Reading: Falling Behind

Oh dear, I’ve done it again. Ten books read since last I book blogged.

There’s been an awful lot going on, although, from the outside — even sometimes from the inside — it might not look like much has happened, there have been fundamental changes in my life, my outlook, my time management. As I said in my last post [click here], I have deactivated Twitter, which begs the question: How will anyone KNOW I am posting? Such musings are for another category of blog post. This is about books. So, let me share musings about some of what I’ve been reading, as in, bring your attention to those I really loved. I am not going to shove everything into one super-long-ridiculous-length post. Nope. Short and sweet multiples. Hit and run. Blow and go. Wait … that’s another app I deleted … anyway … here goes.

The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai, Hardcover, 421pp, June 2018, Viking

I loved this book. Five star loved. And, truth, when I posted my love for it on Twitter I was come at by one of those bitter types whose exclusionist vitriol, bias, and unwarranted, unfounded, unreasonable attack of me and — far worse, the author who I had tagged in my Tweet — was the beginning of my serious consideration about leaving Twitter. The irony is, I joined Twitter to connect with the literary world, and so to have my departure first prompted by some asshat vilifying an author (and me) and then, the final straw being another member of the book-world making it clear by their response to me just how much they were certain I did not belong there, it’s funny. And a little (or, maybe a lot, but again, another category of blog post) sad.

Where was I? Yes, The Great Believers. Great, indeed. 1985, the novel begins at a funeral that Yale, director of a Chicago art gallery, is attending. He has begun to lose his cohorts to the AIDS epidemic, this funeral being for his friend, Nico, whose younger sister, Fiona, was the only family member not to have disowned him, and had become a vital part of Nico, and now Yale’s, adopted family of friends.

Part of the novel happens during that era of unbelievable loss and fear and fury, in tandem with a plotline taking place thirty years later when Fiona is searching for her estranged daughter in Paris. But, like a diamond, the novel has many facets, each surface reflecting light and love and memory in a unique way; another of those being the story of Nora, now aged and facing death from a failing heart, reflecting back on her time in Paris between the world wars when she was muse to multiple artists, the products of which she means to will to the gallery for which Yale works.

Rebecca Makkai, too young to have lived through the early years of the AIDS epidemic, manages to capture its horrors, along with the ways in which it bound together the community of societal outcasts, making of us both pariahs and heroes. The untouchables joined forces in the face of an extinction the government and much of the world seemed happy to allow, even to welcome, and in doing so became a political and social power as never before.

All in the midst of horrific mourning and discrimination.

Timely, that, now that we again face a loud minority of haters who have wrested control of the government and infect the zeitgeist with their bigotry and violence toward all those not them. Sad that we’re back to this.

But, essential to remember, every day, we survived the worst parts of that plague and emerged stronger, wiser, and empowered. We’ll survive this current plague of hate, too, and emerge with more wisdom, freedoms, caution, and union.

And so, it is so very, very important that the stories of before are told, and told compellingly. Rebecca Makkai is a gifted writer, she works in delicate brush-strokes of complicated intricacies and paints a cohesive, coherent whole of great beauty. It is staggeringly moving, I was many times left breathless, the echoes of aches from the scars of that time in my life brought back, reawakened.

But, as Nora says to Yale while telling him the story of her liaisons with those artists who made of her paintings and sketches and history: “When someone’s gone and you’re the primary keeper of his memory, letting go would be a kind of murder, wouldn’t it? I was stuck with all that love.”

Rebecca Makkai has made of many kinds of love and memory a novel of great import — both as an historical document and description, and as beautifully worthy literature. She deftly juggles multiple time frames, myriad characters, and a complication of themes and emotions with brilliant dexterity, making a heartrending, true to the bone tale of loss and love and commitment and the many ways in which we deal with and make choices in the face of all of those emotions and life challenges. What could easily have been polemic or cloyingly manipulative, is, instead, like truth etched in glass by the diamond of her talent and insight and gift.

Read it. Five very enthusiastic stars.

Reading: July-ShortTakes (and a teaser)

July 23rd and all is not well, even so, or perhaps, because of this, thus far this month I have read only 8 books — which is not a lot for a July filled with house/pet-sitting, during which I often devour a book a day. But, the world right now . . . I’ll leave it at that since this is a reading post, not a personal post like the last two, which, inevitably, kill my stats. It’s almost as if you all are saying, “Shut up about YOU, Charlie, and talk about the BOOKS!” I get it, and so, I’m going to talk about 7 of them here, but I’m saving for later the 8th, Idra Novey’s delicious Those Who Knew — due out in November. My friends, I was lucky enough to be trusted with an arc which I five-starred; and unlike some four and five stars, this one I really and truly, enthusiastically meant. Idra Novey writes the kind of books that remind you why you LOVE reading. So good. But, you’ll have to wait until September for me to share my in-depth feelings about  Those Who Knew, which needs a post all its own. Maybe a few posts. Now, onward.

The Lonely Witness, William Boyle, Hardcover, 272pp, May 2018, Pegasus Books

“Gritty noir” seems to be the consensus on this one. I read it because somewhere, someone compared it to Ross Macdonald, a comparison I think not fully apt. While both have in common exploration of twisted, tortured relationship and family dynamics, Macdonald’s main characters — mostly Lew Archer — have a compassionate approach, a hardboiled that encompasses both the hard and the boiled — as in warm, heated, passionate; Boyle’s characters are markedly colder which also makes them — almost every one in this novel — unlikable and thus unrelatable. Well written, yes. Well plotted, mostly, although requiring a level of suspension of disbelief bordering on asking too much. But, for me, a bit too bleak and sorrowful, which may well be the point as it is as much a study of a decaying and dying neighborhood and way of life as it is a crime story.

Circe, Madeline Miller, Hardcover, 349pp, April 2018, Lee Boudreaux Books

Okay, confession, I know next to zero about mythology. I read Circe not because I knew anything at all about Circe — in fact, other than the name, I knew nothing at all of the story — but because I LOVED the author’s Song of Achilles. Seems Circe was the first witch. Also turns out — no surprise here — she was in need of MeToo and NoMore. It’s not only hetero-human men who suck, but, too, the gods and demi-gods; which, pretty much figures since such myths have been — by and large — told and re-shaped and re-told by hetero-men. Madeline Miller is making strides to remedy that, which is great, but for me, this was a bit overlong. Perhaps, if I was more familiar with or more interested in mythology, it would not have seemed so. But, with Song of Achilles, I knew not much of the origin tale either and I found that book riveting and compelling. I think, maybe, this one — in an effort to continue in the genre groove of the first novel — felt as if the author tried too hard with a story that interested her not enough.

L’Appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home, David Lebovitz, Hardcover, 368pp, November 2017, Crown Publishing Group

Funny story; at the library one day to pick up my reserved books, I walked by the new releases shelf and saw this book. I picked it up, perused briefly, almost checked out, but reasoned that I already had way too many books checked out and more on reserve, and since this was a compilation of recipes and a rehabbing a home story — two things I love — I decided I would go to my local indie, THE CURIOUS IGUANA [click here] and use my gift cards account (I have a lot of very good friends) to order it. I get there, the next day, and cannot remember the title, the author, the anything except the cover was sort of tan and it was about an American chef who decided to buy an apartment in France. Don’t you know, Lauren, one of the brilliant, helpful booksellers there, got on the computer and found it for me. I love my indie store, its employees, and book-people in general.

Now, was it worth all the trouble Lauren went to for me? Yes. And no. It was not enough of either thing: recipes or rehab story, and while the rehab was in large part an adventure in one misfortune and people behaving badly after another, it is hard to sympathize with a fellow who can afford a Paris apartment, has a supportive French lover, and a book contract. And, when things go disastrously, he can then afford to have it all re-done, this time by a competent contractor. And, all of it, like the rehab, took too long, and like a recipe with ingredients sloppily measured, it just doesn’t taste right.

The Perfect Couple, Elin Hilderbrand, Hardcover, 466pp, June 2018, Little, Brown and Company

This is my second Elin Hilderbrand novel, the first having been The Identicals, which I read in February and enjoyed. These are the equivalent of Lifetime Movies, in fact, as you read them you can picture the pretty unto plastic B-actresses and actors playing the fairly-predictable circumstances to breathless conclusion.

Summary: dead maid of honor, a bad-girl-party-girl, maybe murdered, washes up on the beach on the morning of the wedding of her best friend, a good-girl from modest background with a fatally ill mother, devoted daughter now set to marry into a wealthy family with a sketchy-behaving dad and a somewhat pretentious author on the down-trend mother. Rich groom, salt of the earth and too good to be true, whose best man/buddy, a should-have-been heir screwed out of his inheritance who is a sort-of party-boy but not really, even earthier and saltier than his buddy, the groom, and there are crossed attractions everywhere, and much uproar and secrets and hiding things from the law enforcement fellows, and true love and all that in 466 very fast, quite entertaining pages.

Caveat: I hated the ending. But up until then I was having a great time reading just what I expected, done quite nicely. Yeah, a beach read.

Clock Dance, Anne Tyler, Hardcover, 304pp, July 2018, Knopf

I confess, eyes to the ground, a little shamed, I have often found Anne Tyler’s books to be a bit twee for me, and her last, A Spool of Blue Thread, I put down early on. So, I was wary coming at Clock Dance, but determined to keep an open mind.

Surprise, I enjoyed it and wondered if perhaps I should re-examine Anne Tyler’s oeuvre now that I’m older and dealing with the theme in this novel and what, in retrospect, I realize has often been her theme; giving one’s self permission to live one’s authentic life, letting go of cultural expectations, the past, and the roles one has played for loved ones, sometimes — often — to the detriment and compromise of one’s own happiness.

In Clock Dance, we follow Willa from childhood, young adult betrothal and marriage, motherhood, widowhood, and, finally, the real gist and glory of the novel, her service as mistaken-identity grandmother to Cheryl, the nine-year-old daughter of one of Willa’s two equally neglectful and distant sons’ ex-lovers. When Willa flies from her home with her second husband in Tuscon to Baltimore after a phone call from a stranger who is a neighbor of Cheryl and her mother, who’s been shot, she enters one of the quirky worlds at which Anne Tyler specializes, with a cast of characters riddled with peccadilloes and peculiarities, stumbling, tripping, and — as Cheryl’s mother, released from hospital but still having difficulty getting around does — scooting up the steps on one’s butt, a stair at a time, trying to reach one’s own space.

And also, as is often the case with Anne Tyler, while the characters are comical, the dialogue and narration often funny in that offbeat-observation sort of way, the underpinnings of the lives are built on foundations of compromise, disappointment, dishonesty, secrets, and the ache of the mistakes and missteps made in the effort to somehow make bearable the painfully and always fatal quotidian slog of survival.

As I said, coming to the end of my sixth decade and owning a few offbeat-quirks of my own, finding peace with being who I am as the slog winds down, the clock readying to stop, I am now appreciating Anne Tyler more than I did before.

History of Violence,Édouard Louis, translated by Lorin Stein, Hardcover, 208pp, June 2018, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

I read this author’s buzzy and much-anticipated The End of Eddy in 2017. It, like this, was a blend of biography and fiction,the degree to which either applies unknown to the reader. Many novels fall into the roman à clef category and many biographies and autobiographies — most, even — contain elements of fiction, whether those be fabrication, supposition, exaggeration, the altering of names or combining of people, messing with timelines, imposing motivations and meaning where there are none, on and on.

And so, we go into this telling of Louis’ rape and near murder on Christmas Eve, its nearly equally brutal aftermath, and the cold unto horrifyingly unsympathetic and homophobic description of it Louis overhears his mostly-estranged sister delivering to her husband, knowing that at least the seed of repugnant tragedy at its core is Édouard Louis reality.

Even as short as this book is, it is too long. From the racism and disregard shown by the police, to the tortured self-examination Louis subjects himself to as if searching for a way to blame himself for the violent crime and the inadequate response to his reporting of it, sharing of it with others, this book is am appalling, gruesome experience. It is especially disheartening and terrifying in this age of a resurgence of — hell, almost a celebration of — bigotry and homophobia and the election of a serial sexual assaulter to the presidency.

It breaks the heart. And, too, if it’s mostly a novel, shame on the author for using such an execrable premise, and if it’s autobiography, then, dear god, aren’t we better than this by now?

I guess the answer is no. We’re not. And that, I guess, is what broke my heart even more.

A Scandalous Deal, Joanna Shupe, Mass Market Paperback, 373pp, April 2018, Avon

Lady Eva Hyde has three dead fiancés, one rapidly deteriorating, famous-heralded architect father who has wasted away his fortune, and a determination to be respected for her own work as an architect. She sails for New York where Phillip Mansfield is building the most luxurious hotel possible from a design he thinks is by Lady Eva’s father, but which is in truth her work. She must convince him to allow her to serve as her father’s representative on the job until he recovers — which she must not let Phillip know is never going to happen. She faces all the problems one might expect her to face in the Gilded Age in New York when a woman in her early 20’s is assuming a position of any authority.

Okay, here’s the thing: fast, fun read. Entirely too modern of dialogue and situations. It defies belief and/or reason that the most expensive hotel ever built would go on without face to face meeting with the assumed architect. Even more unbelievable, even in 2018 unbelievable, that a woman (or man) in their early twenties — no matter the level of genius — could or would be allowed to be the main architect on, again, the most expensive, luxurious hotel ever built. That’s no just a scandalous deal, it’s a freaking ludicrous deal.

So, fun, fast, and utterly ridiculous. But, well, I liked it anyway. Except for all that heterosexual sex. I mean, really, okay straight people should have equality I suppose, but  enough they have opportunity to do it, must they also flaunt it in our faces? Enough already.

***************************************************************

So, there they are, the seven July-so-far reads about which I can currently speak. I’m in the middle of three more, but I’ve a lot going on, coming up, looming, and who knows from day-to-day whether or not some orange dumbass in the oval office will manage to get us all blown to bits, so I don’t count on finishing any books. Just gotta roll with the endless assaults by the serial-sexual-predator installed by the russians.

Thank you for taking the time to read me, and here’s wishing you happy book-loving, and here I am, going.

 

Reading: Southernmost

Southernmost, Silas House, Hardcover, 352pp, June 2018, Algonquin Books

Full Disclosure: I bought Southernmost from my beloved local indie, Curious Iguana [CLICK HERE], because it was blurbed by Garth Greenwell, whose novel, What Belongs To You, remains one of my lifetime favorite books. I did not get a free copy. I do not know the author. I am just a reader devoted to good writing.

Full Disclosure Part 2: To read a novel in which many actions are motivated by anti-LGBTQ bigotry in the current atmosphere when a major political party has embraced legislating hate, bigotry, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia into law is, for me, terrifying. I appreciate some people still think gentle education is the answer and cure, I was once a proponent of said approach myself. Now, however, I believe more and more with every passing day and new despicable action committed by the gop and the illegitimate dictator-wanna-be occupying the white house along with his criminal family and jackbooted cronies, that the only answer is revolution. In addition to which, having suffered the results — physical and emotional — and compromised existence resulting from such prejudice as is being promulgated by these fascist-republicans, I am, perhaps, more impatient than most with the gentle treatment of the bigoted-villains in this story.

Synopsis: A flood destroys a Tennessee town in tandem with the Supreme Court ruling affirming gay marriage equality. Pentecostal preacher, Asher Sharp’s nine-year-old son, Justin, runs toward the dangerous rushing waters in search of his beloved dog, Roscoe, and is rescued — sort of — by Jimmy and Stephen, a gay couple recently relocated from Nashville. When Asher offers shelter to the couple whose home has been destroyed, his rabidly-hypocritically-pious wife objects, worried what the congregation will think. Jimmy and Stephen leave, unwilling to stay where they are unwanted, and Asher begins to be plagued by doubts, further exacerbated by memories of his gay brother Luke’s departure a decade earlier when their mother held a gun to his head saying she’d rather see him dead than gay, and Asher, too, turned against him in cruel, bigoted judgment, twisting religion into hate.

When Jimmy and Stephen try to join Asher’s congregation, its members insist Asher reject them. Asher determines this to be un-christian and cites biblical passages to insist they be welcomed and accepted. When the congregation then votes to oust him as minister, Asher makes an impassioned speech about acceptance which goes viral. He leaves his wife, who sues for and wins sole-custody of Justin thanks to a prejudiced judge and backward court system.

Asher, increasingly disturbed by the abusive brainwashing his son is being subjected to, forcibly removes Justin from his grandmother’s home one weekend, inadvertently injuring her in the struggle, and runs with him to Key West putatively in search of Luke, the brother he’s not seen nor communicated with in a decade. Along the way they rescue a stray dog, who Justin names Shady, who can’t replace Roscoe — whose body Asher found, never telling Justin he had done so — but does give Justin something to take care of, a confidante.

In Key West, Asher and Justin and Shady settle in at a guest house owned by Bell, an older semi-recluse, and begin working there along with Evona, another emotional recluse with a mysterious and sad history. Now and then Asher asks someone if they’ve heard of his brother, and he Vespas the streets of Key West in a magic-realism, less than sincere effort at finding long-gone Luke.

What happens then, what’s happened until then, is a story about the shape and the power of beliefs, the cost of constructing one’s own personal morality and faith-based on experience and heart-truths, disregarding the droning cacophony of “should must right wrong black white yes no” of many traditional, conservative religions; a system of beliefs all too often used to bully, frighten, and control people in ways that grow hate rather than spread love, using faith as a weapon of punishment, terrorism, and division rather than praise, acceptance, and inclusion.

Asher questions his past and contributions to that culture of despair, and the damage such teachings and preachings have done. At the same time, he sees that forcing Justin to live in hiding, removing him from his home and others he loves is also doing damage. Asher struggles with questions of faith and accountability, and, too, the many shapes of love and the lengths to which people will go in the service of that love, lengths and actions that distort that love into an unrecognizable force of destruction and harm.

Well then. Okay. I get it. I do. And here’s what Josh Inocéncio in Spectrum South: The Voice of the Queer South [link to entire review, click here] has to say:

And this is why House’s novel is critical, particularly to southern literature. Written in third person, the story is about a conservative, heterosexual man who must challenge everything he knows to pursue a new sense of what is right.

… and this …

With Southernmost, House brings a much-needed message from a palatable point of view. It’s a novel that every gay southerner should read, and then hastily send to any of their kin still struggling with acceptance.

Palatable point of view? I say, fuck that noise. At this point in history, when our freedoms are daily abrogated, our lives quite literally threatened, all with the approval — nay, the cheering on — of a major political party and 62 million bigot-voters — for an LGBTQ writer to approach a story from the point of view of a cis-white-male-hetero-villain’s perspective in an attempt to mollycoddle the bigoted into considering behaving like decent human beings is nothing less than Uncle Tomism, or, I think we’ll call it Uncle Bruce-ism.

Like I said, FUCK THAT NOISE.

I think we’ve had quite enough stories told from the point of view of straight white men. And when man-of-so-called-god Asher suffers pangs of conscience ten years after calling his brother a faggot and disowning him, and then has his life inconvenienced for taking baby-steps toward decency, steps mostly self-serving and ill-conceived, none of which constitute actually DOING anything to undo the damage his actions and preaching have done throughout the years, well, you’ll have to excuse me if I am less than sympathetic.

Like the brother he finally finds who says that none of what Asher did can be undone, I agree. And so, this isn’t me saying the book is poorly written — that’s not the case at all. It moves quickly, speaks in evocative, simple language and Southern-patois with the ring of authenticity, and despite some diminishment of action into cliché and, too, a nine-year-old who is described as an old-soul but who is prescient and empathetic beyond belief, the novel is quite readable.

But, it’s a Lifetime-movie in a time when we need a Tony Kushner play. It is appeasement when we need to storm the barricades, and as such — for me, at least — it, in part, excuses the inexcusable and unforgivable behaviors and attitudes of the haters, without the hater-in-chief main character doing anything other than feeling a little bad about what he’s done. And, in the meantime, managing to hurt his son, his mother-in-law, his brother, and his fellow runaway, Evona, in the process. Typical. The angst and suffering of the cis-het-white-man infects and damages everyone with whom he comes in contact.

Enough. Too much. Rabbit has run one too many times, and Portnoy’s complaints are just privileged whining, and everything Franzen induces furious-gag-reflex now. So, out with the perspective of the oppressors, please.

And, one more time, fuck that noise.

 

 

Reading and Writhing; Things Fall Apart

In this post I discuss The Pisces by Melissa Broder, and Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton. But mostly, I talk about myself and my place (or lack thereof) in the world today.

If you want JUST the book talk, skip down to the red headlines and book-jacket photos below. It won’t hurt my feelings. I get it. I’m not always in the mood for 800 words of someone’s personal journey either.

Trigger Warning: This reading recap is more personal than most of my book musings. I find it increasingly difficult to suspend my disbelief when daily life is more implausible and unthinkable than any fiction could be, and as the balance of vileness versus decency tilts ever more toward the despicable, it’s difficult for me to see or write anything through any lens other than that of my horror at the wretched, stinking, sleazy, vulgar bigotry and hatred being promulgated by 45 and his jackbooted supporters, they who are the creations of the last fifty or so years of republican strategy to assure that hetero-cis-white-men maintain power and keep the rest of us in subjugation.

So, there. That. I don’t apologize for my rage. I apologize for having quieted my rage through the decades when I saw this coming, experienced it in micro-ways day after day, but allowed myself to be cowed into silence and complacency by those with more power and privilege scolding me for my over-reactions and paranoia.

To all those who insisted things weren’t that bad, I told you so. I wish saying that made me feel better, but, somehow, the threat of my human rights being further abrogated and children being torn from their parents and sold from concentration camps to adoption racketeers undoes any satisfaction having been right all along gives me.

Satisfaction on any front is difficult to come by lately. Things. Fall. Apart. The center does not hold. The best lack conviction and the worst are full of passion without mercy.

So, why am I reading? Why am I not constantly marching? Protesting? Resisting? Good question, and one with which I have been struggling since November 2016 when the russians installed this criminal family.

If you area regular reader of this blog you know events of November 2016 caused me to spiral into a depression so extreme that after many years resisting medication, I began taking bupropion, the result of which was relief from the dysthymic disorder I had been suffering for decades. I’d had no idea just how depressed I was, it having been a slow, creeping invasion of sorrow consuming more and more of who I was, my thoughts, my energy, but in such small increments I didn’t know the fullness of it. I thought I was a naturally melancholy person. I was not. It was an illness and it was kicked over the edge into manic depression with suicidal ideation by the horrors of November 2016.

So, ironically, in what is easily the ugliest era politically and for humanity in my lifetime, I am more balanced and able to reason and cope than ever I have been. I no longer feel responsible for the entire world because I have come to understand the world does not revolve around me. I rarely ever become angry with anyone for their actions or words because I only spend time and love with people who I trust are coming from a place of love and light, whatever they do, even if it seems to me at first glance to be hurtful. And, equally important, they offer me the same grace. It is as powerful a medicine as the bupropion, after far too long spending time with people who were always finding me coming up short, a disappointment to them, not fulfilling the role they’d written for me, this blessing of knowing I have a tight-knit circle of loved ones amongst whom there is no need for forgiveness because we don’t judge in the first place. We believe in and see the light in one another.

It is incredibly liberating to let go of feeling as if everything you do, think, or say might be misconstrued, might be used against you as evidence you are less than, flawed, wrong.

It has also changed my behavior. I no longer do things I don’t want to do. I don’t do things because I fear someone will become angry with me if I don’t go to their party, or begrudge me my introvert-preference to stay in with a good book.

A good book. There’s the key. Because this new me doesn’t feel obligated to finish every book I start. This new me doesn’t think he has to agree with the literati’s opinion of a book. This new me reads what I want, as I want, and write about it only if it in some way pleases me, or, in some cases, brings to my attention something I feel like sharing. Which is the case with this post, which, since last I talked about a book, I have finished reading two and cast aside two more after 35 and 50 pages. Here are the ones I finished.

The Pisces, Melissa Broder, Hardcover, 270pp, May 2018, Hogarth Press

Okay, up front I say, if you are going to kill a dog in a novel I want a trigger warning on the cover. And if the death is going to be result of neglect and/or abuse, I am not going to read the book.

No one warned me about The Pisces, so, I’m doing a public service and warning you.

I suppose it only fair to tell you I spend a great deal of my time dog-sitting, so, reading about someone who is dog-sitting and finds it okay to not walk the dog when it needs to be walked, lock it in a pantry and tranquilize it so she can get it on with a merman — look, you don’t do that. You don’t bring strangers into someone’s home AND YOU DON’T TREAT A DOG BADLY.

And what is it with everyone falling in love with fish lately?

Anyway, that said, there were some really lovely lines in this novel and it was sometimes funny and here and there touching, insightful about loneliness and lust and longing and self-delusions, so, had it not featured dog-abuse, I think I would have very much liked it. But, as a wise woman in publishing once said to me; “Life is too short and ugly enough. I implore you, if a book has an ugliness that makes you miserable, stop reading it.”

So, despite lines like:

I heard myself talking to the dog, and it reminded me that I existed. Existence always looked like something other than I thought it would.

And this, when the main character is trying to get drugs for the UTI she’s gotten from merman-sex, she tells the doctor that she and her husband have been having a lot more sex lately in order to conceive a child. Then this, from the doctor:

‘Any chance that he could have been exposed to any sexually transmitted diseases?’

Was she implying that my fictitious husband was unfaithful? How dare she!

‘Absolutely not.’

I did laugh out loud there, but it was only page 97, before I began suspecting the dog was going to meet a bad end. And, like I said, despite lines like that and some exquisite passages about aching loneliness — and some very uncomfortable passages about longing for someone because they don’t want you — there was not one truly likeable character in the entire book; they were all, to one degree or another, horrible, mean, selfish, unkind people. So, wish I hadn’t read this book.

If you’re okay with dogs dying from neglect, go for it. Also, never get anywhere near me.

Social Creature, Tara Isabella Burton, Hardcover, 273pp, June 2018, Doubleday

Dear literati-lords, please, I beg you, stop comparing novels to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. And for good (bad) measure, these blurbs threw in Edith Wharton, Bret Easton Ellis, and Donna Tartt. Now there is a goulash certain to have at least one ingredient to turn everyone off.

Again — and these things seem to come in bunches — there is not one pleasant character in the entire novel. They range from being emotionally dishonest to committing murder.

It’s very fast. I read it in a day. But, honestly, when we already have an illegitimate president who is utterly lacking in any redeeming qualities, who surrounds himself with equally contemptible sleazeballs, I seriously don’t need that kind of repellent goings-on in the things I’m reading to escape the real world.

I suppose I ought be grateful no dogs were murdered. Better to kill off haughty, unkind, wealthy socialites and their milquetoast, obsessed devotees.

So, there it is. I’ve seven more library books stacked by my bed, waiting for me to dive in. All I can say is, nice it up people. Life is full-to-overflowing with assholes as it is, let’s not revolve novels around them.

And on that note, here I am, going.

 

 

Reading: Heartseeker: Truth or Despair

Heartseeker, Melinda Beatty, Hardcover, 336pp, June 2018, G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers

Full Disclosure: I know Melinda Beatty. I know her because she is a bookseller at my glorious local indie, The Curious Iguana. We have never spent time together outside that context: book lover who sells (and writes) books and book lover who buys (and writes about) books. And, to be clear, I bought my copy of Heartseeker. Gladly. I will likely buy a few more for relatives and friends.

I’ve been lamenting of late the lack of books with electric plotting, memorable characters, and artful prose, the kind of books that grab hold of you, pull you into their universe, and stay with you for more than five minutes after you’ve finished them.

Problem solved.

Melinda Beatty’s debut (DEBUT!) novel, Heartseeker, checks all of those boxes and more.

Only Fallow, six years old, lives in small, simple Presston, youngest of three in a family whose father’s cider is favored by King Alphonse, bringing jealous attention to Only and her brothers, Ether and Jon. Feeling like an outcast, Only is drawn to Lark and Rowan, two children of the Ordish, the traveling folk rumored to have gifts of cunning and magic, who help Only’s father each season with the harvest and are much looked down upon, distrusted, and discriminated against by the subjects of King Alphonse, whose agents have been kidnapping Ordish children, using them as slaves until their relatives can raise the ransom for their return. Only feels especially akin to the Ordish when she discovers, with the help of her grandmother, Non, that she has a cunning of her own: she can see lies. Too, her gift comes with a price: if she herself lies, she is stricken by great pain, a seizure-like blacking out. Non advises Only to keep her gift hidden, but through twisted-misadventure, rumor of Only’s abilities reach the King, who believes such an ability to discover liars will help him save his kingdom which is in disarray. But truth being told and liars being revealed are the last things some in the kingdom want to happen, and they attempt to stop Only from taking her place at court in the enormous city of Bellskeep, a role she has only agreed to in order to save her family.

I am rat-rotten at synopses, but that’s a rough-ish outline of 336 pages chockful of adventure, plot, surprises, and fascinations. Melinda Beatty clearly has a cunning, herself. She has built a world utterly unique and wonderfully believable. Her introduction of its specific vocabulary, traditions, belief systems, and social structures is seamlessly, skillfully done by using context and dialogue. There is no pedantic, dull-as-dirt back-story-ing to interrupt the action, the world is made and the characters come to life through the telling of the story.

And what a story! Only Fallow is a likeable, trustworthy narrator and you want to go with her, warn her, stop her, help her, urge her on, hug her, protect her. Her Ordish pals, Lark and Rowan are also attention-grabbing and vitally alive, worthy of their own tales. The there’s the court intrigue. And the love story Only’s brother Jon is one half of (I don’t want to give any more away than I already have). And grandmother, Non, I can’t wait to spend more time with her.

Heartseeker, labeled Middle Grade, is also wildly enjoyable for adults. Enjoyable as in: remember that feeling you had as a child when you discovered Harriet The Spy, or Little Women, or Portnoy’s Complaint (I was a very precocious child)? Heartseeker draws you in with that same entirely other yet also totally familiar world, as in, it’s clearly outside your day-to-day reality, but the emotions and behaviors are on-point, from the heart, as if the author had culled her story from inside your head and dreams.

Melinda Beatty has that cunning of gifted authors who can fabricate riveting, riotously readable tales that elucidate real-life emotions and experiences.

I eagerly await volumes 2 and 3. And, in fact, anything else Melinda Beatty writes. I suspect she will be too busy soon inventing other worlds to sell me any more books, but that’s okay, she’ll be selling lots and lots of books in a new and exciting way by sharing her work with the world.

 

Reading: 3 Novels (and writers) to Enjoy

In this post I will be discussing Susan Elia MacNeal’s THE QUEEN’S ACCOMPLICE; Mariah Fredericks’ A DEATH OF NO IMPORTANCE; and Allison Pearson’s HOW HARD CAN IT BE?

Before I get to the book-talk, one of my usual pre-ambles. I promise this one will be briefer than the last, but I warn you, it is what some would consider political in nature, while, to me, it is not about politics, rather, it is about the criminals and bigots who are taking over the world.

I know it’s the thing now to bash social media, and it does most definitely deserve much bashing for the role it played in the thieving of the 2016 election and installation of the illegitimate and criminal 45 and his gop-jackbooted-cronies, those usurpers of the SCOTUS seat which ought to have gone to President Obama’s nominee, Merrick B. Garland, who the treasonous lot of rot-sucking no-good goppers, in an unprecedented move, wouldn’t even bring to the floor for consideration thus taking their evil to new heights — but I digress. Yes, Facebook (which I quit five+ years ago) and Twitter are in some part responsible for the decline of civility, the epidemic of tribalism, and targeted-marketed-brainwashing, BUT . . . it is because of Twitter and the Literary crowd who hang there that I have discovered some of my favorite reads and authors. And people.

All three reads in this post are the direct result of Twitter connections, friends, and recommendations; so, even though I have cut WAY back on Twitter, I just can’t give it up and risk missing reads like these.

The Queen’s Accomplice, Susan Elia MacNeal, Paperback, 368pp, October 2016, Bantam

How do I love Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope Mysteries? I would say “let me count the ways” but I have never been good at math and the list would reach numbers with which I am unfamiliar.

In this, the sixth of the adventures, a lunatic serial killer — or, as Maggie’s misogynistic co-investigator, Detective Chief Inspector James Durgin of Scotland Yard insists, sequential murderer — is copycatting Jack the Ripper’s brutalities, especially targeting those women who have been recruited to work as Winston Churchill’s spies, like Maggie herself.

And in 1942, as has always been the case during the horrific war, change and danger always await our heroine. Early on she is surprised by friends with the repair of what had been her grandmother’s home, damaged by blitz bombs. In no time, the same night as the surprise party in fact, Maggie’s dear friend, Chuck and her infant Griffin are moved in, having narrowly escaped being blown to bits by a gas explosion in their residence.

Meanwhile, Maggie’s half-sister, Elise Hess, is being tortured in a Nazi camp, having been captured working for the resistance. Near death, she is mysteriously released thanks to the influence of her conductor father, but there is a price to be paid if she wishes to remain free; she must denounce a patron of the resistance or be returned to the camp, and if she disappears, her fellow prisoners of whom she has grown fond will be murdered.

And, too, the mother of Elise and Maggie, the famous opera star and more infamous Nazi collaborator, Clara Hess, is, perhaps, not as dead as originally thought? And Maggie’s father is in hospital, having lost his …

I’m not giving you any more information. I want you to enjoy the layering of characters and situations, the intricate and ingenious weaving of plotlines, all expertly juggled by Susan Elia MacNeal, whose cunning disposition of storylines is also full of period detail and historical information, fascinating facts and particulars that enrich without distracting. Susan Elia MacNeal is one of those writers whose words create a film in the reader’s mind: You can see EVERYTHING she writes about so clearly, the characters are alive, the locations close enough to touch. She takes you there, into a very specific time and place, peopled by well-developed, wholly human, believable people.

Especially notable in this, number six in the series, the parallels with now. Maggie is assaulted — physically and socially/culturally/verbally — repeatedly by sexism and misogyny, there are men in power, with power, who are actively horrible, and, even worse (and still, so so so common), men who have no idea they are being horrible, who think it is their right to belittle others — women, in particular — and believe them to be less than. As horrifying as it is that seventy-five years later women are still dealing with this crap, it is absolutely terrifying that the methods and behaviors and words of the Nazis are being so closely recreated in the world now, especially here in the United States, where a wannabe oligarch/dictator has been illegally installed in an office not rightfully his, and has gone about destroying what makes this country this country, with collaborators everywhere.

So, while The Queen’s Accomplice is even better than the previous installments; unlike some series, in this one, each installment gets better rather than weaker, there is NEVER anything thrown-away/by rote in Susan Elia MacNeal’s writing. In addition to which, her writing is extremely entertaining, distracting even, it is also a warning about what we ought be resisting daily so as to avoid a repeat of the goings on making it necessary for Maggie Hope to undo these mysteries, and work undercover to sabotage the bad men’s plans about which Susan Elia MacNeal so skillfully writes.

I can’t wait to read number 7, The Paris Spy, which I have, and which I am, as I did with this, delaying until the next is released, which will happen on August 7. Yes, number 8, The Prisoner In The Castle, comes out this summer. Speaking of coming out, I worry that Maggie’s gay friend, David, will be outed and treated in the horrifying way gay people were then. But, I trust Maggie will handle that and protect him, as I trust Susan Elia MacNeal with my reader’s heart.

If you have not started reading Maggie, do. Go on, get busy.

A Death of No Importance, Mariah Fredericks, Hardcover, 288pp, April 2018, Minotaur Books

I read this because Susan Elia MacNeal blurbed the front cover calling the novel suspenseful and complex, and, as I’ve said, I trust her.

I wasn’t disappointed.

This is the first in a series of mysteries to feature the lady’s maid, Jane Prescott. It deals with the upper crust of society in New York City, 1910, and has wastrel, wild playboys, nouveau riche social climbers, anarchists, and a plethora of fascinating characters involved in a carefully plotted tale, rich in historical points, a vivid picture of a changing culture and a rip-roaring mystery. I might have figured it out before the ending, but I read a lot of mysteries. I’ll read a lot (I hope) of Jane Prescott tales, because, like Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope, Jane Prescott is a character you like, with whom you’re comfortable, who is often better than her surroundings and culture allow her to be, and you want her to win. And you want more of her. Wonderful character debut.

And, last but certainly not least, a novel which is not technically a mystery but, one could call it a comic/social issue thriller. My connection to this is that it was edited by the incomparable Hope Dellon who brings us Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series, and M.C.Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series, to both of which I am devoted. This is a sequel (of sorts) by Allison Pearson to her earlier novel, I Don’t Know How She Does It. This one:

How Hard Can It Be, Allison Pearson, Hardcover, 352pp, June 2018, St. Martin’s Press

This is the second novel about Kate Reddy, whose aging children and out-of-a-job, self-help guru-wannabe-in-training husband necessitate a return to the workforce after an extended absence during which she raised a family and turned forty-nine, an age not much in demand — one might even say shunned — in the workforce. Kate fudges her age and her resumé and ends up being hired on a temporary basis by the very same hedge fund she set up years earlier — unbeknownst to those now in charge.

This very, very funny novel hits on so many hot-button growing older, getting through adulthood experiences: the morphing body staring at you from the mirror when yesterday you were tight and twenty; the skin which is now crepe-papery and surrendering to gravity’s pull; the kids from one side pulling at you with their growing up pains and the parents pulling at your from the other with their growing old pains and you, in the middle, with everyone else’s pain to deal with leaving you little time to take care of your own, let alone the misbehaving spouse who is a different person than the one you married, and, maybe, the new version is a not very pleasant sort.

Kate has all of that with which to deal, plus a dilapidated “new” old home in the suburbs which her husband didn’t want in the first place, and the new job where she needs to maintain her semi-false identity and navigate the office politics, which, years later, are still rife with misogyny and backstabbing and credit-grabbing, and add to this list the onset of menopause, her own body tripping her up as she struggles through a return to the workplace and the changing shape of her family and relationships. And herself.

Oh, and then her long-absent near-lover with whom she is lustfully enamored, and who returns the feeling, shows up again.

Allison Pearson has a wicked sense of humour, and a finger (or, more-like, a fist) on the pulse of the Zeitgeist, and delivers a novel both breezily easy to read and recognizably, relatably today in its heroine’s concerns and conflict between her own needs and the demands of those around her/the world, as well as that universal conflict between how we see and think of ourselves versus the box into which the world and culture wants us to fit.

Funny, and without giving anything away, a happy,triumphant resolution — so,good on you Kate. And good on Allison Pearson for giving us a heroine whose humanity includes admitting and owning her flaws and errors with a sense of humour. I wish I were more like her.

So, there it is, my second book post in as many days after a month away. And, just like I had a Twitter connection with all three of these, coming next both a Twitter (two connections there, actually) and personal connection — a fantastic new Y.A. novel, first in an exciting new series by debut novelist Melinda Beatty, Heartseeker. I started yesterday and were I not struggling with the aging, fall-asleep-in-a-chair issue myself, I’d have finished it last night.

Now, off I go. It’s father’s day and so I need to take my dear mom out to lunch and give her the “you raised us alone so you get a father’s day gift, too” card/present. It’s a gift card to Boscov’s because a person can NEVER have too many blouses and earrings. I know this because my mom told me so.

So, here I am, going.

READING: So Little Time, and Less Patience

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.

Seriously. Seriously?

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.

 

Reading: The Captives by Debra Jo Immergut

I’ve fallen behind. In everything. And although I have finished reading nine books since my last Reading post on April 23 (and tossed aside three more after having reached between page 50 and 100), I’m choosing to focus on only one because I want to use what little influence I have to encourage its wider readership and I worry it will be lost in the glut of novels promoted as summer/beach reads, misrepresented by comparisons with all those novels with Girl or Train or Window in their titles, which would be both reductive and mistaken, but all too often it is the easy-out sort of comparison that gets published and called a review.

I don’t review. I appreciate. (Which is another reason I’m not writing about a lot of the eight other books I read since my April 23rd post.) So, I give you:

The Captives, Debra Jo Immergut, Hardcover, 288pp, June 2018, Ecco

Frank Lundquist is a psychologist whose loss of emotional control with a young patient cost him his private practice, reducing him to a basement-office position as inmate psychologist in a New York State women’s prison.

Into his office walks the girl-of-his-high school-dreams, Miranda Green, whose lack of emotional judgment cost her the freedom and privileged life into which she’d been born, reducing her to the state-issued yellow uniform and inmate number she wears.

In chapters with alternating points of view — Frank’s narrative in first-person, Miranda’s in close-third — the compelling trajectory of their re-union and re-acquaintance is teased, piecemeal, interwoven with a tessellation of details from their histories — together and separately — creating a psychological thriller in which each detail matters, the pieces adding up to a carefully wrought, unexpected whole.

Both Frank and Miranda are in the grip of obsessions, in thrall to their pasts, most especially regrets about who they might have been and wishes about opportunities missed, and the yearning to, somehow, undo what was done — or, to do now what was not done then. Debra Jo Immergut masterfully observes the ways in which people operate from different levels and layers of identity in pursuit of their life-goals, in pursuit of love, in pursuit of escape, in pursuit of revision — the grown up version of the child’s game-losing plea, “Pretend that didn’t happen!” This is an exploration of the lengths to which one will go when the other players in that life as playground-scenario taunt with, “No takebacks!”

And make no mistake, while this is a fast-moving, stay-up-all-night read about crime, punishment, escape, and Mr. Ripley-esque otherness, those are maguffins — fascinating and captivating maguffins, but, maguffins nevertheless, tools with which Debra Jo Immergut explores the nature of human behavior, the journey to and from self, and the shapes desire takes, and the limits and lines people cross when desperate to extricate themselves from their past, their present, the reality they’ve made. This is about what someone will do when faced with the dichotomy of “pretend that didn’t happen” versus “no takebacks!”

Along the way there is wonderful, well-shaped prose, including my very favorite line, one I wish I’d written: “The last thing she wanted to do was kill herself only to wake up alive.” That’s a great line and it works on all sorts of levels in this narrative.

Both Frank and Miranda have nearly dead past selves; Frank’s with an ex-wife and a once promising career, Miranda with a dangerous ex-lover and a father who was once a successful politician but has become an operator in the shadows of not quite legal lobbying, and a sister who died in a car sort-of accident, and … well, I don’t want to give away too many pieces of the story, the fabric of which you will enjoy discovering as you read.

Suffice to say that when Frank and Miranda meet, later in life, both in failure mode, Frank instantly recognizes his high school dream girl, while Miranda seems not to know who Frank is, rather, she merely sees him as a means to an end, a stranger, until she realizes who he is — or, did she actually know all the time? It’s all part of the mystery: What is discovered and known when? By whom? Who uses whom? Who crosses more lines and is the most double-crossing and back-pedaling? And when and how are the truths and untruths recognized, who on the canvas of characters — the other inmates who Miranda befriends or makes enemies of, Frank’s renowned psychiatrist father, and his drug addicted brother and his dealer — are complicit in what unfolds?

Frank asks at the beginning of the narrative who knows what they would do in circumstances such as he finds himself in, a question that also applies to Miranda, and it is that question which drives the novel. These two main characters begin the story with each of them trying to let go of the dead-self they once were, but in the course of their journey, each wonders if the other might not be able to revive that lost part of them. Is it possible to erase the past in the present? Or, are we forever trapped in who we are, who we’ve been, and the choices we’ve made?

This is a tale about the different ways in which a person can be held captive outside of prison bars, caged by circumstance and emotions, history and desire. Debra Jo Immergut does the question justice and It keeps the reader guessing and riveted in this kickass debut novel.

 

 

Reading: April Books, Or, at least the first four

The real constant in my life since I was quite young has been my love of and retreat into reading. Books have always been my go-to; they are the source from which I learned about the world, determined who and what I wanted to be, they informed my consciousness, became the language in which I was most fluent, and literature remains that which I have in common with those people I love, trust, and enjoy the most.

Now, having officially reached my late fifties (please do not inform my Grindr friends of this), in all likelihood more than half of my life is gone, nothing about which bothers me even a little except I will eventually run out of time to read. Too, both my dear aunt and my amazing mom were attacked by macular degeneration and so had their reading curtailed; these two things, the running out of time and possible loss of vision, have made me very picky about what I will read.

I determine what’s next on the list, from the pile, from the library, from The Curious Iguana [my much loved indie bookstore – CLICK HERE], by reading blogs and book-columns/reviews, speaking to trusted friends, the Twitterati, and browsing in bookstores and on-line. The first book this month was one I’d never have heard of were it not for the brilliant and delightful Bethanne Patrick, who you might know as The Book Maven [click HERE], creator of #FridayReads. She suggested it to me and this just proves what great taste she has in books and what fantastic taste I have in people. Here goes.

**********************************************************************************************************

Here In Berlin, Cristina Garcia, Hardcover, 224pp, October 2017, Counterpoint LLC

This novel is unlike any other I’ve ever read. It is unique of voice, or, rather, voices, because it is a mosaic of many monologues as recorded (heard? imagined?) by the narrator, the never named Visitor. She, a Cuban who hates her mother and learned the German language during an earlier stay, gives us a guided tour through the haunted city of Berlin, with its horrific past, its much storied inhabitants, many of whom carry dark secrets and sins, and the still-present ghosts of what horrors there were perpetrated and atrocities committed and ignored and suffered and still echoing.

This concatenation of detail doesn’t have a conventional plot, but its cumulative impact is of a whole, there is an emotional through-line one feels, or, rather, experiences. By the novel’s conclusion you couldn’t say, “First this happened, then that, resulting in this, and …,” nor describe the arc of a single main character; rather, there are thirty-plus stories of mostly unconnected people, but those stories together, taken as a whole, become one compelling and hefty history, the sum of its parts a surprising, brilliant cohesion of a particular city, time, way of life. Cristina Garcia does a breathtakingly subtle (oxymoronic, that, but exactly what I mean) job of synthesizing Berlin’s past and present, beauty and repugnance, and its pleasures and horrors into a discordant, atonal symphony which will leave you moved, horrified, astounded, and — as all very good books do — wiser for having thought thoughts you’d never have thought without reading the work.

And, too, reading it now is particularly chilling, near terrifying, as some of the stories concern those who watched as others were targeted, treated as sub-humans, murdered by the millions. Some of these characters did nothing, or collaborated, and as the world, now, becomes more and more dangerous, less and less kind, and minorities are increasingly targeted, again, denied equality, again, it is necessary to remember the lessons of history and stand up, speak out, fight back, RESIST.

**********************************************************************************************************

Next up, a book not recommended by anyone but myself. With my mother turning 90, and I, myself, nearing 60, the experience of aging — well, how others are coping with and experiencing aging — is of great interest to me. I read about this book somewhere (I can’t remember, which is part of MY experience of aging) and thought it might offer me some insight, maybe some comfort, certainly some stories with which I ought be able to identify.

Happiness Is A Choice You Make: Lessons From A Year Among the Oldest Old, John Leland, Hardcover, 256pp, January 2018, Sarah Chrichton Books

What started as a New York Times year-long series morphed into this book. John Leland, 57 and with an aging mother of his own with whom to deal — and I should mention I am 57 with a 90-year-old mother — learns through the course of a year spent visiting regularly with very different elderly individuals just how much the quality of one’s life experience has to do with the attitude with which one approaches it. He touches on the institutional problems of aging in this country, also the tendency of some in the medical field to dismiss and discount the elderly as those who will soon die anyway and so tend to take the stance of “let’s limit treatment” — which is infuriatingly true in all too many cases; and too, the author touches on the lack of resources, the problems with Medicare, the dissolve of family-care that once existed as the responsibility of caring for the elderly shifts to the state.

So, yes, it was an interesting enough read, but, for me, for reasons I don’t fully understand, it didn’t feel complete, deep enough, or quite on-point. And I will leave it at that.

**********************************************************************************************************

Next up, a book I added to my library-reserve list ages ago, pre-publication, when Buzzfeed touted it as one of 2018’s 33 Most Exciting Books.

Tangerine, Christine Mangan, Hardcover, 389pp, March 2018, Ecco

I confess, when I went to pick this book up from the library, I very nearly didn’t sign it out because it was blurbed by someone I cannot tolerate thanks to their self-satisfied, professorial blatherings, and more importantly, their recent stance of privileged-racist dismissal of legitimate concerns about offensive-minority stereotyping in writing. But, 2018 is the year I am trying to be a bigger person (while dieting to become a smaller person) and so, well, I didn’t want to hold the author responsible for the blurbs used by the publisher, thus, I signed it out and decided I’d give it a fair shot and wow, I’m so glad. I gobbled this page-turner like salted caramel chocolates. (That diet thing is getting me a little crazy.)

It does rather closely hew to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mister Ripley, which fact has been used both to praise and pillory this debut novel, and I did jot a note to myself as I was reading it: Yes, very familiar, but also very well done, and isn’t all good noir a re-working and take on all the noir that’s gone before?

So, I give it a 4 star. And I look forward to Christine Mangan’s next novel, which I imagine will display her gifts to even better effect now that she’s gotten out of her system what feels somewhat like an exercise in “write a piece in the style of your favorite author”. Still, like I said, very readable, entertaining, and worth 4 stars.

**********************************************************************************************************

The Female Persuasion, Meg Wolitzer, Hardcover, 456pp, April 2018, Riverhead Books

I liked this book very much; in some ways it reminded me of Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, although far less angry and contrived, and much better written. I’m confused as to why Meg Wolitzer isn’t categorized with Eugenides and Chabon and those other heralded male literary fiction writers — I suspect it is because she is of the female persuasion.

I’m an idiot — I had forgotten when I started this that Meg Wolitzer had written about this very thing in 2012 in the New York Times Book Review. CLICK HERE FOR A LINK FOR THAT BECAUSE I DON’T NEED TO SAY IT, AND CAN’T SAY IT THIS WELL.

So then, it’s still, sadly, perhaps even more true that men — particularly white, heterosexual cis-men — wield most of the power in the world and get most of the kudos and labeled as purveyors of literary fiction. Now, in particular, when the desperate last gaspings of racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and all the other bigoted phobias and isms have risen to elect a moron and his fascist cohorts to power, it is essential — life-saving, even — that voices like Meg Wolitzer’s are heard by everyone, not ghettoized by a culture & power-structure that devalues everyone and everything not white-hetero-cis-male.

In The Female Persuasion, the author explores fundamental, foundational issues of identity, friendship, the burden of truth and the morality of its fungibility, parenthood, childhood, aging, and being “other than” in a world where the standard is white-heterosexual-cis-male. Meg Wolitzer does this with her usual deftness of prose and very specific, “a-ha I have felt that very thing” moments in a plot framed around the interaction between the lives of a Gloria Steinem-like icon of modern-era feminism, Faith Frank, and the next generation Greer Kadetsky, awakened into second-wave feminism by being assaulted by a serial-abuser-frat-boy and then hearing Faith speak at her college. Their relationship is as complicated, loving, disappointing, enraging, and essential as the relationship between first wave and second-wave feminism — a process not unlike a child having to turn against her parents on the journey to becoming them.

However, this novel is not in the least polemical — if you’re one of those who worry about that — and one of its sub-plots deals with Greer’s teenage love, Cory, a white-heterosexual-cis-male who while well on his way to all the entitlement, privilege, and power that designation gives him, turns away from it, not entirely by choice, and lives a much simpler yet equally valuable life — which Greer doesn’t at first understand. Well, neither does Cory. Their relationship in all its permutations is beautifully, painfully captured.

As is the relationship between Faith and her son, Lincoln, from which sprang one of those very “a-ha” moments about which I earlier wrote. Listen to this, while Faith is called by her son at a time inconvenient for her and they both do the juggling of attention and time which has marked their life together:

She missed his young, vulnerable, ownable self. You never knew when you were lifting your child for the last time; it might seem like just a regular time, when it was taking place, but later, looking back, it would turn out to have been the last. Lincoln’s increasing lack of neediness was hard for Faith sometimes, but it was also something of a relief to think that he was all right on his own. In this way, they were actually alike.

“Now tell me what’s going on with you,” she said to him.

“Another time. Go have your massage, Mom.”

She watched the phone go dark, then held it in her hand for a few more seconds. It was the closest she could get, these days, to holding Lincoln himself.

 

Put aside the emotional truth of that experience, the letting go, the dichotomy of a bond both dissolved from the solid it once was yet still a permanent hold, and examine the brilliance of Meg Wolitzer’s language which mirrors the emotions not just of this scene, but, too, one of the themes of the novel: the dichotomy inherent in love and relationships and becoming/discovering the self. See it in her  “increasing lack of neediness” and how it is both “hard for Faith sometimes, but it was also something of a relief….” This is glorious authorship, the sort of thing you can miss consciously but which enters into your soul and heart as you read, that sort of transparent artistry that makes literary fiction.

Which Meg Wolitzer writes. Really damn well.

**********************************************************************************************************

I’m going to stop here, where I have gone, the first four books of the month. There are at least four more to come which is behind the pace for March, but, I’ve been rather distracted by turning a year older; something by which I am not usually bothered but which, this year, has sent me on a look-deep-inside and re-evaluate adventure of self, as in:

self-examination
self-involvement
self-ishness
self-loathing
self-on-the-shelf.

Pay no attention to the man behind these 2000 words, just listen to the Wizard MiracleCharlie, who will be back soon. But for now, here I am, going.

Reading: March Review; 11 Books, 1 Five Star, And DIDION!

I love Joan Didion, this is a long-established fact about which I have endlessly droned, and I intend to continue that here, but I’ll save it for the end. First, this …

Somehow, since last I blogged, an entire month has passed in which eleven books have been read, one of which I loved, two of which I thought artfully done and compelling reads, and eight of which I found from no better than they ought to be to meh, not so much. And so, since I am working on a writing project with a partner who is waiting for scene drafts, I am going to spend my lit-ergy here on only those reads which gave me real pleasure, beginning with the one Five Star read of the month, a treasure from the early 20th century by Beverley Nichols, a writer brought to my attention by a dear, dear Twitter friend, sobriquet of Vickie Lester, who was kind enough to find and send me a gorgeous, sweet-smelling 1932 edition!

Down The Garden Path, Beverley Nichols, Hardcover, 303pp, 1932, Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc

Called one of the most amusing gardening writers of all time, oft compared to Noel Coward, arch of style, imperious of manner, and dead-funny with a rapier wit able to capture the foibles and faults of others with an eviscerating bon mot, Nichols is exactly my cup of tea — I take my Earl Grey black, over-steeped, with two dashes of cayenne — strong and with a kick.

This is one of those books you ration, so taken by its prose, tone, and style, you want to inhale it all in one sitting but knowing the deliciousness is finite, you force yourself to stop after one short chapter (or two, or three), savoring and saving, so it lasts as long as possible. His prose is delightfully of its time, so much smarter (I think) and cleverer than we are today, and wittier. He is also marvelously acid at times, but in a backhanded, subtle sort of way. So much in this to make you smile and wish you’d said it, or, better, had known him while he was saying it. Listen:

The flowers last for a fortnight if you cut them in the bud. And they send out such a perpetual stream of fragrance that you will long to rush about the house waving scarves and doing spring songs, protruding your lips and breathing with suspicious violence.

And:

Are you bored? Indeed, I hope not. For the flower’s sake, not for my own. At the risk of out-winnying the pooh, it must be admitted that I always think flowers know what you are saying about them.

Now though, I hasten to caution you, pulling sentences from the whole is a fool’s game (which is, of course, why I am playing it) when writing is what it ought to be, which is, of course, a whole, lucid and complete, made up of myriad thoughts and words and silences skillfully composed into this thing called a book. To pull one sentence or paragraph is like isolating one brush stroke from a masterpiece by Caravaggio and expecting someone to be able to get the impression of the whole glorious painting. It simply won’t do. So, you must read this book.

Then, of course, you will be in the same sad boat I’m in, starving for more. Luckily, this is the first of a trilogy, in addition to which Mr. Nichols wrote many other gardening/house restoration books, some mysteries, and various and sundry other literature, all of which one must find in used editions, many of which are awfully pricey. Still, I’ve bookmarked them from various sellers, planning to accumulate one by one, like some people collect Blue Royal Delft pieces at what would seem to others ridiculous cost. And you there, don’t think about beating me to it — damn, I ought not have told you how marvelous is this book. I take it back, you must NEVER read a book by Beverley Nichols for it will do nothing for you but make you a sad, wanting thing like I am, eager to scrape together the next couple of tens and send off for another volume of his genius, and harken back to a better (no, it probably wasn’t better but right now any OTHER seems better than today) time in history.

P.S. I love you Vickie Lester. Great thanks for sending me this and bringing Beverley Nichols to my attention.

################################################################################

The next two books about which I’m going to talk hardly require my two cents being tossed into the discussion, both have been widely advertised, publicized, praised, and are selling like crazy, one thanks to Oprah choosing it for her book club, and the other thanks to the author’s well-deserved reputation and back-catalogue of really good writing. Let’s start with the Oprah choice, first of the two four-star reads.

An American Marriage, Tayari Jones, Hardcover, 320pp, February 2018, Algonquin Books

With 19,000 ratings and 2600 reviews on Goodreads, as well as 750 reviews on Amazon, 88% of which were four or five-star approvals, not to mention a five-star recommendation from my local-indie bookseller, Marlene at The Curious Iguana [click here for Marlene’s Iguana!], anything I say would be redundant. But, that never stops me.

This is a beautifully written allegory for what it is like to be “other” in America when “other” is defined as anything or anyone not cis-heterosexual-white-moneyed-male. But far from being polemical, the tale is wrapped in a frighteningly insightful narrative which will be recognizable to anyone who has ever loved and lived, helplessly, the tragedy of personal relationships going awry, love fading or morphing into something unsustainable, uncomfortable, unhealthy, unrewarding, and causing one to suffer the guilt and anger and regret of feeling failed, less than, wrong, unwanted, unaccepted, rejected, “un” in general until one’s foundational idea of self is shaken, beliefs brought into question, and one’s world torn asunder.

Roy and Celestial, upwardly mobile African-Americans have been married 18 months when Roy is mistakenly but insistently identified by a white woman as her rapist, arrested, convicted on scant evidence, and sent to prison, in essence, for the crime of being Black in America. At first, Celestial waits for him, but eventually, as his prison sentence stretches to a period longer than the amount of time they spent married, reality takes on a new shape for both of them, rearranging the content of their souls and hearts, as well as the size and parameters of their dreams, and creating the sort of distance that grows between two people who spend more time imagining one another than being with one another, a an empty space that fills with questions, stories, wishes, regrets, and the stuff and people close at hand.

An American Marriage is a story about surviving that journey, about people who are flawed, full of doubt and certainty in equal measure, each of which can instantly become the other with a glance, a word, a breath, in a moment; and perhaps it is that Tayari Jones has done so brilliantly, to capture the inevitability of feeling both right and wrong at once, caught in the conundrum of should and want, must and can’t, and having to decide where on those spectrums to land, the fact that being human is to be faced with impossible choices which must be made, the consequences of which must be dealt with.

Caveat; while this book truthfully describes the bleak reality of American life today, it is not without hope. There is resolution, not happily ever after, but not despairing either.

And now, the second four-star read:

Sunburn, Laura Lippman, Hardcover, 290pp, February 2018, William Morrow

This is my fourth Laura Lippman read and she is, indeed, as everyone says, a master of the suspense/detective novel.

Beach town. Polly, escaping a life she no longer wants, Adam, a detective on a mission, meet, mesh, and conduct a Body Heat/The Postman Always Rings Twice sort of love-sex-affair. Neither is completely who they have told the other they are. Neither completely trusts the other. Neither can deny the passion and connection they have. Twists, turns, pieces of the past and the truth are slowly revealed, compellingly teased, and there are surprises and betrayals and necessary lies and questionable acts and everything you’d want in a 1940’s noir film starring Barbara Stanwyck, and all of it made believable.

This is a great read, very fast, beautifully structured, with artful, accomplished writing by an author at the peak of her powers. You’ll want to one-day/night it, so don’t start until you have a swath of time in which to go from front to back without interruptions like work, family, sleep.

################################################################################

And now, Joan Didion.

I recently — at long last — joined the 21st century and got a subscription to Netflix. Wondrous, that. But I think the very most wonderful thing about it — although Grace and Frankie runs a close second (I am still bitter Lily Tomlin did not win the Oscar for her performance in Nashville) — is the documentary about Joan Didion made by her nephew, Griffin Dunne, called The Center Will Not Hold.

A sort of life story, a sort of tour of her work, a fantastic opportunity to listen to and watch Joan Didion speak and think. The way in which she gesticulates with her arms, these wide, swooping gestures seeming to be reaching into the ether to grab her thought and articulate it, and, too, to push away, ward off all the other-ness, effluvia, and detritus out there from which she wishes to be insulated, through which she cuts to expose the truth, brings to mind something not quite human, a seemingly delicate bird, but behind the fragility is a predator able to — if necessary — swoop in for the kill.

Watch it. You won’t be sorry. I’ve already done so three times, and will, no doubt so so again, just as I repeatedly re-read Play It As It Lays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and The White Album.

And, it has been brought to my attention there are Joan Didion tote bags. And T-shirts. Now, not only will I be saving up for additional Beverley Nichols books, but, of course and desperately, for Joan Didion swag.

################################################################################

Now, speaking of other; about those eight other books I read, some of them were just fine but not fine enough that I feel like writing about them, and a few were just dreadful, and as a general rule, I don’t speak ill of writers because their lives are difficult and thankless enough that my not caring for their book doesn’t make it bad, it just makes it not to my taste, and so, why talk about that when there are so many books I do want to share with you?

Okay then, off to continue April’s reading — I’ve already finished one MARVELOUS book, Here In Berlin by Cristina Garcia which was recommended to me by the brilliant writer and book journalist, Bethanne Patrick, otherwise known as The Book Maven [click HERE to follow her on Twitter, and you MUST!] about which I’ll write soon, or, in April’s recap — who knows?