Silence is …

(c) The Bowes Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) The Bowes Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Of late, I have become more than ever inclined to keep my own counsel. Of late, I have become more at peace with keeping my opinions to myself. Of late, I have become less needful of explaining how I see things. Of late, when something hurts, disturbs, upends me, I have been prone to silence, to walk away from it for time enough to allow the impulse of the moment to settle and fade before I react.

It’s taken a long time to arrive here, this place, where I am; going.

During my truncated high school career, before I was run out, exhausted from being daily terrorized and assaulted with pejoratives, slammings into lockers, dunkings into toilets, and the administration’s tacit approval of those violations, I was briefly in charge of the first newspaper the school had ever published. It was my idea. I did most of the writing, all of the art and design, and spent hours by the mimeograph machine cranking out the two-hundred copies our advisor — a sympathetic art teacher — thought we would need for the small and — we believed — mostly disinterested student body.

I have always been braver and bolder of speech and opinion in print than I am in person, and already in my early teens a devotee of Dorothy Parker and Jacqueline Susann, I wrote a roman a clef which I thought wittily exposed the hypocrisy, insincerity, and duplicity of the reigning jocks and administration of the school. In barely disguised fiction, I wrote about Continue reading

Reading: 10 Days, 4 Novels, And A Depression Memoir

In this post I’ll be talking about DIFFERENT CLASS by Joanne Harris, HISTORY OF WOLVES by Emily Fridlund, PERFECT LITTLE WORLD by Kevin Wilson, INFINITE HOME by Kathleen Alcott, and THIS CLOSE TO HAPPY:A RECKONING WITH DEPRESSION by Daphne Merkin.

different-classDifferent Class, by Joanne Harris, hardcover, 416pp, Touchstone, April 2016

It’s an unenviable burden to be the book I read immediately after I’ve just finished a five-star-can-I-marry-a-novel-legally sort of experience; the kind of falling in love I did with Cara Hoffman’s Running. [You can read about it HERE.] So, to be fair to the writer, I try to go in an entirely different direction, most often heading into genre-land — though I am not so much a fan of categorizing writing — and I turn to writers who have successfully created worlds and milieus they revisit and further develop in series. Thus, having read an essay in which Joanne Harris was compared to Patricia Highsmith, I thought it high time (Oh dear, I didn’t mean to do that.) I sample her work. Too, I’ve a weakness for books about British schools and what goes on there, which, in concert with my fondness for murder/scandal procedurals made Different Class seem the ideal choice. And although it took me a while to adjust to its rhythms — which I attribute to detoxing from the genius of Running — I was Continue reading

You Can’t Blame Walmart For Everything That Goes Wrong In Your Life

If you are a regular reader of my blog you know that I love to write. You also know that I love Duchess Goldblatt. I promised Her Grace I would give her a short story for Valentine’s Day. This is it. And, I am excited to say, while I wish I had another week to work on it, still, it is the FIRST thing I have FINISHED in far too long a time. I am hoping these 6500 words are the beginning of the renewal of my writing mojo. One more thing for which I have Duchess Goldblatt to thank.

 

YOU CAN’T BLAME WAL-MART FOR EVERYTHING THAT GOES WRONG IN YOUR LIFE

Bad enough Paul’s life was a Balzac-ian complication of recklessness, rue, and repentance, but it was one of those days when his mother’s purportedly failing eighty-six year old senses were miraculously restored, as was so often the case, just in time to criticize him.

“Let me see,” his mother said, annoyed, from across the room.

“You can’t see, remember?” Paul mumbled.

“I heard that.”

Another miracle, Paul thought, but didn’t dare say out loud since it seemed his mother’s morning prayers had been divided between Saint Francis de Sales, patron saint of the hard of hearing, and Saint Lucia, virgin martyr of the blind, whose eyes had been gouged out by her Roman captors only to regenerate the next day. The self-serving, conveniently timed healings Paul’s mother experienced were less dramatic. She attributed them to the hand-painted, leather icons of Saints Lucy and Frank she wore round her neck, talismans bought for her off Etsy by Judith, the Shalimar-soaked lay-Catholic-minister who brought communion on Sunday mornings to the Sylvan Commons religionists devout enough to desire it but not-quite-so devout as to suffer the ordeal of the elaborate ablutions and preparations required to hie self and preferred method of ambulatory assistance — walker, cane, wheelchair – to the lobby, out of doors to be hoist mechanically up and into the step-van with its logo of faux-bucolic design Paul despised for its seeming to announce, “This vehicle carries a cargo of the nearly dead; KEEP BACK!,” which van then shuttled the hell-fearing inhabitants cross town on a twenty minute ride to the church where they would be lowered again to ground, deposited at the foot of the handicap ramp, corralled into the too hot or too cold (depending on the season) nave, where one had to find a pew from which to tolerate the usually inaudible service after which one was rushed out, re-hoisted into the van, spend another twenty minutes trapped with a bunch of mostly unlikeable codgers and be dumped back at Sylvan Commons, hasten to one’s room, liberate one’s self into comfortable clothes, all of which burdensome trial seemed unlikely to curry enough favor with God to be worth the fatigue and inconvenience of all the effort, especially when gift-giving Judith was available, offering individual attention and Etsy-trinkets. Besides which, Paul’s mother didn’t care much for traveling in groups. She preferred being the center of attention with a dedicated attendant – preferably one to whom she had given birth – focused solely on obeying her commands on the way to and from destinations where the goal was less lofty and more useful than speaking with God; she could talk to Him on her own time and Judith made salvation portable, but new clothes required a trip to Wal-Mart or J.C.Penney or, best of all, Boscov’s, where his mother wished to bring up going today if only Paul could manage to peel the peaches correctly without getting furious at her.

“Just let me see. I can hear from the heavy plopping in the sink you’re doing it wrong. You’re cutting too deep into the meat of the fruit. I can hear it.”

Paul thought, unkindly, “I’d like to cut too deeply into the meat of this fruit, right around my wrists, and call it a life.” But he didn’t say it, and descended into a spasm of liberal guilt for the internalized, culturally embedded homophobia of the languaging of his death wish, and so, Continue reading

Reading: Cara Hoffman’s RUNNING

runningRunning, a novel, by Cara Hoffman, hardcover, 288 pp, Simon & Schuster, February, 2017

Every so often we dedicated, obsessive, addicted readers are gobsmacked out of literary complacency by a writer’s voice so new, so different, so arrestingly outlier we rediscover the joy of being book-crazy.

The first for me occurred in my early teens when I read Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays. Three times in a row. For decades I tried to infuse everything I wrote with Didion’s sardonic meticulousness, a spare, surgical precision of language and illuminating detail, all of which were built on a foundation of unrelenting despairing over the diminution of hope and possibility of basic, human goodness in the world . Of course, I failed.

It took the encouragement and insight of a writer and writing teacher, Bart Yates, during a summer I spent at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, to finally allow me to embrace my own voice; a style that is Balzacian in its digressions and parenthetical ramblings, circuitous and discursive, because I think and see reality in that way: tessellation layered on tessellation, variously opaque and transparent depending on the angle of approach, fluid, kaleidoscopic, without edges or boundaries, morphing into something new between the first and final word of each sentence. I work by piling on stratum, like coats of paint but in slightly different shades in slightly different shapes, a pentimento which, I believe, is the result of having spent a life talking to people I thought spoke my language but who, it turned out, received from me messages I never meant to send or say. It is, I know, difficult to believe when reading my words the amount of time I spend re-writing and editing; but I do. I cut everything I write by at least a third after the first draft.

Now, while I’ve found encouragement from the occasional reader, literature professor, and some book-world professionals, much as I never found the man with whom I could form a lasting relationship, I also never found the agent who said, “Yes, this is a voice I think I can sell.” There is no doubt that my writing, like my personality, has a limited, short-term trick sort of appeal. But it is, without question, writing that could come only from me.

All of which is to say, when one reads a hundred books a year and comes across a voice and work so unique one is forced to read and think in a new way, it is cause for celebration.

From the opening pages of Cara Hoffman’s Running, there was Continue reading

Reading: Sunday Three-way Quickies

Lately, I find the world to be overwhelming, and so, I decided to take yesterday, Sunday, February 5, off. I never picked up my smart phone, never turned on my lap top, avoided as much TV as I could (it was on in another room, so I heard/saw it a bit), and other than showering, and making and cleaning up after dinner, I did nothing but read. I finished three books. Here they are, in order.

all-the-birdsAll The Birds In The Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders, hardcover, 320pp, January 2016, Tor Books

Though published over a year ago, this novel comes uncomfortably close to current events; so much so, as its darker elements unfolded my body began manifesting stress reactions; tight chest, flipping stomach, nervous need to move a lot: which either means I’m crazy or the book was really well written. I suspect it was a little of the former and a lot of the latter.

The story is built of the foundation of the relationship between Patricia Delfine, who is adept at magic — in particular, controlling the elements of nature, and Laurence Armstead, who is a brilliant scientist/inventor. They first meet as children, lose touch through what seems like betrayal and plotting against them, and reunite accidentally (or not) in young adulthood by which time Magic versus Science has become a conflict which threatens the continuation of the world as we know it.

I don’t want to give too much away, but I found particularly fulgent the construction of the Magic and Science divisions. As with the world today — say, Democrats and Republicans — there were schisms within each side, good and bad, with plenty of gray area folks, including the two main characters. Both Patricia and Laurence behave in ways that are less than ideal, and, too, both perform acts of dangerous selflessness. It is not a spoiler to say that when the two at last find union, there comes at the world a devastating event of unknown origin; almost as if the fates of our main characters were tied to the survival of humanity. Hmmm.

But, it’s not all heavy and dystopian-lecture-y like so many novels of this genre can be. Charlie Jane Anders is often hilarious. Here, one example:

Trust hipsters to make even the collapse of civilization unbearably twee.

Damn, I wish I had written that line. Look, I’m not doing justice to this novel. What is great about this book is the way in which Charlie Jane Anders builds worlds and describes events that would qualify this as science fiction/fantasy in such a natural, organic way it defies categorization, its elements eliding also into romance, satire, and literary fiction. Here’s a thought: How about we do with novels what we ought to be doing with people? Stop categorizing.

All The Birds In The Sky is a fast, compelling, provocative, steamy, witty, thought-provoking read by a literate and gifted author who tackles big ideas in a way that is sneakily entertaining. And, while just a few months ago, a novel built around a possible world war might have seemed inconceivable, sadly, now, it feels nearly documentary.

And terrifying.

history-is-all-you-left-meHistory Is All You Left Me, by Adam Silvera, hardcover, 294pp, January 2017, Soho Teen

For my second read of the day, I chose Adam Silvera’s debut, More Happy Than Not, enjoyed it, admired it, and was waiting impatiently for his next novel. I wasn’t disappointed.

Griffin and one of his best friends, Theo, fall in love and confess/come out to one another cute on a subway ride. Theo leaves for college on the West Coast. Starts seeing Jackson. Theo dies. Griffin and Jackson hate each other, resent each other, and have only each other to understand what the loss of Theo feels like. Griffin is suffering from compulsive behaviors and is keeping secrets and holding onto guilt that exacerbates his self-destructive choices.

Okay, I’m a sucker for Young Adult gay romances. I read them and revel, overjoyed that young queers today have this literature to affirm them. I did not. Adam Silvera writes with a smooth, engaging style and it is clear from this novel he understands compulsions and the emotional roller coaster they cause, the dangers they present.

I am also a sucker for clever structuring of novels. This story would have been too much to take (in my opinion) done in a straightforward, linear timeline way; Silvera cleverly moves back and forth in time, beginning with Theo’s funeral so we know what we’re in for from the very beginning and can steel ourselves for its eventuality. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t weep more than once while reading.

I am also a sucker for weeping. And, finally, a sucker for hope and love and light, and Mr. Silvera leaves us with a healthy dose of all three.

classClass, by Lucinda Rosenfeld, hardcover, 352pp, January 2017, Little, Brown and Company

And the third book I finished for my nothing but reading Sunday was Class. I suppose this is a terrible thing to say — especially since I said just paragraphs above we ought to quit labeling people — but I have very little patience reading about the angst and problems and emotional journeys of privileged, heterosexual white people.

I know. I feel bad about it, but there it is.

That said, Lucinda Rosenfeld writes about those problems with damn fine technique and packs in plenty of plot and emotional heft, and there are endless hilarious lines skewering the class-conscious characters about whom she writes. She is quite ruthless in delivering incisive and trenchant commentary on the vapidity and callous self-involvement of those very privileged, heterosexual white people about whom I don’t much want to read.

The main character, Karen Kipple, wants to be ethical, do the right thing, reject the casual cultural racism and classism by which she finds herself infected, and makes her torturous way through the landmine-filled challenge of modern life. Lucinda Rosenfeld does not try to make Karen likeable, or forgivable; she gives her plenty of flaws, lets her be petty and selfish and self-justifying as she struggles with her liberal hypocrisy.

This book is smart, brutally honest, and made me sad. I know Karens. There are — no doubt — pieces of Karen in me, and what made me uncomfortable and unhappy while reading, is that we are now living in a world where there are people defending and embracing and encouraging the kind of prejudices and fears those Karens are fighting.

Which is why I had to take a day away from social media and news and the real world.

So, there you have it. What I did with my away-from-the-world Sunday: read three books that didn’t quite take me as far away as I’d hoped because world war might be right around the next Twitter-fit, and prejudice and class-warfare and blatant hypocrisy just won an election, and all the advances we LGBTQ have made since I was a teen, seen in Mr. Silvera’s novelistic world, are being threatened by those elected.

Seems I’m not too great at escaping. Which is why I started medication. Now, if only it would do something other than make me feel a bit off and short of breath. But, patience. Love and light, dears.

Here I am, going.

 

 

Reading: Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk

lillian-boxfish

Click on pic to be taken to the page for Lillian Boxfish at St. Martin’s Press

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, by Kathleen Rooney, Hardcover, 287pp, January 2017, St. Martin’s Press

Let me begin by saying this is my first 5-star read of the year and I know there is no way I can possibly do it justice. You must read it. My library copy, here beside me, is thick with sticky-arrows where I wanted to write in the margins or underline one of the many beautiful sentences and passages, thus, I am saving my pennies to buy my own copy so I can return to and revel in it again and again, as I do with the works of Helene Hanff, Dorothy Parker, and the correspondence of William Maxwell with both Eudora Welty and Sylvia Townsend Warner. I loved it — no, LOVE it, present tense.

Of course, I would. These are some of the other things in life I most love: books and great writing, New York City — especially historical New York City, people who are erudite, witty, literate, well-bred, empathetic, kind but not cloying, strong of spine and conscientious of character, who recognize and own their strengths and flaws in equal measure, going about their lives without indulging in whiny, navel-gazing excuse-making.

Lillian would have none of that. Here is the synopsis of the novel found on Kathleen Rooney’s website [click here to go there]:

It’s the last day of 1984, and 85-year-old Lillian Boxfish is about to take a walk.

As she traverses a grittier Manhattan, a city anxious after an attack by a still-at-large subway vigilante, she encounters bartenders, bodega clerks, chauffeurs, security guards, bohemians, criminals, children, parents, and parents-to-be—in surprising moments of generosity and grace. While she strolls, Lillian recalls a long and eventful life that included a brief reign as the highest-paid advertising woman in America—a career cut short by marriage, motherhood, divorce, and a breakdown.

A love letter to city life—however shiny or sleazy—Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney paints a portrait of a remarkable woman across the canvas of a changing America: from the Jazz Age to the onset of the AIDS epidemic; the Great Depression to the birth of hip-hop.

In this post 11/9 tragic election world gone mad and cruel and hateful, what a joy to find relief and solace in a well-written, spellbinding novel.

While Lillian’s walk is a journey through the city she loves, it is even more an exploration of the time she has spent on earth as she approaches her life’s end. The tarriances during her odyssey — walk and life — range from touching to tragic, and are always fascinating, insightful, and revealing, and often quite funny. Her descriptions of landmarks in the city are viscerally evocative, transporting the reader through time and space in a way nearly magical. Her language resonates with the patois of a smarter, more sophisticated reality where wit, savvy, good breeding, and  literacy were valued, a world in which one was not only allowed to aim higher than the lowest common denominator, but expected to want to do so, to aspire to learnedness and enlightenment. Lillian’s outlook and world are blessed antidote to the deplorable and disastrous embrace in this country of ignorance and pig-headed refusal to evolve being paraded as traditional values and patriotism; Lillian would not tolerate such fatuous asininity, and neither shall I.

There are so many gorgeous passages in Kathleen Rooney’s novel, I am loath to quote one because it will require I make a Sophie’s Choice among so many glorious sentences; too, it will deny you the pleasure of first discovery. Still, I feel I must give you an inkling of the treasures that await you, so, here, near book’s end when Lillian has been asked to appear on a panel about the history and future of advertising.

“I’m afraid I’ve arrived unprepared to defend my approach to writing ads,” I said, “never mind the very concept of professional responsibility, or the practice of simply treating people with respect. Therefore I’m compelled to defer to the au courant experience of my two successors. Please, ladies, resume the accounts of your efforts to unwind the supposed advances of civilization and return us consumers to a state of pliable savagery. Who knows, perhaps some young lady who watches this program will take up where you leave off and find a way to ease us all back into the trees with the orangutans, who I gather are deft hands at the fruit market. With luck and hard work, perhaps we’ll even recover our old gills and quit terrestrial life entirely. Back to the sea! That Florida swampland Mother bought may prove to be a good investment after all. In any event, I wish you both luck in your quest. I will not be keeping track of your progress, however. My interests, such as they are, lie elsewhere. To be clear, it’s not that I no longer want to work in the world that you’re describing. It’s that I no longer want to live in the world you’re describing.”

That paragraph alone pretty much sums up my feelings about the world today. And it is not the only time in Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk when Lillian speaks for me; or, speaks as I wish I could have or had spoken. I have, I think, not aged as well as I might, but, too, not as badly as some people of my acquaintance seem to think. So, if you will indulge me, one more Lillian quote (as translated by the extraordinarily gifted Ms. Rooney):

I think I look all right. But who’s to say? The insouciance of youth doesn’t stay, but shades into “eccentricity,” as people say when they are trying to be kind, until finally you become just another lonely crackpot. But I’ve always been this way.The strangeness just used to seem more fashionable, probably.”

Exactly. The thing I found so very special and marvelous about this book is that Lillian’s mordant and perceptive observations about life, time, culture, relationships, and herself describe better than anything I’ve ever read that space in the soul and mind and consciousness in which each of us lives, that private haven, the solitude of self where we must balance what and who we think we are with the perceptions of others about what and who they think we are, and, too, find a way to fit the largeness of all the possibilities and dreams of our secret, private, unseen souls into the world in which we’ve been thrust, the circumstances we’ve been given, the limitations we face. I don’t know about you, but for me, that has been life’s journey; questioning if what I am seeing and thinking and feeling is “true” when, so often, the rest of the world doesn’t quite see it that way, doesn’t quite get it, doesn’t quite get me.

I got Lillian Boxfish. And, I like to think, she’d get me. And, trust me, you want to know her. Buy this book. Don’t borrow it or library it: BUY IT. You will want to mark pages and make notes and return to it again and again when you are feeling in need of a wise and dear friend.

For more on this novel and author, click HERE to check out Bethanne Patrick’s conversation with Kathleen Rooney at Literary Hub.