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.”
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.