezer, or water. It’s up to you and about what you like, how closely you watch your sodium, if you’re vegan, etcetera. Your choice. Too, you might want to use more liquid than I did. I happen to like my marinara very thick so that it’s almost a chili-like texture, but if you want it to go further, to be a thinner consistency, again — this is YOUR dish once you start making it. I’m sharing my version, you should have your own.

And speaking of my version, the anchovy paste. I happen to LOVE anchovies but I know lots of people don’t. In fact, some of the people who were here tonight for dinner claim to hate anchovies. So, I didn’t tell them the ingredients. Here’s the thing, the balsamic vinegar works in conjunction with the anchovies to give the sauce a bite, a little kick, an acid-y sort of “OH MY HEAVENS THAT IS AMAZING” kind of sensation without having an actual anchovy-ish taste. But, if you don’t want to buy anchovy paste, I get it, so don’t use it, but if you don’t use the anchovy paste, I wouldn’t use the balsamic vinegar either.

Now, you’ve dumped all this into the pan, add the roasted cauliflower, onion, and garlic, toss in the drunken mushrooms, and do some mashing. I did it with a holey spoon but a potato masher would work just as well. I suppose some people would use an immersion blender to make a smoother sauce, but I wanted a texture to better approximate the feel of a meaty sauce. And, it worked.

So, turn the burner on medium and let the sauce come to a boil and then immediately turn heat down to the very lowest simmer and let it cook for hours. I left mine on for six hours before we ate but either more or less would be fine. Just know, the reason for roasting the cauliflower and sauteing the mushrooms in wine, and using different flavors of liquid, various pastes and spices, is to create really deep and cooperating layers of flavor, and the longer the sauce simmers, the more intense and wedded the flavors, all those parts becoming a beautiful and delicious new whole.

My ingredients yielded about 8 cups of sauce.

Dinner is served; marinara beside a generous cup of spaghetti squash, and with those, a salad of fruit and light veggies, a refreshing contrast to the delicious but heavy main course.

DINNER IS SERVED
So, it’s time to serve the sauce. On what? Well, I used spaghetti squash because — much as I’d like to — I can’t have pasta every day. Or, in fact, lately, ANY day. And the spaghetti squash was fine. Easy to do. Cut it in half. Scoop out the seeds. Rub with olive oil and sprinkle with oregano. Turn cut side down in roasting pan (I used the same one in which I’d roasted cauliflower) and put in 400 degree oven for about 45 minutes to an hour. Check it after 30, ovens vary wildly. Too, you can pour some water in the bottom of the pan, it steams it some and makes it softer. Once you get it out of oven and scrape it from shell into a bowl, feel free to throw in a little yogurt butter and some spice of your choosing — maybe just a little salt, that’s all I added today since the marinara was so flavorful, and toss well.

I served a cup of spaghetti squash next to a cup of the sauce and by my surely flawed count, this was about 250 – 300 calories total. And delicious. Really, really good. I also served a salad of romaine, strips of cucumber, tomato wedges, and cantaloupe, all garnished with chopped, fresh basil, and in one corner, a tablespoon of pesto, and in another corner, a tablespoon of ranch dressing. Pretty tasty and a nice, refreshing complement to the richness of the sauce.

AND I MADE IT!
By which I mean, I made this recipe, I made this dinner, and I made it through my first formal cooking blog. Thanks for sticking with me. I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride, I hope if you try this recipe you’ll love it as much as I did, and I hope — most of all — you’ll be emboldened to try your own experiments and cook from the heart.

And now, here I am, going.

 

 

 

 

Reading: 2017 Revisited

I don’t do “best” lists, because reading is so personal, thus, what follows is a revisit with some of the books that moved me, gave me some relief from the year that was, and maybe, even, some hope. Two absolute requirements for any book to land here: First, when looking over my GoodReads list, the number of stars didn’t matter so much as whether or not I remembered vividly the experience of reading the book; Second, part of that memory must be of the book having given me some comfort.

2017. A year in which my worst fears about the world, about the people with whom I share this planet, fears I have had since childhood about the bullies always winning, fears that those who play dirty and ugly will triumph over those of us who won’t or can’t behave in inhuman, immoral, disrespectful ways, fears that there are many, many people too stupid or venal or hypocritical or bigoted themselves to see through the venal, bigoted hypocrites plundering the world and mocking those many, many fools who’ve gullibly fallen for their b.s. and, too, sneering at the rest of us who are on to them but can’t seem to stop them; all of these fears interfered (interfeared?) with my ability to enjoy and focus on reading.

Still, I managed to finish reading 145 books, which is only a portion of the number I began, but this was not the year to screw with me: If I didn’t like the first 30-50 pages, I didn’t continue. I mean, hell, life is already dark enough, and the national disgrace seems determined to get us blown to nuclear smithereens, so who has time or joy enough to waste on books that don’t resonate for you?

So here, in an order as random as my rambling, discursive, babbling blog-writing, are those books I read in 2017 which I remember vividly and which brought me comfort and joy.

Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk, Kathleen Rooney

This is one of those books I know I will read again and again. It felt as if Kathleen Rooney knew me personally and was telling a story especially for me. I keep this in my room, in my stack of special books I must have near me at all times. A feeling not unlike reading Helene Hanff, with that passion for NYC. Loved. [Here is the link to my original review.]

Less, Andrew Sean Greer

Oh how I loved this book. Many reasons; great writing, happy ending, LGBTQ characters without tragedy or sturm und drang, I recognized myself in its aging (well, aging for a gay man) character, and I laughed and I cried and I felt seen and most of all, it made me think and reconsider what shape love might take and whether or not it’s still possible for someone of my advanced years and not so advanced looks, finances, or prospects. Gorgeous. Please, please read it. [Here is the link to my original review.]

Running, Cara Hoffman

Gut level writing, so new, so unlike anything else I’ve ever read, so beautiful and complicated and true and gorgeous and resonant; I was, as I said in my original write-up, gobsmacked. How often do you come across a book that is unlike anything you’ve ever read before, and yet, still extremely readable? A unique voice, a brilliant mind, and I cannot wait to hear more from this author. [Here is the link to my original review.]

Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, His Majesty’s Hope, Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante, (Maggie Hope Mysteries #3, #4, & #5) Susan Elia MacNeal

I love Maggie Hope. What a fantastic character. What wonderful plotting. What fascinating historical detail. What wit. What emotion. What compelling pacing and structure. I have in my possession Volumes 6 and 7, but I am forcing myself to wait because what do I do when I’ve no more? EXTRA BONUS: I followed Susan Elia MacNeal on Twitter, as I often follow authors whose work I admire and enjoy, and I send them thanks for their work. Most authors respond with a sincere thanks. Every so often, a conversation begins and a new reader-author bond is made, and that is magic to me, and quite the gift when an author busy with creating work to delight us all can take time to interact and chat. Susan Elia MacNeal is one such person of whom I have become fond outside the writer/reader relationship. And should I ever manage another trip to her city, we have a promised coffee (or drinks, or both) meet-up planned. [Link to my original review of Princess Elizabeth’s Spy] [Link to my original review of His Majesty’s Hope] [Link to my original review of Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante]

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Lee Mackenzi

This book is categorized as Young Adult, and while I get the need for categorization as far as marketing is concerned, this book is as delightful and certainly as mature (whatever that means) as many, many adult literary fiction novels — and HUGELY more fun, and despite its historical time period, far more modern of sensibility than many books nowadays. Ripping good read and I am eagerly awaiting its sequel.  [Here is the link to my original review]

I just don’t find this cover design at all appealing — from color choices to lettering to the piercing arrows.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John Boyne

This book took me by surprise. Though it had been recommended to me, it’s cover art was so uninteresting I couldn’t bring myself to pick it up. Shallow, I admit, but compelling cover design is very important; it’s when the first impression happens and if the cover is lackluster, doesn’t in any way give some flavor of what the words hold, well, then the author has been done a disservice. Truly in this case because this was a fantastic read, one of those I could not put down. [Here is link to my original review]

Unforgivable Love, Sophfronia Scott

Dangerous Liaisons re-told, set in 1940’s Harlem, composed by a writer of exquisite and extraordinary gifts. I devoured this novel like a chocolate-peanut butter pie (I just had one last night, well, half a one — no, I’m not kidding. Would that I were.) Much seduction, scheming, and sensuality, all beautifully written in short, fast-paced chapters which leave you wanting more. Page-turner, I believe is what they call it. Oh, and speaking of friendly authors who interact with readers on Twitter, Ms. Scott is another who takes time out of her busy life to do so. Great writer. Great person. Can’t wait for her next novel. [Here is link to my original review.]

 

Rules for Others to Live By; Comments and Self-Contradictions, Richard Greenberg

My only non-fiction work included on this list — this really wasn’t the year for any more reality than that with which one had to contend daily from news of the world and our national disgrace’s latest travesty — and it is by Richard Greenberg, Tony Award winning author of the play, Take Me Out, which I saw and for which I will be forever grateful to Mr. Greenberg; not just because the play was genius, but, too, because it afforded me the opportunity to be twenty or so feet away from the staggeringly perfect performance of Denis O’Hare and the equally staggeringly perfect and nude body of Daniel Sunjata. These are debts I cannot repay.

Daniel Sunjata in Take Me Out (I took out, so to speak, the private parts)

Speaking of which, this book was recommended to me by a dear friend, Pamela, who has given me many existential gifts and joys, too, so it is fitting she would have brought this little gem to my attention. This collection is full of beautifully sculpted lines, laughs, tears, and personal truths and journeys made and observed keenly, described with precision and an a-ha level of intelligence and insight. I recognized myself in his angst and his joy, and I highly recommend you get this gem and find yourself in its pages. You will. [Here is link to my original review]

Woman No. 17, Edan Lepucki

Edan Lepucki, with this follow-up novel to her last, California, has become one of my pre-order/purchase authors. I know I will want her books on my shelves, in my possession, a place fewer and fewer writers warrant as I age. This timely book explores the ways in which we create ourselves in the modern world, inventing social media personae, treating life as if we were appearing in a reality show. It is both prescient and terrifying in exploring the consequences of personal delusion and deceit, and once again displays a laser-like insight into the ways in which people think, love, live, and lie, that is — in my humble reader’s opinion — Edan Lepucki’s special gift. [Here is link to my original review]

So, there are eleven books I enjoyed in the past twelve months. Here are a few more about which I either didn’t write, or wrote very little because the authors are best-sellers and so much has been written about the books already, I didn’t think I had anything to add. But, in no particular order I also enjoyed:

Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

Glass Houses, by Louise Penny

Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay

There were also some disappointments in reading this year, mostly having to do with books so many other people loved which left me cold. Or, lukewarm at best. I am always in those situations plagued by my insecurity about my lack of intellectual heft, worrying I’m just not smart enough to get what it is everyone loves. This is often accompanied by hubris along the lines of, “Well, they’re all in the same little circle of MFA – literary fiction insiders club, and I’m brave enough to say the emperor has no clothes, or, anyway, the clothes aren’t that nice.”

But I shut up about those. I don’t write about books I don’t like, and I try, even when I am not a fan of something, to keep in mind it was made by someone with an honest, heartfelt effort, they’ve offered a piece of who they are on the page for us. I try to honor that, even when the pages don’t particularly thrill me. There is enough put-down in the world, I don’t wish to add any more.

So, I thank you for taking this ride with me. I thank those of you who read me for doing so, and those of you who read books along with me, I am grateful for you, and those of you who write and edit and publish and publicize and sell the books we read, I bless you for the gifts you bring to the world. So grateful. You do the work of angels, because I am not the only one in the world whose life has been made infinitely better by having books, loving books, living inside the world of books.

Particular special thanks to my favorite independent booksellers at The Curious Iguana,[click here and visit them — and drop in if you are anywhere nearby, ever — so worth the trip]  where Marlene has made a haven for we Frederick (and surrounding areas, and drop-in tourists, and DC weekend trekkers) readers and book lovers. As Marlene and staff are well aware, when I am low, or when I am happy, or when I am anywhere near the neighborhood, I drop in and babble and gossip and compare notes and all that sort of thing, until I remember, “Oh, this is a business and they have work to do and actual customers to wait on!” Love to you all.

And so, now, having done my year-end list, off to begin a new year of reading. And here I am, going.

Home Again, Home Again

Another daily journal-ish sort of entry in which I whine about my health, finances, and, too, do some lusting over TV shows and reality stars. Happy New Year.

I was home today by noon. Unpacked by 12:30. I’d have been here sooner but it was a dreadful morning of nausea and dizziness which impeded upon my ability to launder and change the sheets and towels, clean the bathroom and kitchen, spend private play time and goodbyes with each pup and promise I’ll be back as soon as I’m asked, and other last-minute things I do when leaving a job.

But, I made it. And, as is often the case, as the day has worn on my stomach has calmed down. I don’t feel good, but I feel better. And I got some Neosporin, which seems to be helping the godawful rash or burn or whatever the hell I did to myself.

And I subtracted my checkbook, a task I’ve been avoiding in December because there have been a lot of unexpected expenses lately, and the holidays, and baking, and I forgot the yearly extra charge the gym tacks on in December, and blah blah blah. And, the thing is, my financial plan (such as it is) is usually to make enough money in November/December to cover my annual gym fees. That didn’t happen this year — people are travelling less (and planning fewer trips in 2018, too) which I blame on the national embarrassment who hijacked the election.

My darling niece, before she could buy me great gift cards for Christmas, on my lap — my FIRST niece. And, uhm, CHECK OUT MY STRIPED FLARED PANTS!

Long short, fewer jobs, more expenses, and I’m about three thousand dollars below where I should be, need to be, planned to be. BUT, I’ll survive. I have always been lucky, and, as fate would have it, my darling niece was incredibly generous over the holidays to her mother, my sister, and to me, giving us massive gift cards to grocers, which has helped immensely and made it possible today for us to purchase a New Year’s Eve dining treats!

Now, whether or not I’ll be able to eat said treat is another thing, but, one day at a time.

I know I need to raise my house/pet-sitting rates, which I haven’t done since I started five (or six? or seven? I can’t remember) years ago. I’ve NEVER been good talking about money to people, as in, I suck at saying what I offer is valuable. When I used to do private coaching for young performers, despite having helped not a few to scholarships and prizes, I was always embarrassed to tell people the rate, and often just said forget it, and gave huge numbers of free sessions and classes.

I’ve got no regrets, but the things I gave away of me, and the years I bought so many books I often didn’t even read trying, I think, to fill a hole in my life that no number of books could fill, had I those dollars back, well, I don’t. And that’s fine.

I’ve always been lucky. And I’m home. And I have a beautiful, peace-light-giving candle a dear one gave me, burning for me, and a new year is going to begin, and good riddance 2017, one of the worst I have ever experienced, although, with lots of love and good people in it, along the way.

So, on to tomorrow, taking down the tree and decorations, having a special New Year’s Eve dinner (thank-you, dear niece!) with my dear sister/roommate, and maybe watch the remaining three episodes of THIS IS US I’ve yet to catch up on. I binged on three today and had to stop because I just couldn’t cry any more.

ALSO! Bethenny Frankel and Fredrik Eklund have a show together on Bravo! starting in February.

Frederik Eklund, film actor before he was in real estate

True confessions; I am addicted to The Real Housewives of New York, Beverly Hills, New Jersey, and Orange County, in that order, with New York FAR MORE ESSENTIAL to me than the others. Also, another Bravo addiction, Million Dollar Listings: New York. I started watching that because Fredrik was on it, and while I do get off on the luxe-ness of the New York places, my original interest was about Eklund’s porn star past — he starred in one of my favorite all-time pornos, a classic, The Hole.

STEVE GOLD!

Steve Gold

Yes. I am just that congenitally low of brow (thank-you Mrs. Parker) — sue me. And, to reveal how even MORE shallow I am, once Steve Gold — former model and ridiculously sexy man — joined the cast, there was NO WAY I was not DVR-ing this baby. I mean, LOOK AT HIM:

Steve Gold

I know these shows are largely fake and manipulated. I don’t care. In any event, Bethenny — who is my favorite of all the housewives (although Carole Radziwill is a very close second) and Fredrik, together re-doing New York real-estate? I AM DROOLING.

(CLICK LINK BELOW TO WATCH A PREVIEW — truly, do it!)

And so, where was I? Oh, right, going. Well, actually, SITTING, not going, and relaxing, and hoping my stomach stays calm, gets calmer, fingers crossed my rash/burn/flesh-eating disease is calmed and cured by the Neosporin, and, finally, (for now, anyway) hoping the only drooling I’m doing for the next few decades is over Bravo TV shows and hot, younger, unavailable men like — yeah, you guessed it —

Steve Gold

Oh, and that I get a lot of bookings to get my bank account back in order. So, love and light kids. And much joy if I don’t check in again before 2017 checks out. And not a moment too effing soon.

And, one last time, STEVE GOLD!