Reading: The Captives by Debra Jo Immergut

I’ve fallen behind. In everything. And although I have finished reading nine books since my last Reading post on April 23 (and tossed aside three more after having reached between page 50 and 100), I’m choosing to focus on only one because I want to use what little influence I have to encourage its wider readership and I worry it will be lost in the glut of novels promoted as summer/beach reads, misrepresented by comparisons with all those novels with Girl or Train or Window in their titles, which would be both reductive and mistaken, but all too often it is the easy-out sort of comparison that gets published and called a review.

I don’t review. I appreciate. (Which is another reason I’m not writing about a lot of the eight other books I read since my April 23rd post.) So, I give you:

The Captives, Debra Jo Immergut, Hardcover, 288pp, June 2018, Ecco

Frank Lundquist is a psychologist whose loss of emotional control with a young patient cost him his private practice, reducing him to a basement-office position as inmate psychologist in a New York State women’s prison.

Into his office walks the girl-of-his-high school-dreams, Miranda Green, whose lack of emotional judgment cost her the freedom and privileged life into which she’d been born, reducing her to the state-issued yellow uniform and inmate number she wears.

In chapters with alternating points of view — Frank’s narrative in first-person, Miranda’s in close-third — the compelling trajectory of their re-union and re-acquaintance is teased, piecemeal, interwoven with a tessellation of details from their histories — together and separately — creating a psychological thriller in which each detail matters, the pieces adding up to a carefully wrought, unexpected whole.

Both Frank and Miranda are in the grip of obsessions, in thrall to their pasts, most especially regrets about who they might have been and wishes about opportunities missed, and the yearning to, somehow, undo what was done — or, to do now what was not done then. Debra Jo Immergut masterfully observes the ways in which people operate from different levels and layers of identity in pursuit of their life-goals, in pursuit of love, in pursuit of escape, in pursuit of revision — the grown up version of the child’s game-losing plea, “Pretend that didn’t happen!” This is an exploration of the lengths to which one will go when the other players in that life as playground-scenario taunt with, “No takebacks!”

And make no mistake, while this is a fast-moving, stay-up-all-night read about crime, punishment, escape, and Mr. Ripley-esque otherness, those are maguffins — fascinating and captivating maguffins, but, maguffins nevertheless, tools with which Debra Jo Immergut explores the nature of human behavior, the journey to and from self, and the shapes desire takes, and the limits and lines people cross when desperate to extricate themselves from their past, their present, the reality they’ve made. This is about what someone will do when faced with the dichotomy of “pretend that didn’t happen” versus “no takebacks!”

Along the way there is wonderful, well-shaped prose, including my very favorite line, one I wish I’d written: “The last thing she wanted to do was kill herself only to wake up alive.” That’s a great line and it works on all sorts of levels in this narrative.

Both Frank and Miranda have nearly dead past selves; Frank’s with an ex-wife and a once promising career, Miranda with a dangerous ex-lover and a father who was once a successful politician but has become an operator in the shadows of not quite legal lobbying, and a sister who died in a car sort-of accident, and … well, I don’t want to give away too many pieces of the story, the fabric of which you will enjoy discovering as you read.

Suffice to say that when Frank and Miranda meet, later in life, both in failure mode, Frank instantly recognizes his high school dream girl, while Miranda seems not to know who Frank is, rather, she merely sees him as a means to an end, a stranger, until she realizes who he is — or, did she actually know all the time? It’s all part of the mystery: What is discovered and known when? By whom? Who uses whom? Who crosses more lines and is the most double-crossing and back-pedaling? And when and how are the truths and untruths recognized, who on the canvas of characters — the other inmates who Miranda befriends or makes enemies of, Frank’s renowned psychiatrist father, and his drug addicted brother and his dealer — are complicit in what unfolds?

Frank asks at the beginning of the narrative who knows what they would do in circumstances such as he finds himself in, a question that also applies to Miranda, and it is that question which drives the novel. These two main characters begin the story with each of them trying to let go of the dead-self they once were, but in the course of their journey, each wonders if the other might not be able to revive that lost part of them. Is it possible to erase the past in the present? Or, are we forever trapped in who we are, who we’ve been, and the choices we’ve made?

This is a tale about the different ways in which a person can be held captive outside of prison bars, caged by circumstance and emotions, history and desire. Debra Jo Immergut does the question justice and It keeps the reader guessing and riveted in this kickass debut novel.

 

 

Reading: April Books, Or, at least the first four

The real constant in my life since I was quite young has been my love of and retreat into reading. Books have always been my go-to; they are the source from which I learned about the world, determined who and what I wanted to be, they informed my consciousness, became the language in which I was most fluent, and literature remains that which I have in common with those people I love, trust, and enjoy the most.

Now, having officially reached my late fifties (please do not inform my Grindr friends of this), in all likelihood more than half of my life is gone, nothing about which bothers me even a little except I will eventually run out of time to read. Too, both my dear aunt and my amazing mom were attacked by macular degeneration and so had their reading curtailed; these two things, the running out of time and possible loss of vision, have made me very picky about what I will read.

I determine what’s next on the list, from the pile, from the library, from The Curious Iguana [my much loved indie bookstore – CLICK HERE], by reading blogs and book-columns/reviews, speaking to trusted friends, the Twitterati, and browsing in bookstores and on-line. The first book this month was one I’d never have heard of were it not for the brilliant and delightful Bethanne Patrick, who you might know as The Book Maven [click HERE], creator of #FridayReads. She suggested it to me and this just proves what great taste she has in books and what fantastic taste I have in people. Here goes.

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Here In Berlin, Cristina Garcia, Hardcover, 224pp, October 2017, Counterpoint LLC

This novel is unlike any other I’ve ever read. It is unique of voice, or, rather, voices, because it is a mosaic of many monologues as recorded (heard? imagined?) by the narrator, the never named Visitor. She, a Cuban who hates her mother and learned the German language during an earlier stay, gives us a guided tour through the haunted city of Berlin, with its horrific past, its much storied inhabitants, many of whom carry dark secrets and sins, and the still-present ghosts of what horrors there were perpetrated and atrocities committed and ignored and suffered and still echoing.

This concatenation of detail doesn’t have a conventional plot, but its cumulative impact is of a whole, there is an emotional through-line one feels, or, rather, experiences. By the novel’s conclusion you couldn’t say, “First this happened, then that, resulting in this, and …,” nor describe the arc of a single main character; rather, there are thirty-plus stories of mostly unconnected people, but those stories together, taken as a whole, become one compelling and hefty history, the sum of its parts a surprising, brilliant cohesion of a particular city, time, way of life. Cristina Garcia does a breathtakingly subtle (oxymoronic, that, but exactly what I mean) job of synthesizing Berlin’s past and present, beauty and repugnance, and its pleasures and horrors into a discordant, atonal symphony which will leave you moved, horrified, astounded, and — as all very good books do — wiser for having thought thoughts you’d never have thought without reading the work.

And, too, reading it now is particularly chilling, near terrifying, as some of the stories concern those who watched as others were targeted, treated as sub-humans, murdered by the millions. Some of these characters did nothing, or collaborated, and as the world, now, becomes more and more dangerous, less and less kind, and minorities are increasingly targeted, again, denied equality, again, it is necessary to remember the lessons of history and stand up, speak out, fight back, RESIST.

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Next up, a book not recommended by anyone but myself. With my mother turning 90, and I, myself, nearing 60, the experience of aging — well, how others are coping with and experiencing aging — is of great interest to me. I read about this book somewhere (I can’t remember, which is part of MY experience of aging) and thought it might offer me some insight, maybe some comfort, certainly some stories with which I ought be able to identify.

Happiness Is A Choice You Make: Lessons From A Year Among the Oldest Old, John Leland, Hardcover, 256pp, January 2018, Sarah Chrichton Books

What started as a New York Times year-long series morphed into this book. John Leland, 57 and with an aging mother of his own with whom to deal — and I should mention I am 57 with a 90-year-old mother — learns through the course of a year spent visiting regularly with very different elderly individuals just how much the quality of one’s life experience has to do with the attitude with which one approaches it. He touches on the institutional problems of aging in this country, also the tendency of some in the medical field to dismiss and discount the elderly as those who will soon die anyway and so tend to take the stance of “let’s limit treatment” — which is infuriatingly true in all too many cases; and too, the author touches on the lack of resources, the problems with Medicare, the dissolve of family-care that once existed as the responsibility of caring for the elderly shifts to the state.

So, yes, it was an interesting enough read, but, for me, for reasons I don’t fully understand, it didn’t feel complete, deep enough, or quite on-point. And I will leave it at that.

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Next up, a book I added to my library-reserve list ages ago, pre-publication, when Buzzfeed touted it as one of 2018’s 33 Most Exciting Books.

Tangerine, Christine Mangan, Hardcover, 389pp, March 2018, Ecco

I confess, when I went to pick this book up from the library, I very nearly didn’t sign it out because it was blurbed by someone I cannot tolerate thanks to their self-satisfied, professorial blatherings, and more importantly, their recent stance of privileged-racist dismissal of legitimate concerns about offensive-minority stereotyping in writing. But, 2018 is the year I am trying to be a bigger person (while dieting to become a smaller person) and so, well, I didn’t want to hold the author responsible for the blurbs used by the publisher, thus, I signed it out and decided I’d give it a fair shot and wow, I’m so glad. I gobbled this page-turner like salted caramel chocolates. (That diet thing is getting me a little crazy.)

It does rather closely hew to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mister Ripley, which fact has been used both to praise and pillory this debut novel, and I did jot a note to myself as I was reading it: Yes, very familiar, but also very well done, and isn’t all good noir a re-working and take on all the noir that’s gone before?

So, I give it a 4 star. And I look forward to Christine Mangan’s next novel, which I imagine will display her gifts to even better effect now that she’s gotten out of her system what feels somewhat like an exercise in “write a piece in the style of your favorite author”. Still, like I said, very readable, entertaining, and worth 4 stars.

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The Female Persuasion, Meg Wolitzer, Hardcover, 456pp, April 2018, Riverhead Books

I liked this book very much; in some ways it reminded me of Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, although far less angry and contrived, and much better written. I’m confused as to why Meg Wolitzer isn’t categorized with Eugenides and Chabon and those other heralded male literary fiction writers — I suspect it is because she is of the female persuasion.

I’m an idiot — I had forgotten when I started this that Meg Wolitzer had written about this very thing in 2012 in the New York Times Book Review. CLICK HERE FOR A LINK FOR THAT BECAUSE I DON’T NEED TO SAY IT, AND CAN’T SAY IT THIS WELL.

So then, it’s still, sadly, perhaps even more true that men — particularly white, heterosexual cis-men — wield most of the power in the world and get most of the kudos and labeled as purveyors of literary fiction. Now, in particular, when the desperate last gaspings of racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and all the other bigoted phobias and isms have risen to elect a moron and his fascist cohorts to power, it is essential — life-saving, even — that voices like Meg Wolitzer’s are heard by everyone, not ghettoized by a culture & power-structure that devalues everyone and everything not white-hetero-cis-male.

In The Female Persuasion, the author explores fundamental, foundational issues of identity, friendship, the burden of truth and the morality of its fungibility, parenthood, childhood, aging, and being “other than” in a world where the standard is white-heterosexual-cis-male. Meg Wolitzer does this with her usual deftness of prose and very specific, “a-ha I have felt that very thing” moments in a plot framed around the interaction between the lives of a Gloria Steinem-like icon of modern-era feminism, Faith Frank, and the next generation Greer Kadetsky, awakened into second-wave feminism by being assaulted by a serial-abuser-frat-boy and then hearing Faith speak at her college. Their relationship is as complicated, loving, disappointing, enraging, and essential as the relationship between first wave and second-wave feminism — a process not unlike a child having to turn against her parents on the journey to becoming them.

However, this novel is not in the least polemical — if you’re one of those who worry about that — and one of its sub-plots deals with Greer’s teenage love, Cory, a white-heterosexual-cis-male who while well on his way to all the entitlement, privilege, and power that designation gives him, turns away from it, not entirely by choice, and lives a much simpler yet equally valuable life — which Greer doesn’t at first understand. Well, neither does Cory. Their relationship in all its permutations is beautifully, painfully captured.

As is the relationship between Faith and her son, Lincoln, from which sprang one of those very “a-ha” moments about which I earlier wrote. Listen to this, while Faith is called by her son at a time inconvenient for her and they both do the juggling of attention and time which has marked their life together:

She missed his young, vulnerable, ownable self. You never knew when you were lifting your child for the last time; it might seem like just a regular time, when it was taking place, but later, looking back, it would turn out to have been the last. Lincoln’s increasing lack of neediness was hard for Faith sometimes, but it was also something of a relief to think that he was all right on his own. In this way, they were actually alike.

“Now tell me what’s going on with you,” she said to him.

“Another time. Go have your massage, Mom.”

She watched the phone go dark, then held it in her hand for a few more seconds. It was the closest she could get, these days, to holding Lincoln himself.

 

Put aside the emotional truth of that experience, the letting go, the dichotomy of a bond both dissolved from the solid it once was yet still a permanent hold, and examine the brilliance of Meg Wolitzer’s language which mirrors the emotions not just of this scene, but, too, one of the themes of the novel: the dichotomy inherent in love and relationships and becoming/discovering the self. See it in her  “increasing lack of neediness” and how it is both “hard for Faith sometimes, but it was also something of a relief….” This is glorious authorship, the sort of thing you can miss consciously but which enters into your soul and heart as you read, that sort of transparent artistry that makes literary fiction.

Which Meg Wolitzer writes. Really damn well.

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I’m going to stop here, where I have gone, the first four books of the month. There are at least four more to come which is behind the pace for March, but, I’ve been rather distracted by turning a year older; something by which I am not usually bothered but which, this year, has sent me on a look-deep-inside and re-evaluate adventure of self, as in:

self-examination
self-involvement
self-ishness
self-loathing
self-on-the-shelf.

Pay no attention to the man behind these 2000 words, just listen to the Wizard MiracleCharlie, who will be back soon. But for now, here I am, going.

The Music That Makes Me … Assimilated?

Listen to and watch this, right now. Please. I’ll explain later, thousands of words later, lol, but later. Trust me.

Every morning I wake up with some song in my head, often the selection seems to me entirely unconnected to anything going on in my life, as if my brain/soul is some cosmic jukebox into which my sleeping self drops a quarter and pushes selection buttons at random. This morning it was Liza Minelli ringing them bells — (which selection makes even less sense since immediately before waking I was dreaming about Denyce Graves in Candide, but, I’m getting ahead of myself again … so, first this —):

I was eleven years old when Liza With A Z, a television special directed by Bob Freaking Fosse! aired. By then, I was already obsessed with Liza and Judy and Fosse and Broadway and would quite literally weep with an aching to be a Broadway star. I was, then, absolutely sure I would be the next Judy Liza Barbra etcetera.

Eleven. Formative years. Important note: the first LP I ever received was the soundtrack to The Wizard of Oz, and when I got my first drop-down record player, the four LPs I requested and received along with it were Judy at Carnegie Hall, Liza Minelli’s The Singer, Barbra Streisand’s Funny Girl the Original Broadway Cast recording, and her first LP, The Barbra Streisand Album.

And, so, now here, all these decades later, while I some days regret that I never had the strength or nerve to live out my Broadway dream, what strength and nerve I did have was given and grown in me — a lot — from those albums and the others like them, that music of my life during my formative years which gave me an escape from the small-town existence in which I was trapped, where boys like me had nothing to look forward to except being labeled a freak, beaten up, and laughed at and avoided and losing, losing, losing during all of our lives.

The soundtrack and original cast recording I curated (and the books I read) for my life during those years quite literally saved my life. In fact, when at 15 the noise of other people’s hatred of me had drowned out my music, and I tried to kill myself, when I survived, rather than counseling, my Mom (who was doing the very best she could, had called the family doctor about what to do, took me to him, and he said “buck up” — which she knew couldn’t be enough — but who else did she have to turn to?) asked me what I wanted — as in, a gift — and I asked for the LP and sheet music of Barbra Streisand’s A Star Is Born, which, sweetly, my Mom got me and said, “Please don’t do that again.”

How did I end up teaching young people? Talking to those who’d suicide attempted. Making a safe place for those who, like me, had life soundtracks at odds with the majority culture, who heard different songs, sang different tunes, didn’t fit in. I was asked, so often, by those kids and their parents, my advice about how to sing their different songs.

I am no longer in the advice business, but if I ever again happened to find myself being asked by someone young, “Charlie, what should I know about life?” I would skip the sharing of moral advice, save the warnings about labeling and assuming, resist offering the exhortations about forgiveness being a step too late since it involves having judged in the first place and — not to quote the bible (against which I would also not bother to preach, so to speak, letting go the illumination that it is now and has always been a novel of parables, by this time twisted and rewritten and bastardized and used by the patriarchy to gain power and control and shame the masses) but, “Judge not lest ye…” and so forth — although it does say something about the state of the world right now that many a so-called “christian” has tried to amend this edict by saying it is a favorite quote of the ungodly who misunderstand that it actually means you can only judge once you have removed the mote from your own eye, i.e. become holy like whatever preacher is taking it upon himself (and let’s face it, while hypocrisy has no gender, it is most often and most ably practiced by men, most especially men who call themselves deeply religious and godly) to tell you you’re a heathen.

But, where was I before I started this rant? Oh, right, claiming I would refrain from all that advice and, instead, give this warning:

BE CAREFUL WHAT MUSIC YOU LISTEN TO IN YOUR FORMATIVE YEARS, FOR IT WILL BE, FOREVER AFTER, THE SOUNDTRACK OF YOUR LIFE.

No shit. This morning I semi-woke at 5a.m. in a fever dream, the crux of which was I was trying to get my friends (who I couldn’t remember once I really woke, so I guess it was some of my pals from other planes of existence with whom I frolic while slumbering on this level of being) as super excited as was I to discover Denyce Graves was playing the Old Woman in Candide coming up at the Kennedy Center. (It actually is happening in May, which I was emailed by Kennedy Center because, apparently, they get me.) I was — in this dream — getting quite red-faced explaining how fantastic this was, spouting trivia about Irra Petina playing the role in the original with Barbara Cook as Cunegonde, and how it was also played in a later revival by Andrea Martin, but most recently and most fun for me, by Patti LuPone, and had they ever HEARD the song I Am Easily Assimilated, because while Barbara Cook’s concert version of Glitter and Be Gay from the show was what prompted my purchase of the Original Broadway Cast recording, and had long been my theme song, now I was the Old (Wo)man and Assimilated rather neatly sums up my life-theory. And Candide was full of brilliance because Leonard Bernstein and added lyrics by Dorothy Parker and later, Stephen Sondheim, and had they ever heard of John Latouche who introduced Paul and Jane Bowles to one another, and was friends with Ned Rorem, Frank O’Hara, Tennessee Williams — can you imagine — and wrote beautiful, beautiful songs some of which Barbra Streisand recorded, and I especially loved her version of his Lazy Afternoon —

And had they ever HEARD Denyce Graves sing because — well, here, in case YOU haven’t:

Isn’t that amazing? And imagine her doing this! (And enjoy Miss LuPone, I mean, WOW!)

More of the fantastic, right? Yes. And so, after I’d had some coffee, and written my first-thing-in-the-day-before-anything-else daily journal pages, I went to YouTube, as I often do, to watch whatever song was playing on my cosmic jukebox when I wakened. And while I’m there, and checking my daily sites, inevitably I am led to another song or story. This morning it was Noah Galvin singing a song from Dear Evan Hansen with Parkland Shooting survivors at From Broadway With Love: A Benefit Concert for Parkland, and I — being me and without walls around my heart — started sobbing.

Sobbing, as usual for me, has many levels. This, some of the reasons, the horror at where the world is now, in particular this country so full of hate, so divided, so controlled by people who — despite the constant assassinations of children (and others) continue to think guns should be easier to get than a driver’s license — and worse, that all these thousands of years in humanity’s evolution we still haven’t gotten over wanting to beat and kill and hate and war — and, on top of that weep, the daily disbelief about who is president and who is in power and while all that ugly contributed to my sobbing, too, the joy that Noah Galvin and so many others can now — unlike when I was in my formative years — be openly gay. Plus, the youth of this country standing up and saying “NO” to the bullshit politicians and bigots. And, especially, the beautiful lyrics and message of the song, “YOU WILL BE FOUND.”

And, “YOU ARE NOT ALONE.” Because, sometimes, I confess, still, I feel terribly alone. As in, who is full of John La Touche and Candide and all the other arcane, obscure music of my life crowding my consciousness so much that there is little room for anything new. I mean, it gets lonely here in my head/soul, even with the jukebox playing that esoteric score of my life, which seems, now, mostly to be about the past.

On top of all of which, hearing this song, this new Broadway song sung by an openly gay actor, I was taken back to that my first stereo feeling, and thinking how, were I in formative years now, listening to this would be phenomenal, beautiful, a path to curating a soundtrack to get me through the difficult days, to let me know I belong, to help me through what felt like (and still, some days, FEELS LIKE) all the losing, losing, losing hearing a different sort of song brings you (me, anyway) and so, I decided to make donuts. Because, along with telling the formative years child asking for advice to carefully curate their music, because they will wake up in their 50s with the songs they listen to today playing, and playing, and playing, I would also say:

LEARN TO COOK, BECAUSE FEW THINGS ARE MORE PLEASING THAN BEING ABLE TO TRANSLATE THE LOVE YOU HAVE IN YOUR HEART FOR YOUR DEAR ONES INTO THE SHAPE OF A DONUT (or a meal, or…)

And there it is. My morning (and life) so far. Which started with music; Denyce Graves in a dream and Liza ringing bells and continued with me writing this, really quickly, in between the donut making. And titling it after one of the songs from the Broadway Funny Girl which was cut from the movie because they were — unlike the Broadway production — able to get the rights to My Man, which I loved, but, well, I was trained early to be a Broadway snob and so I think this much superior — and so then, in conclusion and goodbye-ing you for now, this: Barbra Streisand from the Original Broadway Funny Girl with The Music That Makes Me Dance. NOTE: This version is a scratchy live recording of her final performance on Broadway and I chose it because its in the moment aliveness is unequalled by the official album version.

So, dear ones, here’s wishing you a life-score of unparalleled joy and light and love and soaring ballads. And donuts And not so much losing, losing, losing.

And here I am, going. And hoping, really, that I will be found.

 

Reading: March Review; 11 Books, 1 Five Star, And DIDION!

I love Joan Didion, this is a long-established fact about which I have endlessly droned, and I intend to continue that here, but I’ll save it for the end. First, this …

Somehow, since last I blogged, an entire month has passed in which eleven books have been read, one of which I loved, two of which I thought artfully done and compelling reads, and eight of which I found from no better than they ought to be to meh, not so much. And so, since I am working on a writing project with a partner who is waiting for scene drafts, I am going to spend my lit-ergy here on only those reads which gave me real pleasure, beginning with the one Five Star read of the month, a treasure from the early 20th century by Beverley Nichols, a writer brought to my attention by a dear, dear Twitter friend, sobriquet of Vickie Lester, who was kind enough to find and send me a gorgeous, sweet-smelling 1932 edition!

Down The Garden Path, Beverley Nichols, Hardcover, 303pp, 1932, Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc

Called one of the most amusing gardening writers of all time, oft compared to Noel Coward, arch of style, imperious of manner, and dead-funny with a rapier wit able to capture the foibles and faults of others with an eviscerating bon mot, Nichols is exactly my cup of tea — I take my Earl Grey black, over-steeped, with two dashes of cayenne — strong and with a kick.

This is one of those books you ration, so taken by its prose, tone, and style, you want to inhale it all in one sitting but knowing the deliciousness is finite, you force yourself to stop after one short chapter (or two, or three), savoring and saving, so it lasts as long as possible. His prose is delightfully of its time, so much smarter (I think) and cleverer than we are today, and wittier. He is also marvelously acid at times, but in a backhanded, subtle sort of way. So much in this to make you smile and wish you’d said it, or, better, had known him while he was saying it. Listen:

The flowers last for a fortnight if you cut them in the bud. And they send out such a perpetual stream of fragrance that you will long to rush about the house waving scarves and doing spring songs, protruding your lips and breathing with suspicious violence.

And:

Are you bored? Indeed, I hope not. For the flower’s sake, not for my own. At the risk of out-winnying the pooh, it must be admitted that I always think flowers know what you are saying about them.

Now though, I hasten to caution you, pulling sentences from the whole is a fool’s game (which is, of course, why I am playing it) when writing is what it ought to be, which is, of course, a whole, lucid and complete, made up of myriad thoughts and words and silences skillfully composed into this thing called a book. To pull one sentence or paragraph is like isolating one brush stroke from a masterpiece by Caravaggio and expecting someone to be able to get the impression of the whole glorious painting. It simply won’t do. So, you must read this book.

Then, of course, you will be in the same sad boat I’m in, starving for more. Luckily, this is the first of a trilogy, in addition to which Mr. Nichols wrote many other gardening/house restoration books, some mysteries, and various and sundry other literature, all of which one must find in used editions, many of which are awfully pricey. Still, I’ve bookmarked them from various sellers, planning to accumulate one by one, like some people collect Blue Royal Delft pieces at what would seem to others ridiculous cost. And you there, don’t think about beating me to it — damn, I ought not have told you how marvelous is this book. I take it back, you must NEVER read a book by Beverley Nichols for it will do nothing for you but make you a sad, wanting thing like I am, eager to scrape together the next couple of tens and send off for another volume of his genius, and harken back to a better (no, it probably wasn’t better but right now any OTHER seems better than today) time in history.

P.S. I love you Vickie Lester. Great thanks for sending me this and bringing Beverley Nichols to my attention.

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The next two books about which I’m going to talk hardly require my two cents being tossed into the discussion, both have been widely advertised, publicized, praised, and are selling like crazy, one thanks to Oprah choosing it for her book club, and the other thanks to the author’s well-deserved reputation and back-catalogue of really good writing. Let’s start with the Oprah choice, first of the two four-star reads.

An American Marriage, Tayari Jones, Hardcover, 320pp, February 2018, Algonquin Books

With 19,000 ratings and 2600 reviews on Goodreads, as well as 750 reviews on Amazon, 88% of which were four or five-star approvals, not to mention a five-star recommendation from my local-indie bookseller, Marlene at The Curious Iguana [click here for Marlene’s Iguana!], anything I say would be redundant. But, that never stops me.

This is a beautifully written allegory for what it is like to be “other” in America when “other” is defined as anything or anyone not cis-heterosexual-white-moneyed-male. But far from being polemical, the tale is wrapped in a frighteningly insightful narrative which will be recognizable to anyone who has ever loved and lived, helplessly, the tragedy of personal relationships going awry, love fading or morphing into something unsustainable, uncomfortable, unhealthy, unrewarding, and causing one to suffer the guilt and anger and regret of feeling failed, less than, wrong, unwanted, unaccepted, rejected, “un” in general until one’s foundational idea of self is shaken, beliefs brought into question, and one’s world torn asunder.

Roy and Celestial, upwardly mobile African-Americans have been married 18 months when Roy is mistakenly but insistently identified by a white woman as her rapist, arrested, convicted on scant evidence, and sent to prison, in essence, for the crime of being Black in America. At first, Celestial waits for him, but eventually, as his prison sentence stretches to a period longer than the amount of time they spent married, reality takes on a new shape for both of them, rearranging the content of their souls and hearts, as well as the size and parameters of their dreams, and creating the sort of distance that grows between two people who spend more time imagining one another than being with one another, a an empty space that fills with questions, stories, wishes, regrets, and the stuff and people close at hand.

An American Marriage is a story about surviving that journey, about people who are flawed, full of doubt and certainty in equal measure, each of which can instantly become the other with a glance, a word, a breath, in a moment; and perhaps it is that Tayari Jones has done so brilliantly, to capture the inevitability of feeling both right and wrong at once, caught in the conundrum of should and want, must and can’t, and having to decide where on those spectrums to land, the fact that being human is to be faced with impossible choices which must be made, the consequences of which must be dealt with.

Caveat; while this book truthfully describes the bleak reality of American life today, it is not without hope. There is resolution, not happily ever after, but not despairing either.

And now, the second four-star read:

Sunburn, Laura Lippman, Hardcover, 290pp, February 2018, William Morrow

This is my fourth Laura Lippman read and she is, indeed, as everyone says, a master of the suspense/detective novel.

Beach town. Polly, escaping a life she no longer wants, Adam, a detective on a mission, meet, mesh, and conduct a Body Heat/The Postman Always Rings Twice sort of love-sex-affair. Neither is completely who they have told the other they are. Neither completely trusts the other. Neither can deny the passion and connection they have. Twists, turns, pieces of the past and the truth are slowly revealed, compellingly teased, and there are surprises and betrayals and necessary lies and questionable acts and everything you’d want in a 1940’s noir film starring Barbara Stanwyck, and all of it made believable.

This is a great read, very fast, beautifully structured, with artful, accomplished writing by an author at the peak of her powers. You’ll want to one-day/night it, so don’t start until you have a swath of time in which to go from front to back without interruptions like work, family, sleep.

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And now, Joan Didion.

I recently — at long last — joined the 21st century and got a subscription to Netflix. Wondrous, that. But I think the very most wonderful thing about it — although Grace and Frankie runs a close second (I am still bitter Lily Tomlin did not win the Oscar for her performance in Nashville) — is the documentary about Joan Didion made by her nephew, Griffin Dunne, called The Center Will Not Hold.

A sort of life story, a sort of tour of her work, a fantastic opportunity to listen to and watch Joan Didion speak and think. The way in which she gesticulates with her arms, these wide, swooping gestures seeming to be reaching into the ether to grab her thought and articulate it, and, too, to push away, ward off all the other-ness, effluvia, and detritus out there from which she wishes to be insulated, through which she cuts to expose the truth, brings to mind something not quite human, a seemingly delicate bird, but behind the fragility is a predator able to — if necessary — swoop in for the kill.

Watch it. You won’t be sorry. I’ve already done so three times, and will, no doubt so so again, just as I repeatedly re-read Play It As It Lays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and The White Album.

And, it has been brought to my attention there are Joan Didion tote bags. And T-shirts. Now, not only will I be saving up for additional Beverley Nichols books, but, of course and desperately, for Joan Didion swag.

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Now, speaking of other; about those eight other books I read, some of them were just fine but not fine enough that I feel like writing about them, and a few were just dreadful, and as a general rule, I don’t speak ill of writers because their lives are difficult and thankless enough that my not caring for their book doesn’t make it bad, it just makes it not to my taste, and so, why talk about that when there are so many books I do want to share with you?

Okay then, off to continue April’s reading — I’ve already finished one MARVELOUS book, Here In Berlin by Cristina Garcia which was recommended to me by the brilliant writer and book journalist, Bethanne Patrick, otherwise known as The Book Maven [click HERE to follow her on Twitter, and you MUST!] about which I’ll write soon, or, in April’s recap — who knows?

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.

Reading: When People of the Light, Write

The Geography of Love: A Memoir, Glenda Burgess, Hardcover, 320pp, August 2008, Crown Archetype

I am a literary groupie. I follow on Twitter many writers, editors, agents, public relations reps, bookstore owners and clerks, librarians, book critics, columnists, fictional characters, and others, like me, who are lovers of all things to do with books.  Admittedly, I am also a wanna-be writer myself, as well as — to some degree or another, depending on the day and my mood — a fictional character.

In the past few years as I have developed this list of literary folk with whom I interact, I have become extremely fond of some of them, and, as is natural, with some there has been that click of mutual admiration, a deeper than social media connection, and we communicate regularly, are what could be called friends, even though we’ve never met in real life.

So, in the interest of honesty, I tell you up front that I count Glenda Burgess among those I consider to be a friend. Too, I’ve followed some of these literary folk after reading their books, while, in other cases, as with Glenda, I have followed them because many people I know follow them, or they’ve followed me, and I read their work after having come to know them through Twitter.

Glenda, on Twitter, is a force of Light and Love, an encouraging, listening, open soul who doesn’t (like I do) rant or rave or complain, but, rather, she finds what is good in the world, holds onto it, points it out, and lives, as she says, “steady on, no wobbles” which posted each evening as she says goodnight to the Twitterati is a comforting touchstone in this uncertain world.

Reading The Geography of Love one both marvels at and comes to understand just how admirable and awe-inspiring it is that Glenda developed the spine and strength to steady on, faithful that no matter the ordeal, ache, angst, challenge, and loss one is facing, there will be a tomorrow and it will have unimagined treasures and rewards of its own if one just manages to, well, steady on.

I’ve been told my reviews don’t offer enough synopsis of nor quotes enough from the work about which I’m speaking. I get that. But, for me, a review doesn’t need to tell me the things I can get by pulling the book up on GoodReads or the publisher’s site or any book-selling site; what I want from a review is to know the effect the book had on the reader, whether or not and what it made them feel.

The Geography of Love made me feel sorrow, joy, admiration, hope, and honored. Sorrow because Glenda had a dysfunctional family, in particular a difficult mother who withheld approval and affection. Too, Glenda found at last one of those once in a lifetime, forever loves, and had to suffer through his long and agonizing illness and death, remaining strong and keeping on for the children they shared, and, too, for his difficult to deal with daughter from another union. Joy because Glenda found such a powerful love, and she resolved for herself her feelings and issues with her family, her husband’s family and past, and managed not only to survive, but to thrive, and heal enough to share this inspiring memoir, so personal and honest as to approximate reading someone’s journal — only with much more artful prose and structure. Admiration because, well, damn, Glenda survived the life where she was dealt plenty of gobsmacking blows that might well have sunk others, and, instead, she’s become a beacon of love and light in the lives of many, and for the world in general. Hope because I, too, have reached a certain age without ever having had a lifetime, forever love, and Glenda’s story made me think if I keep my heart and mind open, there might be time for me yet — so, how fitting I finished reading this book on Valentine’s Day. And, finally, honored because this remarkable woman has chosen to interact with me, to accept and share her heart with me on Twitter.

This is a deeply emotional story, in which love is sometimes dangerous, always fierce and life-altering, and there are no easy answers; Glenda faced things head-on, as honestly and lovingly as she could, and she shares her triumphs and her mistakes, in essence, she communicates her humanity and her beautiful soul. You may well weep when reading it, but the weeping and working through the sorrow of Glenda’s story to reach the victory of her survival, and the triumph of her later thriving, is worth the tears.

And, in times such as these in which we are living, how inspiring to be reminded and shown that adversity and seemingly infinite hard times and circumstances are only ever temporary in the face of a spirit made of Love and Light, both of which in forms corporeal and ethereal, always survive, always triumph.

Read it. And follow Glenda on Twitter [CLICK HERE]. And, as she says: Steady on, no wobbles.

And, as I say: Here I am, going.

Reading: 2 Debut and 1 New to me Novelists

In this post I talk about two debuts: Thomas Pierce’s The Afterlives, and Mira T. Lee’s Everything Here Is Beautiful, and one new-to-me novelist: Joan Silber’s Improvement, which is the 3rd of the 5 finalists in the fiction category for the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Awards (click HERE), the winner of which will be announced March 15, 2018 — which will maybe give me time to read the two remaining fiction nominees.

The Afterlives, Thomas Pierce, Hardcover, 384pp, January 2018, Riverhead Books

Jim Byrd, 33, died — technically — having collapsed in a parking garage from a heart attack. Once revived, he is disappointed to have seen nothing while deceased; no tunnel with its bright light calling him, or deceased relatives to guide him, or any hint of any afterlife at all.

Which leaves him with just life. Real life. And a device called HeartNet embedded in his chest which sends to his phone warnings and notice when his heartbeat is off, and when his rhythms have been corrected by the HeartNet.

He returns to the daily-ness of life in which he is a bank officer who okays a loan for a restaurant which might just have inside it a haunted staircase. This possible supernatural rift in reality, like his lack of after-death experiences, possesses Jim with a need to see and know more, to be able to parse the cosmic mystery of ways of being. And not. To turn might and might not into is or is not. It is telling — and perhaps a little too twee — that Jim becomes involved with The Church of Search.

Jim and his wife, Annie, eventually hunt down a researcher, Sally Zinker, who they first encounter giving a homily at The Church of Search as a hologram — by which the world in this novel is increasingly and often undetectably populated — and who claims to have invented something called The Reunion Machine, a near-magical contraption allowing communion with the dead and direct experience with the plasticity of time.

As we experience Jim’s story, we are doing our own time-traveling-communion with the dead, being given bits and pieces of the lives of those who died decades ago who may or may not be the specters haunting the staircase.

Jim sometimes doubts whether he survived the cardiac event, wondering if he is hallucinating his life experiences, how real are they? How real is he? What, in fact, is real? And more, what does it matter what is or is not real outside of one’s own mind?

This is a novel which explores existential doubt and the perplexing, confounding mystery of being alive without becoming heavy-handed or dime-store philosophical. It moves quickly, the writing is lovely, competent and often funny, and even more often insightful without pounding home points; it’s subtle and wise in the ways it asks questions without then pronouncing facile answers.

I liked it but I didn’t love it, by which I am confused, because it seems I should have. Here’s the thing, I did not love the characters, any of them, and Jim, in particular, in his confusion and self-interest, is a little off-putting — which is on me, because I think I over-identified with his confusion and self-interest and it made me uncomfortable to have to think, “Oh, is my navel gazing this annoying?” Too, I finished this book on February 6, and by the time I started writing this, five days later, I had to pick up the book and re-read parts to remember what it was about. So, bottom line, I liked it, but it didn’t etch itself into me in the way four-star books do. Which is fine. And about me, not it.

Everything Here Is Beautiful, Mira T. Lee, Hardcover, 368pp, January 2018, Pamela Dorman Books

The second debut novel in a row I have read and this one moved and shook and gutted me with its subject matter, rendered in Mira T. Lee’s skillful and devastatingly incisive artistry.

I hesitated to read this novel because it was about a close bond between siblings, one of whom suffers mental illness, and its blurbs contained words like elegiac and disturbing and unflinching, which, to me, means that if the writing is decent I am going to be made distressed and weepy by the story.

Well, the writing was considerably more than decent, it was, in fact, near stunning in both its ability to convey emotional heft and its technical prowess. Switching points of view and from first to close third, the narrative and changes in perspective could easily have been bothersome, distracting, or confusing, but, in this case, each new voice was clear, unique, and felt completely necessary to the telling of that part of the tale at that particular moment. I kept thinking of the story about how Michelangelo’s David was carved from one block of marble that had been twice rejected by other sculptors as too difficult, not rich enough to use; the complex plotting and large-small canvass of well-developed, interconnected characters in Everything Here Is Beautiful feel as if they were waiting for the perfect author to sculpt them from the huge block of possibility they are, into something beautiful and timeless and so very moving.

Trigger (and SPOILER) warning, if you’ve loved someone with mental illness, suffered it yourself, or survived a suicide attempt or the suicide of a loved one, you might want to carefully consider whether you want to read this novel. And be sure to be in a good and strong place before you do. There is a relentless underpinning of sadness, that feeling of hopeless fear one suffers when you have a loved one with mental illness, that never-ending uncertainty, fear of the telephone buzzing, is this the time?

Miranda, older sister, has repeatedly and thanklessly come to the rescue of her brilliant but troubled younger sister, Lucia whose first husband, the one-armed Israeli, Yonah, is left for an Ecuadorian undocumented immigrant, Manuel, with whom Lucia and the child they share, Esperanza, return to Ecuador while Miranda makes a life of her own in Switzerland. Along the way we hear from Miranda, Manuel, the medical staff where Lucia is committed, Lucia herself, Yonah, and the town of Meyer, Minnesota where Lucia goes to care for an ailing Yonah.

Throughout the novel Lucia is tormented by serpents who goad her to behave badly, self-destructively, and toward the end of the book, Miranda in reference to something Lucia has done says:

But the shock, the grief, the stress of it all.

The serpents did it — yes, this is easy to say. But I like to think she simply went out looking for something beautiful.

Three sentences, thirty-three words, managing to capture the coincident horror and hope experienced by someone who loves another with a mental illness; in particular the reductive effect of the simply — with which Miranda doesn’t necessarily erase the shock, grief, and stress, but, rather, as one does when coping with a loved one with mental illness, frames and shapes it in a way as to make it manageable, to ameliorate the guilt and pain, to re-write the mindset and life of that other person for whom one felt responsible into something less painful, to imagine them into something like joy, or, at least, imagine them driven by something other than the pain of their mental illness.

That’s a masterful use of language in a deceptively simple 33 words. And this novel is a masterful construct of fiction in a beautifully complicated 368 pages.

Improvement, Joan Silber, Hardcover, 256pp, November 2017, Counterpoint

I picked this novel up because it is one of the five finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. In doing background reading, I’ve come to understand Joan Silber has quite the cult following among lit-fic types, and I wonder how it is I’m only now discovering her work. Just goes to show, there are great writers out there undiscovered by many readers, even devoted readers who love and live in the world of fiction, as do I.

This is a novel constructed from interconnected short stories in which characters from earlier stories become the focus of the next part of the tale, all of which coalesces into a whole universe in which the people are affected and changed by the decisions and actions of those earlier characters who they may not even know.

The story begins with Reyna, a single mother whose lover, Boyd, is spending a few months at Rikers Island for drug possession that ought not even be a crime. Once released he involves Reyna in an illegal money-making scheme, and her last-minute, split-second decision about what she will and won’t do sets off a chain of events that reverberate and echo through the rest of the stories in the novel. But it isn’t just the future explored, also Joan Silber artfully weaves a tale of Reyna’s aunt, Kiki, and her past in Turkey, to which she fled in her youth, returning years later to America having left behind a husband but bringing along valuable rugs she later sells some of, and one of which has been in Reyna’s apartment, and which, eventually, she too decides to sell in order to perhaps right the wrongs she feels she caused with her decision about Boyd’s scam.

Throughout the short 256 pages of this deceptively easy read, Joan Silber writes with a precision of language and imagery, the effortlessness of which camouflages the layer after layer after layer of connections and motifs about love, motherhood, making amends, family, and the tapestry of life. Reyna wonders when readying to sell the rug given her by Kiki about its provenance, and how little she knows about threads per inch and its age, that rug with which she’d been living was a mystery to her, she was unaware of its worth, not unlike the life she has lived unaware of all the secrets of the warp and weft of the life she has woven.

Improvement by Joan Silber is no less intricate a creation, beautifully made by means of an artistry practiced at this level by very few authors. I recommend it highly.

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In conclusion, this digression; of the five finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Awards I have read Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour [click HERE for what I thought], and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing [click HERE for what I thought], and now Improvement. This leaves Moshin Hamid’s Exit West, and Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I went to my library account on-line to reserve the latter two and there were multiple copies of both available. I thought I’d check the other three nominees; EVERY SINGLE ONE except Sing,Unburied, Sing, had multiple copies available. WHY? They ought all be signed out and have lines of people waiting for them. There are lots of things about this country now that make me sad, angry, bereft, depressed, weepy, enraged, but few things are more disturbing than what I consider to be the root of all the evil and ignorance going on — a lack of intellectual curiosity and development in the population, and a continuing disregard and contempt for educators and education.

We are, in general, determinedly dumb and lazy of thought. There are few things that could not be solved by the simple act of everyone reading a book a week. Or, even, every two weeks. Or, one a month? No wonder people know so little — where would they get their information or learn how to process and interpret life? So irritating.

But, it is what it is, and my goal in these, my declining years, is to spread more Love and Light, and quit with the whining about the darkness, but rather, to eradicate it as much as I can with an open and giving heart, and sharing that with whoever is interested, adding to the illumination.

So dear ones, thank you for brightening my days and life, and for now, here I am, going.

Reading: Mysteries: Veronica Speedwell returns, and the Mitford Sisters debut

Deanna Raybourn and Jessica Fellowes have me talking briefly about their new mysteries set in the past, escapism of the most delightful variety because the NOW is a little too much, so, take me back!

A Treacherous Curse (Veronica Speedwell #3), Deanna Raybourn, Hardcover, 352pp, January 2018, Berkley

In this, the third installment of the Veronica Speedwell series, we get more backstory on her partner in detecting, Revelstoke-Templeton Vane, aka Stoker, as the two investigate the disappearance of a man from Stoker’s difficult and storied past who did him a great wrong.

I am a huge fan of Veronica; she is one of my must-reads along with Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope, M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin, and Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of Three Pines. It is a comfort and a pleasure to have a new adventure with an old friend, especially when you know you can count on reliably amusing and skilled work from a talented author.

Deanna Raybourn imbues Veronica Speedwell with a wit, intelligence, spine, and lust for life that is refreshing and encouraging. I want to be her. In this episode she tangles with Egyptian artifacts, ancient curses, current secrets and scandals, and, as always, the conventions of the times against which, when she brushes up, she quickly dispenses with, making her own way in her own way, unafraid and with great style and aplomb. Too, the language and period detail so seamlessly delivered in these pages, offered in context so it is clear about what is being said, its meaning, its use, is the sign of a truly talented and thoughtful author. Deanna Raybourn manages not only to regale us with a cracking good story in a page-turning thrill ride, but she also educates and delights along the way. Much admiration for her.

Speaking of which, too, if you haven’t, you ought to follow Deanna Raybourn on Twitter [click HERE], because she is every bit as charming, witty, intelligent, and possessed of great style and aplomb as her creation, Veronica.

The Mitford Murders (Mitford Murders #1), Jessica Fellowes, Hardcover, 432pp, January 2018, Minotaur Books

Louisa Cannon, a poor, young woman from the lower-classes in 1919 England, in an effort to escape her abusive uncle, manages to land a position in the household of the Mitfords — the real Mitfords given fictional life in this, the first in a series by Jessica Fellowes.

Louisa becomes close to daughter, Nancy, who yearns to escape the nursery and become an adult, and on the way to her 18th birthday celebration and becoming a grown-up, she and Louisa become involved in a mystery to do with the death of Florence Nightingale Shore — another real person made fictional whose murder actually did go unsolved. Not here.

Through a series of adventures and misadventures, a twisty plot of missteps and mistaken (or stolen?) identities, and connections as intricate and dependent upon one another as the spokes of a well-woven spider’s web, mysteries are solved, love found and lost, redemption achieved, and villains vanquished; all of this done with style and quickly paced, a lovely distraction of despicable behavior made entertaining.

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So, there you have it, my dears: two delicious diversions from current events into which I sank myself, with much gratitude, over the past few days. I’ve been busy with family and dear friends and my own medical adventures, so I really look forward at day’s end (or in doctors’ office waiting rooms) to having an engrossing other world and time into which I can sink. If you, too, need to get away, both of these are great choices, along with my other favorite series mentioned earlier.

Okay, people await my presence. So, here I am, going.

 

Reading: Looking Back to Move Forward; 2 from the 1950’s

Today talking about James Baldwin’s 1956 novel, Giovanni’s Room, and Barbara Comyns’s 1950 novel, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths.

Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin, Paperback, 176pp, 2013 Vintage edition, originally published in 1956 by Dial Press

I’ve been doing a lot of looking back in an effort to decide how best to move forward, said reflection having led to my decision that my 2018 year in reading would include at least one backlist book from my massive “To Be Read” stacks for every new release I read. Considering my advanced age and long experience as gay man, one would think I’d have read all the classics of the Queer canon but because of my devotion to another queer author, Garth Greenwell, whose What Belongs To You is one of my favorite books of all time (click HERE for my love letter to it and Mr. Greenwell) and my searching out all his work, I found his appreciation for James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, (click HERE for that article) and realized though I thought I had, I had never read it. I didn’t even own a copy. So, while I have managed to read a backlist book, I didn’t reduce the To Be Read pile.

David, an American expatriate in 1950’s Paris, whose “girl”, Hella, has awayed to Spain to contemplate his marriage proposal, becomes involved with Giovanni. Torn by the conflict between his powerful erotic and emotional attachment to Giovanni and the cultural and internalized homophobia that terrifies him, David is unable to commit to any path, to face his own truth, to come to terms with himself, admitting: “I do not know what I felt for Giovanni. I felt nothing for Giovanni. I felt terror and pity and a rising lust.”

James Baldwin tells us the ending from the beginning; we know that Giovanni has been sentenced to the guillotine, Hella has headed back to America, and David is a mess of guilt, self-hatred, and doubt.

David’s shame is a difficult and painful read, particularly now when homophobic-fascist bigots are determined to undo hard-won LGBTQ progress toward equality and turn back the clock to the atmosphere of shame and second-class citizenship for everyone but white-hetero-cis-males of a certain upper-economic level, efforts at which have increased hate crimes against the LGBTQ community by 700% so far since 45 took office.

Yet, even though it is emotionally eviscerating, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room is an invaluable portrait of a particular time and attitude in our history, and reminder of why it is so important we not go back. And the language! James Baldwin’s writing is spare, but utterly evocative, managing to capture an era in the exchange of a few sentences between David and Jacques, the older gay man who has helped David, lusted for David, and for whom David has little use except to use. In the following exchange, Jacques and David are in a bar with Giovanni when Jacques asks David if he intends to write Hella and tell her about his feelings for Giovanni. Listen:

“I really don’t see what there is to write about. But what’s it to you if I do or I don’t?
He gave me a look full of a certain despair which I had not, till that moment, known was in him. It frightened me. “It’s not,” he said, “what it is to me. It’s what it is to you. And to her. And to that poor boy, yonder, who doesn’t know that when he looks at you the way he does, he is simply putting his head in the lion’s mouth. Are you going to treat him as you’ve treated me?”
You? What have you to do with all this? How have I treated you?”
You have been very unfair to me,” he said. “You have been very dishonest.”
This time I did sound sardonic. “I suppose you meant that I would have been fair,  I would have been honest if I had — if —”
“I mean you could have been fair to me by despising me a little less.”
“I’m sorry. But I think, since you bring it up, that a lot of your life is despicable.”
“I could say the same about yours,” said Jacques. “There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one’s head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain. You ought to have some apprehension that the man you see before you was once even younger than you are now and arrived at his present wretchedness by imperceptible degrees.”
There was silence for a moment, threatened, from a distance, by that laugh of Giovanni’s.
“Tell me,” I said at last, “is there really no other way for you but this? To kneel down forever before an army of boys for just five dirty minutes in the dark?”
“Think,” said Jacques, “of the men who have kneeled before you while you thought of something else and pretended that nothing was happening down there in the dark between your legs.”
I stared at the amber cognac and at the wet rings on the metal. Deep below, trapped in the metal, the outline of my own face looked upward hopelessly at me.
“You think,” he persisted, “that my life is shameful because my encounters are. And they are. But you should ask yourself why they are.”

It wasn’t so very long ago — my youth, in fact, and I am now in my 50’s — when, in much of the world, the sort of liaisons Jacques had were the only possible type for men who lusted for men. There was no possibility of being openly homosexual, and the puritan attitudes Americans had (and have) about sex coupled with culturally embedded homophobia, made it nearly impossible for gay men (and women, though it was a very different experience but no less dangerous and fraught) to have a positive self-image, to escape childhood, adolescence, adulthood without some measure of self-hate, which often went unrecognized, or, even, was congratulated. Both Jacques and David in the above exchange are displaying internalized homophobia and sex-negativity.

And, yet, Giovanni’s Room was considered too homo-positive when first published, when, in fact, it is a validation of homophobia and self-hate. As I said earlier, I thought I had read most of the Queer Canon through the years, and I did, but looking back, so much of the earlier literature was full of guilt and internalized homophobia and tragedy and struggle — all of which were reflective of Queer experience for much of this country’s existence. Dancer from the Dance, City of Night, Faggots, A Boy’s Own Story, Brideshead Revisited, and so many others, all full of inchoate yearning, once satisfied leading to tragedy, sorrow, ruin.

It’s time for a new literature, for which we must create a new world, the beginning of which is not going back to before. It’s time to undo the disaster or November 2016, restore order and the march toward equality for all, and end the patriarchy. Today. So that for a generation very soon to be, Giovanni’s Room will read as a horror story, unbelievable that attraction and love could cause such agony.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, Barbara Comyns, Paperback, 214pp, 2013, Virago Modern Classics UK, originally published in Great Britain in 1950 by Eyre & Spottiswode

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths introduces itself to you as a piquant, twee even, romp about young artists types falling in love, defying family, living on little money and lots of love. But soon, Barbara Comyns skillfully twists the fairy-tale-horror-story knife into your unsuspecting gut and takes the reader down the rabbit hole of poverty-stricken young wife and mother, abandoned emotionally, financially, and physically by a husband who turns out never to have loved her and who she realizes she never loved either.

I have never read anything like this, which is to recommend it highly. It is startlingly modern in attitude and experience, despite its having been written nearly 70 years ago, which, as with my recent exploration of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and its depiction of the horrors of Queer life in the 1950’s, is somewhat terrifying that we have not come further along in insuring equality for all people regardless of gender, race, age, sexuality, etcetera.

Sophia, twenty-one, over objections from the family, marries Charles, a painter who only rarely manages to finish a canvas he doesn’t then paint over again. Domestic bliss is short-lived and when Sophia becomes pregnant, Charles is angry and resentful. Things get worse from there. With changing perspectives and shifts in time and attitude, Barbara Comyns writes in an entirely unique and extremely assured voice. She veers from wit — dry and sardonic — to pathos, but never melodramatic mush, just up-front, out there, here it is ugly-life recounting. It is never clear exactly what she is doing until she’s done it, and one is gobsmacked by the power of the prose, plotting, and execution. For me, it was a bit like Flannery O’Connor; a naked, eager naiveté, relentlessly honest, almost too private a view into the events, as if we’re eavesdropping on someone’s therapy session — only, the someone is terribly interesting, amusing, and moving.

Read it. The ending — I am happy to say — offers some hope. And who can’t use a little of that?

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So, there they are, reads 7 and 8 for 2018, both from the 1950s, both part of my effort to read more widely, not just the new buzzy books, but the old buzzy books as well. And, sadly, both describe social attitudes and inequalities that one would think we’d have remedied in seventy years. And we haven’t. So, there is more to do, my friends. More. Although I am not sure what that “more” is or means for me, like I said at the start, I am looking back to determine how I ought move forward. And as with everything else in my life, I find literature to be helpful in the pursuit — our past is prologue and what better way to explore and know it, to try to experience it, than through the reading of fiction from the past by gifted writers. I have history to learn. And future to sculpt. And so, the answer is to explore all that “more” waiting out there to be read, thus, here I am, going.