Reading: Because … Elizabeth McCracken and Twitter

Senator's Wife Sue Miller

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THE SENATOR’S WIFE, Sue Miller, originally published 2008, Knopf, 306pp

ORBITING JUPITER, Gary D. Schmidt, Clarion Books, 2015, 192pp

FORTUNE SMILES, Adam Johnson, Random House, 2015, 320pp

(WARNING: Once again, dear ones, my book-blogging is as much about my personal journey as it is about the books — well, who am I kidding — my book-blogging is entirely to do with an excuse to babble on about my own rot and ruminations. So, if you want to read JUST about the books, skip WAAAAAAYYY 600 words down the page to where the titles are again typed in RED and there are my accounts of the fictions. Prior to that, you’ll be suffering through my fictional accountings of my life. And Twitter. Love and Light, kids.)

I read Sue Miller’s The Senator’s Wife, because my Twitter-pal, Elizabeth McCracken, told me she was certain I would enjoy Ms. Miller’s writing. She was right. I did. I really did.

I read Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, not because it won the 2015 National Book Award for fiction, but, because I am a short story junkie, made so by my 2014 return to the genre through the gateway drug of the brilliant Thunderstruck, which happened to have been written by my Twitter-pal, Elizabeth McCracken.

Oh, how I do love Twitter.

In September of 2010, I opened a Twitter account because someone I loved told me I ought to. By now, November of 2015, the love — as love often does — has gone, and I don’t know whether they are even on Twitter anymore, but rather than having left me with just my usual love-hangover of debt, despair, depression, and social disease — though three out of four were suffered in this instance — this love left me, too, with the gift of a social media habit that has immeasurably enriched my life.

Truth: five years and twenty-three-thousand Tweets later, Twitter is where much of what is best and most affirming of the Charlie I imagine myself to be takes place.

Even truthier truth: the Charlie I am, and have always wanted to be, finally exists because of and mostly on Twitter.

Twitter offers the opportunity to Continue reading

Reading: Sloane Crosley’s The Clasp (and a few other reads, in brief)

Clasp Sloane Crosley

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THE CLASP, Sloane Crosley, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 384pp, 2015

INNOCENCE; or, Murder of Steep Street, Heda Margolius Kovaly, Soho Crime, 256pp

PRETTY GIRLS, Karin Slaughter, William Morrow, 397pp, 2015

Okay, one more time stealing from Mrs. Parker, copping to my “congenital lowness of brow” and confessing: I have never read anything by Guy de Maupassant.

I had also never read anything of Sloane Crosley’s work, although a copy of I Was Told There’d Be Cake populates my massive TBR collection. Ms. Crosley’s [visit her website HERE] The Clasp was brought to my attention by Twitter-pal mentions and recommendations, after hearing of which, I read reviews, all of which talked of Guy de Maupassant’s short story, The Necklace, as if everyone who was anyone and had ever thought to read a book had studied this classic example of short-story writing in college.

Listen dear ones, I only learned the proper pronunciation of Proust in my twenties. Tortured by thugs and personal demons and as unskilled at suicide as I was at coping, I was lucky to be alive that I might leave high school and home at sixteen. I got a GED, played now and then at college, but my declared major from age twelve or so to this exalted pedestal from which I rule at age fifty-four has always been fighting conventional and cultural should do & must be & ought to. Still, nothing would do but that I read The Necklace so I could — like all the smart, with-it, MFA-ed, literary marvels I follow — get the most out of The Clasp.

So, even had I gotten nothing else out of The Clasp, its reading prompted me to Continue reading

Reading: George by Alex Gino

george-by-alex-gino

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GEORGE, by Alex Gino, Scholastic Press, 2015, 195pp

Full disclosure: I bought George at my home bookstore, Curious Iguana [click here], in anticipation of its author, Alex Gino [click here for their website], coming for a reading/visit. On the day of, I was invited to share dinner with Iguana’s Marlene and Emily and the author. We shared a delightful hour(ish) at a wonderful Thai restaurant, and having already been deeply moved when reading George, I was then charmed, delighted, and ensorcelled by Alex. Which is still only part of the story. After dinner, back to the bookstore, the reading and speaking and questions and answers began, by the end of which, I had become more than an appreciative reader, Twitter-follower, and “I had dinner with Alex Gino” braggart, I had become an Alex-evangelist.

Before I go too far off the book review/appreciation rails, let me insert the novel-synopsis from Alex Gino’s own website. Listen:

When people look at George, they see a boy. But George knows she’s a girl.

George thinks she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. Then her teacher announces that their class play is going to be Charlotte’s Web. George really, really, REALLY wants to play Charlotte. But the teacher says she can’t even try out for the part … because she’s a boy.

With the help of her best friend Kelly, George comes up with a plan. Not just so she can be Charlotte – but so everyone can know who she is, once and for all.

GEORGE is a candid, genuine, and heartwarming middle grade about a transgender  girl who is, to use Charlotte’s word, R-A-D-I-A-N-T!

Obviously, author knows best. George is a beautifully written, inspiring, hope-giving tale about the experience of one transgender young person and it is an important piece in the puzzle of making the world a more welcoming place, a safer place, a place where people’s first exposure to transgender people has to do with affirming, loving images and visions of acceptance and embrace rather than the invisibility, shaming, confusions, mockeries, and cruelties of the past.

But it would be a disservice to George and Alex Gino to limit the book to only those with an interest in learning about transgender experience. Because the becoming and recognition of George into Melissa, of George-soul embracing and freeing the Melissa-soul within, of the melding and blossoming of George and Melissa into an integrated being of Light and Love and Life in Full, is — to one degree or another — a journey everyone takes, a journey that lasts a lifetime.

We live — day-to-day — in a world where the shorthand of labels and categorizations rule. The pace of being is awfully fast, and we want easy, facile definitions of who we are and what is expected, explanations that fit in 140 characters, soundbites and Instagrams, quick pics and pithy translations that delineate and cozily cubbyhole everything and everyone.

But, my friends, neither life nor self can be so simply explicated. We are colors and complications and emotions and maybes and more-sos and magnificences that don’t — that won’t — that shouldn’t be reduced to labels and linear language.

Boy. Girl. Genderless. Young. Old. Straight. Gay. Bisexual. Asexual. Queer. Smart. Dumb. White. Yellow. Black. Silly. Serious. American. Syrian. Asian. African. European. Native. Foreign. Friend. Foe. Whatever the words and ideas we use to put someone (anyone, OURSELVES) in boxes — neat, square boxes that fit — those words, those ideas, those images can only ever describe the tiniest little parts of us.

Being whole, being Life, being Love and Light, is a journey and a process and a MIRACLE beyond the size of any words, any amount of words. We are all more magnificence than can be contained by language or label or cultural norms.

Alex Gino in George and in life, in their speaking to not just their readers, but travelling to touch lives like mine, to say, “Yes, I am here – I count – George and Melissa live in all of us — you count, Charlie – we are all magnificent beings, being who we are,” has done more than write a wonderful, accessible book —

— they have changed the world. One person, one dream, one recognition,one magnificence at a time.

Alex Gino

Alex Gino being radiant and magnificent at Curious Iguana in Frederick, Maryland

I wish you could have been at Curious Iguana when Alex answered a question about making it through the days, maintaining hope, finding self; they spoke far more eloquently than can I, but I will try to summarize the answer; listen:

The thought “it gets better” someday is not enough. Some day, sometimes, is too far away. Sometimes a month away is too long to wait. Sometimes a week away is too long to wait. Sometimes a day away is too long to wait. Sometimes a second away is too long to wait. So, what I say is, focus on what is working, what is good, what you can make better, RIGHT NOW, in this second. Sometimes it may be as little as painting your pinkie-toenail bright green, but, at least you have that pinkie-toenail. Better. Right now.

Yes. Sometimes the better is as small as a toenail, or, even, smaller. But the wisdom of Alex Gino, the love Alex Gino has brought to the world with George is — has already been for me — will be for many to come, many about whom we will never know, Alex will never meet — that BETTER that comes from seeing ourselves, our journeys shared and seen and selves recognized in stories told, stories valued enough to be put between covers and offered by Scholastic Press, stories about Light and Love and Life and the truths there, the possibilities there. Here, now, where we are going.

Like Charlotte (of Web fame) and Alex would say, this book, this Alex = RADIANT! And my word, for Alex Gino and George, MAGNIFICENT!

 

 

 

Zeitbites Tuesday: Flowers and Candles

Sometimes I choose to remain quiet because I suspect the things I am wanting to say are proof of a confirmation bias I am trying to undo. There is always evidence available to support any worldview you choose; the challenge is to find the Love and Light. I talk about it so much because it is such a challenge for me to consistently do it, live in it, try to find it.

But, I know, on a foundational level, there is always beauty to be found. And if, sometimes, I choose to remain quiet, it is because I need to sit with myself and comfort myself out of my fear, work past my horror, find again the Love and Light in my heart.

Here . . . (with thanks to Her Grace, Duchess Goldblatt, who RT-ed on Twitter.)

I am moving houses today, leaving this set of pets, on my way to another, five different beds in two weeks, with all of my accoutrement and books and belongings, blessed, am I. And sending out what energy I have to those refugees who must move, run, hide, from place to place, and have not the resources and love and support I have.

Today, yes, today, I will be sharing what candles and flowers I have with people who need them.

Love to you all. Light to you all. May the biases I confirm and the evidence and proofs I find be those that validate what is right and loving and light in the universe; may I bring to the world only flowers and candles and make people feel better along my way.

Reading: Fates and Furies (and a few others)

Recent current events have me hiding away, a mountain-top(ish) house and pet sitting gig, where I’ve been on a double binge: Reading and Eating. I’ll spare you the details of my Pepperidge Farm Cookie gluttony (they were on sale, 2 for $5) and crackhead like inhalation of Lindt Lindor Milk Chocolate Truffles (honestly, my desperate chomping was Dickensian in its desperation) and stick to the books. Life, as a rule, would always be better if I would just stick to the damn books.

RAZZLE DAZZLE: THE BATTLE FOR BROADWAY, Michael Riedel, Simon & Schuster, 2015, 464pp

razzle dazzleSaw this in the New Releases section at the library and hesitated. In that fantasy world in which I live where I am pals with Broadway types, I recalled something about theatre-folk not caring for Riedel and, not wanting to be disloyal to my imaginary friends, I was going to pass. Then, I remembered he had been on the late, lamented (by me, at least) Smash, and so, I decided that if Megan Hilty, Wes Taylor, Christian Borle, Andy Mientus, and Jeremy Jordan agreed to appear in the same show as had he, I’d be forgiven for reading his book.

I’m a sucker for Broadway stories, gossip, and history. A book that gives me backstory on the Shubert and Nederlander dynasties, Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Michael Bennett, Hal Prince, Tommy Tune, Stephen Sondheim, and on and on and others and the history of Mack & Mabel – which was my first and finest flop-love as a child-theatre-fanatic; well — it’s a book I’m going to devour. Was it well written or insightful or particularly riveting? Probably not. And, this sentence on page 389: “He looked passed the decay and saw the former grandeur.” Passed? Really? It is this sort of thing that makes me scoff and sniff with unearned superiority. I mean, granted, my blog entries are rife with errors – but I write these in about 60 minutes, tops, and I do NOT have a copy editor (more is the pity).

THE TROUBLE IN ME, Jack Gantos, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, 224pp

the-trouble-in-me-jack-gantosMy YA read for the week, also a library hold, recommended by one or another book blogger I follow – I cannot remember. In this, a pyromaniac in training hooks up with the wrong kind of kid, starts his training for what will eventually be prison. This is an autobiographical tale made fiction. I’m not in the business of denigrating someone’s life story. It was a fast read. I wasn’t much moved. I didn’t much get the point. I grow weary of first person, self-consciously hip narrators in the YA catalogue.

THE LIBRARY AT MOUNT CHAR, Scott Hawkins, Crown, 2015, 388pp

library at mount charThis was recommended by the Gilmore Guide to Books blog. No, not recommended, RAVED about. Listen:

Bottom line? The Library at Mount Char is the answer to every booklover’s prayer that they have not already read everything new under the sun, because there is nothing like this book. It is that ingenious in its premise and execution. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but oh, I loved this book.

It qualifies as Science Fiction (according to the library, from which I got my copy) and I am, admittedly, not a huge Science Fiction fan. Still, I am determined to read across genres, to experience the best of all worlds. I did find this book interesting for about three-quarters of its length. Then, I started feeling the dreaded “let’s finish it in a way that allows for a sequel” sort of writing. Not a fan. Especially not a fan when what feels like a carefully constructed and elaborately designed universe, and its main characters, suddenly become someones other than who they have been for the first three-quarters of the book. What I considered to be the false, unbelievable softening of the Carolyn and Father figures, and the weirding of the Steve character, ruined it for me.

FATES AND FURIES, Lauren Groff, Riverhead Books, 2015, 392pp

fates and furiesI’ve been burnt by believing hype about hot books more than a few times lately, so, when people kept telling me how great this book was, when it was given such rave reviews, when the Twitter-literati poured on the praise, I thought, “I just won’t ever get around to reading it and thus, I can avoid all the trauma and self-doubt I experience when I don’t love a book as much as my Twitter-idols and vast and sundry of the literary and intellectual elite do.”

But, there it was at the library. DAMN THE LIBRARY!

I agree that Lauren Groff is a marvelous writer. There were many beautiful passages and images in the novel. Her sentences are artfully constructed, measured and rhythmic, striking. Listen:

Denton Thrasher gathered Lotto in his arms and wiped his face with the hem of his pajama top, revealing a furry white belly, and Lotto was rocked on the edge of the stage, smelling witch hazel and Listerine and pajamas worn too many times between washes.

The next paragraph — the next few pages are as — maybe even more — luxurious of image and insight, including this:

He reached out a hand to Lotto’s shoulder and patted him until he calmed. It felt as if they’d crossed a bridge a second before it collapsed.

Holy Proust — and we are only on page 30-31. Page 43, then:

In twenty years, they’d have country houses and children with pretentious literary names and tennis lessons and ugly cars and liaisons with hot young interns. Hurricanes of entitlement, all swirl and noise and destruction, nothing at their centers.

So much good, there. So much. And 62:

‘Don’t know,’ Mathilde said. ‘I can’t tell if you’re benign or malignant. But I feel like I could tell you all my secrets right now and you’d keep them to yourself, waiting for when best to deploy them.’

That is a holy shit line in and of itself, but when you get to the second half of the book, it becomes even more-so. Holier. And, too, shittier. Which sort of sums up the trick Ms. Groff pulls off so neatly with a finesse and elegance of technique one cannot help but admire.

Fates and Furies is the story of a marriage told from the perspective first of the husband, Lancelot, or, Lotto, and then, the wife, Mathilde. They are both despicable. And both entirely lovable.

For me, however, Mathilde was far more interesting and so, that more than the first half of the novel was from Lotto’s perspective was disappointing. On page 312 it is lamented that Volumnia of Coriolanus is far more interesting than the title character, but nobody would go see a play called Volumnia. Perhaps, but I don’t think many readers would have objected to this novel being more Mathilde than it was.

Nonetheless, this book does very well that illumination of the contours and landscape of a life, a real life, a real human, shaped, formed, worn into who and what they are by long, slow accumulation of forces, storms, shifts, disappointments, joys, truths, lies, drips, drops, daily, daily, daily waiting and wanting, so much of it subterranean, unseen, never understood even by those one stands beside, sleeps beside, dies beside. Love and contempt cohabit so often in such intimate proximity, the line between the two sometimes imperceptible, concern and care crossing so easily into contempt and cruelty. Yet, even so, still, there can be love, deep, abiding, horrifyingly strong and terrifying and comforting and confusing and irreconcilable love.

Fates and Furies tells such a huge story, a love that is also a hate, mythological, classic (even an omniscient narrator speaking to us in bracketed asides) and writ large on lives rather small, spirits and souls rather petty.

I liked it very much. Did I five-star it like this year’s Did You Ever Have a Family and Everything I Never Told You? No. But, it was as close as I’ve come in a while and for that — and for it NOT being another hot, new read that I was forced to throw across the room — I am grateful.

clegg, did you everEverything I Never Told You

 

 

 

 

 

Beds half full and pages waiting for words

parispost 4

A bed, not my own.

I don’t want to talk about it. So, I’ve turned off the television and Twitter. I am cocooned in the mountains: Working. This means I am minding a house and some animals not my own. Sleeping in a bed not my own.

When I am home, that place I use as my official address, I sleep in the center of my bed. Yet, for some reason, when I am in beds not my own, in other people’s homes, I sleep on the left side and to my right I pile my lounge clothes — most important of which is the souvenir T-shirt from Signature Theatre’s production of SideShow — the books I am reading, the Moleskin in which I am currently note-taking, Post-It stickers I use to mark passages of interest in books, and my reading glasses. In these beds, not my own, which are usually occupied by a couple, I fill in the empty half with things I pack and carry, my comforts, my loves.

Paris. I don’t want to talk about it. Echoes. When 9/11 happened, I was needed. I was needed to comfort people.

paris post 6

When 9/11 happened, the child of the parents who sleep in this bed I am in for a few days, was one of my special ones.

When 9/11 happened, I was running a performing arts studio where young people aged three to eighteen came, ostensibly to learn to dance and sing and act. Most were once-a-week, sixty minute visitors whose parents were making sure to help check off the list another of the required, middle-class, suburban stops along the way like soccer, horseback riding, sneaking liquor from one’s parents’ basement bar, and — for one out of five — a stint in teen rehab. Those many once-a-weekers shared the studio with the few, who for whatever reason, dreamed of a career in the performing arts and had been convinced that training like an olympian would insure that future, and so spent double-digit hours and quadruple-digit-dollars on multiple classes that they might triple-threat their way to fame and fortune.

Then, there were my kids — my special ones and my purpose — those who found me because they needed a place to belong, a place to feel they could fit in as themselves, a place safe and affirming, and they found such sanctuary in making theatre. We always had projects going on, one after another show, cabaret, class project. I was pretty much a one man band, a nearly talent-free combination of Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams, Hal Prince, John Waters; I wrote the shows, I built the sets, I did the lights, I found the costumes, I corralled volunteers, I paid for everything, and, all the while, I listened to them.

Paris happened. I don’t want to talk about it. What could I possibly add to the conversation? I am not one who talks in a crisis. I am one who listens. I wait. I hear. I let it be.

When 9/11 happened, during that period of my life, I nearly lived at the studio because in addition to the classes I taught and the shows I directed and stage managed and wrote and all those pesky practical requirements of running a physical plant — the business and the busy-ness of a place needing to be cleaned and maintained and populated and financed and all of that  — I counseled.

My office, my theatre, my classroom, were never empty. I was never too busy. The Doctor Uncle was always in. My work was always being delayed by my serving the lost and the lonely and the disaffected and the outcasts and the lovelorn. I was known for comforting and encouraging the damaged. I had many, many students sent to me because they were — in one way or another — drowning in the outside world. Those being bullied, those questioning their sexuality, those with learning disabilities, those with Asperger’s, those with mood disorders, those with anger issues, those with speech impediments, those with crippling shyness, those with — you get the picture — they were sent to me. It was well known that I would take them in, that I would write for them, that I would embrace them — whoever they were — and hold their hands, attempt to walk them through the journey of learning to embrace themselves.

When 9/11 happened and that first plane ripped through the tower and tore the fabric of that hubristic American sense of inviolability, forever shaking its foundation, I was on my way in to the studio and was called, told what had happened, and I, being an expert at denial, insisted it was some sort of silly pilot error, nothing about which to worry. Not long later, when it became clear it was an intentional act and no one — from the government to the grocery stores — knew quite what to do or what was coming next, classes were canceled, the studio closed.

My phone started to ring. A number of parents of my special ones, and a few of my special ones, called me. While they knew the studio was closed,  a show was on the way to happening — a few shows, in fact — and they assumed that even though the world as we knew it might be ending, I’d still be at the studio, getting things ready, the show must go on and what not. And, I was. The tower had fallen, life as they knew it was in danger of falling apart, and so, of course, they wanted to be with me, in the world we’d made together.

paris post 1

My tool bag of ablutions. And my gym bag. Not seen, my duffel that holds one outside outfit & the lounge outfit that shares my bed. Not seen, the book bag and computer/writing bag. I have 5 bags in which I carry around my life. And, too, sometimes a bag of groceries. My tool bags. The only one I comfort now; Me.

Of course I said yes. They came. I didn’t have time to worry about how I was feeling, about my fear, because I had to validate and assuage theirs. And, there were shows to do. But first, I sat there with them (and, in some cases, their parents too) and I held them, and I let them cry and imagine the worst (and suggested the best) and we kept on. Kept going. Tried to make sense of 9/11 in the same way we tried to make sense of shows, finding our own context and making use of what we had to tell our own stories, all of which — in my teaching and writing and producing and directing, for my special ones — were exercise in trying to make sense of our own lives, to understand and make art (sense, cope with) our own trials and pains and persecutions and fears and troubles and traumas. I didn’t have — have never had — a huge tool-bag of  talent for the things at which I dreamed I would succeed, wanted to succeed [— I sang well enough, was committed unto insanity to the roles I played, and had some spark, as one teacher said to me early on (borrowing, I later discovered, from Ruth Gordon who’d said the same of Barbra Streisand), “You are great but not good.” And, as a writer, I am okay, but not brilliant] but I was very good at making other people feel loved, feel as if they were seen. I did love them. I did see them. I did bandage open wounds and offer transfusions. I did empathy until I was empty. Tool bag, depleted.

Paris has happened. I don’t want to talk about it. Already, the cruelty, the accusations, the blame.

When 9/11 happened, there followed weeks, I remember, in the aftermath of such a horror, during which time people became kinder — while driving, while waiting in lines, everywhere in general — the world having been riven by haters and joined in trauma united, became more loving.

Of course, that passed. We all went back to our lives. We all started focusing again on our differences rather than the places where we were alike, we again got busy marking territory and screaming, “Mine! Me!” And we hoarded our pain, gave up on sharing anything but our contempt for those with whom we did not agree.

Paris post 3

My Moleskin, my Post-It tabs, my glasses case, my SideShow T-shirt, jacket, sweats, and Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker, The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins, and Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson.

Now. Paris. The latest atrocity. Another horror I cannot understand. Only, this time, no one came to me for comfort. And I, alone, went to no one else. Rather, I turned off the television, Twitter, my phone, and further cocooned.

I share my bed with these things that give me comfort, that keep me warm. My bed — if I am lucky — is NOT my bed, but, someone else’s. Not, mind you, in the sleeping around, have a lover/trick/one-night-stand sort of fun way, but, rather, in the thank-heavens I got a house/pet sitting gig because I am broke sort of way.

Paris happened. I feel as if something else is soon going to happen. I don’t want to talk about it. I am sleeping in a bed usually occupied by the parents of one of the (then) young, special ones I mentored and comforted during 9/11. This time, I had their dogs and cat on my lap. This time, I stayed in. I turned off. I tuned out.

The world — Paris. All the places where terror and hate reign. Hunger. Bigotry. All the awful -isms. All far more important than the mystery of how the bed I am in is so often not my own, how one side is undisturbed by anything but the things I carry, how completely and utterly alone I am, writing into the ether like this.

Confession: I am wondering, as I type this, alone, here, occupying half a bed and looking back from here, where I am, going, only to discover that I skipped (again) a page in my Moleskin — if that isn’t somehow metaphor, leaving a blank page so that I can — someday, one day, some time, look back, flip back, and fill in what it is that I am missing now — in the then. Because, looking back on 9/11 from here, I have confessed — for the first time in writing, out loud — that I was never really talented enough in theatre or writing to achieve my dreams, my wants — and perhaps, should I survive, years from now I will see what I am missing — oh dear — here, alone, that maybe, after all, I was not so good at the comforting and the loving and the mentoring. Because, look at where I am, who I am, and what I have not.

paris post 8

another page I missed . . .

I am alone. Without anyone coming to me for comfort. Without anyone missing me, that I’ve turned off Twitter and my phone, and hidden away. Without. Without a song. Without words to fill in those pages I missed. Without.

I don’t want to talk about it. But, if I did, who — other than the things with which I’ve filled the other half of these beds I visit — would listen?

I don’t want to talk about it.

I don’t want to talk about.

I don’t want to talk.

I don’t want to.

I don’t want.

I don’t.

I.

 

Reading: Bobby Wonderful by Bob Morris

bobby wonderful

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Bobby Wonderful: An Imperfect Son Buries His Parents, Bob Morris, Twelve Books, 2015, 177pp

Not sure if it’s a sign of the ruling cultural demographic of aging Boomers and GenX-ers or my own myopic obsession, but Bobby Wonderful is the third book I have read since March in a genre dedicated to ruminations on the care and maintenance of aging parents.

The first was Bettyville by George Hodgman, which I very much loved. [Click here to read about it.] And the second, more recently read in preparation for an operation the doctors had indicated could very well be the end of my mother, was Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, which I found to be revelatory and inspiring and terrifying. [Click here to read about it.]

While Bettyville and Being Mortal were very different, they had in common an inspirational reaching; while both authors reflected on their own journey during their parent’s illness, the primary thrust and concern was focused on finding peace with the wishes of those being cared for, a way of transitioning roles that granted everyone agency, dignity, acknowledgment, and a final understanding and acceptance. There was a great deal of becoming a new “we” in both.

In Bobby Wonderful, there is much less of that. It is more an “I” story in which he admits he was not, perhaps, the ideal caretaker. I never felt as if I knew Bobby, his partner, his brother, his parents, his cousin, in the way I came to know the people in Bettyville and Being Mortal, both of which resonated for me, touched on my own experiences. Bobby Wonderful did not give me that feeling of connection. His experience had none of the echoes or colors, did not move me as did those others — there seemed a distance between the experience and the author, a chasm he wasn’t willing to explore or cross, a sense that the author prefers living life at a certain remove.

I am sure the experience was profound and life-altering for him, but in this book, it feels as if he didn’t really want to go to those places, rather, he just skimmed them, described their shape, but left out the soul.

And while I am sure he is a wonderful man, a man who loved much and was much loved in return, we didn’t really get to see that here. So, I would have to give this one a pass.

Reading: Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis

Alexis-Fifteen-Dogs

Click on cover for more information about this novel

FIFTEEN DOGS, by Andre Alexis, Coach House Books, 2015, 171pp

Fifteen Dogs was this week awarded the Giller Prize. The jury said:

What does it mean to be alive? To think, to feel, to love and to envy? André Alexis explores all of this and more in the extraordinary Fifteen Dogs, an insightful and philosophical meditation on the nature of consciousness. It’s a novel filled with balancing acts: humour juxtaposed with savagery, solitude with the desperate need to be part of a pack, perceptive prose interspersed with playful poetry. A wonderful and original piece of writing that challenges the reader to examine their own existence and recall the age old question, what’s the meaning of life?

In a refreshingly short 171 pages, Mr. Alexis packs as much — if not more — existential punch, metaphysical rumination, and philosophical insight as are contained in some novels that are 900 exasperatingly long pages — not to mention any names (you can click here if you must know) — but after having just finished one such behemoth of a fiction, I was delighted, intrigued, moved, enchanted, and challenged by Fifteen Dogs.

I am one of those who believe dogs to be of a higher order than humans. I spend a good portion of my life being companion to dogs who live with others, counting among the beings I love (and have loved) the most not a few canines. Thus, the premise of this novel (the following is from the publisher’s website) —

— I wonder, said Hermes, what it would be like if animals had human intelligence.

— I’ll wager a year’s servitude, answered Apollo, that animals – any animal you like – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they were given human intelligence.

And so it begins: a bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto vet­erinary clinic. Suddenly capable of more complex thought, the pack is torn between those who resist the new ways of thinking, preferring the old ‘dog’ ways, and those who embrace the change. The gods watch from above as the dogs venture into their newly unfamiliar world, as they become divided among themselves, as each struggles with new thoughts and feelings. Wily Benjy moves from home to home, Prince becomes a poet, and Majnoun forges a relationship with a kind couple that stops even the Fates in their tracks.

— was wonderfully interesting to me. Imbued with the same sort of consciousness as have humans, how would such colors of knowing alter the shades of awareness and behavior already present in dogs? And, too, given these new ways of contemplation and expression, would dogs find their lives improved?

Fifteen Dogs approaches these questions without the assumption that being human is better — which is what won me over, because I think there is some argument that dogs are kinder, smarter, more honest and reliable than are humans. Most touching — for me — my most “a-ha” moment — which was wrought both gently and too, finally, with a bang — was the pointing out of the possibility that it is perhaps in the naming and labeling of emotions and ways of being where the trouble begins, and where both the greatest joys and sorrows are born.

To love before one names it — as happens with infants and animals, the open, full-on, complete trusting and immersion — is a most blessed and beautiful thing. To have to speak of it to give it reality, is, I think, a limitation and a curse. And while I love my reading and my words, well, I also yearn for more in my life of the silent, words-not-required bursting of emotion I have with my dog-friends.

This is a beautiful book, the intricately complicated simplicity of which provokes an examination of one’s assumptions about the nature of reality and consciousness, of the meaning of Life and Love beyond language, outside of language, and how it is we manage — each of us with our own highly individualized frames of reference — to connect, to find agency enough inside our private realities to make the leap outside ourselves to a shared reality. And none of this is done in a portentous, heavy-handed way, but, rather, suggested in the context of a well-told story that made me laugh, cry, and think. This, for example as one of the main dogs, Majnoun, asks the god, Hermes, to explain what love is:

— What you want to know, Majnoun, is not what love means. It means no one thing and never will. What you want to know is what Nira meant when she used the word. This is more difficult, because Nira’s word is like a long journey taken by one woman alone. She read the word in books, heard it in conversations, talked about it with friends and family, Miguel and you. No other being has encountered the word love as Nira has or used it in quite the same ways, but I can take you along Nira’s path.

That (and the paragraph that follows it – which I almost included but I really want you to read this book) is gorgeous, wow, thoughtfulness and literature. Highly recommended.

 

 

 

 

#ThingsIHaveLearned

My Mom said to me today, “It’s impossible. You can’t be 54. Your father only got to 40.”

I was seventeen months old when my father died. I never knew the man they all called “Daddy” around whom my family built a cult. Much Kool-Aid was swallowed through the decades, many versions of many of us have died many deaths in service to the tenets of that worship of a ghost, an illusion, the mythical being I would never – did never – could never call Daddy.

I learned from his death that everyone goes away; that the absent are the most loved and admired; and that one must NEVER stop waving at cars containing departing relatives until the cars are completely out of sight because this might be the last time.

I was forty-two years old when A died. I loved him in ways and colors and songs and senses I would never have with anyone else. The last time I saw him, he pretended not to know me. I threw a judgey-accusing-weeping-hateful fit, designed to trigger all his self-hatred and fear. He shot himself not long after.

I learned from his death that everyone goes away; sometimes over and over again; that I had continued to love the absent and the mythical; and I was a horrible human being who had not waved with love until he could not be seen, but, rather, turned away, screaming about my own pain, ignoring his — which was far greater.

I was forty-two years old when Steve died, died two days after having had to be the one to tell me that A had killed himself. Steve was the last of those friends to whom I could tell all of my secrets. Every. Single. Ugly. Adventure. We had recently re-upped our friendship. Made new promises. Vowed — to one another — to make some changes with others because we deserved more.

I learned from his death that everyone goes away; and it is good to get rid of the waste and the worst and the why-did-we’s before they do, as we did, thank goodness because as awful a person as A’s death made me, Steve and our acceptance and forgiveness and forging new bonds made me a better person.

I was forty-two years old when my dearest aunt, Sissie, died. Just a few months after A and Steve. A month after my first dog, Jordan, died. It was a horrible year. Sissie saw me true. Pure. Clean. Perfect. All Light and Love. She did not need to forgive me because she never saw anything but Joy and Truth and Essence and that seed of Infinity from which we all come when she looked at me. She didn’t need me to become or be anything or anyone other than who I was. She loved me unconditionally.

I learned from her death that I was ready to leave, like everyone did. I never — not really — quite recovered. Without her to see me, all of the reflections of me from those who loved me and those who claimed to love me were pictures of someone flawed. To a person, everyone in my life then wished I was someone or something else.

I, especially, wanted to be anything and anyone but me.

I spent the next five, six, seven years, trying to make people happy. I peeled away pieces of me, denied myself (and selves) and drank all sorts of Kool-Aid — in fact, I served many a cup to many a person who trusted me.

Finally, there was nothing left but to go away, like everyone did. I left — and in doing so, lost most everyone who remained in my life.

I am fifty-four. My Mom is 87, and despite dire warnings from doctors about her most recent operation, she is kicking and joyful and vital enough that she could say to me, today, “It’s impossible. You can’t be 54. Your father only got to 40. I’m so proud of you.”

I learned from her life, from her vitality, from her kicking, from her continuing in the face of all she has had to face, that while she has never been able to be proud of herself — she is proud of me. And if she can be, then I owe it to that man I can’t comfortably call Daddy, and A, and Steve, and Jordan, and Sissie, and all the people I helped sip Kool-Aid, and all the people who loved me and left, and who I loved and left, and MOST OF ALL, I owe it to myself to really and truly believe that just getting to BE is enough – and getting to BE for 54 years, through all the goodbyes — I am Miracle Charlie.

And Miracle Charlie is going to wave at this reflection of himself in this mirror of life until that car is so far out of sight, even binoculars couldn’t find me — and when I’m positive I can no longer be seen, I’m gonna wave a few more damn times just to make sure.

Love and Light kids. Keep on waving.

Reading: #GarthRiskHallberg’s City On Fire

city on fire

Click on cover for more information about book from Knopf site

CITY ON FIREby Garth Risk Hallberg, Alfred A. Knopf New York, 2015, 913+ pages

Not to go all Julie Andrews on you, but, I’m not sure what I find more egregiously excessive; this book’s $2 million advance or its 913 pages. Forgive me my crankiness, despite the hours I spend at the gym, toting this ten-pound-book around for the past week has left me with aching arms. And eyes. And ego.

Full disclosure: I was told by a writer I very much respect that to have any prayer of publishing my currently un-agented novel, I ought to cut it by a third because in its current shape, it is close to 600 pages.

This is Sebastian talking now, in blue italics. I’ve added after he finished – he doesn’t know and he will be pissed but, tough luck, that. Charlie is my alter-ego and I often let him babble– but we were also told by another writer, who happens to be a professor of Literature at a prestigious college, do NOT cut a word, rather, find an agent who recognizes it for its beauty.

So, I marvel–

As in – he is furiously pissed off.

at a first novel of such length being published.

Having heard about its big-dollar advance and seen multiple articles in The New York Times, People, Entertainment Weekly, New York, The New Yorker, and what felt like every other blogsite, news outlet and magazine on the planet, I had intended to let this one pass.

As in – he was having a fit of petulance because Garth was getting so much attention and Charlie can barely get a fucking Twitter like and as for two million dollars? Uhm, Charlie qualifies for welfare, can’t afford his monthly probiotics, and has pretty much given up on capitalism, accepting the fact his final years will be spent in an appliance box on a grate or under a bridge somewhere – which sort of makes him a troll – but that’s a tale for another day, so – back to his thinly think-piecey-veiled PETULANCE of “I’ll be goddamned if I’ll jump on that bandwagon. NyahNyahNyah-NyahNyah.”

But, then I got a library card. So, as long as I didn’t have to pay for it, why not give it a try? I promised I would get through at least one hundred pages before throwing it across the room. Metaphorically. I would never throw a book. Well, I would never throw a book I didn’t own. Well, unless my life was in danger. Or, maybe, the life of someone I loved. Or, a dog. I would definitely throw a book to save a dog. But, not a cat. I don’t really like cats.

He’s stalling. He liked the first hundred pages. Maybe even the first two hundred. But somewhere along three hundred, maybe four hundred — who the fuck remembers by 913 — it started to get to be a bit much. Numbingly much. It hurts too much. Just. Fucking. Too. Much. Now, trust me, Charlie is a person for whom “too much” is often not enough. Charlie is a fellow for whom too much is a muchness of which he very much – some would and have said TOO much — approves. Yes, too much is a muchness the muchness of which Charlie much embraces. BUT 913 pages of too muchness – he just couldn’t. I mean, Charlie is no stranger to solipsism – in fact, it’s almost a religion – but this book was like, WHOA, a level of fetishistic, self-absorbed, over-indulgence akin to being a twelve-year-old boy having just learned to wank and so one keeps on and on and on, fondling and pulling and rubbing until one’s wangle is chafed unto rawness and getting to the gush becomes too painful — the thrill, as it were, after too much muchness of wanking — is gone. 

But, I’m not here to discuss felines.

And I’m not here to discuss wanking, although, honestly, why not?

This is a book blog. And this, City on Fire, this was a book. This book showed some good, hard work. This was a book with its heart in the right place.

HA! Last night on Twitter, one of the people Charlie follows said; “There is nothing more dispiriting than having to say about a show its heart was in the right place.” And Charlie shared how he used to teach his acting students to say about shows they did not care for, “Now that was a show.” And another Twitter friend suggested the line, “Wow, that was some good, hard work.”  And I say again, HA!

Look, I know book reviews frequently synopsize plot but I’m not that kind of reviewer — if you want a synopsis, click on the cover-photo at the top and go to the Knopf site — rather, I am someone who reads because I enjoy good writing. Reading is my passion, my solace, my comfort. In reading I find friends and purpose and ways to see and make sense of the world. City on Fire, for me — and this is JUST ME — did not give me comfort, new ways of seeing, nor did it make loads of sense for me.

When I taught acting and was a director, the foundation of my method had to do with change and choice. I told my students (and casts) every word you say, every cross you make, every moment on stage is about the choices you are making, the thoughts you are thinking, and the frame of reference and experience informing those thoughts and choices. Every second of being alive informs and changes all the time before that second and the time after that second, so there is always an arc happening. You are a new you in every moment, so if I tell you to enter stage right, cross up left, say your line, exit down left, you had better be a new person at each of those junctures — I want to see how the circumstances and confluences of thought and action and past and contemplation of the future and being in the present change you, make you who you are. I need to see the arc happening.

When he was teaching acting and too, when directing, he was known for ridiculously LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONG lecturing and hectoring and group therapy-ing, which many actors/students found terribly frustrating, but they learned to just nod along as if they were following what it was he was saying.

Which is a long — and not particularly adequate, I know — way of saying: When I am reading I want to experience arcs. I want to live with the characters and be surprised by them and feel them growing, being vital, being human. I am not a fan of books where I feel as if the characters are symbols whose fates have been shaped by an omniscient author for who they serve as metaphor and plot-points, charted out before they were born in an MFA taught formula meant to make the Lit-world say, “Ah, yes! What technique!” Blah.

Near the end of the book, page 867, Mr. Hallberg writes:

In his head, the book kept growing and growing in length and complexity, almost as if it had taken on the burden of supplanting real life, rather than evoking it. But how was it possible for a book to be as big as life? Such a book would have to allocate 30-odd pages for each hour spent living (because this was how much Mercer could read in an hour, before the marijuana) — which was like 800 pages a day. Times 365 equaled roughly 280,000 pages each year: call it 3 million per decade, or 24 million in an average human lifespan. A 24-million page book, when it had taken Mercer four months to draft his 40 pages — wildly imperfect ones! At this rate, it would take him 2.4 million months to finish. 2,500 lifetimes, all consumed by writing. Or the lifetimes of 2,500 writers. That was probably — 2,500 — as many good writers as had ever existed, from Homer on. And clearly, he was no Homer. Was not even an Erica Jong. He had been writing for all the wrong reasons, for the future, for The Paris Review, for the cover of Time (the peak of cultural attainment, so far as the other Goodmans were concerned) — for anything but the freedom he’d once discovered in ink and paper.

There are many fine points in that paragraph. And there are many fine paragraphs in this book. But once its point is made, must it be made again? And again? And yet again in a slightly different way? And then, one more time, just to be sure we have gotten his point?

Which is the trouble with the book. WE GET IT. But by the time we have gotten it again and again and again and again – well, if only this paragraph had come at page 350, or, even, page 500, rather than 867. Because as long as it took you to WRITE it, it’s also rather a long slog to read it — and I don’t think it needed to be so long, so solipsistic, and so damn heavy. Mr. Hallberg has obviously thought about the time involved in writing and reading, so, one might expect him to be a bit more respectful of our time, out here, we readers in the dark. Give an old man a break, buddy.

I do marvel at the fantastic job done by the copyeditor(s?) — this manuscript was clean of the sorts of errors in punctuation and usage of which I am seeing a troubling amount of late in books. Now, if only someone had convinced Mr. Hallberg to cut it by 30%, I think I would have liked it 50% more.

I feel a bit mean. This review is less friendly than I like to be. So, again I say, I am jealous. I am currently worried a very great deal about my finances and where I am going to end up living — as in; Will I have income enough to have a place to live? So, the $2 million dollar advance for the 913 pages, yes, I’m bitter. I could live my simple little life off of that amount forever. And, too, when I think of all the other writers I love and follow who write books I consider to be of great genius and intellectual and spiritual heft, and how they struggle to eke out a living and get covered and known — well, I’m bitter for them too.

So, I think I ought to go now, before I get any uglier. I’m already feeling guilty. Farewell, friends — and despite this negativity, Love and Light to you.

He’s a delicate soul, is Charlie. He is now, actually, in pain about posting this. But I’m going to force him. He’s barely followed, a limited readership, Mr. Hallberg will never see this, and Charlie doesn’t wish him any ill will. In fact, he’s also envious because Mr. Hallberg’s author photo is so lovely. Not only can he write, not only did he get an agent and great deal, but he’s also good looking, loved, a dad, and – fuckall – I bet he has a dog too.