Today I’m putting personal babbling on hold (I hear your sigh of relief) and visiting with A Christmas Party, by Georgette Heyer; The End We Start From, by Megan Hunter; Heather, the Totality, by Matthew Weiner; and boy oh boy did I love this one, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, by Mackenzi Lee.
A Christmas Party, Georgette Heyer, First published 1941, this edition October 2016, Paperback, 400pp, Sourcebook Landmark
I kept expecting to love this one more than I did. British. Cozy-ish. 1940. All my stuff. Still, despite some cleverly arch dialogue and skillful construction, I knew early on whodunnit and it felt far longer than it needed to be. Repetitive. Dare I say, dull? I did dare, didn’t I?
The End We Start From, Megan Hunter, Hardcover, 144pp, November 2017, Grove Atlantic
London is flooded by rising waters; a pregnant woman and her husband depart to find safe shelter with his parents, soon the baby, Z, is born, its grandparents dead, its father departed, and the woman and Z make their way in a new dystopian reality. Honestly, this variety of near-future horror tale is now too much for me because with every passing day it becomes not only more possible this sort of thing could happen because of ignorance, denial, and neglect, but, in fact, increasingly likely. And since it seems I might have to live it later, I don’t want to imagine it now. All of which is unfair to a book carefully constructed, a mosaic of short, near poetic sentences and paragraphs creating a lucid whole of a story. Although, this is less a novel and more a short story, but, as with labeling genres, who is to say what qualifies as novel, novella, short story, outline? It’s a quick read with some beautiful passages and a horrifying picture of an all-too-likely future.
Heather, The Totality, Matthew Weiner, Hardcover, 144pp, November 2017, Little, Brown and Company
So, coincidentally, this is the second novel in a row under 200 pages I have read. Again, for me, it was more a short story than a novel, its canvas small, confined to a few characters who struck me as contrived rather than fully developed humans. Too, at this particular point in the history of the world, I’m not much inclined to want a story in which privileged cis-white men get away with stuff, no matter how badly they feel about it. So, it’s a no for me.
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Mackenzi Lee, Hardcover, 513pp, June 2017, Katherine Tegen Books
Marketed as Young Adult, but should be marketed as ridiculously good fun, rip-roaring romantic adventure, crazy-interesting characters, thrillingly erotic, compellingly plotted, queer-history cool, stay-up-call-in-sick-until-you-finish delight of a damn good book.
Did you get that I loved it?
Young gentleman Henry Montague, Monty, and his best friend since childhood, Percy, who happens to be biracial and as gorgeous as Monty and on whom Monty happens to have a long, unrequited crush, take off on a tour typical for the privileged 18th century English lad; only this tour is meant to tame Monty, his domineering and abusive father threatening his eldest son with disinheritance if he doesn’t keep away from boys and settle down into staid, responsible adulthood. To that end, younger sister Felicity is also sent along on the tour. Trouble, as it so often does, ensues. Stolen treasures. Pirates. Naked men and women. Drinking. Drugging. Villains. Heroes. Mysteries. And, somehow, anachronistic as it may (or may not) be, issues like homophobia, sexism, racism, power-hungry and evil white-men in charge/politicians, individual identity, child abuse, and a host of other topical and relevant subjects are dealt with in serious but humorous and entertaining, involving, riveting ways.
This is like a series on the WB as imagined by Ryan Murphy and filtered through the sensibilities of Oscar Wilde and starring those couple of teen-male-idols you’ve always wanted to see get-it-on with each other, accompanied by that teen-female-popstar you’ve always wanted released from the bonds of sexism and come into her super-hero self. There is a sequel on the way, and Felicity, the younger sister, who is abso-fabu-mazing, is the narrator of that one. BRING IT!
*No Sticky Fingers note. I have decided NOT to write about the Jann Wenner biography, Sticky Fingers, because of all the reasons I cited here: https://herewearegoing.wordpress.com/2017/12/03/interstitial-notish-about-reading/
I have not lived a perfect life, not even a perfect week, hell, not even a perfect last twenty-four hours — in fact, the last twenty-four have been fairly fucked up, but I don’t want to read about Jann Wenner because I find what he did with his privilege to be despicable. Further, that he gave such a shit about this bio having included some info on with whom he slept says to me he hasn’t changed much. Further, that anyone gives a fuck about who he slept with rather than what he did NOT do for the world with the opportunities he had, makes me sort of furious — at this point in history, in a country (and world) being decimated by what is (I hope) the last gasp of privileged-heterosexual-male lust-for-power driven evil, I don’t really want to read about one of the shitheads who kept the evil going, gave it a platform, and did near fuck-all to achieve equality. So, that.
And, before my chest pain turns into a full-blown coronary, here I am, going.
Listen, dear ones, I apologize if there are some awkward sentences, run-ons (surprise), typos, but I can’t look at this too much, because I want it said. I want to say it for 18-year-old Charlie. This is gut level. I got a text today from a long ago friend, and the text included a picture of a letter I’d sent him then, and he said, “Yes chuck, you had an impact on me.” And I think this happened today because … well, that’s what I wrote (bled, shared, wept, laughed) here. So, I leave you with this. I’ll be back next week. And Chris, if you’re reading this, I still have on of those bandannas, 38 years later. The blue one.
It was 38 years ago when I wrote the letter I’ve copied into this blog.
Just 18, I’d been more or less on my own for two years, having been invited to move out of my home at sixteen when tired of every day being bullied and fag-bashed at school in little to huge ways and advised when I asked for help that I ought to act more like a boy and I wouldn’t have those problems, I dropped out of school.
Aided and abetted by a waitress at the French restaurant where I started working as a busboy/dishwasher/laundry man, I’d lied about my age and gotten my own apartment, a garret-like space attached to a television and radio repair shop. I lived alone in the tiny two rooms and half kitchen, furnished with a mattress on the floor, my stereo and collection of musical theatre and current pop albums, my 12 inch black and white t.v., and the front seat of a Chevy Vega re-purposed as a living room chair. I was exquisitely happy and hopeful.
And I was in love. What I understood to be love. And I wrote this letter to the boy-man who I desperately wanted to love me in return. After decades of no communication, out of the blue a few years ago I received a text from him. We now, periodically, catch one another up via text messaging. And today, all these 38 years later, he sent this picture in a text message of that letter the 18-year-old Charlie wrote him. 38 years ago when there was no texting. No email. No Grindr. I wrote so many letters. I spent hours every week writing letters to people. And Christopher saved this for 38 years and sent it to me today to tell me I had changed his life.
Oh my, how insufferably presumptuous I was. I thought I knew everything. Or, I thought I had to appear as though I knew everything. I was so terribly in love with him, and how I searched for the right combination of words and circumstance and mind altering substances that were the ingredients of the incantation to keep the two of us naked, together, in love.
He was kind and he was beautiful, lanky and tightly-thin, striated and skin taut-stretched in that way of teenagers, that perfect union of bone, muscle, and flesh, not yet used or tired or grayed which we spend the rest of our lives trying to regain. His eyes were phlegmy, this film of unearned sensitivity as if at any moment he might shed a tear for me. He wore overalls (we all did), often without a shirt, and had always a number of bandannas of different bright, rainbow colors attached to his outfits. Never in his pockets. He wasn’t gay. Of course. Oh dear, he tried so hard not to hurt me, not knowing, of course, that I was determined to be hurt in that eleven o’clock ballad sort of way. Which was what I understood love to be. An understanding you must understand I had learned from musical theatre songs and Barbra Streisand albums. Because everyone I had most loved thus far in my life had been always alone; my mother had been a widow since I was seventeen months old, my aunt, Sissie, had never married, or, even, as far as I knew, had a single date. And men? Those creatures with whom I had found myself falling in love since I was a boy, a love that — to coin a phrase — dare not speak its name? What did I know about men? Nothing at all. I had no father. My brother was much older than I and absented himself from the family of mother, four sisters, and me — the younger brother who identified with the women, thought I was a member of the female tribe, did not understand I was meant to belong to those others. Those men. They had always been the scary ones who didn’t talk and around whom I was not allowed to sing or dress up in play clothes with a towel on my head standing in for the long luxurious blonde hair I wanted some day to have. And did, in fact, eventually have. Men were the people for whom we had to pretend to be things we were not, or, more like, pretend not to be all the things we were. I was trained from the very beginning to hide who I was. And taught, too, love was something you had to have, something wonderful, and yet, it was inevitably awful. I channeled all this into my belting, the talent I imagined would give me permission — once I was discovered — to be ANYTHING I wanted. And so, I’d been singing along with the patron saint of the oddballs and the outcasts, Barbra Streisand, from my earliest childhood. And this, yes this, was my favorite number. Of course.
So, I was confused and confusing and terrified and ridiculously bold and so vulnerable as to be always near disintegration and yet, so tough-posing, hard-shelled, aim-for-the-jugular cruel, some people were terrified of me. And I played the leads in lots of musicals. On stage and off. And I wanted desperately to be in love. And I was. I think. With Chris. And it was during that time my musical spheres were widened. He, and our mutual friends, were of the Little Feat and Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell school, artists I had never heard of or listened to, so focused had I been on musical theatre since childhood, and then R&B and disco since getting a fake I.D. at sixteen and starting my tour of the area gay bars — but that’s another story. This chapter is about Chris, and being introduced to Joni’s Blue. Chris and I would listen to Joni in my apartment, where we’d get high or drunk, or high and drunk, and do that teenage lost in the music, gazing meaningfully at one another thing — without any clear idea of WHAT the meaning of the gazing was. I knew the first time I heard it, with Chris and I entwined in one another like we did, aching on the outside of being able to really touch one another, that just on the edge of intimacy thing, oh I knew, the words, the truth, that The Last Time I Saw Richard would be my ever after song, my biography right there.
But during Chris, it wasn’t Blue or Last Time I Saw Richard that was my theme song, although it was sung by Joni, it was Conversation.
Chris always had someone — or many someones, all female — in love with him. He told me about them. He told me what they did together. There was a story about chocolate sauce and whipped cream that nearly killed me. I comforted him sometimes.
I can’t remember the last time I saw him. We were both very much younger. He was not, then, the father of a grown son, or a man much in love with his wife in a very successful marriage. I was not, then, twenty-plus years a director, teacher, theatre company owner, or a man who had spent his entire life being on the end of conversations with people who I comforted sometimes.
And so, today, Chris sent me back a picture of the letter I’d sent him 38 years ago, asking him to love me, without the courage to say it out loud. But is this The Last Time I Saw Richard? “Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away? Only a phase, these dark cafe days.”
Turns out, it wasn’t the story of my life. I got all my bitterness out when I was young. Funny, that. It was so long predicted I would be a less-than-charming curmudgeon. But, all those years of lonely and angry and sad and being told I was wrong, and being so fundamentally, achingly, desperately alone, those years wore away the edges, broke down the walls, opened me up until I am all nerve endings and feelings and Light and Love; all that is left of me is the core, the center, stripped of the layers I’d accumulated to protect me. I am alive in ways I’ve never been. I am loving in ways I have never loved. I was so unhappy for so long, I think I may have bled out all my sorrows. Dangerous to say that, yes? But, there it is. And here I am, Charlie, 38 years past 18, and Chris heard that half way across the country, and reached out. Or, maybe I called to him? Because the letter, today, it gave me a memory of warm, a memory of believing, a memory and energy of Charlie who knew he could change the world, knew he would change the world, believed he could be loved — even if he didn’t think he deserved it.
He deserved it. I wish, so often, I could reach back in time and hold that Charlie and tell him he is beautiful and talented and kind and good and worthy and right about all the things that matter, to hold him up and believe in him and say yes, to balance all the no he got, to tell him what must be learned is to unlearn all the worrying about tomorrow, to stop worrying where he was going, he was there, be there, by moving on. And I think, today, Chris did that for me, for him, for 18-year-old Charlie and 19-year-old Chris, took us back, shone the light on the love. Maybe what we were feeling then was us now, reaching back to say, “Hold on, this love counts too.”
And here I am, going. 18 and 56 and moving on. All the things you gave to me . . . the way you catch the light. Goodnight, dear ones.
Since I’m on Twitter-break in what is probably a hopeless attempt to preserve a portion of my sanity (And, too, that of my friends and family who have to bear the ranting and weeping in which my timeline and news-feed cause me to indulge.) I have nowhere to deposit (and I chose the word carefully, make of it what you will) my pithy and pissy and loving and snarky observations. So, I’m going to put them here in this compendium of random-ness.
6:30a.m. I could happily go the rest of my life without ever again seeing a TV featuring — let alone hearing sound from — MSNBC, CNN, FOXNEWS, and all the rest who have built networks and fortunes by serving agendas, chasing ad dollars and ratings, and playing to specific focus groups — drumming up drama so they’ve something to report, and leaving out those “news” items inconvenient to their agendas. It’s fucking exhausting and endless trying to sift through all the noise and repetition and arched eyebrow, Simon Legree’d sneers and “get this” and gotcha bullshit and it is bad for everyone who has any interest in actual truth.
9a.m. I am about to read the New York Times choices for best books of 2017 (while carefully avoiding all other sections and headlines). I have already perused a few “best” lists and thought, “What the fuck?” But, isn’t that always the way? And once again those lists reek of their compilers’ MFA-cult-think; out of the tens of thousands of books published, miraculously a couple of the same ones make nearly every list, and often those are the books about which I thought, “What’s all this noise about? This is NOT that great.” I won’t be naming those books because that’s a level of ugly to which I don’t want to tunnel; even the worst books were toiled over by a human being with a heart and soul, and I have no interest in making anyone feel bad. (Today, anyway. Well, there is that one guy on Grindr who made me feel really shitty about myself and ugly and such, so, him I could make feel bad if I hadn’t blocked his ass. And other parts of him as well.)
9:15a.m. And another problem with “best” lists? For me, like crack. When they include books about which I’ve not heard and the write-up is compelling, I’m helpless. I’m blithely (and with great gratitude) depleting A’s generous present of gift card from my local indie bookstore, Curious Iguana [click HERE], messaging and requesting books from these lists. I am a full-on sucker for book reviews — like they was books. (If reading that sentence didn’t bring to mind one of Rose’s rant lines from Gypsy, and at least three different women you’ve seen play the role, not like you and I will be sharing a cocktail. Or coffee. Or be Twitter pals.) Oh, so, these are the books I’ve so far requested: Sunshine State: Essays, by Sarah Gerard, and The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, by Mackenzi Lee.
9:20a.m. And, as I feared, there on one NYTimes critic list of best is that book to which I was earlier referring about which there is much huzzah-ing which is something I Do. Not. Understand.
9:24a.m. Okay, I’d lose myself in this “best” list for the next few hours, but it’s Momma hair day. Today she is getting a permanent. Which means extra time in the hole-in-the-wall salon in the kkk-populated town where Momma insists on going to get her hair done. Weekly. By the same person who has done it for thirty years. Thirty years. Hair done. Once a week. I need to think about that some more. And then, when I have time, tell you about the magazine I stole from the salon last week and why I did so. (See THIEVERY NOTE below.)
12:55p.m. Finished hair day with Momma. She didn’t want to do any shopping today so I was spared excursions through Boscov’s or WalMart, and she wanted only a quick lunch so she could get back to Record Street Home for Movie Day. This surprised me. Momma usually skips Movie Day because, “Some of those women are so deaf, they turn it up too loud, I can’t understand it when it’s that loud.” Says the woman whose favorite word is, “What?” I asked if it was a musical, because, you know, I’m me, and she said, “No, no. It’s the one about flowers and nuns with that black actor. I’ve watched it many times. You know.” In fact, I did. Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field. The film which marked the first time a black man won a competitive Oscar. So, for lunch, she wanted a hot dog and the only place you can get one is Burger King. Correction — WAS Burger King. As we discovered today, they have removed it from the menu. I don’t know how often you spend time with older people, but it has been my experience that when things change — as in a hot dog being removed from a menu — they do not take it well. (Hmm, I guess that makes me an older person, because the changes I’ve been experiencing lately don’t make me too happy either.) Momma eventually settled on the fish sandwich. She was some surprised it had lettuce and a pickle and onion as garnishment. When I asked why she said, “This is NOT how they make them at McDonald’s. A pickle. On fish.” Indeed.
1:15p.m. Well, I’m downtown. Dropped Momma off so she could spend the afternoon with other deaf women, Sidney Poitier, and a bunch of nuns. And since I am downtown, it’s only sensible I should stop by The Curious Iguana and pick up Sunshine State. I picked up The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue yesterday. I don’t enjoy sitting on the shelf waiting to be picked up, I feel sure books don’t either.
1:45p.m. Home. With my new book. Luckily I have the DVR set to record Days of Our Lives. Chandler Massey has returned to play a risen from the (pretend) dead Will Horton. He does not remember his husband, Sonny, who — thinking Will long dead — had fallen BACK in love with his first love, ex-baseball player, Paul, with whom he broke up years earlier because Paul wouldn’t risk his baseball career by coming out of the closet, but who Will — a reporter and married to Sonny at the time and with no idea Sonny had once been in love with Paul —
— cheated on Sonny to sleep with Paul that he might get the exclusive on him being gay and out him thus cementing his reputation as a reporter; a move that nearly destroyed his marriage, causing Sonny to leave the country, during which time Will was (we thought) murdered by the NeckTie killer. Once Will was discovered to be alive, albeit with no memory of his life as Will, having been brainwashed by evil, crazy Susan into believing he was his mother’s now dead third or fourth or fifth husband who was, coincidentally Susan’s son whose death she blamed on Will’s mother which is why she wanted to steal Will from his real mother and convince him he was her, Susan’s, dead son. Anyway, Sonny has now called off the engagement to Paul, breaking his heart, because Sonny’s love for Will is just too great. Only, Will, still with no memory of being Will, doesn’t much care for Sonny, but does want to fuck the shit out of Paul, who came to the door dressed in only a towel yesterday and on whom Will made quite the move. Who wouldn’t —
—I have NEVER liked Sonny and I want Will and Paul to end up together because, well, LOOK AT THEM. Chandler Massey won a couple of Emmys before he left the show and he is really and truly amazing — which is really and truly NOT the case for most of the male actors on this show. He’s also ridiculously sexy.
Yeah. I watch it. On DVR. So I can fast forward. And, of course, rewind. And freeze-frame. I like to see just how method the actors are. So to speak.
After DOOL, I watched my DVR-ed Real Housewives of New Jersey. Sue me.
Surely you didn’t think I spent my days reading Proust and contemplating the meaning of all the layers of reality in order that I might solve the problems of the world, all the while performing good deeds and baking cookies and cobblers selflessly for others, did you? Cuz, I seriously don’t. I am basic. Basic as can be as often as can be, baby. Don’t even ASK what that means because you would be surprised (well, not you B.W., but the rest of you).
5:30p.m. For dinner tonight I am re-purposing Sunday’s Chicken and Dumplings by NOT adding dumplings, rather, adding kale and broth to make a new tasting soup/stew. We’ll have some bread, too. And there’s still cobbler. And ice cream. So, that.
8:30p.m. Dinner done. Jeopardy over. Alex Trebek still officious and annoying and flashing around that ridiculous French accent every chance he gets, flaunting his assumed superiority. Damn Jesuit schooling. I’m in my room. On my bed. Pecking away at this. After I hit publish, I’ll be diving into Heather, The Totality by Matthew Weiner, which I started this morning in lieu of going to the gym — I really needed not to get up at 5a.m. today — and it’s really short, and so far, really good and unique and I think I like it although it has an ominously jaded kind of tone, which doesn’t bode well for a happy ending. I could use a happy ending. We’ll see.
As promised, here is the story of the magazine I stole. Last week at the hair salon Momma and I visit each Thursday, I was looking through the magazines and there in Martha Stewart Living was a picture of one of the food editors next to his pie recipe and damn if it wasn’t a boy — now man — who many, many years ago I taught (briefy and I take no credit for his talent) to perform. He had one of the most beautiful voices I have ever heard and I wrote a special role for him in a show I authored and designed. I stuck the magazine under my coat and snuck it out of the salon. Or, sneaked it. I took the damn thing.
And, why? If I had told them the story and asked they would have been more than happy to give me the magazine and they would have enjoyed the story with me. So, why did I do the shove it under the coat thing? Once, when I was in my early twenties, I stole food from a WaWa in New Haven when I didn’t have any money, had just moved there literally in the middle of the night, and as yet had no place to live. But, that’s about it. It may have more to do with me being afraid to ask for things I want from people — I live with the expectation of being always answered NO.
Why is that? Something else to think about. A reason to keep journalling, stay off Twitter, read more, think more, re-charge, spend time with me.
Yes. That. So, here I am, basic, and going.
This is the beauty from the parking lot outside the bedroom window of my apartment, what I saw tonight as I was emptying the trash and recycling. I stopped and recorded it. I breathed it in. I am healing by noting beauty. One has to, I have to, because the day began badly — in a week of days not going so well.
Anyway, because I’m not Tweeting, here I am, telling you where it is I’m going.
I can’t remember how I became fascinated by Stevie Smith, though I’ve a shadowy recollection of Glenda Jackson in a film in the late 1970s, which I know would have triggered me because Glenda always reminded me of my aunt, Sissie, both of them tall, thin, patrician, and striking not because of classic beauty, but because they lived so inside of who they were, they owned their spaces, and they radiated an intelligence and ability to see you, to see through you, to the you of you. Too, Sissie loved poetry, had wanted to be a poet like Edna St. Vincent Millay. Also, anything to do even vaguely with me she thought fantastic, so the fact that Stevie’s father was named Charles Smith and ran away to sea, well, like I said, I don’t remember how I became fascinated with Stevie Smith and her work other than this amorphous, near fantasy — not unlike many other so-called memories I have — that can best be summed up by the phrase, “Oh, Sissie gave me that.”
But, even so, I can’t tell you why I picked up my Stevie Smith collection, All The Poems, today, or why it flipped open to Not Waving but Drowning, but, there it was and here it is:
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
It is no secret I experience depression. Lately, the conflagration of news, the attempts to legislate hate and undo decades of struggle for equality, coupled with troubling personal events, and a slowly creeping decline — physical and mental — I am noticing more and more the loss of words, names, things I once knew are now out of reach in some synaptic abyss, and the failure of my body when asked to perform, well, the thing is, as little success as I am having fighting these things off, I am having even less success accepting that this is how I am aging, this is where I am, going — these disturbances in my field dragoon me into dark corners of my soul and psyche, where all the memories I can access — the loudest voices — are those of despairing and failure and should have and didn’t and why not and … you get it.
And I know this is part of my chemical imbalance and a decades long pattern (shared by most of my family, especially my Mom) of self-destructive, self-denigrating thinking, and I know a large measure of it is self-pity, and I know I must interrupt it. But being called to Stevie Smith this morning, and connecting Stevie to Sissie as I always have, seemed as if Sissie was saying, “I get that your heart is giving way, sweetheart (She often called me Sweetheart, along with calling me her Miracle), and I see you not waving, but drowning.”
I also know she would say, “Swim.” And so, I did. I am.
I started collapsing yesterday with the news about SCOTUS seeming to be leaning toward allowing religion to be used as a basis for bigotry, it seems they might be siding with the baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple because it went against his religious beliefs, and this, the day after SCOTUS had refused to hear a case where LGBTQ people were denied benefits by an employer, thus allowing that hate to stand. All of which was added on to the flood of abusers and predators being exposed, and DEFENDED by the gop and —-okay, this recap isn’t helping. I was crying, a lot, because the world in which all this is happening and the hate and fear at its foundation terrifies and saddens me.
So, as a matter of self-preservation, I have again instituted as much a media blackout as I can. I have stayed away from Twitter because the daily horrors of the fascist regime and its supporters creep into my timeline. So, in addition to blocking out the noise of hate, today I did those things that make me feel useful, doing little somethings within my ability that I might bring joy to the world, one person at a time. I did laundry (second day in a row) to most especially refresh the holiday bed-sheets that I and my sister sleep on. See:
I decided to do this at 5:30 this morning as I was leaving for the gym because few things are more comforting than knowing you will be going to bed on freshly laundered, crisply stretched sheets, so on my way out the door I told my sister — who sleeps as little and as badly as I do — not to make her bed today. Clean sheets. Glorious.
In addition, I have three books I’ve been told are good to great and I am really looking forward to them. You’ll note they’re arranged on my bed waiting for me. But just in case you can’t zoom:
I can’t wait to start one of these three. You might wonder why I didn’t already, I mean, it doesn’t take all day to go to the gym, do the laundry, change the sheets. Nope. I also went to the grocery store — three times, because my dear nephew, Connor, was coming for our regular Wednesday dinner — which I’ve missed for the last few weeks — so I was super excited to cook for him. I found at grocery store number one that blackberries were on super sale. I got two pints for five dollars, and, lo and behold, in the next aisle,blackberry preserves were on clearance! A sign. I didn’t know exactly what I’d do with all the blackberry-ness, but I knew it, like Stevie Smith, was calling to me today. Waving, NOT drowning. And I made this:
It’s a cobbler, sort of ish. Ha. I kind of make things up. I am being frugal chef, trying to spend as little as possible at the grocery store and making delights from what’s on hand here, especially if it’s been hanging around for a while. So, here’s what I did — and I warn you, I am NOT a measuring kind of guy (at least when it comes to recipe ingredients) and tend, even when I do measure, to say, “Hmmm, I think I need to throw a bit more in.” So, uhm, if you try to make this, throw whatever feels right into it, and trust.
I turned my oven on, 350 degrees — my oven runs hot, so that’s probably really 375-400. I got a ten inch, deep dish pie plate out and sprayed it with cooking spray, then rubbed it, bottom and sides, liberally, with three tablespoons of butter, leaving the excess chunks in the pie plate.
Next, I dumped in two pints of rinsed blackberries and an eight ounce container of blackberry preserves. I tossed in a bit of cornstarch — probably a tablespoon? — and a capful of vanilla, which I’m guessing, by the time I dribbled it and thought, “Oh, maybe a smidge more,” was probably a tablespoon. Then I added a glug of Chambord Liqueur. Yes. I did. And then I opened my sugar canister and threw in a handful. Yep. That’s all I can tell you, a handful.
Now, throw that in the oven. I’d say it stays in about 20 minutes while you do the following;
Throw about a cup or so of flour — I used bread flour because that’s what I have right now, a handful of sugar, about a teaspoon of baking soda, and two (or a little more, probably) of baking powder, a dash of salt because you dash salt into everything, and whisk that all together so it’s nice and mixed evenly.
Then, in another bowl, stir up about three-quarters of a stick of butter which I’d melted (20 seconds at a time in the microwave until it’s liquid) and thrown in the fridge a while so it cooled, maybe half a cup of buttermilk (I use powdered buttermilk and mix up what I need rather than buy actual buttermilk because I always end up throwing it out and it’s pricey, or, you can just add some lemon juice to regular milk and curdle it a little), and maybe a teaspoon of vanilla (although, if I make it again, I might try almond flavoring — use what you want, it’s your cobbler — almond would be SUPER if you used peaches instead of blackberries) — and once it’s all nice and stirred and pretty, pour it into the flour mixture.
Now, wooden spoon it until it’s almost a dough, and then use your hands to finish it, kneading and flipping and working a bit. Then, I rolled it into a long snake, cut it in half, cut each half in half, and then halved each of those. That’s eight pieces.
It had been twenty minutes, so I took the bubbling fruit from the oven and shaped/rolled the eight pieces into balls and dropped them evenly around the hot, delicious smelling, alcohol tinged fruit mixture. Then, I poured some sugar in a bowl — I don’t know, maybe two or three tablespoons, and sprinkled in some cinnamon until I got a nice light tan color and I sprinkled that LIBERALLY over the dough balls and, honestly, the rest of the fruit showing too. I sprinkled that whole sucker with that cinnamon sugar.
Back into the oven where I left it for 17 minutes which was TOO LONG. Try 13. But, even though I thought the biscuit-y portion too brown, my sister and nephew both said it was one of the best desserts ever. Probably didn’t hurt that I threw some vanilla ice cream and a dollop of whipped cream on top of the warm cobbler.
It makes eight servings (duh!) and it RADIATES love.
It was good today to take care of my family. It was good today to try NOT to listen to any news. It was good today to stay away from Twitter — even though I love so many people there. It was good today to feel my aunt near me, even if the route to blackberry cobbler was a circuitous one traveling round a poem about a fellow whose heart, too long cold, too far out, no longer beat — it was a good day to make it through the day and cry only a few times, and feel lonely and rejected only briefly at the gym this morning, and I am always fine.
I know this. I am not drowning. I am waving. Sometimes, dear ones, I go too far out into the deep, but I am not going under, I really am out here, this is me, waving at you, I’m not able to go under, dear ones, because I am a witch, a miracle, a sorcerer of blackberries and kindnesses and making things better and now, dear ones, I want to change into my sweats, cuddle in my clean sheets, and decide which book I’ll start tonight.
Love from out here. And Light (I always have enough of both to spare, if ever you need it. I can always be reached.) and here I am, going.
I’ve finished a book but I can’t write about it yet. REASONS. (see below)
I really need to balance my checkbook but I can’t face it yet. BECAUSES. (see below)
In the meantime, since Friday, I have had a fight with UPS about a delivery promised for 8pm Thursday about which, at 8:01pm Thursday, I was informed it had been delayed because of a mystery and I should check next Wednesday if it had still not arrived. Yep. Apparently the warehouse was too full to unload more trucks, so, I don’t know.
And, someone hurt my feelings Friday. A lot. Which I also need to work through.
And, my Microsoft Word wouldn’t let me in. So, for a day I believed that I had lost my novel, my short stories, my endless beginnings of other novels and short stories, and tons of other things saved in my Word files. Luckily, Microsoft Support on Twitter walked me through repair. Which was only fair since the glitch happened after one of their many downloads onto my poor, unsuspecting, aging laptop. But, plus side, I realized I care more about my writing than I knew, so, I’d better get busier at it.
And, I’ve started journaling daily again, thanks to my dear Bethanne.
Anyway, I’m checking in, dear ones, because — well, I’m procrastinating to avoid:
I’ve finished Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, but because it set off personal triggers to do with celebrating privileged white men getting away with murder, privileged white men who live in the closet for decades without coming to the aid of the LGBTQ and then act heroic when they finally do, and privileged white men and boy magazines encouraging a misogynist, racist, homophobic culture. Until I’ve sorted these out in my head, and determined whether or not I think the author aided and abetted further of the same bullshit — which is especially ill-timed with all that’s going on NOW — I am holding off writing about the book. And:
I’ve spent a lot of money lately. I’ve not been profligate nor irresponsible, it’s been on practical things one needs to live and get around and take care of one’s mother and such, but I haven’t worked hard enough to get house and pet-sitting bookings, and I don’t have another on my schedule for a while, and so, I haven’t subtracted. NOT THAT I AM ANYWHERE NEAR OVERDRAWN, and I am way more blessed than lots and lots of people — but, when I subtract, it’s going to panic me. So, I’m not. But, I will tomorrow, because I have to send the state a check, because, you know, it only makes sense that a person who has not made above the poverty level in almost a decade would owe back taxes while huge corporations pay nothing, but, hey — it’s going to get better and make this country great again when the shit from this gop-travesty-pillaging of the country they’re despicably and dishonestly calling a tax cut takes effect and trickles down all over me, right?
In any event, I’ve buttery dumplings to make to toss into my chicken soup/stew whatever it is I’ve been working on and simmering for two days, a nod to frugality; I am grocery shopping keeping in mind I need to make things that are both cheap and plentiful and can be altered as they are leftovered. In a few days, I’ll add kale to the chicken soup/stew whatever, for a new taste.
Yes, life is good. Love to all. Here I am, going.
Since last we spoke I’ve read Sing, Unburied, Sing, the 2017 National Book Award winner in the fiction category, written by Jesmyn Ward; Duke of Desire, the 12th in the Maiden Lane series, written by Elizabeth Hoyt; and Killer Characters, the 8th (and final) in the Books by the Bay series, written by Ellery Adams. These three are labeled respectively as Literary Fiction, Romance, and Mystery Cozy. I’m not much a fan of labels though I understand their purpose for marketing’s sake, but I feel like with books, as with people, we limit and stunt and marginalize and stereotype by this need to name and define and draw lines. More on that later. First —
(NOTE: If you would like to move directly to my discussion of the books above and skip the context in which I read them, the details of my life, and the musings of my mind, head down the page to the #*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*)
— let me begin by saying I continue my quest to interrupt my life-long proclivity for making lemons from lemonade, trying instead to add a splash of vodka, some ginger beer, and sip whilst taking a deep breath and long pause, finding and enjoying the plus rather than the minus, before indulging in any “woe is me”-ing or “the universe/world is against me”-ing or whining about first world frustrations.
Here comes the “but” you knew was on the way: I am sitting here beneath a lap-robe, feet freezing, my stomach having again started its roiling and cramping (if you’re new here I won’t bore you with the three-year ongoing saga) and although the year-long mystery rash has finally begun to fade, the dermatologist and rheumatologist disagree with one another over why and what to do next, tut-tutting at the diagnoses and guesses of the other, while my primary care practice continues to acquire and shed PAs so regularly I never see the same person twice and so need give them my entire history each time I go for my three-month Wellbutrin renewal. All of which may soon become moot if 45 and his gop-jackbooted-bully-brigade achieve their nefarious undoing of ACA, upending Medicaid and Medicare, at which point I will lose the little access to healthcare I have — which is still a lot more access than many have and for which I am grateful.
This will all, of course, be beside the point once the above mentioned fascist horrors who are now running and ruining (notice, only one letter difference there) the country start imprisoning the LGBTQ, to be annihilated in death camps along with all the other people disapproved of by the white-cis-male power-mongrels, the long-term goal of the gop begun with nixon’s “southern strategy” come long last to fruition.
And all of this is the result — I think — of a concentrated effort by those in power from time immemorial to divide into US and THEM, to convince we peasants that there is enough for us, we who deserve, if only they, those who are not worthy, would stop taking what is rightfully ours. And the next step after propagandizing that divisive foundation, is to spin reality as a competition — a race, a war — to come out on top, in control, with the most. Winning is now paramount, and all talk of morality or righteousness or one or another god directing the way is complete and utter bullshit, hypocrisy made abundantly and inarguably clear by the election of 45, continued support for the ephebophile running for the senate in Alabama, the determined decimation of the safety net for the less advantaged, the refusal to seriously investigate the collusion with foreign powers in stealing the election of 2016, and on and on.
And this is all because we have fallen for the division mythology rather than living in the light and love of recognizing that we are all, at heart and soul, alike. One. Which, too, is why I hesitate to label and categorize books. I love good writing, no matter what the genre. I also get that my taste is mine, and others are entitled to their own; for example, my Mom, who I supply with large print books, reads authors I don’t enjoy at all, whose work I might even categorize as trashy, and that’s okay. See, I watch The Real Housewives of New York, Beverly Hills, and Orange County, which all of my friends find trashy. But, they make me laugh. They make me horrified. They are, to me, camp and parody of all that is wrong with the gop-45-entitled-jackbooted-hater run world in which we live.
We get what we need where we can. And so, 800 words later, what I mean to say is I don’t question that Sing, Unburied, Sing deserves many encomiums and lauds, and I’m all for anything that increases book sales, but it would be great if maybe we could all expand our fields of vision a little wider than just the books that get buzz, win awards, get picked by People magazine and well-reviewed (or, even, reviewed at all) in The New York Times. If we could enlarge our own worlds, read outside the genre and labels we think are our thing, embrace work by authors from other walks of life than just the paths with which we are familiar, then, maybe, just maybe, we could start a revolution of joining?
Maybe, just maybe, trying to see the world through lenses other than our own, will help us all to realize and really live the truth that, ultimately, we are all one. Because, I fear, if we can’t soon get there, to where we are all one, what will be left is that we are all none.
Now, on to the books I’ve read.
Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward, Hardcover, 285pp, September, 2017, Scribner
Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, 2017, and written about and lauded by those far more erudite, professorial, and literary-wise than am I, since reading this I’ve hesitated to even share my thoughts, thinking to do so superfluous. Do I think you should read it? Yes. Would I have chosen it for Fiction Award 2017? I don’t think so, because I wouldn’t — couldn’t choose. This is why I think awards are silly. There is no “best book” in any category. There are wonderful books of every kind, books that are someone’s favorite, change someone’s mind or heart or life, open eyes, bring a much needed laugh, have a cathartic effect, but there is no one book that is best for everyone. Too, awards tend to glorify books already in the mainstream, already buzzed, by authors already known (and I’m not saying their fame is undeserved or unearned), while books of equal artistry and beauty languish unread, head to remainder piles and ninety-nine cent plus shipping sale on Amazon.
That said, this book is beautiful, captivating, riveting, unique of voice, glorious of prose bordering on poetry, and much deserving of all the accolades it has received. A pastiche of magic realism, ghost story, history lesson, gothic tragedy, probing sociological examination, road novel, and prose poem, Jesmyn Ward’s lyrical, evocative language is revelatory and her artistry joins what might have been impossibly confused disparate motifs into a panoptic chiaroscuro portrait both intensely personal and universal.
JoJo, a boy on the brink of adolescence, and his baby sister, Kayla, are taken on a road trip by their drug-addicted black mother, Leonie, to pick up her white husband, Michael, about to be released from Parchman prison. Michael’s cousin murdered Leonie’s brother, whose ghost comes to her when she is high, and at Parchman, Jojo begins to be stalked by the ghost of Richie, who was a doomed prisoner in Parchman with Jojo’s beloved grandfather, Pop, and uses Jojo to get back to Pop so he might tell Richie of his fate, of his death, so that he could be released from the netherworld in which so many unburied souls are trapped, their songs unable to be sung.
There are more characters, more complications, layer after layer of connection and disconnect, an epic of multiple epochs, a richness and depth of biblical, Proustian size, miraculously communicated in a book less than 300 pages long. There is so much beautiful language, to begin quoting is dangerous, so I will share just this paragraph, near the end of the novel, which is as beautiful as an aria of grand opera. Listen to the ghost of Richie explaining what he sees:
Across the face of the water, there is land. It is green and hilly, dense with trees, riven by rivers. The rivers flow backward: they begin in the sea and end inland. The air is gold: the gold of sunrise and sunset, perpetually peach. There are homes set atop mountain ranges, in valleys, on beaches. They are vivid blue and dark red, cloudy pink and deepest purple. They are yurts and adobe dwellings and teepees and longhouses and villas. Some of the homes are clustered together in small villages: graceful gatherings of round, steady huts with domed roofs. And there are cities, cities that harbor plazas and canals and buildings bearing minarets and hip and gable roofs and crouching beasts and massive skyscrapers that look as if they should collapse, so weirdly they flower into the sky. Yet they do not.
This continues and builds for another paragraph and a half until the vision disappears and then:
Then darkness. I look to my left and see that world again, and then it is gone. I claw at the air, but my hands strike nothing; they rend no doorways to that golden isle.
Absence. Isolation. I keen.
Though it may be the voice of a ghost child, an innocent denied the life he deserved, it is the song unsung of every human being who has suffered the incomprehensible loss of self in a world they cannot seem to understand, the wail and moan of longing for a place of peace only imagined, never experienced.
Yes, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a brilliant book, a book written from the soul that speaks to the soul and worthy of all praise. Though, as I said, I am not fond of the good/better/best ratrace, certainly this is among the best books of the past year.
Duke of Desire (Maiden Lane 12), Elizabeth Hoyt, Mass Market Paperback, 308pp, October 2017, Grand Central Publishing
Lady Iris Jordan is kidnapped, a case of mistaken identity, and while being carried away from the scene of her planned debauching by a beautifully formed one of her supposed captors, she shoots him, only to find he is her rescuer. Both of their lives are now in danger for having crossed The Lords of Chaos, and so she and The Duke of Dyemore wed to save her reputation and her life. But this does little good and they are both pursued, captured, in danger, and finally, in love, secrets revealed, promises made, passions surrendered to (a lot) in this marvelous addition to Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series.
Killer Characters (Books by the Bay Mysteries #8), Ellery Adams, Paperback, 274pp, May 2017, Berkley Books
Olivia Limoges is a restaurant owner, aspiring novelist, member of the Bayside Book Writers’ group, and recently married to local police chief, Rawlings. Another member of the Bayside Book Writers, Laurel, is accused of murdering her husband’s mistress, the hospice nurse for his dying mother who never had a kind word for Laurel. Before long another murder occurs, connected to the first, and the Bayside Writers set about clearing Lauren, endangering themselves, crossing Olivia’s husband, Chief Rawlings, and putting themselves in danger — for one, mortal danger. This is the last in what seems to have (deservedly) been a popular series and I quite enjoyed it, and I wonder how much more I’d have liked it if I had grown to know the characters and the town of Oyster Bay through the preceding seven installments? I figured out whodunnit fairly early, but I was still surprised by the ending. Nicely done if a bit heavier and darker than most mystery cozies.
So, there we have it: one prizewinner and two final installments in popular series. Wildly different reading experiences, all enjoyable in their own way, each with something unique to offer, all worth a read if they are your kind of thing. And maybe, even, if you don’t think they would be, give them (or something else outside your comfort zone) a shot. Make the world bigger and kinder and more open and embracing by starting with the books you read.
It can’t hurt. And it might help. And it’s laudable.
And here I am, going. Love and light, dear ones.
I’ve been extremely busy: 1) Trying to become a better person; 2) Helping a friend downsize from a large home on three acres to a condo with a shared common area, and; 3) Running into people I haven’t seen in a decade or so in order to facilitate conversations the Universe is sending so that I can get on with 1 (see above), which, by anyone’s measure, has taken entirely too long.
All of this has cut into my reading time, so, only four books so far in November. I promise to be brief. And, FML, WordPress has now made it impossible to do anything but compose in their supposedly improved format — WHICH I DESPISE AND WHICH MAKES COMPOSING ABOUT A MILLION TIMES MORE DIFFICULT.
Deep Freeze (Virgil Flowers #10), John Sandford, Hardcover, 391pp, October 2017, G.P. Putnam’s Sons
I am a fan of series, and John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers and Lucas Davenport series are reliably what they are: well plotted, fast paced, familiar characters and quirky guest starring new folk, hip and tough but tender-hearted hero who straddles lines of moral ambiguity now and again to make the world a little safer. Until the next installment. I have to say this was not my favorite. High school trauma and unrequited attraction, long held on to, results in murder, and more murders for covering up purposes and, well, it seemed a bit called in, the characters less developed than shorthanded, and because of that, kind of confusing to track. I really didn’t care who died next. No shade, I’m awestruck by anyone’s ability to write one book, let alone deliver the dependably entertaining output Mr. Sandford has achieved.
Dangerous To Know (Lillian Frost & Edith Head #2), Renee Patrick, Hardcover, 304pp, April 2017, Forge Books
This was a library-browsing pick-up, chosen because it was blurbed by a number of authors whose writing I admire and love. I had not read the first installment, which was the one to which their blurbs referred, and so I came into this cold. It featured a lot of well-known names, none of whom, obviously, could be the killer. There were Nazis and FDR and movie stars and I thought it would be a lot more exciting than it was. I wanted Carole Lombard and Myrna Loy levels of sophistication and wit and madcap, black and white fun. This wasn’t quite it for me.
The Rules Of Magic, Alice Hoffman, Hardcover, 369pp, October 2017, Simon & Schuster
I bought this — which is a lot, because I deliberately live a very simple life, below the poverty level, and buying a book (albeit, with gift cards I hoard) is a big decision and something I do only for authors whose work I know I want to keep on my shelves, as part of the definition of who I am. Alice Hoffman came to Frederick a few years ago for a signing and library sponsored talk and she was delightful. I’ve read a number of her books, including Practical Magic, to which this is a prequel, and I have watched the film of Practical Magic over and over, and although it is very different from the book, I love it because Dianne Wiest, Stockard Channing, Nicole Kidman, and the only movie in which I have ever liked her, Sandra Bullock.
I liked this book. The three main characters, siblings Franny, Jet, and Vincent, were all sort of what I have come to think of as Alice Hoffman trademark difficult, but ultimately loveable, beautiful souls who sometimes behave in ugly ways, magical folk out to slay the dragons of fate and the inevitable disappointments that accompany the joys of being alive — in other words, despite their supernatural powers, these are human beings with all the ups and downs and complications and pleasures that label promises. We meet Gillian and Sally of Practical Magic in the last few pages, after the first 300 full of tragic loves, bad decisions, all sorts of loss and gain and growth and denial and fear and light and dark, written in wonderfully skilled, flowing prose.
I like that Alice Hoffman faces sorrow without compromise. It’s a fact of life that people die, that sometimes love takes away as much as it gives, and that we all have to make choices and sometimes, among those choices, there are not perfect options — we all hurt people, we all get hurt, and being alive and having a happy ending doesn’t come for free. That’s not a fairy tale, it’s a grown up story. Alice Hoffman writes deceptively deep and thought-provoking fiction in a fable-like format.
And so, I bought this. And I’m not sorry.
Interstitial moment of explanation: This was going to be a blog blog post today, rather than a reading blog post, because I haven’t blog-blogged in a while. Here’s why: A year ago, November, a horrible thing happened. We are still, daily, suffering its reverberations, and its aftermath will scar and upend and damage us for decades to come. Anger and grief and disbelief and sorrow took me over in an eviscerating way, which, now, it seems, has done me some good. There is light in every darkness, I suppose, cliché as that is to type, but, truth. It became clear to me in these months that while I can do little to change the hearts and minds of the sixty-million or so bigot racist misogynist homophobic faux-christian white-supremacist fascist sympathizing hellhounds who voted for that sad, silly, stupid, soul-less man, I can make the worlds of those people I do know or come in contact with or speak to on Twitter, a little better. I can practice peace, embrace, acceptance, understanding, faith, and share light by NOT indulging my anger, by not being distracted from the job of being human by the shit-show that is politics and news these days. This isn’t about denial, it’s about making a conscious effort to focus, too, on all that is right with the world, all that is good in the universe, and to foster those things and those connections which affirm the Love and the Light. We change the world one person at a time and my resources are not financial, or power, or physical: what I have are my words, and my actions, in person, on-line, to spread a little love, a little light, a little normal.
So, I’m holding back on the blog-blogging for the same reason I’ve cut back to one cup of coffee in the morning, and started having tea I brew myself; for the same reason I’m limiting my Twitter time to about fifteen (okay, maybe thirty) minutes a day; the same reason I don’t watch the news; I need to stay centered, I need to be strong in my standing in the Love and the Light, and I need to ration those things that detract and distract from me being the best me I can be. I can’t ingest and be subjected to things that make me shake, that alter my ability to take deep breaths without pain.
We need people to offer us peace in the midst of this spiritual, social uproar. I am not a warrior. I am a healer. And so, I am here, being strong, staying calm, when you need me. Because we all need — as all of this is going on — to keep reading.
Now, that said, back to books.
Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies, Michael Ausiello, Hardcover, 320pp, September 2017, Atria Books
Michael Ausiello’s partner of 14 years, Christopher “Kit” Cowan, is diagnosed with a particularly virulent form of cancer, and while describing the eleven months from diagnosis to death, Mr. Ausiello takes the reader on a journey through two lives, thirteen years of a love with its ups and downs, and managing to live those lives as fully as possible while facing death.
There is a lot of snark and dark humor here; the couple were unafraid to speak harsh truths in biting and profane terms, and Mr. Ausiello does not hold back on details I’m sure many readers would consider to fall in the range of TMI. Not me. If your voice is one comfortable with talking about loss of control of bodily functions, who tops and bottoms when and how, the size of your partners genitalia, well then, I say go for it. However, I think I would have held back about my Smurf-obsession, but that’s just me.
I laughed and I cried and I asked myself, “WHY DID YOU READ THIS? YOU KNOW HOW YOU ARE?” It’s not easy. And it’s not particularly uplifting. But, if you’ve watched someone you love, ravaged by disease, die, you will know whether or not sharing someone else’s story is for you.
So, that’s it. Four November books from genre series reads to heartbreaking memoir and, in between, some magic. Not such a bad two weeks, right?
Don’t forget to like my reviews on Amazon and GoodReads so I can be an influencer in the literary world.
And, my friends, here I am, going.
In this post I discuss two novels featuring murderers made by childhoods spent with flawed mothers, both killing (or, trying to) in an effort at mercy. The first of these novels is by seasoned, treasured, much awarded author, Alice McDermott, and the second is a debut novel by Ali Land.
The Ninth Hour, Alice McDermott, Hardcover, 256pp, September 2017, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
In the early part of the twentieth century in the Irish Catholic community in Brooklyn, a man’s suicide leaves his pregnant wife to make a life alone for herself and her daughter, the as yet unborn Sally, around whom the remembered story is built. Sister St. Saviour comes upon the scene of the gas oven suicide and resultant fire and begins her efforts to live up to her chosen name, from trying to hide the cause of death so the dead husband might be buried in hallowed ground, to finding work at the convent for the pregnant widow, Annie, who ends up in the laundry room as assistant to curmudgeonly Sister Illuminata, who, along with the other nuns, helps raise Sally from an infant asleep in a basket in the laundry room to a young woman who thinks she hears the calling to serve as sister herself.
There is no question but that Alice McDermott is an author prodigiously gifted at vividly rendered miniatures, delicate, detailed captures of circumstance, character, reality, and emotion that coalesce into a panorama of the human heart. Too, her facility for prose bordering on poetry combined with sentences of such shocking accuracy and truth one nearly gasps with recognition, make for a reading experience akin to literary love-making. Listen:
While Annie and Sister Jeanne knelt, Sister St. Saviour blessed herself and considered the sin of her deception, slipping a suicide into hallowed ground. A man who had rejected his life, the love of this brokenhearted girl, the child coming to them in the summer. She said to God, who knew her thoughts, Hold it against me if You will. He could put this day on the side of the ledger where all her sins were listed: the hatred she felt for certain politicians, the money she stole from her own basket to give out as she pleased — to a girl with a raging clap, to the bruised wife of a drunk, to the mother of the thumb-sized infant she had wrapped in a clean handkerchief, baptized, and then buried in the convent garden. All the moments of how many days when her compassion failed, her patience failed, when her love for God’s people could not outrun the girlish alacrity of her scorn for their stupidity, their petty sins.
That is undeniably beautiful writing, possessed of a rhythm and music, a few sentences, sculpted into the story of a woman’s soul and life. By the same token, Alice McDermott can sketch with one short sentence everything we need know about a character, as she does about the less introspective, more rigid Sister Lucy:
All joy was thin ice to Sister Lucy.
That is laugh out loud funny. Especially if one has spent any time in one’s life with nuns. There are the Sister St. Saviour variety and the Sister Lucy variety and Alice McDermott limns both and the experience of the devoted Catholic life with expertise, sympathy, insight, and wisdom. In particular, especially in The Ninth Hour, she explores the conflict between the tenets of the faith as taught by the church, and the challenges of real life, where circumstances sometimes render the commands of the church impractical to impossible to cruel. Alice McDermott explores the compromises made by the faithful and the cost of believing, the burden of sacrifice, and the malleable nature of the definition of right and wrong, what, exactly — or more aptly, inexactly, defines sin.
I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I’ll only say characters struggle with that existential moment when murder becomes mercy and whether or not the act can ever be forgiven, excused, justified.
All of the qualities Alice McDermott brings to her work make it always worth reading, and The Ninth Hour is no different. However, I found its structure to be problematic. The time jumping as the narrator told a tale passed down through a few generations made it difficult to keep track of characters, who was what to whom when, and the perspective wavering between reverie and documentary was jarring for me. A mosaic is a beautiful thing, and I appreciate the technique, but I felt there was a lack of clarity in the voice because of the piecemeal way the story was told, by which I mean I think the framework made the through-line more difficult to follow than was necessary.
Good Me Bad Me, Ali Land, Hardcover, 338pp, January 2017, Penguin Books Ltd
From Alice McDermott and her Catholic milieu to debut novelist Ali Land and her adolescent mental health mise en scene is less a leap than one might think; this novel also deals with a child brought up in unusual circumstances who is faced with a moral quandary.
Let me begin by saying that the absence of a comma in the title of this novel near drove me to distraction. Then, about three-quarters of the way through reading the book, it came to me that perhaps the author insisted that the point of the story was that there was no clear delineation between the good me and the bad me and so to place a comma in the title would be a betrayal of the gist, the heart of the story. Maybe, maybe not or should I say maybe maybe not? Whichever, I’m going with it.
Annie, 15, has been re-named Milly and placed with a foster family to be therapized before the trial of her serial killer, sexually abusive mother who Annie/Milly turned in for the murder of nine children to which she was witness. Milly’s foster family — psychiatrist dad Mike, overseeing her therapy, and his wife, Saskia, who turns out to have troubles of her own, and their mean girl daughter, Phoebe, who makes it her business to torture and bully Milly, about whose true identity she knows nothing when Annie/Milly arrives — need therapy of their own, plagued by problems Annie/Milly is likely to make worse with her presence.
This is a thriller, one of those page-turners where the past is presented in teasing drips and drabs, and the reader is given to fear along with Annie/Milly whether or not she can escape her mother’s influence, damage, and genetic contribution to who she is, who she might become, and whether any of this will be found out by those in her life.
This is a dark, twisted, creepy tale, compellingly written, very fast-moving, with what sounds a very authentic troubled-adolescent voice which one assumes can be credited to Ali Land’s work as a child and adolescent mental health nurse. Which, like the missing comma in the title, bothered me, because in a world which is currently so full of horrors, hatreds, and monsters, I worried and wondered just how much of the story could be all too real, based on abhorrent, abominable, tragic real-life stories Ali Land was exposed to as a mental health nurse.
So, there it is: a fast read but more than a little disturbing. If you, like me, are given nightmares by child-in-danger stories and ambiguous endings, this is not the novel for you. If you, on the other hand, are not sensitive to that sort of thing and enjoy nothing more than a fast, what’s next, bet I can guess, ohmygod read, this is the book for you.
And there we have it my friends, my two latest reads which — as is so often the case — were somehow connected in theme, all without my knowledge or planning; they both happened to come up on my library hold-list at the same time.
I’m heading into non-fiction next, it’s been too long and the book was recommended by a trusted friend, so, when I return I will be talking about The Woman Who Smashed Codes, which I’m beginning as soon as I finish this, bake a cake, and make Sunday dinner for my mom and sister. So, those things are not going to take care of themselves, thus, here I am, going.
P.S. SELF-PROMOTION: I’ve jumped up 10,000+ spots in rankings at Amazon as reviewer to 21,927! [CLICK HERE]! Only last week I was 33,000-something! If you like my recounting of my book reading, and my respect for the art of writing and publishing, it would be great if you could LIKE my Amazon and GoodReads reviews. Too, liking books on Amazon helps the author, helps their numbers and rankings in the mysterious algorithm that is Amazon sales and promotions. So, help the literary world out. Like me. Like books. Now, really, here I am, going.
Thanks to Glenda Burgess and Paula Garner, I’m back. What’s that? You didn’t notice I was gone? Well, I was, and I read quite a few books since last I book-blogged on September 17 — thirteen. While I didn’t write about them here, I did so on my GoodReads & Amazon accounts. (Click HERE for my Amazon Profile link, where all my reviews can be found.)
But, before I get to how Glenda and Paula brought me back from the depths, and my thoughts about my latest good-read, Unforgivable Love by Sophfronia Scott, I want to briefly discuss and link to my full reviews of the highlights from those I’ve read while not blogging.
First, the 5th installment in Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope Mysteries, Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante. (Click HERE for my full review.) I love this series. I love Susan Elia MacNeal’s writing. I love the way she manages to weave history into compelling plots, using characters I have grown to love, and, too, skillfully addressing modern issues while remaining true to the World War 2 period during which Maggie lives. If you’ve not read these, please do, and start at #1. There are seven so far and while I have numbers 6 and 7, I’m rationing. Or, trying to.
Next one worth a look is Christodora by Tim Murphy which was recommended by Garth Greenwell, need I say more? Maybe a little. Hopping in time from the 1980’s at the beginning of the AIDS crisis to the 2000’s and the lives of those left, and, too, those who barely register the horror of the epidemic’s beginning or the strides made because of the work of those activists forged in fury from the struggle. Moving. Wrenching, even. (Click HERE for my full review.)
And, too, a five-star work of real brilliance, John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies. This book has it all. Beautiful prose, breathtaking sentences, incisive emotional landscaping, laugh out loud wit and subtle satire, and such intricate, page-turning plotting. It really is quite fantastic. (Click HERE for my full review.)
Finally, for a sweet, fast, heartwarming read, I recommend How To Find Love In A Bookshop, by Veronica Henry. A daughter inherits her father’s labor of love bookshop and from near ruin comes many a happy ending for nearly every character. You’ll feel like you’re part of the village in which it takes place, and you’ll smile. That’s more than enough nowadays, don’t you think? (Click HERE for my full review.)
So then, 400 words later, here I am, going on to the book I finished just last night.
Unforgivable Love; A Retelling of Dangerous Liaisons, Sophfronia Scott, Paperback, 528pp, September 2017, William Morrow Paperbacks
First, only fair to admit, I love unto the point of obsession all iterations of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, although I’ve not read the 1782 French original (and if you have, well, touch you) and lean rather more toward the 1999 re-telling,Cruel Intentions, featuring Ryan Phillippe’s ass and his uncovering of the gay-sex between the characters played by Eric Mabius and Joshua Jackson.
Thus, when I read about this novel in People Magazine, its premise of Dangerous Liaisons re-told in 1940’s Harlem appealed to me, promising to be something I’d eagerly devour. Of course, I’ve been fooled before. Like a junkie, I read the book pages in any magazine I can get my hands on, and while I’m not a fan of People — and that sentence is another blog entirely — my sister subscribes and I tear out the book page and read all the quick-synopses, frequently suckered in by a good press-representative spin. All too often I then find myself starting one of these books and saying, WHAT THE HELL WERE THEY TALKING ABOUT/WHO PAID THEM OFF – THIS IS AWFUL!
Luckily, with Unforgivable Love, that was not the case.
Sophfronia Scott’s writing vividly brings to life a period, a Zeitgeist, a social milieu, and emotional landscapes with attention to detail in scene painting and the interiority of characters’ thoughts, all contributing to a portrait of a historical time, place, and people whose lives and behaviors resonate in the now.
The story is told in close-third, from the point-of-view of four main voices, Mae Malveaux, Val “Valiant” Jackson, Elizabeth Townsend, and Cecily Vaughn.
Mae Malveaux is the reincarnation in this tale of the original’s Marquise de Merteuil, a character who can easily come off as irredeemably loathsome and cruel. In this retelling, she is given a backstory which means to explain her cold as ice manipulations and calculated ruination of others, but, in the end, the author allows the character to remain unlikable, her malevolence grounded in her psychoses but never excused; the reader feels some empathy for her but not sympathy, which is as it should be. As one character says, “I don’t know what good can come of anything that woman does….Still,….she is family and so I pray for her.” What is refreshing in Sophronia Scott’s version is that Mae is not demonized for her embrace of her sexuality. Her easy carnality is not portrayed as a character flaw, as is so often the case when writing about women (or, people, but, mostly, women) and it is not that which leads to her ultimate downfall.
Val is the tale’s iteration of the original’s Vicomte de Valmont, and here he is far more sympathetic from the beginning than he is in other tellings of the tale. Despite his being an inveterate and unapologetic hound with a sketchy past and income from illegal sources, who uses and tosses aside women like chattel, he is early on imbued with a conscience and questioning of what it is he has done, is doing, and what it does to others. Though he plays at faith as a tool of seduction, it reaches him, touches him, and manages to change him by opening his mind to ways of thinking he’d not previously explored. More than any other character, Val arcs and grows.
There is a great deal of faith in the story, the church and its ministers play a role in the story, especially in the denouement, but there is nothing preachy or pontifical, rather, Christian faith and community are central to the lives of some of the characters.
The most faith-driven of the main characters is Elizabeth Townsend, who might have been a minister had her world been different and had she not been raised to cede control of her life to first her father, then her husband, Kyle, a civil rights lawyer who is largely absent from her life and the narrative as he is off fighting fights in the deep South. Val is challenged by Mae to seduce and corrupt the faithful and pious Elizabeth, she who has not ever fully explored nor embraced her own truth, her true desires — desires on all levels, ambition, emotion, and sexual. It is in pursuit of a victory in overcoming Elizabeth’s reluctance to live and feel that both Val and Elizabeth are permanently shaken, altered, brought to awarenesses that have the power to destroy them.
Mae also sics Val on her young relative, Cecily, whose sexuality and self-awareness are nascent but bubbling to the surface, craving release. Val aims to corrupt her, part of Mae’s plot of revenge against a past lover who considers Mae unfit to wed, and has managed to get the virginal Cecily pledged to him, enraging Mae.
With so many seductions and so much scheming, this could easily veer into cheesy-soap-opera territory, but it never does. The sex scenes are sensual, lusty without being vulgar (though I have NO trouble with vulgar, licentious sex scenes) and at 506 pages, this is a longish read but it moves quickly in relatively short chapters and, despite my familiarity with the framework of the plot, there was a great deal of tension and suspense as I read, waiting to see how the characters would end up and by what method.
So, there you have it; four weeks and thirteen books later, I am back to blogging, and for that I am grateful to my Twitter friend and accomplished author and blogger, Glenda Burgess, as well as Twitter pal and accomplished author (I know a lot of accomplished authors on Twitter), Paula Garner, who both managed on one of my low-down-lonely-blues Saturday nights to raise me up and out of my funk with their lovely and kind praise of my writing about books, words which made me miss doing this blogging thing, words that made me think maybe I had something worthwhile to add to the discussion. So, thank-you Glenda and Paula.
And now, here I am going.