Reading: The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

In addition to its gorgeous prose, this novel boasts an exquisite design, its jacket’s bullet holes hinting at the ravishing and fascinating landscape beneath.

The Twelve Lives Of Samuel Hawley, Hannah Tinti, Hardcover, 480pp, March 2017, Dial Press/Penguin Random House

It is appropriate that Hannah Tinti grew up in Salem, Massachusetts, because this novel is a feat of sorcery which cast its spell on me with its compelling emotional clamour,  hypnotizing me, binding me to its terribly flawed characters in ways and for reasons I am still trying to parse, and after having finished it in twenty-four hours during which I resented to the point of anger any interruption to my reading, it continues to haunt me.

Here from the Penguin Random House site is a synopsis:

Samuel Hawley isn’t like the other fathers in Olympus, Massachusetts. A loner who spent years living on the run, he raised his beloved daughter, Loo, on the road, moving from motel to motel, always watching his back. Now that Loo’s a teenager, Hawley wants only to give her a normal life. In his late wife’s hometown, he finds work as a fisherman, while Loo struggles to fit in at the local high school.

Growing more and more curious about the mother she never knew, Loo begins to investigate. Soon, everywhere she turns, she encounters the mysteries of her parents’ lives before she was born. This hidden past is made all the more real by the twelve scars her father carries on his body. Each scar is from a bullet Hawley took over the course of his criminal career. Each is a memory: of another place on the map, another thrilling close call, another moment of love lost and found. As Loo uncovers a history that’s darker than she could have known, the demons of her father’s past spill over into the present—and together both Hawley and Loo must face a reckoning yet to come.

Truth: I checked it out from the library because Ann Patchett blurbed it and she is one of the blurbers whose blurbing integrity I trust. She did not mislead me on this one when she said, “Hannah Tinti proves herself to be an old-fashioned storyteller of the highest order.”

And what a story. But equally riveting as are the tales of each of Hawley’s scars, is the artistry in the way Hannah Tinti shapes the story. She connects the past and the present with precision of language and detail and stunning command of metaphor.

Every section is beautiful, and each builds on those preceding, soaring to new heights, in the same messy and terrifying way life happens. Hanah Tinti’s greatest feat — for this reader — is the way she makes vital and urgent recklessness and chaos of these characters’ lives while using such accomplished literary technique; and, making literary fiction as pressingly turn-the-page exciting as a potboiler.

The Bullet #5 chapter is heartbreaking and stunning. By the time it’s over your heart will have been four times broken for four different characters; two younger ones confronted with the doomed doppelgängers of their potential future selves. To read the line, “She said to stop stealing cars, and doing other bad stuff. Otherwise I’d end up like you.” and feel its weight, its surprise, its perfection, its heft of emotion and hard, hard, nearly impossibly and unbelievably hard truth is to know you are in the hands of a great writer.

There are many varieties of love — father/daughter, spouse/spouse, mother/daughter, teen first crush to teen first crush, love of danger, love of nature, love of friends, love of holding on to hate — explored and limned with careful and meticulous particularity in prose that holds one hostage, gun to the head, forcing you to keep reading, keep reading, keep reading.

Fantastic, five-star novel. I’m no Ann Patchett (or Richard Russo, Meg Wolitzer, and Ruth Ozeki, all of whom blurbed it as well) but you can trust me not to lead you wrong on this; READ IT NOW!

 

 

 

Reading: It’s always, I say, personal essay

Dear ones (and strangers); warning, the book considerations (One Of The Boys by Daniel Magariel; What You Don’t Know by JoAnn Chaney; Death Of A Ghost (Hamish Macbeth #32) by M.C.Beaton; and The Gargoyle Hunters by John Freeman Gill) are prefaced by a long personal essay. Feel free to skip it, or feed me to an ocean mammal, or, whatever. I get to the book talk down where you see the first red headline. Skip past the blues, my darlings.

Someone I follow on social media recently opined that people who love personal essays ought to be done away with by fancifully defecatory method, which opinion I reflexively liked, adding to its hearts of approval. I liked it because it seemed the hip thing to feel, its writer is so smart and cool and I wanted their approval, and, too, having suffered through reading one (million) too many navel-gazing pieces of TMI self-indulgent bullshit personal therapy in magazines and on-line, well, it does seem this world of people endlessly self-involved and over-sharing in a culture given purchase by Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey and People-fucking-magazine should, maybe, shut the hell up.

No more than thirty seconds after liking said quote and snarkily thinking my ugly thoughts, I realized I was exactly the kind of personal essayist they detested. I detested? I felt a little broken. Maybe, a lot broken and a little rejected. Maybe, a lot rejected and irreparably broken?

But, here I am, going. I try to shut-up, really I do, all the time. For example, at great emotional cost, I have refrained from revealing my fear that the bupropion’s initial euphoric effect has faded, that my old dysthymia has kicked back in and I am on a down, waking up weepy, tears again my first response to almost any feeling at all. Too, this relapse having attacked around my birthday, I haven’t gone on about my Mom not having called me on my birthday to sing to me — which she has done for years and years — and how it triggered the memory of the year my aunt, Sissie, didn’t send me a birthday card with ten dollars in it — which she’d done for decades — and how she died before my next birthday.

I could have sworn it was Fran Lebowitz who said this?

That’s a lot of long personal essays I have confined to my head, not spoken about to anyone, held inside. And it doesn’t touch on being done dirty by someone, Fellow A, mostly out of my league, who convinced me to see him regularly, no commitment, just fun, even though I told him I didn’t want the risk factor of feeling things and trusting someone ever again. I should have adhered to that practice because it was my birthday week when Fellow A chose to hook-up with another someone I see once in a while, Fellow B, who is completely out of my league and who Fellow A knew I was seeing on a particular day and then pursued him, causing completely out of my league Fellow B to stand me up to be with mostly out of my league Fellow A. I get it. I’d have picked either of them over me, too. But, here’s the thing, I knew that despite them both being younger, prettier, and far better-bodied than am I, they would hate each other. They did, and Fellow A called me thirty minutes after they’d started to say they’d stopped without achieving hook-up goal and could I meet him?

I actually considered it. It is exactly what I’d have done ages ago, when I still thought Prince Charming — meaning someone I didn’t deserve and for whom I would suffer anything because he was doing me a favor being with me at all to any degree — was a thing. A real thing. Which I no longer do having lost any number of Prince Charmings to their wives, their internalized homophobia, and in the case that finally finished my belief in any sort of fairy(not a joke)tale ending, lost the love of my life to a combination of all of the above and a self-inflicted bullet to the brain. But Fellow A knows none of this, and so when he asked why was I hurt since I was, he said, the one who’d insisted we stay casual, since I was the one, he said, who had repeatedly denied his requests for strings attached and the possibility of love, I didn’t answer the question. It was all true. I was, as he said, the one who said no commitment, no strings. But, that was entirely irrelevant. It didn’t excuse his knowing I was meeting Fellow B and purposely undermining that.

But, mine is not to judge. I’m exhausted from a lifetime of judging and being judged. So, I didn’t say, “See how right I was? Why would I want strings attached or love with someone who would think this was an okay thing to do to prove a point?” Instead, I said:

I wish you’d known me when love might still have been a possibility.

He didn’t apologize. Why would he? And I didn’t agree to meet him. Why would I? And he messaged me on my actual birthday saying he was sorry he’d been so busy the past few days, he’d contact me soon. Which, of course, he hasn’t. He won’t. And, it’s okay, I wouldn’t answer anyway.

Or, I don’t think I would. Which worries me.

You see, I think the bupropion has stopped working. And the rash I’ve had since January is still unexplained and spreading, still making me look like a leper or leopard, and I’m scheduled for a skin biopsy April 27th by which time I will likely be one huge red splotch. And my mom didn’t call me, or send a card — which she can’t because she’s nearly blind — but, you see, I take her card shopping for my other relatives, read her the cards, write her message as she dictates it to me, help her scrawl her signature, mail it for her — and I was hoping —

Never mind. It doesn’t matter. It’s too personal essay of me to keep on about this. I ought to stick to writing about the books I read, I guess, because someone I follow on social media who I want to think I am cool and worthy of their attention, they dislike personal essays. Which post made me realize how much of my life I have spent trying to win the approval of people I’ve basically made up, imagined into being, onto whom I’ve projected the power to make me worthwhile — mostly people who have no reason to consider whether or not they approve of me — they don’t know they are peopling my imaginary reality.

So, enough personal essay, I guess. Except, it’s who I am. I can’t shut up. I’ve always had the compulsion to babble through my joys and sorrows, to imagine there are people eager to follow this journey of mine.

I don’t know. I’m no Didion, I get that. And, well, not slouching toward, but, here, I am. Going. But rather than to Bethlehem, more likely to Bedlam.

One Of The Boys, Daniel Magariel, Hardcover, 167pp, March 2017, Scribner

As I’ve often said, blurbs make me nervous and suspicious. I feel as if blurbs ought be required to reveal the relationship between author and blurbist: Did they workshop together? Teach at the same university? Share an agent or publisher or editor? I want to know. So, this novel having a back cover full of praise from George Saunders, Dana Spiotta, and Justin Torres (among others) simultaneously impressed and terrified me. I’m also obsessively interested in Acknowledgments and Thanks sections, reading them before the novel itself, and Daniel Magariel thanked his editors — which makes me inclined to like the book — and mentioned two of his blurbists having been his teachers — which makes me suspicious about how much investment they have in promoting one of their chosen MFA darlings, and most important (in this case) mentioned his agent, who happens to be an author I much admire, Bill Clegg, who, without knowing or meeting me, graciously and kindly inscribed an ARC of his glorious novel, Did You Ever Have A Family, for me.

So, I entered the pages of this very fast read comfortable that it would be a worthwhile experience.

On the one hand, this is a novella, or, even, a long short story. On the other hand, the story is so relentlessly dark, dire, and depressing, had it been much longer I’d have abandoned it as I did A Little Life, which I found to be a pointlessly emotionally mangling pain-porno of despair and the evil of humanity without even a glimmer of hope or redemption. Also, I find it particularly distressing to read about child abuse and there are detailed episodes of beatings in One Of The Boys which turned my stomach.

When faced with a novel centered around repugnant behaviors by vile characters, I ask myself, “Is there some purpose to this which justifies the ugliness?” If some balance or palliative rationale for the monstrousness is not clearly present early in the narrative, I stop reading. Had this been longer, I would not have finished it.

That said, it was indeed beautifully written. It manages the feat of  imbuing its voice with a literary fiction quality while still having the straightforward, raw tone of a voice which is emanating from a frightened and damaged child’s point of view. The particularity of detail in the exploration of emotional abandonment, misplaced trust, and the slow, painful stripping of belief that takes place in the heart and mind of the abused is harrowingly wrought. The prose is carefully paced, its rhythms artfully calibrated at propulsive, urgent pace, compelling the reader forward even as the horrors pile up.

So, the writing? Commendable and accomplished. The emotional cost of reading it? High. The suggestion of redemption or purpose in the work to justify the horror? Not enough for me. But, that is ME, my thing, my hangup. If you don’t share it, by all means, read this book. If you DO share it, be careful when reading; steel yourself and have a light read ready and next in your stack.

What You Don’t Know, JoAnn Chaney, Hardcover, 320pp, February 2017, Flatiron Books

The problem was, I did know. As soon as the character was introduced it was obvious who was doing it and why. Also, full disclosure, I don’t take stories about  torture-porn and empty-eyed psychopaths or sociopaths well. My fault for listening to the many huzzahs and recommendations and reading this.

Good things: The author is clearly talented. She handles multiple-alternating points of view with aplomb and she moves the story along.

Bad things: clichéd relationships, particularly among the detectives, law enforcement characters. I found the female reporter character to be less developed than she might have been — clearly the victim of a misogynist culture, in the narrative it was almost as if she was being punished for being ambitious. It made me uneasy.

Bottom line; talented writer, first novel, relied on old tropes and boiler plate police procedural chestnuts. Here’s hoping having gotten that out of the way her next effort’s plot and characters will be more worthy of her gift.

Death Of A Ghost (Hamish Macbeth #32), M.C.Beaton, Hardcover, 272pp, February 2017, Constable

32nd in a series? I am flabbergasted by that number. Too, this is the author who writes my beloved Agatha Raisin series, of which there are 27 so far. M.C. Beaton has sold more than 20 million books worldwide.

So, I suppose it’s okay that Hamish didn’t do it for me. He’s no Agatha Raisin, which I know is too great a burden to impose on him. I found this novel hard to follow — which, no doubt, would have been easier had it not been my first dip into the Hamish Macbeth world.

And what do I know? I haven’t sold 20 million books nor written 60 plus books; hell, I’ve only written one and can’t sell it to anyone, and as for 20 million readers? This little blog will never achieve that, or even, it seems, a million — so hats off to M.C. Beaton, and here’s hoping she writes another 60 before she’s finished.

The Gargoyle Hunters, John Freeman Gill, Hardcover, 352pp, March 2017, Knopf Publishing Group

The Gargoyle Hunters reads like a memoir slash 101 course in architectural history of New York City, this novel set in the 1970s when Manhattan was in the depths of financial and crime crisis, is narrated by Griffin who was 13 as it happened but is looking back decades later.

Griffin’s parents were separated; his mother, perhaps an alcoholic, taking in boarders of dubious worth and character; his father — of dubious worth and character himself — turning out to be a rescuer of the disappearing architectural beauty of the city, a pursuit into which he ropes Griffin who is desperate to connect with his mysterious and absent father. Griffin is in the adolescent process of searching for himself, groping at and grappling with first obsessive crush/love and making his own attempts at rescue — of himself and his family.

John Freeman Gill’s writing is more than accomplished and the story is compelling but slowed to a crawl at times with an excess of architectural detail and data; he is a longtime and gifted architectural writer/columnist and this is his debut novel, and it could have used some additional editorial guidance. Cutting the overabundance of technical detail and description would have made room for more character development; other than narrator Griffin, we see mostly the facades of characters, just the decorative surface without any real glimpses or insights into their hearts, motivations, pasts. Especially difficult is that the reader is left wondering at novel’s end about the fate of all the female characters, Griffin’s sister, Quigley, his mother, and his first love, Dani.

And that, my dears, is that. I’ll leave you now. Personal Essayist, out. Here, going.

 

 

Reading: Hope and Healing

In this post I will be talking about The Book of Polly by Kathy Hepinstall and Idaho by Emily Ruskovich.

I put a lot of pressure on books. Especially during these troubling times when I am rationing my exposure to social media and the news, and actively searching for solace in personal relationships, simple pleasures, and books. I want to be fully engaged — enraptured, even — and for a book to hypnotize me with its world, its story, its characters, its art, its uniqueness, or, a combination of some or all of those. Too, as the times become increasingly difficult for me to understand and accept, books need be better and better to carry me away because my attention and energy is so focused on the tumult and fears of real life.

What I’m looking for now in fiction (and in real life) is Hope. And Healing. My two latest reads explored these issues, albeit in very different ways. Here I go.

The Book Of Polly, Kathy Hepinstall. Hardcover, 336pp, March 2017, Pamela Dorman Books

When first I read about this book the words heartfelt and lovable central characters and full of quirky Southern charm gave me pause; rarely have I found Southerners charming, and too often heartfelt and lovable is code for sacchariferous, self-consciously cloying tripe. After said pause, I paused again and thought; Times are hard, a little sugary hooey might be just the thing to distract me. So, I did a library reserve and picked up Polly.

I’m glad I did. Kathy Hepinstall has offered up a speedy-easy on the brain romp which has sentiment without being over-sentimental, quirks without inanity, and an unlikely, outre plot that doesn’t require a suspension of disbelief of proportions insulting to one’s intelligence.

Polly is in her late fifties, recently widowed, when she gives birth to Willow, who narrates the tale which is to do, mostly, with Willow’s fears about Polly’s mortality, a concern exacerbated by Polly’s smoking which eventually results in her diagnosis of The Bear, which is the family’s quirky (there’s that word) name for cancer.

Ultimately there is Willow’s insistence on a road trip (part of which happens on a raft) for a faith healing to the reluctant Polly’s home town, which she departed decades ago under a cloud of scandal, the details of which Willow has long been trying to ascertain. In the wind-up to the raucous (and rewardingly happy) final act we are introduced to Willow’s older (much) siblings — the ne’er-do-well brother, Shel, and the born-again, disapproving sister, Lisa, as well as Shel’s friend, Phoenix — who is something of a knight in dented-armour type and my favorite character (I wish he’d ended up with Polly for a sort of Harold and Maude kind of thing), Polly’s long-lost love, Garland, and Willow’s first love, Dalton, and, well, a bunch of other characters with peculiarities and idiosyncratic particularities which made me sometimes smile and sometimes smirk, but never sneer.

The Book Of Polly is a fast, fun read in which there is much to recommend and little to which I objected, except, twice during the course of the book Willow is subjected to near sexual assault, both of which episodes were jarring and awfully realistic, scary renderings of the kinds of assault to which women are constantly subjected, but in this near-fantasy novel the assaults seemed more plot-devices to facilitate Willow’s being saved and the ennobling of another character as opposed to necessary plot points. But, perhaps my discomfort has to do with my expectation that this novel would be a gambol through escapist territory, and sexual assault is never, ever something I find in any way quirky or fun, which the tone of the rest of the novel was — so, as I said, it was jarring and uncomfortably realistic in a near-fantasy novel.

But, other than that, it was full of hope and healing, and plenty of humor, all of which were much welcome in these often seemingly hopeless, fractured, sad times.

Idaho, Emily Ruskovich, Hardcover, 320pp, January 2017, Random House

This was not a book full of the hope and healing for which I am looking during these disquieting and fretful days. Rather, Idaho is a perplexing, disconcerting novel of emotional and structural complexity which demands a great deal from the reader.

Ann Mitchell is married to Wade, whose first wife, Jenny, murdered their younger daughter, May, at which time their older daughter, June, disappeared, never to be seen again. Wade, like his father and grandfather before him, is beset by early onset dementia, episodes of which result in his being violent with Ann. Jenny, serving a life sentence, befriends her prison cellmate, Elizabeth, another murderer, whose story we are also told. Ann’s life is touched by a boy, Eliot, who she knew briefly as a student when she was a music teacher, a boy Ann also witnessed the missing June being obsessed with, the witnessing of which facilitated Ann and Wade meeting.

We are in and out of all these characters’ (and some others) stories in a complexity of leaps in time and perspective, a quilting of near-short stories, the threads of which intertwine and make new shapes with each additional detail, like a literary cats-cradle, a concoction of such intricate construct the reader is required to slowly contemplate each new movement, stop and examine its structure, and wonder what the next move will do to its composition.

Small aside here: I am getting weary of this new literary fiction trope of such EXTREME jumping and mosaic-making with time; these cryptic, piecemeal zig-zaggings of hints and exposition have always been a literary device but recently have grown so severe and MFA-influeced-arty, the authors seem to be almost trying to make following the plot a near-impossible effort. Stop it. Most writers can’t accomplish this and reading ought not be a slog making one feel as if reading a novel is a graduate school assignment.

But, be warned, as accomplished as is the writing in this novel — and aside from the delicate dance of interwoven and interconnecting plotlines, the author’s facility and gift for language is quite stunning — there are no answers. If you are looking for resolution or healing, or hope, this is not the book for you. Because of its complexity, it is a slow read, and it is suffused with a sadness I found draining. All of the characters are damaged, and by the end of the novel I felt like I had spent time with one of those friends who is always in pain, in need of solace, unable to find their center. It was exhausting. And as beautiful as the language was, I’m not sure the relationship was worth that much effort.

And so, my friends, the first two of my reads for April were each three stars; liked but did not love. I need some love. I’m fifty pages into my next read and not sure it’s going to do it for me either. Hope and healing are hard to come by lately.

On every level.

But, I am plodding along — even skipping along sometimes — determined to find the joy where I can. I have found my center. I hope you are finding yours, too.

Love and Light dear ones, here I am, going.

 

 

Reading: The Beast Is An Animal

The Beast Is An Animal, Peternelle van Arsdale, Hardcover, 352pp, February 2017, Margaret K. McElderry Books

Full Disclosure: I follow Peternelle van Arsdale on Twitter, we have mutual friends, I have met and hugged her, and I am an admirer of her personal ethos, style, and real world comportment. That said, I was not asked to read or publicize this book. I bought my copy from my amazing local bookseller, The Curious Iguana [click here].

Peternelle van Arsdale’s The Beast Is An Animal is an artfully wrought, beautifully written novel of Gothic intensity in which a fantastic world is brought to life in such observant detail it becomes reality, and, like life, its many layers make finding one’s truth not a matter of reduction to polarities of right/wrong and good/evil, but, rather, a complicated journey traveled without a map. So rich and leveled is the novel, it deserves reflection and meditation worthy of its masterly, glorious depth and heft; as in, The New York Times or New Yorker ought put someone on the case, assigning a long think-piece ruminating on Peternelle van Arsdale’s near magical creation of Continue reading

Reading: 4 Books, 2 Days. Ahhh, petsitting.

Max on my lap, where he pretty much lives.

Drake, in a RARE moment of calm and contemplation.

The shape of my life right now doesn’t allow for sharing it with an animal companion. So, much in the way I never had children of my own but was (am?) Uncle Charlie (or, Uncle Pottymouth) to the offspring of many others along the way, so too, now, in this phase of my surprising life, I am temporary guardian to many, many dear animals in many homes. I love pet-sitting and house-sitting for lots of reasons, not least of which is the silence. During my stays in the homes of others, loving and nurturing their animal family members, I rarely turn on a television or radio or go on-line (to which, in truth, I am giving less and less energy in general), and I spend the majority of my time petting animals and reading books and enjoying the uninterrupted quiet. In the few days I have been at this new gig, my first time with Max and Drake, I have read four books. I’m catching up with that library hold list. Here they are.

Right Behind You (Quincy & Rainie #7), Lisa Gardner, Hardcover, 400pp, January 2017, Dutton

This is my first Lisa Gardner. If you’ve read my book-blogging before, you know I am always on the lookout for another reliable mystery-thriller or mystery-cozy writer with a backlist to which I can turn when I need the predictability of a genre read. Another of my go-to authors mentioned enjoying Lisa Gardner’s work and so I thought I’d give her a whirl.

Right Behind You is the seventh in a series. Obviously I’ve not read the first six. But, this book was fine as a standalone. I felt I understood Quincy and Rainie well enough without Continue reading

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 Continue reading

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.