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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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!

Iced Over

My last night here, at the house/pet-sit.

The lake has frozen over, I noticed this morning, the surface I watch each sunrise has stopped its gentle rocking and waving and hypnotic motion. I know life continues underneath the layer of ice, but for a moment in frozen time, it’s lovely to have even more stillness. A different kind of quiet.

I’m not well, again. The stomach thing returned last week, viciously for a few days. Retreated. Then, now, like it does, it’s come back. It’s the B-version; the cramps less painful and far fewer, all the symptoms reduced.

But it’s here.

And while the pain I’ve been having in my knee — the click and feel it’s about to give way — has dissipated since I’ve been away from my gym routine, I have been stricken with a new kind of itching, burning, alligator skin sort of rash. Not all over my body like the last rash was, although the last rash didn’t start all over my body either, but it is unpleasant, wakes me up, throbs at times.

I am feeling unhappy. News of the world, of the country, the cruelty, venality, casual fascism and its acceptance, it gobsmacks me. It has, I think, both benumbed me and weakened me, so my immune system — physical and spiritual — is worn to near uselessness, tattered and showing such wear, stains and holes, like almost all of my clothes.

My beloved aunt, Sissie, went very Little Edie as she aged. She wore an outfit of pantyhose which were more runs and holes than hose, and ancient white button-down shirts my grandfather, long dead, had worn. Everything was transparent, etiolated, tissue paper-thin, both soft and brittle, even her skin.

I notice this is happening to my wardrobe. I notice my skin, too, changing. And I, who am usually like this morning’s lake, iced over, am becoming increasingly translucent, ghost-like, not here but here, but mostly invisible, so things pass through me without noticing.

Mostly, almost always, I am content to have been single. Always, mostly single. But some days, when my skin is thin, when I am not iced over, when I can’t keep things from roiling and spilling out, I am sad and angry.

Because the world and my church and media and my family and those who surrounded me taught me early on that people like me were wrong. And I believed it. I was a child, what choice did I have? And by the time I began to work to un-do the damage, I’d added layers of doubts and fears and insecurities about my physical appearance, my intellect, my ability to cope in the real world, my economic class and background, and I was convinced that loving me required overlooking all that was awful about me.

And further convinced that no one could. I couldn’t.

So, on those sad days, when I am feeling exhaustion, I wonder what it would have been like if I had loved myself enough to let someone else love me, believed enough in me to have ended up somewhere other than cobbling together a life left-over from the disasters from which I had to run.

I know, as well, I have had a good life in many ways, but on days when I am in the listing my failures mode — you should have gone to college, you should have kept auditioning, you should have kept writing and submitting, you should have gone with him when he asked, you should have said no so much sooner, you should have … well, this is why I do not like the thaw that sickness brings, when the layer of ice usually covering all the roiling and rot under my surface cracks, and I fall through into myself, drowning in old sorrows.

And so, here I am, going.

 

Reading: Catching Up, sort of

In this entry I talk about Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, The Secret, Book & Scone Society by Ellery Adams, Flashmob (John Smith #2) by Christopher Farnsworth, Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 by David Sedaris, and Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke.

Its nearing year-end, a year in which I have, thus far, read 143 books, and more than ever depended upon the words of others gathered between covers to distract from the daily horrors of the current existential crisis of humanity being perpetrated by a fascist U.S. regime unlike any seen in my lifetime, or, ever. We teeter on the precipice of self-destruction and I am feeling terrified, horrified, angry, helpless, raging, exhausted, and … well, long/short, a book needs to be really good to make me forget, to give me respite, and that burden is almost unfair, nearly impossible, so, I am trying to keep that in mind as I share my thoughts on things I’ve read. You should keep it mind, too. These are the opinions of a man near his edge, struggling every day to remember to keep the faith that love will triumph.

Mrs. Caliban, Rachel Ingalls, Hardcover, 128pp, January 1982, Harvard Common Press

There was a great deal of buzz on Twitter about this novel’s reissue, articles about its cult-status, NPR mentions, it was the thing all the cool literary kids were talking about, and so, that I’d never heard of nor read it pushed all my “I wanna be popular, too” buttons and I quickly ordered a used copy.

Novella rather than novel, this allegorical romantic-tragic-comic — okay, this un-categorizable romp is a feminist — no, a humanist — no, a satirical — no, a fable of — no, a lyrical — no, a political — you see the problem?

Ignored when released in 1982, its naming in 1986 by the British Book Marketing Council as one of the twenty greatest American novels since World War II still failed to earn Mrs. Caliban a permanent place on the list of must read classics but, luckily, it has been sustained by its inclusion in many a literary fiction MFA curriculum.

Having lost two children, trapped in a marriage of resigned, passionless suburban-ennui with an adulterous, deceiving husband, Dorothy Caliban, numbed and defeated into surrender by choices made and not, is making salad one day when  “… a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock-still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face.” She’s met Larry.

Larry has been held captive, experimented on and tortured by government researchers who he’s killed in order to escape. Dorothy sympathizes, offers him sanctuary, and soon enough, they fall into one another — physically, emotionally, spiritually — as she hides him, unbeknownst to her oblivious husband — in a room off her kitchen, where Larry learns about Dorothy’s world from television and radio programmes. Thus is set into motion a series of events revealing fissures, cracks, and facades in the lives of Dorothy, her husband and friends, and the world in which she lives, a world she tells Larry is “all right” now that he is in it.

Is Larry real? A fantasy onto which Mrs. Caliban projects her dissatisfaction with her limited, disappointing life? Is this a modern Beauty and the Beast? Or, is this feminist social-theory writ ironic? It is, I think, all those things and more, a concupiscent conflagration of marvelous writing, imaginative use of plot tropes, humor, pathos, and technique, all of which is entertaining. Imagine an episode of The Twilight Zone as written by Elizabeth McCracken and directed by Baz Luhrman; the implausible and outrageous made believable and beautiful.

The Secret, Book & Scone Society, Ellery Adams, Hardcover, 285pp, October 2017, Kensington

Less than a month ago I read my first Ellery Adams novel, Killer Characters, which happened to be the eighth and last in her Books by the Bay Mysteries Series. I wrote about it [click HERE] in this blog, and promptly reserved the first in her new series, The Secret, Book & Scone Society — although I confess, the lack of Oxford comma after book makes me uncomfortable.

I’ve no such issues once I get past the cover.

Nora Pennington has come to Miracle Springs to escape her old life, healing scars both physical and psychic, while doing penance for the wrongs for which she holds herself accountable. She has opened a bookstore where she uses her gift for empathetic listening — called bibliotherapy — to choose books that serve as therapeutic aids for those in need, in pain, in confusion. She does not believe she can balance the karmic scales or undo the damage she made in her old life, rather, she means to eliminate as much suffering as she can for others as a way to fill the void in her life left by her decision to stay a safe distance from others, closed off, undeserving of love.

When a businessman who has come to her seeking assistance is found dead shortly thereafter and  said to have committed suicide, Nora is suspicious. In short order, she joins — reluctantly, at first — with Hester the baker, Estella the aesthetician, and June, an employee at the renowned local spa — who all have secrets of their own, and scars of their own, though theirs may be less visible than the ones our heroine, Nora, bears from a fire, the origins of which we will eventually learn as the quartet bare themselves to one another and to us.

Like Nora’s bookstore, cozy, eclectic, full of comfortable and welcoming places to rest and read and recover, this novel is the best kind of intimate and approachable. Most impressive is Ellery Adams gift for making people real, giving them qualities less than ideal and yet maintaining their humanity; these four women are imperfect — just like me, just like you — and sometimes less than likeable, which only makes them feel, ultimately, more like the friends and intimates one develops in real life.

I look forward to continuing my relationships with them as the series progresses and enjoying the patina of magic realism and fabulism with which the novel and Miracle Springs are imbued by the gifted Ellery Adams. A bit Alice Hoffman with intense and determined and bound to make stubborn mistakes characters, a hint of a town full of a little bit out-there types like the residents of Louise Penny’s Three Pines, and one after another literary quote and reference to great books and writing, this series promises to grow into one of my favorites.

Flashmob (John Smith #2), Christopher Farnsworth, Hardcover, 368pp, June 2017, William Morrow

A computer program invented to infect devices around the world and control social media feeds with propaganda targeted to manipulate behavior, create enmity for some, and insure obedience in the masses is being marketed by a diabolical and evil genius. Its use could — for example — take someone as competent, qualified, and decent as Hillary Clinton, and create enough whispers, false scenarios, lies, and viral slander to cost her an election.

Wait, this is a novel? But didn’t this happen to one degree or another already? Yes. And we’re suffering the consequences. So, reading this offered me little enjoyment. In this version, a bodyguard/fixer named John Smith, trained by the CIA to read minds, works to stop the viral-behavior-modification-program from spreading, from being sold to China. It’s the whole clipped-phrase, manly-man detective thing wedded to speculative-sci-fi-tinged fiction. It’s fast. It’s certainly — now more than ever — plausible (other than the mind-reading thing) and, because of that, kind of terrifying.

Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002, David Sedaris, Hardcover, 514pp, May 2017, Little, Brown and Company

I bought David Sedaris’s diaries because Ann Patchett said it was un-put-downable. I’ve read almost nothing of his past work, but, he is super popular here in Frederick, Maryland,  regularly booked at the local theatre, The Weinberg Center.

All that leading up to this; David Sedaris’s personal history is not familiar to me, so, the choppy, truncated nature of the entries left me wanting more context.

I understand from the diaries that he had a drinking problem. He stopped drinking. He lives with someone named Hugh. Not sure how they met, or decided to live together. In Paris, now. Or, London. Or, both and, well, New York, too? His sister is Amy Sedaris. He was very poor. Now, he’s not. He’s met a lot of crazy people. Pieces. It’s all pieces.

So, pieces can be okay. It is fast. It is sometimes amusing. His observations are trenchant. My issue with it is that it is sometimes unkind; mean in the way of people who are holding on to a great deal of pain get funny-push-you-away-with-outrageousness-nasty — and I, having been that color of cruel in my life, find it off-putting and upsetting and guilt-inducing.

Too, while the jacket and publicity sort of preps for this, calling him interesting because he doesn’t dwell on his emotions but describes and observes the bizarre in the world, I rather prefer knowing about how people are feeling. I expect a diarist to dwell on the emotions, and, I think, maybe I don’t so much trust those who evade and avoid. Perhaps, I wanted something he didn’t mean to write or share, the previously untold, the stuff of late-night, alone with yourself, soul-speak, and this is not that. As someone mentioned, they didn’t find “insight or growth or heart.”

Yes. That.

Bluebird, Bluebird, Attica Locke, Hardcover, 307pp, September 2017, Mulholland Books

Second book in this blog-entry I picked up on Ann Patchett’s recommendation. This, too, was a difficult one for me.

Attica Locke, former writer and producer of Fox’s Empire, knows how to fill a plot with twists, surprises, seemingly insurmountable odds indicating either disaster or death (or both) is imminent and then, after the chapter (or commercial) break, somehow the bleakest end is avoided, there is brief respite, but, nothing is quite what it seems, and there, as soon as you take a breath, arises a new complication.

Our hero, Texas Ranger Darren Matthews, is a black man who lands in this town where race dynamics seem to have changed little from the ugliest days of the KKK, now morphed into the Aryan Brotherhood; there is a divide, in fact, only a highway stands between the shack of a restaurant owned and run by Geneva Sweet, the black matriarch who lost husband and son, and, on its other side, the home of Jefferson Wallace, III, which is a plantation-mansion-ish based on Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

This highway through the south, and too, the rutted back roads and rocky, muddy paths, adjacent to the bayou from which two bodies in a short time are fished, contribute a great deal to this atmospheric meditation on race and divide and the cost and limits of connections of blood and rage and history.

Ranger Matthews arrives in this town already suspended for possibly covering up a crime committed by a family friend at home, and his sort of off-the-books investigation into the bayou murders of a black man who was visiting the town for reasons at first unknown, and the white-waitress with whom he was seen walking, the same waitress who was mixed-up with Geneva Sweet’s dead son, becomes increasingly tangled as the spouses of both come at Matthews in very different ways. And, as Matthews gets closer to the truth, it seems no one — black or white, on either side of the highway, or from the back roads — really wants the whole story revealed.

As in all the best noir, the chapters are short, the dialogue clipped (but what an ear for patois Attica Locke has, great lines everywhere), and even the best characters are flawed humans with secret places inside. Cavil: I don’t care for books where a cliffhanger is introduced in the last few pages as teaser for the next installment.

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

So, there it is and there we have it. I will likely finish one or two more books before year end, and I may do a wrap-up recap of my favorites from 2017, or I may, as I am with much else about this year, just move on and try not to look back.

Here I am, going. Love and Light, friends.

 

 

 

Reading: 4 Books and no Sticky Fingers*, that’s FINAL.

Today I’m putting personal babbling on hold (I hear your sigh of relief) and visiting with A Christmas Party, by Georgette Heyer; The End We Start From, by Megan Hunter; Heather, the Totality, by Matthew Weiner; and boy oh boy did I love this one, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, by Mackenzi Lee.

A Christmas Party, Georgette Heyer, First published 1941, this edition October 2016, Paperback, 400pp, Sourcebook Landmark

I kept expecting to love this one more than I did. British. Cozy-ish. 1940. All my stuff. Still, despite some cleverly arch dialogue and skillful construction, I knew early on whodunnit and it felt far longer than it needed to be. Repetitive. Dare I say, dull? I did dare, didn’t I?

The End We Start From, Megan Hunter, Hardcover, 144pp, November 2017, Grove Atlantic

London is flooded by rising waters; a pregnant woman and her husband depart to find safe shelter with his parents, soon the baby, Z, is born, its grandparents dead, its father departed, and the woman and Z make their way in a new dystopian reality. Honestly, this variety of near-future horror tale is now too much for me because with every passing day it becomes not only more possible this sort of thing could happen because of ignorance, denial, and neglect, but, in fact, increasingly likely. And since it seems I might have to live it later, I don’t want to imagine it now. All of which is unfair to a book carefully constructed, a mosaic of short, near poetic sentences and paragraphs creating a lucid whole of a story. Although, this is less a novel and more a short story, but, as with labeling genres, who is to say what qualifies as novel, novella, short story, outline? It’s a quick read with some beautiful passages and a horrifying picture of an all-too-likely future.

Heather, The Totality, Matthew Weiner, Hardcover, 144pp, November 2017, Little, Brown and Company

So, coincidentally, this is the second novel in a row under 200 pages I have read. Again, for me, it was more a short story than a novel, its canvas small, confined to a few characters who struck me as contrived rather than fully developed humans. Too, at this particular point in the history of the world, I’m not much inclined to want a story in which privileged cis-white men get away with stuff, no matter how badly they feel about it. So, it’s a no for me.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Mackenzi Lee, Hardcover, 513pp, June 2017, Katherine Tegen Books

Marketed as Young Adult, but should be marketed as ridiculously good fun, rip-roaring romantic adventure, crazy-interesting characters, thrillingly erotic, compellingly plotted, queer-history cool, stay-up-call-in-sick-until-you-finish delight of a damn good book.

Did you get that I loved it?

Young gentleman Henry Montague, Monty, and his best friend since childhood, Percy, who happens to be biracial and as gorgeous as Monty and on whom Monty happens to have a long, unrequited crush, take off on a tour typical for the privileged 18th century English lad; only this tour is meant to tame Monty, his domineering and abusive father threatening his eldest son with disinheritance if he doesn’t keep away from boys and settle down into staid, responsible adulthood. To that end, younger sister Felicity is also sent along on the tour. Trouble, as it so often does, ensues. Stolen treasures. Pirates. Naked men and women. Drinking. Drugging. Villains. Heroes. Mysteries. And, somehow, anachronistic as it may (or may not) be, issues like homophobia, sexism, racism, power-hungry and evil white-men in charge/politicians, individual identity, child abuse, and a host of other topical and relevant subjects are dealt with in serious but humorous and entertaining, involving, riveting ways.

This is like a series on the WB as imagined by Ryan Murphy and filtered through the sensibilities of Oscar Wilde and starring those couple of teen-male-idols you’ve always wanted to see get-it-on with each other, accompanied by that teen-female-popstar you’ve always wanted released from the bonds of sexism and come into her super-hero self. There is a sequel on the way, and Felicity, the younger sister, who is abso-fabu-mazing, is the narrator of that one. BRING IT!

*No Sticky Fingers note. I have decided NOT to write about the Jann Wenner biography, Sticky Fingers, because of all the reasons I cited here: https://herewearegoing.wordpress.com/2017/12/03/interstitial-notish-about-reading/ 

I have not lived a perfect life, not even a perfect week, hell, not even a perfect last twenty-four hours — in fact, the last twenty-four have been fairly fucked up, but I don’t want to read about Jann Wenner because I find what he did with his privilege to be despicable. Further, that he gave such a shit about this bio having included some info on with whom he slept says to me he hasn’t changed much. Further, that anyone gives a fuck about who he slept with rather than what he did NOT do for the world with the opportunities he had, makes me sort of furious — at this point in history, in a country (and world) being decimated by what is (I hope) the last gasp of privileged-heterosexual-male lust-for-power driven evil, I don’t really want to read about one of the shitheads who kept the evil going, gave it a platform, and did near fuck-all to achieve equality. So, that.

And, before my chest pain turns into a full-blown coronary, here I am, going.

Conversation (with me at 18)

Listen, dear ones, I apologize if there are some awkward sentences, run-ons (surprise), typos, but I can’t look at this too much, because I want it said. I want to say it for 18-year-old Charlie. This is gut level. I got a text today from a long ago friend, and the text included a picture of a letter I’d sent him then, and he said, “Yes chuck, you had an impact on me.” And I think this happened today because … well, that’s what I wrote (bled, shared, wept, laughed) here. So, I leave you with this. I’ll be back next week. And Chris, if you’re reading this, I still have on of those bandannas, 38 years later. The blue one.

It was 38 years ago when I wrote the letter I’ve copied into this blog.

Just 18, I’d been more or less on my own for two years, having been invited to move out of my home at sixteen when tired of every day being bullied and fag-bashed at school in little to huge ways and advised when I asked for help that I ought to act more like a boy and I wouldn’t have those problems, I dropped out of school.

Aided and abetted by a waitress at the French restaurant where I started working as a busboy/dishwasher/laundry man, I’d lied about my age and gotten my own apartment, a garret-like space attached to a television and radio repair shop.  I lived alone in the tiny two rooms and half kitchen, furnished with a mattress on the floor, my stereo and collection of musical theatre and current pop albums, my 12 inch black and white t.v., and the front seat of a Chevy Vega re-purposed as a living room chair. I was exquisitely happy and hopeful.

And I was in love. What I understood to be love. And I wrote this letter to the boy-man who I desperately wanted to love me in return. After decades of no communication, out of the blue a few years ago I received a text from him. We now, periodically, catch one another up via text messaging. And today, all these 38 years later, he sent this picture in a text message of that letter the 18-year-old Charlie wrote him. 38 years ago when there was no texting. No email. No Grindr. I wrote so many letters. I spent hours every week writing letters to people. And Christopher saved this for 38 years and sent it to me today to tell me I had changed his life.

Oh my, how insufferably presumptuous I was. I thought I knew everything. Or, I thought I had to appear as though I knew everything. I was so terribly in love with him, and how I searched for the right combination of words and circumstance and mind altering substances that were the ingredients of the incantation to keep the two of us naked, together, in love.

He was kind and he was beautiful, lanky and tightly-thin, striated and skin taut-stretched in that way of teenagers, that perfect union of bone, muscle, and flesh, not yet used or tired or grayed which we spend the rest of our lives trying to regain. His eyes were phlegmy, this film of unearned sensitivity as if at any moment he might shed a tear for me. He wore overalls (we all did), often without a shirt, and had always a number of bandannas of different bright, rainbow colors attached to his outfits. Never in his pockets. He wasn’t gay. Of course. Oh dear, he tried so hard not to hurt me, not knowing, of course, that I was determined to be hurt in that eleven o’clock ballad sort of way. Which was what I understood love to be. An understanding you must understand I had learned from musical theatre songs and Barbra Streisand albums. Because everyone I had most loved thus far in my life had been always alone; my mother had been a widow since I was seventeen months old, my aunt, Sissie, had never married, or, even, as far as I knew, had a single date. And men? Those creatures with whom I had found myself falling in love since I was a boy, a love that — to coin a phrase — dare not speak its name? What did I know about men? Nothing at all. I had no father. My brother was much older than I and absented himself from the family of mother, four sisters, and me — the younger brother who identified with the women, thought I was a member of the female tribe, did not understand I was meant to belong to those others. Those men. They had always been the scary ones who didn’t talk and around whom I was not allowed to sing or dress up in play clothes with a towel on my head standing in for the long luxurious blonde hair I wanted some day to have. And did, in fact, eventually have. Men were the people for whom we had to pretend to be things we were not, or, more like, pretend not to be all the things we were. I was trained from the very beginning to hide who I was. And taught, too, love was something you had to have, something wonderful, and yet, it was inevitably awful. I channeled all this into my belting, the talent I imagined would give me permission — once I was discovered — to be ANYTHING I wanted. And so, I’d been singing along with the patron saint of the oddballs and the outcasts, Barbra Streisand, from my earliest childhood. And this, yes this, was my favorite number. Of course.

So, I was confused and confusing and terrified and ridiculously bold and so vulnerable as to be always near disintegration and yet, so tough-posing, hard-shelled, aim-for-the-jugular cruel, some people were terrified of me. And I played the leads in lots of musicals. On stage and off. And I wanted desperately to be in love. And I was. I think. With Chris. And it was during that time my musical spheres were widened. He, and our mutual friends, were of the Little Feat and Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell school, artists I had never heard of or listened to, so focused had I been on musical theatre since childhood, and then R&B and disco since getting a fake I.D. at sixteen and starting my tour of the area gay bars — but that’s another story. This chapter is about Chris, and being introduced to Joni’s Blue. Chris and I would listen to Joni in my apartment, where we’d get high or drunk, or high and drunk, and do that teenage lost in the music, gazing meaningfully at one another thing — without any clear idea of WHAT the meaning of the gazing was. I knew the first time I heard it, with Chris and I entwined in one another like we did, aching on the outside of being able to really touch one another, that just on the edge of intimacy thing, oh I knew, the words, the truth, that The Last Time I Saw Richard would be my ever after song, my biography right there.

But during Chris, it wasn’t Blue or Last Time I Saw Richard that was my theme song, although it was sung by Joni, it was Conversation.

Chris always had someone — or many someones, all female — in love with him. He told me about them. He told me what they did together. There was a story about chocolate sauce and whipped cream that nearly killed me. I comforted him sometimes.

I can’t remember the last time I saw him. We were both very much younger. He was not, then, the father of a grown son, or a man much in love with his wife in a very successful marriage. I was not, then, twenty-plus years a director, teacher, theatre company owner, or a man who had spent his entire life being on the end of conversations with people who I comforted sometimes.

And so, today, Chris sent me back a picture of the letter I’d sent him 38 years ago, asking him to love me, without the courage to say it out loud. But is this The Last Time I Saw Richard? “Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away? Only a phase, these dark cafe days.”

Turns out, it wasn’t the story of my life. I got all my bitterness out when I was young. Funny, that. It was so long predicted I would be a less-than-charming curmudgeon. But, all those years of lonely and angry and sad and being told I was wrong, and being so fundamentally, achingly, desperately alone, those years wore away the edges, broke down the walls, opened me up until I am all nerve endings and feelings and Light and Love; all that is left of me is the core, the center, stripped of the layers I’d accumulated to protect me. I am alive in ways I’ve never been. I am loving in ways I have never loved. I was so unhappy for so long, I think I may have bled out all my sorrows. Dangerous to say that, yes? But, there it is. And here I am, Charlie, 38 years past 18, and Chris heard that half way across the country, and reached out. Or, maybe I called to him? Because the letter, today, it gave me a memory of warm, a memory of believing, a memory and energy of Charlie who knew he could change the world, knew he would change the world, believed he could be loved — even if he didn’t think he deserved it.

He deserved it. I wish, so often, I could reach back in time and hold that Charlie and tell him he is beautiful and talented and kind and good and worthy and right about all the things that matter, to hold him up and believe in him and say yes, to balance all the no he got, to tell him what must be learned is to unlearn all the worrying about tomorrow, to stop worrying where he was going, he was there, be there, by moving on. And I think, today, Chris did that for me, for him, for 18-year-old Charlie and 19-year-old Chris, took us back, shone the light on the love. Maybe what we were feeling then was us now, reaching back to say, “Hold on, this love counts too.”

And here I am, going. 18 and 56 and moving on. All the things you gave to me . . . the way you catch the light. Goodnight, dear ones.