Reading: Genre, Magic, and Memoir

I’ve been extremely busy: 1) Trying to become a better person; 2) Helping a friend downsize from a large home on three acres to a condo with a shared common area, and; 3) Running into people I haven’t seen in a decade or so in order to facilitate conversations the Universe is sending so that I can get on with 1 (see above), which, by anyone’s measure, has taken entirely too long.

All of this has cut into my reading time, so, only four books so far in November. I promise to be brief. And, FML, WordPress has now made it impossible to do anything but compose in their supposedly improved format — WHICH I DESPISE AND WHICH MAKES COMPOSING ABOUT A MILLION TIMES MORE DIFFICULT.

Deep FreezeDeep Freeze (Virgil Flowers #10), John Sandford, Hardcover, 391pp, October 2017, G.P. Putnam’s Sons

I am a fan of series, and John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers and Lucas Davenport series are reliably what they are: well plotted, fast paced, familiar characters and quirky guest starring new folk, hip and tough but tender-hearted hero who straddles lines of moral ambiguity now and again to make the world a little safer. Until the next installment. I have to say this was not my favorite. High school trauma and unrequited attraction, long held on to, results in murder, and more murders for covering up purposes and, well, it seemed a bit called in, the characters less developed than shorthanded, and because of that, kind of confusing to track. I really didn’t care who died next. No shade, I’m awestruck by anyone’s ability to write one book, let alone deliver the dependably entertaining output Mr. Sandford has achieved.

dangerous to KNowDangerous To Know (Lillian Frost & Edith Head #2), Renee Patrick, Hardcover, 304pp, April 2017, Forge Books

This was a library-browsing pick-up, chosen because it was blurbed by a number of authors whose writing I admire and love. I had not read the first installment, which was the one to which their blurbs referred, and so I came into this cold. It featured a lot of well-known names, none of whom, obviously, could be the killer. There were Nazis and FDR and movie stars and I thought it would be a lot more exciting than it was. I wanted Carole Lombard and Myrna Loy levels of sophistication and wit and madcap, black and white fun. This wasn’t quite it for me.

rules of magicThe Rules Of Magic, Alice Hoffman, Hardcover, 369pp, October 2017, Simon & Schuster

I bought this — which is a lot, because I deliberately live a very simple life, below the poverty level, and buying a book (albeit, with gift cards I hoard) is a big decision and something I do only for authors whose work I know I want to keep on my shelves, as part of the definition of who I am. Alice Hoffman came to Frederick a few years ago for a signing and library sponsored talk and she was delightful. I’ve read a number of her books, including Practical Magic, to which this is a prequel, and I have watched the film of Practical Magic over and over, and although it is very different from the book, I love it because Dianne Wiest, Stockard Channing, Nicole Kidman, and the only movie in which I have ever liked her, Sandra Bullock.

practical-magic-the-auntsI liked this book. The three main characters, siblings Franny, Jet, and Vincent, were all sort of what I have come to think of as Alice Hoffman trademark difficult, but ultimately loveable, beautiful souls who sometimes behave in ugly ways, magical folk out to slay the dragons of fate and the inevitable disappointments that accompany the joys of being alive — in other words, despite their supernatural powers, these are human beings with all the ups and downs and complications and pleasures that label promises. We meet Gillian and Sally of Practical Magic in the last few pages, after the first 300 full of tragic loves, bad decisions, all sorts of loss and gain and growth and denial and fear and light and dark, written in wonderfully skilled, flowing prose.

I like that Alice Hoffman faces sorrow without compromise. It’s a fact of life that people die, that sometimes love takes away as much as it gives, and that we all have to make choices and sometimes, among those choices, there are not perfect options — we all hurt people, we all get hurt, and being alive and having a happy ending doesn’t come for free. That’s not a fairy tale, it’s a grown up story. Alice Hoffman writes deceptively deep and thought-provoking fiction in a fable-like format.

And so, I bought this. And I’m not sorry.

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Interstitial moment of explanation: This was going to be a blog blog post today, rather than a reading blog post, because I haven’t blog-blogged in a while. Here’s why: A year ago, November, a horrible thing happened. We are still, daily, suffering its reverberations, and its aftermath will scar and upend and damage us for decades to come. Anger and grief and disbelief and sorrow took me over in an eviscerating way, which, now, it seems, has done me some good. There is light in every darkness, I suppose, cliché as that is to type, but, truth. It became clear to me in these months that while I can do little to change the hearts and minds of the sixty-million or so bigot racist misogynist homophobic faux-christian white-supremacist fascist sympathizing hellhounds who voted for that sad, silly, stupid, soul-less man, I can make the worlds of those people I do know or come in contact with or speak to on Twitter, a little better. I can practice peace, embrace, acceptance, understanding, faith, and share light by NOT indulging my anger, by not being distracted from the job of being human by the shit-show that is politics and news these days. This isn’t about denial, it’s about making a conscious effort to focus, too, on all that is right with the world, all that is good in the universe, and to foster those things and those connections which affirm the Love and the Light. We change the world one person at a time and my resources are not financial, or power, or physical: what I have are my words, and my actions, in person, on-line, to spread a little love, a little light, a little normal.

So, I’m holding back on the blog-blogging for the same reason I’ve cut back to one cup of coffee in the morning, and started having tea I brew myself; for the same reason I’m limiting my Twitter time to about fifteen (okay, maybe thirty) minutes a day; the same reason I don’t watch the news; I need to stay centered, I need to be strong in my standing in the Love and the Light, and I need to ration those things that detract and distract from me being the best me I can be. I can’t ingest and be subjected to things that make me shake, that alter my ability to take deep breaths without pain.

We need people to offer us peace in the midst of this spiritual, social uproar. I am not a warrior. I am a healer. And so, I am here, being strong, staying calm, when you need me. Because we all need — as all of this is going on — to keep reading.

Now, that said, back to books.

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spoiler alertSpoiler Alert: The Hero Dies, Michael Ausiello, Hardcover, 320pp, September 2017, Atria Books

Michael Ausiello’s partner of 14 years, Christopher “Kit” Cowan, is diagnosed with a particularly virulent form of cancer, and while describing the eleven months from diagnosis to death, Mr. Ausiello takes the reader on a journey through two lives, thirteen years of a love with its ups and downs, and managing to live those lives as fully as possible while facing death.

There is a lot of snark and dark humor here; the couple were unafraid to speak harsh truths in biting and profane terms, and Mr. Ausiello does not hold back on details I’m sure many readers would consider to fall in the range of TMI. Not me. If your voice is one comfortable with talking about loss of control of bodily functions, who tops and bottoms when and how, the size of your partners genitalia, well then, I say go for it. However, I think I would have held back about my Smurf-obsession, but that’s just me.

I laughed and I cried and I asked myself, “WHY DID YOU READ THIS? YOU KNOW HOW YOU ARE?” It’s not easy. And it’s not particularly uplifting. But, if you’ve watched someone you love, ravaged by disease, die, you will know whether or not sharing someone else’s story is for you.

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So, that’s it. Four November books from genre series reads to heartbreaking memoir and, in between, some magic. Not such a bad two weeks, right?

Don’t forget to like my reviews on Amazon and GoodReads so I can be an influencer in the literary world.

And, my friends, here I am, going.

Reading: 2 Books, 2 Very Different Killers

In this post I discuss two novels featuring murderers made by childhoods spent with flawed mothers, both killing (or, trying to) in an effort at mercy. The first of these novels is by seasoned, treasured, much awarded author, Alice McDermott, and the second is a debut novel by Ali Land.

The Ninth Hour, Alice McDermott, Hardcover, 256pp, September 2017, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

In the early part of the twentieth century in the Irish Catholic community in Brooklyn, a man’s suicide leaves his pregnant wife to make a life alone for herself and her daughter, the as yet unborn Sally, around whom the remembered story is built. Sister St. Saviour comes upon the scene of the gas oven suicide and resultant fire and begins her efforts to live up to her chosen name, from trying to hide the cause of death so the dead husband might be buried in hallowed ground, to finding work at the convent for the pregnant widow, Annie, who ends up in the laundry room as assistant to curmudgeonly Sister Illuminata, who, along with the other nuns, helps raise Sally from an infant asleep in a basket in the laundry room to a young woman who thinks she hears the calling to serve as sister herself.

There is no question but that Alice McDermott is an author prodigiously gifted at vividly rendered miniatures, delicate, detailed captures of circumstance, character, reality, and emotion that coalesce into a panorama of the human heart. Too, her facility for prose bordering on poetry combined with sentences of such shocking accuracy and truth one nearly gasps with recognition, make for a reading experience akin to literary love-making. Listen:

 

While Annie and Sister Jeanne knelt, Sister St. Saviour blessed herself and considered the sin of her deception, slipping a suicide into hallowed ground. A man who had rejected his life, the love of this brokenhearted girl, the child coming to them in the summer. She said to God, who knew her thoughts, Hold it against me if You will. He could put this day on the side of the ledger where all her sins were listed: the hatred she felt for certain politicians, the money she stole from her own basket to give out as she pleased — to a girl with a raging clap, to the bruised wife of a drunk, to the mother of the thumb-sized infant she had wrapped in a clean handkerchief, baptized, and then buried in the convent garden. All the moments of how many days when her compassion failed, her patience failed, when her love for God’s people could not outrun the girlish alacrity of her scorn for their stupidity, their petty sins.

 

That is undeniably beautiful writing, possessed of a rhythm and music, a few sentences, sculpted into the story of a woman’s soul and life. By the same token, Alice McDermott can sketch with one short sentence everything we need know about a character, as she does about the less introspective, more rigid Sister Lucy:

 

All joy was thin ice to Sister Lucy.

 

That is laugh out loud funny. Especially if one has spent any time in one’s life with nuns. There are the Sister St. Saviour variety and the Sister Lucy variety and Alice McDermott limns both and the experience of the devoted Catholic life with expertise, sympathy, insight, and wisdom. In particular, especially in The Ninth Hour, she explores the conflict between the tenets of the faith as taught by the church, and the challenges of real life, where circumstances sometimes render the commands of the church impractical to impossible to cruel. Alice McDermott explores the compromises made by the faithful and the cost of believing, the burden of sacrifice, and the malleable nature of the definition of right and wrong, what, exactly — or more aptly, inexactly, defines sin.

I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I’ll only say characters struggle with that existential moment when murder becomes mercy and whether or not the act can ever be forgiven, excused, justified.

All of the qualities Alice McDermott brings to her work make it always worth reading, and The Ninth Hour is no different. However, I found its structure to be problematic. The time jumping as the narrator told a tale passed down through a few generations made it difficult to keep track of characters, who was what to whom when, and the perspective wavering between reverie and documentary was jarring for me. A mosaic is a beautiful thing, and I appreciate the technique, but I felt there was a lack of clarity in the voice because of the piecemeal way the story was told, by which I mean I think the framework made the through-line more difficult to follow than was necessary.

Good Me Bad Me, Ali Land, Hardcover, 338pp, January 2017, Penguin Books Ltd

From Alice McDermott and her Catholic milieu to debut novelist Ali Land and her adolescent mental health mise en scene is less a leap than one might think; this novel also deals with a child brought up in unusual circumstances who is faced with a moral quandary.

Let me begin by saying that the absence of a comma in the title of this novel near drove me to distraction. Then, about three-quarters of the way through reading the book, it came to me that perhaps the author insisted that the point of the story was that there was no clear delineation between the good me and the bad me and so to place a comma in the title would be a betrayal of the gist, the heart of the story. Maybe, maybe not or should I say maybe maybe not?  Whichever, I’m going with it.

Annie, 15, has been re-named Milly and placed with a foster family to be therapized before the trial of her serial killer, sexually abusive mother who Annie/Milly turned in for the murder of nine children to which she was witness. Milly’s foster family — psychiatrist dad Mike, overseeing her therapy, and his wife, Saskia, who turns out to have troubles of her own, and their mean girl daughter, Phoebe, who makes it her business to torture and bully Milly, about whose true identity she knows nothing when Annie/Milly arrives — need therapy of their own, plagued by problems Annie/Milly is likely to make worse with her presence.

This is a thriller, one of those page-turners where the past is presented in teasing drips and drabs, and the reader is given to fear along with Annie/Milly whether or not she can escape her mother’s influence, damage, and genetic contribution to who she is, who she might become, and whether any of this will be found out by those in her life.

This is a dark, twisted, creepy tale, compellingly written, very fast-moving, with what sounds a very authentic troubled-adolescent voice which one assumes can be credited to Ali Land’s work as a child and adolescent mental health nurse. Which, like the missing comma in the title, bothered me, because in a world which is currently so full of horrors, hatreds, and monsters, I worried and wondered just how much of the story could be all too real, based on abhorrent, abominable, tragic real-life stories Ali Land was exposed to as a mental health nurse.

So, there it is: a fast read but more than a little disturbing. If you, like me, are given nightmares by child-in-danger stories and ambiguous endings, this is not the novel for you. If you, on the other hand, are not sensitive to that sort of thing and enjoy nothing more than a fast, what’s next, bet I can guess, ohmygod read, this is the book for you.

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And there we have it my friends, my two latest reads which — as is so often the case — were somehow connected in theme, all without my knowledge or planning; they both happened to come up on my library hold-list at the same time.

I’m heading into non-fiction next, it’s been too long and the book was recommended by a trusted friend, so, when I return I will be talking about The Woman Who Smashed Codes, which I’m beginning as soon as I finish this, bake a cake, and make Sunday dinner for my mom and sister. So, those things are not going to take care of themselves, thus, here I am, going.

P.S. SELF-PROMOTION: I’ve jumped up 10,000+ spots in rankings at Amazon as reviewer to 21,927! [CLICK HERE]! Only last week I was 33,000-something! If you like my recounting of my book reading, and my respect for the art of writing and publishing, it would be great if you could LIKE my Amazon and GoodReads reviews. Too, liking books on Amazon helps the author, helps their numbers and rankings in the mysterious algorithm that is Amazon sales and promotions. So, help the literary world out. Like me. Like books. Now, really, here I am, going.

 

 

 

Reading: “Unforgivable Love” (and a forgivable absence)

Thanks to Glenda Burgess and Paula Garner, I’m back. What’s that? You didn’t notice I was gone? Well, I was, and I read quite a few books since last I book-blogged on September 17 — thirteen. While I didn’t write about them here, I did so on my GoodReads & Amazon accounts. (Click HERE for my Amazon Profile link, where all my reviews can be found.)

But, before I get to how Glenda and Paula brought me back from the depths, and my thoughts about my latest good-read, Unforgivable Love by Sophfronia Scott, I want to briefly discuss and link to my full reviews of the highlights from those I’ve read while not blogging.

First, the 5th installment in Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope Mysteries, Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante. (Click HERE for my full review.) I love this series. I love Susan Elia MacNeal’s writing. I love the way she manages to weave history into compelling plots, using characters I have grown to love, and, too, skillfully addressing modern issues while remaining true to the World War 2 period during which Maggie lives. If you’ve not read these, please do, and start at #1. There are seven so far and while I have numbers 6 and 7, I’m rationing. Or, trying to.

Next one worth a look is Christodora by Tim Murphy which was recommended by Garth Greenwell, need I say more? Maybe a little. Hopping in time from the 1980’s at the beginning of the AIDS crisis to the 2000’s and the lives of those left, and, too, those who barely register the horror of the epidemic’s beginning or the strides made because of the work of those activists forged in fury from the struggle. Moving. Wrenching, even. (Click HERE for my full review.)

And, too, a five-star work of real brilliance, John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies. This book has it all. Beautiful prose, breathtaking sentences, incisive emotional landscaping, laugh out loud wit and subtle satire, and such intricate, page-turning plotting. It really is quite fantastic. (Click HERE for my full review.)

Finally, for a sweet, fast, heartwarming read, I recommend How To Find Love In A Bookshop, by Veronica Henry. A daughter inherits her father’s labor of love bookshop and from near ruin comes many a happy ending for nearly every character. You’ll feel like you’re part of the village in which it takes place, and you’ll smile. That’s more than enough nowadays, don’t you think? (Click HERE for my full review.)

So then, 400 words later, here I am, going on to the book I finished just last night.

Unforgivable Love; A Retelling of Dangerous Liaisons, Sophfronia Scott, Paperback, 528pp, September 2017, William Morrow Paperbacks

First, only fair to admit, I love unto the point of obsession all iterations of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, although I’ve not read the 1782 French original (and if you have, well, touch you) and lean rather more toward the 1999 re-telling,Cruel Intentions,  featuring Ryan Phillippe’s ass and his uncovering of the gay-sex between the characters played by Eric Mabius and Joshua Jackson.

Ryan Phillippe’s ass

Eric Mabius and Joshua Jackson, in bed, being blackmailed by Ryan Phillippe in CRUEL INTENTIONS

Thus, when I read about this novel in People Magazine, its premise of Dangerous Liaisons re-told in 1940’s Harlem appealed to me, promising to be something I’d eagerly devour. Of course, I’ve been fooled before. Like a junkie, I read the book pages in any magazine I can get my hands on, and while I’m not a fan of People — and that sentence is another blog entirely — my sister subscribes and I tear out the book page and read all the quick-synopses, frequently suckered in by a good press-representative spin. All too often I then find myself starting one of these books and saying, WHAT THE HELL WERE THEY TALKING ABOUT/WHO PAID THEM OFF – THIS IS AWFUL!

Luckily, with Unforgivable Love, that was not the case.

Sophfronia Scott’s writing vividly brings to life a period, a Zeitgeist, a social milieu, and emotional landscapes with attention to detail in scene painting and the interiority of characters’ thoughts, all contributing to a portrait of a historical time, place, and people whose lives and behaviors resonate in the now.

The story is told in close-third, from the point-of-view of four main voices, Mae Malveaux, Val “Valiant” Jackson, Elizabeth Townsend, and Cecily Vaughn.

Mae Malveaux is the reincarnation in this tale of the original’s Marquise de Merteuil, a character who can easily come off as irredeemably loathsome and cruel. In this retelling, she is given a backstory which means to explain her cold as ice manipulations and calculated ruination of others, but, in the end, the author allows the character to remain unlikable, her malevolence grounded in her psychoses but never excused; the reader feels some empathy for her but not sympathy, which is as it should be. As one character says, “I don’t know what good can come of anything that woman does….Still,….she is family and so I pray for her.” What is refreshing in Sophronia Scott’s version is that Mae is not demonized for her embrace of her sexuality. Her easy carnality is not portrayed as a character flaw, as is so often the case when writing about women (or, people, but, mostly, women) and it is not that which leads to her ultimate downfall.

Val is the tale’s iteration of the original’s Vicomte de Valmont, and here he is far more sympathetic from the beginning than he is in other tellings of the tale. Despite his being an inveterate and unapologetic hound with a sketchy past and income from illegal sources, who uses and tosses aside women like chattel, he is early on imbued with a conscience and questioning of what it is he has done, is doing, and what it does to others. Though he plays at faith as a tool of seduction, it reaches him, touches him, and manages to change him by opening his mind to ways of thinking he’d not previously explored. More than any other character, Val arcs and grows.

There is a great deal of faith in the story, the church and its ministers play a role in the story, especially in the denouement, but there is nothing preachy or pontifical, rather, Christian faith and community are central to the lives of some of the characters.

The most faith-driven of the main characters is Elizabeth Townsend, who might have been a minister had her world been different and had she not been raised to cede control of her life to first her father, then her husband, Kyle, a civil rights lawyer who is largely absent from her life and the narrative as he is off fighting fights in the deep South. Val is challenged by Mae to seduce and corrupt the faithful and pious Elizabeth, she who has not ever fully explored nor embraced her own truth, her true desires — desires on all levels, ambition, emotion, and sexual. It is in pursuit of a victory in overcoming Elizabeth’s reluctance to live and feel that both Val and Elizabeth are permanently shaken, altered, brought to awarenesses that have the power to destroy them.

Mae also sics Val on her young relative, Cecily, whose sexuality and self-awareness are nascent but bubbling to the surface, craving release. Val aims to corrupt her, part of Mae’s plot of revenge against a past lover who considers Mae unfit to wed, and has managed to get the virginal Cecily pledged to him, enraging Mae.

With so many seductions and so much scheming, this could easily veer into cheesy-soap-opera territory, but it never does. The sex scenes are sensual, lusty without being vulgar (though I have NO trouble with vulgar, licentious sex scenes) and at 506 pages, this is a longish read but it moves quickly in relatively short chapters and, despite my familiarity with the framework of the plot, there was a great deal of tension and suspense as I read, waiting to see how the characters would end up and by what method.

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So, there you have it; four weeks and thirteen books later, I am back to blogging, and for that I am grateful to my Twitter friend and accomplished author and blogger, Glenda Burgess, as well as Twitter pal and accomplished author (I know a lot of accomplished authors on Twitter), Paula Garner, who both managed on one of my low-down-lonely-blues Saturday nights to raise me up and out of my funk with their lovely and kind praise of my writing about books, words which made me miss doing this blogging thing, words that made me think maybe I had something worthwhile to add to the discussion. So, thank-you Glenda and Paula.

And now, here I am going.

 

Reading: “The Days Grow Short…”

In this post I discuss “The Prague Sonata” by Bradford Morrow and “The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells” by Andrew Sean Greer, .

I have read much less than usual this month for reasons joyous and not so; friends and new beginnings belonging to the former category, my continuing health saga and personal stressors belonging to the latter. The relevance of beginning a book blog entry with this self-involved I-paragraph being I have become increasingly stingy with my time and increasingly prone to dropping off to sleep during what used to be my reading time. And it’s September, not just in 2017, but, in my life — for me, on this go round, it is at least Fall, if not Winter, and so my time — what I do with it and how I think about it — is of paramount concern. Which brought September Song by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson to mind. This lyric:

Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December
But the days grow short when you reach September
When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
One hasn’t got time for the waiting game

Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few
September, November
And these few precious days I’ll spend with you
These precious days I’ll spend with you

I am — during these, my precious days, careful with which books I choose to share myself, my thoughts, my heart. So you can be sure if I write about one, it has been at least a pleasant companion. Otherwise, I just fold after about page 50, thank it for its efforts, and move on. I don’t write about those books because even though I didn’t enjoy them, they are the product of someone’s heart and love and good intentions (almost always) and time, and I think to say unpleasant things about books (or, most anything except the current administration and all sorts of bigotry and hatred) is more damaging and revealing about the speaker than it is about the book.

Kindness is always a better choice, and very much needed in the world these days — so I am striving to have kindness be my default, even (especially?) in those instances when rage was once my go-to.

So, here are my latest reads, both of which, as coincidence (or not) would have it, have to do with time.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, Andrew Sean Greer, Hardcover, 289pp, June 2013, Ecco Books

I recently read and loved Andrew Sean Greer’s latest novel, Less [which I talked about here] and so I determined to explore his backlist, thus, this 2013 book.

In 1985 Greta’s beloved brother, Felix, has died. Soon after, frustrated by Greta’s lack of energy for anything but mourning, her partner, Nathan, departs. Despite medication and the support of her devoted aunt, Ruth, Greta is inconsolable. She agrees to electro-convulsive therapy, the first treatment of which finds her awakened in 1918.

In 1918 she wakes with her 1985 consciousness, but is somehow connected to another version of herself which is both different and the same, surrounded by the same — but again, different — people in her life from 1985. And 1918-Greta is also having treatment for depression which sends her(them?) to the 1941 version of the three (one?) of them.

It’s a little complicated and we only hear inside 1985 Greta’s head as she tries to change the lives of the 1918 and 1941 versions of herself and others, which, it seems, the 1918 and 1941 versions of Greta are also doing as they hop around in time.

I am a huge fan of Andrew Sean Greer’s writing. It is rich in heart and forgiveness, insight into human nature, and the ability to evoke both the frailty and strength, foibles and fine points, light and dark of characters and situations. In this ambitiously structured novel he draws parallels between  the massive, tragic, and mostly needless loss of lives from AIDS, the 1918 flu pandemic, and World War II; in doing so he creates many beautiful images, heartbreak, and the lyrical, near poetic sentences I so loved in Less. Late in the story, speaking about her ex-lover (in 1985’s iteration) Nathan, Greta says this:

Those separate men, the different men he was, in different worlds. Perhaps it’s because I knew Nathan so well, and knew his moods; of him thinking beside me: so quiet! Of him silencing the alarm so I could sleep another hour: so kind! Of him reading some infuriating news in the paper: so angry! I could roll them all into one ball and put it in my brain as one person. Even before my travels, I had met and lived with these different men: the quiet one, the kind one, the angry one. Just as Nathan had lived with those same men himself. For others are not the only ones forced to face our other selves; above all, we must face them. On my last visit to 1942, Felix showed me a photograph of the two of us. It had been taken the week before. And while I knew it was not me, I could not tell which one it was. Perhaps one day they will invent a camera to capture the fleeting self — not the soul, but the self— and we can truly see which one we were, on any particular day, and mark the shifting lives we lead that we pretend belong to one person alone. Why is it so impossible to believe: that we are as many headed as monsters, as many armed as gods, as many hearted as the angels?

It’s something like the aha-moment/magic discovery of the book for Greta, or, the discovery of magic, when she begins to comprehend all the possible Me’s who exist in each I. And while I sometimes found parts of the narrative to be difficult to follow, and here and there a little self-help-y prosaic and banal, even those passages, like the above quoted, were grounded in wonder and hope, two elements of which there can never be too much and which make a fine foundation for any novel.

The Prague Sonata, Bradford Morrow, Hardcover, 528pp, October 2017, Atlantic Monthly Press

[I requested a copy of this novel and was sent one. I do not know the author, and have no connection to the publisher, I found the synopsis intriguing and so asked to be included in the list of bloggers/book people who got advance reader copies.]

I have not read any of Bradford Morrow’s eight previously published works of fiction, so I came to the Prague Sonata fresh, unencumbered by expectations other than this — like The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, about which I just wrote — the novel was blurbed and praised by Michael Cunningham, a writer whose work I very much admire, and in synopsis it sounded like a thick, rich, sprawling epic of old school heft.

That, it was. Its five-hundred-plus pages play a score of emotional richness, its themes and motifs introduced, reiterated and expanded, crescendo after crescendo — each memorable and developed in singularity — merging, melding to become a whole which has been artfully puzzled together into something symphonic, seamless, an entirely unique composition meticulously created from its various counter-themes into a harmony of a textured, layered, masterful epic.

It is early 20th century when Otylie’s father dies, a casualty of war, having left his nine-year-old daughter who he’d been training to be an accomplished pianist with a music manuscript she knew to be his most prized possession. Otylie swears never again to sing or play music and in 1939 Prague when war again intrudes into her life, she divides her father’s treasure in three, knowing by then its provenance may be historically important making it a valuable artifact she does not wish to lose to the invading German beast-Nazis. She keeps one movement for herself, sending another by messenger to her husband who has disappeared into the underground resistance movement, and a third to friends.

Fast forward to the beginning of the 21st century when neophyte music historian Meta Taverner — whose father in a very different way had encouraged and ended her career as a concert pianist — is given the middle movement of the sonata by Irena, friend of Otylie who carried the manuscript out of Czechoslovakia when she survived the death camps, and now, in New York, chooses Meta to unearth the first and third movements, thus fulfilling the promise Irena made to Otylie, whose fate she does not know.

All of this plot is performed in the first fifty pages and advanced and refined in the next 475 during which Meta pursues her quest to make Otylie’s sonata whole again and, too, to discover its composer. The narrative moves back and forth through time following both Otylie and Meta in their separate trajectories until those paths melt into one another in a finale of rhapsodic consonance.

Bradford Morrow interweaves many themes through each time period: Music. War. Love stories. Friendship. Truth and Lies for Good and Evil. Ambition. Parent-Child. And others. There are elements of mystery-writing, tinges of gothic villainy and distress, romance novels, and all of this delivered in an enrapturing literary fiction format that transports the reader into other worlds. It is tempting to speed through to discover the fates of the characters, but then one would miss the abundance of historical detail, musical scholarship, and well-crafted prose. Listen to this excerpt (borrowed from the Grove Atlantic website for the novel, [CLICK HERE]):

With reverent delicacy, she turned the pages one by one, eyes traveling across the busy staves that filled each leaf. This wasn’t going to be easy to play. Unaware she was doing so, she hummed an occasional phrase, tapped her toe gently on the floor. Meta might have sat down with the manuscript at her piano and performed it then and there. But she didn’t want to listen to it until she’d had time to study the piece, learn what its composer was saying.

This was not your everyday second movement of a sonata, despite Irena’s recollecting that’s what it probably was. Brazen in its initial runs, the music settled now and again, only to move away into knotty clusters of sixteenth notes, like an impish acrobat who pretends to teeter off his tightrope high above the crowd, flails his arms as if he’s about to fall, until, nimbly, in slow motion, he moves on.

Then, a plunge off a cliff—everything shifted to blacker registers. Gone was the acrobat. Gone were the playful, bucolic pace and tone of the earlier passage, which was, it now occurred to Meta, a feint, a dramatic setup. The meat, the soul of the dolorous passage had such a rich, slow sadness to it that, surprised, she turned back to the opening and reread the movement up to this radical shift in mood.

With its moments of staggering power and slyness, the music seemed as fresh that day, to this young woman in her barbell flat, as it must have sounded when it was conceived. Who was the conceiver, though? And where were the fore and aft of this noteworthy craft?

Lovely, yes? Musical and poetic and evocative and compelling; which neatly sums up Bradford Morrow’s The Prague Sonata.

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And so, I finish here, exiting to get back to cherishing and contemplating time in these Septembers — the current month, and the Fall of my life. Fall has always been my favorite season with its voluntary shedding of its summer clothes and the faith in the promise of Spring renewal such shedding implies. I leave you with the inimitable and brilliant Miss Betty Buckley and her version of Weill and Anderson’s September Song. Enjoy my dears, and please, don’t waste your time on the waiting game. Much love and light and, my dear ones, truly, thank you for spending these precious days with me, I am so grateful you read me, it has brought me much joy. Now, here I am, going.

 

 

Reading: Mrs. Fletcher (No, it’s not a Murder, She Wrote satire)

Mrs. Fletcher, Tom Perrotta, Hardcover, 309pp, August 2017, Scribner

I read Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers in 2012 which I know only because I use Goodreads to track my reading history and I check when entering a book to see if I’ve read other works by the author.

The first thing that earlier novel has in common with Mrs. Fletcher is I was enticed by its blurbs and synopsis. The Leftovers was all about what would happen to those left behind were the biblical rapture to actually occur; an irresistible fantasy for a lapsed-Roman Catholic-agnostic like myself. Mrs. Fletcher‘s promos promise a “feverish turning of pages” through a  “hilarious, provocative … joyride” by a “smart, fearless … wet-your-pants-funny satirist” as he explores what seems a fascinating premise about up-to-the-minute issues facing the world today, like parent-child relationships, on-line persona versus real-life person, and the various comings of age one now goes through in a world of much longer lives with many more options for personal relationships of varieties both deep and shallow, erotic and platonic; irresistible for a lapsed real-life personality who lives behind various on-line personas like myself.

The second thing The Leftovers and Mrs. Fletcher have in common is the promise of the premise was not — for me — kept.

In all fairness, it started with the title. I couldn’t divorce the name, Mrs. Fletcher, from years of the same-named mystery-solving-novelist character played by Angela Lansbury on Murder, She Wrote.

That aside, Mrs. Fletcher — here named Eve — is divorced, director of a senior center, and her only child, Brendan, is leaving the comfort of his upper-middle-class suburban, popular-jock-boy life for college. Brendan is expecting to continue his partying and privilege at an elevated level, while Eve is dreading what she fears will feel like abandonment and loneliness. The conflict and comedy(?) come from the expectations of each one’s expected experience more or less happening to the other.

Eve is drawn into online porn portals, begins unusual and unexpected friendships and pursuits, and revels in her new privacy and life, at the same time Brendan becomes a pariah at college and suffers agonizing loneliness. Eve is affected by sexual text-messages from unknown and shockingly inappropriate (to her mind) people, while Brendan’s attempts to alter things with his texting fail, distancing him further and further from what he desires. This reversal of expected fortunes extends to Brendan’s one sexual escapade, which reveals him (to himself and others) to be a near-predator rather than the skilled stud who buys condoms in bulk he thought he was, while  Eve’s multiple forays into new erotic territories reveal her to be far more open and sensual and attractive than she’d considered herself before.

Other characters in the novel are also grappling with loneliness, sexual desire and identity and need, and — to one degree or another — hiding parts of themselves, channeling life-energy into who they imagine themselves to be as opposed to actually being those people; as if everyone in the novel is living a double-life: the civilized, following the rules of polite society persona presented to the world, and the fantasy-self, the daring, boundary-free, get what they want, be fully who they dreamed of being self. It’s Life-porn — that best self, what if, yes I could if only scenario we have running in our heads when imagining what life could be.

And this novel — and most of Mr. Perrotta’s work is, essentially, just that: Life Porn. He specializes in almost but not quite satirizing and exposing the flaws and foibles of the middle and upper middle class suburbanites and communities about whom and which he writes. And he writes well with a hip kind of mass-market-faux-literary-fiction rhythm and just enough cynical judgment to let the very people about whom he writes nod in agreement that they can see their neighbors in his stories.

It’s a frustratingly fence-straddling lack of commitment to real social satire, the “isn’t this awful” combined with “aren’t we cute” thing that rankles and disturbs. And judges. Eve toys with exploring sexuality, but, without spoiling, reverts to suburban-polite-society-republican conformity.

In a novel that seems to aim for wanting to explore the effect of new ways of communicating and the availability of all sorts of connections, and too, the numbing effect of same, no one seems much changed by what goes on. There is never really anything at stake.

And that’s fine. Mr. Perrotta has every right to write whatever he likes; and it’s skilled story-telling, fast reading, and interesting enough. BUT, there is so much more gift there — in the possibilities of the story, the richness of the subject matter, and in the author’s clear intelligence and emotional insights — one can’t help wishing he’d gone further, deeper, beyond the expected and more into the boundary-free, behind the public persona, Life Porn reality that lots of us are living today.

Reading: Try to remember . . .

Try to remember meaning 1) I finished these books two weeks to two days ago and have already mostly forgotten them, and 2)the following warning, it may well be MY fault, and not the doings of the innocent books. So don’t take my word for it — read other reviews, or, better, give them a try yourself.

Full disclosure: Current events — political and personal — are making reading more difficult than usual for me. Ever since I began reading, it has been a refuge to which I could retreat, the plots and people provided by authors making up the walls of my castle and its moat, keeping the real world at a safe distance; but those fantasy boundaries have been breached by the invading forces of fascist hate-mongers and chronic-un-diagnosed illness.

I’m trying not to blame the books I read for their failure to protect or rescue me. But, I’m only human, and some days lately, barely that. So, caveat: I’m in a mood.

The Sisters Chase, Sarah Healy, Hardcover, 304pp, June 2017, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

I finished reading this two weeks ago and what sticks most in my memory is how poorly it was edited. There were numerous instances of sentences having been written two ways and not edited into one, parts of both versions remaining, not fitting together. Too, there were homonym and usage errors, and many instances of the same word being used in nearby sentences not for effect but, rather, in awkward, lazy structure. The writing and the production of the book felt rushed and while reviews and blurbs had called it a cunning and surprising thriller, I found it to be predictable from the very beginning, populated by singularly unpleasant characters behaving in odious ways. Not for me.

Killers of the Flower Moon; The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, David Grann, Hardcover, 352pp, April 2017, Doubleday

Perhaps not the best time to read a non-fiction book about crooked, duplicitous white male government officials — elected and non — conspiring to take advantage of and wipe out a minority group, murdering them casually and without fear or reprisal in order to gain more wealth and power. No, it isn’t about the current usurper of the presidency and his complicit gop cohorts, but, rather, an episode from the 1920’s during which the discovery of oil on Osage land resulted in further pillaging of Native American properties and human rights. Its investigation — long and labyrinthine and marked by deceitful and homicidal law enforcement officials — was, in essence, the birth of the modern FBI as founded by J. Edgar Hoover, who was himself a repugnant and amoral human being. As foul as the story is, the writing by the sure-handed David Grann is extremely accomplished, shaped like a well done, fast paced thriller — albeit, at times, a convolution of difficult to follow connections and names and familial relationships.

City of Masks (Somershill Manor Mystery #3), S.D.Sykes, Hardcover, 336pp, Pegasus Books

Palace intrigue; people pretending to be what they’re not; power and money hungry fools stooping to any level to get what they want and then MORE of it; secrets and traitorous spies for foreign, unfriendly governments out to cause destruction and ruin — no, not about the current moskvich poseur and his cronies who illegally occupied the White House, but, rather, 14th century Venice where Oswald de Lacy, Lord Somershill, is temporarily stuck with his mother, hiding from a tragic event in his past, soon caught up in a murder mystery that takes him to the darkest places in the carnival city and his own heart. I thought it a little long but fascinating historically and cleverly constructed. And, eventually — spoiler? — the good people triumph.

The Misfortune of Marion Palm, Emily Culliton, Hardcover, 304pp, August 2017, Knopf Publishing Group

Privileged white people doing horrible things and behaving in despicable, entitled, covetous, avaricious ways. No, not about the gop and its current figurehead, but, rather, about a mother who has embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from her daughters’ school, her once trust-funded husband who she knows is not as rich as he thinks and barely able to leave the house, their equally gluttonous and oblivious peer group, and their two daughters — teen Ginny and pre-pubescent Jane, both of whom are damaged and troubled, and what happens when Marion leaves everything in her life behind, taking with her just a backpack filled with the cash she’s purloined. Written in third person, albeit close third, the style is distancing — which is probably fine since none of the characters are people one would want to know, but the effect is something like watching one of Robert Altman’s lesser films where all the concatenation of utterings and actions of vaguely disagreeable to downright abhorrent characters adds up to little conclusion other than a feeling of having been forced to attend a social event from which one departs saying, “I don’t like those people and those are hours I’ll never get back.”

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Well, there it is. I warned you I was in a mood, and I’ve spared you diatribes about the two books I started and gave 50 pages before snarking, “Not today, Geraldine.” It’s difficult drawing the line, more and more — Hell, IS there even a  line anymore? In any event, here I am, dear ones, going.

Reading: The End is Near – So What? Perk the hell up!

In this post I talk about American War by Omar El Akkad, and The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs.

The day after the January 2017 inauguration of the criminal buffoon now occupying (well, when he’s not off stealing taxpayer dollars by vacationing at one of his own properties) 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, I discovered a rash on my upper right arm. Since then, it has covered my entire body from the neck down. I have run an obstacle course of medical providers and insurance hell, and I am no closer to an answer than I was in January — in fact, in many ways, I am worse. I cannot help but see my decline and inability to heal as reflection of the damage being done to the country and the world by the gop and its illegitimate siege of the presidency, achieved by vote fixing, voter suppression, russian intervention, and decades of hate and fear mongering. So, reading a dystopian novel about the results a few decades from now of this sort of red vs blue hate in this country, and a memoir about a woman’s living and coping with disease, was both a foolish and an instructive thing to do. Here I am, going.

American War, Omar El Akkad, Hardcover, 333pp, April 2017, Knopf Publishing Group

The venal fomentation of hate and divisiveness which has long been the strategy of the Republican party, has now careened out of control into the surreal ascendance of a sociopathic, narcissistic moron to the presidency; a man who will stoop to any level to aggrandize himself and gain more power, riches, and worship, who lies with the ease others of us breathe, and who encourages civil disobedience and violence, encouraging a class war — a conflict built mostly on myth, fictions, and unfounded bigotries and fear of “other” — using the tactics of fascist authoritarians throughout time to distract the people from his pillaging of the country, from his complete ineptitude at and disinterest in bringing prosperity and union to the people he is meant to serve and lead.

Interpret and project from these signs and omens and realities what a future might be like if we continue along this path of rupture, acrimony, and animosity, and you will arrive at the place where Omar El Akkad’s sadly prescient novel, American War, begins and ends.

Which might be why it took me almost a week to finish it. There is no other reason: the writing was very, very good; the plotting and pace excellent; the protagonist, Sarat Chestnut, drawn with complicated, fascinating detail. But, the fact that less than a year ago the goings on, atrocities, and unhappy endings of this novel would have seemed an outrageous, impossible dystopian take-off, but now, since November of 2016, seem not only possible, but likely, made this — for me — a very difficult read despite all it has to recommend it. So, be warned.

The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying, Nina Riggs, Hardcover, 288pp, June 2017, Simon and Schuster

Being in the eighth frustrating and now sort of terrifying month of dealing with an illness that remains undiagnosed, increasing amounts of “symptoms” which may or may not be related (or, even, symptoms) — since no one seems to know what it is I have, and a now four week long effort to get an appointment with a rheumatologist who will accept my insurance and perhaps be able to explain my floating joint pains which I thought were the beginnings of arthritis but now, like my digestive system explosions may, I’m told with worried looks by the dermatologist now seemingly in charge of my case, may be connected to the mystery illness — no, not even an appointment, I am still waiting for a referral to a mystery rheumatologist one state away! — and despite that lack of diagnosis and referral, taking a medicine normally prescribed for malaria which may with extended use cause macular degeneration, my long-time biggest nightmare as it partially blinded both my aunt and mother, and which requires twice a year visits to an opthalmologist, visits which no one seems to be able to tell me whether or not are to be covered by my insurance; being in this morass of often feeling like hell, fighting the depression of not knowing, not getting answers, and being treated like a second class citizen because of my insurance — because had I better coverage (which I cannot, could not ever afford) I would have LONG AGO been referred, seen, treated — and KNOWING I am STILL better off than a lot of people in this richest country in the world where adequate healthcare is STILL BEING DEBATED AND DENIED — well, perhaps this wasn’t the best time to read a memoir by a woman who had terminal cancer, who died before the book went to print.

Then again, perhaps it was.

Nina Riggs writes about her illness — no, wrong, Nina Riggs writes about living a life, loving a family and friends, and being fully alive while dealing with the medical establishment’s responses to a body out of whack and the knowledge that her death is imminent.

She is funny. She is honest. She is brutal. She is terrified. She is hopeful. She is sad. She is angry. She is exactly the kind of literate, delightful, upfront, caring, warm, witty, audacious, fascinating, embracing and embraceable person with whom one wants to be best friends.

Her journey from “one tiny spot” of the kind “no one dies from” to stage four cancer, during which her mother and another dear friend die of cancer, is fascinating and instructive. The writing is exquisite and powerful, honest and moving without ever being maudlin or self-pitying — both of which are my go-to reactions to my little medical issues, so I was terribly shamed by the forthright and courageous manner with which Nina Riggs lived until she died.

And managing to write about it — the effects of the illness, the psychological and emotional process of trying to deal with the knowledge one is going to miss one’s children’s growing up, dealing with the decay of her body and her energies — with such spirited candor; I found it miraculous.

By the time I reached her husband’s Afterword, I was sobbing and renewed. And awestruck. Would that I could deal with any of the petty annoyances of my life with some small portion of the grace and insight with which Nina Riggs lived her life.

Read this book, not as a guide to how to die, but a primer on how to live.

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And so, there it is, or, was; the dystopian novel affirmed all my worst fears and worries about the world in which we are living, where we are heading, while the memoir that ends in death, inspired my best self, a sloughing off of my self-pitying, poor me energies and a determination to move through whatever time I have with more grace and good humor.

Who knew? Not me. Which is lovely, always, to have more to learn and space of self into which to grow, and so, here I am, going (and growing). Oddly enough, about an hour from now, to another doctor appointment.

So, so long for today dear ones, much Love and Light to you.

Reading: July: Finishing With Gay’s Hunger

In this entry I will be discussing MODERN GODS, by Nick Laird, THE FALLEN, by Ace Atkins, and HUNGER: A MEMOIR OF (MY) BODY, by Roxane Gay.

I read 19 books in July, during which I needed much distraction as I continued my eight month slog through the medical/insurance establishment in search of answers for the questions; “What disease do I have?” “Will this rash EVER go away?” “Why do so few doctors in Maryland accept my Maryland-assisted insurance that I have to drive an hour to an out-of-state provider to get treated?”

But those are issues for another type of blog-post, and, as a friend recently told me, “I think more people like your live-Tweeting about cooking than like your book blog entries because your cooking Tweets are shorter and funny.”

Okay then, short and funny, like most of my relationships. Got it. Or, wait, short and tragic? Whatever. Here are the final three reads of July.

Modern Gods, Nick Laird, Hardcover, 336pp, June 2017, Viking

I am of two minds about this novel, which is fitting since it feels like two half-novels awkwardly trying to meld into one cohesive whole. Two sisters on very different journeys of re-invention navigate foreign lands — metaphorically and physically — discovering during the treks that people are not at all what they seem, that they themselves may not be what they imagined themselves to be, and so they struggle to come to grips with the recondite realities of emotional connections, love, forgiveness, and the meaning of survival.

Alison Donnelly is about to be remarried. Liz Donnelly is leaving a disappointingly dishonest relationship and heading to Papua New Guinea to investigate a nascent religion for a BBC documentary. Alison’s husband to be has dangerous secrets she refuses to hear until it is impossible to ignore them, while the subject of Liz’s programme, Belef, a Melanesian woman who has gained a following for her pronouncements about the messages she claims to be receiving from a divine source, is also more and less than she appears to be.

There is a lot of marvelous writing and imagery here — the author is also a poet and it shines through — especially in the opening chapters which feel inspired in ways the middle of the novel does not, and the ending feels somewhat contrived and rushed, almost dishonest in its calculation. In short(ish), it feels both as if the author tried too hard and yet, not quite hard enough.

The Fallen (Quinn Colson #7), Ace Atkins, Hardcover, 384pp, July 2017, G.P.Putnam’s Sons

This is my third Ace Atkins novel and he has become a new “regular” for me. The books are fast paced, compellingly plotted, and I find the Quinn Colson world  — a Southern gothic, near Flannery O’Connor collection of misfits operating in a steamy, dangerous, ole boy sort of noir world in which danger and humor compete for air — to be equally delightful and appalling — don’t want to be a spoiler but there is a death in this book, the occurrence of which made me weep. Be warned. In this installment, a series of well-executed bank robberies performed by bandits in Donald Trump masks vex Sheriff Quinn Colson who’s also busy falling for the new old girl in town who knew and crushed on him as a little girl — she’s not little now and she’s not alone in her crushing. Things do and don’t work out, there is plenty of ambiguity and the final pages set up the next installment and I am ready.

Hunger: A Memoir Of (My) Body, Roxane Gay, Hardcover, 320pp, June 2017, Harper Collins

This was devastating. A blunt, searingly honest exploration of what it is to be other, to be caged in cultural presumptions so powerful that you yourself reinforce your incarceration. So many passages in this memoir resonated for me and echoed my own experiences as a queer man who grew up in the 1970s, it felt as if Roxane Gay had accessed the painful and embarrassing places and traumas I had locked away, kept to myself, refused to face, and done some of the work for me. This isn’t just a memoir, it’s an act of extraordinary bravery and service. Warning: it is NOT easy, in fact, it is emotionally draining but also enlightening and thought-provoking and encouraging; Roxane Gay has survived what could have been an overwhelming amount of horror, pain and abuse (physical and emotional), and ugly energy — from herself (to which she freely cops) and others, and the culture at large. If I had the power, I would make every child entering adolescence read this as it would be a benefit to those who feel alone and unseen and not right (and what adolescent doesn’t feel those things?) as well as those who might be bullies, haters, judgey popular kids who think it’s okay to mock and torture others, never having a thought to the long-term (permanent?) damage it can do.

And so it goes . . . goodbye, July . . .

It’s been a long month of doctor visits and disappointments, but, bright side, I got to read 19 books of which three were 5 Star reads, three were 4 Star reads, twelve were 3 star reads, and only one was a 2 Star read. Pretty good. And I booked and did a couple of house/petsits, had some quality times with family and loved ones, and made the best cake I’m ever likely to make (or eat), Beringer’s Brooklyn Blackout Cake, and created a cookie recipe involving four kinds of chocolate, chipotle, and cayenne, called Milamos. So, in addition to reading quite a lot, wow, I did a lot, too. I’m getting a slower start in August, aghast at how slowly time is moving since January when the tragedies of the inauguration and the onset of my still undiagnosed illness occurred. Not original to me, but, these eight months feel like eight years.

Anyway, off to more reading and family-ing and cooking and pill-popping and such. So, Love and Light to my regulars, nice to meet you to my new friends, and here I am, going.

Reading: Fire(blazing) and Light(reads)

In this entry I offer my thoughts about: American Fire, by Monica Hesse; Hello, Sunshine, by Laura Dave; The People We Hate At The Wedding, by Grant Ginder; The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid; The Sunshine Sisters, by Jane Green; and, The Changeling, by Victor Lavalle.

It’s that time of year again when the buzzy books tend toward convenient, happy, free of loose-ends conclusions, suitable for vacation reading. I had a week to myself, pet-sitting two pups who are snuggly if slightly neurotic — just like me, right? — and I plowed through five novels and one true crime reportage; I’ll try to keep it brief.

American Fire, Monica Hesse, Hardcover, 288pp, July 2017, Liveright

A true crime account of serial arsonists in an economically deprived county, once the richest in the nation, now pocked with hundreds of abandoned properties and populated by a people who feel abandoned by the American dream, left with menial, low paying jobs in the chicken factories which pollute the once vital and fertile countryside which now wastes away, fallow and uncultivated, much like the hopes and aspirations of its populace.

Compellingly told by Washington Post reporter and novelist, Monica Hesse, in a manner combining the best of journalism and literary fiction, with an attention to the seemingly small but hugely defining details of people’s behaviors and language, this is a non-fiction tour de force chockful of character after character who could fill another book of their own.

It didn’t hurt that the arsonist and central character of the piece happens to share my name: Charlie Smith. But what really sold me on this book (which, by the way, was recommended and hand sold to me by my dear, Marlene, at my local indie, The Curious Iguana [CLICK HERE], which sponsored a reading and meeting with Monica Hesse which I attended and where I found her to be as fascinating and gifted a speaker as she is a writer) was the way in which, by its end, Monica Hesse had made Charlie Smith so human, so emotionally visible, I questioned whether or not I, myself, might not have fallen into a like destructive pattern of behavior. I think you’ll see yourself in Charlie, too, and that gift of the ability to establish that sort of identification is what makes Monica Hesse a writer to enjoy now, and from whom to anticipate even greater things in the future. This work has moved her onto my MUST HAVE EACH BOOK list of authors.

Now, I’ve gone on too long already, so I’ll speed up these next few.

Hello, Sunshine, Laura Dave, Hardcover, 256pp, July 2017, Simon & Schuster

Sunshine Mackenzie is an accidental culinary star with an estranged sister named Rain, a deteriorating-ish marriage, bunches of secrets, and a self-deprecating voice in which she tells us the story of her life’s collapse when she is hacked and her frauds, lies, and misdeeds are exposed, all the way through her approach to redemption and forgiveness — which she needs mostly from herself. Fun summer read, doesn’t demand complete (though, near enough) suspension of disbelief, and offers some laughs and a happy ending.

The People We Hate At The Wedding, Grant Ginder, Hardcover, 326pp, June 2017, Flatiron Books

I love the title. I wish I’d loved the book as much. Almost all of the characters were genuinely unlikeable. And it felt to me as if the author had set out to write a literary fiction and then been pressured into making it beach-ready, resulting in a mish-mash of both that was not awful, but far less fun than the title (and blurbing) promised. At least it never used the word “thrum” — this year’s apparently required word, although there was “clambering” — which is steadily replacing thrum as the must have where once it was limn. Ugh.

The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo, Taylor Jenkins Reid, Hardcover, 400pp, June 2017, Atria Books

Legendary Hollywood star, Evelyn Hugo, chooses unknown reporter, Monique Grant, to write her life story, full of the secrets and scandals she has never before divulged. Evelyn Hugo is a little Elizabeth Taylor, a smidgen Katharine Hepburn, but too, an original. Full of salacious goings on delivered in well-crafted prose at a breakneck pace, this mystery-faux-tell-all novel is rip-roaring fun from beginning to end. I recently said I missed Dominick Dunne and Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann — but Taylor Jenkins Reid has filled the empty spot nicely. Read this voraciously, eager to find out what happened next (or, long ago). Loved.

The Sunshine Sisters, Jane Green, Hardcover, 384pp, June 2017, Berkley Books

Ronni Sunshine, once a famous B-movie actress, who barely raised her three daughters has called the siblings — who dislike each other almost as much as they dislike their mother — home for a very important matter. Everyone has agendas. No one really understands the lives of the others. There are myriad complications and hurdles between the past the now and the happy (sort-of-ish) ending. Lifetime movie stuff. Okay for an afternoon when you’re looking for something which doesn’t demand too much of your attention — and, be warned, the foreshadowing is choke and gag you obvious; my most fun reading this was seeing how many pages ahead of something happening I had predicted it. But, it’s meant as a summer read and there is some comfort in knowing what’s coming.

The Changeling, Victor Lavalle, 448pp, June 2017, Spiegel and Grau a division of Penguin Random House

This was mostly a wow for me. First of all, the cover and presentation is beautiful. Second, the prose is so deftly crafted, the voice so compelling I gobbled up its 400-plus pages in one day — honestly, I started in the morning, became enraptured, and did nothing else until I’d finished it in the evening. Third, I love books that defy categorization — this is literary fiction but also fantasy (and I hate fantasy, so, if you do, don’t skip this because of that because it’s not REALLY fantasy) and horror and mystery and myth and metaphor and symbolism and an insightful, thought-provoking exploration of what makes a human a human and to what lengths love will make one go — but it does all of this without hectoring or heavy-handed, pretentious intellectual posing.

Apollo Kagwa, book dealer, having had a child with his wife, Emma, experiences a return of the haunting night-terror-like dreams he suffered as a child after his father had mysteriously disappeared. Soon, Emma commits an unthinkable atrocity, the aftereffects of which Apollo makes it his mission to understand, a journey which take him from Riker’s Island to lands in the mist of the imagination to forest caves to places and events from his past he’d never really understood or remembered.

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And there we are, six books in just about 1000 words. Who am I? Well, whoever that is, here I am, going.

 

Reading: Novels read from my sick bed

Once again, I’ve let myself get a bit behind. Though it’s only been six days since my last book blog, I have read five books: M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin Mystery: Love, Lies and Liquor; Christopher Bollen’s The Destroyers; Christina Henry’s Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook; Dickson & Ketsoyan’s Blind Item; and Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

Those of you who know me, know I’ve been struggling with some medical issues since January, and, despite my hope the most recent doctor visit to discuss the results of yet more biopsies and blood tests would supply some answers, alas, no. I continue to be a medical mystery, and await the August 1 return of the senior partner in the practice now seeing me because it has been decided he needs to take over the case. In the meantime, the mysterious stomach ailment that started all of this (I think) three years ago, has returned. Yesterday, it was as horrible as it has been since the initial bout, and I was so dehydrated from my body purging itself, I nearly ended up in the hospital. Then, as mysteriously as it hit, it stopped. So, this morning I am feeling achy, still dehydrated, and full-on self-pitying that I am so rarely WELL.

However, PLUS SIDE, I am so exhausted from this string of illnesses, and, too, fighting severe depression brought on by my inability to accept the state in which this country finds itself and daily flabbergasted that the entire tr*mp brigade is not in prison and Hillary Clinton not yet rightfully in place as President, other than things I absolutely MUST do, the majority of the little energy I have left for life is devoted to escaping into books. So, about one a day. And here they are.

Love, Lies and Liquor (Agatha Raisin #17), M.C.Beaton, Paperback, 256pp, August 2007, Minotaur Books

The fact that I am on the seventeenth adventure of Ms. Raisin should give some indication of my fondness for these charming, English village cozies. Agatha is a combination of crusty snarker, certain she is right about everything, and an insecure, self-doubter who too often compromises herself for the affections of unworthy men. Honestly, I’m a trifle impatient with her continued near-obsession with her ex-husband, but she seems with each volume to grow wiser, and I long for the installment in which she is completely over him, and, I hope, he murders someone and she gets him locked up. But, much fun here, and you know when Agatha loses a scarf on page 18, it’s sure to end up around someone’s neck before long.

The Destroyers, Christopher Bollen, Hardcover, 496pp, June 2017, HarperCollins Publishers

I picked this up because Garth Greenwell who wrote one of my favorite books ever, What Belongs to You, blurbed it. Too, I had read the author’s earlier novel, Orient, and found it to be more good than bad, and the kind of book about which I found myself saying, “I can’t wait until this writer’s second or third book.” The Destroyers was also more good than bad, but the things that bothered me about Orient, also bothered me about this. I appreciated that the trendy word “thrum” which seems to be required in every new novel nowadays, did not appear until page 300. I also appreciated learning a new phrase on page 380: horror vacui; which means a fear or dislike of leaving empty spaces, especially in an artistic composition. I’m thinking Mr. Bollen might suffer from that very thing, for there is so much here, so very much, 496 pages worth of muchness, and while I was overall entranced with the plotting and the quality of the writing, as with Orient, there was a rip-roaring beginning and a furiously paced ending, there was an awful lot of middle during which too little happened or happened too many times. In short, the once-wealthy but now disinherited and in trouble Ian travels to the still wealthy — and, of course, troubled — Charlie, a childhood friend, seeking help. Charlie takes Ian into his Greek island of Patmos business, a boat chartering service for the entitled which is not what it seems. Nearly every character is — per the title — destructive in one way or another, variously entitled, deceptive, delusional, dishonest, purposefully ignorant of circumstances, hubristic, angry, violent, and, in summary, not unlike metaphors for the culture in which we are all drowning, where even the best of us are too often missing the point and the mark. Flawed. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t dislike this, I just wish I had liked it more and I think I would have had there been less of it; because some of the writing is so insightful and incisive, when I got the more languorous sections I was disappointed they lacked the sharpness, the pacing, and the beauty of the more spectacular and energetic portions.

Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook, Christina Henry, Paperback, 304pp, July 2017, Berkley Books

I’ve a personal connection to Captain Hook’s backstory as I have twice played him in productions of the musical, Peter Pan. When I was an actor I spent INCREDIBLE amounts of time writing and developing histories for my characters, and with Hook, I was once directed by a psychopath whose main goal as a director was to keep everyone in the cast off-balance and in fear of him, so much so that both the actress playing Peter Pan and I — who he DAILY told everything we were doing was wrong and adjust to this, which we would, and then the next day he would say THAT was all wrong — ended up a week before the show having representatives tell him he was NO LONGER allowed to speak to us directly, but had to give our notes to our reps who would relay them to us as they saw fit. The next time I did the show, I was in essence NOT directed at all, but allowed to do whatever I wanted. I was an actor — whatever I wanted didn’t necessarily serve the show, and while the audience loved me, it wasn’t really Hook up there. What both times had in common was that you can’t play a villain and think they’re a villain — you’ve got to understand why they are doing what they do and why they think it’s the right thing to do, or okay — even if their reasoning is psychotic.

All of which is to say, I was interested in how an author would do for Hook what Gregory Maguire has done for Oz’s Wicked Witch and so many other classic characters. As in Wicked, this telling turns the villain to hero and the hero to villain. Pan is an awful, sociopathic soul-vampire and there is much death and horror here. Nicely written, interesting turn, but it felt to me like there was a lot more that could have been explored.

As in — what purpose does it serve to just flip the story so Hook is mostly right and good and Pan is nearly all wrong and evil? A more interesting approach maybe if there was good and bad in both of them. I don’t know, I suppose that I am weary of living in a world where we are increasingly divided, forced to choose sides, and disbelieve in heroes at all — and so eager to redeem villains. The writing here is good — although, again, we’ve the trendy words “clamber” and “thrum” — seriously, is there something contractual forcing authors to use those words?

Blind Item, Kevin Dickson & Jack Ketsoyan, Hardcover, 352pp, June 2017, Imprint

Meant to be a roman a clef written by Hollywood insiders about a small-town girl, comes to Hollywood, falls for a star, he falls for her, betrayal by friends, venal, drug-using, sex addicted, beautiful people with secrets and lies and — you get the picture. Fast read. But, in truth, it made me miss Harold Robbins and Jaqueline Susann and Jackie Collins and, especially, Dominick Dunne’s thinly veiled, scandalous trash-fests. On the other hand, in a world full of People Magazine, tabloids, TMZ, tr*mps spreading their filthy behavior and hateful, bigoted, class-warfare malaise over the country, 24 hour news, and the taste for scandal and icon-destruction this country has developed, how can a novel compete? And, honestly, though I rarely say anything like this — and I apologize — but it’s really poorly written.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman, Hardcover, 327pp, May 2017, Viking-Pamela Dorman Books

Once again, a book being touted as wacky and quirky and funny strikes me rather differently. It is clear from the beginning that Eleanor is far from fine and her quirkiness is pathological. Which is not to say the book is not beautifully written. The voice is unique, often mesmerizing, and, yes, her turns of phrase and seemingly Aspberger’s behavior make for laughs — but, shameful (for me) laughing because she is so clearly not well. You will see the ending coming a mile (or 300 pages) away. Nonetheless, I read it in one day. It was compelling and I look forward to the author’s future novels.

And, there you have it, my five books in six days. See you soon. Love and Light. Here I am, going.