Reading: Five Books to Finish February

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love and Light.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

INGREDIENTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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