READING: New Year, A Resolution, and a fantastic new novel: The Immortalists

In this post I will be talking about The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt; The Sense Of An Ending, by Julian Barnes; and The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin. And about backlog, used, and reprint versus shiny new publications.

The living/dining room shelves I share with my sister. Old treasures, photography books, our childhood books.

I own a lot of books. In addition to the books furnishing my current address (and the photos are not all of them) there are at least as many again living in a friend’s basement-online bookstore awaiting re-sale, and, before those were rescued, another amount at least that large was sold to used bookstores in bulk, donated to libraries and charities, and given away to friends during a number of moves in a very short number of years, and, too, hundreds left behind in a home from which I had quickly to get out, making what amounted to “what do I save in the fire” choices.

This is my desk where I write my blogs — sometimes. Reference books and inspiration and stacks of Twitterati-gifts and mementos, because I like feeling as if I’m working among the people I have met on Twitter, so many of them in the book business or, like me, in love with the book business.

I have, mostly, stopped spending money on books. This is not because I don’t love and adore books, but, rather, because in my life there is an ongoing declension of square footage and annual income. But, I’ve always been lucky and so am blessed to live in a town with a great library, and an even better independent bookstore, The Curious Iguana, to which my dearest of friends frequently give me gift certificates, so I’ve quite an account there. I am also often gifted with cards to a major bookseller chain, and, too, an online behemoth of a book merchant-monopoly. So, I jealously hoard those credits and use them only on authors who I consider “must haves” and books I fall in love with when reading and so want to have around me, with me, permanently part of my life.

Stacks beside the couch in my room, where I sit in the morning — of late, 3 or 4a.m. having become my morning — doing my morning journaling and drinking coffee, or tea, or water.

In order to make room for more, I decided I would need to set free a commensurate amount of the already-owned. Many of those books in these pictures are in the “to be read” category and so for 2018 I made a promise to those stacks — some of which residents have been waiting patiently for years to be held and page-turned — that for every newly published book I read or got from the library, I would read one of those stoic waiters-in-line.

A closet shelf given over to that which is way more valuable to me than clothes: BOOKS! And a fan, to keep them cool and fresh. Yes, I’m a little crazy about books. I’m okay with that.

Thus, two of the three books I talk about here are backlog: The Sense of an Ending and The Sisters Brothers. Interesting petty-Charlie fact: both of those books were Man Booker short listed in 2011, The Sense of an Ending ultimately winning the prize. As a follower of the Man Booker, I was all in that year for Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, and when it didn’t even progress to the short list, I declared all those that did so to be libera non grata. Luckily, I’m bad at remembering a grudge, and acquired copies of Ending and Brothers because others I know or read had written about them. So, here we go.

The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt, hardcover, 328pp, April 2011, Ecco

This is the second of Patrick deWitt’s novels I’ve read, the first having been Undermajordomo Minor about which I said, “It’s seriously playful – or playfully serious, and darkly illuminating or illuminatingly dark. It was very Wodehouse on acid while depressed and horny and homesick. I liked it. I think.” That was two years ago and reaching back, trying to remember, I have only a vague recollection. Not unusual, I read one hundred or more books each year and so it is only the very rare book that sticks — which is no reflection on the writing, but, rather, a snapshot of where I was at the time and whether or not what I read resonated with who I was in that moment.

I’m afraid The Sisters Brothers will turn out to be the same faint flashback. It was certainly different from anything I’ve read, which is a nice plus. The scenes were hard-edged, sharply drawn, yet somehow surreal and dreamlike, as if watching a Coen Brothers film while high. I found most of the characters unlikable, which shouldn’t be a disqualification, but right now, at this point in world history, politics being what they are, I’m perhaps not in a good place to read about self-centered, sociopaths with fungible (at best) morals.

Certainly I missed (or ignored) the deeper meaning, the journey to amorality and back again; killer brothers in the old west, one somewhat less psycho and more empathetic than the other, on a mission of murder for a man even worse than they are, lose everything along the way and return to a home they departed in violence long ago, to the literal bosom of their mother. I just wasn’t into it, what it meant to say about home, family, choices, violence, men, women, lots and lots of things, and I still don’t get how it beat Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child onto the Man Booker shortlist.

The Sense Of An Ending, Julian Barnes, Paperback, 163pp, May 2012, Vintage (originally published August 2011)

This was the winner of 2011’s Man Booker Fiction prize. It was also my first Julian Barnes novel, although, I owned in hardcover and had in my “to be read” stacks his Flaubert’s Parrot and Arthur and George for years having been wowed by their synopses when published, but when I experienced one of my “I have to move again and to an even smaller space” they didn’t survive the purge.

I didn’t love this book. And that made me doubt myself and my erudition because a writer and intellect and human being I very much admire, Glenda Burgess, very much loved this book. You can — and should — read what she said about it here: GLENDA BURGESS REVIEWS Julian Barnes THE SENSE OF AN ENDING.

I am having difficulty articulating what I didn’t like, so I’ll start with what impressed me. The language is beautiful. The artistry of the structure of it, its shape, quite technically stunning. And its themes, the question; What are the limits of responsibility in the matter of how much your choices and actions influence and affect the actions of others? Where does taking responsibility become hubris and/or where does not accepting responsibility become dishonest and self-deluding?

Too, there is the question of how many versions of reality exist, as in, even without going into Einstein and physics theories, we live inside so many parallel universes made of the stuff of differing memories and points of view; we all see things through the filter of our own angles and frames of reference so what is truth? What is reality?

Julian Barnes explores this in what is more novella than novel and, as I said, in beautiful language, technically stunning and it is amazing how much he manages to fit  between the covers in such a few pages.

But … there seemed a disconnect to me between the level of insight, education, and experience of the characters and the ways in which they behaved, the choices they made. In particular, the voice of the narrator, Tony Webster, who I came away feeling couldn’t have been so jealously ignorant of others or ignorantly jealous as to not see what was there to be seen, or, even, not ask the obvious questions. It’s clear he’s not meant to be a completely reliable narrator, that being part of the clever construct of the story, but if the premise is he is grappling with his responsibility for events in other people’s lives, looking for a way of seeing through all the memories to what is an ultimate truth, well then, it felt as if it was more an intellectual exercise in which he’d already decided he really was not that important, thus largely relieving himself of responsibility — at the same time, remaining full of his own sense of self-importance. These dichotomies were not plot points, but rather, the weakness (for me) of the novel.

Like many a privileged white heterosexual male before him (and after him), Tony had the luxury of deciding which of the consequences of his choices he dealt with, in a society built to enable people just like him to have those choices. There is never really anything at risk here but his ego, the possibility he won’t be able to maintain the class-privileged view of himself he was raised to believe his due. And perhaps because that very disease is bringing us closer to Armageddon every day, it was off-putting for me in this novel.

The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin, Hardcover, 352pp, January 2018, G.P.Putnam’s Sons

Oh, how I loved this book. With each new year I carefully curate the first few reads to find one of those “A-HA! THAT! OH, YES!” experiences in an effort to start things off right. Well, The Immortalists was my third book of the year, but in a way similar to last year’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk [click here], —

(I talked about that here [CLICK IT] –and honestly, I cannot imagine another book equaling its effect on me any time soon, but I’m grateful even for coming close.)

— Chloe Benjamin’s novel gave me hope; people are still writing good stories well told, where things happen, movement and action equal to the interiority of the work. Yes. Good damn writing.

In this, the four Gold siblings; Varya,13; Daniel,11; Klara, 9; and Simon,7 on a hot, restless 1969 summer day visit a Roma fortune-teller, who Daniel heard has the ability to tell people the exact date on which they will die. The children enter, one at a time, alone, and emerge forever changed. We follow their stories, one after another, in the order of their deaths, and how each react individually and with one another to the existential threat hanging over them.

The predictions bring an intensity to living, the reminder that time is finite, opportunity to live and experience will be short. And whether or not they believe the predictions — and whether or not we do, or ought to — is never completely answered, the story combining what at first seems magic realism with behavioral insight: does fate happen to each of them or do they, by believing in it, make it happen?

Once I started reading this I was unable to stop, and, luckily (?) for me, I am suffering from pain and steroid-induced insomnia, from which The Immortalists served to distract me far more effectively than any of the painkillers I’ve been using. Thank-you Chloe Benjamin.

In addition to the compelling plotting, there is such accomplished rapid but never rushed pacing, always something moving, plot pieces coalescing in a marvel of literary pointillism that is never obvious or strained but fully engaging, painting vividly the eras through which the Gold siblings lived; there is Aids, 9/11, Afghanistan; and, too, delicate, intricate portraits of each of them and a layering of details proffered piecemeal, creating a literary chiaroscuro which grounds what might have been in less-skilled hands improbable or unbelievable stories in a tale which demands full investment of one’s attention, heart, mind, and appreciation for really damn good writing. There are so many lovely passages and striking lines, I hate to pick any out, but listen to this, close third narration from the heart of Klara after the youngest, Simon, who she convinced at 16 to run away with her to San Francisco, has died.

Still, Klara could not explain to anyone what it meant for her to lose Simon. She’d lost both him and herself, the person she was in relation to him. She had lost time too, whole chunks of life that only Simon had witnessed: Mastering her first coin trick at eight, pulling quarters from Simon’s ears while he giggled. Nights when they crawled down the fire escape to go dancing in the hot, packed clubs of the Village — nights when she saw him looking at men, when he let her see him looking. The way his eyes shone when she said she’d go to San Francisco, like it was the greatest gift anyone had ever given him. Even at the end, when they argued about Adrian, he was her baby brother, her favorite person on earth. Drifting away from her.

Freaking glorious, yes? If you ever lost anyone to death, or anger and disagreement, or distance, then that passage has that piercing ring of “A-HA! THAT! OH, YES!” sort of truth for which one lives when reading, for which as I said early on, I search at the beginning of each new year.

In conclusion, this is a beautiful novel, one of those I got from the library and which I will now need to buy to have with me, always, to join this family of books in which I surround myself. Of course, this means, I need to get rid of another. I think I can do that. Maybe even two.

So friends, thanks for reading. Don’t forget to share your love of their work with the authors who bring you joy. It’s the least we can do for our national treasures.

And for now, here I am, going.

One of my to-be-read (or read again) stacks – I got rid of clothes in my closet to make room for books.

Another closet shelf sacrificed to my to-be-reads, or read-agains.

Stack on the trunk by my bed — books I read in pieces, Miss Hanff is always nearby. When I feel lonely, or miss my aunt (often, she’s the woman who gave me reading) I dive into some Helene Hanff and feel at home and loved and safe.

Living room shelf — these have all been read, many are personal treasures; here live Elizabeth McCracken, Susan Elia MacNeal, Dorothy Parker, Edmund White, Louise Penny, and — well, you get the picture. Dear ones who bring me such joy.

My nightstand. Poetry; Stevie Smith, Edna St.Vincent Millay, Frank O’Hara, and short stories, Lydia Davis, Paul & Jane Bowles, James Purdy, Lucia Berlin, and more, and things move in and out of here.

 

 

 

Reading: 2017 Revisited

I don’t do “best” lists, because reading is so personal, thus, what follows is a revisit with some of the books that moved me, gave me some relief from the year that was, and maybe, even, some hope. Two absolute requirements for any book to land here: First, when looking over my GoodReads list, the number of stars didn’t matter so much as whether or not I remembered vividly the experience of reading the book; Second, part of that memory must be of the book having given me some comfort.

2017. A year in which my worst fears about the world, about the people with whom I share this planet, fears I have had since childhood about the bullies always winning, fears that those who play dirty and ugly will triumph over those of us who won’t or can’t behave in inhuman, immoral, disrespectful ways, fears that there are many, many people too stupid or venal or hypocritical or bigoted themselves to see through the venal, bigoted hypocrites plundering the world and mocking those many, many fools who’ve gullibly fallen for their b.s. and, too, sneering at the rest of us who are on to them but can’t seem to stop them; all of these fears interfered (interfeared?) with my ability to enjoy and focus on reading.

Still, I managed to finish reading 145 books, which is only a portion of the number I began, but this was not the year to screw with me: If I didn’t like the first 30-50 pages, I didn’t continue. I mean, hell, life is already dark enough, and the national disgrace seems determined to get us blown to nuclear smithereens, so who has time or joy enough to waste on books that don’t resonate for you?

So here, in an order as random as my rambling, discursive, babbling blog-writing, are those books I read in 2017 which I remember vividly and which brought me comfort and joy.

Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk, Kathleen Rooney

This is one of those books I know I will read again and again. It felt as if Kathleen Rooney knew me personally and was telling a story especially for me. I keep this in my room, in my stack of special books I must have near me at all times. A feeling not unlike reading Helene Hanff, with that passion for NYC. Loved. [Here is the link to my original review.]

Less, Andrew Sean Greer

Oh how I loved this book. Many reasons; great writing, happy ending, LGBTQ characters without tragedy or sturm und drang, I recognized myself in its aging (well, aging for a gay man) character, and I laughed and I cried and I felt seen and most of all, it made me think and reconsider what shape love might take and whether or not it’s still possible for someone of my advanced years and not so advanced looks, finances, or prospects. Gorgeous. Please, please read it. [Here is the link to my original review.]

Running, Cara Hoffman

Gut level writing, so new, so unlike anything else I’ve ever read, so beautiful and complicated and true and gorgeous and resonant; I was, as I said in my original write-up, gobsmacked. How often do you come across a book that is unlike anything you’ve ever read before, and yet, still extremely readable? A unique voice, a brilliant mind, and I cannot wait to hear more from this author. [Here is the link to my original review.]

Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, His Majesty’s Hope, Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante, (Maggie Hope Mysteries #3, #4, & #5) Susan Elia MacNeal

I love Maggie Hope. What a fantastic character. What wonderful plotting. What fascinating historical detail. What wit. What emotion. What compelling pacing and structure. I have in my possession Volumes 6 and 7, but I am forcing myself to wait because what do I do when I’ve no more? EXTRA BONUS: I followed Susan Elia MacNeal on Twitter, as I often follow authors whose work I admire and enjoy, and I send them thanks for their work. Most authors respond with a sincere thanks. Every so often, a conversation begins and a new reader-author bond is made, and that is magic to me, and quite the gift when an author busy with creating work to delight us all can take time to interact and chat. Susan Elia MacNeal is one such person of whom I have become fond outside the writer/reader relationship. And should I ever manage another trip to her city, we have a promised coffee (or drinks, or both) meet-up planned. [Link to my original review of Princess Elizabeth’s Spy] [Link to my original review of His Majesty’s Hope] [Link to my original review of Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante]

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Lee Mackenzi

This book is categorized as Young Adult, and while I get the need for categorization as far as marketing is concerned, this book is as delightful and certainly as mature (whatever that means) as many, many adult literary fiction novels — and HUGELY more fun, and despite its historical time period, far more modern of sensibility than many books nowadays. Ripping good read and I am eagerly awaiting its sequel.  [Here is the link to my original review]

I just don’t find this cover design at all appealing — from color choices to lettering to the piercing arrows.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John Boyne

This book took me by surprise. Though it had been recommended to me, it’s cover art was so uninteresting I couldn’t bring myself to pick it up. Shallow, I admit, but compelling cover design is very important; it’s when the first impression happens and if the cover is lackluster, doesn’t in any way give some flavor of what the words hold, well, then the author has been done a disservice. Truly in this case because this was a fantastic read, one of those I could not put down. [Here is link to my original review]

Unforgivable Love, Sophfronia Scott

Dangerous Liaisons re-told, set in 1940’s Harlem, composed by a writer of exquisite and extraordinary gifts. I devoured this novel like a chocolate-peanut butter pie (I just had one last night, well, half a one — no, I’m not kidding. Would that I were.) Much seduction, scheming, and sensuality, all beautifully written in short, fast-paced chapters which leave you wanting more. Page-turner, I believe is what they call it. Oh, and speaking of friendly authors who interact with readers on Twitter, Ms. Scott is another who takes time out of her busy life to do so. Great writer. Great person. Can’t wait for her next novel. [Here is link to my original review.]

 

Rules for Others to Live By; Comments and Self-Contradictions, Richard Greenberg

My only non-fiction work included on this list — this really wasn’t the year for any more reality than that with which one had to contend daily from news of the world and our national disgrace’s latest travesty — and it is by Richard Greenberg, Tony Award winning author of the play, Take Me Out, which I saw and for which I will be forever grateful to Mr. Greenberg; not just because the play was genius, but, too, because it afforded me the opportunity to be twenty or so feet away from the staggeringly perfect performance of Denis O’Hare and the equally staggeringly perfect and nude body of Daniel Sunjata. These are debts I cannot repay.

Daniel Sunjata in Take Me Out (I took out, so to speak, the private parts)

Speaking of which, this book was recommended to me by a dear friend, Pamela, who has given me many existential gifts and joys, too, so it is fitting she would have brought this little gem to my attention. This collection is full of beautifully sculpted lines, laughs, tears, and personal truths and journeys made and observed keenly, described with precision and an a-ha level of intelligence and insight. I recognized myself in his angst and his joy, and I highly recommend you get this gem and find yourself in its pages. You will. [Here is link to my original review]

Woman No. 17, Edan Lepucki

Edan Lepucki, with this follow-up novel to her last, California, has become one of my pre-order/purchase authors. I know I will want her books on my shelves, in my possession, a place fewer and fewer writers warrant as I age. This timely book explores the ways in which we create ourselves in the modern world, inventing social media personae, treating life as if we were appearing in a reality show. It is both prescient and terrifying in exploring the consequences of personal delusion and deceit, and once again displays a laser-like insight into the ways in which people think, love, live, and lie, that is — in my humble reader’s opinion — Edan Lepucki’s special gift. [Here is link to my original review]

So, there are eleven books I enjoyed in the past twelve months. Here are a few more about which I either didn’t write, or wrote very little because the authors are best-sellers and so much has been written about the books already, I didn’t think I had anything to add. But, in no particular order I also enjoyed:

Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

Glass Houses, by Louise Penny

Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay

There were also some disappointments in reading this year, mostly having to do with books so many other people loved which left me cold. Or, lukewarm at best. I am always in those situations plagued by my insecurity about my lack of intellectual heft, worrying I’m just not smart enough to get what it is everyone loves. This is often accompanied by hubris along the lines of, “Well, they’re all in the same little circle of MFA – literary fiction insiders club, and I’m brave enough to say the emperor has no clothes, or, anyway, the clothes aren’t that nice.”

But I shut up about those. I don’t write about books I don’t like, and I try, even when I am not a fan of something, to keep in mind it was made by someone with an honest, heartfelt effort, they’ve offered a piece of who they are on the page for us. I try to honor that, even when the pages don’t particularly thrill me. There is enough put-down in the world, I don’t wish to add any more.

So, I thank you for taking this ride with me. I thank those of you who read me for doing so, and those of you who read books along with me, I am grateful for you, and those of you who write and edit and publish and publicize and sell the books we read, I bless you for the gifts you bring to the world. So grateful. You do the work of angels, because I am not the only one in the world whose life has been made infinitely better by having books, loving books, living inside the world of books.

Particular special thanks to my favorite independent booksellers at The Curious Iguana,[click here and visit them — and drop in if you are anywhere nearby, ever — so worth the trip]  where Marlene has made a haven for we Frederick (and surrounding areas, and drop-in tourists, and DC weekend trekkers) readers and book lovers. As Marlene and staff are well aware, when I am low, or when I am happy, or when I am anywhere near the neighborhood, I drop in and babble and gossip and compare notes and all that sort of thing, until I remember, “Oh, this is a business and they have work to do and actual customers to wait on!” Love to you all.

And so, now, having done my year-end list, off to begin a new year of reading. And here I am, going.

Reading: Catching Up, sort of

In this entry I talk about Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, The Secret, Book & Scone Society by Ellery Adams, Flashmob (John Smith #2) by Christopher Farnsworth, Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 by David Sedaris, and Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke.

Its nearing year-end, a year in which I have, thus far, read 143 books, and more than ever depended upon the words of others gathered between covers to distract from the daily horrors of the current existential crisis of humanity being perpetrated by a fascist U.S. regime unlike any seen in my lifetime, or, ever. We teeter on the precipice of self-destruction and I am feeling terrified, horrified, angry, helpless, raging, exhausted, and … well, long/short, a book needs to be really good to make me forget, to give me respite, and that burden is almost unfair, nearly impossible, so, I am trying to keep that in mind as I share my thoughts on things I’ve read. You should keep it mind, too. These are the opinions of a man near his edge, struggling every day to remember to keep the faith that love will triumph.

Mrs. Caliban, Rachel Ingalls, Hardcover, 128pp, January 1982, Harvard Common Press

There was a great deal of buzz on Twitter about this novel’s reissue, articles about its cult-status, NPR mentions, it was the thing all the cool literary kids were talking about, and so, that I’d never heard of nor read it pushed all my “I wanna be popular, too” buttons and I quickly ordered a used copy.

Novella rather than novel, this allegorical romantic-tragic-comic — okay, this un-categorizable romp is a feminist — no, a humanist — no, a satirical — no, a fable of — no, a lyrical — no, a political — you see the problem?

Ignored when released in 1982, its naming in 1986 by the British Book Marketing Council as one of the twenty greatest American novels since World War II still failed to earn Mrs. Caliban a permanent place on the list of must read classics but, luckily, it has been sustained by its inclusion in many a literary fiction MFA curriculum.

Having lost two children, trapped in a marriage of resigned, passionless suburban-ennui with an adulterous, deceiving husband, Dorothy Caliban, numbed and defeated into surrender by choices made and not, is making salad one day when  “… a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock-still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face.” She’s met Larry.

Larry has been held captive, experimented on and tortured by government researchers who he’s killed in order to escape. Dorothy sympathizes, offers him sanctuary, and soon enough, they fall into one another — physically, emotionally, spiritually — as she hides him, unbeknownst to her oblivious husband — in a room off her kitchen, where Larry learns about Dorothy’s world from television and radio programmes. Thus is set into motion a series of events revealing fissures, cracks, and facades in the lives of Dorothy, her husband and friends, and the world in which she lives, a world she tells Larry is “all right” now that he is in it.

Is Larry real? A fantasy onto which Mrs. Caliban projects her dissatisfaction with her limited, disappointing life? Is this a modern Beauty and the Beast? Or, is this feminist social-theory writ ironic? It is, I think, all those things and more, a concupiscent conflagration of marvelous writing, imaginative use of plot tropes, humor, pathos, and technique, all of which is entertaining. Imagine an episode of The Twilight Zone as written by Elizabeth McCracken and directed by Baz Luhrman; the implausible and outrageous made believable and beautiful.

The Secret, Book & Scone Society, Ellery Adams, Hardcover, 285pp, October 2017, Kensington

Less than a month ago I read my first Ellery Adams novel, Killer Characters, which happened to be the eighth and last in her Books by the Bay Mysteries Series. I wrote about it [click HERE] in this blog, and promptly reserved the first in her new series, The Secret, Book & Scone Society — although I confess, the lack of Oxford comma after book makes me uncomfortable.

I’ve no such issues once I get past the cover.

Nora Pennington has come to Miracle Springs to escape her old life, healing scars both physical and psychic, while doing penance for the wrongs for which she holds herself accountable. She has opened a bookstore where she uses her gift for empathetic listening — called bibliotherapy — to choose books that serve as therapeutic aids for those in need, in pain, in confusion. She does not believe she can balance the karmic scales or undo the damage she made in her old life, rather, she means to eliminate as much suffering as she can for others as a way to fill the void in her life left by her decision to stay a safe distance from others, closed off, undeserving of love.

When a businessman who has come to her seeking assistance is found dead shortly thereafter and  said to have committed suicide, Nora is suspicious. In short order, she joins — reluctantly, at first — with Hester the baker, Estella the aesthetician, and June, an employee at the renowned local spa — who all have secrets of their own, and scars of their own, though theirs may be less visible than the ones our heroine, Nora, bears from a fire, the origins of which we will eventually learn as the quartet bare themselves to one another and to us.

Like Nora’s bookstore, cozy, eclectic, full of comfortable and welcoming places to rest and read and recover, this novel is the best kind of intimate and approachable. Most impressive is Ellery Adams gift for making people real, giving them qualities less than ideal and yet maintaining their humanity; these four women are imperfect — just like me, just like you — and sometimes less than likeable, which only makes them feel, ultimately, more like the friends and intimates one develops in real life.

I look forward to continuing my relationships with them as the series progresses and enjoying the patina of magic realism and fabulism with which the novel and Miracle Springs are imbued by the gifted Ellery Adams. A bit Alice Hoffman with intense and determined and bound to make stubborn mistakes characters, a hint of a town full of a little bit out-there types like the residents of Louise Penny’s Three Pines, and one after another literary quote and reference to great books and writing, this series promises to grow into one of my favorites.

Flashmob (John Smith #2), Christopher Farnsworth, Hardcover, 368pp, June 2017, William Morrow

A computer program invented to infect devices around the world and control social media feeds with propaganda targeted to manipulate behavior, create enmity for some, and insure obedience in the masses is being marketed by a diabolical and evil genius. Its use could — for example — take someone as competent, qualified, and decent as Hillary Clinton, and create enough whispers, false scenarios, lies, and viral slander to cost her an election.

Wait, this is a novel? But didn’t this happen to one degree or another already? Yes. And we’re suffering the consequences. So, reading this offered me little enjoyment. In this version, a bodyguard/fixer named John Smith, trained by the CIA to read minds, works to stop the viral-behavior-modification-program from spreading, from being sold to China. It’s the whole clipped-phrase, manly-man detective thing wedded to speculative-sci-fi-tinged fiction. It’s fast. It’s certainly — now more than ever — plausible (other than the mind-reading thing) and, because of that, kind of terrifying.

Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002, David Sedaris, Hardcover, 514pp, May 2017, Little, Brown and Company

I bought David Sedaris’s diaries because Ann Patchett said it was un-put-downable. I’ve read almost nothing of his past work, but, he is super popular here in Frederick, Maryland,  regularly booked at the local theatre, The Weinberg Center.

All that leading up to this; David Sedaris’s personal history is not familiar to me, so, the choppy, truncated nature of the entries left me wanting more context.

I understand from the diaries that he had a drinking problem. He stopped drinking. He lives with someone named Hugh. Not sure how they met, or decided to live together. In Paris, now. Or, London. Or, both and, well, New York, too? His sister is Amy Sedaris. He was very poor. Now, he’s not. He’s met a lot of crazy people. Pieces. It’s all pieces.

So, pieces can be okay. It is fast. It is sometimes amusing. His observations are trenchant. My issue with it is that it is sometimes unkind; mean in the way of people who are holding on to a great deal of pain get funny-push-you-away-with-outrageousness-nasty — and I, having been that color of cruel in my life, find it off-putting and upsetting and guilt-inducing.

Too, while the jacket and publicity sort of preps for this, calling him interesting because he doesn’t dwell on his emotions but describes and observes the bizarre in the world, I rather prefer knowing about how people are feeling. I expect a diarist to dwell on the emotions, and, I think, maybe I don’t so much trust those who evade and avoid. Perhaps, I wanted something he didn’t mean to write or share, the previously untold, the stuff of late-night, alone with yourself, soul-speak, and this is not that. As someone mentioned, they didn’t find “insight or growth or heart.”

Yes. That.

Bluebird, Bluebird, Attica Locke, Hardcover, 307pp, September 2017, Mulholland Books

Second book in this blog-entry I picked up on Ann Patchett’s recommendation. This, too, was a difficult one for me.

Attica Locke, former writer and producer of Fox’s Empire, knows how to fill a plot with twists, surprises, seemingly insurmountable odds indicating either disaster or death (or both) is imminent and then, after the chapter (or commercial) break, somehow the bleakest end is avoided, there is brief respite, but, nothing is quite what it seems, and there, as soon as you take a breath, arises a new complication.

Our hero, Texas Ranger Darren Matthews, is a black man who lands in this town where race dynamics seem to have changed little from the ugliest days of the KKK, now morphed into the Aryan Brotherhood; there is a divide, in fact, only a highway stands between the shack of a restaurant owned and run by Geneva Sweet, the black matriarch who lost husband and son, and, on its other side, the home of Jefferson Wallace, III, which is a plantation-mansion-ish based on Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

This highway through the south, and too, the rutted back roads and rocky, muddy paths, adjacent to the bayou from which two bodies in a short time are fished, contribute a great deal to this atmospheric meditation on race and divide and the cost and limits of connections of blood and rage and history.

Ranger Matthews arrives in this town already suspended for possibly covering up a crime committed by a family friend at home, and his sort of off-the-books investigation into the bayou murders of a black man who was visiting the town for reasons at first unknown, and the white-waitress with whom he was seen walking, the same waitress who was mixed-up with Geneva Sweet’s dead son, becomes increasingly tangled as the spouses of both come at Matthews in very different ways. And, as Matthews gets closer to the truth, it seems no one — black or white, on either side of the highway, or from the back roads — really wants the whole story revealed.

As in all the best noir, the chapters are short, the dialogue clipped (but what an ear for patois Attica Locke has, great lines everywhere), and even the best characters are flawed humans with secret places inside. Cavil: I don’t care for books where a cliffhanger is introduced in the last few pages as teaser for the next installment.

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So, there it is and there we have it. I will likely finish one or two more books before year end, and I may do a wrap-up recap of my favorites from 2017, or I may, as I am with much else about this year, just move on and try not to look back.

Here I am, going. Love and Light, friends.

 

 

 

Reading: 4 Books and no Sticky Fingers*, that’s FINAL.

Today I’m putting personal babbling on hold (I hear your sigh of relief) and visiting with A Christmas Party, by Georgette Heyer; The End We Start From, by Megan Hunter; Heather, the Totality, by Matthew Weiner; and boy oh boy did I love this one, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, by Mackenzi Lee.

A Christmas Party, Georgette Heyer, First published 1941, this edition October 2016, Paperback, 400pp, Sourcebook Landmark

I kept expecting to love this one more than I did. British. Cozy-ish. 1940. All my stuff. Still, despite some cleverly arch dialogue and skillful construction, I knew early on whodunnit and it felt far longer than it needed to be. Repetitive. Dare I say, dull? I did dare, didn’t I?

The End We Start From, Megan Hunter, Hardcover, 144pp, November 2017, Grove Atlantic

London is flooded by rising waters; a pregnant woman and her husband depart to find safe shelter with his parents, soon the baby, Z, is born, its grandparents dead, its father departed, and the woman and Z make their way in a new dystopian reality. Honestly, this variety of near-future horror tale is now too much for me because with every passing day it becomes not only more possible this sort of thing could happen because of ignorance, denial, and neglect, but, in fact, increasingly likely. And since it seems I might have to live it later, I don’t want to imagine it now. All of which is unfair to a book carefully constructed, a mosaic of short, near poetic sentences and paragraphs creating a lucid whole of a story. Although, this is less a novel and more a short story, but, as with labeling genres, who is to say what qualifies as novel, novella, short story, outline? It’s a quick read with some beautiful passages and a horrifying picture of an all-too-likely future.

Heather, The Totality, Matthew Weiner, Hardcover, 144pp, November 2017, Little, Brown and Company

So, coincidentally, this is the second novel in a row under 200 pages I have read. Again, for me, it was more a short story than a novel, its canvas small, confined to a few characters who struck me as contrived rather than fully developed humans. Too, at this particular point in the history of the world, I’m not much inclined to want a story in which privileged cis-white men get away with stuff, no matter how badly they feel about it. So, it’s a no for me.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Mackenzi Lee, Hardcover, 513pp, June 2017, Katherine Tegen Books

Marketed as Young Adult, but should be marketed as ridiculously good fun, rip-roaring romantic adventure, crazy-interesting characters, thrillingly erotic, compellingly plotted, queer-history cool, stay-up-call-in-sick-until-you-finish delight of a damn good book.

Did you get that I loved it?

Young gentleman Henry Montague, Monty, and his best friend since childhood, Percy, who happens to be biracial and as gorgeous as Monty and on whom Monty happens to have a long, unrequited crush, take off on a tour typical for the privileged 18th century English lad; only this tour is meant to tame Monty, his domineering and abusive father threatening his eldest son with disinheritance if he doesn’t keep away from boys and settle down into staid, responsible adulthood. To that end, younger sister Felicity is also sent along on the tour. Trouble, as it so often does, ensues. Stolen treasures. Pirates. Naked men and women. Drinking. Drugging. Villains. Heroes. Mysteries. And, somehow, anachronistic as it may (or may not) be, issues like homophobia, sexism, racism, power-hungry and evil white-men in charge/politicians, individual identity, child abuse, and a host of other topical and relevant subjects are dealt with in serious but humorous and entertaining, involving, riveting ways.

This is like a series on the WB as imagined by Ryan Murphy and filtered through the sensibilities of Oscar Wilde and starring those couple of teen-male-idols you’ve always wanted to see get-it-on with each other, accompanied by that teen-female-popstar you’ve always wanted released from the bonds of sexism and come into her super-hero self. There is a sequel on the way, and Felicity, the younger sister, who is abso-fabu-mazing, is the narrator of that one. BRING IT!

*No Sticky Fingers note. I have decided NOT to write about the Jann Wenner biography, Sticky Fingers, because of all the reasons I cited here: https://herewearegoing.wordpress.com/2017/12/03/interstitial-notish-about-reading/ 

I have not lived a perfect life, not even a perfect week, hell, not even a perfect last twenty-four hours — in fact, the last twenty-four have been fairly fucked up, but I don’t want to read about Jann Wenner because I find what he did with his privilege to be despicable. Further, that he gave such a shit about this bio having included some info on with whom he slept says to me he hasn’t changed much. Further, that anyone gives a fuck about who he slept with rather than what he did NOT do for the world with the opportunities he had, makes me sort of furious — at this point in history, in a country (and world) being decimated by what is (I hope) the last gasp of privileged-heterosexual-male lust-for-power driven evil, I don’t really want to read about one of the shitheads who kept the evil going, gave it a platform, and did near fuck-all to achieve equality. So, that.

And, before my chest pain turns into a full-blown coronary, here I am, going.

Reading: Oh good laud

Since last we spoke I’ve read Sing, Unburied, Sing, the 2017 National Book Award winner in the fiction category, written by Jesmyn Ward; Duke of Desire, the 12th in the Maiden Lane series, written by Elizabeth Hoyt; and Killer Characters, the 8th (and final) in the Books by the Bay series, written by Ellery Adams. These three are labeled respectively as Literary Fiction, Romance, and Mystery Cozy. I’m not much a fan of labels though I understand their purpose for marketing’s sake, but I feel like with books, as with people, we limit and stunt and marginalize and stereotype by this need to name and define and draw lines. More on that later. First —

(NOTE: If you would like to move directly to my discussion of the books above and skip the context in which I read them, the details of my life, and the musings of my mind, head down the page to the  #*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*#*)

— let me begin by saying I continue my  quest to interrupt my life-long proclivity for making lemons from lemonade, trying instead to add a splash of vodka, some ginger beer, and sip whilst taking a deep breath and long pause, finding and enjoying the plus rather than the minus, before indulging in any “woe is me”-ing or “the universe/world is against me”-ing or whining about first world frustrations.

Here comes the “but” you knew was on the way: I am sitting here beneath a lap-robe, feet freezing, my stomach having again started its roiling and cramping  (if you’re new here I won’t bore you with the three-year ongoing saga) and although the year-long mystery rash has finally begun to fade, the dermatologist and rheumatologist disagree with one another over why and what to do next, tut-tutting at the diagnoses and guesses of the other, while my primary care practice continues to acquire and shed PAs so regularly I never see the same person twice and so need give them my entire history each time I go for my three-month Wellbutrin renewal. All of which may soon become moot if 45 and his gop-jackbooted-bully-brigade achieve their nefarious undoing of ACA, upending Medicaid and Medicare, at which point I will lose the little access to healthcare I have — which is still a lot more access than many have and for which I am grateful.

This will all, of course, be beside the point once the above mentioned fascist horrors who are now running and ruining (notice, only one letter difference there) the country start imprisoning the LGBTQ, to be annihilated in death camps along with all the other people disapproved of by the white-cis-male power-mongrels, the long-term goal of the gop begun with nixon’s “southern strategy” come long last to fruition.

And all of this is the result — I think — of a concentrated effort by those in power from time immemorial to divide into US and THEM, to convince we peasants that there is enough for us, we who deserve, if only they, those who are not worthy, would stop taking what is rightfully ours. And the next step after propagandizing that divisive foundation, is to spin reality as a competition — a race, a war — to come out on top, in control, with the most. Winning is now paramount, and all talk of morality or righteousness or one or another god directing the way is complete and utter bullshit, hypocrisy made abundantly and inarguably clear by the election of 45, continued support for the ephebophile running for the senate in Alabama, the determined decimation of the safety net for the less advantaged, the refusal to seriously investigate the collusion with foreign powers in stealing the election of 2016, and on and on.

And this is all because we have fallen for the division mythology rather than living in the light and love of recognizing that we are all, at heart and soul, alike. One. Which, too, is why I hesitate to label and categorize books. I love good writing, no matter what the genre. I also get that my taste is mine, and others are entitled to their own; for example, my Mom, who I supply with large print books, reads authors I don’t enjoy at all, whose work I might even categorize as trashy, and that’s okay. See, I watch The Real Housewives of New York, Beverly Hills, and Orange County, which all of my friends find trashy. But, they make me laugh. They make me horrified. They are, to me, camp and parody of all that is wrong with the gop-45-entitled-jackbooted-hater run world in which we live.

We get what we need where we can. And so, 800 words later, what I mean to say is I don’t question that Sing, Unburied, Sing deserves many encomiums and lauds, and I’m all for anything that increases book sales, but it would be great if maybe we could all expand our fields of vision a little wider than just the books that get buzz, win awards, get picked by People magazine and well-reviewed (or, even, reviewed at all) in The New York Times. If we could enlarge our own worlds, read outside the genre and labels we think are our thing, embrace work by authors from other walks of life than just the paths with which we are familiar, then, maybe, just maybe, we could start a revolution of joining?

Maybe, just maybe, trying to see the world through lenses other than our own, will help us all to realize and really live the truth that, ultimately, we are all one. Because, I fear, if we can’t soon get there, to where we are all one, what will be left is that we are all none.

Now, on to the books I’ve read.

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Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward, Hardcover, 285pp, September, 2017, Scribner

Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, 2017, and written about and lauded by those far more erudite, professorial, and literary-wise than am I, since reading this I’ve hesitated to even share my thoughts, thinking to do so superfluous. Do I think you should read it? Yes. Would I have chosen it for Fiction Award 2017? I don’t think so, because I wouldn’t — couldn’t choose. This is why I think awards are silly. There is no “best book” in any category. There are wonderful books of every kind, books that are someone’s favorite, change someone’s mind or heart or life, open eyes, bring a much needed laugh, have a cathartic effect, but there is no one book that is best for everyone. Too, awards tend to glorify books already in the mainstream, already buzzed, by authors already known (and I’m not saying their fame is undeserved or unearned), while books of equal artistry and beauty languish unread, head to remainder piles and ninety-nine cent plus shipping sale on Amazon.

That said, this book is beautiful, captivating, riveting, unique of voice, glorious of prose bordering on poetry, and much deserving of all the accolades it has received. A pastiche of magic realism, ghost story, history lesson, gothic tragedy, probing sociological examination, road novel, and prose poem, Jesmyn Ward’s lyrical, evocative language is revelatory and her artistry joins what might have been impossibly confused disparate motifs into a panoptic chiaroscuro portrait both intensely personal and universal.

JoJo, a boy on the brink of adolescence, and his baby sister, Kayla, are taken on a road trip by their drug-addicted black mother, Leonie, to pick up her white husband, Michael, about to be released from Parchman prison. Michael’s cousin murdered Leonie’s brother, whose ghost comes to her when she is high, and at Parchman, Jojo begins to be stalked by the ghost of Richie, who was a doomed prisoner in Parchman with Jojo’s beloved grandfather, Pop, and uses Jojo to get back to Pop  so he might tell Richie of his fate, of his death, so that he could be released from the netherworld in which so many unburied souls are trapped, their songs unable to be sung.

There are more characters, more complications, layer after layer of connection and disconnect, an epic of multiple epochs, a richness and depth of biblical, Proustian size, miraculously communicated in a book less than 300 pages long. There is so much beautiful language, to begin quoting is dangerous, so I will share just this paragraph, near the end of the novel, which is as beautiful as an aria of grand opera. Listen to the ghost of Richie explaining what he sees:

Across the face of the water, there is land. It is green and hilly, dense with trees, riven by rivers. The rivers flow backward: they begin in the sea and end inland. The air is gold: the gold of sunrise and sunset, perpetually peach. There are homes set atop mountain ranges, in valleys, on beaches. They are vivid blue and dark red, cloudy pink and deepest purple. They are yurts and adobe dwellings and teepees and longhouses and villas. Some of the homes are clustered together in small villages: graceful gatherings of round, steady huts with domed roofs. And there are cities, cities that harbor plazas and canals and buildings bearing minarets and hip and gable roofs and crouching beasts and massive skyscrapers that look as if they should collapse, so weirdly they flower into the sky. Yet they do not.

This continues and builds for another paragraph and a half until the vision disappears and then:

Then darkness. I look to my left and see that world again, and then it is gone. I claw at the air, but my hands strike nothing; they rend no doorways to that golden isle.

Absence. Isolation. I keen.

Though it may be the voice of a ghost child, an innocent denied the life he deserved, it is the song unsung of every human being who has suffered the incomprehensible loss of self in a world they cannot seem to understand, the wail and moan of longing for a place of peace only imagined, never experienced.

Yes, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a brilliant book, a book written from the soul that speaks to the soul and worthy of all praise. Though, as I said, I am not fond of the good/better/best ratrace, certainly this is among the best books of the past year.

Duke of Desire (Maiden Lane 12), Elizabeth Hoyt, Mass Market Paperback, 308pp, October 2017, Grand Central Publishing

Lady Iris Jordan is kidnapped, a case of mistaken identity, and while being carried away from the scene of her planned debauching by a beautifully formed one of her supposed captors, she shoots him, only to find he is her rescuer. Both of their lives are now in danger for having crossed The Lords of Chaos, and so she and The Duke of Dyemore wed to save her reputation and her life. But this does little good and they are both pursued, captured, in danger, and finally, in love, secrets revealed, promises made, passions surrendered to (a lot) in this marvelous addition to Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series.

Killer Characters (Books by the Bay Mysteries #8), Ellery Adams, Paperback, 274pp, May 2017, Berkley Books

Olivia Limoges is a restaurant owner, aspiring novelist, member of the Bayside Book Writers’ group, and recently married to local police chief, Rawlings. Another member of the Bayside Book Writers, Laurel, is accused of murdering her husband’s mistress, the hospice nurse for his dying mother who never had a kind word for Laurel. Before long another murder occurs, connected to the first, and the Bayside Writers set about clearing Lauren, endangering themselves, crossing Olivia’s husband, Chief Rawlings, and putting themselves in danger — for one, mortal danger. This is the last in what seems to have (deservedly) been a popular series and I quite enjoyed it, and I wonder how much more I’d have liked it if I had grown to know the characters and the town of Oyster Bay through the preceding seven installments? I figured out whodunnit fairly early, but I was still surprised by the ending. Nicely done if a bit heavier and darker than most mystery cozies.

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So, there we have it: one prizewinner and two final installments in popular series. Wildly different reading experiences, all enjoyable in their own way, each with something unique to offer, all worth a read if they are your kind of thing. And maybe, even, if you don’t think they would be, give them (or something else outside your comfort zone) a shot. Make the world bigger and kinder and more open and embracing by starting with the books you read.

It can’t hurt. And it might help. And it’s laudable.

And here I am, going. Love and light, dear ones.

 

Reading: Genre, Magic, and Memoir

I’ve been extremely busy: 1) Trying to become a better person; 2) Helping a friend downsize from a large home on three acres to a condo with a shared common area, and; 3) Running into people I haven’t seen in a decade or so in order to facilitate conversations the Universe is sending so that I can get on with 1 (see above), which, by anyone’s measure, has taken entirely too long.

All of this has cut into my reading time, so, only four books so far in November. I promise to be brief. And, FML, WordPress has now made it impossible to do anything but compose in their supposedly improved format — WHICH I DESPISE AND WHICH MAKES COMPOSING ABOUT A MILLION TIMES MORE DIFFICULT.

Deep FreezeDeep Freeze (Virgil Flowers #10), John Sandford, Hardcover, 391pp, October 2017, G.P. Putnam’s Sons

I am a fan of series, and John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers and Lucas Davenport series are reliably what they are: well plotted, fast paced, familiar characters and quirky guest starring new folk, hip and tough but tender-hearted hero who straddles lines of moral ambiguity now and again to make the world a little safer. Until the next installment. I have to say this was not my favorite. High school trauma and unrequited attraction, long held on to, results in murder, and more murders for covering up purposes and, well, it seemed a bit called in, the characters less developed than shorthanded, and because of that, kind of confusing to track. I really didn’t care who died next. No shade, I’m awestruck by anyone’s ability to write one book, let alone deliver the dependably entertaining output Mr. Sandford has achieved.

dangerous to KNowDangerous To Know (Lillian Frost & Edith Head #2), Renee Patrick, Hardcover, 304pp, April 2017, Forge Books

This was a library-browsing pick-up, chosen because it was blurbed by a number of authors whose writing I admire and love. I had not read the first installment, which was the one to which their blurbs referred, and so I came into this cold. It featured a lot of well-known names, none of whom, obviously, could be the killer. There were Nazis and FDR and movie stars and I thought it would be a lot more exciting than it was. I wanted Carole Lombard and Myrna Loy levels of sophistication and wit and madcap, black and white fun. This wasn’t quite it for me.

rules of magicThe Rules Of Magic, Alice Hoffman, Hardcover, 369pp, October 2017, Simon & Schuster

I bought this — which is a lot, because I deliberately live a very simple life, below the poverty level, and buying a book (albeit, with gift cards I hoard) is a big decision and something I do only for authors whose work I know I want to keep on my shelves, as part of the definition of who I am. Alice Hoffman came to Frederick a few years ago for a signing and library sponsored talk and she was delightful. I’ve read a number of her books, including Practical Magic, to which this is a prequel, and I have watched the film of Practical Magic over and over, and although it is very different from the book, I love it because Dianne Wiest, Stockard Channing, Nicole Kidman, and the only movie in which I have ever liked her, Sandra Bullock.

practical-magic-the-auntsI liked this book. The three main characters, siblings Franny, Jet, and Vincent, were all sort of what I have come to think of as Alice Hoffman trademark difficult, but ultimately loveable, beautiful souls who sometimes behave in ugly ways, magical folk out to slay the dragons of fate and the inevitable disappointments that accompany the joys of being alive — in other words, despite their supernatural powers, these are human beings with all the ups and downs and complications and pleasures that label promises. We meet Gillian and Sally of Practical Magic in the last few pages, after the first 300 full of tragic loves, bad decisions, all sorts of loss and gain and growth and denial and fear and light and dark, written in wonderfully skilled, flowing prose.

I like that Alice Hoffman faces sorrow without compromise. It’s a fact of life that people die, that sometimes love takes away as much as it gives, and that we all have to make choices and sometimes, among those choices, there are not perfect options — we all hurt people, we all get hurt, and being alive and having a happy ending doesn’t come for free. That’s not a fairy tale, it’s a grown up story. Alice Hoffman writes deceptively deep and thought-provoking fiction in a fable-like format.

And so, I bought this. And I’m not sorry.

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Interstitial moment of explanation: This was going to be a blog blog post today, rather than a reading blog post, because I haven’t blog-blogged in a while. Here’s why: A year ago, November, a horrible thing happened. We are still, daily, suffering its reverberations, and its aftermath will scar and upend and damage us for decades to come. Anger and grief and disbelief and sorrow took me over in an eviscerating way, which, now, it seems, has done me some good. There is light in every darkness, I suppose, cliché as that is to type, but, truth. It became clear to me in these months that while I can do little to change the hearts and minds of the sixty-million or so bigot racist misogynist homophobic faux-christian white-supremacist fascist sympathizing hellhounds who voted for that sad, silly, stupid, soul-less man, I can make the worlds of those people I do know or come in contact with or speak to on Twitter, a little better. I can practice peace, embrace, acceptance, understanding, faith, and share light by NOT indulging my anger, by not being distracted from the job of being human by the shit-show that is politics and news these days. This isn’t about denial, it’s about making a conscious effort to focus, too, on all that is right with the world, all that is good in the universe, and to foster those things and those connections which affirm the Love and the Light. We change the world one person at a time and my resources are not financial, or power, or physical: what I have are my words, and my actions, in person, on-line, to spread a little love, a little light, a little normal.

So, I’m holding back on the blog-blogging for the same reason I’ve cut back to one cup of coffee in the morning, and started having tea I brew myself; for the same reason I’m limiting my Twitter time to about fifteen (okay, maybe thirty) minutes a day; the same reason I don’t watch the news; I need to stay centered, I need to be strong in my standing in the Love and the Light, and I need to ration those things that detract and distract from me being the best me I can be. I can’t ingest and be subjected to things that make me shake, that alter my ability to take deep breaths without pain.

We need people to offer us peace in the midst of this spiritual, social uproar. I am not a warrior. I am a healer. And so, I am here, being strong, staying calm, when you need me. Because we all need — as all of this is going on — to keep reading.

Now, that said, back to books.

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spoiler alertSpoiler Alert: The Hero Dies, Michael Ausiello, Hardcover, 320pp, September 2017, Atria Books

Michael Ausiello’s partner of 14 years, Christopher “Kit” Cowan, is diagnosed with a particularly virulent form of cancer, and while describing the eleven months from diagnosis to death, Mr. Ausiello takes the reader on a journey through two lives, thirteen years of a love with its ups and downs, and managing to live those lives as fully as possible while facing death.

There is a lot of snark and dark humor here; the couple were unafraid to speak harsh truths in biting and profane terms, and Mr. Ausiello does not hold back on details I’m sure many readers would consider to fall in the range of TMI. Not me. If your voice is one comfortable with talking about loss of control of bodily functions, who tops and bottoms when and how, the size of your partners genitalia, well then, I say go for it. However, I think I would have held back about my Smurf-obsession, but that’s just me.

I laughed and I cried and I asked myself, “WHY DID YOU READ THIS? YOU KNOW HOW YOU ARE?” It’s not easy. And it’s not particularly uplifting. But, if you’ve watched someone you love, ravaged by disease, die, you will know whether or not sharing someone else’s story is for you.

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So, that’s it. Four November books from genre series reads to heartbreaking memoir and, in between, some magic. Not such a bad two weeks, right?

Don’t forget to like my reviews on Amazon and GoodReads so I can be an influencer in the literary world.

And, my friends, here I am, going.

Reading: 2 Books, 2 Very Different Killers

In this post I discuss two novels featuring murderers made by childhoods spent with flawed mothers, both killing (or, trying to) in an effort at mercy. The first of these novels is by seasoned, treasured, much awarded author, Alice McDermott, and the second is a debut novel by Ali Land.

The Ninth Hour, Alice McDermott, Hardcover, 256pp, September 2017, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

In the early part of the twentieth century in the Irish Catholic community in Brooklyn, a man’s suicide leaves his pregnant wife to make a life alone for herself and her daughter, the as yet unborn Sally, around whom the remembered story is built. Sister St. Saviour comes upon the scene of the gas oven suicide and resultant fire and begins her efforts to live up to her chosen name, from trying to hide the cause of death so the dead husband might be buried in hallowed ground, to finding work at the convent for the pregnant widow, Annie, who ends up in the laundry room as assistant to curmudgeonly Sister Illuminata, who, along with the other nuns, helps raise Sally from an infant asleep in a basket in the laundry room to a young woman who thinks she hears the calling to serve as sister herself.

There is no question but that Alice McDermott is an author prodigiously gifted at vividly rendered miniatures, delicate, detailed captures of circumstance, character, reality, and emotion that coalesce into a panorama of the human heart. Too, her facility for prose bordering on poetry combined with sentences of such shocking accuracy and truth one nearly gasps with recognition, make for a reading experience akin to literary love-making. Listen:

 

While Annie and Sister Jeanne knelt, Sister St. Saviour blessed herself and considered the sin of her deception, slipping a suicide into hallowed ground. A man who had rejected his life, the love of this brokenhearted girl, the child coming to them in the summer. She said to God, who knew her thoughts, Hold it against me if You will. He could put this day on the side of the ledger where all her sins were listed: the hatred she felt for certain politicians, the money she stole from her own basket to give out as she pleased — to a girl with a raging clap, to the bruised wife of a drunk, to the mother of the thumb-sized infant she had wrapped in a clean handkerchief, baptized, and then buried in the convent garden. All the moments of how many days when her compassion failed, her patience failed, when her love for God’s people could not outrun the girlish alacrity of her scorn for their stupidity, their petty sins.

 

That is undeniably beautiful writing, possessed of a rhythm and music, a few sentences, sculpted into the story of a woman’s soul and life. By the same token, Alice McDermott can sketch with one short sentence everything we need know about a character, as she does about the less introspective, more rigid Sister Lucy:

 

All joy was thin ice to Sister Lucy.

 

That is laugh out loud funny. Especially if one has spent any time in one’s life with nuns. There are the Sister St. Saviour variety and the Sister Lucy variety and Alice McDermott limns both and the experience of the devoted Catholic life with expertise, sympathy, insight, and wisdom. In particular, especially in The Ninth Hour, she explores the conflict between the tenets of the faith as taught by the church, and the challenges of real life, where circumstances sometimes render the commands of the church impractical to impossible to cruel. Alice McDermott explores the compromises made by the faithful and the cost of believing, the burden of sacrifice, and the malleable nature of the definition of right and wrong, what, exactly — or more aptly, inexactly, defines sin.

I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I’ll only say characters struggle with that existential moment when murder becomes mercy and whether or not the act can ever be forgiven, excused, justified.

All of the qualities Alice McDermott brings to her work make it always worth reading, and The Ninth Hour is no different. However, I found its structure to be problematic. The time jumping as the narrator told a tale passed down through a few generations made it difficult to keep track of characters, who was what to whom when, and the perspective wavering between reverie and documentary was jarring for me. A mosaic is a beautiful thing, and I appreciate the technique, but I felt there was a lack of clarity in the voice because of the piecemeal way the story was told, by which I mean I think the framework made the through-line more difficult to follow than was necessary.

Good Me Bad Me, Ali Land, Hardcover, 338pp, January 2017, Penguin Books Ltd

From Alice McDermott and her Catholic milieu to debut novelist Ali Land and her adolescent mental health mise en scene is less a leap than one might think; this novel also deals with a child brought up in unusual circumstances who is faced with a moral quandary.

Let me begin by saying that the absence of a comma in the title of this novel near drove me to distraction. Then, about three-quarters of the way through reading the book, it came to me that perhaps the author insisted that the point of the story was that there was no clear delineation between the good me and the bad me and so to place a comma in the title would be a betrayal of the gist, the heart of the story. Maybe, maybe not or should I say maybe maybe not?  Whichever, I’m going with it.

Annie, 15, has been re-named Milly and placed with a foster family to be therapized before the trial of her serial killer, sexually abusive mother who Annie/Milly turned in for the murder of nine children to which she was witness. Milly’s foster family — psychiatrist dad Mike, overseeing her therapy, and his wife, Saskia, who turns out to have troubles of her own, and their mean girl daughter, Phoebe, who makes it her business to torture and bully Milly, about whose true identity she knows nothing when Annie/Milly arrives — need therapy of their own, plagued by problems Annie/Milly is likely to make worse with her presence.

This is a thriller, one of those page-turners where the past is presented in teasing drips and drabs, and the reader is given to fear along with Annie/Milly whether or not she can escape her mother’s influence, damage, and genetic contribution to who she is, who she might become, and whether any of this will be found out by those in her life.

This is a dark, twisted, creepy tale, compellingly written, very fast-moving, with what sounds a very authentic troubled-adolescent voice which one assumes can be credited to Ali Land’s work as a child and adolescent mental health nurse. Which, like the missing comma in the title, bothered me, because in a world which is currently so full of horrors, hatreds, and monsters, I worried and wondered just how much of the story could be all too real, based on abhorrent, abominable, tragic real-life stories Ali Land was exposed to as a mental health nurse.

So, there it is: a fast read but more than a little disturbing. If you, like me, are given nightmares by child-in-danger stories and ambiguous endings, this is not the novel for you. If you, on the other hand, are not sensitive to that sort of thing and enjoy nothing more than a fast, what’s next, bet I can guess, ohmygod read, this is the book for you.

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And there we have it my friends, my two latest reads which — as is so often the case — were somehow connected in theme, all without my knowledge or planning; they both happened to come up on my library hold-list at the same time.

I’m heading into non-fiction next, it’s been too long and the book was recommended by a trusted friend, so, when I return I will be talking about The Woman Who Smashed Codes, which I’m beginning as soon as I finish this, bake a cake, and make Sunday dinner for my mom and sister. So, those things are not going to take care of themselves, thus, here I am, going.

P.S. SELF-PROMOTION: I’ve jumped up 10,000+ spots in rankings at Amazon as reviewer to 21,927! [CLICK HERE]! Only last week I was 33,000-something! If you like my recounting of my book reading, and my respect for the art of writing and publishing, it would be great if you could LIKE my Amazon and GoodReads reviews. Too, liking books on Amazon helps the author, helps their numbers and rankings in the mysterious algorithm that is Amazon sales and promotions. So, help the literary world out. Like me. Like books. Now, really, here I am, going.

 

 

 

Reading: “Unforgivable Love” (and a forgivable absence)

Thanks to Glenda Burgess and Paula Garner, I’m back. What’s that? You didn’t notice I was gone? Well, I was, and I read quite a few books since last I book-blogged on September 17 — thirteen. While I didn’t write about them here, I did so on my GoodReads & Amazon accounts. (Click HERE for my Amazon Profile link, where all my reviews can be found.)

But, before I get to how Glenda and Paula brought me back from the depths, and my thoughts about my latest good-read, Unforgivable Love by Sophfronia Scott, I want to briefly discuss and link to my full reviews of the highlights from those I’ve read while not blogging.

First, the 5th installment in Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope Mysteries, Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante. (Click HERE for my full review.) I love this series. I love Susan Elia MacNeal’s writing. I love the way she manages to weave history into compelling plots, using characters I have grown to love, and, too, skillfully addressing modern issues while remaining true to the World War 2 period during which Maggie lives. If you’ve not read these, please do, and start at #1. There are seven so far and while I have numbers 6 and 7, I’m rationing. Or, trying to.

Next one worth a look is Christodora by Tim Murphy which was recommended by Garth Greenwell, need I say more? Maybe a little. Hopping in time from the 1980’s at the beginning of the AIDS crisis to the 2000’s and the lives of those left, and, too, those who barely register the horror of the epidemic’s beginning or the strides made because of the work of those activists forged in fury from the struggle. Moving. Wrenching, even. (Click HERE for my full review.)

And, too, a five-star work of real brilliance, John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies. This book has it all. Beautiful prose, breathtaking sentences, incisive emotional landscaping, laugh out loud wit and subtle satire, and such intricate, page-turning plotting. It really is quite fantastic. (Click HERE for my full review.)

Finally, for a sweet, fast, heartwarming read, I recommend How To Find Love In A Bookshop, by Veronica Henry. A daughter inherits her father’s labor of love bookshop and from near ruin comes many a happy ending for nearly every character. You’ll feel like you’re part of the village in which it takes place, and you’ll smile. That’s more than enough nowadays, don’t you think? (Click HERE for my full review.)

So then, 400 words later, here I am, going on to the book I finished just last night.

Unforgivable Love; A Retelling of Dangerous Liaisons, Sophfronia Scott, Paperback, 528pp, September 2017, William Morrow Paperbacks

First, only fair to admit, I love unto the point of obsession all iterations of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, although I’ve not read the 1782 French original (and if you have, well, touch you) and lean rather more toward the 1999 re-telling,Cruel Intentions,  featuring Ryan Phillippe’s ass and his uncovering of the gay-sex between the characters played by Eric Mabius and Joshua Jackson.

Ryan Phillippe’s ass

Eric Mabius and Joshua Jackson, in bed, being blackmailed by Ryan Phillippe in CRUEL INTENTIONS

Thus, when I read about this novel in People Magazine, its premise of Dangerous Liaisons re-told in 1940’s Harlem appealed to me, promising to be something I’d eagerly devour. Of course, I’ve been fooled before. Like a junkie, I read the book pages in any magazine I can get my hands on, and while I’m not a fan of People — and that sentence is another blog entirely — my sister subscribes and I tear out the book page and read all the quick-synopses, frequently suckered in by a good press-representative spin. All too often I then find myself starting one of these books and saying, WHAT THE HELL WERE THEY TALKING ABOUT/WHO PAID THEM OFF – THIS IS AWFUL!

Luckily, with Unforgivable Love, that was not the case.

Sophfronia Scott’s writing vividly brings to life a period, a Zeitgeist, a social milieu, and emotional landscapes with attention to detail in scene painting and the interiority of characters’ thoughts, all contributing to a portrait of a historical time, place, and people whose lives and behaviors resonate in the now.

The story is told in close-third, from the point-of-view of four main voices, Mae Malveaux, Val “Valiant” Jackson, Elizabeth Townsend, and Cecily Vaughn.

Mae Malveaux is the reincarnation in this tale of the original’s Marquise de Merteuil, a character who can easily come off as irredeemably loathsome and cruel. In this retelling, she is given a backstory which means to explain her cold as ice manipulations and calculated ruination of others, but, in the end, the author allows the character to remain unlikable, her malevolence grounded in her psychoses but never excused; the reader feels some empathy for her but not sympathy, which is as it should be. As one character says, “I don’t know what good can come of anything that woman does….Still,….she is family and so I pray for her.” What is refreshing in Sophronia Scott’s version is that Mae is not demonized for her embrace of her sexuality. Her easy carnality is not portrayed as a character flaw, as is so often the case when writing about women (or, people, but, mostly, women) and it is not that which leads to her ultimate downfall.

Val is the tale’s iteration of the original’s Vicomte de Valmont, and here he is far more sympathetic from the beginning than he is in other tellings of the tale. Despite his being an inveterate and unapologetic hound with a sketchy past and income from illegal sources, who uses and tosses aside women like chattel, he is early on imbued with a conscience and questioning of what it is he has done, is doing, and what it does to others. Though he plays at faith as a tool of seduction, it reaches him, touches him, and manages to change him by opening his mind to ways of thinking he’d not previously explored. More than any other character, Val arcs and grows.

There is a great deal of faith in the story, the church and its ministers play a role in the story, especially in the denouement, but there is nothing preachy or pontifical, rather, Christian faith and community are central to the lives of some of the characters.

The most faith-driven of the main characters is Elizabeth Townsend, who might have been a minister had her world been different and had she not been raised to cede control of her life to first her father, then her husband, Kyle, a civil rights lawyer who is largely absent from her life and the narrative as he is off fighting fights in the deep South. Val is challenged by Mae to seduce and corrupt the faithful and pious Elizabeth, she who has not ever fully explored nor embraced her own truth, her true desires — desires on all levels, ambition, emotion, and sexual. It is in pursuit of a victory in overcoming Elizabeth’s reluctance to live and feel that both Val and Elizabeth are permanently shaken, altered, brought to awarenesses that have the power to destroy them.

Mae also sics Val on her young relative, Cecily, whose sexuality and self-awareness are nascent but bubbling to the surface, craving release. Val aims to corrupt her, part of Mae’s plot of revenge against a past lover who considers Mae unfit to wed, and has managed to get the virginal Cecily pledged to him, enraging Mae.

With so many seductions and so much scheming, this could easily veer into cheesy-soap-opera territory, but it never does. The sex scenes are sensual, lusty without being vulgar (though I have NO trouble with vulgar, licentious sex scenes) and at 506 pages, this is a longish read but it moves quickly in relatively short chapters and, despite my familiarity with the framework of the plot, there was a great deal of tension and suspense as I read, waiting to see how the characters would end up and by what method.

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So, there you have it; four weeks and thirteen books later, I am back to blogging, and for that I am grateful to my Twitter friend and accomplished author and blogger, Glenda Burgess, as well as Twitter pal and accomplished author (I know a lot of accomplished authors on Twitter), Paula Garner, who both managed on one of my low-down-lonely-blues Saturday nights to raise me up and out of my funk with their lovely and kind praise of my writing about books, words which made me miss doing this blogging thing, words that made me think maybe I had something worthwhile to add to the discussion. So, thank-you Glenda and Paula.

And now, here I am going.

 

Reading: “The Days Grow Short…”

In this post I discuss “The Prague Sonata” by Bradford Morrow and “The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells” by Andrew Sean Greer, .

I have read much less than usual this month for reasons joyous and not so; friends and new beginnings belonging to the former category, my continuing health saga and personal stressors belonging to the latter. The relevance of beginning a book blog entry with this self-involved I-paragraph being I have become increasingly stingy with my time and increasingly prone to dropping off to sleep during what used to be my reading time. And it’s September, not just in 2017, but, in my life — for me, on this go round, it is at least Fall, if not Winter, and so my time — what I do with it and how I think about it — is of paramount concern. Which brought September Song by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson to mind. This lyric:

Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December
But the days grow short when you reach September
When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
One hasn’t got time for the waiting game

Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few
September, November
And these few precious days I’ll spend with you
These precious days I’ll spend with you

I am — during these, my precious days, careful with which books I choose to share myself, my thoughts, my heart. So you can be sure if I write about one, it has been at least a pleasant companion. Otherwise, I just fold after about page 50, thank it for its efforts, and move on. I don’t write about those books because even though I didn’t enjoy them, they are the product of someone’s heart and love and good intentions (almost always) and time, and I think to say unpleasant things about books (or, most anything except the current administration and all sorts of bigotry and hatred) is more damaging and revealing about the speaker than it is about the book.

Kindness is always a better choice, and very much needed in the world these days — so I am striving to have kindness be my default, even (especially?) in those instances when rage was once my go-to.

So, here are my latest reads, both of which, as coincidence (or not) would have it, have to do with time.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, Andrew Sean Greer, Hardcover, 289pp, June 2013, Ecco Books

I recently read and loved Andrew Sean Greer’s latest novel, Less [which I talked about here] and so I determined to explore his backlist, thus, this 2013 book.

In 1985 Greta’s beloved brother, Felix, has died. Soon after, frustrated by Greta’s lack of energy for anything but mourning, her partner, Nathan, departs. Despite medication and the support of her devoted aunt, Ruth, Greta is inconsolable. She agrees to electro-convulsive therapy, the first treatment of which finds her awakened in 1918.

In 1918 she wakes with her 1985 consciousness, but is somehow connected to another version of herself which is both different and the same, surrounded by the same — but again, different — people in her life from 1985. And 1918-Greta is also having treatment for depression which sends her(them?) to the 1941 version of the three (one?) of them.

It’s a little complicated and we only hear inside 1985 Greta’s head as she tries to change the lives of the 1918 and 1941 versions of herself and others, which, it seems, the 1918 and 1941 versions of Greta are also doing as they hop around in time.

I am a huge fan of Andrew Sean Greer’s writing. It is rich in heart and forgiveness, insight into human nature, and the ability to evoke both the frailty and strength, foibles and fine points, light and dark of characters and situations. In this ambitiously structured novel he draws parallels between  the massive, tragic, and mostly needless loss of lives from AIDS, the 1918 flu pandemic, and World War II; in doing so he creates many beautiful images, heartbreak, and the lyrical, near poetic sentences I so loved in Less. Late in the story, speaking about her ex-lover (in 1985’s iteration) Nathan, Greta says this:

Those separate men, the different men he was, in different worlds. Perhaps it’s because I knew Nathan so well, and knew his moods; of him thinking beside me: so quiet! Of him silencing the alarm so I could sleep another hour: so kind! Of him reading some infuriating news in the paper: so angry! I could roll them all into one ball and put it in my brain as one person. Even before my travels, I had met and lived with these different men: the quiet one, the kind one, the angry one. Just as Nathan had lived with those same men himself. For others are not the only ones forced to face our other selves; above all, we must face them. On my last visit to 1942, Felix showed me a photograph of the two of us. It had been taken the week before. And while I knew it was not me, I could not tell which one it was. Perhaps one day they will invent a camera to capture the fleeting self — not the soul, but the self— and we can truly see which one we were, on any particular day, and mark the shifting lives we lead that we pretend belong to one person alone. Why is it so impossible to believe: that we are as many headed as monsters, as many armed as gods, as many hearted as the angels?

It’s something like the aha-moment/magic discovery of the book for Greta, or, the discovery of magic, when she begins to comprehend all the possible Me’s who exist in each I. And while I sometimes found parts of the narrative to be difficult to follow, and here and there a little self-help-y prosaic and banal, even those passages, like the above quoted, were grounded in wonder and hope, two elements of which there can never be too much and which make a fine foundation for any novel.

The Prague Sonata, Bradford Morrow, Hardcover, 528pp, October 2017, Atlantic Monthly Press

[I requested a copy of this novel and was sent one. I do not know the author, and have no connection to the publisher, I found the synopsis intriguing and so asked to be included in the list of bloggers/book people who got advance reader copies.]

I have not read any of Bradford Morrow’s eight previously published works of fiction, so I came to the Prague Sonata fresh, unencumbered by expectations other than this — like The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, about which I just wrote — the novel was blurbed and praised by Michael Cunningham, a writer whose work I very much admire, and in synopsis it sounded like a thick, rich, sprawling epic of old school heft.

That, it was. Its five-hundred-plus pages play a score of emotional richness, its themes and motifs introduced, reiterated and expanded, crescendo after crescendo — each memorable and developed in singularity — merging, melding to become a whole which has been artfully puzzled together into something symphonic, seamless, an entirely unique composition meticulously created from its various counter-themes into a harmony of a textured, layered, masterful epic.

It is early 20th century when Otylie’s father dies, a casualty of war, having left his nine-year-old daughter who he’d been training to be an accomplished pianist with a music manuscript she knew to be his most prized possession. Otylie swears never again to sing or play music and in 1939 Prague when war again intrudes into her life, she divides her father’s treasure in three, knowing by then its provenance may be historically important making it a valuable artifact she does not wish to lose to the invading German beast-Nazis. She keeps one movement for herself, sending another by messenger to her husband who has disappeared into the underground resistance movement, and a third to friends.

Fast forward to the beginning of the 21st century when neophyte music historian Meta Taverner — whose father in a very different way had encouraged and ended her career as a concert pianist — is given the middle movement of the sonata by Irena, friend of Otylie who carried the manuscript out of Czechoslovakia when she survived the death camps, and now, in New York, chooses Meta to unearth the first and third movements, thus fulfilling the promise Irena made to Otylie, whose fate she does not know.

All of this plot is performed in the first fifty pages and advanced and refined in the next 475 during which Meta pursues her quest to make Otylie’s sonata whole again and, too, to discover its composer. The narrative moves back and forth through time following both Otylie and Meta in their separate trajectories until those paths melt into one another in a finale of rhapsodic consonance.

Bradford Morrow interweaves many themes through each time period: Music. War. Love stories. Friendship. Truth and Lies for Good and Evil. Ambition. Parent-Child. And others. There are elements of mystery-writing, tinges of gothic villainy and distress, romance novels, and all of this delivered in an enrapturing literary fiction format that transports the reader into other worlds. It is tempting to speed through to discover the fates of the characters, but then one would miss the abundance of historical detail, musical scholarship, and well-crafted prose. Listen to this excerpt (borrowed from the Grove Atlantic website for the novel, [CLICK HERE]):

With reverent delicacy, she turned the pages one by one, eyes traveling across the busy staves that filled each leaf. This wasn’t going to be easy to play. Unaware she was doing so, she hummed an occasional phrase, tapped her toe gently on the floor. Meta might have sat down with the manuscript at her piano and performed it then and there. But she didn’t want to listen to it until she’d had time to study the piece, learn what its composer was saying.

This was not your everyday second movement of a sonata, despite Irena’s recollecting that’s what it probably was. Brazen in its initial runs, the music settled now and again, only to move away into knotty clusters of sixteenth notes, like an impish acrobat who pretends to teeter off his tightrope high above the crowd, flails his arms as if he’s about to fall, until, nimbly, in slow motion, he moves on.

Then, a plunge off a cliff—everything shifted to blacker registers. Gone was the acrobat. Gone were the playful, bucolic pace and tone of the earlier passage, which was, it now occurred to Meta, a feint, a dramatic setup. The meat, the soul of the dolorous passage had such a rich, slow sadness to it that, surprised, she turned back to the opening and reread the movement up to this radical shift in mood.

With its moments of staggering power and slyness, the music seemed as fresh that day, to this young woman in her barbell flat, as it must have sounded when it was conceived. Who was the conceiver, though? And where were the fore and aft of this noteworthy craft?

Lovely, yes? Musical and poetic and evocative and compelling; which neatly sums up Bradford Morrow’s The Prague Sonata.

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And so, I finish here, exiting to get back to cherishing and contemplating time in these Septembers — the current month, and the Fall of my life. Fall has always been my favorite season with its voluntary shedding of its summer clothes and the faith in the promise of Spring renewal such shedding implies. I leave you with the inimitable and brilliant Miss Betty Buckley and her version of Weill and Anderson’s September Song. Enjoy my dears, and please, don’t waste your time on the waiting game. Much love and light and, my dear ones, truly, thank you for spending these precious days with me, I am so grateful you read me, it has brought me much joy. Now, here I am, going.

 

 

Reading: Mrs. Fletcher (No, it’s not a Murder, She Wrote satire)

Mrs. Fletcher, Tom Perrotta, Hardcover, 309pp, August 2017, Scribner

I read Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers in 2012 which I know only because I use Goodreads to track my reading history and I check when entering a book to see if I’ve read other works by the author.

The first thing that earlier novel has in common with Mrs. Fletcher is I was enticed by its blurbs and synopsis. The Leftovers was all about what would happen to those left behind were the biblical rapture to actually occur; an irresistible fantasy for a lapsed-Roman Catholic-agnostic like myself. Mrs. Fletcher‘s promos promise a “feverish turning of pages” through a  “hilarious, provocative … joyride” by a “smart, fearless … wet-your-pants-funny satirist” as he explores what seems a fascinating premise about up-to-the-minute issues facing the world today, like parent-child relationships, on-line persona versus real-life person, and the various comings of age one now goes through in a world of much longer lives with many more options for personal relationships of varieties both deep and shallow, erotic and platonic; irresistible for a lapsed real-life personality who lives behind various on-line personas like myself.

The second thing The Leftovers and Mrs. Fletcher have in common is the promise of the premise was not — for me — kept.

In all fairness, it started with the title. I couldn’t divorce the name, Mrs. Fletcher, from years of the same-named mystery-solving-novelist character played by Angela Lansbury on Murder, She Wrote.

That aside, Mrs. Fletcher — here named Eve — is divorced, director of a senior center, and her only child, Brendan, is leaving the comfort of his upper-middle-class suburban, popular-jock-boy life for college. Brendan is expecting to continue his partying and privilege at an elevated level, while Eve is dreading what she fears will feel like abandonment and loneliness. The conflict and comedy(?) come from the expectations of each one’s expected experience more or less happening to the other.

Eve is drawn into online porn portals, begins unusual and unexpected friendships and pursuits, and revels in her new privacy and life, at the same time Brendan becomes a pariah at college and suffers agonizing loneliness. Eve is affected by sexual text-messages from unknown and shockingly inappropriate (to her mind) people, while Brendan’s attempts to alter things with his texting fail, distancing him further and further from what he desires. This reversal of expected fortunes extends to Brendan’s one sexual escapade, which reveals him (to himself and others) to be a near-predator rather than the skilled stud who buys condoms in bulk he thought he was, while  Eve’s multiple forays into new erotic territories reveal her to be far more open and sensual and attractive than she’d considered herself before.

Other characters in the novel are also grappling with loneliness, sexual desire and identity and need, and — to one degree or another — hiding parts of themselves, channeling life-energy into who they imagine themselves to be as opposed to actually being those people; as if everyone in the novel is living a double-life: the civilized, following the rules of polite society persona presented to the world, and the fantasy-self, the daring, boundary-free, get what they want, be fully who they dreamed of being self. It’s Life-porn — that best self, what if, yes I could if only scenario we have running in our heads when imagining what life could be.

And this novel — and most of Mr. Perrotta’s work is, essentially, just that: Life Porn. He specializes in almost but not quite satirizing and exposing the flaws and foibles of the middle and upper middle class suburbanites and communities about whom and which he writes. And he writes well with a hip kind of mass-market-faux-literary-fiction rhythm and just enough cynical judgment to let the very people about whom he writes nod in agreement that they can see their neighbors in his stories.

It’s a frustratingly fence-straddling lack of commitment to real social satire, the “isn’t this awful” combined with “aren’t we cute” thing that rankles and disturbs. And judges. Eve toys with exploring sexuality, but, without spoiling, reverts to suburban-polite-society-republican conformity.

In a novel that seems to aim for wanting to explore the effect of new ways of communicating and the availability of all sorts of connections, and too, the numbing effect of same, no one seems much changed by what goes on. There is never really anything at stake.

And that’s fine. Mr. Perrotta has every right to write whatever he likes; and it’s skilled story-telling, fast reading, and interesting enough. BUT, there is so much more gift there — in the possibilities of the story, the richness of the subject matter, and in the author’s clear intelligence and emotional insights — one can’t help wishing he’d gone further, deeper, beyond the expected and more into the boundary-free, behind the public persona, Life Porn reality that lots of us are living today.