Reading: So many holds, so little time

I’ve read eight books since last I book-blogged and I am close to catching up with my hold list from the library. Which I have STOPPED adding to so that I might get to a stack of books I own which have been patiently awaiting my attention. I’ll try to keep this short. Here goes.

The Moviegoer, Walker Percy, paperback, 242pp, originally published 1961

This won the 1962 National Book Award for reasons that escape me. I found the title character, Binx Bolling, to be unbearably idiotic and misogynist. I thought the writing was dull and clunky, the symbolism heavy-handed. Not for me.

A Most Novel Revenge (Amory Ames #3), Ashley Weaver, Hardcover, 320pp, October 2016, Minotaur Books

I read the first Amory Ames mystery in March of last year, somehow missed the second, and picked up this, the third, on a whim from the library when I was there to get some holds. WHY DID I PICK UP ANOTHER BOOK WHEN I HAVE SO MANY HOLDS? Well, I love cozy 1930’s English mysteries about wealthy folk and add to that milieu a novelist and libertines, compare the sleuthing main character, Amory, and her husband to Nora and Nick Charles, and, well, I’m hooked. I confess, however, that when I picked this up I had no idea I’d read the first in the series, and, even as I read, I did not recall the first. It was only when adding it to my Goodreads list I realized I’d read the beginning of the series, and even on reading the synopsis, I only vaguely recalled it. BUT, that’s okay. This one was fun, a light, witty, amusing, distracting bob-bon, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it beats the hell out of The Moviegoer.

Faithful, Alice Hoffman, Hardcover, 258pp, November 2016, Simon & Schuster

I don’t know how the only other book I’ve read by Alice Hoffman is The Story Sisters, but there it is. I saw her speak at Frederick’s Speaker Series, and I am devoted to the film of her novel, Practical Magic. I quite liked this. Alice Hoffman walks the line between thaumaturgy and daily reality, conjuring happy endings from tragic circumstances. She writes with a great faith in the resiliency of the human spirit, and her heroine, Shelby Richmond, lives a journey riveting, heartbreaking, and hope-giving in this book. We need happy endings right now, so I just might pick up some more of Alice Hoffman’s work — once I get through my holds and my own patiently waiting books.

Superficial: More Adventures from the Andy Cohen Diaries, Andy Cohen, Hardcover, 357pp, December 2016, St. Martin’s Press

Okay, sue me, I am addicted to a number of Bravo’s Real Housewives of … series, which are produced by Andy Cohen. He makes me laugh. And I figure that if Anderson Cooper is best buddies with him, he must be a good time. So, I got this — also on a whim while picking up holds — and for the first half or so, I was amused. Then, what felt to me like a real lack of appreciation for the privilege in which he lives started to wear me out. Which, I suspect, has an equal amount to do with my envy of someone who can buy and remodel apartments in New York City while I can’t pay off a tax bill for which I am being dunned or afford rent on the near hovel in which I live. That said, this book is what it is and doesn’t pretend to be anything else, and that’s a good thing.

Lincoln In The Bardo, George Saunders, Hardcover, 343pp, February 2017, Random House

This book has been buzzed about for months, received rave reviews, and was much loved by people whose opinions I respect. It is indeed imaginative and very different from most things I read or have ever read. Does that make it the masterpiece people are calling it? I don’t know. I liked it. The writing is — no question — quite beautiful and brilliant and ingenious and poetic and dramatic and often riveting. The plot is to do with Lincoln’s son Willie, who stays in limbo with other souls refusing to face the realities of their deaths, and President Lincoln returns to the crypt to hold and mourn his dead son. But that is misleading, as it is really a framework for a much larger exploration of the lives and deaths and disappointments and delusions of an entire culture which manages in its fanciful, ferocious execution to be startlingly relevant to the current state of the world, this country, human consciousness. Definitely a should read for everyone. (But I STILL say the books of the year are LILLIAN BOXFISH TAKES A WALK by Kathleen Rooney [CLICK IT HERE]  & RUNNING by Cara Hoffman [CLICK IT HERE].)

Swimming Lessons, Claire Fuller, Hardcover, 350pp, February 2017, Tin House Books

I have long followed Claire Fuller on Twitter — when I was on all the time, before this hiatus I am taking, we Tweeted in the same circles. I hesitate sometimes to read books by people who I “know” — but, deep breath and sigh of relief, reading Claire Fuller was a rewarding decision. And, apparently I am not the only one to think so, as the HOLD LIST at the library for this book was longer than the one for Lincoln In The Bardo.

The premise: Twelve years after Ingrid Coleman disappeared from her marriage and family, her husband thinks he has seen her. She has left letters to her husband, Gil, a philandering author, in the thousands of books he owns — one of which has ended up in a second-hand bookshop; he is holding said book in that bookshop, having discovered the letter inside, when he thinks he has seen Ingrid through the window and chases after her, taking a serious fall. His daughter, Flora, who has never believed her mother dead, comes home to take care of her father and discovers (along with us) the truths and deceptions and secrets of her family.

Jumping back and forth between present day and Ingrid’s letters from the past, Claire Fuller illuminates a tessellation of detail and particulars in a fast moving but slow reveal which makes for compelling and engrossing reading. This book also happened to have a few things I love dearly: crazy authors, obsessive collectors of books, and erudite writers of letters. I resented every moment I was forced to spend away from this book once I’d started it, so, make sure you have ample time for reading.

I am rather thrilled that I’ve Claire Fuller’s first novel to look forward to, Our Endless Numbered Days.

The Night Ocean, Paul La Farge, Hardcover, 400pp, March 2017, Penguin Press

Too long. An amalgamation of fact, fiction, history, rumor, research, imagination, reporting, and fabrication, The Night Ocean purports to be the story of (fictional) Charlie Willet, author of a book exploring the relationship between (real) H.P.Lovecraft and (real) Robert Barlow, but it turns out Willet has been duped and becomes obsessively determined to untangle the web of deceptions and impostures surrounding the lives and legacies of Lovecraft and Barlow, one of whom might or might not be dead, or have talked to Willet, who, himself, like Barlow (maybe?) committed suicide. Or did he? What might have been fascinating non-fiction reportage or intriguing fiction, becomes a confusing admixture of neither and both and it ultimately feels repetitive, confusing, and TOO LONG.

The Stranger In The Woods: The Extraordinary Story Of The Last True Hermit, Michael Finkel, Hardcover, 224pp, March 2017, Knopf Publishing Group

Having spent the last seven years downsizing my life, recently reducing even more my contacts with the world, and seriously contemplating deeper retreat into solitude, finding less and less purpose or reason in the acquisitive, grasping culture in which we live or the measurements by which that culture judges success and achievement, I was fascinated by the premise of this book.

In 1986 a 20-year-old hikes into the woods of Maine, where he lives in near-complete solitude for almost 30 years until he is arrested during the final of the thousands of burglaries he had committed over the decades in order to feed, clothe, and warm himself.

Once he is captured people are divided in their feelings about him and the years of thievery, the fear he caused among the population from whom he repeatedly stole. There is fury and anger, and there is sympathy and admiration. There is speculation he is autistic, mentally ill, a genius, a fraud, a savant.

What there is not is any clear — or even vague — answer as to why he did what he did. Michael Finkel is near relentless in his effort to connect with Chris Knight, but the not-quite-hermit is uninterested in being explained, or explaining himself. He did what he did and it was what it was and the need of modern culture to psychoanalyze and parse every emotion and action, to determine a why and bestow a label, is part of what Knight was determined to leave behind — or, so it seems to me. He is not — was not — interested in the sort of mass-market introspection and categorizing which defines modern society, he wanted just to be.

Once he was forcibly returned to the “real world” he understandably had a difficult time merging back into a structure where he is ruled by statutes and etiquette and niceties he had eschewed for most of his adult life.

Michael Finkel tells the story and quotes Thoreau and psychologists and experts aplenty — too many, in fact — and so this ends up feeling bereft of emotional heft and more of a stretched-thin research project or magazine article, padded with expert opinion that does little to illuminate what we really want to know; Why did he do it? What effect did it have on his family? Who is this man? Exploration of which might have made this book better resonate with that part of all of us that wishes to disappear, be left alone, enjoy some silence.

AND IN CONCLUSION . . .

So, that’s it and there it is, the eight books I have read so far in March. I tried to keep it short, and I suppose, for me, 1700 words is pretty short. Now, back to my stacks. Love and Light, dear ones. Here I am, going.

Reading: February Final Reads/Roundup

In this edition I will be talking about PRINCESS ELIZABETH’S SPY, by Susan Elia MacNeal, and AUTUMN, by Ali Smith, as well as briefly recapitulating about and linking to my earlier February reads. But first, a word from my ego and superego, brought to you by my id.

I’ve a good reason for being a few days late with February reflections: I’ve been revisiting and reevaluating my life, an undertaking which has required being present in each moment of my physical reality, an effort which — while rewarding, illuminating, and renewing — results in a need for peaceful, quiet disconnecting, a positive sort of hermiting born of self-affirming and nurturing considerations rather than those triggers of fear and panicked retreating which have so often been the driving forces of my life.

But, I will spare you a fifteen-hundred word blathering about my personal journey and get on with being my book blogger self. The first of the two books from February about which I’ve not yet written was:

princess-elizabeths-spyPrincess Elizabeth’s Spy (Maggie Hope Mystery #2), by Susan Elia MacNeal, Paperback, 352pp, 2012, Bantam

What a pleasure it is to get reacquainted with old friends. I read of WW2 heroine Maggie Hope’s inadvertent adventuring into spydom in December of 2016 in Mr. Churchill’s Secretary and fell quite in love with both character and author. I’d discovered Susan Elia MacNeal on Twitter where her delightful posts and irresistible smile kept popping up in my feed because many of the bookworld types I follow followed her, and so, eager to sit at the table with the cool kids, I Continue reading

Reading: 10 Days, 4 Novels, And A Depression Memoir

In this post I’ll be talking about DIFFERENT CLASS by Joanne Harris, HISTORY OF WOLVES by Emily Fridlund, PERFECT LITTLE WORLD by Kevin Wilson, INFINITE HOME by Kathleen Alcott, and THIS CLOSE TO HAPPY:A RECKONING WITH DEPRESSION by Daphne Merkin.

different-classDifferent Class, by Joanne Harris, hardcover, 416pp, Touchstone, April 2016

It’s an unenviable burden to be the book I read immediately after I’ve just finished a five-star-can-I-marry-a-novel-legally sort of experience; the kind of falling in love I did with Cara Hoffman’s Running. [You can read about it HERE.] So, to be fair to the writer, I try to go in an entirely different direction, most often heading into genre-land — though I am not so much a fan of categorizing writing — and I turn to writers who have successfully created worlds and milieus they revisit and further develop in series. Thus, having read an essay in which Joanne Harris was compared to Patricia Highsmith, I thought it high time (Oh dear, I didn’t mean to do that.) I sample her work. Too, I’ve a weakness for books about British schools and what goes on there, which, in concert with my fondness for murder/scandal procedurals made Different Class seem the ideal choice. And although it took me a while to adjust to its rhythms — which I attribute to detoxing from the genius of Running — I was Continue reading

Reading: Cara Hoffman’s RUNNING

runningRunning, a novel, by Cara Hoffman, hardcover, 288 pp, Simon & Schuster, February, 2017

Every so often we dedicated, obsessive, addicted readers are gobsmacked out of literary complacency by a writer’s voice so new, so different, so arrestingly outlier we rediscover the joy of being book-crazy.

The first for me occurred in my early teens when I read Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays. Three times in a row. For decades I tried to infuse everything I wrote with Didion’s sardonic meticulousness, a spare, surgical precision of language and illuminating detail, all of which were built on a foundation of unrelenting despairing over the diminution of hope and possibility of basic, human goodness in the world . Of course, I failed.

It took the encouragement and insight of a writer and writing teacher, Bart Yates, during a summer I spent at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, to finally allow me to embrace my own voice; a style that is Balzacian in its digressions and parenthetical ramblings, circuitous and discursive, because I think and see reality in that way: tessellation layered on tessellation, variously opaque and transparent depending on the angle of approach, fluid, kaleidoscopic, without edges or boundaries, morphing into something new between the first and final word of each sentence. I work by piling on stratum, like coats of paint but in slightly different shades in slightly different shapes, a pentimento which, I believe, is the result of having spent a life talking to people I thought spoke my language but who, it turned out, received from me messages I never meant to send or say. It is, I know, difficult to believe when reading my words the amount of time I spend re-writing and editing; but I do. I cut everything I write by at least a third after the first draft.

Now, while I’ve found encouragement from the occasional reader, literature professor, and some book-world professionals, much as I never found the man with whom I could form a lasting relationship, I also never found the agent who said, “Yes, this is a voice I think I can sell.” There is no doubt that my writing, like my personality, has a limited, short-term trick sort of appeal. But it is, without question, writing that could come only from me.

All of which is to say, when one reads a hundred books a year and comes across a voice and work so unique one is forced to read and think in a new way, it is cause for celebration.

From the opening pages of Cara Hoffman’s Running, there was Continue reading

Reading: Sunday Three-way Quickies

Lately, I find the world to be overwhelming, and so, I decided to take yesterday, Sunday, February 5, off. I never picked up my smart phone, never turned on my lap top, avoided as much TV as I could (it was on in another room, so I heard/saw it a bit), and other than showering, and making and cleaning up after dinner, I did nothing but read. I finished three books. Here they are, in order.

all-the-birdsAll The Birds In The Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders, hardcover, 320pp, January 2016, Tor Books

Though published over a year ago, this novel comes uncomfortably close to current events; so much so, as its darker elements unfolded my body began manifesting stress reactions; tight chest, flipping stomach, nervous need to move a lot: which either means I’m crazy or the book was really well written. I suspect it was a little of the former and a lot of the latter.

The story is built of the foundation of the relationship between Patricia Delfine, who is adept at magic — in particular, controlling the elements of nature, and Laurence Armstead, who is a brilliant scientist/inventor. They first meet as children, lose touch through what seems like betrayal and plotting against them, and reunite accidentally (or not) in young adulthood by which time Magic versus Science has become a conflict which threatens the continuation of the world as we know it.

I don’t want to give too much away, but I found particularly fulgent the construction of the Magic and Science divisions. As with the world today — say, Democrats and Republicans — there were schisms within each side, good and bad, with plenty of gray area folks, including the two main characters. Both Patricia and Laurence behave in ways that are less than ideal, and, too, both perform acts of dangerous selflessness. It is not a spoiler to say that when the two at last find union, there comes at the world a devastating event of unknown origin; almost as if the fates of our main characters were tied to the survival of humanity. Hmmm.

But, it’s not all heavy and dystopian-lecture-y like so many novels of this genre can be. Charlie Jane Anders is often hilarious. Here, one example:

Trust hipsters to make even the collapse of civilization unbearably twee.

Damn, I wish I had written that line. Look, I’m not doing justice to this novel. What is great about this book is the way in which Charlie Jane Anders builds worlds and describes events that would qualify this as science fiction/fantasy in such a natural, organic way it defies categorization, its elements eliding also into romance, satire, and literary fiction. Here’s a thought: How about we do with novels what we ought to be doing with people? Stop categorizing.

All The Birds In The Sky is a fast, compelling, provocative, steamy, witty, thought-provoking read by a literate and gifted author who tackles big ideas in a way that is sneakily entertaining. And, while just a few months ago, a novel built around a possible world war might have seemed inconceivable, sadly, now, it feels nearly documentary.

And terrifying.

history-is-all-you-left-meHistory Is All You Left Me, by Adam Silvera, hardcover, 294pp, January 2017, Soho Teen

For my second read of the day, I chose Adam Silvera’s debut, More Happy Than Not, enjoyed it, admired it, and was waiting impatiently for his next novel. I wasn’t disappointed.

Griffin and one of his best friends, Theo, fall in love and confess/come out to one another cute on a subway ride. Theo leaves for college on the West Coast. Starts seeing Jackson. Theo dies. Griffin and Jackson hate each other, resent each other, and have only each other to understand what the loss of Theo feels like. Griffin is suffering from compulsive behaviors and is keeping secrets and holding onto guilt that exacerbates his self-destructive choices.

Okay, I’m a sucker for Young Adult gay romances. I read them and revel, overjoyed that young queers today have this literature to affirm them. I did not. Adam Silvera writes with a smooth, engaging style and it is clear from this novel he understands compulsions and the emotional roller coaster they cause, the dangers they present.

I am also a sucker for clever structuring of novels. This story would have been too much to take (in my opinion) done in a straightforward, linear timeline way; Silvera cleverly moves back and forth in time, beginning with Theo’s funeral so we know what we’re in for from the very beginning and can steel ourselves for its eventuality. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t weep more than once while reading.

I am also a sucker for weeping. And, finally, a sucker for hope and love and light, and Mr. Silvera leaves us with a healthy dose of all three.

classClass, by Lucinda Rosenfeld, hardcover, 352pp, January 2017, Little, Brown and Company

And the third book I finished for my nothing but reading Sunday was Class. I suppose this is a terrible thing to say — especially since I said just paragraphs above we ought to quit labeling people — but I have very little patience reading about the angst and problems and emotional journeys of privileged, heterosexual white people.

I know. I feel bad about it, but there it is.

That said, Lucinda Rosenfeld writes about those problems with damn fine technique and packs in plenty of plot and emotional heft, and there are endless hilarious lines skewering the class-conscious characters about whom she writes. She is quite ruthless in delivering incisive and trenchant commentary on the vapidity and callous self-involvement of those very privileged, heterosexual white people about whom I don’t much want to read.

The main character, Karen Kipple, wants to be ethical, do the right thing, reject the casual cultural racism and classism by which she finds herself infected, and makes her torturous way through the landmine-filled challenge of modern life. Lucinda Rosenfeld does not try to make Karen likeable, or forgivable; she gives her plenty of flaws, lets her be petty and selfish and self-justifying as she struggles with her liberal hypocrisy.

This book is smart, brutally honest, and made me sad. I know Karens. There are — no doubt — pieces of Karen in me, and what made me uncomfortable and unhappy while reading, is that we are now living in a world where there are people defending and embracing and encouraging the kind of prejudices and fears those Karens are fighting.

Which is why I had to take a day away from social media and news and the real world.

So, there you have it. What I did with my away-from-the-world Sunday: read three books that didn’t quite take me as far away as I’d hoped because world war might be right around the next Twitter-fit, and prejudice and class-warfare and blatant hypocrisy just won an election, and all the advances we LGBTQ have made since I was a teen, seen in Mr. Silvera’s novelistic world, are being threatened by those elected.

Seems I’m not too great at escaping. Which is why I started medication. Now, if only it would do something other than make me feel a bit off and short of breath. But, patience. Love and light, dears.

Here I am, going.

 

 

Reading: Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk

lillian-boxfish

Click on pic to be taken to the page for Lillian Boxfish at St. Martin’s Press

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, by Kathleen Rooney, Hardcover, 287pp, January 2017, St. Martin’s Press

Let me begin by saying this is my first 5-star read of the year and I know there is no way I can possibly do it justice. You must read it. My library copy, here beside me, is thick with sticky-arrows where I wanted to write in the margins or underline one of the many beautiful sentences and passages, thus, I am saving my pennies to buy my own copy so I can return to and revel in it again and again, as I do with the works of Helene Hanff, Dorothy Parker, and the correspondence of William Maxwell with both Eudora Welty and Sylvia Townsend Warner. I loved it — no, LOVE it, present tense.

Of course, I would. These are some of the other things in life I most love: books and great writing, New York City — especially historical New York City, people who are erudite, witty, literate, well-bred, empathetic, kind but not cloying, strong of spine and conscientious of character, who recognize and own their strengths and flaws in equal measure, going about their lives without indulging in whiny, navel-gazing excuse-making.

Lillian would have none of that. Here is the synopsis of the novel found on Kathleen Rooney’s website [click here to go there]:

It’s the last day of 1984, and 85-year-old Lillian Boxfish is about to take a walk.

As she traverses a grittier Manhattan, a city anxious after an attack by a still-at-large subway vigilante, she encounters bartenders, bodega clerks, chauffeurs, security guards, bohemians, criminals, children, parents, and parents-to-be—in surprising moments of generosity and grace. While she strolls, Lillian recalls a long and eventful life that included a brief reign as the highest-paid advertising woman in America—a career cut short by marriage, motherhood, divorce, and a breakdown.

A love letter to city life—however shiny or sleazy—Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney paints a portrait of a remarkable woman across the canvas of a changing America: from the Jazz Age to the onset of the AIDS epidemic; the Great Depression to the birth of hip-hop.

In this post 11/9 tragic election world gone mad and cruel and hateful, what a joy to find relief and solace in a well-written, spellbinding novel.

While Lillian’s walk is a journey through the city she loves, it is even more an exploration of the time she has spent on earth as she approaches her life’s end. The tarriances during her odyssey — walk and life — range from touching to tragic, and are always fascinating, insightful, and revealing, and often quite funny. Her descriptions of landmarks in the city are viscerally evocative, transporting the reader through time and space in a way nearly magical. Her language resonates with the patois of a smarter, more sophisticated reality where wit, savvy, good breeding, and  literacy were valued, a world in which one was not only allowed to aim higher than the lowest common denominator, but expected to want to do so, to aspire to learnedness and enlightenment. Lillian’s outlook and world are blessed antidote to the deplorable and disastrous embrace in this country of ignorance and pig-headed refusal to evolve being paraded as traditional values and patriotism; Lillian would not tolerate such fatuous asininity, and neither shall I.

There are so many gorgeous passages in Kathleen Rooney’s novel, I am loath to quote one because it will require I make a Sophie’s Choice among so many glorious sentences; too, it will deny you the pleasure of first discovery. Still, I feel I must give you an inkling of the treasures that await you, so, here, near book’s end when Lillian has been asked to appear on a panel about the history and future of advertising.

“I’m afraid I’ve arrived unprepared to defend my approach to writing ads,” I said, “never mind the very concept of professional responsibility, or the practice of simply treating people with respect. Therefore I’m compelled to defer to the au courant experience of my two successors. Please, ladies, resume the accounts of your efforts to unwind the supposed advances of civilization and return us consumers to a state of pliable savagery. Who knows, perhaps some young lady who watches this program will take up where you leave off and find a way to ease us all back into the trees with the orangutans, who I gather are deft hands at the fruit market. With luck and hard work, perhaps we’ll even recover our old gills and quit terrestrial life entirely. Back to the sea! That Florida swampland Mother bought may prove to be a good investment after all. In any event, I wish you both luck in your quest. I will not be keeping track of your progress, however. My interests, such as they are, lie elsewhere. To be clear, it’s not that I no longer want to work in the world that you’re describing. It’s that I no longer want to live in the world you’re describing.”

That paragraph alone pretty much sums up my feelings about the world today. And it is not the only time in Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk when Lillian speaks for me; or, speaks as I wish I could have or had spoken. I have, I think, not aged as well as I might, but, too, not as badly as some people of my acquaintance seem to think. So, if you will indulge me, one more Lillian quote (as translated by the extraordinarily gifted Ms. Rooney):

I think I look all right. But who’s to say? The insouciance of youth doesn’t stay, but shades into “eccentricity,” as people say when they are trying to be kind, until finally you become just another lonely crackpot. But I’ve always been this way.The strangeness just used to seem more fashionable, probably.”

Exactly. The thing I found so very special and marvelous about this book is that Lillian’s mordant and perceptive observations about life, time, culture, relationships, and herself describe better than anything I’ve ever read that space in the soul and mind and consciousness in which each of us lives, that private haven, the solitude of self where we must balance what and who we think we are with the perceptions of others about what and who they think we are, and, too, find a way to fit the largeness of all the possibilities and dreams of our secret, private, unseen souls into the world in which we’ve been thrust, the circumstances we’ve been given, the limitations we face. I don’t know about you, but for me, that has been life’s journey; questioning if what I am seeing and thinking and feeling is “true” when, so often, the rest of the world doesn’t quite see it that way, doesn’t quite get it, doesn’t quite get me.

I got Lillian Boxfish. And, I like to think, she’d get me. And, trust me, you want to know her. Buy this book. Don’t borrow it or library it: BUY IT. You will want to mark pages and make notes and return to it again and again when you are feeling in need of a wise and dear friend.

For more on this novel and author, click HERE to check out Bethanne Patrick’s conversation with Kathleen Rooney at Literary Hub.

 

 

Reading: My (Part-Time) Paris Life by Lisa Anselmo

my-part-time-paris-lifeMy (Part-Time) Paris Life: How Running Away Brought Me Home, by Lisa Anselmo, hardcover, 256pp, Thomas Dunne Books, October 2016

I saw this book on display at the library while I was perusing the new releases. Now, here’s the thing; I was there to pick up three books I had on hold, three books which have worked their way up on my have to read and to be read lists, the contents of which I get to in between tackling the piles of books I already own and need to read. All of which is to say, the last thing I need is to check-out or buy a book on a whim. I’ve really been trying to exercise self-control, limit myself to five checked-out library books at a time, no more than five on my library hold/wait list, and purchase only those books by authors with whom I interact on Twitter or whose work I know I have to own — members of which club I will never reveal to anyone but Duchess Goldblatt and my local booksellers at The Curious Iguana.

But, Lisa Anselmo’s memoir called out to me. First, I’ve a lot of experience at running away. Second, I have always wanted to do the ex-pat thing and will likely never be able to — I’ve a near dead passport I probably shouldn’t spend the money to renew as I have never once used it and likely never will; so reading about those who have followed their travel, change-my-life dreams assuages my inner-aching a bit. And third, it’s about a complicated relationship between a mother and child, and losing that mother, which is a life-event I dread and for which I am (foolishly, I know) trying to prepare myself.

So, I checked it out. I’m awfully glad I did. Here’s the synopsis from the publisher’s site:

Lisa Anselmo wrapped her entire life around her mother, a strong woman who was a defining force in Lisa’s life—maybe too defining. When her mother dies from breast cancer, Lisa realizes she hadn’t built a life of her own and struggles to find her purpose. Who is she without her mother—and her mother’s expectations?

Desperate for answers, she turns to her favorite city—Paris—and impulsively buys a small apartment, refusing to play it safe for the first time. What starts out as an act of survival sets Lisa on a course that reshapes her life in ways she never could have imagined. Suddenly, she’s living like a local in a city she thought she knew, but her high school French, while fine for buying bread at the corner boulangerie, goes only so far when Paris gives her a strong dose of real life. From dating to homeownership in a foreign country, Lisa quickly learns it’s not all picnics on the Seine, and starts to doubt herself—and her love of the city. But she came to Paris to be happy, and she can’t give up now. Isn’t happiness worth fighting for?

In the vein of Eat, Pray, Love and Wild, My (Part-time) Paris Life a story is for anyone who’s ever felt lost or hopeless, but still dreams of something more. This candid memoir explores one woman’s search for peace and meaning, and how the ups and downs of expat life in Paris taught her to let go of fear, find self-worth, and create real, lasting happiness in the City of Light.

This was a quick read, written as if a friend was sharing her life history over a few bottles of wine and a long, leisurely dinner. And there are plenty of bottles and dinners in this memoir. I loved the descriptions of Paris and her time there. That’s one part of the journey, but, too, there is a great deal of introspection and self-examination about her emotional journey. It might be difficult for some people to relate to someone who can afford to have residences in both New York City and Paris, neither of which are cheap, neither of which would ever be affordable for most people, let alone both, but reading about privileged lives doesn’t bother me. I enjoy it.

What everyone can relate to is having a parent and finding one’s own way and own voice. Growing into yourself and embracing your strengths, believing you can do and be what you’ve dreamed is a struggle for most people, and when you’ve had a less than affirming and encouraging parenting — even if approval was withheld out of the best intentions  — the journey becomes even harder, and much longer than the distance between New York and Paris, and so noisy with the voices in the head whispering (or shouting) “You’re not enough!”

I argue with those voices all the time. We all do, I am betting. So, Lisa Anselmo’s memoir is a comfort with the many moments of, “Yes, I feel that way, too!” And to have that identification and recognition of a shared experience come in the shape of a witty, warm, well-written travel and dream journal is very much a good thing.

A fast read with a happy ending, and, better, knowing we can still get out of this country and go somewhere else — right now, just what I needed. I guess I better had renew that passport, if they’ll let me, since the administration of that election-stealing, russian conspiring asshat just erased the government’s apology for past discrimination against the LGBTQ community. No doubt those gop-bigots-misogynist-homophobes are already planning on sewing the pink triangles on me and mine and gassing us.

 

 

Reading: A Perilous Undertaking: A Veronica Speedwell Mystery

perilous-undertakingA Perilous Undertaking: A Veronica Speedwell Mystery by Deanna Raybourn, 352pp, hardcover, Berkley Books/Penguin Random House, January, 2017

First of all, I really enjoyed this book, the second in a series, and I liked this one even more than the first,  A Curious Beginning, which I liked a lot.

Deanna Raybourn is a gifted stylist, an accomplished writer whose erudite prose flows  with seemingly effortless glisten, glitters with sly and subtle wit, all the while propelling clever and fast-paced plots which are full of surprises and period detail both fascinating and informative.

Veronica Speedwell, Butterfly Hunter, is an irresistible character, independent of spirit, steely of spine, with an intense appetite for life, and she does not suffer fools. Her cohort, Stoker, tattooed, eye-patched, long-haired, hot-bodied historian, is equally intriguing. Both have mysterious (though, eventually, revealed, at least to each other) heritage and stubbornly intense opinions and ethical-behavioral codes which sometimes conflict and clash, but just as often coalesce, all of which serve to confound each other and the reader — or, at least, this reader, who wants nothing more than for the two of them to finally strip naked and make Victorian whoopee.

Here is the publisher’s synopsis:

London, 1887. Victorian adventuress and butterfly hunter Veronica Speedwell receives an invitation to visit the Curiosity Club, a ladies-only establishment for daring and intrepid women. There she meets the mysterious Lady Sundridge, who begs her to take on an impossible task—saving society art patron Miles Ramsforth from execution. Accused of the brutal murder of his artist mistress Artemisia, Ramsforth will face the hangman’s noose in a week’s time if Veronica cannot find the real killer.

But Lady Sundridge is not all that she seems, and unmasking her true identity is only the first of the many secrets Veronica must uncover. Together with her natural historian colleague Stoker, Veronica races against time to find the true murderer—a ruthless villain who not only took Artemisia’s life in cold blood but is happy to see Ramsforth hang for the crime. From a Bohemian artists’ colony to a royal palace to a subterranean grotto with a decadent history, the investigation proves to be a very perilous undertaking indeed….

Like I said, I enjoyed this book immensely, but not just because of all those reasons I’ve cited. It also struck a very personal note with me. Let me try to explain as succinctly as I can.

Other than reading, one of the things I do to maintain my sanity — and I will not, here, be drawn into a debate about the success of those efforts — is to collect on Pinterest and Tumblr photos and documentation documenting and celebrating the presence of LGBTQ people throughout history.

We have always been here, we’ve just been rendered mostly invisible or, when seen, portrayed as other, perverted, criminal, outside the norm by a culture ruled in large part by a white-male-hetero-normative christian partriarchy, near fascist in its insistence on what constituted normal, what was allowed and approved.

In my youth, the prevalence and repetition from media, my church, and my community and family of the message that being not quite male enough — which later transferred into being gay — made me other and was, somehow, wrong and rare and outside the norm, distorted the way in which I saw myself, the way in which I approached life. I have always thought of myself as less than, an outlier, in danger because of who I am and how I behaved and loved; and even now (hell, especially now since November 8) I must be on guard every day, every moment, and work to remind myself I am enough.

I wish that in my youth I had had examples in media, in life, in the thousands of books I read, of queer people who were not criminal or mentally ill or villains. I wish I’d had access to a literature in which queer people were just queer people, living their lives, a part of the world not hidden or other.

We existed. Throughout history. Throughout time. And, too, so did strong, independent women with healthy appetites for life and sex and adventure. Women who made their way being strong, being themselves, and were not burnt as witches or tarred and feathered.

Deanna Raybourn has written just such a woman. And, not only that, she’s given her (and Stoker) live and let live, enlightened attitudes about queer love. In a Victorian setting. And reading it today gave me hope. Reading it today reminded me the world has always had people in it of expansive mind and attitude. Reading it today made me appreciate even more Deanna Raybourn’s gifts as writer (and human being) because she sees and writes Light. She sees and writes and makes visible the hearts and characters who have not been seen and written nearly as much as they ought to have been throughout history.

Deanna Raybourn manages to write power in a way not polemical or preachy, but simply truthful and robustly human and real. I wish I had had this to read when I was younger, and I am ecstatic that it exists now.

(I was not sent a pre-publication copy of this book; I got it for myself. While I follow Deanna Raybourn on Twitter, and she follows me, we have never met and rarely interact, in fact, often when I comment she does not reply — nor should she, that’s not a criticism, merely me letting you, the reader, know I am not a shill, just a fan of a gifted writer. Thanks for reading.)

READING: Who Killed Piet Barol? by Richard Mason

mason-richard-who-killed-piet-barolWho Killed Piet Barol, Richard Mason, 384pp, hardcover, Knopf, January 2017

Short version: In Who Killed Piet Barol?, Richard Mason effectively uses sumptuous prose for a piquant and sub rosa dissection of identity and differences, suspicions, and disrespect within and between cultures.

Now, for the longer version. Who Killed Piet Barol? resonates on many levels, one being a tale about the exploitation of a culture by a privileged interloper, a plot which feels incredibly relevant but not in a cheap, sensationalized, pulled-from-the-headlines way. Rather, this is a presentation of the history of the despoliation of hallowed ground — literally and figuratively — with the plundering of a sacred site and the accompanying dissolution of the morality of multiple characters.

Here is a synopsis from the author’s website: RICHARDMASON.ORG:

Pretender Piet Barol and singer Stacey Meadows are making a splash in colonial Cape Town but are running out of cash. With creditors at their heels, their furniture business is imploding and only a major win will save them. So Piet enlists two Xhosa men to lead him into the magical forest of Gwadana in search of precious wood.

Meanwhile the Natives Land Act has just abolished property rights for the majority of black South Africans, and whole families have been ripped apart. Piet’s charm and appetite for risk lead him far beyond the privileged white world to a land and community that sees him with new eyes.

A novel about the truth in magic and the enduring consequences of lies, Who Killed Piet Barol? is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson in the UK (September 2016) and by Alfred A. Knopf in the US (January 2016).

It speaks to Mr. Mason’s authorial gifts that despite the repellent acts Piet Barol commits and his situational amorality, because of his ultimately inadequate attempts to “do right”, the reader can still feel sympathy for him as victim (cooperative, or not) of the prejudices and distortions of his culture. That he is neither hero nor villain is further contextualized by comparison to other characters who share his cultural milieu; his wife, Stacey Barol; their friends and clients, Percy and Dorothy Shabrill; and, finally, Frank Albemarle, corralled into the circle by Stacey to save a situation she may have cursed.

In counter-voice, there are the Xhosa natives; Ntsina Zini and LuvoYako, the two of whom are in Piet’s employ (and collude with him) as he ravages the magic forest, and Nosakhe Zini, village witch doctor; Sujude Zini, Ntsina’s father; the Jaxa clan, in particular the daughters Bela and Zandile. They, like the Piet-collection, are fully-drawn with all the charms and flaws, goodness and sinfulness, full range of shortcomings and virtues most human beings have.

While it is illuminating the way members of each culture view the other as other, the Xhosa even calling the Dutch (and others) The Strange Ones, almost any writer might have accomplished a portrait of that tension (though certainly not with the fluidity and grace of syntax and language Mr. Mason has managed.); what strikes to almost breathtaking degree about Mr. Mason’s take are the ways in which each culture is conflicted within itself — there is disunity and misunderstanding and deceit and disinformation inside each group, sowing the seeds which lead ultimately to devastating loss to and in both communities.

Too, while the human voices are by turns fascinating, witty, elegant, carnal, passionate, and intense, there is also an anthropomorphization of the sacred trees, the insects, the animals, the forest, the elements, the weather, so we hear their cerebration in equal weight with the biped thoughts. I hesitate to mention this because some might call such voicing (and some other elements of the tale) magic realism, but this reader finds that term off-putting, too often code used to describe a twee or navel-gazing tone, narcotizing and infuriatingly self-indulgent. Not the case at all here where the multiple perspectives mesh in a compelling harmony.

The novel is a literary symphony of many themes, introduced, echoed, enhanced, and amplified as they are interwoven, these individually fascinating and enchanting motifs which, finally, in ways surprising and seamless, crescendo into an arrangement of captivating discord a reader will find both beautiful and terrifying in its truth.

Who Killed Piet Barol is a unique read, wrought by a skilled charismatic of literature who is deftly able to conjure complex worlds and guide the reader on a journey which, like all the best travel, not only informs and expands one’s own reality, but leaves one with additional questions and new ways of seeing.

 

READING: 2016: The Comfort of Words

I was one of those book-loving children, oft told, “Why don’t you go outside and play?” Well, perhaps because outside in the real world I felt, at best, tolerated, while,  inside books, I celebrated with friends who saw life like I did and, more important, their stories promised the possibility of belonging and thriving with people of my own kind, a comfort I hadn’t yet found in my day-to-day life where my earliest memories have to do with hiding who I was and how I felt.

While much is different, right now, it seems too little has changed. And 2016 has left me once more burrowing into the comfort of books, resisting the world outside my little bubble wherein I can keep believing the world is made of Love and Light, and all people are, at the core and essence, good.

I read 125 books in 2016 and whether or not it was this cursed year itself distracting me, or perhaps my advancing age and weakening faculties, only a few made lasting impressions. As I go through the list there are many about which I recall very little, except disappointment. In 2017 I intend to be more careful about taking recommendations because often the books about which others are abuzz do so little for me as to infuriate me into believing I’ve been misled by shills or ad placements masquerading as journalism. But, I’m not going to talk about those books, this is about the books I loved — or, if I didn’t exactly love them, I was moved, influenced, impressed.

What Belongs To YouBOOK OF THE YEAR: WHAT BELONGS TO YOU, by Garth Greenwell  There is nothing more to say. I started talking about it while reading the first pages in January and I haven’t stopped since. And many esteemed critics, publications, and remarkably literate people of exquisite taste have also loved it and included it on awards and year-end lists. Click here for my original post about it from February 1, 2016.

AND OTHER LOVES . . .  I’m not going to do a top ten or anything like that. This is a casual chat between friends about the books I remember most and most fondly from the past twelve months.

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, by Elizabeth Strout was a study in emotional precision. In a not very long book, Ms. Strout told many stories about the ways in which love can fail. And survive. With not one wasted word or space.

WAYS TO DISAPPEAR, by Idra Novey was one of my very favorite novels of this year and NPR agreed, including it in the Best of 2016. It’s quite a bit more than that. Shaped of incongruously and impossibly beautiful sentences begging to be read out loud, this novel is layer upon layer of truth and effect and reality and fantasy and a literary banquet of pathos and ecstasy quite unlike anything else I’ve ever read. I read it twice in a row, which I rarely do, because there is so much there there.

Click here for my original write-ups about My Name Is Lucy Barton and Ways To Disappear.

There was a longish dry-spell for me from February to May during which the books I read were not — for the most part — awful, but they didn’t get me really excited. Then came May and:

Tuesday Nights in 1980TUESDAY NIGHTS IN 1980, by Molly Prentiss which was engaging and intriguing and filled with well-drawn and fascinating characters, and a compelling existential conundrum: What makes us who we are? If we lose the gifts and quirks we think define us, what’s left of us? And it was hella fun too, set in the art world of the 80s with kick-ass detail and capture of the era. This, too, like What Belongs To You, and Ways To Disappear, is a debut novel, and, like those, it is written with an assurance and command promising even more greatness in the future. I can’t wait for the second releases from these three. Click here for my original write-up about Tuesday Nights In 1980.

Next, during the summer, I fell in love with:

THEY MAY NOT MEAN TO, BUT THEY DO, by Cathleen Schine which was the first of her writing I had read and I loved that it had an octogenarian main character and explored the guilts of parenting, childhood, and family so well and with such tenderness, truth, and humor. And, too, the summer brought me:

THE EXCELLENT LOMBARDS, by Jane Hamilton which was another grand and touching exploration of family dynamics.

Click here for my brief write-ups about They May Not Mean To, But They Do and The Excellent Lombards.

And, finally, my summer was made fantastic by the release of:

A GREAT RECKONING, by Louise Penny which is the twelfth in the Inspector Gamache series. Armand Gamache and his creator, Louise Penny, are both people I would like to be. This series is so much more than a chain of mysteries; it is the embodiment of a world, a community, a magical place difficult to find because it is largely unmapped and out of reach of wi-fi — a dream world full of marvelous people who are quirky and brilliant and angry and flawed and human and friends. I feel they are my friends, my people. Click here for my original blog about A Great Reckoning.

September brought me a wonderful new (to me) writer recommended by Ann Patchett, who happened to have her own September release. But first:

dream-lifeTHE DREAM LIFE OF ASTRONAUTS: STORIES, by Patrick Ryan which was a glorious collection, unconnected but connected. I went on and on about this book in my original blog — Click here for my write-up about Mr. Ryan’s The Dream Life Of Astronauts — but do you really need me to tell you read this when Ann Patchett has already told you to? Get busy. Then, if somehow you haven’t, it’s time for:

COMMONWEALTH, by Ann Patchett herself. This is another exploration of complicated family dynamics and angers and loves and losses, like so many of the books by which I was moved this year, and it is unsurprisingly brilliant. Ms. Patchett’s deceptively simple style is incredibly complicated and complex, with an eye for detail and the telling moment un-equalled today. Click here for my original blog about Commonwealth.

Now, the thing. My next much-moved-by books were read in November and since the election I have been unable to focus enough to blog about books. I have been reading like a mad-man. Which, in many ways on many levels with many different meanings, I am. I am near crazy from the results. Flabbergasted and disbelieving, still in denial. I am angry unto furious as in enraged that the election was stolen and, far worse, that sixty-two million people in this country are bigoted, misogynist, homophobic, Islamaphobic, racist, mocking the differently-abled, okay with sexual predators, cretins. I don’t want to hear any excuses about how not everyone who voted for him is all those things — for me, that is bullshit. He clearly exemplified all of those horrifying traits, and/or appealed to those who did and if they voted for him, they are at some level guilty of those things. It is horrifying to me. HORRIFYING.

So, as I finish this up, there are no book-blog-entries to which to refer you. I am reading to numb myself, like I did as a child, and to convince myself that a world and a people exist where I am welcome and honored. So, here we go:

underground-railroadTHE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, by Colson Whitehead which was almost as brilliant as everyone said it was HOWEVER, I remained bitter and didn’t read it for quite a while because I thought Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You should have made the short list and won, hands down. I still do, but Mr. Whitehead’s work was definitely salient and topical and relevant and well-done.

mothersTHE MOTHERS, by Brit Bennett made me laugh and cry and rage and lust and all the things a grand novel ought to do. I read it in that rarer and rarer “what’s going to happen next” mode, I had to keep going. I found its construction fascinating and the characters compelling and I liked it much more than I had expected to — because it had been so hyped, I feared it was another pet of the insiders club. Maybe it was, but this one deserved it. And, then, from Twitter-folk I found –

phantom-limbsPHANTOM LIMBS, by Paula Garner which was another very promising debut novel by a writer I heard about from Twitter (although we do not follow each other) and I am glad I believed and took a chance on this one. Again, a plot in which one of the main characters has lost a close family member — little surprise that this interests and touches me — but there is nothing maudlin or cloying or manipulative in this, and Ms. Garner captures the voices of teens quite brilliantly.

And so ends my 2016 wrap-up. I know there are a few days left, but I am not going to finish another new-to-me book. I am busy re-reading Helene Hanff and Garth Greenwell.

I re-read Ms. Hanff every year because she takes me back to my past, when my dear aunt and I shared books, passed them back and forth, talked about them, and marveled. My aunt believed I would move to New York and be a Broadway star or a writer or someone who somehow managed to live at the Algonquin. She’d wanted to be Edna St. Vincent Millay and I wanted to be Dorothy Parker-slash-Mary Martin. What was most amazing about the two of us, the love we shared, was that for each other — to each other — we already lived at the Algonquin and were our own versions of Millay-Parker-Martin.

I would very much like to have such a love again. I never have come close. I doubt I will.

So, there’s another part of me which makes soul-connections, usually brief, intense, naked and raw and passionate in an entirely different way, and that part of me seemed to be known and understood and written about from the center of truth by Garth Greenwell in What Belongs To You. It spoke to my soul. And it was a fantastic piece of literature with transparent and glorious technique.

So, I’m hanging on by a thread by blanketing myself in Hanff and Greenwell, memories of what was (and wasn’t) and trying to believe believe believe that maybe, some day, I can feel connected again and welcome in the world — despite the sixty-two million assholes who wish me gone, consider me unequal, and voted to abrogate my rights.

I’m being told by a few the equivalent of “Go outside and play” but I am not so inclined. Not right now. So, here I am, NOT going. And, although I want to say Happy New Year, I dasn’t tempt fate.