P.S. TO BEGIN — I started this post more than two weeks ago and have had difficulty motivating myself to finish, or, even, to middle. The world is in such a disastrous, hateful muddle at the moment that doing ANYTHING other than trying to right all the wrongs being committed seems frivolous. But, we must not let the bastards win by losing all of our joy while resisting. So, I’m finishing this damn thing. And now — to the ORIGINAL intro —
I’m not reading less, but I am remembering and writing about reading less, which I’m going to spend a few hundred words explaining. Feel free to skip right down the page to the red headlines which mark the start of my book talk.
There are quite a few books from April and May about which I have not written. About which — some of them — I’m not going to write. Here’s why.
Twice in recent weeks I have lost my phone. Not seriously, just two of those brief, five-minute or so episodes which each seemed an eternity. Once, I’d misplaced it, or, rather, left it on the seat in the car, and another time it had fallen out of my pocket down beside a chair cushion.
More disturbing than the loss was my reaction; my immediate response to both losses was to think, “I need to call D—— [my sister], and get her to call my phone so I can find it. Of course, I didn’t have my phone so I couldn’t use my phone to find my phone, at which point I seriously contemplated the benefits of getting a back-up burner phone in case my primary phone was lost.
After which over-reaction akin to the time years ago when I panicked because I didn’t have two bottles of wine in the house for the evening and realized I might have a problem, I determined it was time for some serious self-inventorying and examination of how I was spending my time and on what I was spending my energy and attention.
Aside from the clear indication I am reading too many thriller/mystery novels in which burner phones play a role, here’s what I came up with: My memory is not what it was. I misplace keys, walk out of a room to get something and forget what it was by the time I get where I thought I was going, names and words are just out of reach, lost in the maze of all the roiling memories and worries occupying brain-space, and fewer and fewer books are bringing me the joy most books once brought. I have been abandoning more and more books at the 50 page mark, too, finding the characters all seem alike, difficult to keep track of, the stories less interesting, rarely fresh, the voices too MFA-ed into alike-ness, and the writing and structure all too formulaic, calculated, and lacking emotional heft.
And, even with those I finish, as it is with my phone and keys and people’s names, I find that in a few days I can’t remember them. For example, someone was talking to me about a book which sounded just wonderful, and when I went to look it up, there it was on my Goodreads list; I’d read it three weeks before and didn’t remember a thing about it.
So, here I am, going to write about only those books that imprint enough on me to last at least until I get around to blogging. Not in this to hurt anyone’s feelings, so I won’t be listing those books I don’t finish or which don’t do much for me. One very good reason: taste in literature is so dependent on life-experience and mood and current circumstance, some very good books don’t move me, and some books others might find a complete waste of time, keep me good company. So, I’m sharing the ones I most appreciate, and allowing that those I don’t are not necessarily “bad books” — but, rather, like most of the men in the world, I’m just not a match for them.
So, on with the book talk. IF YOU’RE SKIPPING THE PREAMBLE, THE BOOK DISCUSSIONS BEGIN HERE!
Speak No Evil, Uzodinma Iweala, Hardcover, 215pp, March 2018, Harper
If you have reached your quota of LGBTQ coming out tales and tragic endings at the hand of a bigoted, homophobic, racist culture…TOUGH. Read Speak No Evil anyway because its voice (Well, voices, more later on that.) speaks from a heart/soul-truth while describing a journey and experience all too familiar in impact if not specifics for too, too, too many queer and black people.
Niru is the son of Nigerian parents who hold extreme religious beliefs. His privileged life in Washington, D.C. is interrupted after he finds the courage to come out to his best friend, Meredith, when she initiates sexual moves. Soon after, Meredith installs Grindr on Niru’s phone, but when his father discovers sexually explicit messages on Niru’s phone he explodes his life, forcing him to return to Nigeria — a country where homosexuality is against the law and punishable by fourteen years in prison or death by stoning — for a religion-based cure.
Niru is torn between the truth of who he is and the propaganda with which he’s been brainwashed, as well as his desire to please the parents he loves and live up to the example set by his much praised and adored older brother. Even his excelling at track and early admission acceptance to Harvard is not enough, he knows, to protect him from his parents’ and the world’s homophobia, and the culture’s inherent racism.
Late in the book Niru’s narration ceases and Meredith takes over and what seemed at first another coming of age novel/Bildungsroman becomes a tragedy in a twist that seems not one-hundred-percent earned, or, rather, somehow out of place, as if we are now in a different book than that which we started.
Both would be worth reading, and the topics of homophobia and racism and privilege and religious terrorism are more than in need of literary/artistic illumination but as much as I liked this novel, it wasn’t quite. As in, it seems to be pieces of what might have been different, better novels, finally cobbled together in a way that doesn’t do any of its threads the justice they deserve.
Still, read it. Because it matters.
Some Hell, Patrick Nathan, Paperback, 288pp, February 2018, Graywolf Press
Okay, I hear you, another LGBTQ coming of age novel? Yep. Listen, for centuries we’ve had to — for the most part, in America at least — read about the world from the perspective of the white heterosexual male, they who — for the most part — made up the canon, were embraced by the critics and academics, heralded as the touchstones and benchmarks of literary fiction. Well, Holden Caulfield did nothing for me. Updike and Roth, not interested. Jonathan Franzen, overrated and myopically self-involved. No. As a young queer, I suffered fear each time I heard the sneered put-downs of Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams because they were that way; I knew I too was that way and was terrified someone would point it out. It wasn’t really spoken about openly by Capote and Williams, and they didn’t — for the most part — include it in their work, and they (and most of the other examples of that way I had then) were clearly miserable human beings, unhappy, addicted, outliers and freaks, but they were allowed to be homos at all only because they also owned artistic genius, which I, as a child (and now, as an adult) clearly did not, so my being that way was not going to be okay with anyone, anywhere as far as I could see or tell. My only option was to work on being a genius, and escape to New York or Hollywood where they seemed to be a club of outcasts to which I could — were I genius enough — belong.
Point being, there can’t be too many LGBTQ books as long as there are still places and people in the world who either live in the same kind of fear and loneliness I did, and/or are subjected to the bigotry of others who would have LGBTQ people return to those closeted, hunted, haunted times. You know, like 45 and his gop minions and moronic supporters?
Now, Some Hell is definitely NOT a feel-good book. Sex, suicide, dysfunctional, dissolving families, despairing survivors, and a search for self which leads to dark, dangerous misadventure and sorrow fill the pages. But the writing is searingly honest, etching difficult emotional truths on the heart and mind of the reader.
Colin’s father has killed himself, for which Colin feels responsible, and he is working his way through the notebook/journals his father kept in the office where he shot himself. Too, young Colin is in love with his best friend, who, after something sexual happens between them, distances himself. This passage:
When he passed Andy in the halls, love was the word for the hurt flowering inside him. Naming it made it grow, and to go with his hell he now had a heaven where he and Andy had not parted but admitted to one another what they had, what they could be, and despite his shame he refused not to reimagine that night, not to rewrite it how he wanted. It felt even more real than his hell as it burst all over his chest and dried sweetly in a handful of Kleenex.
That’s poetry made of tragedy and just one example of the intensely beautiful languaging in which Patrick Nathan tells this heartbreaking story. Why read something so difficult? Because, sadly, the impact and shape of the passions and spiritual perturbations in the story — if not the specific details — are part of what form many gay lives, many of all kinds of lives, perhaps yours, and to read it will give you the gift of knowing you are not alone.
I next read Noir, by Christopher Moore, and I’m not going to say a lot about it except that while it started off feeling clever and parodic, it ended up feeling like someone had taken one of those flashes of ideas for a glorious story which eventually show themselves to be not so flashy or glorious after all, and gone ahead and written the book anyway, letting it out into the world with a sort of “meh, it isn’t what I meant it to be but here it is.”
The Only Story, Julian Barnes, Hardcover, 253pp, April 2018, Knopf Publishing Group
The Only Story falls into the category of The Graduate, Summer of 42, the older woman – younger man stories, but is darker, elegiac but in a cynical, cold, near heartless way. This, when years after their first joining as accidental tennis partners and purposeful lovers, Paul visits Susan, now near her end:
…I think I am now probably done with guilt. But the rest of my life, such as it was, and subsequently would be, was calling me back. So I stood up and looked at Susan one last time; no tear came to my eye. On my way out I stopped at reception and asked where the nearest petrol station might be. The man was very helpful.
Sorry to be misandrist, but that’s the sort of thing men feel and write and do. And reading it — albeit it’s the last paragraph, so, took me long enough — made me realize just what it was about this novel I disliked. Older man/younger woman, not even worth much of a nod, let alone an entire novel, let alone a novel imbued with a feckless misanthropy and emotional ennui, Paul having learned little but how not to feel much, worried instead about running out of gas.
And, perhaps that is Mr. Barnes point, but a hellish nasty point and attitude it is. It isn’t as if he hasn’t warned us all the way through:
That’s one of the things about life. We’re all just looking for a place of safety. And if you don’t find one, then you have to learn how to pass the time.
Let alone I take issue with the way the above is punctuated, I take more issue with the jadedness of it.
I’m finishing this post with
My Ex-Life, Stephen McCauley, Hardcover, 324pp, May 2018, Flatiron Books
Reading Stephen McCauley is like hanging out with that friend who not only has the best stories, but also tells them in the most fascinating, entertaining way, with a unique perspective, who, also, manages in the telling to articulate and illuminate things in that way that makes you say, “Yes! That’s exactly what I always felt but didn’t know how to say it!”
It is a fiction of recognition. And it is great fun. Well done. And you know from the start that the conclusion is going to be uplifting, as in, not one damn more tragic ending please.
In San Francisco, David has been deserted by his younger boyfriend for a bigger bank account and his rented home is about to be sold which will leave him homeless and loverless. His ex-life calls in the shape of Julia, his long-ago, brief wife, now mid-divorce, also in danger of losing her home and, one way or another, her daughter Mandy — yes, after the Barry Manilow song. She needs his help. He needs to get away. They come together in a new way, find closure for the old way, and they and those around them find new ways of defining family, friendship, loyalty, and trust.
It’s a great premise, and Stephen McCauley is a lovingly empathetic cultural critic who writes hilariously insightful dialogue. Now, I can hear some of you saying, “Pull a quote.” And, I would, but the humour and wit and insight are so woven into the context that to pull-quote it is reductive and does it a disservice. You know I never lie to you, so, trust me, this book is full of grins, giggles, a couple of guffaws, and genuine “gotchas” at the world’s foolishness, greed, cruelty, and — you get the picture. Now, get the book.
I smiled all the way through this book, and in this day and time, smiling for any reason is a huge bonus. Get this one. Hold it close. Let it give you a literary hug.
Then, GET BACK OUT THERE AND RESIST! Which is, where, here I am, going.
(Coming very soon, another post about Mariah Fredericks’ first in a series (to which I am much looking forward) novel, A DEATH OF NO IMPORTANCE; and Susan Elia MacNeal’s 6th in the Maggie Hope Mystery series (which I very much LOVE), THE QUEEN’S ACCOMPLICE; and Allison Pearson’s follow-up to I DON’T KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT (which I never read) called HOW HARD CAN IT BE?, which was quite a balm. Stay tuned. Non-spoiler alert — all 3 were kickass good.