Reading: “The Days Grow Short…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading: Try to remember . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then again, perhaps it was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading: July: Finishing With Gay’s Hunger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading: Fire(blazing) and Light(reads)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Reading: Novels read from my sick bed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Reading: The Currency of Connections

Dear Ones, I have read nine books since last I book-blogged and so must, I think, put aside petty concerns — like my health — and catch up a bit.

It’s July 4th as I write and my plans today are to do what I like best to do on holidays: Sit quietly at home while others run about in a must-have-fun-be-conventionally-happy holiday frenzy. People often try to get me out more, as they did with my aunt, Sissie, before me. She, too, preferred and cherished the opportunity for solitude and quiet on holidays because for her — an eternally single person who spent much of her time taking care of others, not unlike my life — a holiday meant she was able to be alone, with no one needing anything. People (me included) thought that was sad and awful, that she ought, like everyone else, be with family or friends or DOING SOMETHING on a holiday. In later years, I got it, how she said, “I’m happy,” when being pressed to agree to go or do or be other than left alone, at peace. Now, how often I find myself saying, in a delivery exactly like Kathy Bates in Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean; “I am happy, goddammit!” (Please watch the below clip beginning around 5:15 for Bates’s brilliant delivery.)

And, I am. I have a life which has allowed me opportunity to read nine books in as many days. How much happier can a person get? I’ll tell you how much happier; each of these books came to me or my attention through a special and meaningful connection, each of which I will share.

I’m only going to write about eight of the books; the other was an advance reader copy and I will talk about it closer to release date. So, here we are, going. I will TRY to be brief.

The Gypsy Moth Summer, Julia Fierro, Hardcover, 400pp, June 2017, St. Martin’s Press

Connection: Twitter. Julia Fierro and I have over one hundred people in common, and though I don’t know who followed who first (I suspect it was me following her) I started chatting with her and like all the best authors/publishing folk, she responded with kindness.

Touted as a summer read, this generations-spanning, family saga of a novel is a triumphant combination of compulsively page-turning plotting; artful, flowing prose; in-depth and engaging, desperately human, breathing, characters with audible heartbeats; and an examination of issues like race, class, and the cost and transformative (sometimes, deforming) power of love.

Julia Fierro juggles the many treasures and pleasures of this novel masterfully, speaking in close-third through a number of narrators’ points of view, giving individual voice to each, carefully illuminating truths bit by bit, page by page. For reasons into which I won’t go so as not to spoil, I fell most in love with Veronica and Dom. No doubt you will find your own friends herein and parts of yourself — parts both light and dark. Be warned, though, there are no easy happy endings here.

The Mighty Franks: A Family Memoir, Hardcover, 320pp, May 2017, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Connection: I read about this memoir in which a young boy is taken under the wing of an eccentric aunt who adores him and wishes he were her own. Not unlike my life. I was hooked and knew I had to read it.

A complicated, convoluted and near incestuous family structure produced the author of this memoir, Michael Frank, whose extraordinarily close relationship to his aunt, Hank, a combination of Auntie Mame and Mommy Dearest, is the subject around which the narrative is built. Compellingly told, the dissolution from mutual admiration society to broken-hearted (and, perhaps, in Hank’s case, mentally ill) combatants, is beautifully written and thus easy to read but emotionally eviscerating and thus difficult to take.

The Free, Willy Vlautin, Paperback, 320pp, February 2014, Harper Perennial

Connection: This was brought to my attention by Garth Greenwell, another Twitter friend who I began stalking upon publication of What Belongs To You, the best novel of 2016, and, truly, one of the finest of all time in any genre but particularly important as a classic LGBTQ work. If you read this blog even a little, you know how I adore Garth, so, when he said he’d “thought of me” when reading this novel, there was nothing for me to do but immediately get hold of it.

It is clear from the gorgeous rhythms of the structure of this novel that its author, Willy Vlautin, is a singer, songwriter. And, too, its heartbreaking rendering of the struggles, burdens, and tragedies in the half-hopeless lives of its three damaged protagonists, lets you know that his musical genre is country.

Leroy Kervin, wounded veteran driven to further destroy himself, imprisoning his consciousness in a terrifying dream world while his body deteriorates in a hospital bed; Freddie McCall, night shift caretaker when Leroy committed his act of desperation, has lost his wife and kids, and despite working multiple jobs is about to lose his house and what little hope he has left; and Pauline Hawkins, a nurse caring for Leroy, who also must cope with a mentally ill and abusive father, and who can’t seem to stop picking up strays, are the three characters whose lives are woven in and out of a narrative near Greek in its darkness and its litany of disappointments.

Still, inside the simple and beautiful sentences, there is a breath of hope, of continued belief in something, somewhere. It is undefined, what that belief is, where such faith comes from; it remains unnamed and unspoken but is there, beneath the surface of the words, inside the story, this intangible quality of keeping on against all odds. I laughed, I wept, and I recognized myself — and, I think, all of us in this deceptively quiet novel. Let it move you.

June, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Paperback, 432pp, February 2017, Broadway Books

Connection: Twitter, again! The lovely Cary Barbor messaged and asked if I’d be interested in a few books she had and I, being me (as someone said: It’s not hoarding if it’s books!) said of course. And so she sent me those books, and a few more for good measure. This was one.

I really loved this. Don’t start it unless you have time to finish it because — cliché though this is — you won’t want to put it down.

When Cassie Danvers’s mourning of her grandmother, June, in the decrepit, crumbling home she’s been left with is interrupted by the news that she has been left millions as the sole heir of movie idol, Jack Montgomery, begins a search into the past in an effort to discover who June and Jack really were, and who Cassie and the other possible heirs — including Jack’s film star daughter, Tate Montgomery, who arrives with entourage in tow — might be in relation to them.

The story skips back and forth between June’s youth and meeting with Jack Montgomery, and Cassie’s present, and both stories are rip-roaring, exciting, tell me! tell me! mysteries combined with love stories and hate stories and gossip and secrets and surprises.

Two books in one, either of which would have been enough, but tied together with a ribbon of good-writing and clever plotting, it’s a home run, firework explosion of a summer read.

Point Blank (Alex Rider #2), Anthony Horowitz, Hardcover, 215pp, April 2002, Philomel Books

Connection: See my recent write-ups about Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders and Stormbreaker (Alex Rider #1) here.

Young Adult adventure. Second in the series. Fast. Fun. Unbelievable. And every once in a while I need that sort of superhero kind of blast of “it-will-all-turn-out-in-the-end” frivolity. Unfortunately, this one ends with a cliffhanger. Now, seems I’ll have to read #3.

One Of Us Is Lying, Karen M. McManus, Hardcover, 361pp, May 2017, Delacorte Press

Connection: Cary Barbor again! This being one of the extras she threw in, and for which I’m very grateful.

I love a good YA novel. A brain, a beauty, a criminal, an athlete, and an outcast are thrown together in detention. One dies. The remaining four are suspects. I saw all the twists coming but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this fast moving romp. Good fun, even though someone died.

The Age Of Innocence, Edith Wharton

Connection: Twitter. Again.

I’ve had a number of Wharton books for years but have never actually read them. So, when a few of the Twitterati who happen to be in the publishing industry and happen to be folks whose intellect and talent I much admire began discussing which Wharton was the best, it prompted me to dig out The Age of Innocence.

I hardly think there is anything to be said about this 1921 Pulitzer Prize Winner that hasn’t already been said by far wiser and erudite folk than am I. What makes it classic is how, despite its very specific setting in 1870s New York upper crust society, its exploration of the human condition and emotions still applies today. In fact, its depiction of the idiocies of social standards and prejudices, it is as relevant today as it ever was.

The love triangle is portrayed with such subtlety, wit, and depth of emotion bubbling but rarely boiling out into the open, one is taken along with the characters, yearning for all three of them, somehow, to get to a happy ending.

And, I suppose, in a way, they do. But at a cost.

In any event, what a pleasure to drown in the words, the glorious, evocative abundance of lovely language at a languid, careful pace. My only cavil, it felt to me, here and there, that there were commas missing where they ought to be. But, if you’ve read me, you know I am a near violent-over-user of commas. I blame it on years as an actor and director, where a breath, a pause, the pace was all important to communicating the tale being told.

A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman, Paperback, 337pp, May 2015, Washington Square Press

Connection: Twitter. This one was sent to me by one of my dearest Twitter pals, Pamela, with whom I’ve actually spent marvelous, real world time. It was also recommended to me ages ago by my dear Marlene, from The Curious Iguana, my local indie bookstore (i.e. second home – click here to go there).

Let me begin by saying more than one person has suggested I am not unlike the title character of this novel; a curmudgeonly older gentleman who has been dealt a couple of raw hands by life, affects a gruff and grumbly mien, but underneath, is a softie.

I’m okay with that.

There is nothing in the least bit surprising in this book. A querulous coot’s wife dies of cancer, after which, said irascible grouch decides to kill himself, having lost the only person who saw the love and light inside him. He is repeatedly interrupted in his attempts and begrudgingly becomes engaged in the lives of a broad swath of others as, back and forth in time goes the narrative explaining how Ove became Ove.

I laughed. I cried. I read it in one sitting. I loved this book.

And not just because there may be one or two MINOR similarities between Ove and myself.

**********

Well, there it is, eight books in under 2000 words. No one is more surprised than I am that I managed that. And this aged curmudgeon is so grateful for the connections that brought these books to me. I may not have a lot of money, my health may be shaky, but what I’ve a fortune in, the currency most valuable to me? You people, my connections, this embarrassment of riches in the currency of good, fine, wonderful, funny, embracing, forgiving, seeing, loving people.

And, before I get more maudlin or exceed 2000 words, here I am, going.

Love and Light, dear ones.

 

Reading: Dogs, Fugitives, Kid Spies and Magpies

In this post I will be talking about LILY AND THE OCTOPUS by Steven Rowley, EAT THE DOCUMENT by Dana Spiotta, STORMBREAKER and MAGPIE MURDERS by Anthony Horowitz. But first, a word from a man who probably needs a sponsor: ME.

Real life is a bit too real for me since January.

Coincident with the illegitimate illegal installation of the psycho-narcissist as president, I was afflicted with what seemed to be a rash on my upper right arm. It has since spread over all of me from the chest down, will not abate, and after many, many trips to multiple doctors —

which, by the way, took six months because that AHCA insurance the gop seems to think need be gutted as it is too fabulous for we poor people to deserve, didn’t cover any of the doctors I needed to see, thanks to the ways in which the republican party had already fought to ruin it

— I am finally being seen by someone(s) who seem to give a damn and are determined to figure out what is the cause and treatment for this human red-spotted leopard defacing all over me; a process which, unfortunately, has required repeatedly having chunks of my skin removed and sent to labs, and from which there is still no answer although a few sort of not very pleasant possibilities.

In addition, the so-called real world is such a mess, so nearly incomprehensible to me in its almost complete-collapse into unkindness and cruel behavior, with whole swaths of gullible, terrified people enabling villainous, vile sociopaths to lead them, that I am more and more reading while less and less able to face the news of real life. So, I read four books in five days, and it was pretty damn marvelous to do so while petting and frolicking with the dogs I was sitting. Here we go.

Lily And The Octopus, Steven Rowley, original Hardcover June 2016, Paperback, 336pp, May 2017, Simon & Schuster

Perhaps reading a book about a love story between a gay man and his dying dog was not the optimum choice while pet-sitting a near ancient pup I love named Tess, who can just barely make it up and down steps any more. So, I cried when Lily died. But, I cry when I see someone eating alone in a restaurant. This was a quick read but a little too much for me in its dream and fantasy sequences which took a touching, personal story into an odd, not very clearly defined (or decided) off-ramp of fantasy-magic realism which lost me. Still, not sorry I read it.

Eat The Document, Dana Spiotta, Hardcover, 290pp, February 2006, Scribner

Mary Whittaker, a 1970s radical, goes underground after a protest action results in murder. She becomes Louise, and it is years later when she is widowed, raising her fifteen year old son alone, that her identity is revealed — in ways I won’t give away here. Her co-murderer and lover, Bobby, also goes underground, and each live lives of sorrowful solitude, unable to be completely who they were or who they have become, carrying the weight of their crimes and their passion and their lies, always a wall between them and the world and the people they try to love.

I have long meant to read this novel as Dana Spiotta has more than once been compared to Joan Didion. There was no Didion-esque resonance for me in this novel, although it was very well written, but somehow it left me feeling we hadn’t quite gotten to the heart of who anyone in the story was, other than the fifteen year old son, Jason, who was limned beautifully — albeit with a vocabulary and insight most 40 year olds don’t achieve.

Stormbreaker, Anthony Horowitz, Hardcover, 192pp, May 2001, Penguin Putnam

I venture occasionally into the Young Adult genre, and this is the first in a series of ten (I think) Alex Rider Adventures; which I picked up because author Anthony Horowitz has just released an adult mystery, Magpie Murders. which I had on hold at library and some reviews had mentioned the Rider series as fun and fast and literate. So, while I was waiting, I thought I’d try it.

Truth? I finished it and put the second in the series on hold at the library. Long/short: Alex Rider’s parents died when he was quite young, since which time he’s been raised by his uncle, Ian Rider, who, rather than the 9 to 5 businessman he pretended to be, was a very adept, near Bond-ian spy. Alex is recruited (cajoled, blackmailed) into service by the same organization his uncle worked for and infiltrates the same corrupt group that murdered him.

A little unbelievable? Yes. But, right now, good conquering evil, the nice guys with morals winning out over the evil, power-hungry sociopaths, and a near guaranteed happy ending — all wrapped up in a quick, not un-amusing afternoon of a read? SIGN ME UP.

Magpie Murders, Anthony Horowitz, Hardcover, 496pp, June 2017, Harper Collins Pubishers

I had just finished Volume One of Anthony Horowitz’s Young Adult, Alex Rider Adventure Series, when Magpie Murders came my way. Touted as an homage to Agatha Christie golden age mysteries with a parallel helping of contemporary crime novel, and following in the footsteps of the entertaining and clever Alex Rider series opener, this novel had a huge fountain pen and Rhodia notebook to fill.

I was not disappointed.

When I began reading the Christie-ish novel-within-a-novel I was a trifle worried as character after character was introduced and I feared I’d not be able to keep track of who they were — many is the mystery novel I’ve read (or started to read) in which the only real question is how am I supposed to tell these characters apart they’re so damn bland?! Not the case here. Well defined characters. Much wit. Intricate and detailed plotting. Fair clues everywhere in both the “classic” mystery and the “modern-day” crime riddle.

I could have enjoyed either of the sections of this book on their own; woven into one, interconnected, echoing, shadowing, and even — gently — mocking both genres, this was a delightful experience from start to finish and start to finish and finally, finish.

So, there we have it, four books in five days, not a dud among them. Has the bastard been marched out of the White House in handcuffs yet? No? Well, lucky for me I’ve got a large stack of to-be-reads and a library-hold list the envy of my — well, not the envy of anyone, but, I’m happy here, with my niece and nephew pups and my retreat from reality. Let me know when the entire gaggle of het-cis-white-men-bigots who are running the country have been run out on a rail.

Until then, here I am, going.

 

Reading: 3 Thrillers

I love a good thriller and I especially love one with a fascinating and complicated main character who I know is going to return in future adventures. So, when Hope Dellon, of St. Martin’s Press, who is the editor of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series and M.C.Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series, mentioned author Becky Masterman’s Brigid Quinn series, it was only a matter of minutes before I put in a reserve request at my local library. Once gain, Hope Dellon has led me to a heroine who is startlingly and marvelously human, flawed, and skillfully written.

Rage Against The Dying (Brigid Quinn #1), Becky Masterman, Hardcover, 307pp, March 2013, Minotaur Books

Brigid Quinn is a 59 year old, ex-FBI agent, newlywed, who hasn’t been completely honest with her ex-priest husband about her past. She gets drawn into a case seemingly by accident and circumstance, only, not so much; turns out she was targeted because of her involvement in a past search for a serial killer who may or may not just have been captured and the danger and the secrets become more towering with every page turned in this debut thriller.

First of all, I’m all in for protagonists who defy some of the -isms of this world. Brigid Quinn is of a certain age (right near mine) and gender rare to main characters, and even rarer, allowed agency and power, not used as a prop or victimized.

Second; the plot and pacing of this novel is breakneck. It moves. It’s a one-sitting sort of read because you’ll want to keep going, so invested do you become in what will happen to Brigid Quinn and what sort of victory or defeat will be the result of her split-second and not always measured reactions and responses to events.

Third; either my reading of thrillers and serial killer fiction (or, perhaps, today’s politics) have numbed me to the horrors written about in these novels, or, Becky Masterman manages to evoke the degenerate nature of the crimes without rubber-necking over the gore and grossness. I appreciate that, as, some thrillers seem to be trying to out-shock with vomitous depravity, so nasty it makes me stop reading.

Fourth – and most important; the writing is excellent, the character development skillful and riveting, and the author thanked her editor, Hope Dellon, and her agent, and that is enough for me to know I’m dealing with a writer who I would like in real life, so it gives me pleasure to read them.

The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen Dionne, Hardcover, 320pp, June 2017, G.P. Putnam’s Sons

Sometimes having to use a rating system which allows only five stars — no fractions, and no categories as in: A number of stars for authorial style and skill; A number of stars for content; A number of stars for packaging; And a number of stars for personal preference/peccadillo — is frustrating; this is one of those times.

So, I’m going to use categories to help resolve the disaccord between my heart and my head on this one.

Authorial Styles and Skill: 4 Stars

There is no question that Karen Dionne accomplishes the goal of good thriller construction in this compulsively paced novel with its piecemeal reveal, past/present, psychological and imminent physical threat, powerful and interesting central characters. The voice of Helena Pelletier, the title character, is strong and deepens and grows as the story jumps from her present and her past, a past where she was born in captivity to a mother who’d been kidnapped as a child, raped, and tortured into pretending to be a wife in a wilderness where there were no other people save the sadistic, sociopathic, pedophile who enslaved her. The sense of Helena’s awareness grows as she does, and, too, it evolves in the present as she tells the story of her childhood, twenty years later when her monster of a father has escaped from prison and she is certain he is coming for her. The conflict between being, living and using the parts of herself shaped by the man who raped her mother and sired Helena,  and  acknowledging and coping with the reality that he is a complete and utter beast, is a terrifically constructed journey for which Karen Dionne deserves all the kudos. Our repulsion builds as Helena’s does, and the last third of the book one is tempted to skip pages, skim paragraphs, and hurry hurry hurry to its finish, hoping for — well, whatever it is the particular reader will hope for. Which brings me to —

Content: 3 Stars

The subject matter of this novel is certainly a legitimate story/set-up worth exploring about the discovery of self, the ability to survive unspeakable trauma, the cost of such trauma, and a larger metaphorical commentary on what the havoc that is wrought by an alpha-male, misogynist culture where sociopaths in power terrorize their victims — i.e. tr*mp and his gop cohorts, these white-cis-hetero men motivated by a hunger for control, full of hatred for and fear of all others not them. That said, it’s almost too much. It’s both too frightening and, somehow, demeaning, as in, this is too horrifying a possibility to be made fiction and so reading it seems like rubber-necking at a fatal accident where one can do nothing but watch, which one ought not.

Packaging: 3 Stars

Attractive cover design; front blurbed by Lee Child, back blurbed by 8 who’s who of thriller and Oprah Book Club authors including Karin Slaughter and Jacquelyn Mitchard. The typesetting is easy to read, pages nicely spaced, quality binding. I’d have given it another star if there hadn’t been SO MUCH in italics. The whole first page — an intro to the Hans Christian Andersen, whose tale of the same name is that on which the novel is based — is in italics. And every time we get more of the Andersen tale, more italics. To me, italics say DON’T READ ME — SKIP AHEAD.

Personal Preference/Peccadilloes: 2 Stars (SPOILER ALERT/THIS PARAGRAPH)

I can’t watch Law & Order: SVU, or movies in which children are terrorized, or read about graphic acts of violence, and this book had plenty of all the things that make me feel icky. If you want to tell me stories about vampires or fantasy tales which could never possibly happen, okay, but if you’re telling me a story that is possible in the real world in which I live, I am easily turned off by evil and cruelty. I have gotten markedly more sensitive as I’ve aged and as the world has gotten meaner, so, maybe I ought to stop reading crime fiction and thrillers entirely. Stick with British cozies. We’ll see.

And, finally, the very last section of the novel, during which daughter and criminal father struggle for victory over one another, is a bit heavy-handed on metaphor.

Hmm, those do average out to 3 stars. Maybe only having 5 stars isn’t so bad after all.

Midnight At The Bright Ideas Bookstore, Matthew J. Sullivan, Hardcover, 336pp, June 2017, Scribner

Set a novel in a bookstore, people it with book-loving characters, and chances are I will decide it’s a must-read for me. The premise, the cover, the beginning of Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore set a tone not unlike one of the series of cozies set in indie bookstores peopled by quirky characters with slightly mysterious and/or troubled pasts, who are suspects in and solvers of a death in their community, and, all too often, there is also a cat.

On the plus side: no cat here. On the minus: not a cozy and the intriguing set-up and idiosyncratic characters never quite fulfill their promise in this well-written but frustrating debut novel which feels more like what started as a brilliant outline of great idea but was published too early, and could have used a few more drafts and a guiding hand to clarify, focus, and decide: What is this book really going to be?

Lydia Smith, not her real name — check: Mysterious Past — is one of the Bright Ideas booksellers, — check: Indie Bookstore —  the one to whom the BookFrogs, those outliers who loiter about the store — check: Idiosyncratic Characters — turn for comfort. It is Lydia who finds one of her favorite BookFrogs, Joey McGinty, hanging in the upper level of the bookstore —check: Death in the Community — and thus begins the piecing together of not so much as whodunnit as a who is it? Turns out almost everyone Lydia knows or has known is one way or another connected.

The details of Joey’s troubled past, about which he told Lydia, were only the beginning, and he’s left her coded puzzles of clues about who he was and where he came from via a series of books from which he’s cut patterns of boxes into pages. Lydia figures out how to decode, and, unfortunately, each message is then shown to us — taking up lots of page space to little effect as immediately following it, each message is written out in italics. This could better have been accomplished by ONCE actually reproducing one of the cut-out pages and coded answer beneath it in the novel which would have been a nice, quirky (that word again) production feature.

Missed opportunity.

The solution to the clues rely on knowledge of ISBN codes, which are not adequately explained for non-book people, and one wonders why and whether a lover of books, like Joey, would choose a method of post-mortem messaging that defaced books?

We learn enough about Joey, and Lydia’s live-in lover, David, and her childhood friend, Raj and his parents, and her dad, and — well, lots of interesting and well-defined characters, to make us want (and expect) more of them, but we don’t get that more. We are left with what feel more like sketches than fleshed-out lives.

Again, this novel feels like it could have used a few more drafts to develop it further.

NOW, that said, these are cavils I could not have had were this author not so promisingly gifted, so adept and creative. The writing flows, the pace never lags, and I suspect this good book will be followed by even better books from this author who clearly has in them a great book.

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

So, there it is dear ones, three thrillers in a row. What next? Well, I’ve started the much recommended Lily and the Octopus, although it seems to be a dying dog story and I am still not over the death of any of the dogs I have known, and pet-sitting an ancient pup now who is slowing down at a frightening pace, so I may delay Lily. Also reading the glorious The Long-Winded Lady (Notes from The New Yorker), which is a collection of the writer, Maeve Brennan’s glorious pieces for the magazines The Talk of the Town section. How I had never heard of her before is a real mystery, but, also, a gift, because her work is glorious and takes me back to the imagined New York and literary circles of my childhood. Already in the first few pieces she has mentioned The Algonquin and Schrafft’s — I’m in literary-nerd heaven.

Here I am, dear ones, going.