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.

 

 

 

Reading: Vanity, Humanity, Urbanity

Reading The Vanity Fair Diaries, by Tina Brown; The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, by Denis Johnson; and Neon In Daylight, by Hermione Hoby, which are reads number 4, 5, and 6 for 2018 and that makes for four new releases and only two from my backlog/older books resolution; so, next up I have James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room on top of the pile, waiting to go.

The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992, Tina Brown, Hardcover, 436pp, November 2017, Henry Holt and Company

I’m not quite sure how or why, but one day in my mailbox this showed up, a gift from Henry Holt and Company. I felt all aflush with self-importance, briefly deluding myself I’d achieved Literati status, recognized as an influencer, someone who mattered, a small-pond version of the very sort of person Vanity Fair has always covered.

I was quickly disabused of said delusion when the other thing in the mailbox was a notice of a fine being charged for falling below the minimum balance in my bank account. And so it goes for most of us, on the one hand imagining that at any moment one’s fame-ship will come in, while on the other hand daily coping with the drudging monotony of keeping one’s head above water, which dichotomous struggle perhaps explains the appeal of Vanity Fair.

When Tina Brown was called from London to rescue the quickly sinking revival of the magazine which heyday had ended in the mid-1930s, there was much snark and snipe in the vicious world of New York media. But Brown had her finger on the pulse of the Zeitgeist and her focus on the beautiful and the aspirational, with some Hollywood and international royalty, scandal, and hard news thrown into the mix, created a publishing behemoth, raking in subscribers, ad revenue, great writers and photographers, and exclusives throughout the age of Reagan and the wretched excess of selfish me-firstness that resulted in the collapse of markets and bubbles, which somehow managed to give birth to the atmosphere that’s landed this country with a bigoted, ignorant white supremacist fascist in the White House and his like-minded, equally venal and avaricious, jackbooted cronies and racist, moronic followers supporting his nefarious, treasonous destruction of what once was America.

Ironically, the latest version of Vanity Fair has done all it could to take down 45, while, arguably, this magazine was part of creating the slimy milieu which gave birth to him; he was much covered in the 80s version. A problem here being this conundrum: Was Tina Brown’s contribution her uncanny ability to spot trends, or, did she help to manufacture them — the fads, the people, the behaviors — by determining them worthy of coverage and assaulting us with them?

I leave those questions for sociologists in the future — on the off-chance we have a future — and suggest to you that whether or not you’ll enjoy the book has to do with where you were and what you were doing from 1983-1992 and how you feel about it now. When Vanity Fair re-booted in the 1980s I was living with my aunt with whom I shared a Dorothy Parker/Algonquin Round Table obsession; we imagined the new Vanity Fair heralded a renaissance of witty, literate writing and a more sophisticated cultural discourse. Alas, this was not to be. So, for me, reading these diaries and remembering the covers and articles of which Tina Brown writes, brought on a melancholy, because not only did shallow grasping stay in vogue, but, too, it was the decade when AIDS got its terrible claws into the country and exposed just how bigoted and hateful a country, its government, and many of its people could be.

And look, now, we haven’t learned a thing, have we?

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, Denis Johnson, Hardcover, 207pp, January 2018, Random House

I confess that I have never read Jesus’ Son or anything else Denis Johnson has written, but I know he has a cult of devoted — obsessive, even — fans. I get that and were I at a different place in my life, or, were the world in  better shape than it is, the relentless hopelessness and sorrow that serve as foundation to all these stories might not have made them almost unbearable for me.

That said; I wish I could achieve one iota of the beautiful artistry conveyed in every of Denis Johnson’s words, choices, silences, and ideas. His use of language is breathtaking in its ability to convey worlds in so few words, and lives in so few pages, and I would go on, but there are far more skilled reviewers of books and writers who have gone at some length concerning the glory of Denis Johnson’s writing, and this slim and posthumous volume in particular, and so I leave you to them and their wisdom.

For me, the sad, bleak, hopelessness of these dark worlds was too much, too heavy to make worth it the admittedly brilliant writing. That’s personal, so to speak further to it is unfair to Denis Johnson and anyone considering reading this volume — which could serve as master class in the art of short story writing.

Neon In Daylight, Hermione Hoby, Paperback, 288pp, January 2018, Catapult

Three things you know if you follow my book discussions/blog: 1) I have chosen a simple life which means I live on an income level below poverty and so buy books only with my closely guarded gift card collection and only those by authors I know I love and must have, or, that I cannot otherwise get and feel I MUST read: such was the case with Neon In Daylight, which was not available through the library.

2) Another thing you’d know were you a follower of mine is that I am obsessive about my adoration for Joan Didion, and, too, Renata Adler’s novels. So, when a blurb compared Neon In Daylight‘s author, Hermione Hoby, to those two writers, I was further encouraged to use my gift cards for purchase.

3) And, one more thing you’d know if you followed me, I have developed a healthy distrust for blurbs — but, there are some exceptions; Blurbs by Writers I Admire and Trust. So, when Ann Patchett blurbs a book, comparing it to The Great Gatsby and Bright Lights, Big City, I listen.

In addition to all that, it also had going for it that it took place in New York City, which usually is enough to reel me in, and it was an Indie Next pick.

Maybe my expectations were too high.

New York, 2012, Kate has arrived in Manhattan, from England, where waits for her return a boyfriend she is mostly sure she means to leave behind permanently. She becomes involved with wasted, alcoholic, used-to-be writer, Bill, and meets cute the hedonist, hipster, free-spirit-near-nut-job, Inez, who turns out to be Bill’s daughter.

For me, the voices were just slightly off; the ennui wasn’t eviscerating in the way Joan Didion can make emptiness feel with its diamond sharp edges cutting through all the distractions meant to hold our attention, those actions in which we indulge to keep us from noticing the vacancies in the middle of our lives and hearts, but, rather, in Neon In Daylight, the ennui came across more as apathetic tedium, the characters rather tiresome whiners. It was more pose than actual life-experience and felt put-on, played at.

That said, the writing was in many places marvelous. But, right now, for me, reading about vapid urbanites completely self-absorbed in their dissatisfaction with their privilege is not something in which I am interested. And New York wasn’t so much a character as it was an idea we were left to fill in.

I think this the work of a promising author whose first effort comes close to something but doesn’t — just for me, now — quite make it over the finish line of having spent gift card money on it.

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And there it is, 2018’s books 4 through 6, all new. I have already finished reading numbers 7 and 8, both back-list, and will be posting about those as soon as I can get to it. Busy life right now; it’s all I can do to squeeze in time to read, let alone write about reading. So, on that note, here I am, going.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And for now, here I am, going.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Reading: 2017 Revisited

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

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

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

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

Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk, Kathleen Rooney

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

Less, Andrew Sean Greer

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

Running, Cara Hoffman

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John Boyne

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

Unforgivable Love, Sophfronia Scott

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

 

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

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

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

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

Woman No. 17, Edan Lepucki

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

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

Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

Glass Houses, by Louise Penny

Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading: Catching Up, sort of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes. That.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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