Reading: Edan Lepucki’s “Woman No.17”

Woman No. 17, Edan Lepucki, Hardcover, 320pp, May 2017, Hogarth Press

I loved Edan Lepucki’s California, and when I wrote about it I spoke of how much I looked forward to this fascinating writer’s next novel with the fervent wish its setting not be dystopian. Ha! Little did I know by the time Edan Lepucki published again we would be hurtling toward a non-fictional dystopia brought about by a treasonous, narcissistic, sociopathic, dementia-riddled, pathological liar who stole an election with the help of Russia.

But, here we are. And without babbling on at too great a length in sociological theorizing, I think we arrived at this seventh circle because we live in fear that who we are is not enough, not who we ought to be, and because of that fear we have become performance artists, pretending to be some idealized “I”  — or, at least, a version of that “I” we wear like armor, a disguise we hope will allow us to survive, to meet with the approval of the culture in which we live. And, the effort to maintain the facade of projected-self is so all-consuming, we often dissolve into despair and desperate behavior, having lost the line between truth and our invented-self, an exhaustion of being which leaves us vulnerable to the manipulations of others to whom we look as mirrors, to find ourselves in how they perceive us.

Oscar Wilde said it best; “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” In Woman No. 17, Edan Lepucki has created a riveting and revealing portrait of the ways in which masks, personas, disguises, and the distancing effect of communication via social media affect modern life and personal reality.

The story is told by two alternating first person narrators; Lady, whose birth name was Pearl, and Esther, who is now called S. That the Lady sections are titled Lady, and the S sections titled Esther, indicates which of the two is more in touch with the anima beneath the persona, but both characters are remarkably aware of their own delusions — which in my opinion is where Edan Lepucki’s astounding ability to create real humans with whom one identifies and sympathizes, flaws and all, shines — because while Lady and S are both at turning points of identity confusion in their lives and behave in ways some reviewers and readers have described as repugnant, I found them to be like me, like everyone I’ve ever known, acting and behaving in the ways they do because they are compelled by the desire to find and be the “I” behind the masks, questioning the rules and expectations of cultural forces: social norms, parents, friends, and the roles we are expected to play based on gender, age, income, race, and class.

Lady, having recently decided to take a break from her marriage to Karl, hires S from a Craigslist ad to nanny for her toddler son, Devin. Too, Seth, Lady’s eighteen year old son from her first marriage to the long disappeared Marco, lives with her; while he has no diagnosed disability, Seth has spoken only one word in his lifetime and communicates via sign language, gestures, iPad, and phone texts. Both Lady and S had difficult mothers, and while Lady chose to deal with hers by disconnecting and cutting her out of her life, S’s reason for pursuing the nanny position has to do with her having decided to do a performance/art project and become her mother, who, early in her life, worked as a nanny; a project meant both to reveal to S who her mother was and who she, herself is. While S is plundering her mother’s past, Lady has pillaged Seth’s silence for an article she wrote which led to a contract for a book about his life. As the two pursue their goals, their lives and lies and loves become intertwined in a complex chiaroscuro portrait of parent and child relationships, the isolation of the self, and the ways in which we are so busy defining our own identities and healing our own wounds, we may well miss the ways in which we affect — or damage — others.

We don’t mean to disappoint, but life is never what we think it will be. Lady, remembering a long ago night when she thought things were turning around for her, that she was on the path to a happy end, says this:

     It hurts because nothing turned out the way I thought it would. You think you know how a story begins, or how it’s going to turn out, especially when it’s your own. You don’t.

There, there. So there.

Exactly. There is an economy of prose there with a near poetic rhythm, with that final paragraph, its four words sculpted into a metrical structure approximating a heartbeat, absolutely perfect; somehow both precise and ambiguous, like life, like the story, like the behavior of all the characters, like being human.

There are so many gorgeous, lyrical moments in Edan Lepucki’s work, I hesitate to begin quoting. But, in addition, Edan Lepucki also excels at dry wit and humor, with piquant observations of a world gone mad, populated by people trying to love and/or struggling to understand why they have not been better loved. I’m going on too long and I apologize. One more quote — this is the opening of the novel, by the end of which paragraph I was totally hooked, in love with the words, with the style. Listen:

It was summer. The heat had arrived harsh and bright, bleaching the sidewalks and choking the flowers before they had a chance to wilt. The freeways shimmered, any hotter and they might crack, might explode, and the poor cars would confetti into the air. People were complaining, they were moving slowly. They were swarming the beaches like tiny bugs upon the backs of dead animals. I preferred to stay home: ice cubes in the dog bowl, Riesling in the freezer. The air conditioner was broken. I had taken to sitting in the living room with the curtains drawn, my body edged with sweat like frosting on a cake, daring to see how hot it could get. I ate salad for dinner every night and had almost checked myself and the boys into a hotel. I’d refrained because of the babysitter search. What would applicants think if I requested they meet me poolside at the Roosevelt?

How beautiful and evocative is that? The highest compliment I can pay any author is that their work reminds me of Joan Didion and her trenchant, dissecting, laser-sharp prose; each word a perfect complement to the whole. Every word of that paragraph reveals something about its speaker, Lady, and after just those few sentences we know her, we’ve a feel of who she is; we’ve met her just as surely as if we’d been in a room with her.

This is the brilliance of Edan Lepucki and the beauty of a story which explores the meaning of family, art, truth, and the cost of our delusions and denials and desires.

Read it. Five stars. And, like I said after California, I can’t wait until her next novel. This time, though, I have no requests. I place myself wholly in Edan Lepucki’s hands, knowing that whatever she gives us will be a worthwhile and wonderful gift. She is one of my instant-always reads, and I bet she’ll be one of yours, too.

 

Reading: Genre Love – A Good Read is a Good Read is a Good Read

In this blog post I discuss One Perfect Lie by Lisa Scottoline and My (Not So) Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella

When it comes to books, some people find genre a dirty or disparaging word. I confess, I once disdained fiction not labeled literary. Then, after having worked seriously and for years on what I thought was a piece of literary fiction, I became discouraged, stopped trying to waken my inner Didion, and went into a writing-funk, during which a dear one suggested since I was such a raconteur (by which she meant, I never shut up with my inventing of back-stories about people we knew) I should try my hand at mystery cozies or romance novels. I thought, “Hmm, how cinchy. YES!” And, like your typical ignorant-of-the-skills-required fool, I read a couple of crime/mystery thrillers, British mystery cozies, Regency romance novels, and so-called chick-lit, and I was gobsmacked.

And addicted. And knew, right away, those writers who mastered genres had a gift I did not and would not ever possess.

There is so much wonderful, inventive, entertaining writing by an overabundance of skillful artists of the word out there, one never need want for a good read. What I have found especially comforting is that each time I discover a “new” (to me) genre expert I can rely on their having a backlist to which I can look forward when I need a reliable pleasure. When a Twitter friend introduced me to M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series and then sent me all of them currently in print, I was thrilled to have in reserve those many episodes. Too, there is the Louise Penny Inspector Gamache series, the writing in which rivals anything labeled literary fiction. I’m also a fan of John Sandford. And Harlan Coben. And the GLORIOUS Maggie Hope series by Susan Elia MacNeal. And Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell glories. And Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane Regency romance series. And Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness delights. And …I think you get the picture.

So, I am always delighted when someone I trust suggests a new genre writer I ought to sample. Thus it was that I was led to Lisa Scottoline, who, it turns out, is not only a powerfully talented and prolific writer of mystery/crime thrillers, but, too, an inordinately friendly and gracious Twitter pal. Thus, I was eager to get my hands on:

One Perfect Lie, Lisa Scottoline, Hardcover, 384pp, April 2017, St. Martin’s Press

Chris Brennan — who is not, in fact, Chris Brennan — is the new government teacher and assistant coach at a high school where we know, early on, he is targeting three teen boys — Raz, Justin, and Evan — for some scheme he’s been sent there to accomplish. The three boys, troubled and struggling in their own ways, come from very different circumstances, each with a loving mother suffering her own complications and growing pains. All of these well-developed and sympathetic characters and their individual threads weave into the breakneck paced plot, coalescing in a breath-taking climax for another grand slam Lisa Scottoline thrill-ride.

This is my fourth Lisa Scottoline read, and it is great to know I’ve something like twenty-five more (so far) waiting for me.

My (Not So) Perfect Life, Sophie Kinsella, Hardcover, 448pp, February 2017, The Dial Press

This is the first book of Sophie Kinsella’s I have read and I was lured by the cover design and jacket copy, particularly this: “…this sharply observed novel is a witty critique of the false judgment we make in a social-media-obsessed world.” Other than what I consider to be a misspelling of judgement (when did they delete the e after the g? NO!) that pretty much sold me as I am lately all too aware of my own false judgements and media-obsession.

Plot synopsis: youth leaves small town for big city dream; big city dream not so dreamy with some big bad monsters; youth returns to roots; youth discovers lots of things about roots and monsters; love blossoms; happy ending.

I read it in one sitting. The writing is smooth, occasionally deliciously funny, and moves with buoyant pacing and graceful alacrity. I had a great good time reading it, finding comfort in knowing what to expect and being provided it with neat mastery.

So, a weekend day of genre reading — and label as you will, the only genre that really matters is a good read, and both of these were.

Reading: “Days Without End” and “The End of Eddy”

Days Without End, Sebastian Barry, Hardcover, 259pp, January 2017, Viking and The End Of Eddy, Edouard Louis, translated from the French by Michael Lucey, Hardcover, 208pp, May 2017, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

There comes a certain responsibility when one is the 46,000th (almost) most popular reviewer on Amazon.com as well as being in the bottom two per cent (almost) of most visited of the 3 million (or more) blog posts daily clogging the virtual world, not to mention having two thirds (almost) of the average number of Twitter followers, many (almost) of whom have not muted me (yet) and a few (almost) of whom find my Tweets and my blog posts to be interesting/amusing (almost) — such media penetration combined with so large and loyal (almost) a following weighs heavily on me as I resist my genetic otiosity, force myself off the couch and skivvy my way through crafting my thoughts and feelings about what I’ve read into cogent (not even almost) essays which are honest — so as to fulfill my duty to the reader, and respectful — so as to recognize the efforts of the writer, for there are few people in the world I respect more than those who give us the gift of words shaped into story; and all of this I do for no remuneration or profit (in fact, I incur debt in the effort), because I love reading and writers and my many (if by many one means hardly any) followers.

All of which is circumlocutory procrastination because I have spent two three four five days unsuccessfully trying to figure out what I really feel and mean to say about these two books which I coincidentally read back to back and which have everything and yet nothing in common.

Don’t be misled by the Albert Bierstadt cover painting; this novel takes place on the Western frontier, but it is not a Western.

Days Without End was recommended to me and so I got it from the library. Once gotten, however, I could not recall who had suggested it and I was so put off by the cover-art and jacket copy (both of which turned out to be very poor predictors of what the book was about), I kept moving it to the bottom of my stack and was considering returning it without reading.

Then, I finished Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible [click here], which I five-star-plus adored, and I knew from past experience that when I love a book that much, the next one (or two or three) are going to get short-shrift, not measure up in comparison, and so I thought, “Well, okay then, let’s go ahead and start this since I probably won’t like it anyway.”

Was I ever wrong. (Well, yes, in fact, I am often wrong — but wait, that’s another kind of blog post. Or, maybe, not.)

In the 1850’s Thomas McNulty, who watched his entire family succumb to the to the Great Famine in Ireland, emigrates to America when Irish immigrants suffered the sort of bigotry Muslims now suffer from the ignoramus-tr*mpist class(less) hordes. In his early teens, he dives under a hedge in Missouri to escape a rainstorm, and it is there fate throws him up against the even younger John Cole, who, too, has been living on his own, having left his family and home at age twelve. From page two it is clear their connection lasts a lifetime:

Thank God John Cole was my first friend in America and so in the army too and the last friend for that matter. He was with me nearly all through this exceeding surprising Yankee sort of life which was good going in every way.

McNulty lives in this nearly comma-free, rough-hewn, plainspoken reality, the patois of which Sebastian Barry has artfully crafted so the deceptive simplicity of the voice in contrast to the depth and emotional complexity of the story is exultantly atonal, inviting the reaction, “what is this unexpected, unusual, and jarring, yet beautiful music?”

McNulty and Cole love one another. From their early employment as faux-female barroom hostesses selling dances and sexual favors, to their faux-adoption of a Native American child whose people they have had a role in slaughtering, to their attempted escape from a lifetime of mercenary soldiering to a farm life as husband and wife, McNulty unapologetically and without angst in skirts, they are quietly lovers, partners, companions, a couple.

While McNulty and Cole’s union might have felt anachronistic in less capable hands, Sebastian Barry manages to make it as believable and visceral as he does the haunting brutality of the lives his characters lead, the milieu of violence and hunger and the treacherous landscape of fealty to the truth of one’s self.

The story is deftly relevant without being sententious, a poetic exploration of the shapes family, love, gender, and violence can take in a life, and the rewards and losses of one’s odyssey through that life in an often unfriendly world.

The End Of Eddy is an international sensation, translated from the French, about which I have been hearing for months so I begged for and received an advanced reader’s copy.

Honestly, I am torn.

Luckily, Garth Greenwell, author of one of the finest novels I have ever read, What Belongs To You [read what I thought and wrote about it HERE, from February 2016], has written one of his customarily comprehensive and insightful exegesis of The End Of Eddy HERE, in the New Yorker Magazine [click here] which explains and illumines this translation brilliantly.

You can stop here, now, if you’re looking for me to shed any light on this novel’s technique or the author’s background. This is a book hewn from personal experience and, for me, a gay man of a certain age who was obviously, inescapably effeminate as a youth in a time when being so was guarantee of abuse and rejection, The End Of Eddy was a painful revisiting of a difficult and often terrifying youth; a revisiting made all the more excruciating given the current political climate of a return to the hate and bigotry and inequality we’ve worked so hard and sacrificed so much to change for those who’ve come after us; that we now have in power in this supposedly civilized country a group of cis white men who are determined to belittle and demonize women, people of color, LGBTQ, and all others who are not THEM, is a harrowing reality — and makes this novel not just relevant, but required.

But, maybe not required for people who’ve lived through it. Which means, in my case anyway, the rest of this “review” will be an unabashedly personal confession.

Edouard Louis has said that everything in this novel actually happened to him. An eerie amount of his ordeals were also mine. I had family members who found my effeminacy embarrassing and suggested with a tone of distaste I stop acting like a girl. I was targeted by bullies in school, daily abused by the same people, and was blamed for it by administration, told I should try to be more like a boy, fit in more. I too had crooked teeth, stained by medication my mother took while carrying me, which were never fixed because braces hadn’t worked well enough for my brother and there just wasn’t money to take care of my teeth — which are still a mess. I too underachieved in school, was constantly told I should use my genius I.Q. and excel, but was so terrorized by the abuse I suffered each day in school, the amount of time I spent ducking the people who’d call me names, throw me into lockers, dunk me into toilets — all of which I KNEW was my fault for not being more of a boy — that I couldn’t focus at school; being smart only made me more of a target. I too was afraid all the time when I was with my family or walking down a school hallway or out in public that someone would call me one of the many derogatory names that were shouted and whispered and graffitied at me throughout my life and humiliate me by naming my shame and flaw in front of others. I too had no idea how NOT to act like, walk like, talk like, think like, want like a girl — it was who I was and it was clear that me was a freak.

So, whatever the artistic merit of The End of Eddy, I cannot fairly measure. I was overtaken by the tsunami of pain in its story, near drowning in my own memories of the assaults on my humanity, the degradation and angst in which I lived and which I have worked impossibly hard to escape but which is there, part of the foundation of who I am, always ready to come at me and make me feel less than at the slightest provocation.

And the November election was a provocation not at all slight, a seeming affirmation of all the hateful ignorami whose own insecurities and idiocy lead them to revel in making the lives of we “other” so difficult to navigate.

Look, I can hear (and have heard) some of those who have not had this experience saying, “Get over it.” Hell, even some people who have experienced the bigotry are impatient with those who still suffer the after-effects of the trauma — although I often suspect those people are in denial, having never quite processed their own traumas — but that’s another blog entry and book review.

I would like to get over and get past it, as I’m sure Edouard Louis was, but you can’t get over or past what was carved into you during your formative years. You can only adapt, and the brutal truth of adaptation is that you will always need to spend a certain amount of your life-energy being on the lookout for the early-ingrained self-hatred and adjusting past it and its effects. You simply cannot live in a bigoted, misogynist, racist, homophobic world/society without some measure of it infecting you.

Even when I’ve found a group of people who I feel accept me — like theatre, like writers, like gay men, like, most recently, a warm and wise community on Twitter — I still feel outlier, other than, less than, never among the elite. For me, there is always what feels like an awareness that I don’t really belong, I am just visiting, having been given a visa which might at any time be revoked. I am always certain there is a secret world and cabal among them, an insiders circle and parties and events where the ones who really like each other gather, to which I will never be invited; an echelon membership in which  I will never achieve. I will never be quite enough, there will ALWAYS be something not okay about me — my teeth, my body, my income, my history, my age, my inability to ignore this dysfunction I’ve just spent paragraphs describing.

So, when I reached the last page of The End Of Eddy — which considering the short length of the book took me a very long time because all the similarities made it rough going for me — I was destroyed by the knowledge that this Eddy, no matter how far he traveled from the circumstances of his youth, whether his teeth got straightened or he wrote an international best seller, this Eddy would always bear the scars and need workaround his early years.

And it made me sad. Very, very sad.

IN CONCLUSION …

These two books, like I said some two thousand words ago, could not be more alike. And, more different. They both describe with brutal, violent truth, the lives of men who love men. Yet, the lyrical Western-ish tale set in the 1850’s, was a more hopeful, less horrifying (for me) story with an ending suggesting some resolution. While the Bildungsroman of Eddy’s story, set in the near past, was terrifying, traumatizing, and with nary a hint of happy end. Two novels exploring the realities of men loving men, both worth reading, neither easy to read, and obviously — five days and two thousand words later — difficult for me to process, and I suppose this conclusion has a lot to do with my mood, my sorrow, my loss of hope (I’m trying to get it back) since the November disaster and its aftermath, but what feels the saddest to me, what made me weep having finished these two novels and spent five days trying to figure out what it was that devastated me so, is this: the sneaking suspicion that maybe, after all, things DON’T get better, because in many ways, McNulty and Cole’s 1850’s life was far better than Eddy’s 1970’s life.

And, with that, here I am, going.

Reading: Elizabeth Strout’s “Anything Is Possible”

Anything Is Possible, Elizabeth Strout, Hardcover, 254pp, April, 2017, Random House

Pulitzer Prize winner, Elizabeth Strout, is one of those writers whose work conjures the feeling one had as a child when first discovering the magic ability of books to draw you into worlds not your own, and yet, worlds where you discovered and explored parts of yourself you’d not known about before; one of those writers who introduce you to your own soul by illuminating with truth and insight and glorious, marvelous, extraordinary language the souls of their characters.

One of those writers who reminds you in your jaded, worn out from having so many mediocre to meh books thrown at you that this is writing! This is why I read.

So, you might just as well stop wasting time reading my thoughts about Elizabeth Strout’s latest magic act and go get the book. Right now. Read it for yourself. Go on.

Are you still here? All right, well then, I warn you there is little I am going to or can say that hasn’t already been better said by others. So, if you must read a review, I suggest Jennifer Senior’s from the April 26 edition of The New York Times. [click here] Go ahead. Click. Read a real review.

And STILL you’re reading me? Well, it’s not exactly what I am known for, but I will try to keep this brief so you can go read the book.

The novel is a hybrid, a beautiful, cohesive portrait composed of stand-alone pieces which coalesce into an emotional chiaroscuro of such depth and subtlety and artistry, one wants to spend forever exploring the shades and shadows and light and dark therein.

There are many themes woven through Anything Is Possible, but the thread which mesmerized me most was the unmasking of all the ways in which humans can misapprehend and misconstrue what looks and feels like and seems to be reality, and how the discovery of those misunderstandings or deceits or ignorances result in disappointment, anger, sorrow, and, almost always, more confusion. Anything Is Possible illuminates in breathtaking, devastating accumulation of particularities that even with all the details and gossip and glut of information we have about each other and the world, we really know very little about anything at all; including ourselves.

This book illustrates the crushing loneliness and ultimate solitude of being alive better than anything I have ever read. It captures the ways in which even the people we love the most are mysteries to us, and we to them, all of us with secrets, and how the distortions caused by the things we haven’t told and the stories we don’t know disrupt and limit and often destroy our lives.

I promised I would keep this short and I considered quoting the novel at length, but, while nearly every sentence is chiseled and shaped like something Michelangelo has wrought into life from marble, they are each more a masterpiece in context. So, I won’t quote. I will simply tell you one more time: GO! GO NOW! READ THIS BOOK! Because Elizabeth Strout is indeed a Michelangelo of literature, and she has made from the marble of our lives, a thing of such beauty it rivals his David.

Go. Read. Marvel.

 

Reading: Before Everything by Victoria Redel

Before Everything, Victoria Redel, Hardcover, 288pp, June 2017, Viking

It is distressingly easy to find books dealing with friendship, love, loss, and death that are mawkish, manipulative, and moribund in soapish excess; so what a gift to discover a novel that limns so honestly, clearly, and cogently the arc of the sort of deep friendships that define a life, as important and vital (maybe more so) than any romantic or family bond: these families we make on our own.

From the publisher:

Before Everything is a celebration of friendship and love between a group of women who have known each other since they were girls. They’ve faced everything together, from youthful sprees and scrapes to mid-life turning points. Now, as Anna, the group’s trailblazer and brightest spark, enters hospice, they gather to do what they’ve always done—talk and laugh and help each other make choices and plans, this time in Anna’s rural Massachusetts home. Helen, Anna’s best friend and a celebrated painter, is about to remarry. The others face their own challenges—Caroline with her sister’s mental health crisis; Molly with a teenage daughter’s rebellion; Ming with her law practice—dilemmas with kids and work and love. Before Everything is as funny as it is bittersweet, as the friends revel in the hilarious mistakes they’ve seen each other through, the secrets kept, and adventures shared. But now all sense of time has shifted, and the pattern of their lives together takes on new meaning. The novel offers a brilliant, emotionally charged portrait, deftly conveying the sweep of time over everyday lives, and showing how even in difficult endings, gifts can unfold. Above all it is an ode to friendship, and to how one person shapes the journeys of those around her.

Anyone who has ever lost a friend will recognize themselves in these beautifully written pages resonant with meticulously detailed emotions, articulated in a time-leaping mosaic which reads much in the way life is remembered and experienced as we age; in a non-linear sort of time grounded in experiences and impressions, connections seen and discovered, how this thing in this moment reminds us of that thing from another moment, the threads sewn through the fabric of a life, and how keeping track by measuring seconds, minutes, hours, years, yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows gives way to an order dictated by emotional weight and impact — this song takes you to that moment, and suddenly your heart is seventeen again.

With artful technique — not show-offy or obvious — Victoria Redel renders luminously the accumulation of events, truths, lies, pains, apologies, compromises, surrenders, victories, and discoveries that make a person who they are and shape relationships.

From page one we know Anna is dying, the virtuosity of this novel is the way in which it illuminates how the process of someone’s dying doesn’t begin with the diagnosis or end with the death, but, rather, like someone’s living, goes on forever in the ways it affects others, the changes it makes in the world — even in the world of the past and memories, the echoes of the moments of connection — death reshapes all of those things. And, through the accumulation of detail achieved by short pieces of narrative so one is never mired too long in a place too melancholy — the mixing of past and present, the concatenation of voices and perspectives — we, the readers, become as hopeful as the friends that somehow, Anna will survive. We, like the friends, wish for magic realism — a little miracle.

Which is what this novel is, a little miracle of wonderful writing, interesting and human characters, and a heartfelt, moving window into loss and the ways in which even epic sorrow can bring new light and life into being, and teach lessons we might otherwise not have learned. This exchange when Anna is advising Reuben, her estranged but still very present husband, he ought to pursue a relationship with her hospice nurse:

Then, out of nowhere the other day, Anna told him he should marry Kate. “You’ve definitely noticed her,” Anna teased. “I know your taste.”

“Wow, now here’s an excellent line,” he shot back. “My dying wife thinks I should date you.” He was taking apart the four-poster bed. She’d refused the hospital bed until she could no longer refuse. “I’m a real catch, Anna,” he said.

“You are a catch, Reuben. You’re my only regret,” Anna said. “I should never have let us separate.”

“Please, we both screwed up.”

Still, it felt good to hear Anna say, “I abandoned you first.”

How sorry and petty a thing was vindication. The ice trays needed filling.

Such a trenchant, insightful journey in Reuben’s mind, and a powerful realization: there is always the quotidian waiting; an ice tray to fill, a trashcan to empty, a next breath that need be taken. We go on.

And as Anna’s best friend thinks, near the end:

Looking at the faces in the room, she understands that this is what we do. We are here. And then we are not here. For a little while, we are a story.

Yes. This. And the story is both the enormous metaphysical and existential concerns, and, too, the ice trays. Victoria Redel captures this truth by telling one story of one particular death and life and the people it affects, in resplendent style. Truly lovely.

 

 

 

Reading: The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

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

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

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

Here from the Penguin Random House site is a synopsis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Reading: Hope and Healing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On every level.

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

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

 

 

Reading: The Beast Is An Animal

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

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

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

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

Max on my lap, where he pretty much lives.

Drake, in a RARE moment of calm and contemplation.

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

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

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

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