Reading: 3 Novels (and writers) to Enjoy

In this post I will be discussing Susan Elia MacNeal’s THE QUEEN’S ACCOMPLICE; Mariah Fredericks’ A DEATH OF NO IMPORTANCE; and Allison Pearson’s HOW HARD CAN IT BE?

Before I get to the book-talk, one of my usual pre-ambles. I promise this one will be briefer than the last, but I warn you, it is what some would consider political in nature, while, to me, it is not about politics, rather, it is about the criminals and bigots who are taking over the world.

I know it’s the thing now to bash social media, and it does most definitely deserve much bashing for the role it played in the thieving of the 2016 election and installation of the illegitimate and criminal 45 and his gop-jackbooted-cronies, those usurpers of the SCOTUS seat which ought to have gone to President Obama’s nominee, Merrick B. Garland, who the treasonous lot of rot-sucking no-good goppers, in an unprecedented move, wouldn’t even bring to the floor for consideration thus taking their evil to new heights — but I digress. Yes, Facebook (which I quit five+ years ago) and Twitter are in some part responsible for the decline of civility, the epidemic of tribalism, and targeted-marketed-brainwashing, BUT . . . it is because of Twitter and the Literary crowd who hang there that I have discovered some of my favorite reads and authors. And people.

All three reads in this post are the direct result of Twitter connections, friends, and recommendations; so, even though I have cut WAY back on Twitter, I just can’t give it up and risk missing reads like these.

The Queen’s Accomplice, Susan Elia MacNeal, Paperback, 368pp, October 2016, Bantam

How do I love Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope Mysteries? I would say “let me count the ways” but I have never been good at math and the list would reach numbers with which I am unfamiliar.

In this, the sixth of the adventures, a lunatic serial killer — or, as Maggie’s misogynistic co-investigator, Detective Chief Inspector James Durgin of Scotland Yard insists, sequential murderer — is copycatting Jack the Ripper’s brutalities, especially targeting those women who have been recruited to work as Winston Churchill’s spies, like Maggie herself.

And in 1942, as has always been the case during the horrific war, change and danger always await our heroine. Early on she is surprised by friends with the repair of what had been her grandmother’s home, damaged by blitz bombs. In no time, the same night as the surprise party in fact, Maggie’s dear friend, Chuck and her infant Griffin are moved in, having narrowly escaped being blown to bits by a gas explosion in their residence.

Meanwhile, Maggie’s half-sister, Elise Hess, is being tortured in a Nazi camp, having been captured working for the resistance. Near death, she is mysteriously released thanks to the influence of her conductor father, but there is a price to be paid if she wishes to remain free; she must denounce a patron of the resistance or be returned to the camp, and if she disappears, her fellow prisoners of whom she has grown fond will be murdered.

And, too, the mother of Elise and Maggie, the famous opera star and more infamous Nazi collaborator, Clara Hess, is, perhaps, not as dead as originally thought? And Maggie’s father is in hospital, having lost his …

I’m not giving you any more information. I want you to enjoy the layering of characters and situations, the intricate and ingenious weaving of plotlines, all expertly juggled by Susan Elia MacNeal, whose cunning disposition of storylines is also full of period detail and historical information, fascinating facts and particulars that enrich without distracting. Susan Elia MacNeal is one of those writers whose words create a film in the reader’s mind: You can see EVERYTHING she writes about so clearly, the characters are alive, the locations close enough to touch. She takes you there, into a very specific time and place, peopled by well-developed, wholly human, believable people.

Especially notable in this, number six in the series, the parallels with now. Maggie is assaulted — physically and socially/culturally/verbally — repeatedly by sexism and misogyny, there are men in power, with power, who are actively horrible, and, even worse (and still, so so so common), men who have no idea they are being horrible, who think it is their right to belittle others — women, in particular — and believe them to be less than. As horrifying as it is that seventy-five years later women are still dealing with this crap, it is absolutely terrifying that the methods and behaviors and words of the Nazis are being so closely recreated in the world now, especially here in the United States, where a wannabe oligarch/dictator has been illegally installed in an office not rightfully his, and has gone about destroying what makes this country this country, with collaborators everywhere.

So, while The Queen’s Accomplice is even better than the previous installments; unlike some series, in this one, each installment gets better rather than weaker, there is NEVER anything thrown-away/by rote in Susan Elia MacNeal’s writing. In addition to which, her writing is extremely entertaining, distracting even, it is also a warning about what we ought be resisting daily so as to avoid a repeat of the goings on making it necessary for Maggie Hope to undo these mysteries, and work undercover to sabotage the bad men’s plans about which Susan Elia MacNeal so skillfully writes.

I can’t wait to read number 7, The Paris Spy, which I have, and which I am, as I did with this, delaying until the next is released, which will happen on August 7. Yes, number 8, The Prisoner In The Castle, comes out this summer. Speaking of coming out, I worry that Maggie’s gay friend, David, will be outed and treated in the horrifying way gay people were then. But, I trust Maggie will handle that and protect him, as I trust Susan Elia MacNeal with my reader’s heart.

If you have not started reading Maggie, do. Go on, get busy.

A Death of No Importance, Mariah Fredericks, Hardcover, 288pp, April 2018, Minotaur Books

I read this because Susan Elia MacNeal blurbed the front cover calling the novel suspenseful and complex, and, as I’ve said, I trust her.

I wasn’t disappointed.

This is the first in a series of mysteries to feature the lady’s maid, Jane Prescott. It deals with the upper crust of society in New York City, 1910, and has wastrel, wild playboys, nouveau riche social climbers, anarchists, and a plethora of fascinating characters involved in a carefully plotted tale, rich in historical points, a vivid picture of a changing culture and a rip-roaring mystery. I might have figured it out before the ending, but I read a lot of mysteries. I’ll read a lot (I hope) of Jane Prescott tales, because, like Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope, Jane Prescott is a character you like, with whom you’re comfortable, who is often better than her surroundings and culture allow her to be, and you want her to win. And you want more of her. Wonderful character debut.

And, last but certainly not least, a novel which is not technically a mystery but, one could call it a comic/social issue thriller. My connection to this is that it was edited by the incomparable Hope Dellon who brings us Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series, and M.C.Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series, to both of which I am devoted. This is a sequel (of sorts) by Allison Pearson to her earlier novel, I Don’t Know How She Does It. This one:

How Hard Can It Be, Allison Pearson, Hardcover, 352pp, June 2018, St. Martin’s Press

This is the second novel about Kate Reddy, whose aging children and out-of-a-job, self-help guru-wannabe-in-training husband necessitate a return to the workforce after an extended absence during which she raised a family and turned forty-nine, an age not much in demand — one might even say shunned — in the workforce. Kate fudges her age and her resumé and ends up being hired on a temporary basis by the very same hedge fund she set up years earlier — unbeknownst to those now in charge.

This very, very funny novel hits on so many hot-button growing older, getting through adulthood experiences: the morphing body staring at you from the mirror when yesterday you were tight and twenty; the skin which is now crepe-papery and surrendering to gravity’s pull; the kids from one side pulling at you with their growing up pains and the parents pulling at your from the other with their growing old pains and you, in the middle, with everyone else’s pain to deal with leaving you little time to take care of your own, let alone the misbehaving spouse who is a different person than the one you married, and, maybe, the new version is a not very pleasant sort.

Kate has all of that with which to deal, plus a dilapidated “new” old home in the suburbs which her husband didn’t want in the first place, and the new job where she needs to maintain her semi-false identity and navigate the office politics, which, years later, are still rife with misogyny and backstabbing and credit-grabbing, and add to this list the onset of menopause, her own body tripping her up as she struggles through a return to the workplace and the changing shape of her family and relationships. And herself.

Oh, and then her long-absent near-lover with whom she is lustfully enamored, and who returns the feeling, shows up again.

Allison Pearson has a wicked sense of humour, and a finger (or, more-like, a fist) on the pulse of the Zeitgeist, and delivers a novel both breezily easy to read and recognizably, relatably today in its heroine’s concerns and conflict between her own needs and the demands of those around her/the world, as well as that universal conflict between how we see and think of ourselves versus the box into which the world and culture wants us to fit.

Funny, and without giving anything away, a happy,triumphant resolution — so,good on you Kate. And good on Allison Pearson for giving us a heroine whose humanity includes admitting and owning her flaws and errors with a sense of humour. I wish I were more like her.

So, there it is, my second book post in as many days after a month away. And, just like I had a Twitter connection with all three of these, coming next both a Twitter (two connections there, actually) and personal connection — a fantastic new Y.A. novel, first in an exciting new series by debut novelist Melinda Beatty, Heartseeker. I started yesterday and were I not struggling with the aging, fall-asleep-in-a-chair issue myself, I’d have finished it last night.

Now, off I go. It’s father’s day and so I need to take my dear mom out to lunch and give her the “you raised us alone so you get a father’s day gift, too” card/present. It’s a gift card to Boscov’s because a person can NEVER have too many blouses and earrings. I know this because my mom told me so.

So, here I am, going.

READING: So Little Time, and Less Patience

P.S. TO BEGIN — I started this post more than two weeks ago and have had difficulty motivating myself to finish, or, even, to middle. The world is in such a disastrous, hateful muddle at the moment that doing ANYTHING other than trying to right all the wrongs being committed seems frivolous. But, we must not let the bastards win by losing all of our joy while resisting. So, I’m finishing this damn thing. And now — to the ORIGINAL intro —

I’m not reading less, but I am remembering and writing about reading less, which I’m going to spend a few hundred words explaining. Feel free to skip right down the page to the red headlines which mark the start of my book talk.

There are quite a few books from April and May about which I have not written. About which — some of them — I’m not going to write. Here’s why.

Twice in recent weeks I have lost my phone. Not seriously, just two of those brief, five-minute or so episodes which each seemed an eternity. Once, I’d misplaced it, or, rather,  left it on the seat in the car, and another time it had fallen out of my pocket down beside a chair cushion.

More disturbing than the loss was my reaction; my immediate response to both losses was to think, “I need to call D—— [my sister], and get her to call my phone so I can find it. Of course, I didn’t have my phone so I couldn’t use my phone to find my phone, at which point I seriously contemplated the benefits of getting a back-up burner phone in case my primary phone was lost.

Seriously. Seriously?

After which over-reaction akin to the time years ago when I panicked because I didn’t have two bottles of wine in the house for the evening and realized I might have a problem, I determined it was time for some serious self-inventorying and examination of how I was spending my time and on what I was spending my energy and attention.

Aside from the clear indication I am reading too many thriller/mystery novels in which burner phones play a role, here’s what I came up with: My memory is not what it was. I misplace keys, walk out of a room to get something and forget what it was by the time I get where I thought I was going, names and words are just out of reach, lost in the maze of all the roiling memories and worries occupying brain-space, and fewer and fewer books are bringing me the joy most books once brought. I have been abandoning more and more books at the 50 page mark, too, finding the characters all seem alike, difficult to keep track of, the stories less interesting, rarely fresh, the voices too MFA-ed into alike-ness, and the writing and structure all too formulaic, calculated, and lacking emotional heft.

And, even with those I finish, as it is with my phone and keys and people’s names, I find that in a few days I can’t remember them. For example, someone was talking to me about a book which sounded just wonderful, and when I went to look it up, there it was on my Goodreads list; I’d read it three weeks before and didn’t remember a thing about it.

So, here I am, going to write about only those books that imprint enough on me to last at least until I get around to blogging. Not in this to hurt anyone’s feelings, so I won’t be listing those books I don’t finish or which don’t do much for me. One very good reason: taste in literature is so dependent on life-experience and mood and current circumstance, some very good books don’t move me, and some books others might find a complete waste of time, keep me good company. So, I’m sharing the ones I most appreciate, and allowing that those I don’t are not necessarily “bad books” — but, rather, like most of the men in the world, I’m just not a match for them.

So, on with the book talk. IF YOU’RE SKIPPING THE PREAMBLE, THE BOOK DISCUSSIONS BEGIN HERE!

Speak No Evil, Uzodinma Iweala, Hardcover, 215pp, March 2018, Harper

If you have reached your quota of LGBTQ coming out tales and tragic endings at the hand of a bigoted, homophobic, racist culture…TOUGH. Read Speak No Evil anyway because its voice (Well, voices, more later on that.) speaks from a heart/soul-truth while describing a journey and experience all too familiar in impact if not specifics for too, too, too many queer and black people.

Niru is the son of Nigerian parents who hold extreme religious beliefs. His privileged life in Washington, D.C. is interrupted after he finds the courage to come out to his best friend, Meredith, when she initiates sexual moves. Soon after, Meredith installs Grindr on Niru’s phone, but when his father discovers sexually explicit messages on Niru’s phone he explodes his life, forcing him to return to Nigeria — a country where homosexuality is against the law and punishable by fourteen years in prison or death by stoning — for a religion-based cure.

Niru is torn between the truth of who he is and the propaganda with which he’s been brainwashed, as well as his desire to please the parents he loves and live up to the example set by his much praised and adored older brother. Even his excelling at track and early admission acceptance to Harvard is not enough, he knows, to protect him from his parents’ and the world’s homophobia, and the culture’s inherent racism.

Late in the book Niru’s narration ceases and Meredith takes over and what seemed at first another coming of age novel/Bildungsroman becomes a tragedy in a twist that seems not one-hundred-percent earned, or, rather, somehow out of place, as if we are now in a different book than that which we started.

Both would be worth reading, and the topics of homophobia and racism and privilege and religious terrorism are more than in need of literary/artistic illumination but as much as I liked this novel, it wasn’t quite. As in, it seems to be pieces of what might have been different, better novels, finally cobbled together in a way that doesn’t do any of its threads the justice they deserve.

Still, read it. Because it matters.

Some Hell, Patrick Nathan, Paperback, 288pp, February 2018, Graywolf Press

Okay, I hear you, another LGBTQ coming of age novel? Yep. Listen, for centuries we’ve had to — for the most part, in America at least — read about the world from the perspective of the white heterosexual male, they who — for the most part — made up the canon, were embraced by the critics and academics, heralded as the touchstones and benchmarks of literary fiction. Well, Holden Caulfield did nothing for me. Updike and Roth, not interested. Jonathan Franzen, overrated and myopically self-involved. No. As a young queer, I suffered fear each time I heard the sneered put-downs of Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams because they were that way; I knew I too was that way and was terrified someone would point it out. It wasn’t really spoken about openly by Capote and Williams, and they didn’t — for the most part — include it in their work, and they (and most of the other examples of that way I had then) were clearly miserable human beings, unhappy, addicted, outliers and freaks, but they were allowed to be homos at all only because they also owned artistic genius, which I, as a child (and now, as an adult) clearly did not, so my being that way was not going to be okay with anyone, anywhere as far as I could see or tell. My only option was to work on being a genius, and escape to New York or Hollywood where they seemed to be a club of outcasts to which I could — were I genius enough — belong.

Point being, there can’t be too many LGBTQ books as long as there are still places and people in the world who either live in the same kind of fear and loneliness I did, and/or are subjected to the bigotry of others who would have LGBTQ people return to those closeted, hunted, haunted times. You know, like 45 and his gop minions and moronic supporters?

Now, Some Hell is definitely NOT a feel-good book. Sex, suicide, dysfunctional, dissolving families, despairing survivors, and a search for self which leads to dark, dangerous misadventure and sorrow fill the pages. But the writing is searingly honest, etching difficult emotional truths on the heart and mind of the reader.

Colin’s father has killed himself, for which Colin feels responsible, and he is working his way through the notebook/journals his father kept in the office where he shot himself. Too, young Colin is in love with his best friend, who, after something sexual happens between them, distances himself. This passage:

When he passed Andy in the halls, love was the word for the hurt flowering inside him. Naming it made it grow, and to go with his hell he now had a heaven where he and Andy had not parted but admitted to one another what they had, what they could be, and despite his shame he refused not to reimagine that night, not to rewrite it how he wanted. It felt even more real than his hell as it burst all over his chest and dried sweetly in a handful of Kleenex.

That’s poetry made of tragedy and just one example of the intensely beautiful languaging in which Patrick Nathan tells this heartbreaking story. Why read something so difficult? Because, sadly, the impact and shape of the passions and spiritual perturbations in the story — if not the specific details — are part of what form many gay lives, many of all kinds of lives, perhaps yours, and to read it will give you the gift of knowing you are not alone.

I next read Noir, by Christopher Moore, and I’m not going to say a lot about it except that while it started off feeling clever and parodic, it ended up feeling like someone had taken one of those flashes of ideas for a glorious story which eventually show themselves to be not so flashy or glorious after all, and gone ahead and written the book anyway, letting it out into the world with a sort of “meh, it isn’t what I meant it to be but here it is.”

The Only Story, Julian Barnes, Hardcover, 253pp, April 2018, Knopf Publishing Group

The Only Story falls into the category of The Graduate, Summer of 42, the older woman – younger man stories, but is darker, elegiac but in a cynical, cold, near heartless way. This, when years after their first joining as accidental tennis partners and purposeful lovers, Paul visits Susan, now near her end:

…I think I am now probably done with guilt. But the rest of my life, such as it was, and subsequently would be, was calling me back. So I stood up and looked at Susan one last time; no tear came to my eye. On my way out I stopped at reception and asked where the nearest petrol station might be. The man was very helpful.

Sorry to be misandrist, but that’s the sort of thing men feel and write and do. And reading it — albeit it’s the last paragraph, so, took me long enough — made me realize just what it was about this novel I disliked. Older man/younger woman, not even worth much of a nod, let alone an entire novel, let alone a novel imbued with a feckless misanthropy and emotional ennui, Paul having learned little but how not to feel much, worried instead about running out of gas.

And, perhaps that is Mr. Barnes point, but a hellish nasty point and attitude it is. It isn’t as if he hasn’t warned us all the way through:

That’s one of the things about life. We’re all just looking for a place of safety. And if you don’t find one, then you have to learn how to pass the time.

Let alone I take issue with the way the above is punctuated, I take more issue with the jadedness of it.

I’m finishing this post with

My Ex-Life, Stephen McCauley, Hardcover, 324pp, May 2018, Flatiron Books

Reading Stephen McCauley is like hanging out with that friend who not only has the best stories, but also tells them in the most fascinating, entertaining way, with a unique perspective, who, also, manages in the telling to articulate and illuminate things in that way that makes you say, “Yes! That’s exactly what I always felt but didn’t know how to say it!”

It is a fiction of recognition. And it is great fun. Well done. And you know from the start that the conclusion is going to be uplifting, as in, not one damn more tragic ending please.

In San Francisco, David has been deserted by his younger boyfriend for a bigger bank account and his rented home is about to be sold which will leave him homeless and loverless. His ex-life calls in the shape of Julia, his long-ago, brief wife, now mid-divorce, also in danger of losing her home and, one way or another, her daughter Mandy — yes, after the Barry Manilow song. She needs his help. He needs to get away. They come together in a new way, find closure for the old way, and they and those around them find new ways of defining family, friendship, loyalty, and trust.

It’s a great premise, and Stephen McCauley is a lovingly empathetic cultural critic who writes hilariously insightful dialogue. Now, I can hear some of you saying, “Pull a quote.” And, I would, but the humour and wit and insight are so woven into the context that to pull-quote it is reductive and does it a disservice. You know I never lie to you, so, trust me, this book is full of grins, giggles, a couple of guffaws, and genuine “gotchas” at the world’s foolishness, greed, cruelty, and — you get the picture. Now, get the book.

I smiled all the way through this book, and in this day and time, smiling for any reason is a huge bonus. Get this one. Hold it close. Let it give you a literary hug.

Then, GET BACK OUT THERE AND RESIST! Which is, where, here I am, going.

(Coming very soon, another post about Mariah Fredericks’ first in a series (to which I am much looking forward) novel, A DEATH OF NO IMPORTANCE; and Susan Elia MacNeal’s 6th in the Maggie Hope Mystery series (which I very much LOVE), THE QUEEN’S ACCOMPLICE; and Allison Pearson’s follow-up to I DON’T KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT (which I never read) called HOW HARD CAN IT BE?, which was quite a balm. Stay tuned. Non-spoiler alert — all 3 were kickass good.

 

Reading: The Captives by Debra Jo Immergut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Which Meg Wolitzer writes. Really damn well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, the second four-star read:

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

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

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

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

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And now, Joan Didion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading: Five Books to Finish February

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love and Light.

Reading: When People of the Light, Write

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading: 2 Debut and 1 New to me Novelists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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