Reading: March Review; 11 Books, 1 Five Star, And DIDION!

I love Joan Didion, this is a long-established fact about which I have endlessly droned, and I intend to continue that here, but I’ll save it for the end. First, this …

Somehow, since last I blogged, an entire month has passed in which eleven books have been read, one of which I loved, two of which I thought artfully done and compelling reads, and eight of which I found from no better than they ought to be to meh, not so much. And so, since I am working on a writing project with a partner who is waiting for scene drafts, I am going to spend my lit-ergy here on only those reads which gave me real pleasure, beginning with the one Five Star read of the month, a treasure from the early 20th century by Beverley Nichols, a writer brought to my attention by a dear, dear Twitter friend, sobriquet of Vickie Lester, who was kind enough to find and send me a gorgeous, sweet-smelling 1932 edition!

Down The Garden Path, Beverley Nichols, Hardcover, 303pp, 1932, Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc

Called one of the most amusing gardening writers of all time, oft compared to Noel Coward, arch of style, imperious of manner, and dead-funny with a rapier wit able to capture the foibles and faults of others with an eviscerating bon mot, Nichols is exactly my cup of tea — I take my Earl Grey black, over-steeped, with two dashes of cayenne — strong and with a kick.

This is one of those books you ration, so taken by its prose, tone, and style, you want to inhale it all in one sitting but knowing the deliciousness is finite, you force yourself to stop after one short chapter (or two, or three), savoring and saving, so it lasts as long as possible. His prose is delightfully of its time, so much smarter (I think) and cleverer than we are today, and wittier. He is also marvelously acid at times, but in a backhanded, subtle sort of way. So much in this to make you smile and wish you’d said it, or, better, had known him while he was saying it. Listen:

The flowers last for a fortnight if you cut them in the bud. And they send out such a perpetual stream of fragrance that you will long to rush about the house waving scarves and doing spring songs, protruding your lips and breathing with suspicious violence.

And:

Are you bored? Indeed, I hope not. For the flower’s sake, not for my own. At the risk of out-winnying the pooh, it must be admitted that I always think flowers know what you are saying about them.

Now though, I hasten to caution you, pulling sentences from the whole is a fool’s game (which is, of course, why I am playing it) when writing is what it ought to be, which is, of course, a whole, lucid and complete, made up of myriad thoughts and words and silences skillfully composed into this thing called a book. To pull one sentence or paragraph is like isolating one brush stroke from a masterpiece by Caravaggio and expecting someone to be able to get the impression of the whole glorious painting. It simply won’t do. So, you must read this book.

Then, of course, you will be in the same sad boat I’m in, starving for more. Luckily, this is the first of a trilogy, in addition to which Mr. Nichols wrote many other gardening/house restoration books, some mysteries, and various and sundry other literature, all of which one must find in used editions, many of which are awfully pricey. Still, I’ve bookmarked them from various sellers, planning to accumulate one by one, like some people collect Blue Royal Delft pieces at what would seem to others ridiculous cost. And you there, don’t think about beating me to it — damn, I ought not have told you how marvelous is this book. I take it back, you must NEVER read a book by Beverley Nichols for it will do nothing for you but make you a sad, wanting thing like I am, eager to scrape together the next couple of tens and send off for another volume of his genius, and harken back to a better (no, it probably wasn’t better but right now any OTHER seems better than today) time in history.

P.S. I love you Vickie Lester. Great thanks for sending me this and bringing Beverley Nichols to my attention.

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The next two books about which I’m going to talk hardly require my two cents being tossed into the discussion, both have been widely advertised, publicized, praised, and are selling like crazy, one thanks to Oprah choosing it for her book club, and the other thanks to the author’s well-deserved reputation and back-catalogue of really good writing. Let’s start with the Oprah choice, first of the two four-star reads.

An American Marriage, Tayari Jones, Hardcover, 320pp, February 2018, Algonquin Books

With 19,000 ratings and 2600 reviews on Goodreads, as well as 750 reviews on Amazon, 88% of which were four or five-star approvals, not to mention a five-star recommendation from my local-indie bookseller, Marlene at The Curious Iguana [click here for Marlene’s Iguana!], anything I say would be redundant. But, that never stops me.

This is a beautifully written allegory for what it is like to be “other” in America when “other” is defined as anything or anyone not cis-heterosexual-white-moneyed-male. But far from being polemical, the tale is wrapped in a frighteningly insightful narrative which will be recognizable to anyone who has ever loved and lived, helplessly, the tragedy of personal relationships going awry, love fading or morphing into something unsustainable, uncomfortable, unhealthy, unrewarding, and causing one to suffer the guilt and anger and regret of feeling failed, less than, wrong, unwanted, unaccepted, rejected, “un” in general until one’s foundational idea of self is shaken, beliefs brought into question, and one’s world torn asunder.

Roy and Celestial, upwardly mobile African-Americans have been married 18 months when Roy is mistakenly but insistently identified by a white woman as her rapist, arrested, convicted on scant evidence, and sent to prison, in essence, for the crime of being Black in America. At first, Celestial waits for him, but eventually, as his prison sentence stretches to a period longer than the amount of time they spent married, reality takes on a new shape for both of them, rearranging the content of their souls and hearts, as well as the size and parameters of their dreams, and creating the sort of distance that grows between two people who spend more time imagining one another than being with one another, a an empty space that fills with questions, stories, wishes, regrets, and the stuff and people close at hand.

An American Marriage is a story about surviving that journey, about people who are flawed, full of doubt and certainty in equal measure, each of which can instantly become the other with a glance, a word, a breath, in a moment; and perhaps it is that Tayari Jones has done so brilliantly, to capture the inevitability of feeling both right and wrong at once, caught in the conundrum of should and want, must and can’t, and having to decide where on those spectrums to land, the fact that being human is to be faced with impossible choices which must be made, the consequences of which must be dealt with.

Caveat; while this book truthfully describes the bleak reality of American life today, it is not without hope. There is resolution, not happily ever after, but not despairing either.

And now, the second four-star read:

Sunburn, Laura Lippman, Hardcover, 290pp, February 2018, William Morrow

This is my fourth Laura Lippman read and she is, indeed, as everyone says, a master of the suspense/detective novel.

Beach town. Polly, escaping a life she no longer wants, Adam, a detective on a mission, meet, mesh, and conduct a Body Heat/The Postman Always Rings Twice sort of love-sex-affair. Neither is completely who they have told the other they are. Neither completely trusts the other. Neither can deny the passion and connection they have. Twists, turns, pieces of the past and the truth are slowly revealed, compellingly teased, and there are surprises and betrayals and necessary lies and questionable acts and everything you’d want in a 1940’s noir film starring Barbara Stanwyck, and all of it made believable.

This is a great read, very fast, beautifully structured, with artful, accomplished writing by an author at the peak of her powers. You’ll want to one-day/night it, so don’t start until you have a swath of time in which to go from front to back without interruptions like work, family, sleep.

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And now, Joan Didion.

I recently — at long last — joined the 21st century and got a subscription to Netflix. Wondrous, that. But I think the very most wonderful thing about it — although Grace and Frankie runs a close second (I am still bitter Lily Tomlin did not win the Oscar for her performance in Nashville) — is the documentary about Joan Didion made by her nephew, Griffin Dunne, called The Center Will Not Hold.

A sort of life story, a sort of tour of her work, a fantastic opportunity to listen to and watch Joan Didion speak and think. The way in which she gesticulates with her arms, these wide, swooping gestures seeming to be reaching into the ether to grab her thought and articulate it, and, too, to push away, ward off all the other-ness, effluvia, and detritus out there from which she wishes to be insulated, through which she cuts to expose the truth, brings to mind something not quite human, a seemingly delicate bird, but behind the fragility is a predator able to — if necessary — swoop in for the kill.

Watch it. You won’t be sorry. I’ve already done so three times, and will, no doubt so so again, just as I repeatedly re-read Play It As It Lays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and The White Album.

And, it has been brought to my attention there are Joan Didion tote bags. And T-shirts. Now, not only will I be saving up for additional Beverley Nichols books, but, of course and desperately, for Joan Didion swag.

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Now, speaking of other; about those eight other books I read, some of them were just fine but not fine enough that I feel like writing about them, and a few were just dreadful, and as a general rule, I don’t speak ill of writers because their lives are difficult and thankless enough that my not caring for their book doesn’t make it bad, it just makes it not to my taste, and so, why talk about that when there are so many books I do want to share with you?

Okay then, off to continue April’s reading — I’ve already finished one MARVELOUS book, Here In Berlin by Cristina Garcia which was recommended to me by the brilliant writer and book journalist, Bethanne Patrick, otherwise known as The Book Maven [click HERE to follow her on Twitter, and you MUST!] about which I’ll write soon, or, in April’s recap — who knows?

Reading: Five Books to Finish February

Covered today: The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara; Exit West by Moshin Hamid; The Line Becomes A River by Francisco Cantu; Forbidden by Beverly Jenkins; and The Identicals by Elin Hilderbrand.

P.S. Life has been busy, or, well, if not busy, weirdly paralyzing, or, oh look, I finished this more than a week ago and meant to do a final look-over/edit before I posted but I’ve just not been in the mood, so, here’s the end of February in the middle of March. It happens. Wanted to get it in before the Ides of March because, well, you know how that goes.

February turned out to be a ten book month after all, even though I wasted four days trying to read an award winning author’s much heralded book only to end up saying on Twitter (where I say pretty much everything): “I gave it 100 pages, but the POV so unclear, the text so unwieldy & in need of an editor, I cannot go on & I do NOT see how it made that list. But, there it is.” I don’t like to dwell on books I dislike, knowing that everyone has different tatse and there is room for disagreement. Too, I know even the worst — in my opinion — book is the product of someone’s long, hard effort and heart, so I can’t bring myself to speak ill of it. And why do so and waste breath on dislike when there are so many books I do enjoy, and so, here are the ones that made the cut.

The House of Impossible Beauties, Joseph Cassara, Hardcover, 416pp, February 2018, Ecco

As soon as my local library listed this as future arrival, I jumped on the hold-list. I was, in fact, FIRST on that list. When I was notified it was available for pick-up, I broke my rule about not vaulting ahead those books in my library stack, always reading them in the order I signed them out, but HA, I put the book I was reading aside, sped to get Joseph Cassara’s novel in my hands, and dove into it like Johnny Weir into glitter and haute skouture.

This passionate, searing debut novel is not so much written as bled, and is set in the milieu of the Harlem ball circuit during the 1980s and ’90s to which 17-year-old Angel escapes from a home with a disapproving mother and a drug dealing brother, there to fall in love with Hector and create the first all-Latino house in the ball circuit, only to have Hector succumb to AIDS, a loss from which Angel never recovers.

As I compulsively devoured this story I wondered to myself whether its impact would be as powerful on someone who had not danced under mirror balls to Lisa Lisa and The Cult Jam, had not lived through being LGBTQ (before that acronym existed) during the dawning of AIDS, a time of impossible dichotomy where the horrors of AIDS and the mainstream and government reactions and response to it created the wonders of a movement finally finding its voice and courage and spine; from terror and loss came courage and gains. I wondered whether people — especially younger LGBTQ — would really understand what it was like to find and belong to a chosen family, so often the only family with which one was left during that era, before being LGBTQ was almost anywhere accepted.

And, to layer on top of that the isolation drag artists were sentenced to not just from mainstream society, but even — or, especially — in the gay male community,where many of us were suffering from years of culturally-embedded homophobia, embarrassed by feeding into the stereotypical idea of what being gay (mostly described by the straight, mainstream world with a far more pejorative label) was, as in, they thought that gay men wanted to be women, and gay women wanted to be men. Often drag artists were shunned. Thus, the ball circuit and its houses were a sub-culture within an already marginalized minority, eschewed more often than embraced by the mainstream movement gays.

Dichotomy, as I said: the joy of finding a chosen family, a place to belong in contrast to the never-healed wound and sorrow of the histories that forced us into building our own families, because so often we’d been rejected by our biological cohorts, so many of us having run in order to save our lives from hostile worlds where we were constantly in danger. We built our own emotional houses because we’d been abandoned by those homes into which we’d been born.

Joseph Cassara’s The House of Impossible Beauties manages to capture all of that without polemicizing, but rather, by creating believable characters, human, flawed, gorgeous, horrible, and, too, events both heartwarming and horrifying. Angel, a gorgeous she in her chosen life, works as a he in a Pathmark to support her “children” in the house she’s built. One of her children, Venus, having already been rejected by her biological family, is raped by her best friend’s man and then disbelieved, rejected by that new family as well. Some of them turn tricks and are lied to and mistreated by those downlow johns. Through all of which these characters pull at our hearts, they remain resilient and determined, always in conflict with the world that has no place for them and the world they’ve made — always trying to balance and control the urge to belong, somehow, both places, the never-ceasing struggle to maintain self-esteem when basically an outcast, and then, to be faced with a plague further exiling them from the culture at large, making them untouchables — during a time when hospitals quarantined or turned them away and funeral homes refused to process the bodies, dumping them in garbage bags in alleys.

Somehow, this tragedy, Joseph Cassara captures, while, miraculously, also communicating the joy and the love and the reveling that went on; we learned as a community to buoy and embrace one another, despite our differences, because we were otherwise without cohort; the world was ready to let us die.

Dichotomy: the death sentence of a mysterious new disease created a new and vibrant way of living for LGBTQ people. But it hurt. There was great loss. And exploring that age, that era through the history of some of the main characters of the Harlem ball circuit is a genius approach. And the prose here is often lovely, frequently funny, and terribly, wonderfully moving.

This scene, early in the book, where Hector wants to buy a Chanel suit Angel covets from Saks, but ends up not having enough cash. So, this:

 

He {Hector} insisted they not leave empty-handed, so he went to the counter and bought something he could afford. When she {Angel} held the bottle up to the light, the perfume looked like melted, translucent gold. Chanel No. 5. The glass was thick, unbreakable, with a topper that looked like a giant crystal.

I told you I’d get you Chanel, didn’t I?

Angel would replay these words in the back of her mind as the years passed, as everyone and everything passed before her. She didn’t know it at the time, as she walked out the door with her small paper bag with the words as elegant as ink on bone —Saks Fifth Avenue — but she would come back to that glass bottle and spritz it on her neck, her wrists, for every funeral she’d ever have to attend. It would become her goal, years later, to never have to reach the end of that bottle. Because she didn’t want to think what it would mean when that unbreakable glass was finally empty.

 

And that, at page 46, dear reader, is where first — of many times during this novel — I wept. It is not an emotionally easy read, but it does feel to me an essential one. Especially now when so many of the gains we, the LGBTQ community, made since the 1980s when this story begins are being turned back, threatened, and we are again being relegated to the margins, some elements of society trying to force us back into the dark closet of shame and opprobrium. Read it. Tell your friends. And, as for those evil retro-forces trying to destroy us, every day, RESIST.

Exit West, Moshin Hamid, Hardcover, 231pp, March 2017, Riverhead Books

It was my goal to read all five of the fiction finalist nominees for the National Book Critics Circle Awards. I almost made it. This, the fourth out of five I’d read, was as far as I got. And this was a rather phenomenal novel, unlike anything else I’ve ever read.

Nadia and Saeed meet and stumble uncertainly into a relationship in an unnamed country in which civil war has begun, quietly, sneakily, with factions of differing political and religious beliefs at odds, intolerance and massacre of “others” becoming the terrorific norm — not unlike many countries all over the world, now, and a horrific harbinger of what could well bloom from the seeds planted here which have already wrought 45 and his gop/jackbooted cronies and deplorables.

Rumors are whispered about mysterious doors through which one can step from this unnamed war-torn country into safer, named other locations — Greece, United States, London — but refugees, those migrating, are not always welcome and those caught trying to escape are slaughtered. However, Nadia and Saeed manage to make it, exiting from more than one place to another, in transplantations that are the stuff of magical realism but made to seem perfectly normal by Moshin Hamid’s adept and adroit prose styling.

This is a novel that defies genre, in which are explored the global refugee crisis, religious fanaticism, gender norms — Nadia wears a long black robe, obscuring her shape, priestess-like, not because she is religious, but because she wishes to be protected from the presumptions of men, as she says, “So men don’t f**k with me.” — and the dynamics of natives versus transplants in a world with fewer and fewer borders yet more and more division.

It is not one of the avalanche of dystopian novels; there is, in fact, a certain foundation of hope in the narrative, a not unhappy ending. It is artful, it is fresh, it is full of fine, accomplished writing, and it is thought-provoking. Too, I imagine that nearly every reader will identify with the protagonists, and, too, in this world now, wonder what they would do if (or, more and more likely, WHEN) they find themselves in the same situation as Nadia and Saeed. Is there any among us since November 2016 who hasn’t wondered when it is we might need to flee?

The Line Becomes A River, Francisco Cantu, Hardcover, 256pp, February 2018, Riverhead Books

It is coincidence that after reading the refugee-crossing border themed novel, Exit West, that I next picked up The Line Becomes a River, which is a non-fiction account of being a border guard, chasing down those trying to cross illegally into the United States, and the awful, untenable inhumanity of the truth behind the foul, hyperbolic, bigot-baiting political blather being spoken today.

This is a gut-wrenching take from one man who worked as a border guard and, too, one man he knew on the United States side who had entered illegally, lived here for decades productively, contributing to the culture and economy, raising a family, and then, crossing back over the border to visit his dying mother, cannot get back into the country. He attempts to do so illegally and is caught. And eventually, despite the efforts of many good people, he is deported.

This is every bit as unpleasant an account to read as you might imagine, and, when one realizes that one, as a United States citizen, is in part culpable for this, and that it is becoming worse and worse, the slamming-guilting impact of that knowledge is the stuff of nightmares. But, our nightmares don’t compare to the living-terrors these immigrants suffer.

Caveat, the writing is serviceable but not up to the power of the story it tells. I longed as I was reading for the insight and incisive assaying reportage of a Joan Didion.

Forbidden, Beverly Jenkins, Paperback, 384pp, January 2016, Avon

I love good writing, compelling plotting, characters I care about, a story that moves, and the likelihood of an HEA — that’s Happily Ever After for the uninitiated, and no one does those things better than an accomplished writer of romances. Beverly Jenkins is certainly that.

Now, before I say any more about the book, let me rant a bit. I read many book blogs, reviews, troll on Twitter tons of people in the publishing industry, and am generally a fanatic about books, good writing, and gifted authors. Why, then, was this entry on the NPR book website [CLICK HERE] the first I’d ever heard of Beverly Jenkins? Unacceptable that we use labels as de facto judgments of certain kinds of books — Romance, Young Adult, Science Fiction, Western, LGBTQ literature, and on and on — rather than judging each book by the merits of its writing and ability to move us, to capture us, to teach us, to be loved by us. And it’s a silly, stupid, narrow-minded approach that guarantees we’re missing some very fine indeed books and authors: like Beverly Jenkins. Okay, rant over.

Heroine, Eddy Carmichael, a woman of color in the old West, is robbed and left to die by a rapscallionous villain but is rescued from death due to exposure by hero, Rhine Fontaine, a man of mixed race who is passing for white. They start to fall in love, as is expected in a romance, but Rhine has a fiancée and fiercely independent Eddy has closed off her heart for reasons and has no intention of being mistress to a white man. Obstacles.

They are overcome. We know that from the get-go, but the way in which they are encountered and painted, and the agonizingly teasing march (or, rather, it’s more of a gallop because this book really moves and Beverly Jenkins writes with such grace and potboiler speed that one can’t put this novel down once it’s begun) to Happily Ever After is top-notch.

The Identicals, Elin Hilderbrand, Hardcover, 432pp, June 2017, Little, Brown and Company

This was my first Elin Hilderbrand read, and I really enjoyed it. Identical twins, Harper and Tabitha, inseparable in childhood, have a falling out when their parents divorce and they are forced to choose which one will live with which parent. It causes a rift which is exacerbated years later by the death of Tabitha’s infant son for which she blames Harper. When their father, Billy, with whom Harper has long lived, dies, Tabitha and her mother, Eleanor, come to the service Harper has planned, where Tabitha is mistaken for Harper and attacked by the wife of the married man with whom Harper has been dallying.

In short (well, not that short, it could have happened way sooner I think) the two have traded islands — Nantucket for Martha’s Vineyard, and the Vineyard for Nantucket, and, to some degree, lives, being mistaken for each other, gaining insight into the other’s life, and, eventually, having to face their pasts, and decide about their futures.

Touted as a beach read, I like to dive into beach reads during long, winter evenings, under a blanket, a heating pad at my feet, chamomile tea on my nightstand, and my mind and heart lost in the soap opera saga of stock(ish) characters made to suffer, and, usually, ultimately, triumph.

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And there it is, there they are, the final five of my February ten. Three four-stars, two three-stars, and an invisible sixth which I didn’t finish, but, honestly, spent more time trying to get through than it took me to read any of the ten books I finished during February. It happens. It’s bound to. And it’s okay.

So, dear ones, here comes March. I started another book recommended to me by a friend in my quest for books my mom might like (which is why I read Elin Hilderbrand, and I’ve already taken my mother a large print of one of her other novels) and I have a rather large stack of “musts” and recommendeds and read abouts and just plain been in my stacks forever and it’s high time I got to them.

So, here I am, going. And dears, glad to have you with me, along, here we are, going. Too.

Love and Light.

Food: 50% off Ground-Chicken Meatloaf – and being not enough

Dear ones, full disclosure before you read any further: (Or, if you’re not into disclosure, full or otherwise, skip on down 1000 words to the red headline: CHICKEN MEATLOAF) A friend told me she enjoyed my food blog posts; on Twitter I mentioned using chicken to make a meatloaf and a number of people inquired about it; I’m super-ANNOYED having hit my weight-loss plateau number, the one past which I always have trouble and hell to the yes, I am having uber-trouble losing these last ten pounds, or, even, one of them; I’ve wanted to do a personal blog entry about all of that and more, my issues, of which there are many, always, but those posts are such duds when it comes to people reading them and the world is in such an uproar I’ve been avoiding really delving into my heart-issues since doing so causes me anxiety and anger and ranting and terror — and that’s no good; reviewing my posts I see it’s been two months since I’ve food blogged and nearly as long since I’ve done a personal blog, and so, trying to be clever and serve up what others want while serving my own needs as well, I thought, “Charlie, why not combine the personal with the food, because food, cooking, it’s terribly, wonderfully personal.”

Today I’m feeling inferior and undeserving of the title “Food Blogger” because I’m not Peg Bracken, Laurie Colwin, M.F.K. Fisher, or Patience Gray — I’m an accidental, out of necessity chef(ish) — something I fell into, like most everything else I’ve done in my life.

So, this is a personal food blog. I can’t promise whether it will be terribly or wonderfully so, or some combination of the two but, now look, I certainly don’t make a living writing, but still, I consider myself a writer: My dear, departed aunt, Sissie, told me when I was very young that I was meant to be a writer — so, I’m a writer. Truth, I never made a living acting or singing, nor a real living by teaching acting, but I always considered myself an actor, singer, and teacher too.

Point being, you don’t have to be paid or famous to be something. For my whole life I’ve been doing things for which I never got a title, never got famous, never got paid much; it started in second grade when I was so far ahead in every subject the nuns assigned me troubled first graders to tutor; in fourth grade my Catholic school closed and when I was sent to the public school I was so far ahead of all the other fourth graders, fifth graders, and sixth graders, I was instantly a pariah to students and teachers and ended up spending three years learning nothing in a class room, serving as almost full-time aide to the wonderful Mrs. Lyles, the librarian, who taught me her job, and, too, all about life; when she was out sick, I, not yet 12, was left in charge of the library. No lie.

My life has been a mostly accidental one in just that way; I fell into teaching, I fell into counseling, I fell into health insurance, I fell into feather-hat-band making, I fell into government survey data collection, I fell into house and pet-sitting, I fell into theatre-reviewing and copywriting, I fell a lot. It happened without me noticing much; if there was a place in someone’s life or the universe that needed filling, and I was there, I filled it. If someone needed something, someone, a service, a fix, an ear, a safe place, someone or something to depend on, I answered the need; I was bred to it.

Now, here’s my secret, or, well, it’s hardly a secret to anyone who’s paid much attention to me, but, like Dorothy’s Scarecrow (Yes, I am equating myself with a Friend of Dorothy), I’ve always felt inferior and un-deserving and a fraud because no institution has ever bestowed upon me a piece of paper saying I could call myself something — don’t get me wrong, lack of a diploma/degree isn’t the only factor in my feeling inferior, (and that ‘s a too-long discussion about why I’m akin to the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, too) but, it’s rather huge in the world in which we operate, and because of it, I have always been uncomfortable asking to be paid what the work I’m doing is probably worth, or, even, part of what I’m worth, or, in fact, asking to be paid at all.

Which is a 700 word exordium to explain the “50% off” part of the title: I’m bad with money. Well, I’m good with spending it, but bad with getting it, managing it. I made a very intense effort once and saved quite a lot, but because I am weak-willed and always trying to answer someone’s gaping — or, in this case, grasping — need, all of that was emptied into the coffers of someone’s folly. And I had — for me — a reasonably healthy bank balance in November, but unexpected circumstances, holiday cooking (cookies aren’t cheap to bake, you know) and Mom’s 90th birthday party and groceries when one is on a diet or entertaining visiting relatives and just a general conflagration of that’s the way the ball bounces (or deflate) life-events have left me a few thousand dollars short of where I planned to be, needed to be, to make it through the next few months without worrying.

And now, that’s 900 words to say, while trying to keep my bank balance above the minimum required before a service charge is added on, I shop at a lot of grocery stores, keeping track of sale flyers and unadvertised specials, and buying meat that is at its “sell by” date, which Safeway discounts by 50%. Thus, I had a few pounds of frozen ground chicken I needed to use.

I decided to make up a meatloaf. No recipe. My own creation, using other things I had in the pantry or refrigerator. And, here is that recipe.

CHICKEN MEATLOAF (Charlie’s Own 50% Off-Today Solution)

Dieting sucks. So, I try to keep it interesting for my sister and myself by coming up with new recipes and creative ways of preparing flavorful but low-calorie dishes. Not every one works, but this one was a real hit. Not just with us, but with my very picky great-nephew who raved and raved about this. I didn’t tell him what was in it or he’d never have taken the first bite.

INGREDIENTS

1 lb ground chicken
6 oz. jarred/canned sliced mushrooms (or fresh)
1 large onion, chopped
1 oz. pork rinds, ground to crumbs
15 oz. can of beets, cut or cubed or whatevered
4 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
4 tbs. steak sauce (I used A1)
1 tbs. garlic powder
1 tbs. cilantro

Preheat oven to 350 (or, in mine, 325)

These are the onions, beets, and pork rinds, the sizes to which I reduced them.

Now then, mix all the ingredients together in a too large bowl. I use huge pasta bowl — which, by the buy I got for a steal of $10 at my local Habitat for Humanity seconds-shop, cleverly called ReStore [click HERE] where you can find crazy good furniture and housewares and appliances and tools for amazing prices and be doing GOOD while getting GOODS (or, if you’re not a housewares hoarder like I might be, you can just click the above link and make a donation)— where was I? Oh, right, I use a HUGE pasta bowl to mix things because one needs to really go at a meatloaf mix with vigor, use the pounding and blending process to get out your fury at the assholes running the country right now, or the guy not returning your messages after you gave him the best fifteen minutes of your quickly evaporating life or — anyway, I digress (again — SURPRISE!), you need to use your hands and deep-massage to really get every ingredient feeling all cozy and as one with the others, an orgy of flavors.

I considered adding a tomato product — ketchup, pasta sauce, marinara, chopped tomatoes, tomato paste — but, part of my diet food creative process is to cut back on ingredients so I’ve the fewest calories possible in a meal and still have an interesting taste. I was banking on the beets, steak sauce, and Worcestershire sauce — all of which are pretty low in calories — to add enough kick and flavor that I didn’t need the extra calories and sugars in tomato based products.

Like I said, NOT PRETTY. But it gets better with baking. Not a lot, but some — which is why I added gravy for serving. See picture of meal.

I was right. This was pretty delicious. But, not pretty pretty. Once you’ve got a nice even blend — the mushrooms I left large so they’d be visible while I wanted to hide the beets from the great-nephew, so I hid them by small-cubing — you shape it into a loaf-ish shape in a shallow but not too shallow (and isn’t that the state to which we all aspire?) baking dish which you’ve pre-sprayed with vegetable oil based greasy, no-stick in a spray-can stuff.

NOW — I had a busy day that day, so I did all this in the early afternoon and threw it into the refrigerator where it rested for a few hours. I think MOST recipes with lots of ingredients/flavors you want to blend are better after a few hours solitary confinement in the refrigerator. Cookie dough for sure.

When it’s getting close to dinner time, cook in a preheated 350 oven (or, 325 in mine) for about an hour. Turn off the oven, open the door part way, and let it sit in there for another 15 minutes.

The baked loaf — well, 1/4 of the baked loaf, and as you can see, it’s not quite baby-piglet pink, but still, not the desired meat shade of tanned Italian gigolo either. So, add some sauce — I find a little sauce makes everything look better, don’t you?

Because the meatloaf is still less than gorgeous after cooking — since no one enjoys a meat dish looking undercooked or lumpy or smushed together — all descriptions which have recently been used to describe me — I slathered some store-jarred (sorry) mushroom gravy on. It’s only about 40 calories a quarter cup, and worth it. Along with that I served asparagus and bacon-scalloped potatoes. which (sorry) I whipped up from a box because they were on sale two for a dollar and, I told you, I’m a few thousand dollars down in the bank account department. I added things to the potatoes — onions, garlic, some additional cheese, and used cream rather than milk and water (I know, all added calories, but, without them the taste would have been too bland) and they were sort of delicious, and, that night, honestly, I told you already, I was in a hurry.

The finished product: Asparagus, Potatoes, Meatloaf slathered with mushroom gravy.

So, there we have it. Actually, calories-wise, the entire meal was under 650 and my sister and great-nephew raved and raved about it. Not a lot of trouble. Plenty of deliciousness, and even better warmed up. Alas, there was not enough to make a sandwich with, besides which, I haven’t had bread since January and yet I STILL can’t lose this last ten pounds.

But, putting personal issues aside — which, in my case, requires a storage unit — if a fellow who’s a pretend chef, who’s pretending to be a writer, can use his pretend money to amalgamate low-cal and half-price ingredients into a tasty, sort-of-healthy dinner the likes of which Peg Bracken might not find too embarrassing, then, my friends, we can all live to see another day and maybe feel like — for just a few minutes anyway while people are exclaiming over the deliciousness of the dish — that we are, maybe, ENOUGH, well, will I let the fact that 45 is baiting foreign powers to blow us to bits and all the noise and turmoil of the world depress me? NYET, Comrade. (Practicing for after the next election.)

So, dear ones, here I am, going. Love and Light and big bargain bowls to all of you.

Reading: When People of the Light, Write

The Geography of Love: A Memoir, Glenda Burgess, Hardcover, 320pp, August 2008, Crown Archetype

I am a literary groupie. I follow on Twitter many writers, editors, agents, public relations reps, bookstore owners and clerks, librarians, book critics, columnists, fictional characters, and others, like me, who are lovers of all things to do with books.  Admittedly, I am also a wanna-be writer myself, as well as — to some degree or another, depending on the day and my mood — a fictional character.

In the past few years as I have developed this list of literary folk with whom I interact, I have become extremely fond of some of them, and, as is natural, with some there has been that click of mutual admiration, a deeper than social media connection, and we communicate regularly, are what could be called friends, even though we’ve never met in real life.

So, in the interest of honesty, I tell you up front that I count Glenda Burgess among those I consider to be a friend. Too, I’ve followed some of these literary folk after reading their books, while, in other cases, as with Glenda, I have followed them because many people I know follow them, or they’ve followed me, and I read their work after having come to know them through Twitter.

Glenda, on Twitter, is a force of Light and Love, an encouraging, listening, open soul who doesn’t (like I do) rant or rave or complain, but, rather, she finds what is good in the world, holds onto it, points it out, and lives, as she says, “steady on, no wobbles” which posted each evening as she says goodnight to the Twitterati is a comforting touchstone in this uncertain world.

Reading The Geography of Love one both marvels at and comes to understand just how admirable and awe-inspiring it is that Glenda developed the spine and strength to steady on, faithful that no matter the ordeal, ache, angst, challenge, and loss one is facing, there will be a tomorrow and it will have unimagined treasures and rewards of its own if one just manages to, well, steady on.

I’ve been told my reviews don’t offer enough synopsis of nor quotes enough from the work about which I’m speaking. I get that. But, for me, a review doesn’t need to tell me the things I can get by pulling the book up on GoodReads or the publisher’s site or any book-selling site; what I want from a review is to know the effect the book had on the reader, whether or not and what it made them feel.

The Geography of Love made me feel sorrow, joy, admiration, hope, and honored. Sorrow because Glenda had a dysfunctional family, in particular a difficult mother who withheld approval and affection. Too, Glenda found at last one of those once in a lifetime, forever loves, and had to suffer through his long and agonizing illness and death, remaining strong and keeping on for the children they shared, and, too, for his difficult to deal with daughter from another union. Joy because Glenda found such a powerful love, and she resolved for herself her feelings and issues with her family, her husband’s family and past, and managed not only to survive, but to thrive, and heal enough to share this inspiring memoir, so personal and honest as to approximate reading someone’s journal — only with much more artful prose and structure. Admiration because, well, damn, Glenda survived the life where she was dealt plenty of gobsmacking blows that might well have sunk others, and, instead, she’s become a beacon of love and light in the lives of many, and for the world in general. Hope because I, too, have reached a certain age without ever having had a lifetime, forever love, and Glenda’s story made me think if I keep my heart and mind open, there might be time for me yet — so, how fitting I finished reading this book on Valentine’s Day. And, finally, honored because this remarkable woman has chosen to interact with me, to accept and share her heart with me on Twitter.

This is a deeply emotional story, in which love is sometimes dangerous, always fierce and life-altering, and there are no easy answers; Glenda faced things head-on, as honestly and lovingly as she could, and she shares her triumphs and her mistakes, in essence, she communicates her humanity and her beautiful soul. You may well weep when reading it, but the weeping and working through the sorrow of Glenda’s story to reach the victory of her survival, and the triumph of her later thriving, is worth the tears.

And, in times such as these in which we are living, how inspiring to be reminded and shown that adversity and seemingly infinite hard times and circumstances are only ever temporary in the face of a spirit made of Love and Light, both of which in forms corporeal and ethereal, always survive, always triumph.

Read it. And follow Glenda on Twitter [CLICK HERE]. And, as she says: Steady on, no wobbles.

And, as I say: Here I am, going.

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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…

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